Heart, Soul, and Might: Parsha Va’etchanan

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the well-known words of the V’ahavta: You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. What does it mean to love with all three of these? Today is a unique moment in the Jewish calendar that can teach us what this kind of love might look like. 

Today is: 

  1. Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of compassion, following Tisha B’Av, our day of mourning. Shabbat Nachamu is based on the first verse of the Haftarah reading, Isaiah 40:1, “Console, console my people, says your God.” The following three haftarot are called “Prophecies of Consolation,” a loving, compassionate response to the previous three weeks, “the Prophecies of Affliction.”
  2. Tu b’Av – the 15th of Av, a minor Jewish holiday that is sometimes called “Hag Ha’Ahava,” the holiday of love. According to the Mishna, Tu B’Av was a joyful holiday in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, marking the start of the grape harvest. Women wore white and danced in the vineyards waiting to meet their beloveds. Since Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av on the contemporary calendar, this holiday is also seen as an additional source of comfort and joy following a period of mourning. It’s also a popular time to get married – a time of many weddings and joyful unions.
  3. This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan – In this parsha, Moses shares the greatest commandments of all: Sh’ma and V’ahavta. Sh’ma is an affirmation of God’s Oneness, and the V’ahavta is the promise that I discussed at the top. It’s a promise that we will love God with all our hearts, souls, and might.

Each of the three events that collide tonight on the Jewish calendar can be linked to the three ways we are told to love God. 

First, we have Shabbat Nachamu. Nachamu comes from the word rachamim, which means compassion. Rachamim comes from the word “rechem,” which means womb. We are held, this Shabbat, in compassion and consolation, by Shechinah, God’s feminine, nurturing presence. This is how we learn to love with our hearts. 

Second, we have Tu B’Av, a celebration of love. In Jewish wedding liturgy, the joy of two souls coupling contributes to the joy of the world. In the words of Rabbi Shai Held, “A wedding is never just a private affair, something enacted between two people alone. It is a sacred coming together, which adds love to the world. This is the power of love between two souls. Tu B’Av represents a way to love with all your soul. It’s a day that celebrates soul-mates.

How do we love with all our might? The words of V’ahavta in this week’s Torah portion follow the words of the Sh’ma: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: Listen, God-wrestlers, God is your God. God is One. When we love with all our might, we love with God’s love. When we love with all our might, our love has the power to change things. When we love with all our might, we remember that all are One.

In honor of this celebration of love and compassion, I’ve written a new interpretation of V’ahavta, a contemporary reminder that if we meet the world with love, we will create a more loving world.  For your reference, the traditional V’ahavta can be found here.

Interpretive V’ahavta

You shall love our world with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your might.

Write compassion on your heart, today and every day.
Teach your children to be tender with themselves,
with each other, and with everything on earth.

Speak with kindness at home and in the world,
before you go to sleep, and first thing in the morning
even if you wake up grumpy, and you haven’t had your coffee yet. 

Create signposts and reminders for yourself
Tape it to your fridge on a post-it note
Make love the background on your home screen
Add it to your to-do list app with daily notifications.

When you remember to love with your whole self
you will bring holiness to the world
and you will know that we are One. 

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. May we face the world with love this week, and in all the weeks to come. 

Many thanks to my husband, Joseph Gluck, for pointing out the link between the three observances, and heart, soul, and might. Thank you for being my best editor, thought partner, and soul mate. Happy Jewish Valentines Day!

Don’t Look Away: Tisha B’Av

Anguish. Anger. Sadness. We spend so much time and energy trying to move past it. Trying to take action. Trying to stay positive. We fear emotional pain so much that there are entire industries dedicated to avoiding it.  So how are we to respond to a moment in the Jewish calendar that prescribes lament? In these Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples, we are told to grieve, to feel pain, to sit low to the ground like we might after the death of a family member. Do not look away, Tisha B’Av tells us. Look at the world. Look at the loss. Look at your own anguish, anger, and sadness. Feel every minute of it.

This is the first time I’ve ever felt the coming of Tisha B’Av. As an unapologetic diasporist, I don’t long for a return to the Temple or the return of animal sacrifice. I even wrote alternative blessings for the parts of our daily liturgy that ask God to return us to those times and places (publication coming soon on Ritualwell).  Still, Tisha B’Av has been tugging at my heart this year. Maybe it’s because of the crisis at our nation’s border. Maybe it’s the rampant gun violence in this week alone. Over the last several of these Nine Days, people I haven’t heard from in ages have reached out to me to share their stories of personal traumatic loss. I don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s an honor to be the altar for their offerings. It seems that even if I’m not observing the Nine Days, these Nine Days are observing me. 

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” Animal sacrifices forced our ancestors to confront mortality, to face the reality of death by engaging with it directly. This is how they drew near to God. I am so relieved we gather in community now instead, and that we have replaced these acts of violence with prayer. We don’t need a Temple because our world is the Temple and our words are the offerings. But does our praying truly draw us nearer to God? Or are we still skillfully keeping death at an emotional distance? Is there something missing, after all, now that the the Temple itself feels more like history than memory? Prayer was supposed to replace the violent act of animal sacrifice, and these days, it’s another inadequate response to the violence all around us. 

Tisha B’Av reminds us to see this violence, to face mortality, and to grieve it. We are a society that fears pain so much that we hurry through it, or skip it entirely in favor of action. I believe our action will be more informed and more effective if we draw near to pain first. Anger, anguish, and sadness are hard to sit with. It’s hard to hold space for suffering before rising up to make change. This is the challenge of Tisha B’Av: Look at the world. Look at the loss. Feel every minute of it. Do not look away. Draw near instead.  Sit with the suffering. Take the pain – your own, and the pain of others – in your own hands. Hold it gently. Speak to it, saying: “I hear you and I am here with you.” Only then will we finally be able to rebuild.

Through the Narrows: Passover 5779

This Passover, I’m considering the narrow spaces* I create for myself – the chains I choose, and the chains I hold onto. I’m looking at the chains I should abandon, and the ones I can’t leave behind.

I’m thinking about the chains I carried with me across the riverbed, clink-clink-clinking like Miriam’s timbrels, while the sea roared on either side.

I’m thinking about dropping them along the way this time, releasing myself from the narrowness I’ve carried in my heart.

Whatever it is that’s holding you back, I invite you to wonder with me: What does freedom feel like, when we allow ourselves to truly feel it? What might we discover together in this great expanse?

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach, Everyone.

May we sing each other, every day, to the other side of the sea

*The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which translates, roughly, to “narrow spaces.” When we celebrate Passover, we are asked to imagine that we ourselves are coming out of Egypt, freeing ourselves from the narrow places in our lives.

unRevelation

On Shavuot 2016, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shavuot is the holiday that celebrates the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. It’s the end of one long journey and the start of another. We observe our years of wandering in the desert by counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. After our freedom from slavery, after all of the wandering, we are finally able to own that freedom at Mt. Sinai, becoming a people at last.

The day after Shavuot 2016, and the day after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, I was driving to work, stuck in traffic as always, crying as I listened to the story of the massacre on NPR. It was Virginia Tech, it was Sandy Hook, it was every other communal tragedy that affected me on a personal level. A voice inside rose like smoke from a flame: I want to be a rabbi. I tried to shrug it off. I have to be a rabbi. While this may not have been an answer for the world, at the very least, in the moment, it felt like an answer for me.

It’s hard to articulate why the Pulse Nightclub shooting inspired this epiphany. Maybe I felt like I had to do something, anything to heal this shattered world. Even though I know it’s impossible, I also knew I had to try, and this was the best I could offer. Maybe this was my Shavuot becoming, my revelation at the foot of the great mountain. Maybe it was just a feeling, a sudden knowing, and I don’t need to find words, or reasons, for everything.

Today, we enter the Shabbat before Shavuot in the wake of another mass shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 children were murdered. We received 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai, including the injunction, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew word ratzach, which means to murder or slay, shares a root with the word retzach, which means shattering. Moses shattered the tablets when he found that the Israelites had created a Golden Calf, an idol, while he was at the top of the mountain receiving Torah for the first time. How many lives are shattered when one is lost? How many commandments are broken when 10 children are murdered at school? The numbers pound in my head with my broken heart: 49 lives lost in Orlando, following the 49 days of the Omer. 10 children killed before we celebrate the 10 commandments. Mishnah Sanhedrin says whoever destroys a soul destroys a whole world. So many worlds, days, stone tablets, lives: all gone forever.

I have two semesters of rabbinical school behind me, and many more ahead. I still don’t know how to respond to violence. I can dissect the Hebrew word that means “to murder,” and I can connect the number of children killed with the number of commandments on the tablets. But in the days following this horrific tragedy, I doubt the smoke from a flame will again rise within me, that voice that urged me to follow another path in the aftermath of Orlando. I never did find an answer for myself, even though others in the world turn to me in moments of crisis. I teach them to sit with the unanswered questions. If there is a voice in the aftermath, it will not have an answer. It will be a sob, or perhaps a wailing, a recognition that the shattering never stopped, that we are still, after all, in the wilderness. We are here, waiting for a leader to descend the mountain. We are scrambling to hide the Golden Calf we built out of fear. We are still grieving the first set of stone tablets, the broken ones, searching for their message in the silence that follows the gun shots. We do not know if revelation is coming, only that the broken commandments cannot be reforged. If we want to bring about revelation, we must build new tablets together.