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.

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 

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. 

Alone Together: Parshat Vayikra

How can we draw near in a moment when we are so far away from each other? In this week’s parsha, God shared a list of sacrifices for the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Two weeks ago, when many of us began the quarantine, the Israelites built and worshiped a golden calf. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they didn’t know when – or if – he was going to come back. In their fear, they built an idol they could touch, something they could connect with, physically. Something they thought they could trust to be there. Now, two weeks later, the Israelites have built a Mishkan instead. They were finally ready to sacrifice, ready to connect with the God they could not touch. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” They Israelites drew near to the God Who could not be seen, but could be deeply felt.

In the last two weeks, we, too, have been building sanctuaries. Sanctuaries in our homes, sanctuaries online, sanctuaries with our voices raised in song and prayer. We have been alone, afraid, and uncertain. We cannot reach out to touch one another. But we, too, have drawn near in ways that can be be felt.

One of my teachers, Reb Eli Cohen, pointed out that one of the names for God is HaMakom, which means The Place. Maybe while we have been sheltering-in-place, we have also been sheltering-in-The Place, embraced by the nurturing Source that holds us all. In our evening liturgy, we sing Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha – asking God to spread over us a shelter of peace. Throughout these last two weeks, I’ve envisioned the lights from our screens, shining in our hands and on our desks all over the world. We cannot touch, but we have found ways to draw near to each other, to create sanctuaries, and to face our fears, embracing the Oneness that connects us all.

Shabbat Shalom, l’kulam. May it be a Shabbat of peace, wholeness, and healing, as we who are far away from one another draw near in every way we can.

Not Alone: Parsha Shemot

You’re walking through the desert, and you’ve been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. You’ll never go back to Egypt.  But then you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

This Friday, we read the the beginning of Exodus, which includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moved toward the strange burning, God called out to him. “Moses, Moses!” Moses stopped running away. Hineini, he said. “Here I am.” 

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I AM I AM I AM, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.

“R’oh ra’iti,” said God: “I have truly seen.” This is a unique construction in Hebrew. “Ro’eh” means “I have seen,” but “R’oh ra’iti,” which repeats the verb “to see,” means “I have truly seen.” “I have truly seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” said God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”

Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, you tried to run away, but somehow they came with you — their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.

God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knew the pain of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval scholar Rashi, God demonstrated that God was with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.

“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God said. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.

“I will be with you,” God said. “I will be with you.” God didn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God truly saw not only the Israelites’ suffering – God truly saw what Moses needed too. God didn’t tell Moses “This is your job — now deal with it.” God never tried to convince Moses that the exodus would be easy. Instead, God showed Moses that he would not be on this journey alone. 

There’s no way they’ll believe you. You’re not sure if you believe you. But you’re beginning to wonder. What is the name of this Burning? What does this Light truly see in you?

“When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

“Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God said. “I Will Be That I Will Be. Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Be’ has sent me.” 

In Brachot 9b, the Gemara asks: Why did God tell Moses to tell the Israelites that “Ehyeh, I Will Be” has sent Moses? We just learned that “Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be That I Will Be” is God’s name. “I Will Be” and “I Will Be That I Will Be” are two different names. Why the change?

The Gemara says that “I Will Be That I Will Be” means “I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, AND I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.” Then, according to the Gemara, Moses actually advised God, becoming the leader that God knew him to be.

“Master of the Universe,” Moses said. “It is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.” 

You are not alone. They do not have to be alone. And they do not need to know that more suffering awaits them after this redemption.

God agreed with Moses and said to him: “Go and tell the children of Israel only that, “’Ehyeh: I Will Be‘ has sent me to you.”

You don’t know what’s coming next. But this Burning, the God of your ancestors, has r’oh ra’iti – has truly seen the suffering, has truly seen you, and has heard you. You will lead, and you will lead with this Light. 

Just as God showed Moses true empathy, saying “I will be with you,” Moses taught God about empathy by pointing out that the Israelites couldn’t hear about future suffering. God guided Moses, truly saw Moses as a leader, told Moses he was not alone, and as a result, Moses was able to see himself as a leader, someone who could provide feedback on God’s communication plan.

Over the course of this parsha, with the Gemara for context, we watch Moses transform, through empathy, from a shepherd, running away from his problems in Egypt, to a leader who partnered with God to free the Israelites from Egypt. The Hebrew word for shepherd is pronounced “ro’eh,” but it’s spelled differently from the verb “to see.” Moses went from a ro’eh, shepherd to ro’eh, see-er. 

God “ro’eh ra’iti,” truly saw the leadership in this shepherd, Moses. And God made sure that Moses didn’t have to free the Israelites alone. Once Moses saw himself as the leader that God knew him to be, Moses knew he couldn’t leave the Israelites alone either. And, finally, Moses ensured that God was not alone in the project of redemption. 

I work with young leaders all the time and I’ve learned over and over again just how important it is to tell them what I see. Once I show them I have truly seen them – that believe in them and I remind them that they’re not alone, they rise to face the challenges of their work. Recently I’ve been grateful for friends and mentors in my own life who have shown me empathy as well – giving me the blessing of being truly seen, supported, and recognized for my own leadership. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love and believe in us, we, like Moses, are able to fulfill our potential. And we, too, are able to partner with the Holy One in the work of creation, healing, and redemption. 

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:

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

Kaddish for unCreation

When she was murdered, Lori Gilbert Kaye (z’l) was at Chabad of Poway to say Mourners Kaddish for her mother. Now, Lori’s daughter, a UCLA student, has the impossible task of saying Mourners Kaddish for her. For this family, the wheel of time spun off its tracks, far faster than it ever should have, a mother saying kaddish for her own mother, with her daughter’s sobbing kaddish echoing close behind it. This act of destruction is on us.

People often point out that Kaddish says nothing about death or grief. It’s seen as an affirmation of faith in the face of loss. But we get a different story when we look at the words in their original context. The first four words of Kaddish, “May God’s name be great and holy,” “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mai raba,” are a reference to Ezekiel 38:23: “I will manifest My greatness and My holiness, and I will make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

The context for this line is a description about the literal End of the World, and it’s a terrifying passage:

“On that day,” says God, “My raging anger shall flare up. I have decreed in My indignation and in My blazing wrath: On that day, a terrible earthquake shall befall the land of Israel. The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the beasts of the field, all creeping things that move on the ground, and every human being on earth shall quake before Me. Mountains shall be overthrown, cliffs shall topple, and every wall shall crumble to the ground.”

All it takes is an earthquake. Note the list of animals – fish, birds, beasts, creeping things, and people. It’s an act of un-Creation, a Wheel going in reverse, the opposite of B’reishit Bara Elohim, “In the Beginning, God Created.”

“I will then summon the sword against him throughout My mountains,” says God, “every man’s sword shall be turned against his brother.” Sounds like Cain and Abel to me.

“I will punish him with pestilence and with bloodshed, and I will pour torrential rain, hailstones, and fire upon him and his hordes and the many peoples with him.” Another reversal: This time, the plagues of Exodus (pestilence, hail), will spare no one. And this time, none of us will be free.

And then: “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

Yitgadal v’Yitkadash, the opening words of Kaddish, come straight from this verse, evoking existential terror at the End of the World. This is powerful for a few reasons: First, when we confront our grief, we also confront our own mortality. Standing beside the coffin of someone who has died, we can’t help but imagine the day when we will be the ones inside. It’s only human, and so are we. Our lives are limited, and the existential fear we feel about our own deaths reverberates in this passage about the End that ends it all. And if you have experienced grief, you know that it truly does feel as if everything has reversed itself. The death is an unCreation of the world you knew, the world in which your loved one was alive. It’s an earthquake that crumbles the foundations of your own reality. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if they have destroyed a whole world.” It may not be the actual End of the entire World, but for someone, the world has shattered. When we say Yitgadal v’yitkadash, and we reference Ezekiel 38:23, we are talking about the destruction of both.

But what can we learn from the rest of that statement in Ezekiel? “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” We will know that God is God because of God’s power to unCreate everything that God created. As humans, unlike the fish, the birds, or even the mountains, we are created in God’s image. And we, too, have the ability to destroy what God has built, to strike existential fear into the hearts of one another, and to shatter worlds with our own “raging anger” and “blazing wrath.”

On a communal level, we grieve another unCreation every time there’s another shooting. But this time the “raging anger” and the “blazing wrath” are not God’s; they’re our own. A shooting is not an earthquake, even though each one shakes us to our core. And we are facing that existential fear – how many of us have asked, when will it be our school, our synagogue, our movie theater? Each shooting is unCreation of the world we believed in, a world where we thought we were safe. And as we grow numb to the news cycle, the reversal continues. Mass shootings are unsurprising, our stories unraveling faster than we can weave them together.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash: When Lori Gilbert Kaye entered Chabad of Poway to pray for her mother, she had no idea that her daughter would soon be praying for her, and that her name would soon be added to the list we cannot erase. As we say Kaddish for her, with the words from Ezekiel on our lips, and with Charlotte, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Pulse, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Sandy Hook, and so many others in our hearts, my true prayer is that we may reverse this unraveling.

The earthquake has shaken the foundation of every reality we’ve ever known. It may not be the actual End of the World, but we are perpetrating an unCreation. When God destroys the world, God says “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” This act of destruction is on us. If we have the power to destroy each other, then we, who are created in God’s image, also have the power to create.

In the week to come, I encourage you to consider this power. It’s so easy to feel hopeless in these moments, to feel overwhelmed by the daunting task before us. How will you participate, with your attitude and in your actions, with your vision and your voice? How will you manifest your own greatness and holiness? God’s work can only be undone by God, but it really is us, and our world is in our hands. We only have to decide how we might rebuild from here.

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.