Today is forty days, which is five weeks and five days of the Omer in the year 5781. הוד שביסוד, Hod ShebeYesod, Splendid Holiness of Foundation. Hod is the vessel of holiness, while Yesod is the foundation of personality and outward demeanor. Bringing together the energy of these two sephirot allows us the opportunity to root our actions in the depths of our souls.
The breadth of my being calls to me
It’s been a difficult week. Unexpected death forces me to confront how deeply each day is a blessing. I am struggling mightily with the forces within me that want to distract me from this pain with retail therapy. My husband often asks me why I’m in such a rush to finish school. Losing a professor and three colleagues, along with my beloved uncle, in the last few years deepens my reflections. I thought my desire To Finish was rooted in my ego’s need for validation. I cannot deny that is a part of it.
The underlying truth is that spirituality cracked me open in ways nothing else ever could. And I am anxious to help people waken to the souls within them. Simultaneously, the breadth of what I do not know, and how much I need to grow, takes my breath away. I’ve always been a voracious learner. I am grateful to find a calling that allows me to continue learning every day I am blessed with life.
Take a moment to make space for holiness today.
Ground yourself in the reality of splendor.
Appreciate your own breath.
Acknowledge the wonder of your body.
And revel in the opportunity to fully live into this day.
Today is thirty-nine days, which is five weeks and four days of the Omer in the year 5781. נצח שביסוד, Netzach ShebeYesod, Eternal Foundation. What keeps you rooted to your path, regardless of the adversities in life? What keystone habits help you weather every storm?
Building a bridge to the future
This week of consolidating my foundation and defining my core values weighs heavily on me. My tendency is to look at all I have not done, rather than celebrating how far I have come. And the ticking clock of mortality keeps getting louder.
Simply writing about the ideas that breathe meaning into my life is not enough. I choose holding myself accountable to transform my thoughts, feelings, speech, and action to align with these ideals. My commitment begins with journaling. As I read The Power of Habit, I recognize that consistent, daily journaling accompanied all of my most productive seasons.
Remembering Yaniv Dotan, zichrono livracha
My fellow rabbinic student, Yaniv Dotan, passed away Monday night on the 22nd of Iyyar. He kept his illness private, and most of us did not realize the depth of struggle he faced. Yaniv blessed us with a beautiful sermon at our Monday morning minyan two weeks before he passed. Guided by fellow Israeli Yeshayahu Liebowitz’s thoughts on Aharei Mot – Kedushin, he implored us with the ever-present call to holiness. Despite our obvious differences, we shared so many similarities.
Yaniv was quick to point out whatever he found wrong in a lecture or a fellow student’s comments. He had no time for his time being wasted. An engineer, logic reigned supreme. Unless he cracked open the hidden doorway to his soul, and let you know how seriously he believed in mysticism. Connecting with the Divine was Yaniv’s primary goal. He also built our community, with his incredible harmonica skills and his big smile. The world loss a true light this week. May we forever learn from Yaniv to never be complacent. Always strive towards deeper truth. Hold our teachers to high standards. And never stop learning.
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 nineteen days of the Omer, which is two weeks and five days, in the year 5781. הוד שברחמים, Hod ShebeRachamim, Splendor of Compassion.
In 5778 / 2018, I wrote: The strength of Gevurah makes its way to material reality through Hod, piercing the veils of lies we cover ourselves with. Lies take many forms. In the United States, refusing to confront and overturn the systemic racism in healthcare and policing is killing people.
Last year, I wrote about the death of Rana Zoe Mungin, may her memory be a blessing. Too many Black women and men died from COVID-19 because their symptoms weren’t taken as seriously as white people. This year, I am surrounded by the weight of death of Black / Latinx boys and men by police officers. Adam Toledo, thirteen and murdered by a police officer with his hands in the air. Daunte Wright, age 20, trying to keep his mama on the phone to provide car insurance information, murdered at a traffic stop. George Floyd murdered in police custody, begging for air and his mama.
The United States lied to itself when a Black man was elected president. White people took it as an opportunity to stop confronting racism, proclaiming a post-racial era. You may not agree that systemic racism exists, but we need to be real about something: you will never stop seeing my husband’s race. Whether Asian, Black, Indigenous, or Latinx — ethnic / racial differences will always exist. We must learn to treat everyone with respect, and honor the sanctity of their lives, regardless of who they are.
Lives Cut Short
Source of Life, Eternal Womb, El Shaddai,
Help us to stand in solidarity with the mourners of your lost children.
Ease the shock of transition for those whose lives were cut short by cops and those who died under the weight of systemic racism.
May we have the strength to break down the veil of lies surrounding us. Help us to build truly just institutions that honor the dignity of each soul on this planet.
May the Splendor of Your Compassion flow through us and help us create a better world.
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.
Today is twenty-eight days, which is four weeks of the Omer in the year 5780. שחינה שבנצח. Shekhinah of Netzach. Indwelling of Eternity, Presence of Endurance.
Sinking into Netzach is hard during physical isolation. The only eternity that seems real is my ennui.
Seeing both mortality and eternity with clear eyes
With over 250,000 COVID-19 deaths worldwide, it is hard to stay focused on the importance of every human life and the tragedy of every death. Compassion fatigue sets in. We begin to rationalize the world as it is, rather than remembering what should be.
Tonight I forced myself to fully see the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery. Made myself fully understand the fate of an unarmed black man jogging in broad daylight in his own neighborhood. He was murdered by his neighbors. Most news stories only detail the murderers’ claim of a “series of break-ins in the neighborhood.” Actually, there was just one robbery reported in the neighborhood: a gun was supposedly stolen from one of the murder’s car. None of the stories I read contained any details of the dead man’s life.
To save a life is to save the world. For each person contains a soul and in that soul is an entire world.
The news is not providing clear guidance on the importance of each soul lost. Nor is mass culture doing a good job of helping us navigate the meaning of life and death.
Westworld v Mamet: What would you do for the ones you love?
Mostly I hate-watched Westworld this season. It is a familiar narrative. I made it through the exhaustion of watching humans murdered with abandon last season. And this entire season was devoid of emotional investment. At the end, I realized why: philosophical inquiry without soul is torture. I cannot care more for the death of a robot child than I do about the death of a human child. Being expected to have extreme sympathy for the loss of a robot child while accepting the death of a human child as a necessary, character-building, empathy-laden plot point broke me.
On the other hand, one of the last plays I was able to see live, The Christopher Boy’s Communion, placed a sharp spotlight on what it truly means to be a mother during an unspeakable tragedy. I do not claim David Mamet’s latest play is perfect. Rather, he successfully focused the spotlight on people other than a crime victim.
Westworld pretends to care about philosophical inquiry, but dismisses the notion of God. Conversely, Mamet is concrete in his belief and his spiritual foundation. If the Divine is merely a creation of men, then nothing is ultimately important. If Goodness and Justice exist beyond human mortality, then the choices we make in our lives have infinite meaning. For me, this is the difference between Westworld and Mamet: playing with infinite resources to create a world devoid of infinite meaning vs playing with finite resources to uncover the eternity underneath each moment.
Prayers to make space for the Indwelling of Eternity
May we each be inspired by our cultural consumption to swim in pools of depth. Let us find meaning in our daily grind. I pray to remember my eternal embrace of my children, regardless of how irritating I find their penchant for mischief.
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.
On Saturday, eleven Jewswere slaughtered at the beginning of their Shabbat services in Pittsburgh. Joyce Feinberg, 75, a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, mother and grandmother. Irving Younger, 69, a greeter at shul. Melvin Wax, father and grandfather, always in a good mood. Rose Mallinger, 97, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; her daughter was injured in the attack. Bernice Simon, 84 and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; were married at the Tree of Life Synagogue more than 60 years ago. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, primary care physician and an early healthcare provider for HIV treatment. Richard Gottfried, 65, dentist who dedicated time to helping those without insurance and underinsured. Daniel Stein, 71, recently became a grandfather and attended Shabbat services every week. Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and his brother David Rosenthal, 54. Developmentally disabled brothers who greeted everyone who came to shul with a smile and a prayer book.
As my teacher, Dr. Rabbi Elijah Schochet confirmed, the slain Jews are Kedoshim HaShem, their deaths are a sanctification of God’s name, they are among the martyrs of Israel. We are commanded to choose life, and never to seek out death. Thus, Jewish martyrdom is not about choosing to die for your religion. Indeed, over the course of history, most of our martyrs were not given any choice in the matter. Now, I can understand that stating these murders are holy deaths can be disconcerting. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg points out, we must understand the context of their martyrdom and challenge the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.
HaShem Yikom Damam. May HaShem avenge their blood. This is the traditional statement regarding martyrs. Wendy Kenin wrote a concise explanation of Jewish martyrdom in The Times of Israel, calling upon the wisdom of Rabbanit Sabrina Schneider.
There is a difference between avenge, the goal being justice and revenge which is angry retaliation. Even if in self defense a person kills an assailant, justice is in the jurisdiction of the Almighty.
It makes sense that the Jewish honorifics in these situations leaves the solution to Hashem the true Judge, similar to saying Baruch Dayan HaEmet or “Blessed is the true Judge,” which is a common term from our liturgy used after a person passes, sometimes with family members practicing the custom of tearing their clothing. But in the case of cold blood murder, it is an expression of our humanity to recognize there is an injustice that we do not accept when a Jew has been martyred while still maintaining faith in the ultimate outcome.
Rabbanit Schneider elaborates, “Jewish martyrdom is unique in that it isn’t something that the Jew seeks. Contrary to radical Islam, martyrdom is not glorified. Only G-d is glorified. Living a life in service to the Creator is what the Torah Jew ultimately seeks with the ultimate goal of perfecting all of humankind.”
More common honorifics for the deceased are “May their memory be a blessing,” or “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion.” But for the anti-Semitic act of murdering Jews just for being Jews, we need a clearer statement that acknowledges the horror and injustice — one that does not invoke hate, one that does not perpetuate the cycle of violence, one that is inclusive of those sentiments of comfort, blessings, and faith. The phrase for martyred Jews already exists and has been in use for generations, “May Hashem avenge their blood.”
I reflect on this teaching because it is so painful that these murders are being shuffled away in the onslaught of the news cycle. I have felt the normalization of white supremacist rhetoric since Trump declared his candidacy. I have witnessed the rise in anti-Semitism, racism, and hate. And when a Christian wore a tallit and invoked Jesus before Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a rally yesterday, my political animosity boiled over. Like many Jewish Americans, I blamed Pence and his forceful evangelism for the slight. I seemed to be one of the first in my circles to learn that Lena Epstein, a Jewish Republican candidate for Congress, took responsibility for inviting the Jew for Jesus Messianic Christian as a sign of “religious tolerance.”
Nobody thinks you’re not Jewish. They think that you’re deeply insensitive for bringing a group on stage who’s entire mission is to convert Jews 3 days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. Instead of apologizing, you do this. It’s disgusting. https://t.co/NajxDOhE9E
1. Let’s talk about how the Trump administration is trying to erase the Jewish dimensions of a Jewish tragedy. The technical term is “de-Judaization” — fake universalism in the service of suppressing a particular identity.
And as I signed off Twitter last night, I worried that I was letting my emotions get the better of me. I don’t want to speak out of anger. I want to transform my anger into righteous action that honors the souls of everyone around me, including people who cannot see how hurtful they are being. This is an important turning point for understanding the reality of the threat that surrounds us. Words matter. Choices matter. Three days after a massacre, allow a Jewish clergy person to stand up and say a benediction. Allow us to mourn our dead and acknowledge the horror and injustice, without invoking hate and without fake universalism. Each specific act of hate must be called out for what it is. Yes, thirteen people died last week at the hands of white supremacists. Two died because they are Black. Eleven died because they are Jewish. May HaShem avenge their blood.