Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra

How can we draw near in a moment when we are so far away from each other? In this week’s parsha, God shared a list of sacrifices for the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Two weeks ago, when many of us began the quarantine, the Israelites built and worshiped a golden calf. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they didn’t know when – or if – he was going to come back. In their fear, they built an idol they could touch, something they could connect with, physically. Something they thought they could trust to be there. Now, two weeks later, the Israelites have built a Mishkan instead. They were finally ready to sacrifice, ready to connect with the God they could not touch. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” They Israelites drew near to the God Who could not be seen, but could be deeply felt.

In the last two weeks, we, too, have been building sanctuaries. Sanctuaries in our homes, sanctuaries online, sanctuaries with our voices raised in song and prayer. We have been alone, afraid, and uncertain. We cannot reach out to touch one another. But we, too, have drawn near in ways that can be be felt.

One of my teachers, Reb Eli Cohen, pointed out that one of the names for God is HaMakom, which means The Place. Maybe while we have been sheltering-in-place, we have also been sheltering-in-The Place, embraced by the nurturing Source that holds us all. In our evening liturgy, we sing Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha – asking God to spread over us a shelter of peace. Throughout these last two weeks, I’ve envisioned the lights from our screens, shining in our hands and on our desks all over the world. We cannot touch, but we have found ways to draw near to each other, to create sanctuaries, and to face our fears, embracing the Oneness that connects us all.

Shabbat Shalom, l’kulam. May it be a Shabbat of peace, wholeness, and healing, as we who are far away from one another draw near in every way we can.

Where Are You

“Where are you going?” She’s checking my bag.
It’s not supposed to be an existential question.

“Where are you going?”
The security guard catches me off guard.
Am I on my way there or on my way back?
Am I leaving or arriving?
Am I returning?

“Where are you going?”
I left the rain last week and arrived in the sunlight.
When I landed, tears arrived too,
my eyes and heart unused to piercing brightness.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going to snowy branches and a frozen lake.
I’m going to a fireplace, a sanctuary,
warm hugs and warmer hearts.

“Where are you going?”
I’m leaving the community
that reminds me where I come from.
I’m going to the community that reminds me who I am.
Life is in flight, community is fluid, time is an illusion,
and distance means nothing at all.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going toward myself, I’m going toward growing.
I’m going away, I’m going to, I’m going, going, and gone.
I am in flight, I am landing, I am bringing
too much baggage for carry-on.

“Where are you going?”
I don’t know, I don’t remember,
nothing is certain but
“You are flying out of Gate 19.”
I am ready for take-off.

Not Alone: Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert, and you’ve been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. You’ll never go back to Egypt.  But then you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

This Friday, we read the the beginning of Exodus, which includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moved toward the strange burning, God called out to him. “Moses, Moses!” Moses stopped running away. Hineini, he said. “Here I am.” 

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I AM I AM I AM, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“R’oh ra’iti,” said God: “I have truly seen.” This is a unique construction in Hebrew. “Ro’eh” means “I have seen,” but “R’oh ra’iti,” which repeats the verb “to see,” means “I have truly seen.” “I have truly seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” said God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, you tried to run away, but somehow they came with you — their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knew the pain of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval scholar Rashi, God demonstrated that God was with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God said. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God said. “I will be with you.” God didn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God truly saw not only the Israelites’ suffering – God truly saw what Moses needed too. God didn’t tell Moses “This is your job — now deal with it.” God never tried to convince Moses that the exodus would be easy. Instead, God showed Moses that he would not be on this journey alone. 

There’s no way they’ll believe you. You’re not sure if you believe you. But you’re beginning to wonder. What is the name of this Burning? What does this Light truly see in you?

“When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

“Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God said. “I Will Be That I Will Be. Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Be’ has sent me.” 

In Brachot 9b, the Gemara asks: Why did God tell Moses to tell the Israelites that “Ehyeh, I Will Be” has sent Moses? We just learned that “Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be That I Will Be” is God’s name. “I Will Be” and “I Will Be That I Will Be” are two different names. Why the change?

The Gemara says that “I Will Be That I Will Be” means “I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, AND I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.” Then, according to the Gemara, Moses actually advised God, becoming the leader that God knew him to be.

“Master of the Universe,” Moses said. “It is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.” 

You are not alone. They do not have to be alone. And they do not need to know that more suffering awaits them after this redemption.

God agreed with Moses and said to him: “Go and tell the children of Israel only that, “’Ehyeh: I Will Be‘ has sent me to you.”

You don’t know what’s coming next. But this Burning, the God of your ancestors, has r’oh ra’iti – has truly seen the suffering, has truly seen you, and has heard you. You will lead, and you will lead with this Light. 

Just as God showed Moses true empathy, saying “I will be with you,” Moses taught God about empathy by pointing out that the Israelites couldn’t hear about future suffering. God guided Moses, truly saw Moses as a leader, told Moses he was not alone, and as a result, Moses was able to see himself as a leader, someone who could provide feedback on God’s communication plan.

Over the course of this parsha, with the Gemara for context, we watch Moses transform, through empathy, from a shepherd, running away from his problems in Egypt, to a leader who partnered with God to free the Israelites from Egypt. The Hebrew word for shepherd is pronounced “ro’eh,” but it’s spelled differently from the verb “to see.” Moses went from a ro’eh, shepherd to ro’eh, see-er. 

God “ro’eh ra’iti,” truly saw the leadership in this shepherd, Moses. And God made sure that Moses didn’t have to free the Israelites alone. Once Moses saw himself as the leader that God knew him to be, Moses knew he couldn’t leave the Israelites alone either. And, finally, Moses ensured that God was not alone in the project of redemption. 

I work with young leaders all the time and I’ve learned over and over again just how important it is to tell them what I see. Once I show them I have truly seen them – that believe in them and I remind them that they’re not alone, they rise to face the challenges of their work. Recently I’ve been grateful for friends and mentors in my own life who have shown me empathy as well – giving me the blessing of being truly seen, supported, and recognized for my own leadership. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love and believe in us, we, like Moses, are able to fulfill our potential. And we, too, are able to partner with the Holy One in the work of creation, healing, and redemption. 

Difficult Conversations: Parsha Vayigash

When was the last time you had a difficult conversation? Maybe it was with a supervisor or a partner. Maybe it was with a family member. What was difficult about it? Did you prepare in advance? Did you try to avoid it? Were you able to move forward with your relationships in tact? 

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, opens with a difficult conversation. The word “vayigash” means “he approached,” and it refers to the moment when Judah approached his brother, Joseph, who had risen to power in Egypt. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Joseph’s jealous brothers, frustrated with his arrogance, cast Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father, Jacob, saying that a wild beast killed Joseph. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is a very dramatic story), Joseph became the governor of Egypt, almost as powerful as Pharaoh himself. At the moment of our Torah portion, it had been 22 years since the brothers had seen each other. Joseph recognized them, but the brothers had no idea that this governor of Egypt was the brother they threw into the pit. Joseph tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benjamin, of stealing a silver cup that Joseph planted in Benjamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Joseph threatened to enslave Benjamin. 

That’s where the Torah portion begins – Judah, the oldest of the brothers, vayigash Joseph. He approached the governor of Egypt, a man far more powerful than he could ever hope to be, to have a difficult conversation. 

Midrash Rabbah explores the meaning of vayigash in this context. 

Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he approached” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle” (II Samuel 10:13).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he approached” implies a coming near for conciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua” (Joshua 14:6).

The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “It came to pass, at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached . . .” (I Kings, 18:36).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.

When you have approached a difficult conversation, maybe a conversation with someone more powerful than you, what did you bring into that conversation with you? Did you come ready to fight, like Rabbi Yehudah intoned? Were you prepared to conciliate, to offer a solution or make amends, as Rabbi Nechemiah suggested? Or did you draw near, with a heart full of hope, prepared to humble yourself as if in prayer, as the sages believed? Maybe you went in with an open mind, ready to respond in the moment, as Rabbi Eleazar said of Judah. See if you can put yourself back in that place. What was happening in your body? Were you anxious? Were you aware? 

Judah approached Joseph with humility. He referred to himself as avdecha, “your servant” when he spoke. He told Joseph that Benjamin’s soul is connected to their father’s soul – in Hebrew: Nafsho Keshura beNafsho. The Aramaic translation of the Torah translates this passage as, “and his soul loved him as his own soul.” Jacob loved Benjamin so deeply that their souls were connected. Judah explained, “When my father sees the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought our father in grief to the grave. Please let me stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers. How will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”

Joseph saw that his brothers had grown. 22 years ago, when they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery, they had avoided a difficult conversation – in a way, they took the easy way out, instead of vayigash, approaching Joseph to talk to him about his arrogance. This moment is different. Instead of avoiding the conversation, throwing Benjamin into a metaphorical pit, or selling him into slavery in Egypt (echoing their treatment of Joseph), Judah showed that he cared for his father and brother. He offered a solution, and he pled not only for his father’s or brother’s lives; he used a prayer word, nefesh. He pled for his father’s and brother’s souls.

The reunion became a joyful one – Joseph revealed his identity, the brothers reconciled, they hugged, and kissed, and cried, and Joseph sent them home with a wealth of food, animals, clothes, and more. When the brothers told their father Jacob that Joseph was alive, “vatechi ruach Yakov avihem,” the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Ruach, or spirit, is another prayer word, like nefesh, soul. Jacob’s soul and spirit techi, came to life, after his sons’ reconciliation. 

Judah approached a difficult conversation with a lot at stake. As Rabbi Eleazar said, “Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: “If it be war, I approach for war;” Judah put his own body on the line, like a soldier, offering himself into slavery. “If it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation;” Conciliation is a way of making amends. Judah offered his labor in return for the value of the silver goblet. “If it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat” (as in prayer). When Judah spoke about his brother’s and father’s souls, he approached Joseph from a place of prayer. Most importantly, Judah showed that he had changed – that he was not the same person who threw his brother, Joseph, into the pit and sold him into slavery, instead of having a difficult conversation. This time, Judah was prepared to engage body, mind, and soul to spare his brother and his father.

Next time you are facing a difficult conversation, consider the way you vayigash. You may not need to concede your body, mind, and soul – this is a pretty extreme example – but you will likely need to concede something. Throwing the problem into a pit only means it will show up again later, and it might be bigger and more powerful when it approaches again. In this coming week and in the secular new year, there will be many opportunities to choose an approach. May we be mindful of our choices, and may every conversation enliven our souls. Shabbat Shalom.

A Journey of Becoming: Parsha Lech Lecha

“When someone calls me Jasper, my shoulders drop, my heart rate settles, hearing my name is a sign, a confirmation that an individual, a group, a society accepts my current self and who I am growing to be.” 

Jasper is a 17-year-old trans male. When he was assigned female at birth, he was given female names, in both English and Hebrew. I recently officiated a Jewish renaming ceremony for Jasper at Natural Bridges beach in Santa Cruz. We said goodbye to his former Hebrew name and he took on a new one, a name that represents his truest self. 

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Avram to lech lecha. “Lech Lecha, from your birthplace and your father’s house.” The words “Lech Lecha” are often mistranslated as “go forth.” A more accurate translation is “go to yourself.” For Avram, this journey will be both external and internal. Avram leaves his father’s house and his native land, and he transforms from the person he was, to the person he is meant to be. Once he arrives, Avram receives a new name. “You shall no longer be called Avram,” says God, “your name shall be Avraham, for I will make you a father of multitudes.” The name change represents the person Avraham has become – and the journey of his becoming.

Why does God tell Avraham to leave his birthplace and his father’s house? These two leavings appear redundant on the surface. But I think this is God’s way of acknowledging that for Avraham to lech lecha, he has to leave more than just a place behind. Avraham also leaves the religion and culture of his father, an idol worshipper. He leaves family, friends, and the life he’d always known. Avraham smashes his father’s idols before he leaves. When we embark on a journey to become our truest selves, relationships shatter along the way. Our ideas of reality may shatter too. 

Similarly, when someone acknowledges that their gender identity is different from the identity they were assigned at birth, they leave behind more than just a name. It means saying goodbye to a narrative – a story of what they imagined their lives to be. There is a loss of some kind when our narratives change, even when they change for the best. And while some families, like Jasper’s, are supportive and loving, other families shatter irreparably, like the idols and narrative Avraham left behind.

Using Parsha Lech Lecha as an example, we can begin to understand why calling a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by as much as 65%. Avraham’s journey toward himself cost him relationships, his narrative, and more. He’s given a new name that more fully represents his identity, and calling him “Avram” not only negates the truth of who he became; it also disrespects the growth, learning, and changes Avraham experienced, the journey he had to take, deep into himself, before he could live into his new name. 

“Deadnaming,” using the name given to a transgender person at birth, regardless of intention, is painful. Jasper still gets deadnamed sometimes, “mainly accidentally,” he says. “I understand it may be difficult to make the change after knowing me with another name for so long. What matters is that one makes an effort to use my proper name. My deadname is a reminder of a person I never was. A reminder of a hurting time, a lost time, a time I work so hard to forget. My deadname is a label of an idea of an individual, a label of an individual who existed painfully and hidden, and at the same time didn’t exist at all.” If we wouldn’t call Avraham, “Avram,” we shouldn’t deadname transpeople either. 

Jasper’s Hebrew renaming ceremony took place right before Rosh Hashanah. He chose the name Nitzan, the Hebrew word for “bud.” It represents beginnings, a flower’s first steps toward blooming. When our ancestor received the name “Avraham,” it represented not only the person he became, but also his journey becoming. The name “Nitzan” also tells the story of a journey, a bud that has cracked open his shell, and burst forth from the soil, ready to open to the world anew. 

As we enter Shabbat this week, reflecting on our own moments of lech lecha, remember that, in a way, many of us have been on a long journey, have survived the shattering of relationships, facing untold pain and loss, simply to show up as ourselves. Learning names and pronouns, and making the effort to use them, not only tells transgender people that you see them for who they are, here and now. It honors the journey they took, like Avraham, to arrive at their truest, deepest selves. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May we rejoice, every day, in the journeys that bring us closer to each other and ourselves.

Resources:

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.