Illuminate the World: a Peace Prayer

God, You scattered the divine sparks 
so that we may find them in each other,
but sometimes, we forget to look. 

We are Your glittering fragments,
Your shards, Your stars. 
We stand here before You, 
ready to gather the sparks, 
ready to illuminate the world
like One holy campfire. 

We may be scattered, shattered
but we will glow together, grow together,
we will see each other’s shine

and maybe then, dear God,
we will finally be ready
for peace. 

Barukh Atah Adonai, mevarech et kol ha’olam b’shalom 
Blessed are You, God, who blesses the world with peace.

Shelters (in Place): a Pandemic Sukkot

Sukkot, the joyous Festival of Booths, started last night – five days after Yom Kippur. We face our mortality on Yom Kippur each year, and this year’s Yom Kippur was even more existential than usual. Sukkot always comes on Yom Kippur’s heels, and it makes sense: After we face our mortality, Sukkot is a celebration of the temporary. We are each getting closer to death every day. So we sit, eat, sleep, and pray in huts that we build with meticulous care and then tear down one week later. Like our lives right now – these huts are anything but stable. They only have three walls, and by law, we must be able to see the sky through its roof made of branches. If Yom Kippur’s message is “We are going to die, and that’s terrifying,” Sukkot’s message is “We are going to die, so let’s celebrate while we can.” The five days between the two are a path paved with meaning. If we find meaning in the days we have left, we can celebrate them, even – or especially – if we don’t know how many more we’ve got

This is a hard Sukkot for many of us because it’s a lonely one. But Sukkot teaches us that this loneliness – the loneliness of the pandemic – is also temporary. Shelter-in-Place is just another temporary shelter. We don’t know when it will end, but we have to trust that it will. “To everything there is a season,” Kohelet writes, in the book we read on this holiday. The pandemic season, the election season, the holiday season – all of it is temporary.

Tomorrow I will visit a friend’s sukkah and I will wrap myself in prayer beneath her branches. It won’t be a sukkah overflowing with friends, food, and song this year. I will be alone and masked, and I will only be there for the 20 minute time slot I booked before the next person arrives to fulfill the mitzvah. But I will be sheltered, I will be present, and I will breathe deeply. I will hold each second closely before I release it. To everything there is a season. Sukkot is a reminder that even this one can’t last forever.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sukkot Sameach. May we find meaning and joy in this season, as we celebrate all that is temporary.

Elevating Voices: Creative High Holiday Offerings

A Shofar OfferingShofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
Some prayers are spoken and some are silent. Our Amidah, our private prayer to God, is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them.

We read Hannah’s story on Rosh Hashanah. There are times when it hurts too much for me to hear it, and there are times when hearing it makes me feel less alone, and reminds me that this suffering links me to generations of ancestors who dealt with the same thing.

I was thinking about how the words of her prayers aren’t written in the text and I realized it’s because we know them by heart too. Every person who has struggled with infertility, who has miscarried, who has yearned that deeply: we know.

If you want to use this in your shul for the holidays, you’re welcome to, with attribution. The quoted pieces are from 1 Samuel. If you’re in the same place as me this year – praying with Hannah – please know that your prayers are mine as well. May the Womb of the World hear our longing this year, and may the new year bring new life to us all.

“You Can Close Your Eyes”

Thanks to Bury Me in New Jersey for interviewing me about Virtual Memory Circles, the “What Have We Lost?” video, and grief in a virtual world. Check out the podcast episode below by scrolling down to “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

The Ocean Bury Me In NJ

In this episode of the show, we speak with Steve Reiter, founder & president of the NEVER Alone Project. His organization is dedicated to helping pass legislation to change recently implemented visitor restrictions due to COVID-19. This initiative was started after his wife, Elizabeth, died alone in a Colorado hospital. Produced by Nick Rumaczyk. Theme music, "P to the A" by Anonymous Novels. 
  1. The Ocean
  2. Anthem
  3. Bury Me In New Jersey: Season 3 Trailer
  4. The Greatest Love of All
  5. St. Thomas

What Have We Lost?

On July 30, 2020, I invited people to share up to five things they’ve lost since COVID-19, in just a few words each, in observance of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Over 25 hours, 95 people shared their losses anonymously in a Google Form. These are some of the results.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. May we swiftly return to a time of life, a time of touch, and a time of healing. If the video moves you, please share.

Holding the Shattered Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

The message from our tradition is clear: Our hearts have to break. We have to feel our grief. And we do not to have experience our brokenness alone. These three weeks are a time when we can grieve with community. When we are Bein ha-Metzarim, we are like the tablets in the holy ark. We are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us.

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

Grief in the Book of Ruth: A Letter

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

Beloved, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I carry you with me, always.
Yours,

Ruth