Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

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

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

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

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

Toward Love: Parsha Ki Tisa

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

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

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

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

Breathless Freedom: Parsha Va’eira

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Telling Our Stories: Parsha Vayigash

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who came before him in Egypt to ask for help in the midst of famine. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Yosef’s jealous brothers cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Yosef’s brothers then lied to their father, Yaakov, saying that a wild beast killed Yosef, and they had not seen their brother since then. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is quite a dramatic story), Yosef eventually rose to a position of significant power in Egypt. When his brothers approached him in this Torah portion, Yosef was the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh had given him a new name: Tzofnat Paneach. According to some translations, Yosef’s new name meant “revealer of mysteries.”

This Yosef, this Tzofnat Paneach, whom the brothers entreated on his throne, was quite different from the Yosef who was their father’s favorite son, the Yosef they threw into the pit, and sold into slavery. This Yosef was even different from the Yosef who lived in the Egyptian prison. It’s no surprise that, although Yosef recognized them, his brother’s did not see Yosef on the face of Tzofnat Paneach, the Egyptian governor.

Yosef tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benyamin, of stealing a silver cup that Yosef planted in Benyamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Yosef threatened to enslave Benyamin. Fortunately, the brothers passed the test: Older brother, Yehuda, offered himself in Benyamin’s place, so that their aging father, Yaakov, would not have to grieve the loss of yet another favored child.

When he learned that his father was alive, the Torah says, v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek” – Yosef could not afak – contain – the secret of his identity. He asked everyone to leave besides the brothers, and he began to cry. “Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” he told them. “Ha’od avi chai?”: “Does my father still live?” When he heard about his father, Yosef remembered where he came from  – he was not only Tzofnat Paneach, governor of Egypt. He was also Yosef, the Jewish son of Yaakov and Rachel, the boy from the pit and the prison, the interpreter of dreams. When he asked “Does my father still live,” “Ha’od avi chai,” the word “od” means still, continuing, again, iteration. If his father continued, then so did Yosef. He was still, after all, himself.

His brothers were frightened and could not answer him, worried that their brother would exact revenge. But Yosef was not angry – they passed the test and showed that they had changed. Come near me, I pray you, Ani Yosef,” he said again. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He explained that they should not worry, saying that God sent him to Egypt to ensure their safety during these years of famine. He told his brothers everything that had happened since they sold him into slavery, and Yosef sent them back home with food and other provisions, so that the brothers could return with their father and the rest of the family.

“Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” appeared twice within a few lines of this story. Why did he say his name more than once? Maybe the brothers were disbelieving, and Yosef wanted to prove his identity, explaining that he was, in fact, their brother, whom they sold into Egypt. Or maybe it was because Yosef was reclaiming his own identity. It’s significant that Yosef could not afak, he could not contain Yosef, once he learned that his father was alive, even though he rose to power under a new name, Tzofnat Paneach.

It’s also significant that Yosef told his story as one of triumph, in which God had sent him to Egypt to save his family, instead of a story of victimhood, in which his abusive brothers sold him into slavery. Both of these things were parts of Yosef’s truth. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t have a purpose – it just sucks. And part of me wants Yosef to be really angry about what happened to him. And maybe he was. But in telling his story, Yosef had a triple revelation. First, he revealed his identity to his brothers, then he revealed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, and the resulting third revelation was the most powerful of all: Yosef revealed his own truth to himself. After everything that happened, his father was still alive, and he was still Yosef.

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? What does Yosef’s story teach us about our own stories, about our own hidden traumas, our own pits and prisons?

Yosef tried to keep his identity a secret, but eventually, he remembered who he was, and he could not contain it any longer. By revealing himself, the story Yosef told became something that happened through him, instead of something that happened to him; the trauma of the pit and the prison became part of a larger narrative that led to Yosef’s ultimate success. When he remembered where he came from, Yosef and Tzofnat Paneach, the boy from the pit and the governor of Egypt, became one, so that Yosef could reunite with his father once again.

There are many lessons we can pull from this Torah portion, but in the week to come, I challenge you to reveal one part of yourself that’s hidden, to reclaim just one part of your story by sharing it. Shape your narrative. Define your own meaning. You might be surprised to find what’s been inside of you all along.

Becoming Ourselves: Parsha Vayishlach

In this week’s Torah portion, an angel comes to Jacob at night, and they wrestle until daybreak, dislocating Jacob’s hip in the fight. When the angel says “Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” Jacob says “I will not let you go until you have blessed me.” The angel asks “What is your name?” “Jacob.” The angel says “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have power with God, and with men, and you have prevailed.” This is where Jews get one of our names – Israel, in Hebrew, Yis-ra-el – which means “wrestlers with God.”

I’ve always loved this idea that Jews are wrestlers-with-God – that we are encouraged to question, to wonder, disrupt, and struggle with all things human and Divine. But I also can’t help noticing that Jacob – and the Jews – aren’t renamed “prevails over God.” The angel says Jacob will have a new name because he has prevailed, and then renames Jacob – and all future Jews – for the wrestling. We are, from that moment forward, called strugglers-with-God.

The word that is most often translated as “you have prevailed” is “tuchal,” from the root “yachal,” which means “to prevail over, overcome, endure,” to “have power,” “be able to gain or accomplish, to have strength.” The story of overcoming struggle is wrapped in the story of the struggle itself, and in the wrestling, we become the ones who can endure.

When has one of your own struggles come to define you? Have you ever wanted to release this part of your story and redefine yourself based on something else? What about a struggle where you ultimately prevailed, as Jacob did? After you prevailed, was the struggle still part of your identity?
As we enter Shabbat, I invite us to question the personal narratives behind each identity we hold dear. Have we been shaped by our struggles, our triumphs, or both? How does your perception of the struggle change when you see it as a sacred part of who you are?
Shabbat Shalom, Everyone. May the struggles we face reveal the strength in each of us as we learn to become ourselves.

The Dancing Circle: Parsha Chayei Sarah

“Sometimes a group of people happily dancing together take hold of someone who is standing miserable and depressed on the outside. They pull him into the dance circle despite himself, forcing him to rejoice with them. Similarly, when a person is happy, his pain and sadness may move to the sidelines. But a higher level is to pursue the sadness itself and pull it into the dance circle.”

– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, on bringing your sadness with you 
In this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies and her son Isaac marries Rebecca. Abraham, Sarah’s husband, marries a new wife named Keturah, and Abraham dies at the end of the chapter. This is a story that includes two weddings and two burials. Isn’t it always this way? Isaac takes Rebecca to his mother’s tent and she comforts him in his grief.
 
In December 2015, I officiated my grandmother’s funeral the day before I officiated my brother’s wedding. Loss and love, celebration and grief, crammed up beside one another in Torah, and in life. We can try to compartmentalize; we can pretend to leave the losses behind before we jump into joyful celebration. But at the wedding it felt like she should have been there, and we danced with her memory, grateful and grieving all at once, as the night turned to morning, and a new day began.
 
The shooting last weekend took place on Shabbat, a day of rest, joy, and gratitude. A family at the synagogue had also planned a brit milah for that day, a celebration welcoming a child into the community. Trauma rends the fabric of our narrative and tells us that things are not as they seemed. Our story is disrupted, we are not as safe as we believed, we are no longer immune or invincible. We are supposed to be celebrating, but we’re grieving instead. Suddenly, we have nothing to ground us, nothing we can trust.
 
And yet, since Saturday, I’ve seen so many people congregate, bringing their sadness and joy, their anger and love, their fear, their compassion, and their hope. It’s not supposed to be like this, but here we are, with all of these raw emotions colliding, just like they did in the dancing circle at my brother’s wedding almost three years ago. And just like they did for our ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca, in this week’s Torah portion.
 
As we enter another Shabbat, the first since the tragic massacre that tore our stories apart, I invite you to fully experience and honor each of these emotions, with all of their complexity and their contradictions. And when joy and sorrow collide in the dancing circle, may your memories and community be a source of strength and healing, and may you be comforted, like Isaac, by the love that surrounds you.
 
Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. May be it truly be a Shabbat of peace, love, and wholeness.

Looking Behind: Parsha Vayeira

I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I know I’m supposed to live into my uncertainty, trusting that God will meet me there. Others seem to be able to do this – they experience time as a straight line, a narrative as cool and clean as an autumn breeze. My bones have always known that time is a circle, or a spiral. We are not the wind, we are the leaves as they spin, in an endless pursuit of beginnings chasing endings.

I am Lot’s Wife. You don’t know my name because they never asked my husband. People wonder now, reading my story. Back then, they didn’t think it mattered. And even now, I’m not sure it does. I’m one line in your Bible story – “And his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” One look back. That was all it took.

You know what happened. Avraham argued with God, saying that God should spare us all if there were even 10 good people in Sodom and Gomorrah. We were judged to be the righteous few, and they told us to flee. So we did.

As it says, “God rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and God turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.”   

We were running forward but I had to look back. It was my last chance. What else could I have done? It wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and it was burning. I wasn’t perfect, but I’m only human – or was, until I became salt. Ramban wrote that I was looking to see if my daughters were following. He’s not wrong. But that’s not the whole truth either. I wanted to make sure they were with us – but I also had to say goodbye.

No one ever gets to say goodbye in the beginning. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden. Noah and his family got on the boat as the world they knew was swallowed by water. God told Avraham to leave his father’s house and his native land, to go, God says, “to a land that I will show you, to a place you do not know.” The stories of our people are marked by loss. All of them left something or someone. And yet, no one ever asks if Adam and Eve were homesick, if Avraham yearned for his father, or for the culture and religion he left behind. Did Noah dream of the people who drowned? Maybe he did…maybe not. But he trusted God. I’ve never understood it. The past is so knowable and the future, intangible. How does anyone learn to trust?

I knew I shouldn’t have done it. But time is a circle, and the leaves on the wind are torn from their limbs before they’re ready to die. This is why I needed one last glimpse of what we left behind, even as we ran forward, away from our lives, our homes, and our stories. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to everything I knew. Noah’s world was lost to the salty sea, but I’m the one who is made of salt now, dissolving at the mere touch of water.  

That My Mouth May Declare Your Praise

Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. Today I learned the horrifying history behind a blessing I have enjoyed for many years – one that Jews sing before entering the silent, standing prayer (amidah) in our prayer services.

hebtfilah1

God, open my lips,
that my mouth may declare Your praise.

This line from Psalm 51 serves as an entry point, often chanted many times out loud before we retreat into personal, silent meditation. I’ve always appreciated this prayer because it invites us to be present, centered, and focused, to clean out the remains of the week and to approach our prayers with gratitude. Open my lips so that I may praise. Open my heart to all that is praiseworthy within me and around me. This is the space I want to occupy before I enter the silent amidah. 

Today, I learned from Midrash Tehillim (commentary on the psalms) that Psalm 51 was spoken by King David. This is not surprising, as many of our psalms are attributed to him. However, given the intentions I bring to this blessing, I was surprised to learn of its moment of origin. This is a prayer offered to God in a moment of shame. King David has raped and impregnated BatSheva, the wife of his best friend, Uriah. He has sent Uriah to war, placing him at the head of charge, knowing that Uriah will be killed. Rather than facing Uriah, David murders him – not with his own hands, but with his decision to place him directly in danger. David murders Uriah in a way that renders him, from an outsider’s perspective, blameless.

But Nathan, a prophet who serves King David, sees exactly what has happened, and is not afraid to face him. In 2 Samuel, Nathan approaches David with a parable. The story says:

“When [Nathan] came to David, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as God lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

Nathan tells David that God will punish David and his family for these evil actions – for taking BatSheva and murdering Uriah, even though David has more wealth and power than he will ever need. Hearing this, David is horrified and he composes and sings Psalm 51, a prayer that begs God for mercy. The statement that opens our silent meditation, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your glory” is line 15 of Psalm 51.

All my praying life, I have been approaching silent communion with the Divine with this line, sung by a rapist and murderer who has just realized that he is a monster. It’s even possible that David is only begging for mercy because he knows that God will punish him, instead of praying from a place of true remorse. What does this mean about the placement of this line in our daily liturgy?

I’ll admit that my first instinct was to drop the blessing entirely from my own practice. How can I echo David’s words knowing the context in which he spoke them? I reminded myself that as clergy, my job will be to support others in discovering how these and other verses are applicable to our lives today, but I was still frustrated that I’ve been singing these lines for so many years without knowing why.

Then I remembered how powerful this prayer has been for me – when I sing this line, it grounds me in the present, preparing me to praise, instead of losing myself in frustration about what might have been, and anxiety about what might come next. Grounding in the present is a lesson in humility – we can acknowledge the past, but we can’t change it, and we have limited control over the future. All we really have is this moment.

David prays Psalm 51 in a moment of humility as well. Realizing what he has done, he approaches God and says “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” He acknowledges his actions, and asks God for help anyways. “God, open up my lips so that I may declare Your praise,” says “God, I really screwed up. I know I can’t change what I’ve done, but I can ask You to open my lips to praise You.”

It is really hard to face the truth when we have screwed up. If I dig beneath the surface, I realize that my urge to cut this blessing from my own practice comes from a place of fear. “Well I’m not a rapist and a murderer, so why should I pray like one?” I don’t have to pray like David, but I do have to pray like me. And I don’t want to face my flaws any more than David wanted to face his. Maybe that’s the reason for this line’s placement in our liturgy. It’s a reminder to acknowledge how human we are when we approach That which is Larger than Us.

Sometimes, rabbinical study feels like pulling back the curtain. And if I’m afraid of what I’ll find there, there’s a good chance it’s something I need to face after all. “Adonai, s’fa tai tiftach” is  a reminder to recognize our flaws and to pray from a place of honesty – Yes, we have made mistakes. Yes, we are human. And yes, we still need reminders that the world is worthy of praise.

 

unRevelation

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat Shemot

You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. 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. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?

Parsha Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through the burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.

“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing 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.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says 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, 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 knows the sufferings 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 Rashi, God demonstrates that God is 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 says. “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 says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” I will be with you is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.

People often feel isolated when they face personal challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple students in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.

This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is a hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donnovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.

In honor of this parsha and at the start of our secular new year, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering, even if you can’t personally relate. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.