The ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, 10 days of Teshuvah; of turning and returning to our essential selves. Cheshbon HaNefesh, accounting of the soul: clearly defining our vision and taking stock of how we have connected to that vision.
I started, then silently gave up, reading a psalm a day during the pandemic. Psalm 25 patiently waited for me to catch up. She took my breath away. I’ve been noodling for days how to do justice to this gorgeous explanation of all that draws me into Judaism. As the gates of Yom Kippur closed, my answer came. I shall write about one line per post until I have expounded on all of the depths she finds within me.
Psalm 25 begins
For David. לדוד
אליך ה״ נפשי אשא
Unto You, Cause of Being, my essence I lift.
Robert Alter translates this line “To You, O Lord, I lift my heart.” He explains: “The Hebrew noun used is nefesh, meaning “essential self” or “life breath. The clear meaning of the idiom is to pray fervently or plead.” (p84, The Book of Psalms)
Like many psalms, there is no doubt here that God exists. I cannot know with certainty whether scientific advances, human capacity for creating misery, or cynicism sowed the flourishing seeds of doubt that live among us.
Prayer and COVID-19
Reflecting on the plague we are surrounded by, my capacity for prayer waxes and wanes. At times, I plead with the universe for relief. More often, I am completely distracted by the responsibilities of parenting young children without respite.
Recently, I began attending weekday minyan — morning prayer service on days that are not holidays — with other students from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Learning the complete traditional prayer service has been enlightening. It returned the miraculous morning prayers to my consciousness: the beacons of light that whispered this path to me and push me towards a better version of myself.
Verse 1 Unfurls
Temerity: beginning a prayer to HaShem with a personal address. As if I have the right to speak to You directly.
Girded with the strength of The Essential Name, my essential self lifts towards You.
Seeking unity with the Divine flow beyond time and plague.
Fervently hoping for enlightenment and strength.
Daring to seek guidance on my journey.
Remembering You. By remembering You; returning to my essence.
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…
Today was nineteen days, which was two weeks and five days of the Omer in the year 5780. הוד שבתפארת, Hod ShebeTiferet, Splendor of Beauty.
Meditating into Beauty While People Die
An incredibly beautiful soul gave up her fight with COVID-19 today. Rana Zoe Mungin, 30, was ignored twice before finally being admitted to a hospital. So it took three attempts to receive medical care for this brilliant Black woman to be seen. And then it took the full force of the Wellesley alumnae network to get her experimental treatment to have any sort of chance at survival. But it was too late. The racism she encountered in her fight against this virus took her life.
Nothing tells you more about my privilege in this pandemic than the fact that I can share this story with you, take several deep breaths, and talk about anything else.
Hod: creating a place to meet the Divine
In my imagination, the Divine Mother is not waiting for immaculate living rooms and sparkling bathrooms. She is praying for us to use our eyes to truly see the souls who surround us. The people whom we do not treat as fully human. The animals whom we treat as if they solely exist for our benefit. The earth we are shattering to gather more oil, not even stopping when we cause earthquakes far from the edges of tectonic plates.
Splendor of Beauty: Deep Resilience Honoring the Spark of the Divine within Everything
True art sparkles with the spark of the Divine. Deep love nourishes our recognition of the Divine. The truth of being truly seen showers us with Divine energy. Eternity reminds us that She exists beyond and within all that exists. Discipline gives us the eyes to see the patterns of the Divine flowing through all.
May we honor El Shaddai, embrace the Shekhinah, and always remember the importance and worthiness of each living being. Rest in power, Rana Zoe Mungin.
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.
Oh goodness. A million things I should be doing, including sleeping. Let’s be real — I haven’t been sleeping much. So I might as well remind myself of the brilliant Michael Fishbane insight I read this morning regarding Shabbat HaChodesh.
Special Shabbats to prepare for Passover
Before I quote Dr. Fishbane, a word about the Shabbat that just ended. It was the fourth of four special Shabbats (Shabbatot in Hebrew) that move us toward Passover. Two things make these days special: they have a unique, out-of-order Maftir portion. So that means the last thing traditionally read from the Torah on Saturday morning is related to the theme of the Shabbat. If we were all in synagogue for this, that would mean taking out two Torah scrolls from the ark — one for the regular weekly portion, one for this special ending portion. Then there’s also a special section of the Prophets: the Haftorah, related to the theme of the day. So this last special Shabbat is announcing THE MONTH. Because there are multiple first months in the Jewish yearly cycle; but the one coming up is the first month of the year according to the Torah. Yes, that means that the New Year / Rosh HaShanah is in the seventh month of the year; whereas Passover is in the first month.
Month One is About to Begin!
The thing is, before we were a Temple-based religion, we Hebrews were agrarian. (Probably before that we were nomads, but our holidays start from the cultivation of land part of our history.) And of course, like all good stewards of the land, we recognized Spring as a time of renewal, rebirth, and beginnings. So Nisan is the first month. It starts next Thursday, by the way. As it says in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”
Mystical vision, Practical implementation
The Ashkenazic Haftorah portion for last week (aka earlier today) is Ezekiel 45:16-46:18. It offers a vision for the future Temple, which is different from the vision of the Temple described in Exodus. Rather than getting bogged down in these details, let’s look at the conclusion of Dr. Fishbane’s brilliant commentary on this passage from Ezekiel and its place as part of Shabbat HaChodesh:
The daubing of the entrance to the home and Temple with blood marks them off as two types of space. The first embodies the family, whose bonds are biological and legal. The family is the nuclear core of personal history and religious rite and preserves a parochial character by virtue of intimacy and a common name. Alongside this dwelling stands the Temple, whose space is communal and whose rites have an official and public status. The Temple opens its doors for collective worship and thus transcends the private histories of its worshipers. How one may live in both homes—standing firm in loyalty to hearth and blood, but open to the larger commitments a divine dwelling symbolizes—is a question each reader must answer repeatedly.
Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p360.
This paragraph gut-punched me when I read it during my Zoom minyan this morning. In the context of 2020, the Temple in the above paragraph is a stand in for all of our obligations, responsibilities, identities, and communities beyond the walls of our homes. In a very short amount of time, my family was forced to collapse all that we do, and all that we are, into the space of our home. How are we living in both homes? Well, we must stay within the confines of the personal in order to protect the collective.
The Home and the Temple: Living Beyond Ourselves and Within Ourselves With Grace
And the question that I want to sink into as I prepare for the most unique Passover I’ll ever experience, is how to live in both homes simultaneously. How can I personally thrive while the world seems to be collapsing around me? How do I continue to make space for all the doors I was trying to open before my front door became the harbinger of potential death?
This I know for sure: I will not be the student I intended to be this semester. Since I have accepted primary parent responsibility for a four year-old and a six year-old without full-time weekday school / childcare, staying focused on my five graduate courses is difficult. Daf Yomi has fallen by the wayside. I’m a bit trepidatious that I might break my commitment to publicly counting the Omer. At the end of the day, none of that matters. If my family, both those within my home and those in other homes, makes it through this pandemic alive, that will be enough. If my neighbors are supported while so many of their jobs disappear, that will be enough. And if our essential workers — in healthcare, at grocery stores, at the postal service and other delivery personnel — survive and thrive, that will be enough.
Distinctions need to be made
Yet this magical, delicious Shabbat reminded me of the eternal truth of Shabbat, which is a refraction of the eternal truth of being alive: all of life is a balance of life and death. Judaism traditionally has laws about this. We bungle the translation and call them “purity” laws. What we’re really talking about are ancient ways to distinguish the living from the dead. As we continue our walk through this narrow place, this modern-day Mitzrayim, may we find the ways to allow ourselves to thrive despite the severe restrictions that surround us. If you are struggling to pay for your next meal or your next rent bill, you’re probably really angry reading my words. I deeply understand how lucky I am to be securely held by the love of my family in my home, in a community where I do not have to fear that my neighbors will spit on my Chinese Jewish kids. (Seriously, stop blaming Asians for this pandemic. It took an entire world to bungle the response to this.)
Choosing to Thrive
I am making a conscious choice to begin living differently in my second week of living with my entire family always under the same roof than I did my first week. I will be more conscientious of my time reading the news and interacting with social media.
I will not try to know how many new cases have been confirmed more than once a day. Since most of the country does not have enough supplies to perform tests; how much do the numbers really mean?
I will ground myself in the aspects of life that I have control over: my interactions with my family, my obligations to my communities, and my rabbinical studies.
I will make time for gratitude every day.
I will make time for prayer every day.
I will read a physical book every day.
I will tell my family I love them every day.
I will be present to the Present; to my physical body and the bodies around me.
And I will never give up hope. We are all deeply connected, beyond this mortal coil. May our bodies remain strong, our social distance complete, and may we be there for one another when we need help.
My heart is heavy. I cannot watch any more election coverage. I cannot listen to the normalization of hatred and fear.
One thing is clear: calling people out on racism is not a winning political strategy. Before you throw shade at me, please hear me out. Humans have internalized that the abstract idea of “racism” is bad. And therefore, they are not interested in having their identities mired by it. Humans who have been fed a steady diet of hate and fear are out to protect the people and places they love. They don’t even care that their politicians lie. As long as you’re on their side, they will keep voting.
And here’s the thing: as more and more of the population gathers in cities, the vast majority of governorships and Senate races will be among these scared white people.
I could say a lot about how fearful I am of this wave of hate. There’s a reason anti-Jewish acts have reached a fever pitch in this country. We have always been the first line of hate for fearful white people. Not to mention how easily all politicians disparage China / “the Chinese.” As if the Chinese economy was created in a vacuum and not deeply intertwined with the profit margins of corporations based in the United States.
So yes, I have many, many political thoughts. And yet, I have never been more certain that political rhetoric will not heal this nation. Absolutely, we need to do our civic duty. It is our responsibility as citizens to vote in every single election. And those who feel called to volunteer during elections should do so. But these actions alone will not heal us, nor will they stem the tide of hate and fear.
What we need most is civility. You may bash me for “expecting respectability politics.” But I know from personal experience that the only way to strengthen the bonds of community is to see each other’s souls and build bridges beyond politics. My soul was deeply wounded by being called a “self-hating Jew.” We cannot afford to denigrate our neighbors for their misguided politics. We will never be able to out hate the haters. Only love can move us forward.
I am no longer looking for a Blue wave of salvation. I am praying for Divine guidance to help us strengthen the bonds between each other, neighbor to neighbor. Not by mass texting people you’ve never met. Actually attending events in your city, meeting people face to face. Building bonds of trust that will outlast the darkness.
And maybe we all need to think about a news media diet. Not just demand it of our Fox viewing relatives. Really ask yourself if your podcast feed, social media feed, and TV habits are helping you find the wellspring of joy, the soul nourishment necessary to keep going through the dark days ahead. I know I’m rethinking listening to Rachel Maddow, The Daily, and Up First as I greet the day. I know I’m more likely to become the person I want to be if I figure out a way to wake up earlier and pray rather than forging headlong into the divisive world of politics straight from the collective realm of dreams.
I voted today because it is my responsibility as a citizen. But the outcome of two-party elections cannot define the course of our country. I refuse to be swept up in the narratives analyzing this election.
I’m not going to hide under a rock and pretend the world isn’t spinning. But I’ve never been more convinced that the way we talk about our collective life is part of the problem. Relying on the news media who avoid the word “lie” because the current President of the United States lies so much that using the word would make it meaningless won’t heal us. Nor will it make my family safer to know just how much “the blue wave failed” as I heard earlier tonight on CNN. Our future is not determined by who sits in the White House, Congress, or the State House. As important as elections are, they are only the beginning of the process. My primary identity is not with a political party, it is with the souls that surround me. I am thoroughly convinced that our compassion is stronger than their hate.
My innocent Chinese Jewish sons, and all of our children, including the ones ripped from their parents at the border, deserve better. I choose to bend the arc of the moral universe with radical hospitality and deep love. Will you join me?