Becoming a Holy Community. Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

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A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

וְאַנְשֵׁי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ תִּהְי֣וּן לִ֑י

A People of Holiness Shall You Be To Me.

We are called by Torah to be a holy people. Big assignment. What is holiness? How can we experience holiness beyond ourselves, within community? My questions about this idea led me to explore ethics and mysticism, Mussar and Kabbalah.

A Kabbalistic leader called Sfat Emet said: “First we set right our actions; then we listen. Then comes the time to correct our deeds.”

Mussar is straightening our thoughts, feelings, and actions with those around us – it is how we correct our deeds.

How can I grow by correcting my deeds? Well, maybe I can try not to speak from anger. Be compassionate to the souls around me. Recognize that my journey is only one story among billions occurring during this blink of the universe. We each live a unique story. I can try to understand yours.

Perhaps we can each minimize the control of our Yetzer HaRa, our inclination towards destructiveness. We can remind ourselves to get enough sleep, to not give in to every passing fancy on the internet. We can try to be fully present to our lives.

Seeking to act with straightness can help us walk into the Garden of Faith. We can choose the will to break bad habits. Choosing to pray and study wisdom texts can affirm the nurturing presence of the Ground of Being.

All of these actions help us learn about the holiness that pulses through the universe. Without right action, without Mussar, there is no Receiving, there is no Kabbalah. The Concealed Wisdom, Chochmah Nistar, is a false shadow without right action. We can really be a holy people and live in alignment with the Good in all of us.

Let’s go for it. Each of us finding, as best we can, the path that helps us become a wholly good person.

May we each find the courage to transform ourselves, to bring about constant renewal, and through our transformation be the Anshei Kedoshim we are called to be.


This d’var Torah was originally written for the final week of Davennen Leadership Training Institute. I had the honor of being one of three people to “lab” my d’var and receive editing advice from Rabbi Marcia Prager. Her version cut out many of the paragraphs regarding Kabbalah, in favor of laser focusing on good actions as the only real tangible thing we can do in this life. She looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t know what holiness is; do you?” Rabbi Prager, one of the holiest people I know, said that to me. Since Judaism is full of sanctification and drawing us towards holiness, I decided to keep my thoughts about it as this thought piece moves forward. I spoke of it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park & Eagle Rock this Shabbat, which gave me the opportunity to again witness how difficult it is for me to speak for us. Not because I want to talk at people (heaven forbid!); but because I am still finding my voice to speak on behalf of other people. I am so hesitant to assume that anyone else is seeking what I’m seeking that I default to “I” language, as I am in this explanatory note. So thank you, Reb Marcia, DLTI, and the good people of TBI, for helping me find my voice.

Waking with Gratitude

I remember the first time I tried to understand positive psychology. I was reading a book in line at Disneyland. What, I’m the only one who passes her line time reading nonfiction?

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I remember my first few times wrestling with the idea of virtues, I had to push aside my internal prejudice. The only context in which I had previously heard the word was as an antonym for “vice,” and my only context for “vice” was Catholic / European history with a side of horror movies. In other words, it all sounded very goyish to me.

In reality, there is a deep tradition of positive psychology built into Judaism. Morning blessings, Birkat HaShachar, are succinct meditations on gratitude, mindfulness, and intention. Traditionally, Jews said the words soon after waking up, before gathering for communal prayer.

Traditionally, the first meditation is Modeh Ani, which translated in the word order of Hebrew is: “Thank I” (as in “I thank,” the subject often comes after the verb in Hebrew). In the Koren Sacks siddur, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains: 

On waking, our first thought should be that we are in the presence of God. Since we are forbidden to speak God’s name until we have washed our hands, the following prayer is said, which, without mentioning God’s name, acknowledges His presence and gives thanks for a new day and for the gift of life.

Here is a translation of Modeh Ani, combining words chosen by Rabbi Sacks and the Mishkan Tefillah translation, along with my own interpretation.

I thank You, living and eternal Sovereign
for returning to me my soul in mercy
Great is Your faithfulness.

Meditating into the Presence of the Divine

Focusing on the description in this prayer allows me to sink into gratitude for the blessing of life. 

מלך חי וקים, Melech Chai V’Kayam. The flow of Living and Eternal Sovereignty.

The spark of life, the flow of time embodied. What is Alive and Eternal? What is my being oriented toward? What is Sovereign in my life? How can my transitory life become a vessel for the flow of eternal life? 

Thinking about the Living and Eternal Sovereign pushes me to wake up to the Wonder of Being. I try to allow that to be the first fully chosen thought of the day.

I know that Goodness is faithfully with me at all times. Holiness and Awe are my companions on this journey. We can choose to make room for them, or we can focus on mundane, dying darkness. The petty and the cynical are death traps.

Living into רבה אמונתך, Rabbah Emunatecha, the breadth and fullness of Your Trust / Faithfulness is my holy calling.

When we weave faithfulness into the fabric of our days, we coach ourselves to be vessels of holiness. Being conscious of the precious soul within me and the unique souls who surround me. We are each made B’tzelem Elohim, in the shadow of the Divine. We are each mortal shells wrapping a spark of eternity, the Divine who resides within each of our souls. Each individual contains worlds, each individual is worthy of whole-hearted attention and love. I am worthy and my journey is an important part of the sacred march of time.

None of us remain fully aware and awake, even when our eyes our open. I have lost countless hours to mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and watching YouTube. The Divine is not troubled by our forgetfulness. In mercy, She restores our knowledge of our souls. The gentle kiss of eternity that continuously moves with us as we walk through the world reminds us to live with empathy and trust in ourselves.

May today and every day be a day of thankfulness for me. May I forever remember the holiness at the heart of my consciousness. And may I sink into the Faithfulness Who guides me on my journey. Amen.

V’Etchanan: I pleaded with HaShem

Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, just ended. Last week’s Torah portion began with the word “v’etchanan,” I pleaded.

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Our sages say that Moses was praying for the ability to pray. The original fore-prayer. The term fore-prayer was coined by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi to describe the need to prepare oneself for prayer.

The ultimate version of this is the prayer that is not a prayer, a line from Psalm 51: “Adonai, s’faitay tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha;” traditionally translated as “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise” which is the opening meditation before the formal beginning of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, known simply as Prayer / Tefillah in Judaism’s oldest surviving discussions of liturgy.

Still, it feels like getting ahead of myself to speak about that beautiful line of poetry. The first fore prayer I say in the morning is a command to my soul from Psalm 104:

Bless, my soul, HaShem. HaShem, my God, You are very great; clothed in majesty and splendor, wrapped in a robe of light; spreading out the heavens like a tent. [Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks‘ translation in the Koren siddur.] Barchi nafshi, et HaShem, HaShem Elokai, Gadalta Me’od, Hod V’Hadar Lavashta; Oteh Ohr Kashalmah, Noteh Shamayim Kariyah.

Or as Rabbi Mordecai Finley translates it:

My soul, Bless HaShem! HaShem, my God — very great; clothed in majesty and splendor; wrapped in light like a robe; spreading out reality like a map.

I cherish beginning my davvenen with this line of poetry. It is the most beautiful description of The Cause of Being that I have: the Essence of the Universe that is wrapped in light. Try to sink into the idea that reality is unfolding like a map and you may never read another word of prayer.

These are the words I utter before I prayer; specifically, before I say the blessing for my tallit and wrap myself in it, imagining that I am wrapping myself in light — as I wrap myself in the light of the tradition, the light of holiness, the light of goodness. I also try to remember that I cannot see all of reality. That whatever I am upset about or anxious about or enjoying is just a fraction of the reality that exists in the world.

And yet, I continually fail at these meditations because I fail at the most basic aspect of the life I yearn for: consistent, daily prayer.

I looked into a lot of aspects of last week’s Torah portion in preparing to speak about it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. Ironically, I failed to mention anything about fore prayer during my d’var Torah.

There is so much to say as we embark on that seven week journey toward the High Holy Days. What is sovereign in your life? What do you revere? How do you show your reverence on a daily basis?

They say that the Haftorah portions for this period reflect the ascent to the holiest days of our calendar, rather than being related to our Torah portions. And yet, I find them to be intimately related. I cried out to HaShem and She answered: “Comfort, oh Comfort.” Nachamu, nachamu – the words from Isaiah that begin the prophetic portion are a clear response to the anguish we feel. Anxiety for failing to meet our own expectations of ourselves. Shame that, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, we put our ego between HaShem and ourselves. Embarrassment that we still worship idols; we covet physical things and focus our energies on material reality, ignoring the palaces in time calling to our souls.

It is all okay. Ain od. There is nothing else. The Divine is everywhere, experiencing everything alongside us. And She will suckle us through the narrow places and we will arrive into ourselves when we are ready to take our place and heed the call to our own depths.

I meditated on the Sapphire Vision and terrified myself

Chanting this story at
DLTI-10 Week 3

At the Davennen Leadership Training Institute, we were asked to work on our leyning skills. That is, we were asked to step into the ability to decode tropes, the musical system used to chant the Torah. And for those of us who know the trope system, we were given intermediate or advanced options. We could work in partnership to chant conversations as a dialog in English or individually take a section of Torah and provide our own translation.

This project terrified me before I ever opened a Chumash. I am somewhat comfortable preparing a talk on the Torah, from the comfort of my own home with my teachers surrounding me. I take out five or six commentaries and meditate my way into a conversation on a portion.

My process for creating this English story based on the Torah

So, being at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, with a handful of unfamiliar commentaries, was quite disorienting. Further, I chose a section that I thought would allow me to enter into the deep mystery of knowing HaShem, Exodus 24.1-11; the section of the parsha Mishpatim known as the Sapphire Vision; an entry point into Jewish mysticism.

First, I went through the available commentaries and wrote a straight-forward English version of the text. I stared at those words, devoid of any women, full of ancient blood rituals, and I felt a chasm open up between me and HaShem. I asked our holy teacher, Hazzan Jack Kessler, how much space I had for interpretation. He encouraged me to explore the story however I wanted to, and pointed out how strange the ending of the passage is. (You see HaShem’s throne and your response is to eat and drink?)

I practiced chanting the Torah portion in Hebrew, to get myself more deeply connected to the holy sparks within it. I also assumed that it makes the most sense to follow the trope cadence already assigned when developing an English translation. So, initially, I was going to chant my English story as simply as Mishpatim describes The Sapphire Vision. And then, on the first day of English leyning, my holy sisters and brothers pulled out rare tropes to adorn their English. And I thought, well, if any portion deserves adornment, surely it is a vision of the Divine. Plus, all that fancy note work might keep people from booing me out of the room for the heresy of my story. (Because there was still a large portion of me terrified of sharing my story publicly, in front of an open Torah.)

In terror, I stepped forward.

This is the hardest thing I did last week. It cracked open a part of me that I didn’t know was there. I am so deeply grateful to Reb Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler, along with our other holy teachers, for creating the space that allowed me to greet the Shechinah with open arms.

Another Sapphire Vision

Click here for an audio version of this story.

Yah spoke to Moshe saying: travel up to Miriam and the kohanot. And Moshe went up; him, and Aaron, and the other males thirsting for Divine flow. Miriam showed Moshe the way in.

And Moshe returned and told the people all that he heard.

And Yisrael replied: all that Yah said, we shall do.

Moshe wrote instructions for living a life of goodness.

In gratitude, he built an altar to HaShem and placed twelve pillars around it. He prayed that the Holy One and Her people would fill the world with glory and love.

Then, Moshe took the book of the covenant and read into the ears of the people.

They said: All that Yah has commanded we will do.

Moshe blessed the people and thanked them for trusting him.

Moshe returned to the Mountain of Flow; he and all the men eager to meet the Source. Miriam greeted them; the Kohanot taught the spiral dance.

Lo, they glimpsed the Divine.


Blue / Black, Smooth as Ice, Firm as Mountains, Soft as Babies.

The men were overwhelmed. All of the men were overwhelmed by the brilliance. All of the men except Moshe.

Miriam held Moshe’s hand and he felt the pure love and emptying of childbirth.

They returned to the Kehillah Kedushah, the holy community, emanating the pure light of the Divine.

The men were overjoyed to be let in. And the men prepared a great feast. And all of them sat together. And they ate and they drank.

Forty-nine days of the Omer: Completion, Reflections, Expansion

Tonight begins the forty-ninth day, which is seven weeks of the Omer. It is Shabbat and the day before Shavuot. מלכות שבמלכות, שכינה שבשכינה, Sovereignty of Sovereignty, Indwelling of Divine Presence.

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Reflecting on counting the Omer

I can scarcely believe that this journey is nearing its culmination. Meditating on the Omer brings a mixture of emotion for me. Trepidation veering towards anxiety is my starting position. Eventually, I move into a flow and look forward to my daily count. And then, inevitably, something happens in life to throw me off course.

This year has been particularly interesting because I have been posting my entries for the last two years on this new-in-2019 / 5779 blog. I have often been overwhelmed by the words Past Me wrote and shocked that I expected myself to write anything else on the topic.

Of course, what’s even more surprising is the variety of topics that I manage to cram into a single day of counting. Meeting and embracing the Shadow on Shavuot is a neo-Jungian understanding of revelation that I learned from Rabbi Finley. I don’t think I’ve made the correlation between of The Shadow and Shechinah, the Divine Presence, clear. Shechinah is understood to be the aspect of the Divine Who is in Exile, permanently, alongside Israel. She will only return to the King in the World to Come, at the End of Time. Ideally, it wont take that long for us to embrace our Shadows. And by embracing the Shadow, we make room for the Divine. We acknowledge the gaps in ourselves and meditate into the brokenness, rather than papering over it.

Brokenness: the metaphor that propels this blog

Core inner brokenness is another idea I learned from Rabbi Finley. I have not begun reading the Kabbalistic texts it is based upon. The Lurianic creation myth speaks about the shattering of the vessels, that the Divine light could not be contained and therefore burst forth from the vessels.

Thus, the tikkun we do within, the repair we do to our own connection to the Divine light, the sephirot, also vibrates into the sephirot and helps them to heal. The core of the metaphor behind the name of this blog is that all human beings are broken, and God was broken in the process of creating non-God. By repairing ourselves, we not only repair the world; we repair the Divine. And that is the mystical understanding of tikkun olam.

The literal translation of tikkun olam is repair the world. And so from this springs forth Jewish social action and Jewish philanthropy. Yet when we peel off these outer layers, all repair must begin within.

Creating a vessel for Divine revelation

These Omer meditations remind me how far it is possible to travel in three years when one consciously chooses a path of depth. My brokenness will remain with me until the day I return to dust. Until then, I shall continue relishing the flow of Divine love. Grace surrounds me and supports me. Truth guides me. Beauty inspires me. And human flourishing makes my soul sing.

May this Shabbat of Shechinah of Shechinah, the Indwelling of the Divine Presence, remind you what you want to hold sovereign in your life. May you allow yourself to be washed clean, born anew to the version of yourself waiting to be actualized. And may you embrace a soul-nourishing community who are able to embrace you as you are today and help you become who you yearn to be. Shabbat shalom.

Previously on this day in the Omer

49 days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: Creating a coherent philosophy that can guide life through the bad as well as the good.

49 days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: Acknowledge the Shadow and the Inner Pharoah to prepare for Revelation.

Forty-eight days of the Omer: Foundation of the Divine Presence

Today is forty-eight days, which is six weeks and six days of the Omer. יסוד שבשכינה. Yesod ShebeShechinah. Foundation of Divine Presence.

Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ from Pixabay

Moving towards revelation

We will complete our Omer counting tomorrow. These daily meditations lay the groundwork for Shavuot. That word literally means Weeks. It occurs seven weeks and one day after Passover. Originally the Israeli wheat harvest began on Shavuot. Early rabbis declared it the day the Torah was revealed on Mt. Sinai. We read the Book of Ruth and honor our holy sisters and brothers who formally chose to join us on the Jewish path, though we know their souls were with us at Mt. Sinai.

Merging the masculine and feminine

Before we get to Sinai, we must contemplate the Foundation of Divine Presence. Today we honor the masculine and feminine merging within us and between us. A day that combines the two sephirot most clearly linked to gender and sexual identity; a day that sings to Pride month.

Whether gender queer, bisexual, straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, or none of the above, we are all connected to the masculine and feminine within and beyond ourselves. This foundational truth is often obscured by the veils we cling to in life.

Remember to honor the shadow as well as the persona

Two years ago, I wrote deeply about the persona and how she forces the shadow to stay hidden. Last year, I wrote about the profound effect of sharing ideas and how that makes them more real. Completely different topics inspired by the energy of this day and the day preceding it.

Honestly, I want to take today to marinate in my thoughts from two years ago, which I am sure were inspired by reading Meeting the Shadow Within: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. (If you’ve read the book, I would love to chat about it.)

Reflect, rejoice, and honor Jews by choice

As I nestle into the foundation of my acceptance of the Sovereignty of the Divine, I hope to reflect and rejoice. Even if my sinusitis precludes me from attending a late-night study session for Shavuot, this is still a juicy time of year.

Just as Shavuot is the holiday of the revelation of Torah, it is also the holiday of honoring Jews by choice. I become overwhelmed thinking about my soulmate, the man who made all my dreams come true. My holy partner who chose to formally recognize his Jewish soul as part of my path to the rabbinate. The best partnerships are built on holding space for one another; providing the foundation for soul-expanding transformation.

May your family of choice and of birth support you on your journey towards revelation and transformation.

Previously on this day in the Omer

48 days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: The relationship between persona and shadow.

48 days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: Sharing ideas makes them real.

Forty-seven days of the Omer: Splendor of Divine Presence

Image by Marcin Zakowicz from Pixabay

Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer. הוד שבשכינה, Hod ShebeShechinah. Splendor of Divine Presence.

Oh, the glory of Divine Presence. This is a day to reflect on how we honor the Divine through prayer. How we connect to the Feminine aspect of God while praying.

Most traditional Jewish prayer refers to HaShem with masculine pronouns and masculine verb conjugations. Feminine forms can be jarring if your brain isn’t relaxed into the possibility that since the Divine is beyond gender, leaning into the Shadow side of human understanding might reveal more of Her Splendor.

I have not sorted out moving myself into a daily morning prayer practice (following a traditional Shacharit service order, laying t’fillin, etc). I am trying to be easier on myself, as I have been struggling with extreme allergies and sinus headaches for over six weeks.

While I have not fulfilled my self-imposed expectation of traditional daily prayer, I am trying to lean into the Divine Feminine every day. I imagine El Shaddai as the ideal mother, the loving embrace and healthy encouragement towards individuation whom we all want.

My goal is to continuously remember my connection with El Shaddai. To remember that I don’t have to get upset every time I’m faced with an irrational toddler tantrum. Knowing that the Divine embraces me in love at all times, even when I’m not living up to my own expectations. And creating space for others to encounter El Shaddai.

How do you encounter the Splendor of the Divine Presence?

Previously on this day in the Omer

47 days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: Remembering God’s glory and encountering the fear of Heaven.

47 days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: Creating space for the Spark of Goodness, the Eternal Flame of Knowing.

Forty-six days of the Omer: Eternal Divine Presence

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Today is forty-six days, which is six weeks and four days of the Omer, נצח שבשכינה, Netzach ShebeShechinah. Eternal Divine Indwelling.

Today, I participated in a Facebook conversation regarding the tragedy in Holland, the legal murder of a seventeen year-old. Obviously my word choice tells you what I think about euthanasia for children suffering from trauma and mental health issues. Others will claim it is disrespectful to judge, or that if I knew more people suffering I would be more respectful of the choice to die when one is not physically terminally ill.

I have been through the darkness of depression. I experienced suicidal ideation. I am extremely grateful to live in a country that does not normalize death as a response to mental illness. Call the national Suicide Prevention Hotline if you or anyone you know is suicidal.

It is deeply true that the brain of a teenager is not the same as the brain of an adult. And the brain keeps growing and changing throughout life, especially through the mid-20s.

There are better and worse ways to respond to suicidal ideation.

I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe the universe only gives you as much as you can handle. I take the Shoah seriously. I take the human capacity for evil seriously. I take structural violence seriously.

While I don’t believe life is preordained by the Divine, I believe deeply in the Eternal Divine Presence.

May we all make space for holiness and may we be the vessels that help others find their way towards wholeness.

Previously on this day in the Omer

46 days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: I was thinking about death and the holiness of life.

46 days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: Attempting to describe the Eternal Divine Presence.

Forty-five days of the Omer: Truth of Divine Presence

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Today is forty-five days, which is six weeks and three days of the Omer. אמת שבשכינה. Emet ShebeShechinah. Truth of Divine Presence.

Recently, there has been a lot of conversation regarding the lack of shared truth. How partisan news sources and social media distort basic facts, and society lacks grounding in shared truth. This can make people wary of discussing truth that is beyond material reality.

Honor empirical truth

Yes, we must honor empirical truth. We must honor scientific knowledge, and encourage respect for subject matter experts.

The Truth beyond the veil

Moving beyond polemics, we encounter a deeper level of truth. A welcoming prayer space provides a respite for all spiritual seekers, regardless of beliefs. In the right milieu, no one has to be taught how to be in a prayer space. We allow our bodies to release tension and sink into the present moment. Breathing deeply, we consider the miracles that surround us. Making space for the deeper truth within ourselves bursting to be actualized.

Allowing myself to sink into prayerful meditation helped me find the Truth of Divine Presence within me. First, I calmed down my inner dialog. I let go of work troubles. And I let go of the existential angst of feeling like I wasn’t being seen or living up to my potential (a deadly inner dialog that at times left me painfully frozen in destructive patterns).

Truth of Divine Presence revealed through Judaism

We can find depths everywhere. My soul is transformed by the depths of truth available through Jewish wisdom. My prayer is to share this journey with as many people as possible. I want to help reveal the Truths of the Divine Presence that become clear through a Jewish lens.

What is the Truth of Divine Presence calling to you?

Previously on this day in the Omer

45 Days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: Honoring the holiness that pulses beyond time and space.

45 Days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: Finding the core truth that motivates you.

Forty-four days of the Omer: Strength of Divine Presence

Trimlack image on Pixabay

Today is forty-four days, which is six weeks and two days of the Omer. גבורה שבשכינה, Gevurah ShebeSchechinah, Strength of Divine Presence.

Ideally, counting the Omer is a deep experience. Ideally, it allows us time to reflect on what we mean when we say God. The aspects of Divinity that pulsate through our highest selves into our lived experience.

All of that rich goodness radiates through the week of Shechinah, the Divine Feminine Who dwells with us. Today, we recognize the Strength of the Divine, the Force that calls out to us, reminding us of who we want to be. We bask in the glow of Her Presence, reminding ourselves that we are already enough. Just as I am, I am a perfectly broken vessel for Divine Strength. As I heal the cracks in my soul, and turn myself towards Goodness, I am healing the brokenness of the Divine.

May you feel the Strength of the Divine Presence today and may you allow Her to guide you.

Previously on this day in the Omer

44 Days of the Omer 5778 / 2018: Mothers reflecting Divine Strength.

44 Days of the Omer 5777 / 2017: Letting go of lower Gevurah and embracing Divine Goodness.