Holding the Shattered Pieces

“Suffering breaks our hearts. But there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.” 

I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Parker Palmer a lot lately. Yesterday was the 17th of Tammuz. Traditionally, this is a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple.  It also marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av, the day when the first and second Temples were destroyed. These three weeks are known as Bein ha’Metzarim, between the narrows. No Jewish marriages or other celebrations are allowed at this time, since the joy of these occasions conflicts with the mood of mourning.

The 17th of Tammuz also arrives 40 days after Shavuot. This is the day when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found that the Israelites had built a golden calf while he was receiving the Torah. Moses was furious and he shattered the tablets. He went back up the mountain, and the Israelites went back to…waiting. Waiting with their grief, their fear, and their brokenness, the shattered tablets laying before them. 

We have been sitting in our own waiting place, Bein ha’Metzarim. By my count, it’s been 120 days since the quarantine started. Even if you are numb at this point, the emotions that surfaced at the start of COVID are still there, exacerbated by losses due to racial violence. Some days it might feel like you’re moving through molasses – there’s a fatigue you just can’t sleep off. Maybe you’ve snapped recently at someone who did nothing wrong, or there was a moment when a minor stumble felt like a disaster. All of it is grief – for the 135,000 who have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, for racial violence, for the special moments we’ve had to share on Zoom instead of in-person, and for all the plans we can’t fulfill. In progressive Jewish communities, we don’t often observe the three weeks or Tisha b’Av. However, as we wait at the foot of the mountain, sitting in our collective brokenness, and unsure of what comes next, it may be necessary to engage with this part of our tradition. And we should engage with it, as Parker Palmer has said, with a broken and supple heart. 

The Talmud teaches that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai the second time, with new tablets, the Israelites kept the broken ones. They placed them, along with the new tablets, in the holy ark. Why? Because our ancestors knew brokenness and wholeness live side by side, in the ark and in our hearts. Some even taught that brokenness is not only natural – it’s necessary. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” And in a Hasidic folk tale, a disciple asked a rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to place the words of the V’ahavta upon our hearts instead of in our hearts?” The rebbe answered: “It is because our hearts are closed. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” The Lurianic kabbalists taught that brokenness itself is holy: 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, this symbol of God’s own brokenness. 

The message from our tradition is clear: Our hearts have to break. We have to feel our grief. And we do not to have experience our brokenness alone. These three weeks are a time when we can grieve with community. When we are Bein ha-Metzarim, we are like the tablets in the holy ark. 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.

As we sit with the shattered tablets, as we wait in our brokenness, I want to bless each each of us with a heart that is supple – one that is open to our own suffering and to the suffering of others, so that the words of our prayers fall in, and so that we may we renewed again. 

Grief in the Book of Ruth: A Letter

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. There are many fantastic interpretations of this story – some of them ask if Ruth and Naomi were lovers, others explore the nature of the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, and others focus on Ruth as the paradigmatic convert. In reading the story and a number of articles about it last month, I found that no one had really explored Ruth from the perspective of grief and loss. Her husband died before she left Moab, and Boaz’s wife died the day Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem. The widow and the widower marry each other. As a grief counselor, I often invite people to write letters to the people in their lives who have died. Below is the letter I imagine Ruth would write to her late husband, Mahlon.

Beloved, 

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. I used to be certain there was nothing but nothingness after death. But now there are days when I swear I feel your eyes upon me. Before we left Moab, every laugh I heard by the water where we skipped stones made my heart skip a beat. I’ve seen you in dreams but not only in dreams. Since you died, the doorway between life and death has cracked open, leaving me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. But I have to try. 

When I found you dead, there was so much screaming. I only realized later that the voice was my own. How could you leave me, Mahlon? After a night of gentle warmth, I woke with your cold skin resting on mine. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Orpah found me shaking you, sobbing, begging. It was too late. 

Soon, your mother was all I had left of you. When Naomi held me, I felt you in her arms. She told Orpah and me to stay behind, to return to our parents. But losing Naomi would have been losing you all over again. So I gave her the same vow I shared with you on our wedding day: Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. We walked together to Bethlehem. 

I never planned to marry again. But two women can’t make it on our own in Bethlehem, or anywhere else for that matter. When Naomi told me to go to Boaz at night, your voice was in her mouth, telling me to take care of her. To take care of us. I’ll do what I have to do. And…there is one more thing.

Boaz is a widower. His wife died the day your mother and I arrived in Bethlehem. He’s grieving too. He never expected to find me on the threshing floor. Boaz didn’t want to make love to me. His heart breaks for his dead bride, just as my heart breaks for you. We stayed up all night talking about you and about her. Maybe, just maybe, we can mend our shattered hearts if we hold the broken pieces together. 

My dear Mahlon, I don’t know what happens after death, and I don’t know what happens now that you’ve died, but I know Boaz is asking the same questions. The doorway between life and death has cracked open, and Boaz is standing in the doorway with me. I hope you know I’ll never stop missing you, even though I am marrying him. I hope you can forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I have to try. 

And I will take care of Naomi, Mahlon, just as she takes care of me. Our stories are one and the same, and my vow to you – and to her – remains. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 

I carry you with me, always.
Yours,

Ruth

Silent and Sacred

Parashat Sh’mini for 2020

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.

There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but our Amidah, our private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice 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.

Over the last month, we have seen suffering – this illness, a different kind of strange fire shared by those who draw near to each other. Over 33,000 people have died from coronavirus in the United States alone. We don’t know when it will end. We don’t know if it will come back. We refresh our Twitter feeds, reading articles with conflicting information. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out or we protest, looking for something or someone to blame. Sometimes we whisper in prayer, like Hannah. Other times, like Aaron, all we can muster is silence. 

Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why have so many people died from coronavirus? Why are we still being punished for drawing near to each other? How many of us, in the last month, have ignored that nagging voice inside – the one that dares to ask God why this happened? 

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 corpses in refrigerator vans, hospitals overwhelmed, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.

Our Yom Kippur Torah portion takes place immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed. And sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, 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 asking us to sacrifice our healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and others who are deemed “essential.” It’s a day for God to join us in grieving and 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-Strugglers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,” God weeps.

I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. And like Aaron, all I can muster for now is silence. But dear God, Moses was beside Aaron in Aaron’s silence, and we will be in this silence together. God, You heard Hannah’s whispered prayer, and we will hear each other across the distance. We learned to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and now we separate from one another, not because any one of us is profane, but because every soul is sacred. When we are safe again, we will join hands, as well as voices. We will stay in the struggle with You, God. And we will sing. 

Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle

after Song of Songs

O you who linger in the garden,
a lover is listening; let Me hear your voice.

The first time I created you,
we were alone together
in My garden

I separated light from darkness
sea from sky, and sky from the branches
who reach for her
But when I created you,
we were One.

Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is My beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to My mouth.

Oh how you longed for My fruit
when it was forbidden
Now I long for you
And I must seek you
wherever you roam.

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I sent you away from My garden
separating one from One
I have followed you ever since
across the sea and through the wilderness
into the Land that I have shown you
into The Place you did not know

“Whither has Your beloved gone, O Fairest Of Women?
Whither has Your beloved turned? Let us seek him with You.”

My love for you is boundless
You who return My love and you who turn from Me
You who struggle, and you who draw near
You who doubt, and you who dream
all of you are part of Me.

I opened the door for my beloved, But my beloved had turned and gone.

You wrote your love for Me
on the doorposts of your house
and then you closed the door behind you

I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer.

When you call out to Me from your narrow place
I will always answer, even if you cannot hear Me

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to pick lilies.

Our love began in a garden
It will grow there too
You’ll find Me among the lilies
waiting, always, to love you.

Image credit: Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81436538

Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra

How can we draw near in a moment when we are so far away from each other? In this week’s parsha, God shared a list of sacrifices for the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Two weeks ago, when many of us began the quarantine, the Israelites built and worshiped a golden calf. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they didn’t know when – or if – he was going to come back. In their fear, they built an idol they could touch, something they could connect with, physically. Something they thought they could trust to be there. Now, two weeks later, the Israelites have built a Mishkan instead. They were finally ready to sacrifice, ready to connect with the God they could not touch. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” They Israelites drew near to the God Who could not be seen, but could be deeply felt.

In the last two weeks, we, too, have been building sanctuaries. Sanctuaries in our homes, sanctuaries online, sanctuaries with our voices raised in song and prayer. We have been alone, afraid, and uncertain. We cannot reach out to touch one another. But we, too, have drawn near in ways that can be be felt.

One of my teachers, Reb Eli Cohen, pointed out that one of the names for God is HaMakom, which means The Place. Maybe while we have been sheltering-in-place, we have also been sheltering-in-The Place, embraced by the nurturing Source that holds us all. In our evening liturgy, we sing Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha – asking God to spread over us a shelter of peace. Throughout these last two weeks, I’ve envisioned the lights from our screens, shining in our hands and on our desks all over the world. We cannot touch, but we have found ways to draw near to each other, to create sanctuaries, and to face our fears, embracing the Oneness that connects us all.

Shabbat Shalom, l’kulam. May it be a Shabbat of peace, wholeness, and healing, as we who are far away from one another draw near in every way we can.

Where Are You

“Where are you going?” She’s checking my bag.
It’s not supposed to be an existential question.

“Where are you going?”
The security guard catches me off guard.
Am I on my way there or on my way back?
Am I leaving or arriving?
Am I returning?

“Where are you going?”
I left the rain last week and arrived in the sunlight.
When I landed, tears arrived too,
my eyes and heart unused to piercing brightness.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going to snowy branches and a frozen lake.
I’m going to a fireplace, a sanctuary,
warm hugs and warmer hearts.

“Where are you going?”
I’m leaving the community
that reminds me where I come from.
I’m going to the community that reminds me who I am.
Life is in flight, community is fluid, time is an illusion,
and distance means nothing at all.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going toward myself, I’m going toward growing.
I’m going away, I’m going to, I’m going, going, and gone.
I am in flight, I am landing, I am bringing
too much baggage for carry-on.

“Where are you going?”
I don’t know, I don’t remember,
nothing is certain but
“You are flying out of Gate 19.”
I am ready for take-off.

Not Alone: Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert, and you’ve been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. You’ll never go back to Egypt.  But then you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

This Friday, we read the the beginning of Exodus, which includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moved toward the strange burning, God called out to him. “Moses, Moses!” Moses stopped running away. Hineini, he said. “Here I am.” 

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I AM I AM I AM, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“R’oh ra’iti,” said God: “I have truly seen.” This is a unique construction in Hebrew. “Ro’eh” means “I have seen,” but “R’oh ra’iti,” which repeats the verb “to see,” means “I have truly seen.” “I have truly seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” said God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, you tried to run away, but somehow they came with you — their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knew the pain of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval scholar Rashi, God demonstrated that God was with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God said. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God said. “I will be with you.” God didn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God truly saw not only the Israelites’ suffering – God truly saw what Moses needed too. God didn’t tell Moses “This is your job — now deal with it.” God never tried to convince Moses that the exodus would be easy. Instead, God showed Moses that he would not be on this journey alone. 

There’s no way they’ll believe you. You’re not sure if you believe you. But you’re beginning to wonder. What is the name of this Burning? What does this Light truly see in you?

“When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

“Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God said. “I Will Be That I Will Be. Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Be’ has sent me.” 

In Brachot 9b, the Gemara asks: Why did God tell Moses to tell the Israelites that “Ehyeh, I Will Be” has sent Moses? We just learned that “Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be That I Will Be” is God’s name. “I Will Be” and “I Will Be That I Will Be” are two different names. Why the change?

The Gemara says that “I Will Be That I Will Be” means “I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, AND I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.” Then, according to the Gemara, Moses actually advised God, becoming the leader that God knew him to be.

“Master of the Universe,” Moses said. “It is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.” 

You are not alone. They do not have to be alone. And they do not need to know that more suffering awaits them after this redemption.

God agreed with Moses and said to him: “Go and tell the children of Israel only that, “’Ehyeh: I Will Be‘ has sent me to you.”

You don’t know what’s coming next. But this Burning, the God of your ancestors, has r’oh ra’iti – has truly seen the suffering, has truly seen you, and has heard you. You will lead, and you will lead with this Light. 

Just as God showed Moses true empathy, saying “I will be with you,” Moses taught God about empathy by pointing out that the Israelites couldn’t hear about future suffering. God guided Moses, truly saw Moses as a leader, told Moses he was not alone, and as a result, Moses was able to see himself as a leader, someone who could provide feedback on God’s communication plan.

Over the course of this parsha, with the Gemara for context, we watch Moses transform, through empathy, from a shepherd, running away from his problems in Egypt, to a leader who partnered with God to free the Israelites from Egypt. The Hebrew word for shepherd is pronounced “ro’eh,” but it’s spelled differently from the verb “to see.” Moses went from a ro’eh, shepherd to ro’eh, see-er. 

God “ro’eh ra’iti,” truly saw the leadership in this shepherd, Moses. And God made sure that Moses didn’t have to free the Israelites alone. Once Moses saw himself as the leader that God knew him to be, Moses knew he couldn’t leave the Israelites alone either. And, finally, Moses ensured that God was not alone in the project of redemption. 

I work with young leaders all the time and I’ve learned over and over again just how important it is to tell them what I see. Once I show them I have truly seen them – that believe in them and I remind them that they’re not alone, they rise to face the challenges of their work. Recently I’ve been grateful for friends and mentors in my own life who have shown me empathy as well – giving me the blessing of being truly seen, supported, and recognized for my own leadership. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love and believe in us, we, like Moses, are able to fulfill our potential. And we, too, are able to partner with the Holy One in the work of creation, healing, and redemption. 

Difficult Conversations: Parsha Vayigash

When was the last time you had a difficult conversation? Maybe it was with a supervisor or a partner. Maybe it was with a family member. What was difficult about it? Did you prepare in advance? Did you try to avoid it? Were you able to move forward with your relationships in tact? 

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, opens with a difficult conversation. The word “vayigash” means “he approached,” and it refers to the moment when Judah approached his brother, Joseph, who had risen to power in Egypt. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Joseph’s jealous brothers, frustrated with his arrogance, cast Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father, Jacob, saying that a wild beast killed Joseph. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is a very dramatic story), Joseph became the governor of Egypt, almost as powerful as Pharaoh himself. At the moment of our Torah portion, it had been 22 years since the brothers had seen each other. Joseph recognized them, but the brothers had no idea that this governor of Egypt was the brother they threw into the pit. Joseph tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benjamin, of stealing a silver cup that Joseph planted in Benjamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Joseph threatened to enslave Benjamin. 

That’s where the Torah portion begins – Judah, the oldest of the brothers, vayigash Joseph. He approached the governor of Egypt, a man far more powerful than he could ever hope to be, to have a difficult conversation. 

Midrash Rabbah explores the meaning of vayigash in this context. 

Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he approached” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle” (II Samuel 10:13).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he approached” implies a coming near for conciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua” (Joshua 14:6).

The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “It came to pass, at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached . . .” (I Kings, 18:36).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.

When you have approached a difficult conversation, maybe a conversation with someone more powerful than you, what did you bring into that conversation with you? Did you come ready to fight, like Rabbi Yehudah intoned? Were you prepared to conciliate, to offer a solution or make amends, as Rabbi Nechemiah suggested? Or did you draw near, with a heart full of hope, prepared to humble yourself as if in prayer, as the sages believed? Maybe you went in with an open mind, ready to respond in the moment, as Rabbi Eleazar said of Judah. See if you can put yourself back in that place. What was happening in your body? Were you anxious? Were you aware? 

Judah approached Joseph with humility. He referred to himself as avdecha, “your servant” when he spoke. He told Joseph that Benjamin’s soul is connected to their father’s soul – in Hebrew: Nafsho Keshura beNafsho. The Aramaic translation of the Torah translates this passage as, “and his soul loved him as his own soul.” Jacob loved Benjamin so deeply that their souls were connected. Judah explained, “When my father sees the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought our father in grief to the grave. Please let me stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers. How will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”

Joseph saw that his brothers had grown. 22 years ago, when they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery, they had avoided a difficult conversation – in a way, they took the easy way out, instead of vayigash, approaching Joseph to talk to him about his arrogance. This moment is different. Instead of avoiding the conversation, throwing Benjamin into a metaphorical pit, or selling him into slavery in Egypt (echoing their treatment of Joseph), Judah showed that he cared for his father and brother. He offered a solution, and he pled not only for his father’s or brother’s lives; he used a prayer word, nefesh. He pled for his father’s and brother’s souls.

The reunion became a joyful one – Joseph revealed his identity, the brothers reconciled, they hugged, and kissed, and cried, and Joseph sent them home with a wealth of food, animals, clothes, and more. When the brothers told their father Jacob that Joseph was alive, “vatechi ruach Yakov avihem,” the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Ruach, or spirit, is another prayer word, like nefesh, soul. Jacob’s soul and spirit techi, came to life, after his sons’ reconciliation. 

Judah approached a difficult conversation with a lot at stake. As Rabbi Eleazar said, “Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: “If it be war, I approach for war;” Judah put his own body on the line, like a soldier, offering himself into slavery. “If it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation;” Conciliation is a way of making amends. Judah offered his labor in return for the value of the silver goblet. “If it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat” (as in prayer). When Judah spoke about his brother’s and father’s souls, he approached Joseph from a place of prayer. Most importantly, Judah showed that he had changed – that he was not the same person who threw his brother, Joseph, into the pit and sold him into slavery, instead of having a difficult conversation. This time, Judah was prepared to engage body, mind, and soul to spare his brother and his father.

Next time you are facing a difficult conversation, consider the way you vayigash. You may not need to concede your body, mind, and soul – this is a pretty extreme example – but you will likely need to concede something. Throwing the problem into a pit only means it will show up again later, and it might be bigger and more powerful when it approaches again. In this coming week and in the secular new year, there will be many opportunities to choose an approach. May we be mindful of our choices, and may every conversation enliven our souls. Shabbat Shalom.

A Journey of Becoming: Parsha Lech Lecha

“When someone calls me Jasper, my shoulders drop, my heart rate settles, hearing my name is a sign, a confirmation that an individual, a group, a society accepts my current self and who I am growing to be.” 

Jasper is a 17-year-old trans male. When he was assigned female at birth, he was given female names, in both English and Hebrew. I recently officiated a Jewish renaming ceremony for Jasper at Natural Bridges beach in Santa Cruz. We said goodbye to his former Hebrew name and he took on a new one, a name that represents his truest self. 

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Avram to lech lecha. “Lech Lecha, from your birthplace and your father’s house.” The words “Lech Lecha” are often mistranslated as “go forth.” A more accurate translation is “go to yourself.” For Avram, this journey will be both external and internal. Avram leaves his father’s house and his native land, and he transforms from the person he was, to the person he is meant to be. Once he arrives, Avram receives a new name. “You shall no longer be called Avram,” says God, “your name shall be Avraham, for I will make you a father of multitudes.” The name change represents the person Avraham has become – and the journey of his becoming.

Why does God tell Avraham to leave his birthplace and his father’s house? These two leavings appear redundant on the surface. But I think this is God’s way of acknowledging that for Avraham to lech lecha, he has to leave more than just a place behind. Avraham also leaves the religion and culture of his father, an idol worshipper. He leaves family, friends, and the life he’d always known. Avraham smashes his father’s idols before he leaves. When we embark on a journey to become our truest selves, relationships shatter along the way. Our ideas of reality may shatter too. 

Similarly, when someone acknowledges that their gender identity is different from the identity they were assigned at birth, they leave behind more than just a name. It means saying goodbye to a narrative – a story of what they imagined their lives to be. There is a loss of some kind when our narratives change, even when they change for the best. And while some families, like Jasper’s, are supportive and loving, other families shatter irreparably, like the idols and narrative Avraham left behind.

Using Parsha Lech Lecha as an example, we can begin to understand why calling a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by as much as 65%. Avraham’s journey toward himself cost him relationships, his narrative, and more. He’s given a new name that more fully represents his identity, and calling him “Avram” not only negates the truth of who he became; it also disrespects the growth, learning, and changes Avraham experienced, the journey he had to take, deep into himself, before he could live into his new name. 

“Deadnaming,” using the name given to a transgender person at birth, regardless of intention, is painful. Jasper still gets deadnamed sometimes, “mainly accidentally,” he says. “I understand it may be difficult to make the change after knowing me with another name for so long. What matters is that one makes an effort to use my proper name. My deadname is a reminder of a person I never was. A reminder of a hurting time, a lost time, a time I work so hard to forget. My deadname is a label of an idea of an individual, a label of an individual who existed painfully and hidden, and at the same time didn’t exist at all.” If we wouldn’t call Avraham, “Avram,” we shouldn’t deadname transpeople either. 

Jasper’s Hebrew renaming ceremony took place right before Rosh Hashanah. He chose the name Nitzan, the Hebrew word for “bud.” It represents beginnings, a flower’s first steps toward blooming. When our ancestor received the name “Avraham,” it represented not only the person he became, but also his journey becoming. The name “Nitzan” also tells the story of a journey, a bud that has cracked open his shell, and burst forth from the soil, ready to open to the world anew. 

As we enter Shabbat this week, reflecting on our own moments of lech lecha, remember that, in a way, many of us have been on a long journey, have survived the shattering of relationships, facing untold pain and loss, simply to show up as ourselves. Learning names and pronouns, and making the effort to use them, not only tells transgender people that you see them for who they are, here and now. It honors the journey they took, like Avraham, to arrive at their truest, deepest selves. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May we rejoice, every day, in the journeys that bring us closer to each other and ourselves.

Resources:

A Chance Worth Taking: Yom Kippur Sermon, 5780

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway? 

It was cold, the first real rain California had seen in a long time. My university campus was relatively quiet and sleepy. There were only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people were mostly inside, studying for finals, buying plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at another university, the students were wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? What does it mean when 11 are killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or 20 in an El Paso Walmart? How many worlds are destroyed when 49 people are murdered in an Orlando nightclub?

On the High Holidays, we pray Unetanetokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die, who when their time comes and who before or after their time, who by fire and who by water.” Who will die in a shooting this year? Who will take their own lives? Next time, will it happen here?  Even if we don’t believe that our fate is sealed in the book of life and death on Yom Kippur, this holy day still forces us to confront the reality that we just don’t know. What are we supposed to do with this uncertainty? Yom Kippur has a few suggestions about how to respond (Existential fear has been around for a long time, and for better or worse, Jews are really good at it).

First, Yom Kippur teaches us that we can’t hide from mortality. Yom Kippur is transgressive – we live a grief and death-phobic society, and the Jewish calendar gives us a day when we rehearse for our own deaths. On Yom Kippur, and in the days leading up to our own deaths, we make a confession, and we don’t eat, work, or have sex. Some people choose to wear white on Yom Kippur because Jews are traditionally buried in white shrouds. On Yom Kippur, we look directly at the thing that scares us the most, and we do it together. 

That’s the second suggestion Yom Kippur has to offer: Togetherness. When we pray al chet, we atone for sins committed by others in our community, even if we did not commit these sins ourselves. We don’t call out individuals – instead, we reduce shame by confessing together. We face the fierce uncertainty of life by supporting each other in atonement. 

According to Yom Kippur, liturgy, Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzedakah lessen the severity of Unetanetokef. For some, this means that if you do these three things, you’re off the hook, and you’ll survive another year. For those who read Unetanetokef as an expression of uncertainty, these words deliver a different message. We don’t know if Teshuva (atonement), Tefilah (prayer, meditation, mindfulness), and Tzedakah (righteous giving), will save our lives this year. But we do know they make our lives better. And that’s what Unetanetokef actually says: “Teshuvah, Tefila, and Tzedakah transform this harsh decree.” We don’t know what’s coming next, but this will help in the meantime. 

There’s one more thing we can learn from this season. It’s a lesson from Sukkot, which thankfully arrives only five days after Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, we build, decorate, and live in unstable shelters that we tear down one week later. Five days after confronting mortality on Yom Kippur, the Sukkah is a powerful reminder to find beauty and meaning in the temporary. 

Gun violence has become an epidemic and our sense of safety has been shaken to the core. With every school shooting, I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. Is this it? Am I going to die? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

We don’t know. We don’t know who is going to die this year. So we are going to face our fears, and we are going to face them together. We will make life better through teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah. We will find beauty in the world around us, no matter how fleeting. We will march, we will vote, and we will organize. We will love harder and breathe deeper. We don’t know who will live and who will die, and we don’t know if any of our efforts will make an impact. But giving up is not an option, and we are going to try everything we can. Because we are a chance worth taking. 

Please rise for a Mourners Kaddish for those killed by gun violence this year. 

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Life is a volley of bullets
b’alma di v’ra hirutei, v’yamlikh malkhutei,
Time is a bleeding wound
b’hayyeikhon uv’yomeikhon uv’hayyei d’khol beit Yisrael,
in houses of worship, schools, shopping malls
ba’agala uviz’man kariv,
It seems that no one is safe.
v’imru: Amen.

God, these words tumble from my tongue
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh l’alam ul’almei almaya.
marbles in a bowl overturned
Yitbarakh v’yishtabakh v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
I don’t want to praise, I
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha
just want it to stop. Words, bullets, headlines,
faster and faster, they run
b’rikh hu
and I am out of breath. 

L’eila min kol birkhata v’shirata,
God, I am voting, marching, organizing,
tushb’khata v’nekhemata,
I don’t know if anyone is listening, but God,
da’amiran b’alma,
We are a chance worth taking.
v’imru: Amen.

Time, blood, thoughts and prayers
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
are never enough, but I can’t seem to stop praying
v’hayyim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael,
even though I’m not sure
v’imru: Amen.
You are listening.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
May the One Who Makes Peace in Heaven
Hu ya’aseh shalom
Make Peace
aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael
Over us and over all Israel
v’al kol yoshvey tevel
and for all who dwell on earth.
We are a chance worth taking
v’imru: Amen.