The heart of discipline during a pandemic: Day 9 of Omer, Gevurah of Gevurah 5780

Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the Omer. גבורה שבגבורה, Gevurah ShebeGevurah, Strength of Strength, Judgement of Judgement, Justice of Justice, Discipline of Discipline.

Is it fair to seek discipline in a pandemic?

I’m not sure. Constantly I marvel that my husband’s job works at the same pace it did before our shelter in place order. Worry sets in deeply about other parents, especially other parents of young children. Sometimes, I worry about myself. Anxiety abounds for my kids, my nieces and nephews, the other children I know. Anxious they will be sent back to school and summer camps too soon because it is so unreasonable to expect us all to continue being working adults and 24/7 care givers. Knowing people are stuck in abusive relationships. People who knew they were dealing with mental health issues before the pandemic. All of us facing the trauma of our reality. Many cogent reasons exists to denounce discipline in a pandemic.

Structure sets me free

Equally true, structure to my day is soul expanding. Knowing there is a poem waiting to be ingested, a whiteboard waiting to gather my thoughts. Accepting that my hair will always start the day as a rat’s nest. Greeting our four-year-old with love when he bangs his way into our room, climbs into bed, and immediately starts knotting my hair. Focusing intently on getting my first grader through his assignments for the day, desperate to keep him on track. Not considering the reserves I need to help both of us study; because my studies seem so much less important. Looking forward, as the day arcs towards my meditation on another omer count, another refraction of the Divine. My structure isn’t perfect. It doesn’t fit into a normal schedule. Yet it remains vital to my sanity and my incremental shift towards deeper resiliency. 

Waking up to God’s call

May be you are too distracted by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Hulu / Netflix / HBO / AppleTV / Disney+ to hear the call. Even when I start to sink into something deeper, I am called away by one of those things. Is it possible to stay connected to the path of righteousness when all you want is to be able to leave your house without a mask?

Again I remind myself that tethering myself to love, justice, truth, and beauty will make it easier to ride the waves of anxiety, trauma, sadness, and irritation that are natural side effects of sheltering at home. 

I am reminded of this verse from Psalm 12 that I read this morning. (You’ll need to purchase Alter’s Book of Psalms or The Hebrew Bible* to experience the breadth of the poem with the same intellectual distance and deep penetration that I had the honor to experience.) 

Lean onto the Divine staff while following the Divine rod. None of this is beyond us. Each of us has it within ourselves to craft a vision for who we want to be and what we need to get us there. Myself, I realized that my anger, resentment, and harmful judgment are stripped away during Shabbat morning services. Wanting to sink into that part of myself, I chose rabbinical school — both to help myself become the best version of me I can be and to help other people learn the untapped spiritual technology bursting from within Judaism. 

Don’t feel guilty for sending the call to voicemail

It took me six years to enter school after hearing God’s call. So if you need a bit more time during this traumatic experience to binge Unorthodox on Netflix or Hillary on Hulu or Picard on CBS All Access, enjoy. If Tiger King or Westworld or an 80s-movie marathon helps you survive this battle with time, enjoy. The Ground of Being is with us always. Many people have many valid critiques of Interstellar, but the part it gets perfectly is the way time bends and melds into itself. That’s why I say this day continues to exist and reference my past meditations on this particular Divine refraction. 

Did Coronavirus kill trust?

Trust has been on a precarious thread for some time. When humans stop believing in the institutions they created, trust is broken. Herd immunity was collapsing long before this pandemic because people believe their own “research” skills over scientific consensus. Verifiable truth has given way to post-modern distrust of reality. Objective facts exist and I will choose trust in those facts, and in the ever-living presence of ultimate ideals, until my dying day. 

This day exists in many ways…

5779 / 2019: The lion within pursuing me metaphor.

5778 / 2018: This is the day of the internal / eternal battle.

5777 / 2017: Finding internal discipline while losing sleep with a child who refuses to sleep.

Read a book to distract you from distractions

               

*Note to Amazon: it is gross that you categorize Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible as a Christian book. It is the sacred text of Jews. The Jewish Bible is not a subcategory of the Christian Bible. It is a completely different book with a different trajectory.

Covenantal Love of Strength / Discipline: Eight Days of the Omer 5780 Chesed ShebeGevurah

Tonight begins eight days of the Omer, which is one week and one day of the Omer. חסד שבגבורה, Chesed ShebeGevurah, Covenantal Love of Strength.

Entering the Week of Judgment and Discipline

Embarking on a different emanation of the Divine, which is the natural opposite and mirror image of Chesed / Covenantal Love. Gevurah connects to strength, power, judgment, and discipline. It is the power-oriented side of the tree of life, reflecting to separation. In the traditional, two-gendered understanding of humanity and the Divine, it is the feminine side of God / life.

Your rod and Your staff

One of my Hebrew teachers, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, is a brilliant linguist with deep insight on the meaning of Jewish texts. While explaining Psalm 23, he explained the end of verse 4, “Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me.”  

Rabbi Greenstein said: “A rod keeps sheep in line. God wakes us up and reminds us that there’s a better way to do things. One leans on a staff. This represents God as support.” 

The rod and the staff are clear metaphors for Gevurah and Chesed: Geverah is the rod, keeping us in line, guiding us towards righteousness. Chesed is the staff, supporting us as we walk through the difficulties of life. Both are needed; both comfort us. 

Reality Check

It is hard to stay disciplined when living through a pandemic. I certainly can’t claim to be using my time wisely. We try to stay on top of my son’s distance learning assignments. Constantly reminding myself to lean into my covenantal love. Reminding myself to accept that my six year-old cannot finish his work as quickly as he would if he was in a classroom with a real teacher and a passel of friends.

Despite my best intentions, I am exhausted every afternoon. I never feel like I have enough head space (or quiet) to do my own homework. Then, once everyone goes to sleep, I bury myself in videos to wash away the stress of another day, continuing the cycle of sleep deprivation. So yes, I am not the poster girl of discipline.

Perhaps I can be the truth telling believer in the Love of Strength. Be gentle with yourself and honor that there is strength in simply surviving this tumultuous time. Whether you have small children under foot or just the scared child within. Lean on the staff while following the rod. 

This day exists forever

5779 / 2019: Lovingkindness in Strength in memory of Lori Gilbert Kaye

5778 / 2018: Discipline in service of a larger goal.

5777 / 2017: The pure essence of discipline is love.

Indwelling Presence of God’s Love: Seven Days, One Week of the Omer

Today is the seventh day of the Omer, which is one week.  שכינה שבחסד, Shekhinah ShebeChesed, Eternal Presence of Covenantal Love.

The Tree of Life

The Sephirot are often depicted as a tree. You can see the roots in heaven, in the worlds beyond this world at the top, while the roots in this world are at the body of the Sephirot tree, in the tenth Sephira, Shekhinah / Malchut, Eternal Presence, Indwelling of the Divine, Sovereignty of the Divine.

Grace: the Indwelling Presence of God’s Love

That part of God that is always present. Always nurturing you. The part you can suckle from whenever you need honey from the crag.

Often, the indwelling presence of God’s love is described as grace. That overflowing, overwhelming, deeply felt connection with the Divine.

Where is God during this pandemic?

And yet, I know that it is quite difficult for people to connect with God’s grace during this pandemic. How in the world can you feel God’s presence in the midst of the most awful thing that has ever happened in most of our lifetimes? A threat that cannot be stopped at the present time. That is not coming for us because of who we are or what we believe. How can I claim to understand the Ground of Being when I am afraid to walk out my front door?

The Power of Shared Experience

I cannot predict the future. I do not know when it will be safe to live as we used to live, to hug freely and with complete abandon. To touch one another, dance with one another, laugh with one another, sing with one another, cry with one another. I think about my last day providing chaplaincy care at a hospital. I sat close to a patient’s family member in the chapel, witnessing her healing prayer. I know how important the human touch is. How impossible it is to simulate being in the same room with people. I know the pulsing energy of multiple people moving in the same direction, spiritually and emotionally, together, in the same physical space.

And yet, I also know how powerfully connected we can be by shared cultural experiences, even when we have them separately. All of us realizing the power of black super heroes. All of us processing the social distancing orders of a new virus that we have no immunity from. And perhaps, many of us flexing our spiritual muscles, strengthening our resistance to fear and riding the waves of uncertainty rather than drowning.

Choose Life

I thought that meant something completely different when my world was rocked by the movie Trainspotting. (Never got through the book, but I had the poster on my wall in college.)

What I mean now is: choose a vision of yourself and the world that brings you meaning. Choose to live towards that vision every day. Allow yourself the opportunity to swim in the pools of meaning that exist everywhere, throughout all spaces and times. L’olam va’ed.

So yes, I swim in the never-ending knowledge of God’s grace. Covenantal Love does not require a Man with a Beard in the Sky taking care of the world. The sephirot are the emanations of the Divine that can be (partially) understood by mortals. We are the only ones who can save ourselves. That doesn’t mean we are the only things that exist.

This day exists in many ways

5779 / 2019: The Sovereignty of Love.

5778 / 2018: The Presence of Love.

5777 / 2017: The Indwelling of Love.

Photo by Johannes Plenio via Pixabay.

Foundation of Covenantal Love, Day 6 of Omer 5780, Yesod Shebe Chesed

Today is six days of the Omer. יסוד שבחסד, Yesod ShebeChesed, Foundation of Covenantal Love.

Rejecting the “authentic self” at work

In recent years, especially if you worked at a startup or similar “cutting edge” company, there has been a lot of talk about bringing your authentic self to work, doing what you love, and being true to who you are. Perhaps because I’m a tail-end Gen-Xer, I never found these platitudes particularly helpful. Even if I wasn’t a deeply spiritual and political person, there would always be parts of me that are not appropriate to drag along to every team meeting. I don’t need to be snarky and suspicious. I don’t need to be a perfectionist waiting for the plan with tangible, quantifiable goals before getting on board with whatever new idea (or mission statement) is thrown at me.

Just as I don’t have to bring my entire self to work, I don’t need to understand my entire self to step forward into the (metaphorical) world. My foundation, my personality and ego-self, can and should be constantly shifting. The edges should have scaffolding. (Can you see the construction at the end of this pier?)

Judaism is spiritual technology for self improvement

I am devoted to Judaism because it is the spiritual technology that allows me to become a better version of my self with each breath and each day. Every moment is a new opportunity to lean into the person I want to be. At this point, my goal is fairly banal — I’d like to make it twenty-four hours without raising my voice. I’ll let you know when it happens.

Examine your personality and ego

The week of Yesod can be the week of really examining your ego-self: your personality, your motivations, your drives, your road blocks. The aspect of Yesod within other Sephirot is the structural underpinning of that Sephira.

For Chesed this means the container that holds your belief that you are in a covenantal relationship with the Divine. Or the container that allows you to remember you love your partner and your children. Or, the container that gives you the resilience to shelter in place with a partner whom you deeply want to leave.

Be willing to break your bonds

Understanding the foundation of your covenant allows you to understand when that covenant has been so broken or abused that it is time for you to move on. This is as true of corporate bonds as it is for spiritual ones. I know how difficult it has been for me to leave, to imagine life beyond the relationships I had with my coworkers. This was especially true when I fell in love with a coworker. Breaking that tie, resting on the economic foundation provided by my fiancé, was a huge leap into the unknown. It started the process of gathering the courage to enter rabbinical school.

The Buddhist concept of holding lightly to reality, disassociating with the feelings caused by the present situation, sings in the same key as what I believe. I believe in the reality of one’s personality and ego. While I do not believe in worshipping the ego and its desires, I do see the need for a healthy ego, blalanced by connection to one’s soul and spirit.

Foundation of relationships

One’s personality shapes the foundation of one’s relationship with the Divine, with individuals, and with the world. We have a lot of time these days to be flooded by inner chatter, to numb ourselves with social media and streaming videos. Or we may be exhausted by trying to keep up with full-time work and sudden full-time childcare requirements, leaving no time for deep introspection.

Here’s what I know for sure: having a vision of the foundation of your covenants will allow you to create a roadmap for achieving your personal improvement goals. Over the last decade, I’ve leaned into my belief that the world of values exists, and it exists on a higher metaphysical plane than material reality. That means it fundamentally matters when I don’t control the tone or volume of my voice. I am breaking my connection with Goodness, I am scaring my children rather than providing a Loving Protector.

When your foundation wobbles

Don’t get me wrong — sometimes, my authoritative voice is quite helpful. I was quite surprised when I yelled at my dog and she immediately dropped the piece of chocolate bar she’d scooped up. That was an extremely appropriate use of power.

At the same time, I was properly humbled today as well. My youngest threw his brother’s iPad. He didn’t simply throw it on the ground. He threw it out of the mail slot and onto our front porch. I yelled and brought the iPad back inside. My older son reminded me that I’m learning not to yell. I’m so proud that he had the courage to say that to me in the moment. His trust in our relationship is part of the foundation of my covenantal love.

(I had previously told the eldest that just as he’s learning Mandarin, I’m learning not to yell. And that I appreciate him reminding me if and when I slip up.)

Don’t take me literally

A note about these notes: I am not an authority on the sephirot or Kabbalah. I use this spiritual technology to help myself become a better person. There is no one definition of each of these aspects of the Divine. Each of the ten sephirot represents a constellation of integrated concepts. Some systems are quite rigid in their definitions and will seem quite foreign from what I am writing about. The concert of Jewish life has multiple stages, with different artists performing on each stage. We are deeply inter-related, even if we don’t recognize one another.

Questions to contemplate

So what is the foundation of your relationship with the Ground of Being? How do you define your relationships with humans? What brings you back to center? How do you know when to let go of core aspects of your identity?

This day exists in many ways.

5779 / 2019: Internal vs. External Foundation for Love

5778 / 2018: Build scaffolding to support the love running through you.

5777 / 2017: Beginning to bond with the Omer

Hod of Chesed, Splendor of Covenantal Love 5780

Today is five days of the Omer, הוד שבחסד, Hod ShebeChesed, Splendor of Covenantal Love.

As Rabbi Finley explains how the sephirot act within material reality, Hod is about creating a beautiful setting for ethereal reality in the material world. It is about putting Enduring Will to Action. Accepting responsibility for the endless dishes and the need to clean your own bathroom and wash your clothes. It is about having a place for everything and putting everything in its place.

Seeking splendor in my fifth week at home…

After a month of social distancing, it means taking small victories where you can. If you don’t manage to clean all of your bathrooms on a timely basis, maybe you thoroughly clean one toilet. When it is the most highly trafficked appliance for a family of three males and a female, that can be a victory unto itself.

It is also about accepting the splendor of the every day. How no matter how much time you spent cajoling your child to do his daily assignments, he ended the day wanting a hug and to hear the Shema. How incredible it is to have the splendor of a deeply committed relationship to hold your place and feed your kids while you run away and pretend you still work in tech or politics for a Zoom happy hour with former coworkers.

Appreciating brief bursts of splendor

The deepest splendor I experience these days is the love of my family. The deeply tangible, fierce, sometimes painful hugs of children. And the complete lack of judgment when I go overboard in playing with the blue eyeshadows of my collection. Take time to appreciate the splendor of the every day reality around you. Try to make time to place your physical reality in a small bit more order than it was when you began reading this post. Soak into how good it is to see a well organized set of drawers.

And recognize that creating order is about making space to pursue covenantal love. There is so little room in a brain for the transcendent when one is surrounded by detritus. Give yourself the freedom of cleaning up after yourself. More than any other change I can make this week, this is the change that will reward me more than can ever be put into words.

This day continues to exist throughout eternity…

Before the day began (or just this morning, depending on what type of day you follow), I meditated into psalm 8 and the strength inherent in suckling babes.

5779 / 2019: Splendor of Love

5778 / 2018: Concretizing the prophetic vision of love

5777 / 2017: Struggling to see Hod with clarity.

The Will of Covenantal Love, Four days of the Omer: Netzach ShebeChesed.

Today is four days of the Omer, נצח שבחסד, Netzach ShebeChesed, Enduring Prophetic Covenantal Love, The Will of Covenantal Love.

The beginning of my journey

Rabbi Finley gave an overview teaching of the sephirot on Shabbat, which was streamed live on Facebook and as a Zoom meeting for members of Ohr HaTorah synagogue. That sermon reminded me of Rabbi Finley’s deep integration of Robert Assagioli’s understanding of the Will into his spiritual psychological philosophy. To be perfectly honest, I read The Act of Will so long ago that my recollection of that first-hand experience is lost and I can only offer the insight gleaned from hearing Rabbi Finley’s sermons for a dozen or so years.

Every day, we choose who to be.

This is what I know for sure: every day, we make choices. We make those choices consciously and unconsciously. Most of our days are routine and we move through the day by rote memory, thus many of our decisions become unconscious. This is part of what makes being at home 24/7 so difficult: our routines have been shattered and we are forced to choose how to engage our days with people we probably are not used to being around so much. Or alone. I can hardly imagine what you’re going through if you live alone, so I won’t even try.

When we pay attention to the choices we make throughout the day, when we bring our conscious mind to our thoughts, feelings, actions, and verbalized speech, we are more likely to use our will to move towards a better version of ourselves. For example, I’ve used foul language much more in the last month than I have in the last four years. My body is on overdrive, overly stimulated and constantly sleep deprived. And for 3/4 of the last month, I wasn’t connected to the spiritual discipline that grounds me.

Choosing love when everything feels irritating

So what Neztach ShebeChesed means for me this year is remembering my vision of the covenant I choose for my family: speaking with love and gratitude for each living thing I have the opportunity to grow with. That includes the dog who rarely leaves my side and the children who are far too young to do schoolwork without supervision (yes, it only took me a month to fully understand that one).

It means not being resentful that my husband leaves the house every weekday. And when I say leave, I mean he walks into the backyard and enters his wood shop so that he can do his job. He leaves to earn the paycheck that keeps our family from having the financial stress so many of our neighbors are enduring. So yes, my days are spent with children in a way that I have never experienced in my life. I am neither a Mandarin teacher nor a particularly good first grade English teacher (anyone else hate the thousand and one new ways to learn to read English that seem to be required these days before a kid even has the opportunity to crack open a dictionary?) But I will do my best. And we will survive.

And step by step, I will remember to use my will to limit my speech to the tone and words I wish to hear from those around me. I will remember to hold space and I will remember how devastating it is to only have your brother as a playmate. But I still won’t buy plastic junk just because my kids are convinced Ryan’s World is the best world that ever existed.

A prayer for continuous connection with HaShem

May I remember my Enduring Will to nurture the covenantal love of my family and may I connect my will to the Ground of Goodness, knowing that Was / Is / Will Be, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, exists continuously in this moment with me. 

A book to reconnect with your will

This day exists in many ways…

5779 / 2019: Enduring Prophetic Love

5778 / 2018: Live from grace / love in every interaction.

5777 / 2017: May love endure and may we honor its triumph.

Beautiful covenantal love, Day 3 of the Omer, Tiferet of Chesed

Today is three days of the Omer. תפארת שבחסד, Tiferet ShebeChesed, beautiful covenantal love. When you come home to the Ground of Being and sink into the Eternal Love of Goodness, your eyes are opened to beauty and truth that live beyond the horrors of our daily lives.

Not blind to the pandemic

I say this not to discount the suffering that surrounds us. The heaviness, the weight on our collective psyche as thousands die alone and millions experience food insecurity. I could write for days about all that is wrong with the world and all the ways political leaders have made the situation worse than it needs to be. But that’s not why we are here.  

Continuing my soul’s journey

We are here because despite the pandemic, there are those among us who are relatively healthy and who have enough security — physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically — to consider continuing our soul’s journey into depth and meaning. I am here to give myself a forty-nine day reset on life. Even as a student of religion, it is hard for me to be disciplined in my practice of religion. Between children, internship, and schoolwork — who has time to be pious in their observance? And so, my brokenness reaches out; searching the depths of all that is possible to understand all that I need to do in this moment to stay centered, to minimize yelling, and to help my family thrive.

Osher אשר: the soul-nourishing knowledge that God exists

This is the beauty of covenantal love. It is the אשר osher we chant about (ideally) three times a day. Not happy, happy, joy, joy. Rather, אשרי Ashrei is the deep, soul-nourishing knowledge that God exists, God’s love exists, and living in alignment with Goodness and Truth gives you strength and surrounds you with beauty.

A binding prayer

May we each find our way to a sacred covenant that binds us to the best version of ourselves, that guides us deeper on our life’s journey, and that allows even our darkest days to have glimmers of beauty and truth. 

This day has existed and will exist

5779 / 2019: Balancing the energies of overflowing love and clarifying boundaries.

5778 / 2018: Harmonizing all-encompassing love and discipline

5777 / 2017: A prayer for the fortitude to emulate harmonious love.

One Day of Omer 5780 Chesed ShebeChesed, Covenantal Love of Covenantal Love

Tonight we begin counting the Omer for the first time in the year 5780. We are either counting the time to harvest our wheat or we’re deepening our connection to the aspects of the Divine that are most easily understood in this world. One way or another, from the second day of Passover for seven weeks we will count. And when we count to 49, we’ll celebrate on day 50 with Shavuot, a holiday whose name literally means Weeks, yet is only one day long. More on how to count the Omer for yourself is available in my blog archive. Just to repeat myself: Jewish days start at night. My hope is to blog every night after putting my kids to bed and before losing myself in streaming videos.

Take a break from all your worries…

Clearly, 5780 is a year like no other in my lifetime. I pray to take a few moments away from the growing death toll and into the inner spiritual realm. Even during times of physical limitations, we have the opportunity to grow into spiritual freedom. Don’t take my word for it — read Man’s Search for Meaning.

Today is one day of the Omer, חסד שבחסד. Chesed SheBe Chesed. Covenantal Love of Covenantal Love.

I usually take this week to sink into God’s grace. It is the clearest way that I understand this emanation. On a technical level, the Hebrew equivalent of grace is חן, chein. If you’ve studied the psalms or had a good Hebrew teacher (thank goodness for Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, Vered Hopenstand, and Rabbi Avraham Greenstein), you’ll know that my midrash on חסד isn’t exactly what is meant. And in fact, during this time, it is quite important to meditate on what a covenantal relationship means.

Covenant: what do you choose?

Let’s said aside the modern Jewish arguments over whether or not covenant / particularism is good. Let’s reach down into the root of the word. “A formal, solemn, and binding agreement.” What do you choose to be in a covenantal relationship with? Do you feel obligated to love that?

When I got married, I chose a covenantal love with my partner. I broke my connection to all who came before and all who might come in the future and said that our lives are now bond to one another. Similarly, I chose covenantal love with my children.

And let’s be clear: at no point did I choose to be stuck in 1400 square feet with them. I definitely did not at any point make a binding agreement to teach a six year-old a language that I dropped out of after one semester (Mandarin) along with all other aspects of first grade. I never decided to be a preschool teacher or butt wiper in chief. But alas, my covenantal love has brought me those pleasures regardless of what else is going on in my life. (Seared in my memory is Rabbi Anne Brener leading a beautiful meditation via Zoom whilst Ezra yells, “Somebody wipe my butt!”)

So I’m really clear on whom I am in covenantal relationships with. My work now is to sink into covenantal love.

Combining Love and Covenant

It is fairly easy to rest on the wings of the Shechinah, to suckle honey from the crag, and expect the Divine Mother to take care of me. It is quite a different thing to recognize my obligation to be a conduit of Divine Love and Divine Covenant in this world.

Here’s what I know for sure: I need to lean into all of the ways I have sustained myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually before becoming afraid to walk my dog into my reality in the present moment.

This begins with living consciously. Which begins at night with choosing to sleep. And then waking up with a prayer of gratitude for being alive. Setting the tone of my day by tethering myself to the Divine Goodness that surrounds us. Wrapping myself in my people’s spiritual technology, the waves of intimacy awaiting me in Shacharit, morning prayer.

It continues by being conscious of every choice, particularly what I choose to put in my mouth and how much I choose to stretch my body.

Most importantly, I manifest covenantal love by using neither my voice nor my strength to overpower my children and force them to submit. Even if that means giving up the dream of having bilingual kids. Or giving into another hour (or another day) of endless streaming videos. Because as long as we end the day snuggling together with books and tucking them in with the Shema, our covenantal love will survive one day more.

Books Mentioned

                             

This day brings many ideas…

How to count the Omer

Day One of the Omer 5779 / 2019

Day One of the Omer 5778 / 2018

Day One of the Omer 5777 / 2017

Accepting uncertainty with compassion and love

First, a series of disclaimers:

I am not an ordained rabbi. I am not an expert in COVID-19. I am not an expert in anything, really. I feel slightly more knowledgeable, mostly because I’m a geek and I recently turned forty-two. Also because I am a fourth year rabbinical student currently completing my first unit of clinical pastoral education. But again, I have no authority. I am merely a fellow traveler through these uncertain times. An extra in a disaster movie. You know, the Jewish Chinese family in the background while the major players are center stage.

Okay, so as long we are clear that I freak out as much as the next person; That my favorite family member is my trusted babysitter, Sir Streaming Videos; And that I cannot count the number of times I’ve lost it with my kids, my husband, and my professors. (I highly recommend refraining from the latter if at all possible.)

Facing life at home through May (at least)

With a deep breath, I am breathing into the announcement that schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Well, actually (I guess thankfully), our district will continue to provide distance learning. And my seminary did not stop for a moment — since it already offered the option to Zoom into classes, every single one of them continued without missing a single day. So now, I’m taking five graduate school courses while also primary parenting a four and a six year-old. Riding the wave…

Living life with eyes wide open

Here is what I know for sure: there is no Zoom meeting, no free exercise class, or drawing class, or story time, or meditation gathering, or daily minyan that will make this better. We will not learn our way out of this or improve ourselves out of this or eat our way out of this. This is the most incredible, stressful, unbelievable, scary thing most of us have ever lived through. This is having a deeper impact on the human race than anything else that has happened in my forty-two years of living. No one knows exactly when “normal” will return. No one knows how big the economic toll will be. No one knows whether the United States government will step up to its responsibility to its citizens and nationalize the effort to produce and distribute personal protective equipment, acknowledge the Herculean efforts of American companies to manufacture ventilators, support its citizens financially as employment plummets, or any of a sundry other things that are probably on your mind before my theological thoughts.

If your belief in God was wavering or non-existent before the pandemic, you are probably taking great joy in the nonsensical, life-threatening choices of some fundamentalists. And if you believe God has a plan for everything, your belief may be wavering or you may believe your belief makes you immune to science. And if you were anti-vaccinations before the pandemic, I sure hope you’re rethinking your political ideology now.

This moment is not what I have been studying for. I did not choose to attend rabbinical school as a mid-career transition because I foresaw a global pandemic and thought people would need spiritual support to ride through it and deal with survivor’s guilt beyond it.

Confronting the brokenness

On the other hand, the brokenness and frailty of life that people are confronting? That is the core of my philosophical inquiry. Before the pandemic, many people warned me that I was boxing myself into a negative space by using this URL, broken rabbi. That somehow, I should always place myself as a spiritual exemplar and that my prospects for employment are vastly decreased by insisting on this branding.

I get that I make people uncomfortable by being completely honest. I did that long before I started rabbinical school. The truth that shook my world was taught to me by Rabbi Mordechai Finley in an adult education Intro to Kabbalah course. He started with a series of weeks learning the history of Western philosophy, with long pauses for Gnosticism and Neo-Platonic ideals. The following paragraphs should not be taken as a direct transcription of Rabbi Finley’s teaching. Rather, they represent how I have internalized his teaching and moved forward on my own path.

Lurianic Kabbalah: guiding my path, determining my branding

Neo-Platonic ideals: the understanding that certain ideas are more real that material reality. Love, justice, truth, and beauty actually exist and stand on firmer ground than my four year-old.

God is beyond material reality. Fundamentally, God is beyond comprehension. We can attempt to know the Shadow of the Divine; but to believe we know the essence of God is to believe in idol worship.

And then comes the Lurianic creation myth. In the beginning, there was only God. And God had to make space for non-God. A void. In that void, vessels containing the essence of the Divine were placed, to allow the void to grow. But the non-God space could not fully hold God, and the vessels broke. And so began existence: with the brokenness of the Divine.

Each living thing contains a core brokenness, a core wound. By searching for our individual brokenness and focusing our attention on repairing the world within ourselves, we do our part to repair God. This is the original and foundational meaning of tikkun olam: repairing the world within.

The repair never ceases. No one is perfect. Hopefully, our lives end with less brokenness than we started. And our souls can choose to return to this world to continue the work of repair. That’s gilgul, turning, the Jewish understanding of reincarnation.

Neither God nor your Chinese neighbors caused the pandemic.

Which leads us back to this moment. God did not cause the pandemic. Your Chinese neighbors, my Chinese family, did not cause the pandemic. It is easier to fight an enemy who is tangible and human. At this moment, let us try to fight the enemies within ourselves rather than beyond ourselves.

God is with us as we howl our lamentations. She is with us as we fight to save those suffering from Coronavirus and every other physical, mental, and spiritual ailment. The Place, Makom, holds space for us during this time of incredible uncertainty. Makom is with us while we are awake and while we try to dream. And we are with each other.

Shechinah, the Indwelling Presence of the Divine, is the Eternal Mother whom we all need to suckle from.

Allowing ourselves deep spiritual nourishment in times of crisis might be the deepest gift of Judaism. For we Jews have never been a superpower. We have survived being massacred countless times for being Jewish. And now, we are called to bear witness to the felling of our fellow humans for no reason at all.

May we all have the courage to live through another day. May we each find our own path to riding the waves of uncertainty with compassion and love. Selah.

Becoming a Holy Community. Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

Crowd Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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.

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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.