Guided meditation for Parashat Terumah based on these sources – written by Rabbi Heather for Illini Hillel students
Plant your feet on the floor and sit in a way that is comfortable for you. Take a deep breath. Now take one more. When you’re ready, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take another deep breath. Begin to feel your body relax. Your toes. Legs. Hips. Keep breathing. Release any tightness you’re holding in your torso. Your chest. Drop your shoulders. Keep breathing. Release your jaws. See if you can feel your eyes and ears. Relax those too. Take one more deep breath.
Picture yourself in a desert. In Hebrew, it’s called a midbar – it means wilderness as well as desert. Notice the sand – feel its texture beneath your feet [pause] Gaze up at the wide blue sky and the mountains [pause]. Notice the colors of the mountains. Brown, beige, red – what else is there? [pause] Breathe in the stillness. The silence. The emptiness. [longer pause]
Imagine a beloved leader is up on one of the mountains. You followed this leader out of Mitzrayim, the narrow place, and now you are here, in this vast, expansive wilderness. From the constriction of slavery you arrived in open nothingness. What does this nothing sound like? Smell like? [pause] You don’t know where you are going. You don’t know what’s coming next. You are afraid.
When your leader returns, you receive instructions. You are to build a mishkan, a sanctuary. Here in the desert. Here in the nothingness. Here where you’re far from everything you’ve ever known. A place for the Divine to dwell. God does not need this space – “God is garbed in everything. No place is devoid of the Divine.” But we need a space where we can connect with God. A sanctuary in the desert of our souls. What should this sanctuary look like? Imagine its colors and structure. What textures are part of this sanctuary? Take a few moments to explore it.
Now bring your attention back to your body with another deep breath. The rabbinic tradition links the mishkan to the human body. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.
Like your skin that covers and protects you, there are tapestries and wool hangings around the sanctuary. Your sense of touch is one of the first ways you connected with the world as an infant, while your other senses slowly developed. Your skin is a gateway to human intimacy. Imagine slowly dipping your hand into the desert sand. Notice its temperature, its texture. [Pause] Lift a handful of sand on an inhale. And release the sand with an exhale. Notice the sensation of the sand slipping through your fingers. [Pause] Take another deep breath. And when you are ready, you can release them.
There is an incense altar in the sanctuary, connected to your sense of smell. Scent can return memories to us from long ago. Inhale deeply now through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Is there a scent that feels like a sanctuary to you? [Pause]
There is a menorah in the sanctuary, and a menorah in you – as the menorah sheds light, your mind, your intellect, enlightens your body. Take a deep breath and envision a warm light filling the sanctuary of yourself. Notice the quality of this light. Are there specks of dust that float across? What color is the light? White, yellow, blue, something else? Feel the warmth of this light that brightens even the darkest places, making the desert feel like home. [Pause]
Now place your hand over your heart and see if you can feel its beat. Tap. Bum-bum. Bum-bum. Tap gently with me. Your heart is the innermost part of the sanctuary – the Holy Ark, containing the Tablets of the Covenant. What else does your heart contain? Listen for its wisdom as you continue tapping. [Pause]
Take a deep breath and pause your tapping. You can keep your hand on your heart if you wish, or you can let it rest. [Pause]
Your body is the sanctuary. Your textures and colors, your breath and your skin. God said that all those whose hearts were moved to give, should bring a gift to the sanctuary. Everyone was asked to give according to their ability – no more, and no less. Every gift was perfect. Every gift was accepted. However your body looks or feels, you are a holy sanctuary. You are accepted. You are loved. You are whole. You are a dwelling place for the Divine.
Take another deep breath and we’ll sit with that for a moment. Explore the sanctuary within.[Pause]
Take another deep breath. Notice the ground beneath your feet. The temperature in the room. The sound of your companions breathing beside you. Take a last few deep breaths in this space and when you are ready, slowly, gently – open your eyes.
I gave this d’var at Illini Hillel on February 3rd, 2023 at a Renewal Shabbat experience in honor of my January 8th rabbinic ordination. I wanted to share something I learned about leadership during my rabbinical program with my community. This d’var was given on Shabbat Beshelach, two nights before Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.
Where do untold stories go? Do we bury them like sacred texts? Do the stories turn into seeds underground? If the seed splits like the Red Sea, and a stem starts to grow, where does it go if it can’t burst through the soil, if it can’t rise up singing, if it never blooms?
Where do untold stories go? I’ve been asking this question for years in various leadership roles. We talked about it at Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, DLTI – the most formative training program I experienced in rabbinical school. Sometimes leading means we “tell the stories communities need to hear, instead of the stories we want to tell.” The best leaders know how to “hold space instead of taking up space.” As a leader, when I open up, it’s to create openings for others to grow. I am the soil, not the seeds. It’s an honor to bear witness, to share just enough that others are inspired to stretch, crack, and split through the shells of their seeds. It’s a blessing to empower others to grow.
I built a life out of soil and I like to think I’m good at it. I am soil when I train and empower students to lead, when I facilitate grief groups, and when I serve as a mentor. Until DLTI, I thought I made great soil because I am comfortable with the seeds of my own stories – I am comfortable with my vulnerability. However, over time I learned that while I’m open, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to be vulnerable. The stories I share are curated and crafted. I’ve written the stories before sharing them, or I’ve considered the role they play in others’ stories. I share when it’s something a mentee needs to hear, instead of a story I need to tell. That’s a way of being a leader, but it’s not vulnerability.
At DLTI, we took turns leading and then “labbing” prayer services. In labs, our teachers offered feedback on how to make the prayer service more powerful. Transformation occurred every time a prayer leader cracked open their shell, showing a hint of their own stem. We learned to lean into vulnerability in just the right way, to draw on our stories and lead from the heart. Leaders are the soil, but we are also in the soil. And we lead best when we let it show – not a lot, but more than I had in the past.
In a conversation with one of my DLTI teachers, I set a kavanah (intention) that I was going to try this vulnerability thing. I planned to tell a story that had been longing for soil at a Saturday night open mic, a story that truly made me feel vulnerable.
Saturday night arrived, and every presenter who came before me told their own hard story. They split their shells in the soil of our kahal (community) and beautiful, vulnerable stories bloomed all over the sanctuary. However, I noticed that the kahal was worn out from all the emotion – a few people left, and those left in the room were drained. It was time to tell the story the community needed to hear, instead of the story I wanted to tell. So when it was my turn, I shared a story that never fails to make me (and others) laugh. It felt good to lift people up. The tone was right on. Afterward, my teacher congratulated me, knowing I made the decision to share something lighter in lieu of vulnerability: “That was davvenen leadership,” he said. It was, and I was proud.
…until I was sad. Devastated. I figured I was just tired at the end of a long day and a long week. But where do untold stories go? The question was tugging at me. When I felt tears well up during a song circle later that night, I realized that 1am was not the best time to analyze my feelings, and I went to bed. Besides, I thought, these are the kinds of decisions I make all the time as a leader. Surely I’d be fine the next day.
But I wasn’t. A friend noticed, and we walked to a private space where I explained everything. My friend acknowledged that I made the right choice the night before, and then pointed out that this moment was different. She invited me to share the story I needed to tell. I hesitated, but she meant it. I let the seed crack open.
When I finished, I felt lighter. I learned an important lesson about vulnerability that day. I learned I could plan ahead and ask a friend in advance: “If I cannot tell this story tonight, can I tell you another time?” Or as an alternative, I learned to notice my need to share in moments when I can’t, and to honor that need by sharing with a friend later.
This question came up for me again at Hillel last fall. When a friend was in the ICU after an overdose, I wanted a morning prayer minyan for my friend’s healing. Progressive in-person minyanim aren’t regularly accessible here, so I figured I’d find a random one online. When Carly suggested I invite students I am close with to pray with me the next day, I was nervous. Should I be that vulnerable? Was this a story I needed to tell or a story the kahal needed to hear? When is it ok to ask the community I’m leading to show up for me, the leader? I decided to try it, I’m glad I did, and I’m grateful to those who joined me in prayer that day. Leaders need to both support and be supported. Sometimes leaders have to find support outside the community or outside the moment, like I did at DLTI. Other times it’s good to be vulnerable with those you are leading, like I was last fall. It’s hard to know the difference, but I’m learning every day.
We celebrate the leadership of Moses in this parsha – a reluctant leader whose brother Aaron had to help him share his story. Tu b’Shevat is on Monday, celebrating not only trees above ground, but seeds buried in soil, a generative darkness that encourages growth. In honor of this parsha and holiday, I invite you to notice your own opportunities to lead, grow, and lean into vulnerability this week. Every seed wants a chance to grow, and, as I continue to learn, even soil needs soil sometimes. Shabbat Shalom.
Dvar Torah presented at ALEPH’s ordination weekend Shabbaton on January 7, 2023
“Can I take the place of God?” Joseph surveyed his pleading brothers. His brothers, who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery all those years ago. Their father, Jacob, was dead now, and his brothers were worried he would pay them back for what they had done.
Joseph said to them, “Al-tirah, ki hatachat Elohim ani?” “Don’t be afraid, for can I take the place of God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.” As a leader in Egypt, Joseph saved his people from terrible famine, and he saw God redirect the evil his brothers intended toward this positive outcome. Joseph refused to respond to his brothers’ hateful acts with his own.“And so, don’t fear,” he repeated. “I will sustain you and your children.” The text says he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts.
A flashback: Joseph’s parents, Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility, long before Joseph was born. Rachel, envious of her sister, Leah, who had children, said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob became angry. Vayomer, “Hatachat Elohim anochi asher-mana mimech peri-baten?” He said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied the fruit of your belly?”
“Can I take the place of God?” The same phrase – hatachat Elohim – in the voices of father and son. While Jacob lashed out, using this phrase in anger, Joseph softened it.
When Jacob said “Can I take the place of God,” he didn’t speak to Rachel. The text de-emphasizes their relationship, saying “Jacob said,” not “Jacob said to Rachel.” We can imagine Jacob throwing up his hands in rage, spitting out the phrase “Can I take the place of God?!” He couldn’t be present in relationship with Rachel. He couldn’t respond to her pain because he was exploding with his own, blaming God for denying fruit in baten, her belly. Notice that he does not use the word rechem, womb, which shares a root with rachamim, compassion, because there was no compassion in his reaction. After this, Rachel gave him her handmaid, Bilhah, who bore two children on Rachel’s behalf. The first child, Dan, means judgment. The second, named Naftali, means struggle. Anger and jealousy begat judgment and struggle. When Rachel finally gave birth, she named her son Yosef, Joseph, meaning “increased.”
After Jacob’s death, Joseph said the same words to his brothers.“Can I take the place of God?” But the text says Vayomer Yosef aleihem – Joseph spoke to them. Unlike Jacob and Rachel, the text emphasizes the relationship. Further, Joseph addressed their feelings first: “Do not be afraid.After all, can I take the place of God?” He comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. He brought in the compassion that was missing from his father’s exclamation.
Like his father, Joseph believed this was all part of God’s plan. In Jacob’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “I’m not God. I don’t decide who can give birth.” In Joseph’s situation, “Can I take the place of God” meant “God sent me here, not you.” Both Joseph and Jacob believed God was responsible for their experience, but Joseph had the advantage of hindsight, and understood the reason.
It is so much easier to make meaning out of trauma once the reason has been revealed and you’ve moved beyond it! Jacob and Rachel were facing infertility when Jacob lashed out in anger – yes, at Rachel, but perhaps also at God and himself. Not knowing how things would turn out, Jacob only knew he could do nothing about his wife’s suffering. I get it. Sometimes I’m angry I can’t change my situation, and sometimes I’m too upset to be compassionate toward myself or others. I’m sure you can think of moments like that too. Maybe you blamed a loved one, God, or yourself. We’ve all been there.
Joseph was in a significant leadership role, like many of us. He rose from the pit to the palace, and made meaning from his pain by acknowledging the blessings that came from it. He was in a position not only to support his family financially, but to see and speak to them with compassion. I’ve found that sometimes, after growing through trauma, we are better able to make space for others in their suffering, and to appreciate the blessings that appeared along the way.
This brings me to one difference in the words Joseph and Jacob used to say the same thing: “Can I take the place of God?” Joseph said “Hatachat Elohim Ani?” Jacob said “Hatachat Elohim Anochi?” Both “Ani” and “Anochi” mean “I.” The Zohar teaches that Anochi is associated with Binah, one of God’s upper sefirot, a part of God that is transcendent and hidden from the world. Ani is associated with Shekhina, the Divine Presence, the aspect of God that is most accessible to us on earth. Jacob used the word Anochi. For him, God was responsible for the infertility – but God and the reason were hidden. Jacob was unable to find meaning in his wife’s pain or his own. For Joseph, who used the world Ani, the Divine and the plan were revealed; Joseph was able to make meaning from it, and could respond to his brothers with kindness.
We can’t expect ourselves – or anyone else – to find meaning, or to find God, in the midst of trauma. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray or seek the Divine at those times. Some of our favorite Hasidic masters taught us how!
None of us are in the place of God. We have limited control over our outcomes. Sometimes that’s frustrating and sometimes it’s a relief – who wants that responsibility? Either way, when it feels like God or meaning are distant or hidden, we can learn from Jacob’s outrage, and we can remember to treat ourselves and others with compassion instead. And when we have come through our trauma, when we’ve emerged from the pit to find ourselves in the palace, like Joseph, we can remember to appreciate the Divine blessings in our lives. We can speak to the hearts of those who fear, and act in the world from a place of love and compassion.
You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. 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. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?
Parashat Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing 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.
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says 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, 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 knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. According to Rashi, God demonstrates that God is 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 says. “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 says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” God doesn’t shut Moses down when Moses admits to his own impostor syndrome – something so many of us are familiar with. “I will be with you” is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.
People often feel isolated when we face challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple people in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.
This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.
In honor of this parsha, and its arrival at a time of continued fear and uncertainty in the face of rising virus numbers, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.
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.
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.
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.
“Suffering breaks our hearts. But there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”
I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Parker Palmer a lot lately. Yesterday was the 17th of Tammuz. Traditionally, this is a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. It also marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av, the day when the first and second Temples were destroyed. These three weeks are known asBein ha’Metzarim, between the narrows. No Jewish marriages or other celebrations are allowed at this time, since the joy of these occasions conflicts with the mood of mourning.
The 17th of Tammuz also arrives 40 days after Shavuot. This is the day when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found that the Israelites had built a golden calf while he was receiving the Torah. Moses was furious and he shattered the tablets. He went back up the mountain, and the Israelites went back to…waiting. Waiting with their grief, their fear, and their brokenness, the shattered tablets laying before them.
We have been sitting in our own waiting place, Bein ha’Metzarim. By my count, it’s been 120 days since the quarantine started. Even if you are numb at this point, the emotions that surfaced at the start of COVID are still there, exacerbated by losses due to racial violence. Some days it might feel like you’re moving through molasses – there’s a fatigue you just can’t sleep off. Maybe you’ve snapped recently at someone who did nothing wrong, or there was a moment when a minor stumble felt like a disaster. All of it is grief – for the 135,000 who have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, for racial violence, for the special moments we’ve had to share on Zoom instead of in-person, and for all the plans we can’t fulfill. In progressive Jewish communities, we don’t often observe the three weeks or Tisha b’Av. However, as we wait at the foot of the mountain, sitting in our collective brokenness, and unsure of what comes next, it may be necessary to engage with this part of our tradition. And we should engage with it, as Parker Palmer has said, with a broken and supple heart.
The Talmud teaches that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai the second time, with new tablets, the Israelites kept the broken ones. They placed them, along with the new tablets, in the holy ark. Why? Because our ancestors knew brokenness and wholeness live side by side, in the ark and in our hearts. Some even taught that brokenness is not only natural – it’s necessary. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” And in a Hasidic folk tale, a disciple asked a rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to place the words of the V’ahavta upon our hearts instead of in our hearts?” The rebbe answered: “It is because our hearts are closed. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” The Lurianic kabbalists taught that brokenness itself is holy: When God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, this symbol of God’s own brokenness.
The message from our tradition is clear: Our hearts have to break. We have to feel our grief. And we do not to have experience our brokenness alone. These three weeks are a time when we can grieve with community. When we are Bein ha-Metzarim, we are like the tablets in the holy ark. We are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us.
As we sit with the shattered tablets, as we wait in our brokenness, I want to bless each each of us with a heart that is supple – one that is open to our own suffering and to the suffering of others, so that the words of our prayers fall in, and so that we may we renewed again.
In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.
Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.
After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.
There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but our Amidah, our private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.
Over the last month, we have seen suffering – this illness, a different kind of strange fire shared by those who draw near to each other. Over 33,000 people have died from coronavirus in the United States alone. We don’t know when it will end. We don’t know if it will come back. We refresh our Twitter feeds, reading articles with conflicting information. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out or we protest, looking for something or someone to blame. Sometimes we whisper in prayer, like Hannah. Other times, like Aaron, all we can muster is silence.
Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why have so many people died from coronavirus? Why are we still being punished for drawing near to each other? How many of us, in the last month, have ignored that nagging voice inside – the one that dares to ask God why this happened?
In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by corpses in refrigerator vans, hospitals overwhelmed, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.
Our Yom Kippur Torah portion takes place immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed. And sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For asking us to sacrifice our healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and others who are deemed “essential.” It’s a day for God to join us in grieving and atoning.
“For the wrong I have done before you by allowing my wrath to consume me,” God prays.
“And for the wrong I have done before you by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.
For the wrong I have done before you by separating sacred and profane
And for the wrong I have done before you because I should have known that everything is sacred.
Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Strugglers, Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,” God weeps.
I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. And like Aaron, all I can muster for now is silence. But dear God, Moses was beside Aaron in Aaron’s silence, and we will be in this silence together. God, You heard Hannah’s whispered prayer, and we will hear each other across the distance. We learned to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and now we separate from one another, not because any one of us is profane, but because every soul is sacred. When we are safe again, we will join hands, as well as voices. We will stay in the struggle with You, God. And we will sing.