“If I Ever Stop:” An Autumn Poem

Since it’s the autumn equinox, I thought I’d take the opportunity to (re)share why my Kesem/MMFC name is Autumn. The leaves undergo a tremendous change during the autumn season, and they look beautiful while they’re changing. I chose Autumn because I wanted my name to remind me that change can be beautiful. This is also the reason behind the name of my website, my Instagram (scatteredleaves322), and my Twitter handle (@scatteredleaves). I also chose “Autumn” because it was a theme I wove through my second-favorite poem I’ve ever written (below), which I read as a speaker at my college graduation in 2006. The poem also focuses on change, and it’s dedicated to the wanderers, everywhere ❤

If I Ever Stop

if I ever stop wandering…
then I’ll be lost,” you said.

it was three in the morning
when every
word
bears false importance.

sentences drifted through our lips
like cigarette smoke
we spoke like it was the last time
and maybe it was because we were students
living in a universe-city
where brilliance thrives
on crowded streetcorners

you were going to write a road novel
you didn’t have a driver’s license, but poetic license was enough
you built your own road out of paragraphs
and we gathered free verse like wildflowers
blooming stubbornly in gritty spaces

“remember?”
“nothing is free anymore,” you sigh.
we’re so old, and I travel alone these days
filling jars with wind and colored leaves
in relentless autumns of discovery

you left the universe behind
and lost yourself in the city
where they toss people out like yesterday’s news

they sell ragged stanzas
and false importance
on the corners where life used to bloom
we never knew we’d have to pay
for free verse

the pages of your novel
are stark with winter now
I try to wrap you in a dusty book jacket
but you brush the words from your skin
forgotten lines and question marks
fall like feathers

“breathe,” I whisper.
your warmth hovers
like a sentence at dawn

when you’re ready to wander again
search for me between the wrinkled pages
I’ll be there
with an open jar
of autumn.

Thanks to everyone who rides the winds of change with me, from one season to the next. Happy Equinox, to one and all.

With everlasting love,
Autumn 🍁🍂

Contagious Hope: Yom Kippur 5782

Collecting hopes at the University of Illinois

On the Thursday before Rosh Hashana, I invited random people to share their hopes with me for two hours as I stood in the quad. I had two giant rolling corkboards with me, each with an invitation tacked to the top: Share a hope, wish, or intention for the new year. The school year just started, and the Jewish new year was about to begin. Anyone could participate in a way that was meaningful for them. 

“Do you have any hopes to share?” I called out. 

Many people did. Some people wrote specific hopes –  such as passing pre-calc. Others were more general. Some hoped for good grades, better sleep, better work life balance. An end to COVID. Health. Happiness. Self-acceptance. One person wrote “Make life-long friends and live a great life to remember.” Two people took pictures of their hopes after they wrote them down. One man wrote that he wanted health for his brother – and the world. I don’t know this man or his brother, but we prayed together for his brother’s health, right there in the quad. I hope his brother is feeling better now.

Even those who couldn’t stop to answer my question smiled as they rushed by. Some people laughed as they were on their way to class, saying “No! I’ve got none left.” “Don’t worry about it,” I called after them. “You’re not the only one!” After awhile, I began including an additional offer: “If you don’t have any hope left, come absorb some of ours!” Hope, it turns out, can be contagious.

Like just about everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contagion. In the last 18 months, many of us have learned far more about contagious diseases than we’d ever planned to. We know how vulnerable we are. We know how easy it is to transmit, carry, and catch a disease that quite literally takes your breath away. We understand, in a way that we’ve never understood before, that what’s inside of me touches what’s inside of you. That the health of one person can change the health of the world. We truly are all inter-breathing. And while that’s terrifying in the face of a pandemic, it also reminds me how intimately connected we are – by our breath, by our bodies, by the Oneness of the world.

This intimacy means we have the power to infect one another, to spread both physical and spiritual diseases. But that’s not the only option. My friend and mentor, Lee Kravetz, who is a marriage and family therapist, science journalist, and author in the Bay Area, wrote a book about social contagion, the spreading of behaviors, thoughts and emotions: “Whether it’s mirroring someone’s posture or mimicking someone else’s speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment.” 

Social contagion theory teaches us that behaviors are infectious. Emotions are viral. Even thoughts are catch-able.  How we interact with individuals impacts not only how they interact with us – but also how they interact with others, with themselves, and with the world around them. We have the ability to influence others with something as minor as a smile, or eye contact, the colors we wear, the tone of our voice, the images we post on social media. And the most remarkable thing about them? Social contagion, like physical contagion, is often completely unconscious. We pick up on cues from the world around us all the time without even noticing what it was that shifted our mood or colored our experience. More important, I find, is that we are inadvertently influencing others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well — and that includes positive cues, like hope, happiness, laughter, and benevolence. As we enter a new year – one in which we continue to fight another kind of contagion, I wonder what it would look like if we leaned into that power. How might we learn to spread the opposite of disease? Can we spread resilience instead? Or wonder? What would it look like to dedicate this year to spreading hope? 

Jewish sources include many examples of social contagion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of them are stories in which social contagion spreads for the worst – even in biblical times, bad ideas quickly went viral. Consider the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. The Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai after many years of wandering in the desert, after God freed them from slavery. Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah from God, and said that he would return in 40 days. The first emotion to spread was uncertainty. According to medieval commentator, Rashi, there was some confusion about the timing – would Moses come back on the sixteenth of Tammuz or the seventeenth? Did those 40 days include the day that Moses went up the mountain? When would Moses return? The next emotion that went viral was fear. Commentators disagree about who started spreading it, but soon, just about everyone was terrified that Moses would not return, believing instead that that God abandoned them to die in the desert. Some commentators say that Satan – yes, contrary to popular belief, Satan does appear in Jewish texts, but that’s a dvar for another day – Satan exacerbated the situation by showing the people an image of Moses, dead on the mountain, that was so real, the Israelites could reach out and touch it. 

Have you ever fallen into an anxiety spiral where the story in your head is more real than what’s in front of you? Did your fear come from a seed sewn by someone else? Many of us know what that feels like. 

You know what happens next – even Aaron, Moses’s brother, participated in building and worshipping a golden calf, a false idol. When social contagion spreads, it’s hard not to get swept up in the current. But not everyone does. Even in the story of the golden calf, the Torah noted that women refused to give their jewelry to Aaron to be melted down for the calf’s construction. And according to a midrash (a story about the Torah, which I like to call “Torah fanfiction”), the tribe of Levites also did not give in. The midrash also says that Miriam’s son, Chur, denounced those who were spreading fear – and he paid for it with his life. The angry and terrified crowd murdered him for standing up for what he believed in. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous to share a dissenting view when a social contagion is spreading. 

What about positive examples of social contagion from our tradition? Two took place at the Sea of Reeds, more commonly known as the Red Sea. A midrash teaches that when the Israelites stood before the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army behind them, one man took the first steps into the water. The man was given the name Nachshon, which comes from nachshol, “of the sea.” Nachshon faced the water, and the future, with bravery, and his courage was contagious. The others followed, and the sea split. 

After the Israelites made it to the other side and the army drowned in the waters behind them, Moses and Miriam each began to sing the song of the sea. Rashi says that Miriam thought to pack her timbrel as they were leaving Egypt because she believed so strongly in the coming redemption. When they began to sing, others joined Moses and Miriam in this joyful prayer of thanks to God.This is an example of a social contagion that started with one voice, and spread to many. And it’s a contagion of gratitude that spans the generations. This prayer is among the oldest lines of poetic verse in the Torah and they’re part of our daily liturgy. Mi Chamocha, ba’eilim Adonai? Who is like You, among the mighty, Adonai? 

A final moment to share, also from Exodus, takes place in the Torah portion we read the week after the incident with the golden calf. In Parshat Vayakhel, God tells the Israelites to build a mishkan, a sanctuary for God. “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for the Lord – gold, or silver, wool or linen, wood or oil, spices or stones, anything to make the Sanctuary more glorious for God,” said Moses. The Israelites, moved by their hearts, brought all kinds of golden objects, colorful wools, silver, copper, and acacia wood. They worked together to make the Sanctuary sacred for God. They eventually brought so many gifts that Moses had to ask them to stop. I love this contagion of giving. And I love the Israelites for how human they were. Of course they yearned deeply to give to the Holy One, to give so much that they had to be asked to stop – right after so many of them spread and gave in to the contagion of fear that led to the building of the golden calf. 

I’m sure many of us can think of contemporary social contagions, both negative and positive. Today I’m going to consider just one example from this summer. When celebrated Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, decided to withdraw from the 2021 individual all-around competition to protect her mental health, her decision set a wave in motion. “I say put mental health first,” Biles said. “Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” We’re just going to sit with that for a moment. Such a powerful statement about what matters most. Afterward, although a few commentators accused Biles of being a “quitter,” Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health was generally widely praised and credited with starting a wider conversation about the role of mental health in sports. Other gymnasts relayed their own stories of struggle as a result of her sharing. Biles sent a message to all of us about the power of prioritizing health over performance. Before she withdrew from the competition, Twitter celebrated the gymnast’s excellence in her sport by creating a Simone Biles emoji that appeared whenever someone used the #SimoneBiles. After she withdrew, people continued to use that emoji, along with another hashtag: #mentalhealthfirst. Simone Biles taught us all that this is what excellence looks like. 

The ideas we share, the emotions we express, the stories we tell ourselves and others, all have the power to spread. Will we spread fear and distrust this year, building more false idols? Or will we spread something different, building a sanctuary of healing with our words, our hopes, and our actions? 

I want to clarify that I’m not encouraging anyone to spread toxic positivity – to “just be positive” in the face of suffering. Pretending that things are ok, when they’re not, is another form of idol worship at a time when the truth demands to be seen. Let’s be honest about the threats of our world, but let’s think about how we respond to them. One of my other mentors, Josh Feldman, says that “Our daily experiences are a laboratory for the invention of the future.” When we are in a lab, trying to create the next great invention, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. The data we collect from each experiment, even the failed ones, help us decide what to try next. We are not here to deny the darkness. We are not here to ignore the facts. We are here to decide what to do with them. 

What if the Israelites had approached their fear with curiosity and honesty while Moses was on the mountain? “Wow,” one might have said to the other. “I’m really scared right now. I’m not sure when Moses is coming back and I’m having a hard time trusting that we will be safe in the future.” That’s a truth worth sharing. “I’m afraid too,” the other might have responded. “Thank you for telling me. I’m grateful to know I’m not alone.” Vulnerable sharing, supporting one another, and speaking from your own experience, are also contagious behaviors. That might have been a better response to the facts of their fear.

The new year has begun and there’s still a lot of darkness around us. From the ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus contagion to the horrific effects of climate change, gun violence, and systemic oppression.The pandemic taught us that the health of one person can change the health of the world. Social contagion theory teaches, and our Torah shows us, that the hope, courage, voice, and generosity of one person can change the world too. 

So I return to the question I posed at the beginning: What will you spread this year? How will you respond to the darkness? And how will you model what you want to see in your community when you show up as part of it? 

Anne Lammott writes, “Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty.” This year, spreading hope, wonder, or resilience may be a small act of bravery for you, an attempt to plot a better course, even when you feel the current pulling in another direction. Maybe it feels like a radical act, taking a bold step into the sea of your uncertainty, like Nachshon, or bringing the timbrel with you, like Miriam, because some part of you believes redemption is possible. Maybe you’ll put your mental health first and inspire others to do the same, like Simone Biles. Maybe yours will be the voice that encourages others to join the song. 

Two weeks ago, I stood on the quad and invited strangers to share their hopes with me. I’m going to conclude this part of our service by inviting you to do the same. What do you hope for this year? For yourself, for your community, and for the world – call it out. 

Thank you everyone. May we carry these hopes in our hearts and into the world, and may we be blessed with the courage to bring them to life. 

I ended this sermon with the song, “One Voice,” by the Wailin’ Jennys. I encourage you to listen to it now.

Creative High Holiday Offerings

For my friends and colleagues who are preparing and want to add something new…or for those who simply enjoy reading original liturgy, here are some creative offerings.

Rosh Hashanah

A Shofar Offering – Shofar’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
This is a prayer from the perspective of Hannah, whose story we read in the haftarah on Rosh Hashana. 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.

Yom Kippur

Yearning to be Known – UnknowableUnknowable with visuals
God is unknowable, but here’s what I know: God yearns to be known. This is a poem about God. It’s meaningful for year-round, but one of the lines is “God is asking for our forgiveness on Yom Kippur.” I’m using it as an entry point to the Amidah.

A Forgiveness Prayer – Held in the Brokenness
This prayer focuses specifically on repeat mistakes – the things we find ourselves returning to, year after year, no matter how we try.

A Different Kind of Vidui Vidui for God (2021)
My friend, Geo, and I were both struggling with the concept of more repentance this year, despite having many things to repent for – so we dug into the pain and co-wrote a new Vidui for God. Bold move? Yes. But as Hila wrote, Jewish rebukes of God have a long history. Thank you so much to Ritualwell for publishing ours.

“The High Holiday season can be an intense time of self-reflection, as we look inward to see where we have missed the mark this past year. But after a year of pandemic, fires, hurricanes and global instability, how harsh must we be toward ourselves? Don’t we need a larger dose of compassion than self-flagellation this year? A Vidui for God (2021),” Heather Paul and Geo Poor turn the tables on this traditional prayer and boldly demand that God hold Godself accountable for the ways in which God has let us down. While this Vidui may appear sacrilegious to some, it is situated within a long history of Jewish rebukes of God, from the ancient prophets onward, and can help give expression to our deepest frustrations in our relationship to the divine.”

At Any Time

A Caregivers Prayer
I’m using this to honor caregivers – especially those working in medicine over the last two years – during Yizkor. It would also work well as part of a misheberach.

Illuminate the World: A Peace Prayer
I’m using this along with Oseh Shalom after the Amidah.

Prayer for Entering Recovery
I’m including this in my written materials for personal reflection – because you never know who needs it.


I would love for you to use any of my original liturgy and poetry. If you are not sharing people’s names for attribution during the service, because it feels stilted or it breaks up the flow of the experience, I would appreciate having my name listed in any written materials, ideally along with my website: scatteredleaves.net. I would also love to hear what you end up using! There is nothing more rewarding for me as a liturgist than knowing that my liturgy made an impact. Thank you!

Podcast Interview: Trans-Affirming Hebrew Name Change Ritual

In the Torah, names are powerful and signify moments of transformation. Our Jewish ancestors Avraham, Sarah, and Yisrael each received new names as part of their journeys.

As a child, Spencer Kaseff struggled with self-loathing. Assigned female at birth, but unsure of his gender identity, Spencer was deeply sensitive and spent a lot of time alone. But in December of 2019, Spencer left that part of his life behind during a Hebrew renaming ritual.

This episode is a conversation between Andy Anderson (they/them), Spencer Kaseff (he/him), and Heather Paul (she/her) about Spencer’s emotional renaming ritual that was performed at Hillel International’s Global Assembly in 2019.

“There’s a need for transgender Jews to receive new Hebrew names as much as new secular ones, but very few resources exist for transgender renaming rituals. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, calling a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by as much as 65%. In Judaism, we can take a step toward inclusion by honoring and celebrating the journeys of transgender Jews through Jewish renaming.” -Heather Paul

Want to watch the video or view a ritual template for your own use? Check it out on Ritualwell. Thanks to Andy for interviewing us – and thank you to Spencer…for everything ❤

A Springboard Farewell

This is the message I posted on social media to say goodbye – and to say thank you – to the Springboard community. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe it. My heart is open and I want to pull the whole world in.

*~*Life Update!*~* After four and a half years teaching new Hillel professionals on Team Springboard, I will be leaving my role as Springboard Assistant Director on June 23rd. But don’t worry – I won’t be going too far! I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Illini Hillel as their Senior Jewish Educator, starting virtually on July 1 and in-person in August. Joining the team at Illini Hillel represents a wonderful next step in my growth at Hillel as an educator and “erev rav” (rabbi-to-be). While I am sad to leave Springboard, I am excited to continue our relationship. I can’t wait for our paths to cross again, both virtually and in person.

Fellows and alumni: It has been an absolute honor and joy to partner, learn, and grow with you. I am so proud to have been a part of your individual journeys, as well as the journey of this fellowship. When I reflect on where we’ve been together, it’s hard for me to believe that just four and a half years ago, this program had 19 fellows with two staff members. It’s been incredible to watch the program grow to include 85+ fellows each year, over 100 alumni, and a village of staff and community partners.

I also want to express endless gratitude for my colleagues at the SIC, especially the Talent(ed) Team, and for Team Springboard, in all of its constellations. Thank you to Danielle N. for stepping in to lead this community. I have already learned a lot from working with you even over just a few months. I am grateful that Springboard has your leadership, and I’m excited to see how you grow the program from here. Thank you to Becca for being my go-to person and my calendar/breakouts/swag hero. You are the shomer (keeper/guardian) of Springboard’s sacred details and we couldn’t do it without you. Thank you to Rabbi Danielle, Rabbi Jessica, Erica, and Arielle. You all taught me so much about Jewish education. I will take these lessons with me in my next role and in the many years to come.

Most of all, thank you to Josh Feldman for being so much more than my supervisor. You’ve been a mentor, a confidant, a cheerleader, and a role model. Thank you for believing in me from day 1, and for inviting me to join you in building the best early career development program in the Jewish world. It’s been an honor to grow Springboard with you, and I’m so proud of what we built together. Thank you for always seeing the best in me, and for empowering me to see the best in myself. Your dedication to my leadership and growth have changed me for the better. I am so grateful we shared these last four and a half years with Springboard.

I look forward to staying in touch as I take these next steps. Feel free to reach out* through my website, scatteredleaves.net. Thanks to each and every one of you for being part of my journey. You’ve taught me more than you’ll ever know.

Hugs and High-Fives,

Heather

*Especially with tips on driving in snow, because this West Coaster has never seen winter.

Unknowable


God is unknowable
but here’s what I know:
God yearns to be known

God is sitting alone in the schoolyard
wearing black and listening to death metal
God’s not sure why
it sounds like a prayer

God is writing a poem
about us and isn’t sure
what’s missing
God is writing a letter
but can’t find an ending

God is refreshing God’s Twitter feed
God is liking posts on Instagram
God has 6 million unread emails
God’s connection is unstable

God is stuck in traffic
God is in the hospital waiting room
God is singing at a campfire
God is pulling an all-nighter
in the university library
God is sighing, buying fruit
in the grocery store –
even organic doesn’t taste
like the Garden

God is grieving
God’s own inability
to heal all who need healing
God is trying to remember
that when someone is suffering
God’s Presence is enough
No one wants to be
alone in the end
not even God
God is asking
for our forgiveness
on Yom Kippur

God’s not sure if God
believes in us but can’t
stop searching for us anyhow
It’s the world’s longest game
of Marco Polo

“Can you hear Me now?” God asks
“Did you call My name?
Or was it only the echo
of My own voice?”

Maybe we are God’s echoes
Maybe God is inside each of us
Maybe we are inside of God

Maybe God is unknowable
but there’s one thing I know:
God yearns to be known


This poem is also available on Ritualwell.

Out of the Narrows

A reminder that when the Israelites became free, it didn’t happen all once. They left the narrow place behind and crossed the sea singing. Then they wandered in the desert. It was as if the narrowness came with them. They had to keep freeing and re-freeing themselves. It took a long time before they could embrace their new identities after generations of enslavement.

A reminder that as our world encounters a new freedom with access to vaccines, it won’t happen all at once. We will leave the confines of our homes and cross the thresholds of our doorsteps, entering new-old spaces we haven’t encountered in well over a year. Some of the narrowness will come with us. We will need to keep freeing and re-freeing ourselves. It will be a long time before we can embrace our lives again.

Consider this your invitation to go slowly, to be gentle. To remember what you’ve learned and celebrate every breath. To be hopeful and to find holiness in every “first” that feels like it really is the first time.

Shabbat Shalom, beloveds, and chag pesach sameach. Next year, may we truly be free.

Between the Lines

I often invite grief counseling clients to write letters to their beloveds after their beloveds have died. This is a letter I imagine that Rabbi Yohanan might write to Reish Lakish, after Reish Lakish has died. This letter is based on the text of Bava Metzia 84a.

Dear Resh Lakish,

I think about you when I walk by the Jordan River. I haven’t been able to swim since you died. It’s so cold, and my body feels like a rock, heavy with the absence of you. If I were to enter the Jordan now, I, too, would descend, without your laughter to lift me.

I often wonder why you jumped in after me that day. You were a pirate, a highway robber, a bandit – what did you want with a Torah scholar? You must have known I like the chase -the challenge – just like you did. You must have seen the pirate inside of me, just as I saw the scholar inside of you. That’s why you were too weak to return the shore to get your armor. When we saw each other, in our totality – me, seeing the scholar in you, and you, seeing the bandit in me…we disarmed each other. Now when I try to see myself the way you saw me, it’s as though I can’t see at all. I have been blinded by the loss of your gaze. 

I knew I couldn’t give you my own hand, so I gave you my sister’s instead. I think she understood, even if we never spoke the truth to one another. She never protested when we spent the night protesting one another’s arguments in the Beit Midrash. How I long to wrap you in just one more line of text, to entangle myself in your words again, to push and pull and resist, to tease out one last spark of wisdom. I was an accomplished scholar before I met you, but learning with you elevated my experience in ways I never could have imagined. 

Reish Lasish, Reish Lakish, it’s all my fault. I’m a stubborn and angry fool. You knew it and you loved me anyways. I’ll never forgive myself for what I did to you. What I did to us. 

The others thought it was about the question in front of us. But there was so much more than that. The sword, the knife, the dagger, the spear, a hand sickle, and a harvest sickle, from when are they susceptible to ritual impurity? From the time of completion of their manufacture. When is the completion of their manufacture? 

What makes a sword, a sword? When does a dagger become a dagger? What makes a man into a man? A thief into a scholar? A scholar into a lover? When does it begin? When is the transformation complete? You knew your weapons like I knew my words, and we knew how to wield them against each other. But we never knew when to stop. 

Our final words slashed through the air, clanged against one another. I can hear them still. “What benefit did you provide me,” you taunted. “There, they called me: Leader. Here, they call me: Leader.” Your words cut deep into my soul. Did I not transform you, as you transformed me? As the spear is transformed at the completion of its manufacture? “I provided benefit to you,” I said, “under the wings of the Divine Presence.” I couldn’t contain my tears, so I turned away from you. If I’d known that was the last time I would see you alive, I would have held your gaze. Even a blurred vision of you, blinded with my own tears, would grant me greater clarity than I have now. 

When my sister came to beg me to pray for your recovery, my pride was too great. I couldn’t do it for me – so I couldn’t do it for her, or for her children. I’ll never forgive myself. The rabbis sent Elazar ben Pedat to comfort me, saying “his statements are sharp.” Sharp like the daggers and knives and swords of our final argument? Sharp enough to sharpen my argument, as you always did? 

No. There was no one like you. He offered me a baraita to support my opinion. To support me! I didn’t need his support, or his baraita. I needed YOU. You would have cut through my answers. You would have raised 24 difficulties against me. I would have given you 24 answers. The halacha would have broadened. 

You would have seen what I could not. You always did. And now you are gone. 

I keep calling out to you, searching for your voice in my throat. But I only hear my own.

I look for you between the lines of text in the Beit Midrash, but I get entangled in my thoughts. I can’t pull the letters apart. They blur together without you to sharpen my gaze.

I write this letter in hopes that I might find you in my pen, but I am alone. 

No one sees me. No one can reach me.

Perhaps I’ll try the Jordan River again. Maybe I’ll descend…

Searching for you until I find myself again,

Rabbi Yohanan

Voice from the Void: 30 Scatteredleaves Creations from 2020

Sometimes words bang on the doors of me, begging to be let out. Is it a striving desperation to make meaning out of madness? To tame an untamable experience by shaping it with narrative?

Several weeks ago, my classmates and I encountered Rebbe Nahman’s texts about The Void – and the silence within it. For many of my classmates, facing that silence led to more silence. But for me, it just made the words louder. I write constantly. Sometimes the words rush from my fingers faster than I can type them, an unstoppable flood pouring from the rock Moshe hit with his stick, when he couldn’t find words himself. It seems the harder it is to find the words, the more the words find me.

Chaim Bialik writes, “It is that very eternal darkness that is so fearsome – that darkness from the time of Creation…Every man is afraid of it and every man is drawn to it. With our very lips we construct barriers, words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.”
Perhaps writing is one of my attempts to create a penimi from a maqqif (something I can grasp within that wish is ungraspable). A way to crack a hole in the darkness of the void. A way of finding God in a place that appears empty, so that I can chase the next void, and the one after that.

With that in mind, I share a list of things I created within the void of 2020 – rituals, poems, prayers, and videos. This is not a comprehensive list. I only included the creations I felt I could publish or name in this space or elsewhere. The list doesn’t include all of my school writing (one of my classes had weekly reflection assignments) and it doesn’t include every private ritual I created for people who needed them. It also doesn’t include the virtual programs I built. But it’s a start.

I’m grateful for all the words that found me in the emptiness, but I pray for a 2021 that is full – full of inspiration, full of healing, and full of hope. Blessings on your journey, beloveds. See you on the other side.

Published on Ritualwell:

  1. Prayer Before Starting IVF
  2. Postponement Prayer (also published in When the World Turned Inward, Vol. 2)
  3. Virtual Memory Circle
  4. Hearing in our Hearts
  5. God’s Lament: A Letter to Daughter Zion (from Reb Shulamit’s class)

Videos:

  1. What Have We Lost?
  2. History of Loneliness
  3. History of Languages
  4. Looking Behind: A Monologue from Lot’s Wife
  5. Light and Darkness

Published in the Forward:

  1. ‘In the Torah, name changes signify moments of transformation.’ In the lives of transgender Jews, they are just as powerful

On my blog

  1. Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  2. Get In, Get Real, and Grow (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  3. Letter to Rebbe Nahman (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  4. Shelters (in Place): A Pandemic Sukkot
  5. Holding the Shattered Pieces
  6. Grief in the Book of Ruth: Ruth’s Letter to Mahlon (from Reb Shulamit’s class)
  7. Silent and Sacred: Parshat Shmini for 2020
  8. Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle: A Reinterpretation of Song of Songs (from Reb Shulamit’s Class)
  9. Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra
  10. Where Are You?

Publishing in 2021, but written in 2020

  1. Letter from Vashti to the New Queen of Shushan (publication set for February, I hope) 
  2. Prayer for the Covid-19 Vaccine
  3. Havdalah for Letting Go 
  4. Mezuzah Ritual for Moving into a New Home

Papers for Biblical Civilizations class

  1. A Tale of Two Floods 
  2. “To Teach and Enlighten:” The Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges
  3. Three Contemporary Prophecies written in the style of the prophet, Ezekiel
  4. A Contemporary Apocalypse in the style of the Book of Daniel
  5. Bringing Biblical Life and History to Hillel 

Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out

“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 

This text is a really important one for me. What I love the most is that it is about an interplay – it’s not about avoiding sadness, respressing sadness, or leaving sadness on the sidelines. “The higher way is to pursue the sorrow,” Nahman says, to bring it with you into the dancing circle. I also appreciate that he uses the language of transformation. That doesn’t mean the sadness disappears – it’s part of that transformation.

I can’t help but think about the characters of Joy and Sadness and their transformations in Pixar’s Inside Out.  At the beginning, Joy doesn’t want anything to do with Sadness. She tries to put Sadness in a circle – or, as Nahman might say, leave Sadness on the sidelines. 


In the closing scene (SPOILER ALERT) Joy and Sadness work together to bring about a sort of Nahmanian transformation. It’s beautiful, and if you haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen it recently), I recommend watching it with Nahman in mind.

While music and dance don’t exactly* show up in Inside Out, according to Nahman, these spiritual technologies are an instrumental** part of the sorrow/joy transformation. Michael Fishbane writes that for Nahman, “Dance is both the arch-act and the arch-metaphor” for the “cathartic process” that “pursues the agents of one’s depression in all their guises and transforms them through the agency of joy…Rabbi Nahman goes on to stress how depression is an illness, a hola’at when the cords of joy are snapped…The antidote is the joy of dance. Its circular swirl draws the heavenly Shekhinah down to the earthly realm where it may alight upon the sick soul (holeh) in healing union.”

I’ve been in that circular swirl many times before. I wrote about a few of those moments already in my letter to Nahman two weeks ago. But one of them in particular rises to the surface for me each year around this time, because it feels linked to Parashat Chayei Sarah, which we read this coming Shabbat. In the parsha, 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. Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Joy and sadness, grief and love, all in the same unfolding story.

Similarly, 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. Sadness was not sidelined at the wedding. It was right in the circle with us, holding hands with Joy and transforming with us, one musical note at a time.

*I might argue that play is analogous to dance in this movie, especially as it relates to the character of Bingbong.

**Pun intended