A Chance Worth Taking: Yom Kippur Sermon, 5780

Vigil for Parkland. Photo by Jonathan Drake (Reuters).

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.

The Way Home: Rosh Hashanah 5780

When I was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, I was accepted into the Creative Writing concentration for my literature degree. I don’t know if it’s changed or not, but back then, most people didn’t get into the concentration until junior year, and some never got in at all. I was excited to workshop my poetry with other poets, and I couldn’t wait to learn with celebrated creative writing faculty.  My dream was to publish a novel or poetry collection one day, and I believed these workshops would help me make it happen. 

Kresge Bridge – Photo taken on Rosh Hashanah, 5780

The first course for the concentration started in winter quarter. It was a night class, and I remember the smell of damp redwoods on the bridge to Kresge college, the halos of lamplight in the fog. I also remember the faces of the women – they were all women – sitting around the table in that poetry workshop. One of them was always knitting, the clink of her needles punctuating her critiques. 

I did some of my best writing that quarter, but I also remember how awful it felt. How I looked up to the other writers in that workshop…and how I felt them looking down on me. I changed my words so many times attempting to win their praise. My reflective, narrative voice was too bland and status quo for the other writers. Even some of the poets I loved to read, like Mary Oliver, were written off as too predictable. 

Toward the end of the following quarter, I found myself in tears in the teacher’s office. I couldn’t explain what was wrong at first, but finally I heard myself say “I’ve changed my voice so many times, I can’t tell which voice is mine anymore.” 

Writing had always been home for me. It was my refuge, a place where I knew myself. When I felt lost, I could always write my way back. But after two quarters trying to impress the others in my workshop, home didn’t feel like home anymore. It was my house, but not my furniture, or it was like someone had come in overnight and rearranged everything, so that nothing felt familiar or true. It was worse than writer’s block. It was full on writer’s paralysis. My teacher was sympathetic and supportive. She recommended a workbook that I still love called The Artist’s Way. The exercises helped me find my true voice again, despite the noise of my nasty inner critic. The critic had always been part of me, and she probably always will be – but she had grown far louder over the course of those two workshops.

In fall of my junior year, I joined a different workshop group and I had a radically different experience. These writers lifted each other up, and focused on helping each other write from a place of authenticity, whatever that meant for each one of us. There was still plenty of critique, but it felt like something else entirely. My relationship with my voice began to heal, and writing felt like home again. I am still in touch with some of the writers from that workshop today. Shoutout to Facebook for the help with that. I’ve also become much closer with one of the women from the first two workshops, and I learned that I wasn’t the only one struggling to find my voice there. 

In the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion, Sarah expels Hagar from her home. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are bamidbar. Bamidbar means both “wilderness” and “desert” in Hebrew. Whenever anyone in the Torah is bamidbar, it means they are about to learn something about themselves – something challenging, deep, and powerful. Where was Moses when he found God in the burning bush, and learned that he would lead the Israelites out of slavery? Bamidbar. Where were the Israelites before they arrived at Mt. Sinai? Bamidbar – for forty years! If you’ve ever seen your grandparents try to give directions without GPS, you might understand why it took so long! But I digress. We had to get lost before we could find ourselves. 

During the Days of Awe, we talk a lot about tshuvah. Over time, it’s come to mean “repentance” or “atonement.” But the word itself actually means return. This is the season of returning – returning to the spark of Divine Light that lives inside each one us. Finding our way through the wilderness of our lives so that we can return to who we truly are. 

Hagar was bamidbar when she ran out of water, when she laid her son Ishmael beneath a tree because she couldn’t bear to see him die. She was exiled from her home and she felt alone and afraid. Hagar was never going to get Sarah’s approval, just like I was never going to get the approval I so desperately wanted from other writers in that workshop. Vayik-fe-kach Elohim et Ayneha – and then, God opened her eyes. Hagar saw a well. The Torah doesn’t say that God created a well. Hagar saw the well. Maybe it had been there all along, but Hagar needed help to see it. Hagar was not alone after all, and with God’s help, she returned – she found her way out of the wilderness. Sometimes, we need someone else to help us see the well that’s right in front of us. 

It’s a new Jewish year and a new school year. You have new classes, new homes, and some of you are new to UCSC. You may see all these new beginnings as an opportunity to reinvent yourselves. Maybe you want to try on a different voice, and then another, and another. Change can be exciting and scary. Face the wilderness with curiosity. Join all those student groups. Take a class in a subject you’ve never considered. This is the moment to do it. And remember, each of us has to explore our own personal wilderness before we can find the way home, before we can return to who we are. 

And when you do feel lost, when home doesn’t feel like home anymore, when you’ve lost sight of yourself – when you are bamidbar, like Hagar, Moses, and so many others before us – remember that you don’t have to find your way back alone. You can turn to a teacher or a mentor, who might recommend the right book at the right moment. You can reach out to an old friend, a partner, a parent, or God. As the new years begin, I encourage you to make a list for yourself – a list of the people you can turn to when you need to return. The ones who will hear you when you call out from your wilderness. The ones who remind you to open your eyes – because the well has been there all along. 

Shana Tova, everyone. May every journey bring you closer to the home inside of you. 

Forever Circles

We stood in a circle in the A-Frame cabin yesterday morning sharing closing reflections. Camp Erin breaks our hearts open so that we may never close them again to the love that surrounds us. As each teen shared what they would leave behind and what they would bring home with them, I felt the presence of every single teen and counselor who has stood in that circle in that cabin with me. Four years of stories, memories, laughter, and loss. Four years of growth witnessed over the 48 hours we spend together.

It’s a weekend camp, and with the exception of the few who come to my monthly grief group, I don’t see these children again afterward. But I think about them often, and I remember the gifts they’ve given me. I remember the details they share about the people they are grieving. I remember the breakthrough moments, when they realize that they are not the only one to feel guilt or anger or relief. I remember their laughter around the campfire, and their awkward flirting with the kids in the other teen cabin. My heart remembers how their heartbeats feel when they are wrapped in my arms.

Each of them stood there with me in that circle yesterday – a circle that was bigger than the cabin, bigger than the camp, bigger than four weekends over four years of love. When we stand there together, I tell them that it feels longer than a weekend because every time we spend one hour in deep relationship with someone else, it’s actually two hours – the hour you experience, and the hour the other person experiences. Time expands to make space for the relationship that grows between two people. So when you think about all of the meaningful, compassionate, deep relationships that form over that one weekend, it makes sense that 48 hours feels more like a year. Four years feels like forever. Forever feels like a memory that lives in your bones.

There’s so much love in the world, and so much loss. There’s so much beauty, truth, pain, and wonder. I’m so grateful for the spaces in my life where I get to feel it all, where I get to stand in community with others who feel it too, where my soul awakens every moment to the magic that surrounds us. At times I’m overwhelmed with uncertainty, fear, and worry about the future. Will I ever be “settled?” Will I ever find stability? Sometimes I don’t even know if stability exists. But I do know that community does. And I know that if I infuse each of my communities with love, the magic will never leave me.

Thank you to everyone who has been in the circle with me – at camps, at Hillel, and at Isabella Freedman. In coffee shops, yarn shops, and cabins, on sandy beaches and in the redwoods. Forever wouldn’t be the same without you, and I am, forever, grateful.

Heart, Soul, and Might: Parsha Va’etchanan

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

Today is: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interpretive V’ahavta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Look Away: Tisha B’Av

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

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

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

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

Facing the Giants: Parsha Shelach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Line in the Sand: Parsha Acharei Mot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

also created horizons,
roots, wings,
and twilight

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

every boundary an opportunity
to connect with something sacred

Kaddish for unCreation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revelation Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Narrows: Passover 5779

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, Everyone.

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

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