Rosh Hashanah 5780: The Torah of Boredom

There I was, standing in the back of a hotel ballroom, completely mesmerized as the Pastor in his grey suit and thick rimmed glasses yelled passionately into the microphone. The music was blaring and people were dancing and singing. And, I, a rabbi, stood there in awe with tears streaming down my face. We were at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando, Florida. I was there for the Hillel New Professionals Institute, and they were there (in the ballroom next to ours) for the 20th anniversary of their Pentacostal Church. For days, while in various sessions and meetings, I could hear them rocking out during their many services throughout the day, and I (not so secretly) had been longing to partake. I found another Rabbi who seemed interested and we ventured in through the double doors, the music pouring out into the hallway with intense force.

What we witnessed can hardly be explained with words. There were choreographed dances performed by young people in beautiful attire, there were people dancing and singing spontaneously, with their eyes closed and hands in the air. People brought their entire selves. And they brought it HARD. The floor was shaking with the sounds of the music and the dancing, and the room was filled with joy. “I want you to look at your neighbor and say 10 things you’re grateful for!” the Pastor yelled, “‘One, that God got me up this morning. Two, that God got me up this morning. Three, God got me up this morning.” He continued to 10 and people laughed and nodded their heads with the truth that he was speaking. Simply being alive is reason enough to dance, to sing, to bring our full selves to everything we do. Simply being alive is a miracle, a gift.

As I looked at the children in the room, I thought about my religious upbringing. My earliest and most formative Jewish memory did not involve dancing, ecstatic prayer, or a deep connection to community. But, it did involved Doritos and excruciating boredom. After savoring every bite of my nacho cheese flavored corn chips during our snack break at Hebrew School, I would gently tear open the seam of the bag and lick the inside, making sure to ingest every crumb. In Hebrew school on Mondays and Wednesdays (and sometimes even Sundays), we learned the same things every year in a stale old building until the sun had set. Our 10 minute break, my Doritos time, was truly sacred. I remember the exact taste, sound, and feel of the chips as I ingested them. In Hebrew school, and beyond, my Jewish life was saturated with boredom and the smell of Chanel number 5 perfume from the elderly women who filled the pews of my synagogue. It was far from inspiring, spiritual, or engaging. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found Jewish environments that were spiritual and even ecstatic. And yet, these experiences can seem few and far between, which makes me wonder: Without a little bit of boredom, would it even feel like a Jewish experience?

During these Days of Awe, we recite slichot, prayers of supplication and forgiveness, some even at midnight or sunrise. They are prayers meant to inspire the soul-work of this time, to inspire us to dig deep into ourselves and our lives. In it are the words,

בן אדם מה לך נרדם

Humankind! Why do you sleep?

These words, and the call of the Shofar, act as an alarm clock to our souls. A reminder to be present in our lives and fight the desire to stay stuck, bored, or small. Similarly, Rebbe Nachman, 18th century Hasidic master from Ukraine, says that true teshuva, return to ourselves which we are aspiring to in this time, is declaring your readiness to exist. The work of this time, then, is deeper and at the same time more simplistic than repentance and asking forgiveness. It’s about waking up and declaring our readiness to fully be in the world.

Back in the hotel ballroom, the charismatic Pastor called out into the microphone, “Clap your hands if you love Jesus!” There was a sudden uproar of applause, a standing ovation even, from African American men and women dressed to the nines. In my complete and utter awe and gratitude of my surroundings, I looked down to realize that I, a rabbi, had accidentally clapped when prompted by the charismatic Pastor. (oops!)

May we be blessed to bring our full selves into this space. To shed the security blanket that is boredom, to wrestle with powerful and difficult things you may read in the machzor, and the beautiful and painful things that may come up in ourselves. Whatever it is, may we be blessed with the courage to bring it into this space...hard, stepping into what it means to be truly alive.

Shanah Tovah.

Kol Nidrei 5780: The Torah of Shame

About a year and a half ago, I went on vacation to Ukraine. Well, not really vacation, unless your idea of vacation involves five to seven hours of being in a bumpy van in on and off snowstorms. I was there to visit the graves of Rabbis who had long passed away, Rabbis who formed the tradition I have dedicated my life to, and Rabbis who’s words, many generations later, inspire me. I was there for a trip I later coined #gravehop2018, with 5 other women from all different backgrounds. On the list were famous names like the Baal Shem Tov--the founder of the Hasidic movement, Yitzhak Levi of Berdichev, the Ohev Yisrael, the Baal haTanya, the forefather of Chabad, and finally Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. You might have heard of Rebbe Nachman, or at least have seen Youtube footage of his followers in white beanies disrupting the streets of Jerusalem regularly with dancing and techno music. He is now known for sayings like “It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.” Or, even more well known, kol haOlam kulo… the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to not be afraid. As a person who struggled immensely with depression himself, he became, in a sense, a Rebbe for the depressed. A Rebbe of emotions, but particularly the emotions that we don’t really want to look at. He wasn’t afraid of the dark parts of the soul, and in fact many of his writings are about the value of our darker sides, the sparks hidden within them and how to bring them out.

A word about grave hopping, before I tell you what happened. When beginning a grave hop, a person is entering into a mythical and mystical reality. They pay attention to every sensation, sound, part of the experience as if they were looking for a “sign” or something from the soul of the Rebbe. One needs to enter an almost childlike state of magical thinking to truly experience a holy person’s grave. So, I know what I’m about to share might sound crazy. And, maybe it is crazy. I guess you kind of had to be there.

When I walked into the synagogue that houses Rebbe Nachman’s grave, I felt a potency in the room. Unlike the other graves we had visited, before his death, Nachman gave instructions to his disciples for what to do at his grave. Give a coin to tzedaka in his name, say 10 special psalms that he prescribed, and pray. So, I gave a coin to tzedaka, started saying the psalms, and before I could finish, I felt something welling up within me and started to cry. As tears were falling onto the plastic cover on top of Rebbe Nachman’s grave, I had a conversation with myself and for the first time in my life was face to face with the biggest block in my life. The thing preventing me from being the person I really want to be in the world--Shame.

Shame, as one of my teachers puts it, is the dark matter of the soul. Like the dark matter of the universe which is amorphous and difficult to understand and yet permeates everything, shame is difficult to pinpoint and define. Brene Brown, renowned shame researcher known for her TED talk on Vulnerability, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging...Shame creates feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection.” She differentiates it from guilt, which she views as a motivating, even positive emotion that helps us confront our actions and wrongdoings and change our ways. Shame, on the other hand, is always destructive. It creates a cycle, a downward spiral, keeping us stuck and isolated.

Yom Kippur is a day that many of us associate with feeling bad about ourselves and our actions, perhaps a day we even associate with shame. But, I’m not just being lovey-dovey when I say that it’s truly the opposite. We dress in all white to remember that at our core we are good--even angelic. During the vidui, confessions that we recite tonight and throughout the day, we say ashamnu, badagnu, dibarnu dofi, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have scorned. Our tradition understands innately what Brene Brown and Rebbe Nachman taught, which is that in order to really make teshuva, return to ourselves, we need to be connected to one another. True change cannot happen in a shame spiral. Since shame thrives in isolation and disconnection, the we that we evoke helps us stay on track, remember that the true purpose of this day is to celebrate our humanness, to remember our innate goodness, and to know that we have a G!d that is loving and forgives. This day is not about proving our goodness to G!d, it’s about proving it to ourselves.

Back by Rebbe Nachman’s grave, tears streaming down my face, I followed the advice of both Rebbe Nachman and Brene Brown; I spoke out loud about one of the things I had the most shame about. I spoke to G!d (in English) saying, “I’m almost a Rabbi and I don’t even pray every day.” Back in this mythical and mystical reality, I heard a voice respond with instructions, saying (almost with a shrug), “Yeah, maybe you should pray every day. But, try showing that to G!d. Try every morning to say over and over again that you don’t want to davven.” The essence of what I heard is that shame thrives in isolation, it thrives when it is unspeakable and unspoken. All throughout our liturgy tonight and tomorrow we read that G!d is our parent who loves us unconditionally. This Yom Kippur, may we be blessed to truly hear that. May we be blessed with the trust to speak our shame, to bring G!d into the dark parts of our soul and shine a light there. May we be blessed, over these next 25 hours and throughout our lives, to celebrate being human in spite of, not despite, our flaws.

Parshat Bechukotai 5779: Beards and Belonging

There are many experience I have had here at Nehar Shalom that have changed my life. Bustling Souly Shabboses, teaching children with Rabbi Victor at Family Learning Circle, running a SVARA-style Beit Midrash in this very room. I have been changed by all of these, forever. There is one small moment, in addition to these bigger more obvious ones, that shook me up in a way that was completely unexpected and totally life altering. I walked in the shtibl one Friday night in the fall as the monthly children’s service was ending. A mom and her little boy (around 4 years old) were getting their coats on in the foyer as I was taking mine off. I waved hello and as I made my way into the shtibl, he looked up at his mom and said, “Is she a Rabbi?” Such a sweet and earnest question that made me pause and realize that such a question had seldom been asked of me. All of a sudden, countless memories flashed before my eyes, in Lyft or Uber rides, on the T, or on a bus in Jerusalem (all somehow in various modes of transportation) when some form of the question, “Women can do that?” or the comment, “You don’t look like a Rabbi,” has been presented to me like a heavy gift that I never wanted, being passed from generation to generation. It got so bad that I had a standard comeback. “Don’t worry,” I’d say, “At our ordination ceremony, once they put the prayer shawl on our backs, we sprout an instant full-length beard.  Kind of like a chia pet!”

Obviously, I didn’t make up this joke. Or the image of a Rabbi with a beard. The Hebrew word for beard, zakan, is almost identical to the word zaken, elder or wise person (let’s be real, wise man). And, there is the famous story of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who, at the age of 18, grew a full beard over night and was finally taken seriously by his colleagues. It almost need not be said that if I were to ask a random person on the street to close their eyes and envision a Rabbi, a beard would likely be involved. My chia-pet beard joke, and the defensiveness that lay underneath it, showed me that these images had gotten to me. And there was and still is a part of me that doesn’t believe that a Rabbi can really look like me. I’m embarrassed that this is still a struggle for me, that the echoes of history still ring in my mind.

The other day, Lizzie and I were sitting on the couch to plan our upcoming move when she looked at me with a particular curiosity. “What is that?” she said. I reached and found a two inch white hair growing right out of my neck. If I had been hoping for a beard, this would have been awesome. But, in that moment I worried that all the time spent joking about the chia pet beard had created a reality that I wasn’t ready for.

In this week’s parsha, Bechukotai, G!d says to the Israelites:

אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments

How does a law differ from a commandment? The word for law, chok, can also mean engraving. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains, “There is an aspect of Torah that is ‘inked’ on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our lifestyle or even our personality; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being.” The pieces of Torah that are engraved within our souls transcend gender. And, the particular pieces that we carry with us determine how the Torah is carried forward. The Torah changes in our hands. But first, we need to claim it as ours.

The Talmud in Kiddushin 32b tries to figure out what happens if a Rabbi says to their students, “You know what?  I don’t want to be honored anymore.” Does it take effect? In order to find the answer, they ask: הכא תורה דיליה היא? Does the Torah really belong to him (the Rabbi)? I realize the irony in bringing a highly gendered Talmud passage to a dvar torah about gender and the rabbinate, but just try to bear with me as I translate it as it’s written (with all male pronouns) and feel free to change them in your head as we go. Why does it matter if the Torah belongs to the Rabbi? If the Torah belongs only to God and the rabbi doesn’t really own any piece of it, then the obligation to honor the Rabbi would be akin to honoring the Torah or God, which the Rabbi can’t renounce with words or actions. But, does the Torah actually belong to the Rabbi? Rava chimes in with a resounding “אין” “yes!” The Torah does belong to the Rabbi. Bringing the verse from psalms, ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה, and in his Torah he meditates day and night. The object of the word torato, his Torah, is usually assumed to be God. Here, Rava is making a radical jump, proving that the Torah does belong to the Rabbi with this verse--in his (the Rabbi’s) Torah, he meditates day and night. But, at what point does it become his or her or their Torah? Our buddy Rashi helps us understand this by explaining:

בתחילה היא נקראת תורת השם ומשלמדה וגרסה היא נקראת תורתו

At the beginning, she (the Torah) is called God’s Torah. And when one learns it and integrates it into oneself, it is then called his (their own) Torah.

It’s up to all of us, not just Rabbis, to claim and integrate Torah into ourselves. To engrave it into our souls, to carry it with us wherever we walk. In this way, the Torah is transformed in our hands.

Back in the shtibl that autumn Shabbos with the little boy and his mom, I realized that something was changing. It turned out that during the service, when Rabbi Victor introduced himself, the same boy spoke up saying, “Boys can be Rabbis too!?”

I may have a beard eventually, given the TMI story I shared earlier, and I am okay with that. But, it gives me extreme comfort to know that I may not need one in order to be recognizable as a Rabbi. It gives me comfort to know that our tradition is changing, and it’s changing in our hands.

May we be blessed with the knowledge that the Torah truly belongs to us and that we belong to her.

Parshat Kedoshim 5779: How to Write a Drash

Have you ever wondered what goes into writing a Dvar Torah? This is a rare window into the life of an (almost) rabbi, a window into the artistic process. Sometimes it looks like you’d imagine: taking my Tanakh and a commentary from the shelf, opening it up, reading it and talking to myself while sipping a steaming cup of coffee. Or learning with Rabbi Victor or a hevruta and having a flash of inspiration, jotting it down in a well-worn (leather) notebook. And, sometimes it looks a little different. Like frantically googling “kedoshim dvar torah” and coming across a Bat Mitzvah girl’s drash from 2012, in which she writes, “Holiness can be in all of our lives, if we know how to open up to it...I personally open myself up to higher experiences whenever I have profound feelings, like being sad about important things, or being truly content.” I know, right? Very deep. Then the artistic process takes a turn. The darshan deletes it all and meanders down streets, rides buses and trains, and eventually stumbles upon something beautiful. Like a newborn baby in the NICU on the Upper East Side of New York.

After two and a half days of wrestling, this beautiful baby was born to my two friends this past Sunday. Because of a mild infection, he’s under supervision in the NICU, and he’s just perfect. A full head of black hair, expressive eyebrows, and beautiful grey-blue eyes. From his little NICU box and all swaddled up, this little one scanned the room with his eyes. Searching for human connection, which he knows so instinctively is absolutely vital for existence.

In this week’s parsha, Kedoshim, G!d speaks to Moshe, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.

Why does G!d emphasize that Moshe speak to the whole community, instead of each person individually? Additionally, why is the commandment to be holy, קְדֹשִׁ֣ים, written in the plural? The Netivot Shalom (which I did learn with Rabbi Victor, incidentally) explains that this verse hints to the idea that we cannot truly be holy without unity. We need one another in order to fulfill the mitzvah of קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ. It’s no mistake that the mitzvot that follow this opening line are bein adam l’chavero, instructions on how to be good to one another. In order to be holy, it needs to be in the plural. Our connection to one another is vital.

The baby and I locked eyes, and one of his mom’s and I sang a favorite Shabbos melody as I caressed his soft head. He is so vulnerable, and so good. He does not need to open Sefer Netivot Shalom to understand the interconnectedness of all human beings.

Sometimes us adults, however, need a reminder.

Two weeks ago, on the last night of Pesach, there was an attack on Am Yisrael. As I watched the video of the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway speak after the attack, wearing a hospital gown and his hands bandaged up, two things struck me. The first was that, just like him, my name will soon be Rabbi Goldstein.  In that way we are connected. The second was the horrifying and awe-inspiring image of him standing on the steps outside his shul, people gathered around him after the attack. With his hands bleeding profusely, wrapped in tallesim, he gave a drash. “Am Yisrael Chai! Nothing is going to take us down...we are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of who we are, our heritage. We are going to get through this.” The paramedics tried to stop him, but he needed to finish his drash, he needed to leave his people with the feeling of connectedness amidst disaster.

Rabbi Goldstein’s words acted as a wake up call for me, the other (almost) Rabbi Goldstein. It made me realize how, before this attack, I would not have considered the Chabad of Poway a part of my immediate Jewish family. With our difference in politics, practice, and priorities, I didn’t see us as part of the same Jewish body, so to speak. But when I saw Rabbi Goldstein’s hands wrapped, and heard his impassioned words “Am Yisrael Chai,” tears welled up in my eyes. I realized that of course, we are part of the same Jewish body, a part of Am Yisrael. And, we need one another.

Sometimes drashot don’t go exactly as the darshan or darshanit planned. Sometimes the darshan looks into the Torah and tries to find the world, and sometimes, perhaps much more often she looks at the world and sees the Torah reflected in a newborn’s searching eyes, or a Rabbis bleeding hands.

May we be blessed to remember our interconnectedness not only in our most vulnerable times, but daily. In this way may we fulfill the commandment קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ, and be holy together.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Metzora 5779: #justiceforglitter

Last week I got to fulfill a childhood dream. As I entered the Wang theater downtown, my heart was racing. The beautiful interiors glimmered, and as I looked around I saw people of all ages and genders. Many of them wearing various shades of pink. We were there to see the one and only Mariah Carey. Famous for her notes so high only dogs can hear them, Mariah’s music and her unabashed femininity spoke to my neshama, and I’m sure some of your neshamas, as a tween in a big way. For my pre-bat mitzvah photoshoot, when I was instructed to bring along something that showed what I love and who I am, I knew exactly what to bring. My friends had pictures of themselves with soccer balls, or an instrument of some sort, but all I needed was a fully pink outfit, microphone, and CD. I still remember so vividly the moment I realized, microphone in hand, that I was not going to be able to lip synch to Mariah as freely in front of this photographer as I had in my bedroom with the door closed. All of that is to say, I loved--and love--Mariah. Last week, waiting for her to arrive on stage, almost 20 years after my bat mitzvah photo shoot was magical. As the lights dimmed and the music started playing, as if in preparation to receive the shabbos bride, everyone stood up. Mariah emerged in her glittery silver halter top dress. She sang all the classics, delivered those high pitched notes, we danced, it was amazing.

As we were leaving the theater, exhilarated from an amazing performance, we passed the merch table, and I noticed something peculiar. Alongside Mariah swag and her new album were shirts and bags and stickers with the hashtag #justiceforglitter. Justice for glitter is a campaign started by Mariah’s fans to save her reputation, after her 2001 film “Glitter” was voted one of the worst movies of all time. Not only did it get a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, The Village Voice called it “Infinitely mockable.” The Chicago Tribune: “A vehicle that tarnishes as you watch it, leaving this troubled chart-topper lost in a sea of drunken, maudlin cliches.” Fans were worried, rightfully so, that this movie would be the end of Mariah’s long and vibrant career. So, they started a campaign to bring #justiceforglitter.

In this week’s parsha, Metzora, we find ourselves smack in the middle of the book of Vayikra which deals with the laws of the Temple, sacrifices, and various afflictions of skin, body, and home and their spiritual remedies. Through these seemingly strange parshiot we see a word over and over again that is commonly misunderstood: tahor, usually translated as pure. As we know, every translation is a commentary in itself. When we translate tahor as pure or clean, we do two things: without the temple, we make it irrelevant to our lives today, and secondly, we add on a level of judgement that need not be there. I was very excited to find out, thanks to my teacher Laynie Solomon at SVARA, that when you take a closer look at the root tet, hey, resh in the dictionary you’ll notice that, in addition to pure it can also mean...wait for it… glitter.

This past Wednesday here at Nehar Shalom we completed the 6th and final week of our Talmud as Spiritual Practice Beit Midrash. In our sugya, from Eruvin 13b, we learn about Rebbe Meir. The Talmud starts by saying that it is known before the one who spoke the world into being (AKA G!d) how special and unique Rebbe Meir was. “So then, why did we not establish halacha like him?” The Talmud asks. Because, on the tahor, on the glittery, he could declare tamei, not glittery, and on the tamei he could declare tahor. And for each of them, it says, he could mareh lo panim, show for it faces or aspects. Meaning that, Rebbe Meir was such a radical character because he could hold the complexity and multifaceted nature of every situation, knowing that it’s never as simple as tahor or tamei, and that usually (if not always) thing carry aspects of both.

I guess this is my personal #justiceforglitter campaign, which has nothing (or everything) to do with Mariah Carey. If we read any of the number of things in the Torah deemed “impure” with this translation of it’s opposite, tahor, in mind, we understand it differently.  And these parshiot in Leviticus might feel a little less judgmental and distant.

The actual #justiceforglitter campaign worked, by the way. Through a lot of devotion and hard work, Mariah’s fans got the album for the movie rated #1 on iTunes, 17 years after its release. If Mariah’s fans can do that for Glitter, than I think as fans of the Torah, we can too.

In a world absent of priestly rituals, we are considered to be in the deepest levels of tamei/unglittery that there ever was. If we look through the lens of Rebbe Meir, then we can see that even within that there are aspects that are glittery. As we look in ourselves and in the world, may we be blessed to find the aspects of glitter that are difficult to see.

Parshat Pekudei 5779: Bearing Witness

Around this time last year, my grandma Dorothy was in her final days. She was 98 and a half years old, at peace with the world and her life, and ready to go. And yet, as is often the case with someone who has spent so long in their body, it was incredibly hard for her to let go. She lived in between worlds for weeks, without food and then without water. Simply existing neither here nor there.

There are moments in your life where you just know you need to go. Get on a plane. Be somewhere. This was one of those moments. I booked a ticket and in merely 14 hours I had left the bright, warm springtime Jerusalem air and entered the middle of Minnesota winter, in my grandma’s apartment, holding her hand. Once I had arrived, and my brain settled, the question occurred to me for the first time: what was I there to do? Sing to her, yes. Pray with her, sure. But in truth my job was much simpler than that, it was just to bear witness. To honor her life with my presence, attention and love.

This week, the Mishkan is complete and the Israelites are ready to set out on their journeys with the presence of G!d surrounding them by a cloud in the day and fire at night. The Mishkan is called by a new name this week, מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת, the Mishkan of Witness.

The Sfat Emet asks and answers the question, “Why did the Israelites need a witness?”  He explains that, after the Golden Calf, the Israelites did not believe they were worthy to be close to G!d. They had fallen so low in their own eyes that it just wasn’t fathomable that they could have a real relationship with the Divine. Perhaps you have experienced this, when you feel like crap for one reason or another and someone says, “You’re awesome!” And all you can say inside is, “Yeah, yeah.” That’s how the Israelites must have felt, after having fallen so immensely and disappointing G!d and Moshe, and now building this beautiful Mishkan so that they could have a daily relationship with G!d. I can almost hear them saying sarcastically, “Yeah, yeah. Sure. I get to have a relationship with G!d.”

What they needed in this fallen state more than anything was a witness. Something bigger that can testify to their goodness, and yet not as big as G!d. Something tangible that can hold a bigger, wider perspective about who they were as full human beings, beyond the moment of the Calf. In some ways, the Mishkan took on the role of therapist, reminding them, as the Sfat Emet explains, “not to fall too low in [your] own eyes, for by teshuva we really are restored to what we were before.”

So, over 5 days, I bore witness to my grandmother’s leaving this world. It was a gift, an honor, and I do believe that the witnessing helped her let go.

I went back to Jerusalem feeling complete and broken at the same time. I needed a ritual to mark what had just happened. Even as an almost-Rabbi I often forget what rituals are out there to mark transitions. Oh right, I thought, Mikvah.

I asked my married friend if she would accompany to the Mikvah. For those of you who don’t know, we are very lucky here in Boston to have Mayyim Hayyim. Most Mikva’ot grill you to make sure you are married (because G!d forbid you should use the Mikvah for a different purpose). My friend agreed to protect me, and I apologized in advance to myself and Hashem for lying. We walked in, saw the Mikvah lady, and, as predicted, heard the words, “אתן נשואות?”/ “Are you two married?”

My friend, bless her heart, responded in the most suspicious way possible: “No, no. Not to each other!” I sighed. “כן אני נשואה” “Yes, I am married.” The Mikvah lady looked at me with harsh suspicion. In an effort to protect me from the mikvah lady and be my shomeret for the immersion, my wonderful friend continued to make matters worse, “Can we go into the mikvah together?” This time the mikvah lady’s eyes got huge. “ביחד במים!?”/ “Together?! In the water!?” “No, no, as my shomeret,” I explained. With a watchful eye, she did let us go into the Mikvah room together. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most relaxing welcome, and my kavannah was only half there. But, as I let myself be completely immersed by the living waters, I heard a voice say something simple and clear, “כשר,” suitable, fitting, worthy. With the waters and my friend bearing witness, I was able to let go of all that had been until that moment, and able to move forward in my wanderings in this world.

May we be blessed with many witnesses, human and otherwise, to remind us of who we are. To remind us that we are good. To remind us that as human beings we deserve connection, no matter how we may have messed up. May we carry these witnesses with us as we wander.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Re'eh 5779: Trust and Tarot

About ten years ago, I was jobless and broke in New York City. I had just been fired from a receptionist job at a very fancy financial management company for reasons unknown. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that out of my boredom, I brought bags and bags of art supplies with me to work and made art behind the desk, but we will never, ever know for sure.

One weekday morning, I left my coffin-sized bedroom on St. Mark’s street in the East Village to go wandering, smoke some clove cigarettes, and look for some sort of sign of what to do next. I walked past the familiar line up of sex shops, tattoo parlours, and frozen yogurt places and kept going. Should I stay in New York or should I go back to Colorado? Hashem! Tell me what to do. Eventually I passed by a psychic’s storefront “office.” In the window was a table with crystals on it, and some big plastic pink flowers. A blonde woman was sitting in the doorway smoking a cigarette, our eyes met for just barely too long, “Come here,” she said, “There’s something you need to hear.” In my weakness and desperation, I followed her in.

In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we read:

לֹ֣א תִשְׁמַ֗ע אֶל־דִּבְרֵי֙ הַנָּבִ֣יא הַה֔וּא א֛וֹ אֶל־חוֹלֵ֥ם

הַחֲל֖וֹם הַה֑וּא כִּ֣י מְנַסֶּ֞ה יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם

לָדַ֗עַת הֲיִשְׁכֶ֤ם אֹֽהֲבִים֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם



'“Do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem your God is testing you to see whether you really love Hashem your God with all your heart and soul.”

There is so much going on in this pasuk. First of all we have the prophet, who is simply called a “prophet” neither falseness nor truth attached to the title. The rabbis of the Sifra debate about whether he was a false prophet or not. Rebbe Yossi says that of course this verse is talking about a false prophet! Rebbe Akiva says something more nuanced, perhaps this pasuk is talking about a prophet who started out true (since it says that their signs and wonders come to pass!) and when they start persuading people off the derech, that’s when the prophet has strayed of their own derech, asking people to come along with them.

And then we have the “test.” Why does God need to test our love like some jealous partner? Shouldn’t the One who knows all our innermost thoughts and feelings not need to depend on a test? Rambam breaks it down for us. It’s not that God needs us to prove our love for God’s sake, but this proving is actually for our own--and the world’s--sake. He explains that the pasuk is saying something like this, “Know that God intends to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God’s word, and how well you have comprehended the true essence of God that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God. Your religion will then afford a guidance to all who seek the truth, and of all religions, people will choose that which is so firmly established that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle.”

It all boils down to Emunah. It seems that the true reason why we are dissuaded from prophets, dream diviners and the like isn’t about the truth or falsehood of their messages. It’s about the message we are sending to ourselves, the world, and God when we seek them out and follow in their ways. It’s a message of distrust--in ourselves and our own minds, in the world and things happening as they should, and ultimately in God. It’s no wonder that the word emunah shares a root with le’hit’amen--to practice. Our emunah muscle gets built up over many years--it’s not a one time thing.

Back in the psychic’s storefront office, I sat down in the uncomfortable plastic chair and got ready to receive my “sign” from above. The psychic told me many things.  She told me about my soulmate (who was to a be blond and blue eyed man) and how long I would live. She then closed her eyes and thought for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and said very thoughtfully, “I’m getting a sign...that you are struggling financially. It seems that are unemployed.” I immediately snapped out of my receptive state. “Are you kidding me?” I said, “It’s 11am on a Tuesday. Of course I’m unemployed.” I got up, handed her the $20, and left, annoyed with myself that I wasted my time and money, and still with no answers about the future.

To be totally honest, this was not my first encounter with a psychic--I had a palm reader and a numerologist at my Bat Mitzvah party,  and to this day I feel tempted by the occasional tarot or palm reading. Sometimes all we want is for someone to tell us that everything is going to be okay. Or, at least warn us about the bad stuff coming so we can prepare. But, to be a Jew is to live into the mystery, to embrace a God we cannot see who has a plan we cannot know.

May we be blessed with the ability to trust ourselves, the world, and God, and be compassionate with ourselves when we slip, knowing that even in the falsehood there is something to be heard.

Parshat Terumah 5779: Marie Kondo and the Mishkan

This week I’ve been plagued by the nagging question (and perhaps you have, too): what would Marie Kondo think of the Mishkan?

For those of you who haven’t gotten hooked on either the book or new Netflix series, Marie Kondo believes in the “magical art of tidying up.” On the show, she encourages people to let go of anything that doesn’t “spark joy” for them. If you’re wondering what that means, you’re not alone. She explains in almost every episode that to spark joy is to feel what you would feel when you hold a puppy---and she often squeals when she is explaining this. People often end up letting go of much of their belongings--but never without a good cry and some somber music playing. Through tidying up, Marie Kondo believes that we honor our lives and our space, and foster a greater sense of holiness in the home.

This week, the Israelites are commanded to build the Mishkan: the heavy and ornate portable home for G!d that they schlepped through the desert for 40 years. It was a dwelling place for G!d, and a meeting point for them together. Even with its power and beauty, I wonder if it sparked joy for them, or if they ever considered leaving it behind.

I recently counted and was shocked to find out that I have lived in not 10, not 15, but 20 different homes since graduating high school. I’m sure I’m not alone with this. But this means that 19 times I have taken that familiar heavy sigh, looked at all of my belongings and said out loud or to myself, “Okay. What’s coming with me?”

What comes with us on our wanderings through this world? What makes the cut? What makes us feel at home in our wanderings?

The Netivot Shalom asks this week, “How is this mitzvah--the mitzvah of building the mishkan eternal?” Meaning, how does it transcend that time and space to reach us now, when we are not wandering through the desert per se but wandering through our lives. He answers his own question beautifully, saying, “Every person is an entire world before G!d--therefore, we are each commended to make a mishkan within us, in our bodies. This is why G!d says in this week’s parsha ‘make for me a Mikdash that I may dwell within them.” The Netivot Shalom draws a beautiful and in retrospect obvious conclusion--what is the one thing that we take with us throughout our time on this earth, albeit changing, evolving, growing. To fulfill the commandment of building the Mishkan we must build a mishkan within our bodies to take with us in our wanderings through the desert of life.

I just wanna pause the Netivot Shalom for a second to take you into my wanderings a couple weeks ago. I was on vacation, and for those of you who don’t know me very well, I don’t do well on vacation. A lack of structure and surplus of wandering time leaves me in my own thoughts in a way that does not exactly feel restful. It became ever apparent to me, as I was in a new and unfamiliar place, just how unknown the future is. Around sundown nearly every day, I felt the familiar creeping feeling arising in my heart. My response felt almost primal, a need for a home, for something familiar. It was as if an ancestor or some spirit guide or who knows what possessed me in that moment, because I knew exactly what to do in a way I never have before, and I started to davven. I took out my phone with my little siddur app and, wherever the primal call seized me, there I was davvening--on a cobblestone sidewalk, by a river, waiting for a train. It occurred to me that--at least in that time--the words offered themselves to me as shelter. A home wherever I am. And I could be a home for them, speaking them through my mouth.

The Netivot Shalom must have known this primal call, or perhaps foresaw someone just like me; a wandering Jew in her last year of Rabbinical School with no idea of what’s to come, and wrote so beautifully just how we are to create this portable mishkan. He explains that it’s through our words, and through communicating our needs and desires and yearnings to G!d, that we build something. A relationship. A home. This relationship, and the words we speak to each other in our relationship, can serve as a home to orient us when we feel that things are being pulled away from us and we have no idea what’s to come. As G!d can be a home for us, we can create a home for G!d within our words, in our bodies, in our mouths.

May we be blessed to build our Mishkan through our words and song, and find grounding in life’s most uncertain moments. And throughout this process of building, may we feel that spark of joy, carrying it with us through our wanderings.

Parshat Bo 5779: Taking Flight

I’m going to be honest with you. Something just doesn’t feel right to me to me about being 35,000 feet in the air, and hurled across the globe in a metal tube. Yes, I am terrified of flying. And yes, I’ve read all the articles and statistics, and I know I’m more likely to die from a meteor crashing into me than on a plane, or more likely to become President of the United States (although I’m doubtful of those calculations). And yet, I just can’t shake the feeling of skepticism about this flying thing being a good idea.

My typical plane ride goes something like this: I get aboard, I fasten my seat belt, I turn my phone off, and as the engine revs up, I’m actually still okay. My muscles are relaxed and I have a brief feeling of “It’s all good. Whatever happens, happens.” I say Tefilat haDerech, close my eyes, and then...when the inevitable bumps begin as we are reaching cruising altitude, my jaw starts to stiffen as if the tension between my teeth is the *only* thing keeping the plane afloat. As the bumps subside and we arrive at the Almighty cruising altitude, I even have one of those majestic feeling moments, a moment of “wow, look at our planet. It’s gorgeous.” And, even though I’ve heard it a million times, when the seat belt sign goes on or off, the little ding makes my muscles stiffen again. Maybe if there’s an emergency they would let us know by a tiny ding sound...I don’t know!? It’s essentially the same rhythm until we land, moments of awe and relaxation sandwiched between moments of panic, and when we reach the ground I can breathe again.

There was one plane ride several years ago, though, that was a little different. I was on my way to Florida, and we just happened to be flying in a thunderstorm. As we were landing I don’t think I was the only one who was scared. Even the not normally afraid were gasping as the plane was shaking and bouncing up and down in the stormy night, lightning flashing from outside the window. All of my muscles tensed up, and noticed that I was hardly breathing. I really thought this might be “it.” I peered through my panicked stated to look at the person next to me, a middle aged lady who was ready for Florida. Her big blonde hair freshly done, bedecked in jewelry, reading a magazine. She didn’t seem scared. “Excuse me,” I said, “I know this is weird. But I am really scared. Can I hold your hand?” My fear must have overtaken the part of my brain that is self-conscious, and in that moment I truly felt that if I were to die, I’d rather die connected to another human being. Or at least die trying.

In this week’s Parsha, Bo, the Israelites are in a similarly terrifying and liminal space. The last three of ten plagues are befalling Egypt, and, after the final plague, Pharaoh tells them to, bluntly, get the hell out. In their leaving, G!d gives them the first ever Mizvot--make a calendar, make an offering, put the blood on your doorposts, celebrate passover for generations to come, consecrate the firstborn, wear tefillin on your body to remind you of G!d.

Mizvah is often translated as a “good deed” or something we’re “obligated to do or perform.” But, the word mitzvah is closely related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join--to create a connection. Mizvot are intended to create attachments and connections to G!d, to ourselves, and to our community. As the Israelites leave 400 years of slavery, they are coming into a completely new identity, a new life, an unknown that we can hardly envision. Perhaps they felt that they were dying, and in fact, a part of their identity was.

In this state of deep fear of the unknown, a time of really feeling like this could be “it,” G!d gives them exactly what they need--connections. A way to ground themselves in time and space, actions to get them out of their heads and into their bodies.

Back on the plane, I awaited what my seatmate might think of my bizarre request. In the seconds after I asked my question, the self-conscious part of my brain started coming back to life. Oy, I thought, she’s gonna think I’m nuts. Much to my surprise, she closed her magazine, opened her hand palm up, shrugged and said “Sure!” I took her hand, with her beautiful long and colorful nails, in mine. And there we tumbled through the sky, bizarrely and yet perfectly connected one to the another. My heart settled, my jaw released, even as the landing continued to be terrifying.

May we be blessed with performing mizvot, actions and rituals that connect us in all times, and specifically in times where we fear the unknown. And, may we be blessed to see the connections that are available to us, perhaps just a seat away, and let go of whatever is in the way of us reaching out. Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Toledot 5779: Interdependence and Healing

If anyone has ever been to the shuk (open marketplace) in Jerusalem, you know that yelling is a part of the ambiance. “Bannanot bannanot!” “Hallo Hallo!” and the like can be heard throughout the winding alleyways chock full of colors, smells, and people from all over the world. But, when I heard yelling in the shuk on Shabbat, when the shuk is closed for business, I was quite befuddled.

I had been invited to a free “games and beer” event on a shabbat afternoon not long after arriving to Jerusalem, and I was so excited to see Jerusalemites from all across the religious spectrum coming together and enjoying true oneg shabbat. As I was walking up the hill to the shuk, I heard the shouting. But, it wasn’t the “Bannanot bannanot!” that I was used to. In my naivete I thought, “Oh! When they said games they must have also meant some sort of competitive games. People are cheering!” As I approached the event, I saw that it was overflowing with Hasidim. “Wow! Even the hasidim came out to play! How cool!” I thought. It wasn’t until I was smushed in the center of the crowd that I understood what was happening. To my left were secular Jews, conservative Jews, reform Jews, unaffiliated Jews, and even orthodox (non-Hasidic) Jews, sipping their beer with amusement and confusion as some stared at the hasidim, laughing and mocking them, and others tried to ignore them. To my right were the Hasidim, in their beautiful golden shabbos robes and fur shtreimels, yelling with all their heart and might, “SHABBOS! SHABBOS!”

Never have I seen with my own eyes, or heard with my own ears, a more drastic divide among Jews.

The truth is, there have been many divides like this in our tradition, starting all the way back with Jacob and Esau as we see in this week’s parsha. Their struggle began even before they entered the world, as we read  “The children struggled in her [Rivka’s] womb.” Once in the world, the tension between Jacob (dweller in tents) and Esau (man of the field) is constantly apparent. Their relationship quickly devolves into trickery and lies, and the trust between them (if there was any to start) becomes nonexistent. Esau gets tricked away from his blessing from Isaac, and he cries a bitter cry. A cry that some say lasted way beyond the moment of deception, but resonated throughout history and perhaps even continues to this very day.

What is it about Esau that made Jacob, Rivka, and later the rabbis so uncomfortable? From the basic meaning of the text, he seems like a good guy, loyal and loving of his father. Perhaps it was his appearance, red and firey, or his taste for meat and hunting. Perhaps in an effort to resolve the cognitive dissonance of our forefather Jacob treating someone so poorly, the rabbis depict Esau as an evil person, deserving of punishment. My personal take: Esau was a good guy that was gravely misunderstood.

Whether we believe that Esau was a good but misunderstood guy, or actually evil, we see some real family dysfunction in this parsha. We might be familiar with this in our own families or communities. In many cases, people have wronged us and do deserve to be out of our lives. In other cases, we push people away because they are hard to deal with, or don’t fit into our lives, or we don’t want to put in the effort to understand them.

In our larger Jewish family, we fall into this familial dysfunction regularly. Perhaps you’ve had the thought, “everyone less religious than me isn’t doing it right, and everyone more religious than me is crazy!” We push each other out for being not religious enough/too religious/not sharing our political beliefs.

In the wake of antisemitism and white supremacy, we need each other more than ever.

Back in the Shuk, most of the Hasidim had left. It turned out that they thought the shuk had been open for business on Shabbat, and that we were desecrating Shabbat in their neighborhood. Once the misunderstanding was cleared, they went home. A group of us gathered to sing Yedid Nefesh, as the sun was already beginning to set and Shabbat was coming to an end. Mid-verse, I looked up and saw that there was one Hasid left. He was facing the wall, his hands over his ears, continuing to quietly yell “Shabbos” to himself. Though it was directed towards me and my community, it somehow touched me deeply, and pierced through my (rightful) anger. The message was simple: he loved shabbos. He wanted other people to love it too. In that way, we are connected.

Two weeks ago, our community suffered a devastating loss at the hands of white supremacy and anti-semitism. And, we need each other.

At the end of the vigil the Sunday after the attack in Pittsburgh, it was announced that the programming was over, and we could go home. A friend and I started walking back towards the T station with our heads sunk, having heard many inspiring words that opened our hearts that day, and ready to spend the rest of the day in solemn mourning. Behind us, I heard a song. Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael (I’ll sing this), I turned around and saw about ten people--a minyan-- with their arms around each other in a circle singing the words that mean “our siblings, the whole house of Israel.” My friend and I walked over, as if pulled by a magnetic force. Standing to the side, I witnessed with pure awe as the circle grew in seconds from 10, to 20, to 50, to hundreds of people, arms connected one to the other, singing together as if one voice Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael...

May we remember our connection to--and our dependence on--one another, as we fight for our collective liberation. Shabbat Shalom.