I am the rabbinic intern at Temple Beth David of the San Gabriel Valley and I had the honor of giving a sermon today, reflecting on my journey, God’s Grace, and using descriptions of the Divine as a blueprint for how we can live into the best versions of ourselves. L’Shanah Tovah U’Metukah. May we co-create a good and sweet year.
Today is thirty-seven days, which is five weeks and two days of the Omer in the year 5781. גבורה שביסוד, Gevurah ShebeYesod, Boundaries within Foundation. This year, reflecting on the contours of the personality. Does it align with my highest vision for myself?
Our boundaries are misaligned with our highest potential. The mishappen gate in the picture can represent all the ways this pandemic has altered the course of lives, in ways both obvious and unknown.
Separate from ruminating on COVID-19, a personality can imprison us in bad habits, ideas, and identities. The cyncial, angry activist sees everything in the world as needing fundamental change. The consummate peacemaker can give into the whims of a tyrant until their own identity ceases to exist. Extremes in any direction lead down false paths. Flourishing occurs within the middle path, balancing all aspects of one’s personality.
This starts with a clear vision of the person you want to be. I knew the best version of myself emerged in Jewish communal prayer. I wanted to sink into that aspect of myself and moved myself, slowly, towards rabbinical school in order to better embody that aspect of me. Eleven years into this journey, I am constantly seeking further refinement. My interpersonal habits are deeply ingrained from childhood. This is why bullet journaling and the science of habits speak to me. Each year is an opportunity for me to become the best version of me I can be in this moment.
Define your vision
To understand the contours of my personality, I read about the Shadow, the Enneagram, and Neurosis. Carefully, day by day, I remind myself that who I was before does not define who I am in this moment or in the future. The grip of the story I told about myself began to loosen.
I remain a work in progress. Rather than trying to appear Perfect to my children, I admit my faults and let them know I am working to become a better parent. Just as my ability to preach is a never-completed process, so too is my ability to parent. Decide what relationships are most important to you. Clarify how you want to show up in each situation, especially the stressful ones. And hold yourself accountable to your vision.
Books for the journey
Image by Tim Hill via Pixabay.
Today is thirty-five days, which is five weeks of the Omer in the year 5781. שכינה שבהוד, Shechinah ShebeHod, Indwelling of Gratitude.
Wouldn’t life be wonderful if we could dwell in the sacred knowing of our interconnectedness every moment? If the gratitude and splendor forever surrounding us infused every response? If instead of pandemic fatigue, we met each day with joyful excitement and wonder?
Magic wands wont save us. Belief in the power of gratitude alone cannot change us. Instead, we much do the painful work of walking towards change.
First, slow down long enough to observe what sets you off. Before I get angry, what is the spark? Before I started doomscrolling, was I bored? How can I offer myself a different response to each stimulus that leads to the same reward? This is the true work of spiritual transformation: recognizing that each day, we choose better and worse ways to respond to what is happening beyond us and within us.
May the Indwelling of Gratitude, marking the completion of five weeks of counting emanations of Divine overflow, help me transform my habits. May I emerge calmer and more deeply rooted within the speech and actions I wish to embody.
Image by Pixabay via Pexels.
Today is thirty-four days, which is four weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבהוד, Yesod ShebeHod, Foundation of Gratitude.
It is imperative to build a bridge between how I am feeling and the wellspring of gratitude. Regardless of how stressful the day is, or how overwhelming the year is: I should root my thoughts, emotions, and speech in gratitude.
Some days, the breadth of the pandemic overwhelms me. The never-ending drum beat of What Should Be Done crashes into the reality of What Holds Me Back. This was one of those days.
Welcoming the Sabbath Bride
I pray that the Sabbath Bride will envelop me in a spirit of gratitude. Let me remember love and understanding undergird my relationships. May she help me make space for all the ways each of us are doing the best we can. Even the children who don’t do their homework and never want to go to sleep.
The book I’m reading
Today is thirty-three days, which is four weeks and five days of the Omer in the year 5781. הוד שבהוד, Hod ShebeHod, Gratitude within Gratitude. That means we have reached the extremely minor holiday of Lag B’Omer!
Rather than trying to explain Lag B’Omer, let’s sink into the heart of gratitude.
Finding gratitude in a raging pandemic
Perhaps the pandemic seems waning to you, rather than raging. Thirteen months of life turned upside down can make the depth of tragedy occurring in India seem disconnected from the growing availability of vaccinations in the United States. Beyond the current horrors, the existence of COVID-19 in itself makes it far easier to root oneself in cynicism rather than gratitude.
How to stay connected to gratitude? I look at the blooming flowers outside my window. Marvel at the way my kids are growing and their bodies transforming. Watch my dog, anxious for me to join her for snuggles on the couch rather than writing this blog post.
Focus on the splendor of now
At the end of the day, regardless of what is happening in the world, there are sparks of splendor chasing us through each day. When I take the time to pause and appreciate the glory of today, gratitude fills me.
Books for the journey
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days of the Omer in the year 5781. תפארת שבהוד. Tiferet ShebeHod, Beauty within Gratitude. The eve of my partner’s birthday. The eve of the day I receive my second dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Mystical appreciation for the splendor of now
Anyone who has watched Outlander or read the books can appreciate the symbolism of a circle of stones with a beautiful sunset. Perhaps we too will slip through time and find our one true love. Or perhaps we will slip into the deeper meaning of this moment, gaining appreciation for the splendor continuously surrounding us.
It is terribly difficult to stay rooted in gratitude. Especially in these strange, uncertain times. Fear, anxiety, and exhaustion haunt my days. While I miss eating meals with friends, going to the movies, seeing brilliant theatre, and praying in-person in community, what I miss most is silence. The long hours of the day alone in my home, sinking into Jewish wisdom. The beautiful splendor of silence.
Of course, I can remind myself that now is also amazing. Watching my boys grow in height and knowledge. Starting to understand the the particulars of their personalities. Accepting that they’re children and I can’t undo the fact that while I was in class, they ate the edges of the birthday cake I baked. (Before frosting and before tomorrow’s birthday.)
Holy wonder for the miracle of today
Most of today will be April 28, 2021 in secular time. Such an incredible day. The birthday of the oldest member of my family. My beshert (soul mate), my Chesed (actual Hebrew name). Throughout our relationship, we have known that Chung-Mau is the lovingkindness to my strength and together, we create beauty and truth.
We also made two amazing humans. Surviving together in grand fashion. Even sometimes indulging in pop culture and junk food. Surrounded by Chung’s incredible creations.
And today I will join Chung in completing my vaccination for COVID-19. Perhaps a bit of the weight on our shoulders will begin to ease as we walk towards full-strength vaccination in two weeks.
Prayer for beautiful gratitude
Holy Source of Life, help me to embrace each moment. Let me see with eyes of gratitude. Allow me the rationality to see the beautiful possibility in every moment.
Books for diversion…
Image by John Nail via Pexels.
I had the honor of giving a d’var Torah, thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, for Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock today. The names of the portions for today are Acharei Mot — Kedoshim. After Death — Holiness. I added subheadings to my reflection to help the reading process. May we continue to sink into being and strive towards holiness.
It seems quite incredible that two extremely important and idea-filled portions are combined this year. This is the same conundrum Yeshayahu Liebowitz faced when writing his pithy commentary, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven. Indeed, there is no way to work through the breadth of the narrative, so let us dispense with that idea at the outset.
Instead, let’s nestle into the name of this double portion: After Death, Holiness.
After the death of Aaron’s two sons
The text is referring to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. Which actually happened in chapter 10 and we are now in chapter 16. Previously, their actions were described. Nadab and Abihu approached HaShem in the Holy of Holies unsanctioned and perished.
The connection between these names and our lived experience feels very concrete for me. There has been so much death in the world. Yet, we have struggled to find our way to holiness. Whether in the Bronze Age or the postModern age, our access to holiness is not a given.
Making sense of death today
Sometimes, our political leaders have stumbled in trying to parse meaning from those deaths. Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. Obviously, it would be far better if Mr. Floyd had lived through his encounter with the police, rather than being murdered. And he had no choice about being killed. This episode reminds me that no matter how advanced society becomes, we strive to make sense of death, to justify it and make it holy. Acknowledging the depth of tragedy in death can be hard. Protests against George Floyd’s death were an inflection point in the national conversation about policing and the conviction of his murderer furthered the walk towards justice. Just as Aaron’s sons did not have to do die to bring us towards holiness, George Floyd did not need to die to move us towards justice.
Similarly, it seems difficult to fully empathize with those mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. So many people have died and so many people continue to die. Yet, what I see most often is anger about the changes made to communal life in order to protect public health. From the California gubernatorial recall to arguments about re-opening face-to-face learning to whether masks are necessary: our conversations are consumed by how this pandemic continues to affect the living. It seems impossible to truly hold space for the emptiness left by three million deaths worldwide, or the 570,000 deaths within the United States.
Moving towards holiness
So how, after all this death, do we dare assert space for holiness? I believe we need to take guidance from our Torah portions.
Here is my theory on the lesson of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons:
Attempting to connect with the Source of Life is truly potentially dangerous. I have known far too many people who were lured by the false sense of clarity gained from drugs, who chase a mystical high over the cliff with catastrophic consequences. We must allow ourselves to be guided on our search for holiness, so that we don’t lose ourselves to the pursuit. This is the purpose of the instructions for priests on Yom Kippur found in Acharei Mot and the holiness code of Kedoshim. Guidelines keep us safe. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming Aaron’s sons.
Holiness through Jewish technologies
We no longer have Temple sacrifice and priests. Instead, we have rabbinical Judaism and a multitude of opportunities to hold space for what is greater than ourselves. We can use the temple in time, Shabbat, to connect with eternal values. We build holy community in synagogue. Our communal prayer has the ability to deepen the holiness within us individually more completely than individual meditation. We weave the words chosen by our ancestors, thereby connecting our spiritual elevation with hundreds of generations before us. And reflecting on our own mortality, we can choose to break free of the habit of living and truly sink into the holiness of each moment.
Holiness is not an attribute that can be conquered or experienced continually. It is an ideal to aspire towards. Step by step, we can choose to align ourselves with holiness, to live towards emanating holiness through our demeanor, our words, and our actions. Our most obvious signposts to help us become vessels of holiness are prayer, kashrut, and Shabbat. Daily setting aside time to refocus on Divine connection and personal meaning. Consciously choosing what we put into our bodies, and verbally expressing gratitude for the gift of food. And delineating between regular time and sacred time. These are our technologies to walk towards holiness.
27 Days of the Omer
Another Jewish path towards holiness is counting the Omer. Each day, one can reflect on a different aspect of the Sephirot and deepen one’s connection with the concepts that bring holiness into the material world. Today’s Omer count amplifies the Jewish path of holiness. Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבנצח, Yesod ShebeNetzach, Bonding within Eternity. We choose people to form deep community. We prioritize bonding on an emotional and spiritual level. And through our bonding, we touch the eternal.
Today is thirteen days, which is one week and six days of the Omer, 5781. יסוד שבגבורה, Yesod of Gevurah, Foundation of Strength.
Dipping a toe into political topics…
This evening, I read a profound criticism of public motherhood by Amanda Montei in Vox, The problem with “mom boss” culture. It reminded me of all the political conviction I stopped speaking in my pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. To be clear, I still have political views. What I struggle with is knowing how to integrate my political perspective with my emerging spiritual leadership.
I know a lot of American Jews see their political identity as their primary connection to their Jewishness. The politicization of tikkun olam, repair the world, has left a lot of Jews convinced that their progressive savior complex will heal the world. I have meaningful relationships with people across the political spectrum. Though, to be honest, it is easier to maintain those relationships when talking in person rather than online. And therein lies the rub.
I think spiritual community should be larger than political identity. I think it is possible to pray together even when we have far different visions for the future of our country and world. There are third rails for me: understand that racism is real, white supremacy and colorism exist, and that gate-keeping Jewish spaces is problematic. The casual racism of people unfamiliar with those who are not like them is not something that should be tolerated. Don’t mistake every Asian person you meet for the last person you met. Don’t assume people aren’t Jewish because they don’t look like you. And don’t gush over the “exotic” beauty of mixed kids.
Right, so with the fundamental dignity of all humans covered, I do have a high tolerance for difference. Which is why it is taking me so many words to circle back to that article I referenced.
Parenting and Seeking Community
Online culture holds up the foundational myths of American capitalism. Whether that means bragging about how little sleep you get, or declaring yourself unrelatable because you’ve built a brand out of telling other people what to do, digital entrepreneurs thrive on selling stuff and making it look easy to have a picture-perfect life in a country without guaranteed paid time off, nevermind childcare or affordable healthcare.
I often marvel at how much we accomplish without substantive help. Especially now, as one of the millions of parents who has overseen a year of distanced learning. Yet, I’ve also had extremely dark moments when I couldn’t imagine continuing to navigate my way through this morass. I don’t actually really follow influencer parents across the web, but I have fallen hard into the rabbit hole of makeup YouTube and Instagram and knowing when every sale is happening. The silver lining for me about providing 100% of our childcare rather than paying for it is slightly less guilt about my makeup purchases…
Part of the Foundation of Strength is knowing you aren’t completely responsible for your current situation
This post rambles. Montei’s words shook me. Thus, I find it difficult to offer advice. Writing more words about finding your inner strength seems the antithesis of clear-eyed support. The reality is that reality is a mess. However this pandemic changed your life, that is real. Systemic roadblocks do not disappear with grit and determination. Acknowledging reality is imperative — both for our own growth and for the transformation of society.
I find myself wanting to quote full paragraphs from the essay. Let me give you a sentence:
They live by inspirational stories of women finding a community and a calling, of pushing through what’s tough about working motherhood, playing off the vague “moral therapeutic deism” of American capitalism and the larger gospel of Instagram.Amanda Montei in Vox, The problem with “mom boss” culture.
I don’t want my Omer count to devolve into any of these criticisms. In the interest of full disclosure, I think I’ve made about $15 (maybe a tad more) in Amazon affiliate links based on my book recommendations. To be perfectly honest, a lot of them can be found in the library or from the used books super site, Abebooks. I know some people judge me for not transitioning to links from Bookshop, the online site connecting people to independent bookstores. I’m not perfect.
Spiral of Strength
Addendum: hat tip to Anne Helen Petersen
Anne Helen Petersen curates an amazing Facebook page, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. I found Amanda Montei’s article through the Facebook page feed.
Tonight begins eleven days, which is one week and four days of the Omer in the year 5781. נצח שבגבורה, Netzach ShebeGevurah, Endurance within Strength.
What keeps you going when the waves crash over you? Is your vision clear enough to see you through the storms of life?
Choosing to live into the day
I decided to stop apologizing for not being perfect. There are many ideals in my head, including the super human I expect myself to be. This year, I choose to grow into me. The best way to weather a storm is to ride the waves.
Embodying a wave rider, I choose to lean into joy and possibilities, rather than fear and anxiety.
Approach everyone with humility and compassion
As I continue to re-read Tomer Devorah, I was halted in my tracks by the depth and beauty of the prose. Wanting to sink into the reality of its call towards goodness, I couldn’t continue reading. So, I switched to Twitter and immediately entered a tumultuous sea of vitriol.
Jewish ethical mysticism declares that emulating HaShem is the ideal. Cultivate humility and meet everyone with compassion. Somehow, we’ve lost this thread in our digital communications. Whether or not you agree with someone, ad hominem attacks separate us from the Source of Life.
Jews, social class, and unions
Specifically, Jewish Twitter blew up around a recently published interview with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Her strident tone responding to Laura Adkins’ questions offended many. Weingarten’s all-encompassing declarations about who Jews are was a grossly simplistic, socialist critique of wealthy Jews. I think she was making a statement about how vocal some Jews in Los Angeles have been in denouncing school closures while Black and Latinx union leaders have been working to support the continued health of their colleagues. Her “pointed response” was laden with outdated assumptions about the ethnic and socio-economic makeup of American Jews.
So, to be clear: I am not defending Randi Weingarten’s choice of words.
Nevertheless, as a parent in a school district that has remained in distance learning this entire school year, I am tired of the relentless attacks on teachers’ unions. I care about human life even more than I care about education. My family accepts the situation we are in this school year. We look forward to our children returning to in-person teaching in the fall. They may not always be willing to do their class work, but they most certainly have continued to learn via Zoom.
There is a larger conversation that Jewish Twitter is failing to have as it falls over itself to attack Weingarten. Many American Jews are wealthy. In Los Angeles, some Jewish parents loudly demand in-person instruction, while teachers seek to not die for the sake of a paycheck. These are the realities Weingarten spoke inelegantly about.
Imagining a future beyond vitriolic divides
Socialist screeds no longer hold any sway over me. Nor does unfettered capitalism. As the mother and wife of Chinese Jews, it would be hard for me to form a sentence that negates the existence of Jews of color.
The public discourse I envision is humble and compassionate. Believing people enter the public square with good intentions, until proven otherwise. Words can cause damage and every human is made in the image of the Divine, b’tzelem Elokim.
All Jews deserve equal access to Jewish communal spaces. Rather than pointed rhetoric, may we approach our political differences humbly and with genuine curiosity for other viewpoints. May we have the Enduring Strength to meet each other with kindness.
Books for the journey
Spiral of 11 Days of Omer
Traditional Jewish time recognizes multiple years within a year. Based on the flow of agriculture, spring is the natural beginning of the year. So the first month of the Jewish year is Nisan, which we have just entered. Yet, our spiritual year begins in the seventh month, on Yom Zikhron Teruah, more widely recognized as Rosh Hashanah.
Rather than get in the weeds of how to understand Jewish time, let me offer a pandemic analogy. A day can feel like a year and a month goes by in an instant. Therefore, we need multiple reminders of the journey we are on. The journey towards our core selves, towards deep knowledge and wholeness.
Now we enter the season of physical rebirth. Surrounded by the physical and animal world coming back to life, springing forward into new possibilities.
Personally, I am cautiously optimistic that the coming year will allow more occasions to be together physically than the previous year. My immediate family remains cautious, as we are not eligible for vaccines. Deeply grateful that our parents are fully vaccinated.
May the month of Nisan bring the winds of change into our souls. May we make space for change and may we rejoice in our own rebirths. Taking nothing for granted, reveling in the marvel of being alive, my soul expands into this first month of the rest of my life.