Five Stages: Re-Entry after an Immersive Experience

Much like the Five Stages of Grief, the stages outlined below do not represent a linear process. You can be in Stages 1 and 5 at the same time. You can jump from 2 to 4 and then back to 1 in the span of a day, week, or year. The Five Stages of Grief were developed by a psychiatrist, and were originally meant for people who are dying, not for people who are in mourning. The Five Stages of Re-Entry, on the other hand, are a purely non-scientific write-up based on my own experiences coming home from DLTI, short-term immersive travel, Hillel retreats and trainings, Milton Marks Neuro-Oncology Family Camp, Camp Kesem, and other retreats. If these ring true for you, please let me know. If they don’t, let me know what’s missing. Wishing my DLTI friends a smooth re-entry – only 196 days till we are together again!

Stage 1: Exhaustion

You step off the plane and into your bed. More accurately, you step off the plane, get your luggage, ride home, greet your family, and then get into bed. But in this stage, bed is the target, the be-all, end-all, the ultimate desire. In truth, the exhaustion hit long before you stepped onto the plane, and it feels more like confusion than anything else. You’re at the airport, and for the first time in a week, you interact with people who don’t know your deepest secrets. You resist the urge to tell the Starbucks barista about that one traumatic thing you experienced 10 years ago. You call someone from home to explain what you just went through, but despite your best efforts, you just say “amazing” a lot, because you don’t have any other words yet. And because you’re exhausted, and the only thing that makes sense in this stage is your bed.

Stage 2: Reliving

You wake up and you’re not sure where you are, but you know that your friends are not with you. You get on Facebook and Instagram before you even get out of bed and you relive your last week by looking through everyone’s pictures and videos. You read poetic reflections written by friends who have found words to express the experience. Others are still saying “amazing” and not much else. Almost everyone has posted something along the lines of “Where am I? Where are you? Why aren’t we singing together?” Confusion is part of this stage as well, but since you’ve already woken up in your own bed, the confusion is mixed with the first tinges of longing (stage 3). You check in with your retreat friends, you respond to every picture (even the one where it looks like you have five chins) and you sing along with your videos. You don’t sound as good as you remembered. This may be because your voice is still shot from your week away, or because your voice isn’t the same when you’re singing alone. It’s probably both.

Stage 3: Longing

You’re definitely not on retreat anymore. You’ve gone back to work. You remember the stresses of the rest of your life. You desperately wish you could run back to the middle of nowhere, where nothing mattered besides your own learning, growing, and community-building. But you can’t. The digital memories bring you joy, until you have to stop looking at them, to face a responsibility you avoided on your retreat. Call a credit card company. Book a doctor’s appointment. Respond to another email. Bore someone else with yet another story about your experience. Begin counting the days until your next immersive. This is a long stage.

Stage 4: Acceptance

Some parts of your life outside of the retreat do not suck. You did miss your family and it’s nice to see them. You also missed your favorite coffee shop/coworker/hiking trail/food/etc. You’re connecting with your retreat friends often, and are reassured that they haven’t forgotten you. You’ve gotten more sleep. You’re relocating your routine. You miss everyone, but you’re learning how to live with something missing, and that’s a really important skill to develop, right?

Stage 5: Integration

You’ve found some words to explain what happened. You begin to share them, not only with your friends from your immersive, but with family members, friends from home, and even professional contacts. You figure out how you might replicate some of the lessons you learned in other contexts – for those you teach, or in your own life. You set goals based on your experiences – some of them are unrealistic, and you’ll never reach them. Some are attainable, and when you reach them, you’ll remember your immersive experience, and will likely go through stages 2-4 again, but rapidly, or all at once. When you successfully bring something you learned on retreat into the rest of your life, you reach out to your friends again, and celebrate the moment. You remember why you went on the immersive experience to begin with, and use the tools, skills, and ideas you learned to enrich the rest of your life.

You achieve temporary enlightenment, and it feels, for lack of a better word, amazing.

 

Where Do Untold Stories Go?

Do we bury them like sacred texts?
Do the stories turn into seeds underground?
If the seed splits like the Red Sea, and a stem starts to grow, where does it go
If it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing,
If it never blooms?

Where do untold stories go? I’ve been not-asking this question for years in various community leadership roles. Because it’s not about me. We talked about it at DLTI. As a leader, I “tell the stories that communities need to hear, instead of the stories that I want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s more than an honor. It’s a blessing to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch and crack and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow.

I have built a life out of soil and I’m good at it. I am soil when I facilitate grief groups, when I teach new Hillel professionals, and when I serve as a coach and mentor. I always thought that I make great soil because I am  comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, in the past few months I’ve learned that while I’m very open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. I’m open about things that others feel vulnerable sharing, but my stories are highly curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they might play in others’ stories. I share my experiences when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s not vulnerability.

At DLTI last week, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In the labs, our teachers offered feedback and guidance on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell and showed a hint of their own stem. During the labs, our teachers showed us how to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, how to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders ARE the soil, but we are also IN the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but just a little more than I’ve let on in the past.

In a conversation with one of my beloved teachers on Friday, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try out this whole vulnerability thing. There was going to be an open mic night on Saturday, and I planned to tell a story that is vulnerable for me. The story I shared last time we were all together, at Smicha Week, was a little bit vulnerable, but it’s a story I’ve told before, on stage and on live radio. And its vulnerability is cloaked in humor so that I don’t really have to feel the raw seed of the story in public. This time, I would stretch, and tell a story that has been longing for soil. I’d tell a story that truly makes me feel vulnerable.

I practiced throughout the day, and on Saturday night, I was ready. I told a few friends about my plan. I was going to be brave. I was nervous, but I was ready.

And then, every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split open their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and the most beautiful, vulnerable stories were blooming all over the sanctuary.  However, I noticed that the kahal was starting to feel a little worn out from all the emotion – a few people left (it was late at night at the end of an exhausting week), and those who were left in the room looked drained from the heaviness. Everyone else’s stories until that point had been just right, but another heavy story would have been too much in that moment. Lightness was necessary. I pulled a friend outside for a reality check to make sure I was reading the room correctly. He agreed with me. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell, because the story I wanted to tell was really, really dark.

When it was my turn, I told the kahal that I had planned on telling a tough story, but that I felt like we could use some simcha (joy), so I was going to tell a different one. I shared a story I wrote a long time ago that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift them up. The tone was right on. And afterward, my teacher congratulated me: “That was davvenen leadership.” It was, and I was proud.

…until I was sad. Devastatingly, crushingly sad. I figured I was just tired. It was a long day at the end of a long week. Where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me. The seed was still there, ready to burst, the stem threatening to crack everything open. I remembered all the moments in previous leadership roles when I so desperately needed to tell my story, and chose not to. When I felt the tears welling up during a group song circle, I realized that 1am was not a great time to analyze my feelings, and I decided to go to bed. A friend stopped me on the way to my room and offered to listen, but I was too drained to tell the story in the moment. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.

I knew something was up when I didn’t feel better in the morning. I went to shacharit (morning) services and felt tears pulsing behind my eyes the entire time. A friend approached me during breakfast and asked how I was doing. I said that I was having a tough morning and was going to sit in the sanctuary for awhile to cool off. She offered to join me, with no pressure to share anything. I said yes.

When we were alone, she asked what was wrong and I decided to explain everything. She acknowledged that I did make the right choice in the moment, and then pointed out that this was a different moment. She asked if she could hear the story I didn’t tell the night before. At first I hesitated, but I saw that she meant it. So I let the seed crack open.

Once I started talking, I stopped crying. When I finished, I felt lighter. Another friend had joined us in the meantime, and he offered to hear it too. I shared the story again. The stem began to bud. My friend pointed out that if I felt lighter every time I told it, it was a good thing I didn’t tell it all at once. Now I could experience the lightness and the bloom over and over again. I had no idea how much I needed to tell that story, but I’m so grateful that I finally did.

I still think this is a story I’d like to tell the kahal at some point, because it’s part of who I am, and I want my sacred community to know about this part of my journey. But my holy teachers were right about reading the room and responding. And in the meantime, I learned an important lesson about vulnerability and openness. Next time, I’ll plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” I was open when I chose to share a lighter experience on Saturday night. I was vulnerable when I shared with my friends the next day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to do both, but I’m learning every day.

Where do untold stories go? Do we bury them like sacred texts? Do the stories turn into seeds underground?  As leaders, we have countless opportunities to lean into vulnerability. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I learned, even soil needs soil sometimes.

That My Mouth May Declare Your Praise

Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. Today I learned the horrifying history behind a blessing I have enjoyed for many years – one that Jews sing before entering the silent, standing prayer (amidah) in our prayer services.

hebtfilah1

God, open my lips,
that my mouth may declare Your praise.

This line from Psalm 51 serves as an entry point, often chanted many times out loud before we retreat into personal, silent meditation. I’ve always appreciated this prayer because it invites us to be present, centered, and focused, to clean out the remains of the week and to approach our prayers with gratitude. Open my lips so that I may praise. Open my heart to all that is praiseworthy within me and around me. This is the space I want to occupy before I enter the silent amidah. 

Today, I learned from Midrash Tehillim (commentary on the psalms) that Psalm 51 was spoken by King David. This is not surprising, as many of our psalms are attributed to him. However, given the intentions I bring to this blessing, I was surprised to learn of its moment of origin. This is a prayer offered to God in a moment of shame. King David has raped and impregnated BatSheva, the wife of his best friend, Uriah. He has sent Uriah to war, placing him at the head of charge, knowing that Uriah will be killed. Rather than facing Uriah, David murders him – not with his own hands, but with his decision to place him directly in danger. David murders Uriah in a way that renders him, from an outsider’s perspective, blameless.

But Nathan, a prophet who serves King David, sees exactly what has happened, and is not afraid to face him. In 2 Samuel, Nathan approaches David with a parable. The story says:

“When [Nathan] came to David, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as God lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

Nathan tells David that God will punish David and his family for these evil actions – for taking BatSheva and murdering Uriah, even though David has more wealth and power than he will ever need. Hearing this, David is horrified and he composes and sings Psalm 51, a prayer that begs God for mercy. The statement that opens our silent meditation, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your glory” is line 15 of Psalm 51.

All my praying life, I have been approaching silent communion with the Divine with this line, sung by a rapist and murderer who has just realized that he is a monster. It’s even possible that David is only begging for mercy because he knows that God will punish him, instead of praying from a place of true remorse. What does this mean about the placement of this line in our daily liturgy?

I’ll admit that my first instinct was to drop the blessing entirely from my own practice. How can I echo David’s words knowing the context in which he spoke them? I reminded myself that as clergy, my job will be to support others in discovering how these and other verses are applicable to our lives today, but I was still frustrated that I’ve been singing these lines for so many years without knowing why.

Then I remembered how powerful this prayer has been for me – when I sing this line, it grounds me in the present, preparing me to praise, instead of losing myself in frustration about what might have been, and anxiety about what might come next. Grounding in the present is a lesson in humility – we can acknowledge the past, but we can’t change it, and we have limited control over the future. All we really have is this moment.

David prays Psalm 51 in a moment of humility as well. Realizing what he has done, he approaches God and says “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” He acknowledges his actions, and asks God for help anyways. “God, open up my lips so that I may declare Your praise,” says “God, I really screwed up. I know I can’t change what I’ve done, but I can ask You to open my lips to praise You.”

It is really hard to face the truth when we have screwed up. If I dig beneath the surface, I realize that my urge to cut this blessing from my own practice comes from a place of fear. “Well I’m not a rapist and a murderer, so why should I pray like one?” I don’t have to pray like David, but I do have to pray like me. And I don’t want to face my flaws any more than David wanted to face his. Maybe that’s the reason for this line’s placement in our liturgy. It’s a reminder to acknowledge how human we are when we approach That which is Larger than Us.

Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. And if I’m afraid of what I’ll find there, there’s a good chance it’s something I need to face after all. “Adonai, s’fa tai tiftach” is  a reminder to recognize our flaws and to pray from a place of honesty – Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we are human. And yes, we still need reminders that the world is worthy of praise.

 

Reflections on SmichaWeek18

And with that, my first rabbinical intensive has ended. I’m at the airport and am slowly reentering the rest of my life. I haven’t touched work email in over week. I ignored personal business emails for over a week too. Last Friday I was at Kesem spending time with children I’ve known for eight years. This past Friday I was at Shabbat dinner with another community, newer to me, but also precious. It’s hard to find the words for what this week meant to me. So I’m going to start with what I learned, and see where it takes me.

1. I am not alone. I am supported by an incredible community of fellow students, travelers, and seekers, who share my values and who are not afraid to have hard and important conversations. They are invested in my journey, and I am invested in theirs.

2. “We will build this world from love.” I felt fantastic potential in the people around me this week. We are going to change the world, and we are going to do it together with caring communities from all faith, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

3. My fellow seekers are extraordinarily talented. I am humbled in the presence of people who come to this space with so much knowledge and experience, and who are still open to continue learning along with me.

4. “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” I am blessed with phenomenal teachers and mentors. So many inspiring educators and role models in this program!

5. Skills! I learned a new way of teaching Torah this week and I can’t wait to try it out in Hillel. I also learned a new way of engaging big feelings about painful issues, and I’m looking forward to using it in my own life, as well as in conversations I facilitate with others.

6. I am ready to learn how to build an inspiring prayer experience. I was so moved by the beautiful shacharit, mincha, and maariv services this week (morning, afternoon, evening). The voices rising together, the power of our dancing, the joy and pain, wonder and stillness – such glorious elevation. The Saturday morning Torah service pulled me out of my life and into the story in a way that I’d never experienced before, and will never forget. Just like I won’t forget the power of the healing service my friends led for one of our fellow seekers on Tuesday night. What we summoned, created, and experienced was bigger than each of us alone.

7. I am way better at dealing with conference FOMO than I used to be. I skipped several mincha prayer services and went to bed earlier than some of the others – and I have no regrets. It was the right choice, each time. This used to be really hard for me, so I’m proud of myself for moving beyond my need to be everywhere at all times.

8. I learned that I can be present and at peace during a very busy week. I had no idea that some part of me knows how to stay calm, without getting swept up into the madness of what’s happening next and what’s happening after that. My re-entry goal is to learn how to bring these feelings of peace, wholeness, and connection along with me, even when my inbox is exploding and urgency is tugging at my sleeve. I will be more effective if I’m approaching tasks from the contemplative, authentic, and playful energy I felt within and around me this week. I felt it even though most of our days started at 6:30am, included six hours of classes and many more hours of discussion, and continued until midnight. I’ve proven to myself that I can do it now. I’m going to remember that for my next intensive, and for the work week ahead of me.

With that kavanah (intention) in mind, I am going to head off now to check work email and to get the inbox in some kind of order before tomorrow. More reflections are coming later, I’m sure – and in the meantime, I am so grateful. I didn’t know how much I needed this, I am thrilled to be part of this community, and I am grateful to work for an organization that supports my participation in continued growth and learning.   Sending hugs to all of you as we continue to build this world from love 

unRevelation

On Shavuot 2016, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. It’s the end of one long journey and the start of another. We observe our years of wandering in the desert by counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. After our freedom from slavery, after all of the wandering, we are finally able to own that freedom at Mt. Sinai, becoming a people at last.

The day after Shavuot 2016, and the day after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I was driving to work, stuck in traffic as always, crying as I listened to the story of the massacre on NPR. It was Virginia Tech, it was Sandy Hook, it was every other communal tragedy that affected me on a personal level. A voice inside rose like smoke from a flame: I want to be a rabbi. I tried to shrug it off. I have to be a rabbi. While this may not have been an answer for the world, at the very least, in the moment, it felt like an answer for me.

It’s hard to articulate why the Pulse Nightclub shooting inspired this epiphany. Maybe I felt like I had to do something, anything to heal this shattered world. Even though I know it’s impossible, I also knew I had to try, and this was the best I could offer. Maybe this was my Shavuot becoming, my revelation at the foot of the great mountain. Maybe it was just a feeling, a sudden knowing, and I don’t need to find words, or reasons, for everything.

Today, we enter the Shabbat before Shavuot in the wake of another mass shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 children were murdered. We received 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai, including the injunction, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew word ratzach, which means to murder or slay, shares a root with the word retzach, which means shattering. Moses shattered the tablets when he found that the Israelites had created a Golden Calf, an idol, while he was at the top of the mountain receiving Torah for the first time. How many lives are shattered when one is lost? How many commandments are broken when 10 children are murdered at school? The numbers pound in my head with my broken heart: 49 lives lost in Orlando, following the 49 days of the Omer. 10 children killed before we celebrate the 10 commandments. Mishnah Sanhedrin says whoever destroys a soul destroys a whole world. So many worlds, days, stone tablets, lives: all gone forever.

I have two semesters of rabbinical school behind me, and many more ahead. I still don’t know how to respond to violence. I can dissect the Hebrew word that means “to murder,” and I can connect the number of children killed with the number of commandments on the tablets. But in the days following this horrific tragedy, I doubt the smoke from a flame will again rise within me, that voice that urged me to follow another path in the aftermath of Orlando. I never did find an answer for myself, even though others in the world turn to me in moments of crisis. I teach them to sit with the unanswered questions. If there is a voice in the aftermath, it will not have an answer. It will be a sob, or perhaps a wailing, a recognition that the shattering never stopped, that we are still, after all, in the wilderness. We are here, waiting for a leader to descend the mountain. We are scrambling to hide the Golden Calf we built out of fear. We are still grieving the first set of stone tablets, the broken ones, searching for their message in the silence that follows the gun shots. We do not know if revelation is coming, only that the broken commandments cannot be reforged. If we want to bring about revelation, we must build new tablets together.

Heather Paul – May 18, 2018, copyright

Invitation

When I say “Let’s get coffee,”
What I mean is “Let’s have a real conversation.”
When I say “How are you?” I’m asking for the truth
Even if you don’t think I want to hear it.
When I say “What have you been up to lately?”
I want you to tell me about the story you’re writing with your life.
I want the good, the bad, and the existential.
I want to know where you come from,
And how that affects where you’re going.
I want to know what moves you.
I want to know what’s holding you back.
“Let’s go for a walk” means “I care about you,”
And that means *all* parts of you.
“Can we catch up sometime?” means I’ve been thinking about your story
And I want to receive the next chapter.
Your trust is a gift and I’m so grateful for it.
Please tell me more.
I want to hear you. I want to be with you.
My heart is open.
Let me pull you in.

History of Loneliness

History of Loneliness

 

In a beginning, there was nothing. Then, God said.

There were light and trees and oceans and horizons,

and there was Adam.

 

God said everything into existence,

Those that missed something nonexistent no longer suffered.

 

Darkness was lonely, and there was fire.

The trees were despondent, there was shade.

Adam was aching. God said. And there was Eve.

God said “This is very good.” And it was.

 

But soon, Adam and Eve realized they missed the longing they’d felt without each other.

They built a fire, darkness disappeared,

and when the fire sputtered out, darkness became even louder,

thicker than before the first flame.

 

When Eve ate the fruit, and offered it to Adam,

they were sent out of Eden.

And the first people on the planet felt another kind of longing,

called: homesickness.

 

Ever since then, people have been obsessed with the notion of home,

and the notion of emptiness,

not to mention God.

 

You see, in a beginning,

God didn’t know that people could long for nothing,

could court nothing, could fall in love with absence.

 

So God filled God’s world with endless somethings

that begat more somethings,

and each something found a longing inside

that no other something could fill.

 

They say God’s light was a vessel that splintered

into millions of pieces.

We are glittering fragments, trying to heal the world

by finding light in each other.

We are drawn to glowing, because we are drawn to God.

 

They also say that God didn’t create the world,

but is creating the world,

so we are constantly repairing and shattering,

and repairing again.

 

It wasn’t the beginning,

it was a beginning,

and it was an ending.

It was the end of nothing.

 

– Heather Paul, 2007

Theme and Variation on Goodbye

 

Written in 2007, this piece returns to me every year with graduation. Re-reading it has become another part of the ritual. Enjoy!

I didn’t realize graduation was coming until I discovered I would miss the last Hillel Shabbat celebration of the school year. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the day of rest that starts at sundown every Friday, and ends Saturday night. I count the passing weeks and years with the coming and going of this holiday. The best part is that even when it ends, I look forward to it, since it arrives every week. These rituals are part of my mental calendar, like graduation, the first day of school, the steady cycles of winter, spring, and summer break. The last Shabbat of the school year is one of my favorite celebrations. We look back at the week, and the year behind us, we bid farewell to our graduates, and we welcome the new staff of Hillel interns. We do not meet again until fall. My very last “Final Shabbat” will be next year, after I finish my masters program. Still, I was upset when I found out the conference I’m attending in Virginia coincides with this year’s celebration.

I’m trying to cobble together a story based on the graduations and goodbyes I’ve known, the see-you-tomorrow goodbyes, and the forever goodbyes. I never want anything to end, but eventually, everything does. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that no school year is like the one before it. Our lives are marked by change, the comings and goings of seasons and friends. Ever since my friend died, not long after he graduated in 2005, goodbyes have felt like little deaths. At graduation, he promised he’d visit in the fall. Goodbyes can be betrayals, when sudden absence replaces a promised return.

At Shabbat services, we need a minyan – a group of at least 10 people – to ritually call each other to prayer. We can call ourselves to prayer without 10 people, but we need a congregation to call to each other. This emphasis on the congregation means every Friday night feels different, yet the same: we sing the same songs, but they differ, depending on who is singing. After five years of greetings and goodbyes, Hillel holidays, and weekly services, the room is heavy with missing voices. I might be surrounded by people I love, but a silence accompanies every song. Memories wander inside, sometimes unsolicited, when we open the door to welcome Shabbat.

For a long time, I was obsessed with photographing doorways and windows. It started when I had only a few weeks left at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where I worked as a tour guide and historical re-enactor during summer 2005. I took pictures of the view though the door at Washington’s Headquarters, and through the window of the fee booth. There was nothing particularly beautiful outside. I’d just grown accustomed to it, and somewhere along the line I decided that this is what “home” is all about – it’s the part of you that opens into morning light, the door that closes when it’s time to say goodbye.

We are always leaving, arriving, and leaving again. Shabbat comes every week, and each school year has its end. But somehow, when it’s The Last Time, the most mundane activities become sacred: “The Last Midnight Safeway Shopping Spree,” “The Last Dumpster Dive,” “The Last Bluebook Exam.” We cannot look forward without looking back. The Last leans on the time before the last, the final hinges on the first. We create histories, even where none exist.

By mid-June, I will have witnessed five years of college commencements, and this would have been my fifth “Final Shabbat.” Still, no matter how I’ve tried to knit my farewells, to force my Valley Forge and graduation goodbyes to speak to each other, it never quite works. My loved ones leaving this year will take their place alongside my other memories. The memories will find me at Hillel, or at a favorite coffee shop. They will tap me on the shoulder when I least expect it, but these goodbyes, like the previous ones, defy the notion that it will all be ok. Some people have been whirlwind friends – in and out of my life before I knew what changed me. Others will be in my life, in some way, for a long time.

I accept the stories people tell each other – that all endings are beginnings, that it’s better to “live in the moment” than to live looking backward. But the real impossibility of goodbye is that although the door has closed, there is no immediate emotional closure. I still feel pangs of absence in the presence of memory. When the silences announce themselves, it’s difficult to accept that the “beauty of the moment” cancels the sudden loss. Yet, I can’t deny that I’m grateful for voices that enriched my life when I heard them, week after week. Saying goodbye, then, is another ritual. Instead of coming every Friday night, school ends every year, and everything changes. Despite the discomfort, the end reminds me that I’m still living through it, and that another beginning will come.

 

Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. 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. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

Parsha Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through the burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing 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.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says 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, 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 knows the sufferings 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 Rashi, God demonstrates that God is 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 says. “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 says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” I will be with you is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.

People often feel isolated when they face personal challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple students in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.

This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is a hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donnovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.

In honor of this parsha and at the start of our secular new year, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering, even if you can’t personally relate. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.

Real Estate

I wrote this seven years ago, but I’m sharing it on my blog today to honor the memory of my wonderful grandmother, Adrienne, who died this morning at the age of eighty-four. May her memory be for blessing.

It was my grandfather’s 77th birthday, and we were out to dinner at one of those restaurants where I’m always paranoid I’ll spill something. The forks were chilled. The lights were dim, and a candle in a glass dish flickered warmly on the table. We wore our most uncomfortable clothing, mostly because it makes our grandmother happy. “Don’t you look nice,” she crowed when we walked in. “It gives me so much pleasure, would it kill you to dress up like this more often?” Everyone wished my grandfather a happy birthday, and no one pointed out that this was his first birthday without his own father, who had died at the age of 105 in February.

The conversation was relatively normal, especially for my family. My brothers and I talked about school and work, and my mom talked about her students. We didn’t even argue about politics! After the server brought appetizers, my grandfather smiled, and brought up the new real estate they had purchased in Simi Valley that day. I didn’t know he was interested in buying a place, but, he liltingly explained, it was inexpensive, on the side of a grassy hill, with a great view of the mountains. They told their bridge friends all about it, so their friends could get in while the bargains were still hot.  When my grandmother described the matching headstones and coffins they’d chosen, I realized the “real estate” was a plot at a Jewish cemetery.

At this point, all other conversation died. Bits of food fell out of my brother’s mouth. I tried not to spit out my coffee. But no one could say anything before my grandmother continued.

“There’s plenty of space in the plot if any of you want to join us, when the time comes, but of course you don’t have to,” she chuckled. “We just wanted you to have the option. And there’s a pretty little bench under a tree nearby if you want to visit – not that you’d want to, because we’d be dead, but just in case.” My grandfather told us several of their bridge friends had, indeed, followed suit, purchasing their own real estate in the same cemetery. I didn’t know if I should laugh or not, as I saw coffins circling their ancient card table, in an endless game of imaginary bridge. As my grandparents giggled about their fantastic bargains at the cemetery, I decided my sense of humor is genetic.

Entrees arrived, and our laughter faded. My grandfather explained that choosing the coffins and headstone for his parents had been a miserable experience. Despite their health, they bought the real estate out of consideration for us.  “You shouldn’t make those decisions if you don’t have to,” my grandmother said. “We have a place all picked out already, no need to worry.” They took care of themselves their entire lives, and they’re used to taking care of us. Why should they approach death any differently?

My uncle, Steve, always ready to lighten the mood, announced that he wants to be cremated. We should take an urn with his ashes, and the ashes of each of his beloved cocker spaniels to Disneyland. My brothers and I promised to toss all of the ashes in the air, coming down the big hill at Splash Mountain. “Bring the photo to family gatherings. Max, Duncan, and I will always be there in spirit!”

Coincidentally, Joseph and I recently found a place to live for the fall. My grandparents found a more permanent residence. While Joseph and I will start our lives together in our new home, my grandparents’ real estate is the last home they will ever share. Despite these differences, we’re both preparing to transition. There’s no way of knowing what comes next, in life, or in death, and in the face of immense, unpredictable change, we seek stability, however illusory, in our respective real estate.

Why do we want places to represent stability or permanence? A headstone is just a rock. My grandmother was right – why visit? They won’t be there! But the headstone is not for her. Physical markers like headstones and houses are for the living. Both are coat racks for our recollections. We only access the past in cemeteries, but a home can also house future memories. “Real Estate” is more permanent than an anniversary, a memory, or even a photograph, but it also reminds us of the inherent impermanence and instability of life.

The strange collision between past and present makes me laugh, and feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s the grassy courtyard we’ll share with other apartment tenants, or the side of a grassy hill with a bench nearby, these are spaces where we can gather and remember. The house and headstone are also places where I can process that collision, where beginning and end are inseparable. Life necessitates death, moving in necessitates moving out. The sadness of death affirms that life was beautiful. Even though our family dinner conversation was macabre, we couldn’t help but have a wonderful time talking about death. Whether it’s a home, a meal, a memory, or a gravestone, sharing them is what’s important. Regardless of the space itself, it helps to have someone to move in with.


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