Heart, Soul, and Might: Parsha Va’etchanan

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the well-known words of the V’ahavta: You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. What does it mean to love with all three of these? Today is a unique moment in the Jewish calendar that can teach us what this kind of love might look like. 

Today is: 

  1. Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of compassion, following Tisha B’Av, our day of mourning. Shabbat Nachamu is based on the first verse of the Haftarah reading, Isaiah 40:1, “Console, console my people, says your God.” The following three haftarot are called “Prophecies of Consolation,” a loving, compassionate response to the previous three weeks, “the Prophecies of Affliction.”
  2. Tu b’Av – the 15th of Av, a minor Jewish holiday that is sometimes called “Hag Ha’Ahava,” the holiday of love. According to the Mishna, Tu B’Av was a joyful holiday in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, marking the start of the grape harvest. Women wore white and danced in the vineyards waiting to meet their beloveds. Since Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av on the contemporary calendar, this holiday is also seen as an additional source of comfort and joy following a period of mourning. It’s also a popular time to get married – a time of many weddings and joyful unions.
  3. This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan – In this parsha, Moses shares the greatest commandments of all: Sh’ma and V’ahavta. Sh’ma is an affirmation of God’s Oneness, and the V’ahavta is the promise that I discussed at the top. It’s a promise that we will love God with all our hearts, souls, and might.

Each of the three events that collide tonight on the Jewish calendar can be linked to the three ways we are told to love God. 

First, we have Shabbat Nachamu. Nachamu comes from the word rachamim, which means compassion. Rachamim comes from the word “rechem,” which means womb. We are held, this Shabbat, in compassion and consolation, by Shechinah, God’s feminine, nurturing presence. This is how we learn to love with our hearts. 

Second, we have Tu B’Av, a celebration of love. In Jewish wedding liturgy, the joy of two souls coupling contributes to the joy of the world. In the words of Rabbi Shai Held, “A wedding is never just a private affair, something enacted between two people alone. It is a sacred coming together, which adds love to the world. This is the power of love between two souls. Tu B’Av represents a way to love with all your soul. It’s a day that celebrates soul-mates.

How do we love with all our might? The words of V’ahavta in this week’s Torah portion follow the words of the Sh’ma: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Listen, God-wrestlers, God is your God. God is One. When we love with all our might, we love with God’s love. When we love with all our might, our love has the power to change things. When we love with all our might, we remember that all are One.

In honor of this celebration of love and compassion, I’ve written a new interpretation of V’ahavta, a contemporary reminder that if we meet the world with love, we will create a more loving world.  For your reference, the traditional V’ahavta can be found here.

Interpretive V’ahavta

You shall love our world with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your might.

Write compassion on your heart, today and every day.
Teach your children to be tender with themselves,
with each other, and with everything on earth.

Speak with kindness at home and in the world,
before you go to sleep, and first thing in the morning
even if you wake up grumpy, and you haven’t had your coffee yet. 

Create signposts and reminders for yourself
Tape it to your fridge on a post-it note
Make love the background on your home screen
Add it to your to-do list app with daily notifications.

When you remember to love with your whole self
you will bring holiness to the world
and you will know that we are One. 

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. May we face the world with love this week, and in all the weeks to come. 

Many thanks to my husband, Joseph Gluck, for pointing out the link between the three observances, and heart, soul, and might. Thank you for being my best editor, thought partner, and soul mate. Happy Jewish Valentines Day!

Don’t Look Away: Tisha B’Av

Anguish. Anger. Sadness. We spend so much time and energy trying to move past it. Trying to take action. Trying to stay positive. We fear emotional pain so much that there are entire industries dedicated to avoiding it.  So how are we to respond to a moment in the Jewish calendar that prescribes lament? In these Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples, we are told to grieve, to feel pain, to sit low to the ground like we might after the death of a family member. Do not look away, Tisha B’Av tells us. Look at the world. Look at the loss. Look at your own anguish, anger, and sadness. Feel every minute of it.

This is the first time I’ve ever felt the coming of Tisha B’Av. As an unapologetic diasporist, I don’t long for a return to the Temple or the return of animal sacrifice. I even wrote alternative blessings for the parts of our daily liturgy that ask God to return us to those times and places (publication coming soon on Ritualwell).  Still, Tisha B’Av has been tugging at my heart this year. Maybe it’s because of the crisis at our nation’s border. Maybe it’s the rampant gun violence in this week alone. Over the last several of these Nine Days, people I haven’t heard from in ages have reached out to me to share their stories of personal traumatic loss. I don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s an honor to be the altar for their offerings. It seems that even if I’m not observing the Nine Days, these Nine Days are observing me. 

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” Animal sacrifices forced our ancestors to confront mortality, to face the reality of death by engaging with it directly. This is how they drew near to God. I am so relieved we gather in community now instead, and that we have replaced these acts of violence with prayer. We don’t need a Temple because our world is the Temple and our words are the offerings. But does our praying truly draw us nearer to God? Or are we still skillfully keeping death at an emotional distance? Is there something missing, after all, now that the the Temple itself feels more like history than memory? Prayer was supposed to replace the violent act of animal sacrifice, and these days, it’s another inadequate response to the violence all around us. 

Tisha B’Av reminds us to see this violence, to face mortality, and to grieve it. We are a society that fears pain so much that we hurry through it, or skip it entirely in favor of action. I believe our action will be more informed and more effective if we draw near to pain first. Anger, anguish, and sadness are hard to sit with. It’s hard to hold space for suffering before rising up to make change. This is the challenge of Tisha B’Av: Look at the world. Look at the loss. Feel every minute of it. Do not look away. Draw near instead.  Sit with the suffering. Take the pain – your own, and the pain of others – in your own hands. Hold it gently. Speak to it, saying: “I hear you and I am here with you.” Only then will we finally be able to rebuild.

Facing the Giants: Parsha Shelach

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites send emissaries into the land that God has promised them – a land, they have been told, that is flowing with milk and honey. When the scouts return from their mission, they bring back fruit and report that the land is fertile, but they also report that the land is inhabited by Nephilim. Nephilim is often translated as “giants,” because the scouts describe them as large and fearsome. Other sources call them “fallen angels,” ascribing supernatural prowess. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they say, “and so we must have looked to them.”

The Israelites were not the first or the last Jews to experience Impostor Syndrome. As I begin preparing for my first High Holiday leadership experience, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to feel small, to feel unprepared, to feel like everyone else in the world I’ve dreamed of – the world of rabbinic leadership – is so much more qualified than I am. When I approach the pulpit, despite over 11 years of success in Jewish leadership, I just don’t feel like I belong there.

The funny thing is, a lot of my work centers on supporting others who feel like grasshoppers in a land of giants. I am the manager of the Springboard Fellowship, training, supporting, and mentoring early career professionals, many of whom are new to Jewish leadership, and new to work in general. They are zero to two years out of college, and they often don’t feel qualified to step up as Jewish educators. They, like me, compare themselves to rabbis, peers, or students who have a lot more experience and different skill sets than they do. A challenging thing about Impostor Syndrome in the landscape of Jewish leadership is that it’s not just about leading. It often comes down to an underlying fear that we are just not “Jewish enough,” whether it’s due to lack of knowledge and experience or Jewish “status” as determined by Orthodox law.

Whatever the reason, it’s tough to lead when we don’t think we have what it takes. What strikes me the most about the scouts’ statement is the simultaneous self-awareness: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves” – and lack of awareness: “So we must have looked like grasshoppers to them.” The scouts recognize their own perception, and it’s true that we can make anything into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the scouts don’t understand that self-perception is limited. A couple of weeks after one of my grasshopper moments as a newer professional on campus, I came to my office to find notes of gratitude on my desk, in which my students described me as “a rock,” “great in a crisis,” and “a voice of reason.” I was shocked. The only giant that I had to fear was the one I had created within me – the one who told me that I was too small to make a difference.

I learned something else about Impostor Syndrome recently, from an article written by my colleague, Chris Harrison. Impostor Syndrome isn’t just about thinking I don’t have what it takes. It’s also an inability to celebrate my successes, to own my expertise. I do know my own strengths, but I tend to dismiss them. I tell myself these strengths are not as important as the skills I’m still lacking, and that my weaknesses will keep me from becoming the rabbi I want to be.

When have you felt like a grasshopper among the Nephilim of the world? When have you held back, keeping yourself out of the land of milk and honey because you felt too small to take part in it? What if the Israelites had owned the successes that led them to this moment, on the precipice of their greatest dream? They escaped Egypt, they received the Torah, they transitioned from slavery to freedom, they became a people. They made mistakes along the way – remember the Golden Calf? – but they learned, they grew, and they became. Their own fear was the only thing standing between them and the land of milk and honey.

When it comes down to it, we do have to face our own giants, even when we’re afraid. But that doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. When you have been scared to enter your own land of milk and honey, has there ever been a voice – your own or someone else’s – that reminded you to own your expertise? In my work, I have been fortunate to have phenomenal mentors who believe in me, such as my current supervisor, Josh Feldman. I’ve also been fortunate to be that voice for countless students and young adults. When I feel like a grasshopper surrounded by giants and fallen angels, I try to remember that if I’ve been that person for other people, I get to be that person for myself too, and I get to ask others for support when I need it.

You – and I – have everything it takes to face the giants. We do have what it takes to claim our place in the land of our dreams. My blessing for all of us in this week and in the weeks to come is that we learn to celebrate our strengths, own our expertise, and recognize our own potential. We may be afraid, but we are right where we belong, and together, we are unstoppable. Shabbat Shalom.

A Line in the Sand: Parsha Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion includes a line that has possibly caused more pain and harm than just about any other verse in the Torah: “V’et-zakar lo-tishkav mishkevey ishshah; toevah hi.” The most familiar translation of this line is “You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman, it is toevah.” Toevah is often translated as “forbidden.” It’s a boundary that cannot be crossed.

Leviticus 18:22 has been used – and is still used – to justify cruelty toward LGBTQ individuals. Just last month, Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical program, decided not to ordain one of their rabbinical students because he is gay. When he came out three and a half years ago, he asked YCT if they would still ordain him. They said that they would, and then last month, they changed their minds, choosing this boundary, Leviticus 18:22, over a student who dedicated years of study toward becoming a rabbi at their institution. They saw the place where halacha (Jewish law) and human life collide, and they drew a line in the sand between the two. What happens when someone reaches across that line and holds out a hand? What happens when boundaries are broken?

Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shauvot are known as the Omer, and each week is associated with an aspect of God’s soul – and our souls: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (boundaries), Tiferet (harmony), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation) and Malchut (sovereignty). Each day within each week is associated with one of these seven aspects as well. This Shabbat is the 14th day of the Omer, and we spent this week in the world of Gevurah, of boundaries.

We all know boundaries are important. We set boundaries on our time. We set boundaries between personal and professional. In the caring professions, we strive for emotional boundaries, so we don’t lose ourselves in other people’s stories. Boundaries tell children that they can trust the adults in their lives. Boundaries keep people safe – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

So how do we respond to a boundary like Leviticus 18:22? In my 10 years as a Jewish communal professional, I’ve seen it all. Some abandon religion forever, saying “If that’s one line your holy book, I don’t want the rest of its pages.” Some find a different way to interpret the words, struggling to make the ancient law fit our contemporary sensibilities. Others decide to take the parts of Judaism they like, and discard the rest. They may call themselves “cultural Jews” or “Jew-ish,” as if to specify that they’re not like “those other Jews” who are “more traditional” or “more religious.” As an aside, while I support people in defining their Judaism however they’d like, I don’t think any person making informed, Jewish decisions about their boundaries is any “less religious,” but that’s a topic for another day.

I recently read responses from multiple Jewish movements to see how they addressed the boundary set by Leviticus 18:22. In North America, Reform Rabbis have officiated same-sex marriages since 2000. The Conservative movement followed suit in 2012, reversing a 2006 decision that Conservative rabbis could not officiate same-sex marriages. The most interesting response to me was a dissenting opinion from three Conservative rabbis in 2006. Rabbis Geller, Fine, and Fine detailed examples of other moments when rabbis agreed on a change in halachic interpretation: “Just as the ancient Israelites could not envision a world without slavery,” they said, “so could they not imagine a society where two men or two women could live together in a recognizable consecrated relationship and raise children. Just as the Rabbis understood that monetary interest could no longer be considered usury in a currency-based economy, so do we understand that same-sex relationships can no longer be considered toevah.” For these three rabbis, it was time to break the boundary, even though the rest of their leadership chose to uphold it.

I am heartened by the efforts of organizations like JQY and Eshel, which support Orthodox LGBTQ Jews. JQY raised enough money for the former YCT rabbinical student to pursue independent ordination in Israel. I’m also heartened by the promises of Rabbis Avram Mlotek and Daniel Silverstein, Orthodox alumni of YCT, who just became the first Orthodox rabbis to announce that they will now officiate Orthodox same-sex marriages. This was their response to the boundary set by YCT after they refused to ordain the student. It’s a step in the right direction, though they didn’t quite break the boundary. Both rabbis specified that the weddings would not be kiddushin, so they will not be seen as Jewishly legal.

How do we decide when a boundary should be broken in our own lives, like the Reform rabbis did in 2000? How do we decide when a boundary should be compromised instead, like Rabbi Mlotek and Rabbi Silverstein, deciding to officiate same-sex weddings for Jews, while refusing to call them halachic Jewish marriages?

Whatever decision you reach, one thing is certain: Boundaries are opportunities to ask ourselves really important questions. When halacha and human life collide, and someone draws a line in the sand, it’s important to remember that sand can blow away. Even massive boulders erode over time. A boundary means that two ideas are close enough to press up against each other, jostling for space in a crowded world. It’s on us to decide when and how to change our boundaries, even the ones that make us feel safe. All boundaries help us decide what really matters, and allow us to see where our edges can soften.

I’ll conclude with a poem that I wrote in honor of this week’s omer theme, and perhaps this coming week, you can consider where your own boundaries and soft edges live, and think about when it’s time to move that line in the sand.

The One Who Separates
day from night
sea from sky
and sky from the branches
who reach for her

also created horizons,
roots, wings,
and twilight

teaching us,
when our hands touch,
that the precipice
between one and another
is also a window

every boundary an opportunity
to connect with something sacred

Kaddish for unCreation

When she was murdered, Lori Gilbert Kaye (z’l) was at Chabad of Poway to say Mourners Kaddish for her mother. Now, Lori’s daughter, a UCLA student, has the impossible task of saying Mourners Kaddish for her. For this family, the wheel of time spun off its tracks, far faster than it ever should have, a mother saying kaddish for her own mother, with her daughter’s sobbing kaddish echoing close behind it. This act of destruction is on us.

People often point out that Kaddish says nothing about death or grief. It’s seen as an affirmation of faith in the face of loss. But we get a different story when we look at the words in their original context. The first four words of Kaddish, “May God’s name be great and holy,” “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mai raba,” are a reference to Ezekiel 38:23: “I will manifest My greatness and My holiness, and I will make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

The context for this line is a description about the literal End of the World, and it’s a terrifying passage:

“On that day,” says God, “My raging anger shall flare up. I have decreed in My indignation and in My blazing wrath: On that day, a terrible earthquake shall befall the land of Israel. The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the beasts of the field, all creeping things that move on the ground, and every human being on earth shall quake before Me. Mountains shall be overthrown, cliffs shall topple, and every wall shall crumble to the ground.”

All it takes is an earthquake. Note the list of animals – fish, birds, beasts, creeping things, and people. It’s an act of un-Creation, a Wheel going in reverse, the opposite of B’reishit Bara Elohim, “In the Beginning, God Created.”

“I will then summon the sword against him throughout My mountains,” says God, “every man’s sword shall be turned against his brother.” Sounds like Cain and Abel to me.

“I will punish him with pestilence and with bloodshed, and I will pour torrential rain, hailstones, and fire upon him and his hordes and the many peoples with him.” Another reversal: This time, the plagues of Exodus (pestilence, hail), will spare no one. And this time, none of us will be free.

And then: “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

Yitgadal v’Yitkadash, the opening words of Kaddish, come straight from this verse, evoking existential terror at the End of the World. This is powerful for a few reasons: First, when we confront our grief, we also confront our own mortality. Standing beside the coffin of someone who has died, we can’t help but imagine the day when we will be the ones inside. It’s only human, and so are we. Our lives are limited, and the existential fear we feel about our own deaths reverberates in this passage about the End that ends it all. And if you have experienced grief, you know that it truly does feel as if everything has reversed itself. The death is an unCreation of the world you knew, the world in which your loved one was alive. It’s an earthquake that crumbles the foundations of your own reality. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if they have destroyed a whole world.” It may not be the actual End of the entire World, but for someone, the world has shattered. When we say Yitgadal v’yitkadash, and we reference Ezekiel 38:23, we are talking about the destruction of both.

But what can we learn from the rest of that statement in Ezekiel? “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” We will know that God is God because of God’s power to unCreate everything that God created. As humans, unlike the fish, the birds, or even the mountains, we are created in God’s image. And we, too, have the ability to destroy what God has built, to strike existential fear into the hearts of one another, and to shatter worlds with our own “raging anger” and “blazing wrath.”

On a communal level, we grieve another unCreation every time there’s another shooting. But this time the “raging anger” and the “blazing wrath” are not God’s; they’re our own. A shooting is not an earthquake, even though each one shakes us to our core. And we are facing that existential fear – how many of us have asked, when will it be our school, our synagogue, our movie theater? Each shooting is unCreation of the world we believed in, a world where we thought we were safe. And as we grow numb to the news cycle, the reversal continues. Mass shootings are unsurprising, our stories unraveling faster than we can weave them together.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash: When Lori Gilbert Kaye entered Chabad of Poway to pray for her mother, she had no idea that her daughter would soon be praying for her, and that her name would soon be added to the list we cannot erase. As we say Kaddish for her, with the words from Ezekiel on our lips, and with Charlotte, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Pulse, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Sandy Hook, and so many others in our hearts, my true prayer is that we may reverse this unraveling.

The earthquake has shaken the foundation of every reality we’ve ever known. It may not be the actual End of the World, but we are perpetrating an unCreation. When God destroys the world, God says “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” This act of destruction is on us. If we have the power to destroy each other, then we, who are created in God’s image, also have the power to create.

In the week to come, I encourage you to consider this power. It’s so easy to feel hopeless in these moments, to feel overwhelmed by the daunting task before us. How will you participate, with your attitude and in your actions, with your vision and your voice? How will you manifest your own greatness and holiness? God’s work can only be undone by God, but it really is us, and our world is in our hands. We only have to decide how we might rebuild from here.

The Revelation Countdown

The first two nights of Passover are behind us, and perhaps we have escaped the narrow places in our lives. Or perhaps not. It’s hard to embrace freedom when we don’t know what’s ahead of us, and we are unaware of the wonder that awaits.

So we count. Count the Omer – the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
Count the hours between liberation and revelation.
Count the things we left behind so that we don’t forget.
Count the steps we take toward growing.
Count the people who come with us.
The arms around our shoulders.
The hands that find ours.
Count today. Count tomorrow.
Count the ones who make freedom feel more free.

For a daily Omer* meditation, follow Ritualwell – they are posting art and 200-character reflections each day. Mine will be posted on May 3/4, day 14 of the Omer, Malkhut she’b’Gvurah – sovereignty within boundaries. I’m proud to have contributed again to my favorite site for contemporary Jewish ritual and writing.

Happy Counting, Beloveds. May every journey bring you closer to the home inside of you.

*Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shauvot are associated with an aspect of God’s soul – and our souls: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (judgment/boundaries), Tiferet (harmony), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation) and Malkhut (sovereignty). Each day within each week is associate with one of these seven aspects as well. For example, day one of the Omer is Chesed within Chesed. Day Two is Gevurah (boundaries) within Chesed (lovingkindness). To read more about it, look here: https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/introduction-counting-omer

Through the Narrows: Passover 5779

This Passover, I’m considering the narrow spaces* I create for myself – the chains I choose, and the chains I hold onto. I’m looking at the chains I should abandon, and the ones I can’t leave behind.

I’m thinking about the chains I carried with me across the riverbed, clink-clink-clinking like Miriam’s timbrels, while the sea roared on either side.

I’m thinking about dropping them along the way this time, releasing myself from the narrowness I’ve carried in my heart.

Whatever it is that’s holding you back, I invite you to wonder with me: What does freedom feel like, when we allow ourselves to truly feel it? What might we discover together in this great expanse?

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, Everyone.

May we sing each other, every day, to the other side of the sea

*The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which translates, roughly, to “narrow spaces.” When we celebrate Passover, we are asked to imagine that we ourselves are coming out of Egypt, freeing ourselves from the narrow places in our lives.

A Time to Keep Silent: Parsha Shmini

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.

Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.

After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.

In traditional communities, when Jews pray the Amidah, our great standing prayer, we pray it in a whisper. There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but this private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was barren. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.

This week, one father made his own silence permanent. Jeremy Richman took his own life, seven years after his daughter, Avielle, was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. Two survivors of the Parkland shooting also died by suicide this week, within days of each other. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out, or we protest. Sometimes we whisper. Other times, all we can muster is silence.

Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why were so many children murdered in their schools? Why did their loved ones take their own lives, instead of living to tell their children’s stories? There are still no reasons that truly justify their deaths.

In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by the murdered children, the suicide contagion among the survivors, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.

Sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For gas chambers, school shootings, cancer, and suicides. It’s a day for God to join us in atoning.

For the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my wrath to consume me
,” God prays.

“And for the wrong I have done before you
by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.

For the wrong I have done before you
by separating sacred and profane

And for the wrong I have done before you
because I should have known that everything is sacred.

Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Wrestlers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,”
God weeps.

I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. But all I can muster for now, dear God, is silence.

Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives the Israelites instructions for the creation of the first mishkan, the first sanctuary for prayer. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Eleven chapters later, we read that the Israelites have brought too much: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded.” Moses tells the people to stop bringing these gifts, because it was enough, v’hoter. V’hoter means “and left over” – the people brought so much to the Mishkan that it could not all be used for the project.

It was so human of them, this eagerness. They tried so hard to please the Holy One that they brought too much at once. Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of the 65,000 teddy bears that showed up in Newtown, CT, just one week after the Sandy Hook massacre. Kind, good-hearted people, grieving for the murder of so many children, channeled their grief into gifts. It was well-intentioned, but it was more about their own pain than the needs of the community. Unfortunately, it was far too much for the town to handle, and one man was left with the task of managing $27,000 worth of toys that the children of Newtown truly didn’t need. He had to purchase 80,000 feet of storage space, which filled up quickly with more unnecessary gifts – v’hoter, leftover. Ultimately, it went to good use: The community decided to ship boxes of toys to orphanages.

Every day, we face countless opportunities to help – it can seem like the world is overflowing with needs, on both a personal and a communal level. Sometimes we are so quick to fix, to respond, to act, that we don’t consider what type of response is best, or how much action is necessary. The pain is too much to take in, so we act quickly, trying to heal our own wounded hearts as well as the wounds of those in need. The second line of Psalm 41, a psalm we say when visiting the sick, says “Ashrei maskil el-dal,” Happy is the one who is maskil in relation to the person in need.” In a midrash on this psalm, Rav Yonah says, “What does maskil mean in this case? That the person helping truly looks and considers how to revive the person.” We have to consider what is truly required, and then make a decision about how to give, and how much.

What does it mean to build a sanctuary? How do we choose what to bring, how to pray, how to respond when there’s a call for action? Will our sanctuary be a storage room for 65,000 teddy bears, a tabernacle beside a pile of v’hoter, leftover, unused material? Will we bring what is needed, or bring too much, easing our own desires to feel or appear helpful? Or will our mishkan, our sanctuary, be a space where we can celebrate and grieve together, where we listen, truly consider, and then decide how to act? Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. As we face the complexities of the world around us, may we remember that our intentions matter, and that our actions must matter too.

Toward Love: Parsha Ki Tisa

February is hard. Last week we saw the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of 17 people – children and teachers – who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on February 14, 2018. This week, I’m observing the yahrzeits of two of my former campers. One died by suicide in February 2016, and the other by suicide in February 2018. My uncle died suddenly in February 2013. My grandmother and great-grandfather’s yahrzeits are in February as well. Despite the losses piled on losses at this time of year, I am still amazed at how quickly everything changes. One day last year, 17 people went to school and never came home again. One day three years ago, someone I loved woke up for the last time. When I think about how quickly the world turns upside down, it feels like something has knocked the wind out of me. I’m suddenly suffocating, gasping for breath, grasping for answers. What are we going to do? Is anyone safe? Can anything we do to help ever be enough? I feel powerless in the face of pain and I find myself asking over and over: How are we going to heal all these broken hearts?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, provides an example of how we might respond to all of this powerlessness and pain. The Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf – a false idol – while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. When Moses found out about the golden calf, he was furious, and he shattered the tablets. But this was not his only response. Moses saw the Israelites in their sin, and he saw their fear. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days, and the Israelites didn’t know what was going to happen. So many of us turn to something familiar in times of uncertainty and doubt. We all have destructive habits that are comforting in the moment, even if they’re unhealthy and unsafe in the long run. These are our golden calves. Moses was angry that the Israelites had given up on God, who brought them out of Egypt. But he understood, and he pled to God on the Israelites’ behalf, an act of compassion in his moment of hopelessness and rage. Thankfully, God heard Moses’s plea, and decided to punish the Israelites with a plague instead of something worse. Moses returned to the mountain and received the Torah for a second time. When he came back down, he brought a new set of tablets with him.

The Talmud teaches us that the Israelites kept the broken tablets, and placed them, along with the new ones, in the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark. Why keep this symbol of their own fear, this casualty of rage, this set of broken laws? Because brokenness and wholeness live side by side in the world and in our hearts. Because together, these tablets also represented Moses’s act of kindness in the face of his own anger. Because brokenness itself is holy: The kabbalists teach that when God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, which means the broken pieces are always with us – in the ark and in our hearts, along with the pieces we have renewed through acts of kindness.

What is shattered cannot be mended, and lives that are lost cannot be found again. The children murdered in Parkland last year are never coming back. Neither are my campers who committed suicide. But we carry their memories with us, broken pieces lovingly placed alongside the whole ones. Like the tablets, we are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us. And we too can try each day to respond to pain with compassion, like Moses did when he found the Israelites praying to the Golden Calf. We can’t control the universe, but we can respond to desperation with overwhelming kindness. It’s not enough, but it’s all we can offer, and doing nothing is not an option. Maybe it’s arrogant to believe that our actions make a difference. Or maybe it’s hope. Maybe every small act of kindness offsets a moment of suffering, and together, we can tip the cosmic scale, ever so slightly, toward love. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to take the risk, and I invite you to join me, in all of your brokenness and wholeness, in making this world a sacred place. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. February is hard, but I am so grateful that we are in it together.