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. 

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!

Facing the Giants: Parsha Shelach

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites send emissaries into the land that God has promised them – a land, they have been told, that is flowing with milk and honey. When the scouts return from their mission, they bring back fruit and report that the land is fertile, but they also report that the land is inhabited by Nephilim. Nephilim is often translated as “giants,” because the scouts describe them as large and fearsome. Other sources call them “fallen angels,” ascribing supernatural prowess. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they say, “and so we must have looked to them.”

The Israelites were not the first or the last Jews to experience Impostor Syndrome. As I begin preparing for my first High Holiday leadership experience, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to feel small, to feel unprepared, to feel like everyone else in the world I’ve dreamed of – the world of rabbinic leadership – is so much more qualified than I am. When I approach the pulpit, despite over 11 years of success in Jewish leadership, I just don’t feel like I belong there.

The funny thing is, a lot of my work centers on supporting others who feel like grasshoppers in a land of giants. I am the manager of the Springboard Fellowship, training, supporting, and mentoring early career professionals, many of whom are new to Jewish leadership, and new to work in general. They are zero to two years out of college, and they often don’t feel qualified to step up as Jewish educators. They, like me, compare themselves to rabbis, peers, or students who have a lot more experience and different skill sets than they do. A challenging thing about Impostor Syndrome in the landscape of Jewish leadership is that it’s not just about leading. It often comes down to an underlying fear that we are just not “Jewish enough,” whether it’s due to lack of knowledge and experience or Jewish “status” as determined by Orthodox law.

Whatever the reason, it’s tough to lead when we don’t think we have what it takes. What strikes me the most about the scouts’ statement is the simultaneous self-awareness: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves” – and lack of awareness: “So we must have looked like grasshoppers to them.” The scouts recognize their own perception, and it’s true that we can make anything into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the scouts don’t understand that self-perception is limited. A couple of weeks after one of my grasshopper moments as a newer professional on campus, I came to my office to find notes of gratitude on my desk, in which my students described me as “a rock,” “great in a crisis,” and “a voice of reason.” I was shocked. The only giant that I had to fear was the one I had created within me – the one who told me that I was too small to make a difference.

I learned something else about Impostor Syndrome recently, from an article written by my colleague, Chris Harrison. Impostor Syndrome isn’t just about thinking I don’t have what it takes. It’s also an inability to celebrate my successes, to own my expertise. I do know my own strengths, but I tend to dismiss them. I tell myself these strengths are not as important as the skills I’m still lacking, and that my weaknesses will keep me from becoming the rabbi I want to be.

When have you felt like a grasshopper among the Nephilim of the world? When have you held back, keeping yourself out of the land of milk and honey because you felt too small to take part in it? What if the Israelites had owned the successes that led them to this moment, on the precipice of their greatest dream? They escaped Egypt, they received the Torah, they transitioned from slavery to freedom, they became a people. They made mistakes along the way – remember the Golden Calf? – but they learned, they grew, and they became. Their own fear was the only thing standing between them and the land of milk and honey.

When it comes down to it, we do have to face our own giants, even when we’re afraid. But that doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. When you have been scared to enter your own land of milk and honey, has there ever been a voice – your own or someone else’s – that reminded you to own your expertise? In my work, I have been fortunate to have phenomenal mentors who believe in me, such as my current supervisor, Josh Feldman. I’ve also been fortunate to be that voice for countless students and young adults. When I feel like a grasshopper surrounded by giants and fallen angels, I try to remember that if I’ve been that person for other people, I get to be that person for myself too, and I get to ask others for support when I need it.

You – and I – have everything it takes to face the giants. We do have what it takes to claim our place in the land of our dreams. My blessing for all of us in this week and in the weeks to come is that we learn to celebrate our strengths, own our expertise, and recognize our own potential. We may be afraid, but we are right where we belong, and together, we are unstoppable. Shabbat Shalom.

A Line in the Sand: Parsha Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion includes a line that has possibly caused more pain and harm than just about any other verse in the Torah: “V’et-zakar lo-tishkav mishkevey ishshah; toevah hi.” The most familiar translation of this line is “You shall not lie with a man as you lie with a woman, it is toevah.” Toevah is often translated as “forbidden.” It’s a boundary that cannot be crossed.

Leviticus 18:22 has been used – and is still used – to justify cruelty toward LGBTQ individuals. Just last month, Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical program, decided not to ordain one of their rabbinical students because he is gay. When he came out three and a half years ago, he asked YCT if they would still ordain him. They said that they would, and then last month, they changed their minds, choosing this boundary, Leviticus 18:22, over a student who dedicated years of study toward becoming a rabbi at their institution. They saw the place where halacha (Jewish law) and human life collide, and they drew a line in the sand between the two. What happens when someone reaches across that line and holds out a hand? What happens when boundaries are broken?

Each of the seven weeks between Passover and Shauvot are known as the Omer, and each week is associated with an aspect of God’s soul – and our souls: Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (boundaries), Tiferet (harmony), Hod (splendor), Netzach (endurance), Yesod (foundation) and Malchut (sovereignty). Each day within each week is associated with one of these seven aspects as well. This Shabbat is the 14th day of the Omer, and we spent this week in the world of Gevurah, of boundaries.

We all know boundaries are important. We set boundaries on our time. We set boundaries between personal and professional. In the caring professions, we strive for emotional boundaries, so we don’t lose ourselves in other people’s stories. Boundaries tell children that they can trust the adults in their lives. Boundaries keep people safe – physically, emotionally, spiritually.

So how do we respond to a boundary like Leviticus 18:22? In my 10 years as a Jewish communal professional, I’ve seen it all. Some abandon religion forever, saying “If that’s one line your holy book, I don’t want the rest of its pages.” Some find a different way to interpret the words, struggling to make the ancient law fit our contemporary sensibilities. Others decide to take the parts of Judaism they like, and discard the rest. They may call themselves “cultural Jews” or “Jew-ish,” as if to specify that they’re not like “those other Jews” who are “more traditional” or “more religious.” As an aside, while I support people in defining their Judaism however they’d like, I don’t think any person making informed, Jewish decisions about their boundaries is any “less religious,” but that’s a topic for another day.

I recently read responses from multiple Jewish movements to see how they addressed the boundary set by Leviticus 18:22. In North America, Reform Rabbis have officiated same-sex marriages since 2000. The Conservative movement followed suit in 2012, reversing a 2006 decision that Conservative rabbis could not officiate same-sex marriages. The most interesting response to me was a dissenting opinion from three Conservative rabbis in 2006. Rabbis Geller, Fine, and Fine detailed examples of other moments when rabbis agreed on a change in halachic interpretation: “Just as the ancient Israelites could not envision a world without slavery,” they said, “so could they not imagine a society where two men or two women could live together in a recognizable consecrated relationship and raise children. Just as the Rabbis understood that monetary interest could no longer be considered usury in a currency-based economy, so do we understand that same-sex relationships can no longer be considered toevah.” For these three rabbis, it was time to break the boundary, even though the rest of their leadership chose to uphold it.

I am heartened by the efforts of organizations like JQY and Eshel, which support Orthodox LGBTQ Jews. JQY raised enough money for the former YCT rabbinical student to pursue independent ordination in Israel. I’m also heartened by the promises of Rabbis Avram Mlotek and Daniel Silverstein, Orthodox alumni of YCT, who just became the first Orthodox rabbis to announce that they will now officiate Orthodox same-sex marriages. This was their response to the boundary set by YCT after they refused to ordain the student. It’s a step in the right direction, though they didn’t quite break the boundary. Both rabbis specified that the weddings would not be kiddushin, so they will not be seen as Jewishly legal.

How do we decide when a boundary should be broken in our own lives, like the Reform rabbis did in 2000? How do we decide when a boundary should be compromised instead, like Rabbi Mlotek and Rabbi Silverstein, deciding to officiate same-sex weddings for Jews, while refusing to call them halachic Jewish marriages?

Whatever decision you reach, one thing is certain: Boundaries are opportunities to ask ourselves really important questions. When halacha and human life collide, and someone draws a line in the sand, it’s important to remember that sand can blow away. Even massive boulders erode over time. A boundary means that two ideas are close enough to press up against each other, jostling for space in a crowded world. It’s on us to decide when and how to change our boundaries, even the ones that make us feel safe. All boundaries help us decide what really matters, and allow us to see where our edges can soften.

I’ll conclude with a poem that I wrote in honor of this week’s omer theme, and perhaps this coming week, you can consider where your own boundaries and soft edges live, and think about when it’s time to move that line in the sand.

The One Who Separates
day from night
sea from sky
and sky from the branches
who reach for her

also created horizons,
roots, wings,
and twilight

teaching us,
when our hands touch,
that the precipice
between one and another
is also a window

every boundary an opportunity
to connect with something sacred

A Time to Keep Silent: Parsha Shmini

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.

In traditional communities, when Jews pray the Amidah, our great standing prayer, we pray it in a whisper. There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but this private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was barren. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her 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.

This week, one father made his own silence permanent. Jeremy Richman took his own life, seven years after his daughter, Avielle, was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. Two survivors of the Parkland shooting also died by suicide this week, within days of each other. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out, or we protest. Sometimes we whisper. Other times, all we can muster is silence.

Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why were so many children murdered in their schools? Why did their loved ones take their own lives, instead of living to tell their children’s stories? There are still no reasons that truly justify their deaths.

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 the murdered children, the suicide contagion among the survivors, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.

Sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 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 gas chambers, school shootings, cancer, and suicides. It’s a day for God to join us in 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-Wrestlers,
Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,”
God weeps.

I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. But all I can muster for now, dear God, is silence.

Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives the Israelites instructions for the creation of the first mishkan, the first sanctuary for prayer. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Eleven chapters later, we read that the Israelites have brought too much: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded.” Moses tells the people to stop bringing these gifts, because it was enough, v’hoter. V’hoter means “and left over” – the people brought so much to the Mishkan that it could not all be used for the project.

It was so human of them, this eagerness. They tried so hard to please the Holy One that they brought too much at once. Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of the 65,000 teddy bears that showed up in Newtown, CT, just one week after the Sandy Hook massacre. Kind, good-hearted people, grieving for the murder of so many children, channeled their grief into gifts. It was well-intentioned, but it was more about their own pain than the needs of the community. Unfortunately, it was far too much for the town to handle, and one man was left with the task of managing $27,000 worth of toys that the children of Newtown truly didn’t need. He had to purchase 80,000 feet of storage space, which filled up quickly with more unnecessary gifts – v’hoter, leftover. Ultimately, it went to good use: The community decided to ship boxes of toys to orphanages.

Every day, we face countless opportunities to help – it can seem like the world is overflowing with needs, on both a personal and a communal level. Sometimes we are so quick to fix, to respond, to act, that we don’t consider what type of response is best, or how much action is necessary. The pain is too much to take in, so we act quickly, trying to heal our own wounded hearts as well as the wounds of those in need. The second line of Psalm 41, a psalm we say when visiting the sick, says “Ashrei maskil el-dal,” Happy is the one who is maskil in relation to the person in need.” In a midrash on this psalm, Rav Yonah says, “What does maskil mean in this case? That the person helping truly looks and considers how to revive the person.” We have to consider what is truly required, and then make a decision about how to give, and how much.

What does it mean to build a sanctuary? How do we choose what to bring, how to pray, how to respond when there’s a call for action? Will our sanctuary be a storage room for 65,000 teddy bears, a tabernacle beside a pile of v’hoter, leftover, unused material? Will we bring what is needed, or bring too much, easing our own desires to feel or appear helpful? Or will our mishkan, our sanctuary, be a space where we can celebrate and grieve together, where we listen, truly consider, and then decide how to act? Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. As we face the complexities of the world around us, may we remember that our intentions matter, and that our actions must matter too.

Toward Love: Parsha Ki Tisa

February is hard. Last week we saw the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of 17 people – children and teachers – who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on February 14, 2018. This week, I’m observing the yahrzeits of two of my former campers. One died by suicide in February 2016, and the other by suicide in February 2018. My uncle died suddenly in February 2013. My grandmother and great-grandfather’s yahrzeits are in February as well. Despite the losses piled on losses at this time of year, I am still amazed at how quickly everything changes. One day last year, 17 people went to school and never came home again. One day three years ago, someone I loved woke up for the last time. When I think about how quickly the world turns upside down, it feels like something has knocked the wind out of me. I’m suddenly suffocating, gasping for breath, grasping for answers. What are we going to do? Is anyone safe? Can anything we do to help ever be enough? I feel powerless in the face of pain and I find myself asking over and over: How are we going to heal all these broken hearts?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, provides an example of how we might respond to all of this powerlessness and pain. The Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf – a false idol – while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. When Moses found out about the golden calf, he was furious, and he shattered the tablets. But this was not his only response. Moses saw the Israelites in their sin, and he saw their fear. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days, and the Israelites didn’t know what was going to happen. So many of us turn to something familiar in times of uncertainty and doubt. We all have destructive habits that are comforting in the moment, even if they’re unhealthy and unsafe in the long run. These are our golden calves. Moses was angry that the Israelites had given up on God, who brought them out of Egypt. But he understood, and he pled to God on the Israelites’ behalf, an act of compassion in his moment of hopelessness and rage. Thankfully, God heard Moses’s plea, and decided to punish the Israelites with a plague instead of something worse. Moses returned to the mountain and received the Torah for a second time. When he came back down, he brought a new set of tablets with him.

The Talmud teaches us that the Israelites kept the broken tablets, and placed them, along with the new ones, in the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark. Why keep this symbol of their own fear, this casualty of rage, this set of broken laws? Because brokenness and wholeness live side by side in the world and in our hearts. Because together, these tablets also represented Moses’s act of kindness in the face of his own anger. Because brokenness itself is holy: The kabbalists teach that 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, which means the broken pieces are always with us – in the ark and in our hearts, along with the pieces we have renewed through acts of kindness.

What is shattered cannot be mended, and lives that are lost cannot be found again. The children murdered in Parkland last year are never coming back. Neither are my campers who committed suicide. But we carry their memories with us, broken pieces lovingly placed alongside the whole ones. Like the tablets, 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. And we too can try each day to respond to pain with compassion, like Moses did when he found the Israelites praying to the Golden Calf. We can’t control the universe, but we can respond to desperation with overwhelming kindness. It’s not enough, but it’s all we can offer, and doing nothing is not an option. Maybe it’s arrogant to believe that our actions make a difference. Or maybe it’s hope. Maybe every small act of kindness offsets a moment of suffering, and together, we can tip the cosmic scale, ever so slightly, toward love. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to take the risk, and I invite you to join me, in all of your brokenness and wholeness, in making this world a sacred place. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. February is hard, but I am so grateful that we are in it together.

Breathless Freedom: Parsha Va’eira

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites that God will free them from slavery. The text says that the Israelites did not hear Moses in their suffering – literally due to shortness of breath, or spirit. I’m sure many of us have been in a space where we are too exhausted, too dispirited, to believe that goodness will come to us. A friend has told me that depression feels like something sitting on her chest, a suffocating heaviness that makes it impossible to believe in freedom. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because they, too, were suffering.

When God then tells Moses to demand the Israelites’ freedom, Moses says “Behold, the Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me?” The 19th century Hasidic rabbi and scholar known as Sefat Emet points out that we know why the Israelites didn’t listen. As we just explored, they couldn’t hear Moses in their suffering. Sefat Emet asks, what does the Israelites’ anguish have to do with Pharaoh’s ability to listen?

Sefat Emet posits an answer that demonstrates Moses’s leadership skills. “Moses knew that the power of a leader derives from his people. If he had not succeeded in penetrating the Israelites’ hearts, he would not be able to achieve anything on their behalf.” Sefat Emet is saying that a leader needs “buy-in.” A leader needs to meet people where they are. A leader needs to understand not only what the people need – but also the way they need to hear it. This is the only way to make change.

However, the rest of the parsha seems to disprove this concept. Moses and his brother Aaron do approach Pharaoh, over and over again, asking Pharaoh to free the Israelites. You know the story from Passover – this parsha contains the first seven of the ten plagues. Moses moves forward with the plan to free the Israelites, even though they were not ready to hear him yet. It took a long time – and many plagues, miracles, and years of wandering in the desert – before the Israelites believed that salvation was real, and that this life of freedom was theirs to hold.

Where, then, does this leave us with regard to leadership? Should Moses have waited, organized some focus groups, and taken a vote before approaching Pharoah? In this case, it was probably more important to get the process started, and to get that buy-in along the way. Maybe not the best example of organizational change management, but it got the job done.


There are many other angles to explore in this Torah portion, but for now, I’ll return to the beginning – to the Israelites in bondage, not yet ready to believe in the promise of freedom from a God they did not know. And I want to leave you with a few questions to consider.

When you are dispirited, unable to hear the voices saying that freedom is coming, what is it that finally brings you hope? Has there ever been a moment, a miracle, a person, a reminder of some kind, that helped you believe in the future? When have you been that reminder for someone else? And when have you, like Moses, decided to act, to make a change, even if your community wasn’t ready for it?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. If your soul has been in bondage too long, may you find the path to freedom you need this week. And if you have a message of hope for others to hear, sing it. You might just be the miracle we’ve been waiting for.