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

Get In, Get Real, and Grow

Closing reflections for a semester-long deep dive on the works of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov

I looked back over all my course posts from the semester. I remembered where I was when I wrote them, what I was worried about, what I was celebrating, what I was hoping for. I read the post I wrote when I was unable to enter the Arafel, after receiving bad news. I read the letter I wrote to Nahman, where I thanked him for arriving at the moments when I’ve needed him the most. I read about teaching nekuda tova to those who needed to find just ONE good thing about themselves – one nekud to change the word, the sentence, and the story. I read the unstoppable flood of words that poured out of me when I encountered Nahman’s wordless void. 

The key takeaway that emerges for me, from the stillness at the center of the dancing circle – the message that appears with clarity when I emerge from the mystical forest…is to GET IN, GET REAL, AND GROW. Nahman wants us to engage with our pain, to be authentic, and to learn from everything. Every text we encountered somehow landed on one or all of these points for me. Face your meniot, don’t avoid them. Shatter the rock, shatter your heart, carry the broken pieces – it’s easier to bring them up the stairs when they’re broken. Bring your brokenness with you into the Arafel. Sigh deeply in your darkness. Find your way through that darkness to a forest. Once you’re there, interbreathe with the trees, surrender, and pour your heart out to God. Hold nothing back. When you get lost in that forest, find a guide who can help you experience your fear and your wonder in their fullness. Then emerge, changed into who you really are, who you were meant to be all along. If you forget who you are, find just one good point, and focus on it so you can become a better version of yourself. Do whatever it takes. If you lose your words, live the silence, or sing a song without them. Dance to that song. Bring your sorrow with you into the dancing circle. Be transformed. 

I’m trying, my rebbe, to be as real as you were. To lean into my vulnerability. To learn from my meniot. To dance with my sorrow, to find wonder on the other side of fear, to enter the Arafel, trusting that God will find me there. To remember that being with myself is the path to becoming myself. I try to cleave to God when I feel desperately distant. I search for my own nekuda tova as I invite my counseling clients to find theirs. I hear your halavi teachings when I offer my own. None of us – not even you – ever fully live up to the lessons we share with others, but it’s worth trying. And that’s what you taught me to do, Rebbe Nahman: Get in. Get real. Grow. It’s always worth it.

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

Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle

after Song of Songs

O you who linger in the garden,
a lover is listening; let Me hear your voice.

The first time I created you,
we were alone together
in My garden

I separated light from darkness
sea from sky, and sky from the branches
who reach for her
But when I created you,
we were One.

Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is My beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to My mouth.

Oh how you longed for My fruit
when it was forbidden
Now I long for you
And I must seek you
wherever you roam.

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I sent you away from My garden
separating one from One
I have followed you ever since
across the sea and through the wilderness
into the Land that I have shown you
into The Place you did not know

“Whither has Your beloved gone, O Fairest Of Women?
Whither has Your beloved turned? Let us seek him with You.”

My love for you is boundless
You who return My love and you who turn from Me
You who struggle, and you who draw near
You who doubt, and you who dream
all of you are part of Me.

I opened the door for my beloved, But my beloved had turned and gone.

You wrote your love for Me
on the doorposts of your house
and then you closed the door behind you

I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer.

When you call out to Me from your narrow place
I will always answer, even if you cannot hear Me

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to pick lilies.

Our love began in a garden
It will grow there too
You’ll find Me among the lilies
waiting, always, to love you.