Beloved Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on the eve of a new year. As we all struggle to make sense of this year, it is capped with the overwhelming loss of a giant legal mind, and a formidable member of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, 5781 arrives: with expectations for returning, reflection, and resolve.
Elul, the Jewish month preceding Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, ends. My Elul broke and shattered by COVID-19 before this news. It is hard to be upbeat and joyous when it has been months since you’ve hugged someone who doesn’t live with you. The last time I saw a significant number of family members was during my uncle’s passing from this world to the next, in early June.
And yet, despite my anxiety regarding the future of my country, I am determined to find joy in this spiritual New Year. I am profoundly grateful to know my children on a deeper level than was possible before. Sinking into the depths of their innocence is a revelation. I do not remember ever being so pure and naive — perhaps because my siblings are five and seven years older than me; perhaps because James Bond and Poltergeist are two movies I distinctly remember from when I was their age.
So we will dip apples in honey and wish each other a sweet year. We will continue to dream of all the adventures we will go one once this virus passes. The idea of a vacation involving airplanes and restaurant food for every meal enamors them.
A prayer: turning towards ourselves
I will have grace with myself and the world. Our lives turned upside down. Especially to my fellow parents: may we roll into each day with gratitude for the people around us and the village we know is near us spiritually. Let us not judge ourselves by the social media vision of other people’s lives. Let us resolve to be the best versions of ourselves we can be in this moment. And as we mourn what cannot be, let us find a way to relish in the companionship that is.
I have a vision of moving this blog to a new URL. A few weeks ago, I gained clarity into how off-putting my blog title really is. Considering how terrifying reality can be, does anyone want to learn spirituality from someone who claims to be broken? Isn’t there enough brokenness without bringing that into your religious life?
Brokenness and repairing the world within
Accepting brokenness as an innate part of the human condition was a huge step forward on my own spiritual journey. It is part of Luranic Kabbalism as explained by Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah. Yet, I also recognize how disconnected most Jews are from Jewish mysticism specifically and theology more generally. So I want to provide a URL that does not require a metaphysical leap. With HaShem’s help, that URL transformation is coming soon.
Real talk on life with kids
Now, I just want to be frank. Parenting two small children while basically being locked at home for the foreseeable future is a heavy weight. My four year-old is afraid to touch the floor. That makes it quite difficult to get him to pick up the mess he makes on a daily basis. My six year-old cries over the vagaries of playing video games. And refuses to meet with people via Zoom. So I’m not entirely sure how virtual TK and second grade will happen alongside my fifth year of rabbinical school. I’ve already put off my synagogue internship to allow myself time to be primary parent four days a week. (My classes meet on Sunday and Monday.)
I can’t tell you that scheduling time to attend minyans daily will help make your life feel more meaningful. Zoom services are fundamentally different from in-person davennen. We need space to find our own way into prayer and our own way into the structure needed to make prayer a daily part of life.
Another option is daily study. In 2020, I have tried Daf Yomi and reading through the psalter. I have not finished either of these projects. Yet, I can say with certainty that allowing space for deep reading– even if you never finish the book –is soul nourishing.
Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart
This summer, I am doing an independent study on Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Currently reading Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda’s The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart. I purchased the book in 2011 and deeply remember how long it took me to read the academic introduction by the translator, Menahem Mansoor. Desperately wanted to connect with the book, as it is the first comprehensive treatment of Jewish ethics. At the time, I stopped reading in the chapter about the importance of keeping the commandments. My progressive, antinomian ego could not accept moving through the logic of a different time. The book is revolutionary for three main reasons: its focus on the inward space of religious practice, its thorough description of repentance / teshuvah, and its statements on ethics.
Simultaneously, it is also a book of Jewish theology. Being a Jew born post-Shoah (after World War II and the Catastrophe), I wonder how to make Jewish spiritual practice relevant to people who are so jaded by our communal and individual experiences. Yes, absolutely, Jewish civilization and ethnicities are important in their own right. And yet, there is something deeply powerful — both in these received texts and in contemporary religious conversations, that should resonate with modern Jewish souls and the souls of seekers.
I have 200 pages more to read before offering more thoughts on Ibn Pakuda’s magnum opus. After that, I might dabble back into the Talmud or the psalter. I might also start another series of books — Daniel Matt’s translation of the Zohar. I have to constantly remind myself that it is okay not to read everything. That there’s no way for me to read everything. And yet, sometimes I think my books are gossiping about me and making snarky comments about how few I’ve read cover to cover…
My beloved uncle, Sheldon Minster, passed from this world to the next this week. He was such a giant, and constant presence, in my life. My Hesped at his funeral did not do him justice.
וַתִּצְלַ֨ח עָלָ֜יו ר֣וּחַ השם The spirit of HaShem gripped him.
Like Samson, Sheldon was born with extraordinary physical strength. He used it to protect his family, especially his little brother, Marshall. It wasn’t easy growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
Sheldon would ask to leave the apartment and his shrewd mother, Elsie, z”l, would always say: “only if you take your brother with you.” Thus, my dad got to go on adventures with his big brother and a life-long friendship was forged.
Sometimes, his dad, Samuel, z”l, would invite him out for tootsie rolls, which was code for getting traif. Elsie kept a strictly kosher home and Sheldon shared Samuel’s taste for pork and cheeseburgers.
There’s something about the way we think of Judaism that claims only bookishness and ritual observance are hallmarks of a righteous Jew. Yet, truly, I have learned more about embodied Judaism from Sheldon than from most other people in my life.
אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י I am my beloved’s And my beloved is mine.
Dance partners for life. Soul mates. Life companion in every way.
Sheldon met the love of his life at UCLA, Linda Sterne Minster. They enjoyed 61 years and 11 months together.
Linda expanded Sheldon’s vocabulary, helping him give voice to the feelings roiling within.
Early in their marriage, Papa Sam became terminally ill with bone cancer. Marshall says that Papa Sam made Sheldon promise to look out for his brother and sister. And Sheldon absolutely did that, through thick and thin.
Linda and Sheldon were blessed with two children: Kenny, z”l, and Sam.
Others spoke about how quiet Sheldon was — yet, he never seemed that way to me. Perhaps because he was always his most gregarious around his best friend, my dad, Marshall.
My mom, Phyllis, recalled the many water volleyball games we played in their backyard pool. It had a sudden drop off to 9 ft deep. Despite having the pool for most of his life, Sheldon never learned to swim. Once, he and Phyllis were walking in the pool and ended up in the deep end, maybe five inches from where she could walk. He grabbed onto her and held on for dear life. Phyllis thought they’d both drown. Somehow they made it to safety. He still didn’t learn to swim, though eventually they filled in the deep end of the pool.
No man is perfect. My sister reminded me how uncomfortable family gatherings could become. She is five years older than me, so has a better memory of these things than I do. What I do recall is that I called out my Dad and Uncle Sheldon a lot — I think because their sense of humor invoked many declarations that they were “male chauvinist pigs.” I learned to spot sexism before I could really articulate what it was.
In any event, as the decades moved forward, so did Sheldon. His ability to change with the times was truly remarkable.
Jacob blessing his sons
Towards the end of his life, in B’reishit chapters 48 and 49, Jacob blesses his ten sons.
In the latter half of his life, that was Sheldon’s role: dispensing wisdom, both to his family and his extensive friends network. He always worried about people and wanted to make sure we were on the straight path, moving towards the best versions of ourselves.
When Sam married his beshert, Lisa, there was Sheldon beaming. And when they had children — Lauren and Shane, Sheldon’s life truly became complete. Being a grandfather seemed to be his greatest joy in the world. I suppose part of him was relishing what he was never able to share with his own father.
Though he tried valiantly to help everyone transform themselves as he had transformed himself multiple times over the years, there were limits to his prophetic voice. Sheldon did a complete reversal of his eating habits when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Unfortunately, his oldest son, Kenny, was unable to follow in his footsteps. May Kenny’s memory forever be a blessing.
Sheldon’s mind was always working on the interpersonal experiences of the people around him. During his long battle with cancer and increasingly frequent hospital visits, Sheldon focused on other people. He dispensed wisdom and continued his support from afar.
Sheldon was fairly quiet in his health battle. I would not have known about one of his last hospitalizations, but Linda called me. She had received two phone calls from the hospital that day: Sheldon worried about my sons. Why was he worried about young children? Because he had seen on the news that Chinese Americans were being targeted at the beginning of this COVID-19 pandemic, and he wanted to make sure they were okay.
Passing from this world to the next
Sheldon never wanted to leave this world. He fought fiercely to stay with Linda and Sam. He took seriously their insistence that he continue being the family patriarch.
And yet, as hard as it is to say goodbye to the towering center of our family, I am so honored to have been a holy witness.
Sheldon Minster, your memory will forever be a blessing.
I am making my way through the psalter, reading a psalm a day. Accepting that my resolve may not allow this to be a truly daily practice, I pick it up as my endurance allows.
The echoes of Psalm 23 were too great yesterday for me to consider it. There is so much cultural baggage attached to the psalm and the King James translation of it. Two years ago, we translated the psalm as part of our Hebrew class.
Rabbi Abraham Greenstein pierced my soul with his explanation of the rod and the staff of HaShem. It is a metaphor that permeates Judaism, hiding in plain sight the essence of our traditions. We craft pathways towards goodness because we understand there are many impulses pulling on individuals. We see the Divine as the ultimate Shepherd: guiding us on life’s journey, reminding us that doing the right thing is not necessarily the easy thing.
The rod limits are frame of movement for our own protection. Represented by Gevurah, גבורה, strength / discipline in the Sephirot. The Way, Halakhah, הלכה, was meant to hold us in a warm embrace, allowing us space to feel God’s holy Presence. The staff guides us on the journey. The internal compass and the Bat Kol בת קול, daughter of Voice, echo of prophecy, who lead us towards the Truth that seeks us all the days of our lives.
May we each have the ability to hear the Truth and act in alignment with that Truth.
A song of David.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I do not lack. In grassy pastures, He has me lie down, by waters of rest He leads me. My soul He restores, He guides me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name. Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You set before me a table, in front of my enemies; You rub with oil my head; my cup runs over. Only goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall return to the House of the Lord for the length of days.
Original translation based on the teaching of Rabbi Greenstein
Tonight begins the forty-ninth day, which is seven weeks of the Omer in the year 5780. שכינה שבשכינה, Shekhinah ShebeShekhinah, Indwelling of Divine Presence.
Returning to the world that is
These meditations have been flights upward into the worlds of ideas and ideals. Though, I have endeavored to stay grounded in the current reality while making space for the expansive.
Facing reality clear eyed
I had my annual physical this week via teleconference. My doctor suggested getting used to this physical distance for at least a year. It was helpful to hear a medical expert confirm my expectations.
Growing up, one of my favorite songs was “Dead Man’s Party.” We SoCal kids reveled in the macabre, dancing away our worries with Oingo Boingo as our life soundtrack. As I face death on the personal, national, and global scale, I marvel at the simplicity of those years. Yet, there is something soul penetrating about the entire album.
Don’t be afraid to dance
Sometimes, I think we feel guilty for finding joy in these troubled times. These seven weeks have brought me back to myself. My imposter syndrome abated. I am allowing myself to flow into myself.
I pray you are able to hear the truth seeking you in the coming days.
Today is forty-eight days, which is six weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5780. יסוד שבשכינה. Yesod ShebeShekhinah. Foundation of Divine Presence.
Wisdom yearns to accompany us
A pandemic may seem like a terrible time to expect Divine revelation. And yet, the breadth of spiritual texts across traditions speaks to the revelations found through hardship.
I am not saying God chose this path for humanity. Rather that since this is the path we are on, we should choose to sink into meaning.
Counting Barley, Creating a Foundation
In years past, I chose to eat more mindfully because of my Omer count. I clarified aspects of my understanding of the sephirot through these meditations. This year, I remind myself of my ability to communicate.
I no longer strive to constantly be better. Rather, I hope to be present and find joy and meaning in life, regardless of the outer world.
What is the foundation for your existential nourishment?
Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer in the year 5780. הוד שבשכינה, Hod ShebeShekhinah. Splendor of Divine Presence.
Arms holding space for the Divine
Netzach and Hod are the arms holding space for the Divine. The eternal prophecy of Netzach is contained in the splendor of space created through Hod.
A traditional Jewish day was once marked by sacrifices to the Presence. Now, we reflect on eternity by praying. Not just in the morning, afternoon, and evening, but with every act of our day. Our eating becomes meaningful when we stop to speak words of gratitude for the morsels we are about to consume. Imagine being so rooted in gratitude that you have the presence to stop before every random chip and grape that enters your mouth.
Gratitude pursues us
Judaism gives us the opportunity to reflect on the the ultimate Cause of Being, while being grateful to the immediate humans and seasons that allow us to be fulfilled by the fruits of the earth.
Amorphous time finds shape through meaning
Time can feel infinite during a pandemic. And yet, when a loved one is dying, every moment can feel like eternity. It is strange the way that the same amount of time feels different depending on where we focus our attention.
Pandemic reality past and present
Until recently, I had no idea more people died of the flu than lost their lives in World War One. Neither AP European History, nor History of the Great Powers, nor any international relations course I took in college mentioned the 1918 flu. It only made an appearance during my Medieval and early modern history course with Dr. Bob Levy, z”l.
I think about how much more difficult this pandemic is. The mental and physical demands. The lack of US federal government oversight. The inability to rise above partisan differences to face this medical problem head on. Above all, how hard it is to face death in the year 2020.
Creating physical space that welcomes holiness
Usually, Hod is seen in our communal physical spaces dedicated to holy community. It is still far too dangerous to gather together for prayer. And so, we are each impelled to create space for Shekhinah, Her Presence, within ourselves and our private spaces.
Every time we clean our bathrooms, we make space for the holy.
Putting away toys and books creates holy space.
HaMakom is where we make space for Her
HaMakom, The Place, is not just the bimah with an ark and Torah scroll. After all, that most Jewish of words — bimah — is merely a Greek loan word that means platform. Throughout time, we thrive because we adapt.
May we have the resilience to adapt and find moments of deep connection, grounded joy, and human flourishing.
Today is forty-six days, which is six weeks and four days of the Omer in the year 5780. נצח שבשכינה, Netzach ShebeShekhinah. Eternal Divine Presence.
Houses of Worship Offer No Respite From Disease
I often wonder why religious communities are planning for in-person services at a date in the near future. There is no cure nor treatment for COVID-19. Spiritual gatherings have a proven track record of spreading the disease.
As much as it grieves me, I do not expect to be in a synagogue until a vaccine or effective treatment is found. I am studying to become a rabbi and face the possibility that I will not be in a synagogue during the final two years of my rabbinical training.
I scarcely expect to be near anyone beyond my children and husband for the next two years.
Maintaining Human Connections
Nevertheless, our connections to one another are even more important now. Personally, I need a deep break from Zoom. Something about not knowing where I should look, intensely staring at a screen, it drains me in a way that is soul crushing.
Still, one-to-one conversations feed my soul. Even when speaking to perfect strangers, I find solace in our shared humanity. A few weeks ago, I even ran into the receptionist from my dentist’s office while walking my dog. Which is pretty remarkable, given that my dentist is on the other side of town.
Eternal Divine Presence
Whether with a community or alone, the Eternal Divine Presence yearns to connect with each of us. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we can make space to feel Her Presence, wrap ourselves in Her Embrace.
On the wings of the Shekhinah, we will survive.
Spiritual Care is Available
It is curious that I have not mentioned this before. I am one of the volunteers providing spiritual care through Ruach. The goal of the volunteer organization: “We hope to provide pluralistic, inclusive, and accessible emotional and spiritual support to individuals of all backgrounds and faiths, with an emphasis on serving those who are otherwise unaffiliated or marginalized from the Jewish community.” On a practical level, if you request support, you will be matched with a Jewish spiritual care provider who will meet with you for 30-45 minutes, once a week, for up to six weeks.
It can be quite helpful to have a friendly ear as you think through your emotional and spiritual landscape. This is not therapy — it is the opportunity for your soul to be accompanied briefly during this unprecedented time.
Listen to your own needs
We are being called forth, spiritually cleansing ourselves in preparation for Divine revelation. Shavuot, Weeks, is on the horizon: marking the end of the seven week barley harvest. The seven weeks of harvesting understanding of how the Divine emanates in this world, clarifying how we can be better vessels for holiness and goodness.
Whatever you need: whether that is another call to a friend, more sleep, or one more episode of escapism into the television, listen to your needs. Just don’t forget to sleep, eat, drink water, and walk your dog (if you have one.)
Today is forty-five days, which is six weeks and three days of the Omer in the year 5780. תפארת שבשכינה. Tiferet ShebeShekhinah. Beautiful Divine Presence.
Sephira within Sephira: the circular nature of the Sephirot
First, a Hebrew lesson. Sephirot is the plural of sephira. The ten sephirot are the fundamental emanations of the Divine. Aspects of the Divine perceptible by humans. The lower seven sephirot form the basis for the Omer journey we are on.
There are many ways to diagram the sephirot. One way, explained well in the introduction to the Tanya, is spheres within spheres. Each sephirah encircles the sephirah that is a more purer refraction of the Divine and through each sphere, one discovers a clearer understanding of the nature of the Divine / the ground of being propelling us through the world. If you have ever been to an eye doctor, it is a bit like the ways each new lens clarifies and obscures the object you are trying to see.
Balancing, beautiful Tiferet
Tiferet is a balancing quality, bringing in covenantal love and strength in balance to create the harmony needed for healthy living. The beauty of this balance holds the Divine Presence firmly within one’s life.
Sinking into the Truth that God Exists
At its core, I sense this final week of Omer counting as sinking into the reality of HaShem.
HaMakom, The Place we yearn for surrounds us at all times. A loving embrace. Motherly nurturing. Suckling us honey from the crag. Strong protection. Clear guidance. All of it is within us already. Spiritual practices awaken us to the truth that has been pursuing us since the moment we took our first breath.
I cannot hold to a theology that God is in control. She is with us on the journey, supporting us as we aim towards our best selves. Hopefully, this knowledge is enough to gird us as we face this uncertain future, alone together.
Today is forty-four days, which is six weeks and two days of the Omer in the year 5780. גבורה שבשכינה, Gevurah ShebeSchechinah, Strength of Divine Presence.
Shabbat: vessel of Strong Divine Presence
Traditionally, many aspects of modern life are set aside on Shabbat.
Others meld cultural norms of the majority culture with their Jewish expression. Or perhaps ignore the call of Shabbat entirely.
Shabbat exists whether or not we choose to mark her presence.
She is the weekly vessel of Divine Presence. Shabbat calls out to us in every seventh second of every minute of every hour of every day.
Choosing life during the pandemic
Life is a series of choices. We can choose to face this entirely novel situation with clear-eyed belief in the strength of the scientific establishment. We can choose, as Jews who believe saving a life is superior to all else, to align ourselves with public health experts urging caution.
With the strength of Divine Presence, we can gain the fortitude necessary to weather these long days, and months without physically seeing our communities.
I expect to spend the High Holy Days as I spent Pesach — surrounded by my immediate family. Yet, I do not know when I will be able to hug my extended family; never mind my larger Jewish communities.
Choosing to wrap myself in my tallit, reminding myself that I am always supported by the Strong Diving Presence.