Contagious Hope: Yom Kippur 5782

Collecting hopes at the University of Illinois

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.

Creative High Holiday Offerings

For my friends and colleagues who are preparing and want to add something new…or for those who simply enjoy reading original liturgy, here are some creative offerings.

Rosh Hashanah

A Shofar Offering – Shofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
This is a prayer from the perspective of Hannah, whose story we read in the haftarah on Rosh Hashana. If you’re in the same place as me this year – praying with Hannah – please know that your prayers are mine as well. May the Womb of the World hear our longing this year, and may the new year bring new life to us all.

Yom Kippur

Yearning to be Known – UnknowableUnknowable with visuals
God is unknowable, but here’s what I know: God yearns to be known. This is a poem about God. It’s meaningful for year-round, but one of the lines is “God is asking for our forgiveness on Yom Kippur.” I’m using it as an entry point to the Amidah.

A Forgiveness Prayer – Held in the Brokenness
This prayer focuses specifically on repeat mistakes – the things we find ourselves returning to, year after year, no matter how we try.

A Different Kind of Vidui Vidui for God (2021)
My friend, Geo, and I were both struggling with the concept of more repentance this year, despite having many things to repent for – so we dug into the pain and co-wrote a new Vidui for God. Bold move? Yes. But as Hila wrote, Jewish rebukes of God have a long history. Thank you so much to Ritualwell for publishing ours.

“The High Holiday season can be an intense time of self-reflection, as we look inward to see where we have missed the mark this past year. But after a year of pandemic, fires, hurricanes and global instability, how harsh must we be toward ourselves? Don’t we need a larger dose of compassion than self-flagellation this year? A Vidui for God (2021),” Heather Paul and Geo Poor turn the tables on this traditional prayer and boldly demand that God hold Godself accountable for the ways in which God has let us down. While this Vidui may appear sacrilegious to some, it is situated within a long history of Jewish rebukes of God, from the ancient prophets onward, and can help give expression to our deepest frustrations in our relationship to the divine.”

At Any Time

A Caregivers Prayer
I’m using this to honor caregivers – especially those working in medicine over the last two years – during Yizkor. It would also work well as part of a misheberach.

Illuminate the World: A Peace Prayer
I’m using this along with Oseh Shalom after the Amidah.

Prayer for Entering Recovery
I’m including this in my written materials for personal reflection – because you never know who needs it.


I would love for you to use any of my original liturgy and poetry. If you are not sharing people’s names for attribution during the service, because it feels stilted or it breaks up the flow of the experience, I would appreciate having my name listed in any written materials, ideally along with my website: scatteredleaves.net. I would also love to hear what you end up using! There is nothing more rewarding for me as a liturgist than knowing that my liturgy made an impact. Thank you!

Out of the Narrows

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.

Voice from the Void: 30 Scatteredleaves Creations from 2020

Sometimes words bang on the doors of me, begging to be let out. Is it a striving desperation to make meaning out of madness? To tame an untamable experience by shaping it with narrative?

Several weeks ago, my classmates and I encountered Rebbe Nahman’s texts about The Void – and the silence within it. For many of my classmates, facing that silence led to more silence. But for me, it just made the words louder. I write constantly. Sometimes the words rush from my fingers faster than I can type them, an unstoppable flood pouring from the rock Moshe hit with his stick, when he couldn’t find words himself. It seems the harder it is to find the words, the more the words find me.

Chaim Bialik writes, “It is that very eternal darkness that is so fearsome – that darkness from the time of Creation…Every man is afraid of it and every man is drawn to it. With our very lips we construct barriers, words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.”
Perhaps writing is one of my attempts to create a penimi from a maqqif (something I can grasp within that wish is ungraspable). A way to crack a hole in the darkness of the void. A way of finding God in a place that appears empty, so that I can chase the next void, and the one after that.

With that in mind, I share a list of things I created within the void of 2020 – rituals, poems, prayers, and videos. This is not a comprehensive list. I only included the creations I felt I could publish or name in this space or elsewhere. The list doesn’t include all of my school writing (one of my classes had weekly reflection assignments) and it doesn’t include every private ritual I created for people who needed them. It also doesn’t include the virtual programs I built. But it’s a start.

I’m grateful for all the words that found me in the emptiness, but I pray for a 2021 that is full – full of inspiration, full of healing, and full of hope. Blessings on your journey, beloveds. See you on the other side.

Published on Ritualwell:

  1. Prayer Before Starting IVF
  2. Postponement Prayer (also published in When the World Turned Inward, Vol. 2)
  3. Virtual Memory Circle
  4. Hearing in our Hearts
  5. God’s Lament: A Letter to Daughter Zion (from Reb Shulamit’s class)

Videos:

  1. What Have We Lost?
  2. History of Loneliness
  3. History of Languages
  4. Looking Behind: A Monologue from Lot’s Wife
  5. Light and Darkness

Published in the Forward:

  1. ‘In the Torah, name changes signify moments of transformation.’ In the lives of transgender Jews, they are just as powerful

On my blog

  1. Nahman’s Dancing Circle, Chayei Sarah, and Pixar’s Inside Out (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  2. Get In, Get Real, and Grow (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  3. Letter to Rebbe Nahman (reflection assignment for Reb Elliot’s class)
  4. Shelters (in Place): A Pandemic Sukkot
  5. Holding the Shattered Pieces
  6. Grief in the Book of Ruth: Ruth’s Letter to Mahlon (from Reb Shulamit’s class)
  7. Silent and Sacred: Parshat Shmini for 2020
  8. Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle: A Reinterpretation of Song of Songs (from Reb Shulamit’s Class)
  9. Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra
  10. Where Are You?

Publishing in 2021, but written in 2020

  1. Letter from Vashti to the New Queen of Shushan (publication set for February, I hope) 
  2. Prayer for the Covid-19 Vaccine
  3. Havdalah for Letting Go 
  4. Mezuzah Ritual for Moving into a New Home

Papers for Biblical Civilizations class

  1. A Tale of Two Floods 
  2. “To Teach and Enlighten:” The Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges
  3. Three Contemporary Prophecies written in the style of the prophet, Ezekiel
  4. A Contemporary Apocalypse in the style of the Book of Daniel
  5. Bringing Biblical Life and History to Hillel 

Light and Darkness

In the week leading up to Hanukkah 2020, I invited people to respond to two questions:

What is your source of light in the darkness?
How will you bring light to others in the days to come?

I received 105 responses on social media.These are some of the results. Our world is in darkness, but there is light inside each of us. Happy Hanukkah, everyone. Thanks to all who share their light with the world.

Created by Heather Paul with music, “Yedid Nefesh,” by Geo Poor

Shelters (in Place): a Pandemic Sukkot

Sukkot, the joyous Festival of Booths, started last night – five days after Yom Kippur. We face our mortality on Yom Kippur each year, and this year’s Yom Kippur was even more existential than usual. Sukkot always comes on Yom Kippur’s heels, and it makes sense: After we face our mortality, Sukkot is a celebration of the temporary. We are each getting closer to death every day. So we sit, eat, sleep, and pray in huts that we build with meticulous care and then tear down one week later. Like our lives right now – these huts are anything but stable. They only have three walls, and by law, we must be able to see the sky through its roof made of branches. If Yom Kippur’s message is “We are going to die, and that’s terrifying,” Sukkot’s message is “We are going to die, so let’s celebrate while we can.” The five days between the two are a path paved with meaning. If we find meaning in the days we have left, we can celebrate them, even – or especially – if we don’t know how many more we’ve got

This is a hard Sukkot for many of us because it’s a lonely one. But Sukkot teaches us that this loneliness – the loneliness of the pandemic – is also temporary. Shelter-in-Place is just another temporary shelter. We don’t know when it will end, but we have to trust that it will. “To everything there is a season,” Kohelet writes, in the book we read on this holiday. The pandemic season, the election season, the holiday season – all of it is temporary.

Tomorrow I will visit a friend’s sukkah and I will wrap myself in prayer beneath her branches. It won’t be a sukkah overflowing with friends, food, and song this year. I will be alone and masked, and I will only be there for the 20 minute time slot I booked before the next person arrives to fulfill the mitzvah. But I will be sheltered, I will be present, and I will breathe deeply. I will hold each second closely before I release it. To everything there is a season. Sukkot is a reminder that even this one can’t last forever.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sukkot Sameach. May we find meaning and joy in this season, as we celebrate all that is temporary.

Elevating Voices: Creative High Holiday Offerings

A Shofar OfferingShofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
Some prayers are spoken and some are silent. 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.

We read Hannah’s story on Rosh Hashanah. There are times when it hurts too much for me to hear it, and there are times when hearing it makes me feel less alone, and reminds me that this suffering links me to generations of ancestors who dealt with the same thing.

I was thinking about how the words of her prayers aren’t written in the text and I realized it’s because we know them by heart too. Every person who has struggled with infertility, who has miscarried, who has yearned that deeply: we know.

If you want to use this in your shul for the holidays, you’re welcome to, with attribution. The quoted pieces are from 1 Samuel. If you’re in the same place as me this year – praying with Hannah – please know that your prayers are mine as well. May the Womb of the World hear our longing this year, and may the new year bring new life to us all.

What Have We Lost?

On July 30, 2020, I invited people to share up to five things they’ve lost since COVID-19, in just a few words each, in observance of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning on the Jewish calendar. Over 25 hours, 95 people shared their losses anonymously in a Google Form. These are some of the results.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. May we swiftly return to a time of life, a time of touch, and a time of healing. If the video moves you, please share.

Holding the Shattered Pieces

“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 as Bein 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. 

Grief in the Book of Ruth: A Letter

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. There are many fantastic interpretations of this story – some of them ask if Ruth and Naomi were lovers, others explore the nature of the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, and others focus on Ruth as the paradigmatic convert. In reading the story and a number of articles about it last month, I found that no one had really explored Ruth from the perspective of grief and loss. Her husband died before she left Moab, and Boaz’s wife died the day Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem. The widow and the widower marry each other. As a grief counselor, I often invite people to write letters to the people in their lives who have died. Below is the letter I imagine Ruth would write to her late husband, Mahlon.

Beloved, 

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. I used to be certain there was nothing but nothingness after death. But now there are days when I swear I feel your eyes upon me. Before we left Moab, every laugh I heard by the water where we skipped stones made my heart skip a beat. I’ve seen you in dreams but not only in dreams. Since you died, the doorway between life and death has cracked open, leaving me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. But I have to try. 

When I found you dead, there was so much screaming. I only realized later that the voice was my own. How could you leave me, Mahlon? After a night of gentle warmth, I woke with your cold skin resting on mine. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Orpah found me shaking you, sobbing, begging. It was too late. 

Soon, your mother was all I had left of you. When Naomi held me, I felt you in her arms. She told Orpah and me to stay behind, to return to our parents. But losing Naomi would have been losing you all over again. So I gave her the same vow I shared with you on our wedding day: Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. We walked together to Bethlehem. 

I never planned to marry again. But two women can’t make it on our own in Bethlehem, or anywhere else for that matter. When Naomi told me to go to Boaz at night, your voice was in her mouth, telling me to take care of her. To take care of us. I’ll do what I have to do. And…there is one more thing.

Boaz is a widower. His wife died the day your mother and I arrived in Bethlehem. He’s grieving too. He never expected to find me on the threshing floor. Boaz didn’t want to make love to me. His heart breaks for his dead bride, just as my heart breaks for you. We stayed up all night talking about you and about her. Maybe, just maybe, we can mend our shattered hearts if we hold the broken pieces together. 

My dear Mahlon, I don’t know what happens after death, and I don’t know what happens now that you’ve died, but I know Boaz is asking the same questions. The doorway between life and death has cracked open, and Boaz is standing in the doorway with me. I hope you know I’ll never stop missing you, even though I am marrying him. I hope you can forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I have to try. 

And I will take care of Naomi, Mahlon, just as she takes care of me. Our stories are one and the same, and my vow to you – and to her – remains. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 

I carry you with me, always.
Yours,

Ruth