Telling Our Stories: Parsha Vayigash

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who came before him in Egypt to ask for help in the midst of famine. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Yosef’s jealous brothers cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Yosef’s brothers then lied to their father, Yaakov, saying that a wild beast killed Yosef, and they had not seen their brother since then. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is quite a dramatic story), Yosef eventually rose to a position of significant power in Egypt. When his brothers approached him in this Torah portion, Yosef was the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh had given him a new name: Tzofnat Paneach. According to some translations, Yosef’s new name meant “revealer of mysteries.”

This Yosef, this Tzofnat Paneach, whom the brothers entreated on his throne, was quite different from the Yosef who was their father’s favorite son, the Yosef they threw into the pit, and sold into slavery. This Yosef was even different from the Yosef who lived in the Egyptian prison. It’s no surprise that, although Yosef recognized them, his brother’s did not see Yosef on the face of Tzofnat Paneach, the Egyptian governor.

Yosef tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benyamin, of stealing a silver cup that Yosef planted in Benyamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Yosef threatened to enslave Benyamin. Fortunately, the brothers passed the test: Older brother, Yehuda, offered himself in Benyamin’s place, so that their aging father, Yaakov, would not have to grieve the loss of yet another favored child.

When he learned that his father was alive, the Torah says, v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek” – Yosef could not afak – contain – the secret of his identity. He asked everyone to leave besides the brothers, and he began to cry. “Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” he told them. “Ha’od avi chai?”: “Does my father still live?” When he heard about his father, Yosef remembered where he came from  – he was not only Tzofnat Paneach, governor of Egypt. He was also Yosef, the Jewish son of Yaakov and Rachel, the boy from the pit and the prison, the interpreter of dreams. When he asked “Does my father still live,” “Ha’od avi chai,” the word “od” means still, continuing, again, iteration. If his father continued, then so did Yosef. He was still, after all, himself.

His brothers were frightened and could not answer him, worried that their brother would exact revenge. But Yosef was not angry – they passed the test and showed that they had changed. Come near me, I pray you, Ani Yosef,” he said again. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He explained that they should not worry, saying that God sent him to Egypt to ensure their safety during these years of famine. He told his brothers everything that had happened since they sold him into slavery, and Yosef sent them back home with food and other provisions, so that the brothers could return with their father and the rest of the family.

“Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” appeared twice within a few lines of this story. Why did he say his name more than once? Maybe the brothers were disbelieving, and Yosef wanted to prove his identity, explaining that he was, in fact, their brother, whom they sold into Egypt. Or maybe it was because Yosef was reclaiming his own identity. It’s significant that Yosef could not afak, he could not contain Yosef, once he learned that his father was alive, even though he rose to power under a new name, Tzofnat Paneach.

It’s also significant that Yosef told his story as one of triumph, in which God had sent him to Egypt to save his family, instead of a story of victimhood, in which his abusive brothers sold him into slavery. Both of these things were parts of Yosef’s truth. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t have a purpose – it just sucks. And part of me wants Yosef to be really angry about what happened to him. And maybe he was. But in telling his story, Yosef had a triple revelation. First, he revealed his identity to his brothers, then he revealed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, and the resulting third revelation was the most powerful of all: Yosef revealed his own truth to himself. After everything that happened, his father was still alive, and he was still Yosef.

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? What does Yosef’s story teach us about our own stories, about our own hidden traumas, our own pits and prisons?

Yosef tried to keep his identity a secret, but eventually, he remembered who he was, and he could not contain it any longer. By revealing himself, the story Yosef told became something that happened through him, instead of something that happened to him; the trauma of the pit and the prison became part of a larger narrative that led to Yosef’s ultimate success. When he remembered where he came from, Yosef and Tzofnat Paneach, the boy from the pit and the governor of Egypt, became one, so that Yosef could reunite with his father once again.

There are many lessons we can pull from this Torah portion, but in the week to come, I challenge you to reveal one part of yourself that’s hidden, to reclaim just one part of your story by sharing it. Shape your narrative. Define your own meaning. You might be surprised to find what’s been inside of you all along.

Becoming Ourselves: Parsha Vayishlach

Gustave Doré: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)

In this week’s Torah portion, an angel comes to Jacob at night, and they wrestle until daybreak, dislocating Jacob’s hip in the fight. When the angel says “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” Jacob says “I will not let you go until you have blessed me.” The angel asks “What is your name?” “Jacob.” The angel says “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have power with God, and with men, and you have prevailed.” This is where Jews get one of our names – Israel, in Hebrew, Yis-ra-el – which means “wrestlers with God.”

I’ve always loved this idea that Jews are wrestlers-with-God – that we are encouraged to question, to wonder, disrupt, and struggle with all things human and Divine. But I also can’t help noticing that Jacob – and the Jews – aren’t renamed “prevails over God.” The angel says Jacob will have a new name because he has prevailed, and then renames Jacob – and all future Jews – for the wrestling. We are, from that moment forward, called strugglers-with-God.

The word that is most often translated as “you have prevailed” is “tuchal,” from the root “yachal,” which means “to prevail over, overcome, endure,” to “have power,” “be able to gain or accomplish, to have strength.” The story of overcoming struggle is wrapped in the story of the struggle itself, and in the wrestling, we become the ones who can endure.

When has one of your own struggles come to define you? Have you ever wanted to release this part of your story and redefine yourself based on something else? What about a struggle where you ultimately prevailed, as Jacob did? After you prevailed, was the struggle still part of your identity?
As we enter Shabbat, I invite us to question the personal narratives behind each identity we hold dear. Have we been shaped by our struggles, our triumphs, or both? How does your perception of the struggle change when you see it as a sacred part of who you are?
Shabbat Shalom, Everyone. May the struggles we face reveal the strength in each of us as we learn to become ourselves.

The Dancing Circle: Parsha Chayei Sarah

“Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and pull it into the dance circle.”

– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, on bringing your sadness with you 
In this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies and her son Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham, Sarah’s husband, marries a new wife named Keturah, and Abraham dies at the end of the chapter. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Isn’t it always this way? Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief.
 
In December 2015, I officiated my grandmother’s funeral the day before I officiated my brother’s wedding. Loss and love, celebration and grief, crammed up beside one another in Torah, and in life. We can try to compartmentalize; we can pretend to leave the losses behind before we jump into joyful celebration. But at the wedding it felt like she should have been there, and we danced with her memory, grateful and grieving all at once, as the night turned to morning, and a new day began.
 
The shooting last weekend took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, joy, and gratitude. A family at the synagogue had also planned a brit milah for that day, a celebration welcoming a child into the community. Trauma rends the fabric of our narrative and tells us that things are not as they seemed. Our story is disrupted, we are not as safe as we believed, we are no longer immune or invincible. We are supposed to be celebrating, but we’re grieving instead. Suddenly, we have nothing to ground us, nothing we can trust.
 
And yet, since Saturday, I’ve seen so many people congregate, bringing their sadness and joy, their anger and love, their fear, their compassion, and their hope. It’s not supposed to be like this, but here we are, with all of these raw emotions colliding, just like they did in the dancing circle at my brother’s wedding almost three years ago. And just like they did for our ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca, in this week’s Torah portion.
 
As we enter another Shabbat, the first since the tragic massacre that tore our stories apart, I invite you to fully experience and honor each of these emotions, with all of their complexity and their contradictions. And when joy and sorrow collide in the dancing circle, may your memories and community be a source of strength and healing, and may you be comforted, like Isaac, by the love that surrounds you.
 
Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May be it truly be a Shabbat of peace, love, and wholeness.

Looking Behind: Parsha Vayeira

I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I know I’m supposed to live into my uncertainty, trusting that God will meet me there. Others seem to be able to do this – they experience time as a straight line, a narrative as cool and clean as an autumn breeze. My bones have always known that time is a circle, or a spiral. We are not the wind, we are the leaves as they spin, in an endless pursuit of beginnings chasing endings.

I am Lot’s Wife. You don’t know my name because they never asked my husband. People wonder now, reading my story. Back then, they didn’t think it mattered. And even now, I’m not sure it does. I’m one line in your Bible story – “And his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” One look back. That was all it took.

You know what happened. Avraham argued with God, saying that God should spare us all if there were even 10 good people in Sodom and Gomorrah. We were judged to be the righteous few, and they told us to flee. So we did.

As it says, “God rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and God turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.”   

We were running forward but I had to look back. It was my last chance. What else could I have done? It wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and it was burning. I wasn’t perfect, but I’m only human – or was, until I became salt. Ramban wrote that I was looking to see if my daughters were following. He’s not wrong. But that’s not the whole truth either. I wanted to make sure they were with us – but I also had to say goodbye.

No one ever gets to say goodbye in the beginning. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden. Noah and his family got on the boat as the world they knew was swallowed by water. God told Avraham to leave his father’s house and his native land, to go, God says, “to a land that I will show you, to a place you do not know.” The stories of our people are marked by loss. All of them left something or someone. And yet, no one ever asks if Adam and Eve were homesick, if Avraham yearned for his father, or for the culture and religion he left behind. Did Noah dream of the people who drowned? Maybe he did…maybe not. But he trusted God. I’ve never understood it. The past is so knowable and the future, intangible. How does anyone learn to trust?

I knew I shouldn’t have done it. But time is a circle, and the leaves on the wind are torn from their limbs before they’re ready to die. This is why I needed one last glimpse of what we left behind, even as we ran forward, away from our lives, our homes, and our stories. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to everything I knew. Noah’s world was lost to the salty sea, but I’m the one who is made of salt now, dissolving at the mere touch of water.  

A Letter to my Almost Child

The envelope with the letter I carried in my backpack for two weeks, across the country and back, unopened until today.

The first time I saw you, you were nothing but light.

We were in the ER because we were worried about you. I’d had an allergic reaction and even though I was mostly fine, everything mattered more with you inside of me.

The doctor told me that we may not be able to see you, because you were only seven weeks old at the time. But we watched the screen, breathless, until the doctor said “Your baby is safe. That flickering light? It’s your baby’s heartbeat.”

Heartbeat. My body created a heartbeat and now it had two hearts.

A voice rose inside me like smoke from a flame: “All this time, you were capable of creating this miracle? I’m so sorry.” My eyes burned. So many years of pushing my body to the breaking point. So many years begging my body to be thinner, stronger, better. I had no idea what it meant to create life with my body, to create a heartbeat that depended on my own. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my own voice repeated within me. I didn’t know you could make miracles or heartbeats that flicker. I love you. You’re perfect. Thank you. Gratitude, at last, for this body, this baby, the miraculous light inside.

Four weeks later, the spotting started. At first, I was confused. Spotting? What? Googling. Could be normal. 11 weeks pregnant, almost 12. It happens to some people. Really, it could be nothing. But it could be everything. Blood test #1. Waited all weekend. More spotting. Probably nothing. No need to jump to conclusions. No need to ask what if. No one needs to know.

Finally it was Monday. Blood test #2. When will the results come in? This afternoon. I refreshed the browser. Again again again. Could be nothing. Cramping, bleeding, but maybe it’s nothing. They say this happens sometimes. Results came late at night. HCG levels dropped in half. In half. Didn’t the doctor say a drop meant something is wrong? My heart sank. Something must be wrong. This isn’t nothing. I am not ok. What do we do? Should we go to the ER? We called the advice line. “Could be normal,” she said. “It’s almost second trimester, after all. HCG levels drop at the second trimester. Only way to know for sure is an ultrasound.” Why didn’t they have me get an ultrasound to begin with? Ultrasound was scheduled for Thursday. I called the next day and moved it to Tuesday, their first available appointment. At least if there’s something wrong, I’ll be able to go to camp and my brother’s wedding in September. At least we know we can get pregnant. At least.

On Tuesday, I wanted to see your flicker on the screen again, to know you were safe. It was the moment I’d envisioned so many times: the ultrasound picture. Holding hands and waiting to see. Except it was different now, the anticipation mixing with dread. I saw you, and you were nothing but light. A crescent moon against the dark sky of my womb. So small, and this time there was no flicker.

I read the radiologist’s face. He was trying to figure out how to tell us. I know what it’s like to tell someone that someone they love has died, so I helped him out.

“I started bleeding on Friday. My HCG levels dropped. We know something might be wrong.”

He let out a breath. “Yeah…I’m not really getting a heartbeat…” Beat. Heart. Beat. I’m not really getting a. At least we know. No more uncertainty.

“Its size is about nine weeks, and you said you’re at twelve,” he said.

 “Is that when it died? Nine weeks?” I’m not really getting a heartbeat.

We were still holding hands. We found the tissues. The radiologist stepped out to give us some space. I called my mom. When the doctor came in, I asked what will happen next, since this dead thing was still inside of me. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Most conceive again and have a healthy child.”

My OB called me later that night. The next available appointment for a D&C was the following Tuesday. My womb would be your coffin for a week, unless my body chose to release you on its own. My OB tried to be helpful. “At least we know you can get pregnant. This happens to a lot of people. One in four.” ONE IN FOUR?! I was shocked. Why doesn’t anyone talk about it? I’m not really getting a heartbeat. I’m not really.

Sunday night I was in the worst pain of my life. It woke me up at 1am. I’d been sleeping a lot. My body was confused and sore. I doubled over, it hurt so much. Within hours, you were outside of me, over a week after you started to leave me. My body was different. Lighter, because it was empty. I was no longer carrying something dead inside of me. At the ultrasound appointment on Tuesday, they gave me medication to clear out anything that was left. At least I didn’t need the D&C. At least.

“You will probably feel the hormonal change,” they told me. “And some grief.” They offered resources. They were so kind. I thought about the medical students I know, as the residents answered my questions. I know a lot about grief. And I know a lot about hormonal depression. I don’t know anything about this empty space. I know that I want it to be over.

My body wasn’t ready to release you completely. For a full two months after that, I bled pieces of you. I bled the emptiness you left behind. I bled the lining from my womb that became a coffin. You took so much of me with you when you died.

I went to work the next day. I kept up with my rabbinical studies. I was fine, I said. I even believed it. We grieved on the first day, and I grieved with dear friends who came to visit, and then I told myself I was done. I gave a presentation in my history class the weekend after we found out. Studying Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was an unbelievable blessing, getting to know a rebbe who taught that suffering can be transformed into meaning, and that meaning can become joy. 

And then your almost-birthday was approaching. Your projected due date fell on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world, the Jewish New Year. It’s also when we read the story of Hannah for the haftarah portion – Hannah, who was barren, and cried and prayed for a child until God gave her one. Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, I was at grief camp, supporting a cabin of teen girls who transformed in 48 hours, from closed to open, their light shining through as their stories unfolded.  They were writing letters to the people in their lives who had died, and I was seized with an urge to write to you. The harder I tried to ignore this desire, the more I wanted to do it. The words tumbled out in 25 minutes, covering two and a half pages. I don’t remember writing any of it – all I know is that I had to write, so I did.

So hineini, here I am, on Rosh Hashana, revisiting what I wrote, in a coffee shop of course, remembering, and sad, but grateful too. I’m not sure how to miss you because I never met you. But some part of me knew you, and all of me learned from you, because your heartbeat lived with mine. You were only with me for twelve weeks, and yet you alone could teach me the miracle of my own body, the wonder and awe, the mystery of my own power to create the light and the life I saw, flickering on that screen the first time I met you.

If you taught me something this enormous after only twelve weeks, I can’t imagine what I might have learned if you had lived. I can’t wait to find out what I will learn from the next life that grows inside me.

The first time I met you, you were nothing but light. You were amazing, extraordinary. I already loved you. And now that you’re gone, I can’t ever thank you for using the twelve weeks of your own life to teach me something about mine.

I’ll never forget that, my flicker, my heartbeat. And even when (or if) I’m fortunate enough to have children, I will never forget you.

Happy New Year to the life that’s no longer inside me. And to all of the life that’s yet to come.

With love,

Your Almost Mom

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