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.
I looked back over all my course posts from the semester. I remembered where I was when I wrote them, what I was worried about, what I was celebrating, what I was hoping for. I read the post I wrote when I was unable to enter the Arafel, after receiving bad news. I read the letter I wrote to Nahman, where I thanked him for arriving at the moments when I’ve needed him the most. I read about teaching nekuda tova to those who needed to find just ONE good thing about themselves – one nekud to change the word, the sentence, and the story. I read the unstoppable flood of words that poured out of me when I encountered Nahman’s wordless void.
The key takeaway that emerges for me, from the stillness at the center of the dancing circle – the message that appears with clarity when I emerge from the mystical forest…is to GET IN, GET REAL, AND GROW. Nahman wants us to engage with our pain, to be authentic, and to learn from everything. Every text we encountered somehow landed on one or all of these points for me. Face your meniot, don’t avoid them. Shatter the rock, shatter your heart, carry the broken pieces – it’s easier to bring them up the stairs when they’re broken. Bring your brokenness with you into the Arafel. Sigh deeply in your darkness. Find your way through that darkness to a forest. Once you’re there, interbreathe with the trees, surrender, and pour your heart out to God. Hold nothing back. When you get lost in that forest, find a guide who can help you experience your fear and your wonder in their fullness. Then emerge, changed into who you really are, who you were meant to be all along. If you forget who you are, find just one good point, and focus on it so you can become a better version of yourself. Do whatever it takes. If you lose your words, live the silence, or sing a song without them. Dance to that song. Bring your sorrow with you into the dancing circle. Be transformed.
I’m trying, my rebbe, to be as real as you were. To lean into my vulnerability. To learn from my meniot. To dance with my sorrow, to find wonder on the other side of fear, to enter the Arafel, trusting that God will find me there. To remember that being with myself is the path to becoming myself. I try to cleave to God when I feel desperately distant. I search for my own nekuda tova as I invite my counseling clients to find theirs. I hear your halavi teachings when I offer my own. None of us – not even you – ever fully live up to the lessons we share with others, but it’s worth trying. And that’s what you taught me to do, Rebbe Nahman: Get in. Get real. Grow. It’s always worth it.
This is a letter I wrote for a class assignment partway through a semester-long deep dive into the work of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov in fall 2020.
Dear Rebbe Nahman,
The first time I met you, I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. A dear friend had died suddenly, and then another close friend was diagnosed with cancer. When I asked my rabbi for support, he introduced me to you: a chronically depressed hasid, obsessed with death and brokenness, yearning deeply for joy, and cleaving desperately to God. My rabbi recommended Hitbodedut, so I hiked off into a redwood forest (which burned last month in a massive fire). The fire inside me fueled a flood of words, pouring from my heart in a great gush of nouns and verbs and exclamation points. I didn’t know it at the time, but you became one of my rebbes that day. I’ve never forgotten it.
We’ve connected many times since then. Your words about bringing sorrow into the dancing circle arrived for me when I was at my youngest brother’s wedding, which I officiated the day after officiating my beloved grandmother’s funeral. The dancing circle appeared for me again when it was time to give my presentation on your teachings in the History of Hasidism class, at the end of the week when I lost a pregnancy I’d yearned for. As a neo-hasid (of sorts), who shares your obsession with death, grief, and brokenness, your work has been a source of comfort whenever I’ve felt alone in the joy-driven world of Renewal Judaism. I wonder sometimes if you felt alone in the joy-driven world of hasidism too, and if it was loneliness that drove you to tell yourself (and us) that “it’s important to be happy, always.” You had to have known that’s impossible. But I understand the impulse. When you’re alone and suffering, it’s easier to say “I must always be happy,” than it is to accept your own pain.
It’s so human to push the pain away, and I love how human you are. That’s why I struggle when you try to be more than that. I don’t understand your messianism. I do (sort of) understand your belief that it was your presence that killed your son, or that your presence might kill your daughter and grandchild…it’s easier to assume you are responsible for death than it is to accept there was nothing you could have done. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how you could be filled with self-loathing (as I sometimes am), and still believe you had the power to absolve people of their sins. Were you trying to convince yourself by convincing others? I admit that I desire attention and accolades for my writing and teaching, despite my own self-loathing. Maybe that’s similar to your messianism – a desire to see yourself, and be seen, as big…when the truth is that you felt small, sad, and alone.
But here’s the thing, Rebbe Nahman, what makes you big for me – what I appreciate about you most of all – is that you wrote openly about things that made you feel vulnerable. Your words have encouraged me to be less afraid of my own, and to share more openly, even – or especially – when it’s hard. I can’t always do it. But I try.
Thank you for joining me in the woods in 2005. Thank you for dancing with me – and with my sorrow – at my brother’s wedding in 2015, and thank you for reminding me that I could bring sorrow with me when I presented your teachings in 2018. Thank you for walking the narrow bridge, for teasing meaning out of madness, and for seeking Divine Light in the Sacred Dark. And thank you, most of all, for writing about it, so that I could find my own experiences reflected in yours.
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.
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.
The first time I saw you, you were nothing but light.
We were in the ER because we were worried about you. I’d had an allergic reaction and even though I was mostly fine, everything mattered more with you inside of me.
The doctor told me that we may not be able to see you, because you were only seven weeks old at the time. But we watched the screen, breathless, until the doctor said “Your baby is safe. That flickering light? It’s your baby’s heartbeat.”
Heartbeat. My body created a heartbeat and now it had two hearts.
A voice rose inside me like smoke from a flame: “All this time, you were capable of creating this miracle? I’m so sorry.” My eyes burned. So many years of pushing my body to the breaking point. So many years begging my body to be thinner, stronger, better. I had no idea what it meant to create life with my body, to create a heartbeat that depended on my own. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my own voice repeated within me. I didn’t know you could make miracles or heartbeats that flicker. I love you. You’re perfect. Thank you. Gratitude, at last, for this body, this baby, the miraculous light inside.
Four weeks later, the spotting started. At first, I was confused. Spotting? What? Googling. Could be normal. 11 weeks pregnant, almost 12. It happens to some people. Really, it could be nothing. But it could be everything. Blood test #1. Waited all weekend. More spotting. Probably nothing. No need to jump to conclusions. No need to ask what if. No one needs to know.
Finally it was Monday. Blood test #2. When will the results come in? This afternoon. I refreshed the browser. Again again again. Could be nothing. Cramping, bleeding, but maybe it’s nothing. They say this happens sometimes. Results came late at night. HCG levels dropped in half. In half. Didn’t the doctor say a drop meant something is wrong? My heart sank. Something must be wrong. This isn’t nothing. I am not ok. What do we do? Should we go to the ER? We called the advice line. “Could be normal,” she said. “It’s almost second trimester, after all. HCG levels drop at the second trimester. Only way to know for sure is an ultrasound.” Why didn’t they have me get an ultrasound to begin with? Ultrasound was scheduled for Thursday. I called the next day and moved it to Tuesday, their first available appointment. At least if there’s something wrong, I’ll be able to go to camp and my brother’s wedding in September. At least we know we can get pregnant. At least.
On Tuesday, I wanted to see your flicker on the screen again, to know you were safe. It was the moment I’d envisioned so many times: the ultrasound picture. Holding hands and waiting to see. Except it was different now, the anticipation mixing with dread. I saw you, and you were nothing but light. A crescent moon against the dark sky of my womb. So small, and this time there was no flicker.
I read the radiologist’s face. He was trying to figure out how to tell us. I know what it’s like to tell someone that someone they love has died, so I helped him out.
“I started bleeding on Friday. My HCG levels dropped. We know something might be wrong.”
He let out a breath. “Yeah…I’m not really getting a heartbeat…” Beat. Heart. Beat. I’m not really getting a. At least we know. No more uncertainty.
“Its size is about nine weeks, and you said you’re at twelve,” he said.
“Is that when it died? Nine weeks?” I’m not really getting a heartbeat.
We were still holding hands. We found the tissues. The radiologist stepped out to give us some space. I called my mom. When the doctor came in, I asked what will happen next, since this dead thing was still inside of me. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Most conceive again and have a healthy child.”
My OB called me later that night. The next available appointment for a D&C was the following Tuesday. My womb would be your coffin for a week, unless my body chose to release you on its own. My OB tried to be helpful. “At least we know you can get pregnant. This happens to a lot of people. One in four.” ONE IN FOUR?! I was shocked. Why doesn’t anyone talk about it? I’m not really getting a heartbeat. I’m not really.
Sunday night I was in the worst pain of my life. It woke me up at 1am. I’d been sleeping a lot. My body was confused and sore. I doubled over, it hurt so much. Within hours, you were outside of me, over a week after you started to leave me. My body was different. Lighter, because it was empty. I was no longer carrying something dead inside of me. At the ultrasound appointment on Tuesday, they gave me medication to clear out anything that was left. At least I didn’t need the D&C. At least.
“You will probably feel the hormonal change,” they told me. “And some grief.” They offered resources. They were so kind. I thought about the medical students I know, as the residents answered my questions. I know a lot about grief. And I know a lot about hormonal depression. I don’t know anything about this empty space. I know that I want it to be over.
My body wasn’t ready to release you completely. For a full two months after that, I bled pieces of you. I bled the emptiness you left behind. I bled the lining from my womb that became a coffin. You took so much of me with you when you died.
I went to work the next day. I kept up with my rabbinical studies. I was fine, I said. I even believed it. We grieved on the first day, and I grieved with dear friends who came to visit, and then I told myself I was done. I gave a presentation in my history class the weekend after we found out. Studying Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was an unbelievable blessing, getting to know a rebbe who taught that suffering can be transformed into meaning, and that meaning can become joy.
And then your almost-birthday was approaching. Your projected due date fell on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world, the Jewish New Year. It’s also when we read the story of Hannah for the haftarah portion – Hannah, who was barren, and cried and prayed for a child until God gave her one. Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, I was at grief camp, supporting a cabin of teen girls who transformed in 48 hours, from closed to open, their light shining through as their stories unfolded. They were writing letters to the people in their lives who had died, and I was seized with an urge to write to you. The harder I tried to ignore this desire, the more I wanted to do it. The words tumbled out in 25 minutes, covering two and a half pages. I don’t remember writing any of it – all I know is that I had to write, so I did.
So hineini, here I am, on Rosh Hashana, revisiting what I wrote, in a coffee shop of course, remembering, and sad, but grateful too. I’m not sure how to miss you because I never met you. But some part of me knew you, and all of me learned from you, because your heartbeat lived with mine. You were only with me for twelve weeks, and yet you alone could teach me the miracle of my own body, the wonder and awe, the mystery of my own power to create the light and the life I saw, flickering on that screen the first time I met you.
If you taught me something this enormous after only twelve weeks, I can’t imagine what I might have learned if you had lived. I can’t wait to find out what I will learn from the next life that grows inside me.
The first time I met you, you were nothing but light. You were amazing, extraordinary. I already loved you. And now that you’re gone, I can’t ever thank you for using the twelve weeks of your own life to teach me something about mine.
I’ll never forget that, my flicker, my heartbeat. And even when (or if) I’m fortunate enough to have children, I will never forget you.
Happy New Year to the life that’s no longer inside me. And to all of the life that’s yet to come.