My latest for The Wisdom Daily

My latest essay has been published at The Wisdom Daily. It's about divorce, and life changes, and the difference between rebuilding and starting something entirely new. Here's a taste:

...From the matrix of community relationships into which I remain woven, to the reality of the child my ex and I are still committed to co-parenting, I haven’t completely left my old life behind. To be sure, large parts of that life have been gutted and await restoration. (Parts of my heart occasionally still feel gutted and in need of restoration.) But the structures I’m building in this new chapter have to dovetail with the old ones...

Read the whole thing: Life After Divorce Is About Repairing, Not Building Anew.


How to embrace living in the unknown, in The Wisdom Daily

...When I accept that I can’t wholly know what my future will hold, I open myself to possibility. There are things I hope will happen. There are things I hope won’t happen. But I affirm that I don’t actually know what will be, and that there is a gift for me in the not-knowing. Because I don’t know, I can hold my imagined futures lightly. I can cultivate openness to learning from whatever unfolds. I can cultivate the bravery I need to keep moving forward, even when I don’t always know for certain where I am headed or how I will get there....

That's from my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily: How to embrace living in the unknown. I hope you'll click through and read the whole thing.


On divorce and ambiguous loss

Grief

"I think this might speak to you," said my friend Cate as she sent me a link to The Myth of Closure, a July 2016 episode of On Being featuring Dr. Pauline Boss. In interviewer Krista Tippett's words, the episode explores "complicated grief, the myth of closure, and learning to hold the losses in our midst." (Cate was right: the episode does speak to me, deeply.)

Pauline Boss is an expert on what's sometimes called ambiguous loss -- for instance, the loss someone feels when a loved one is slowly dying of Alzheimer's. Or the loss experienced by a parent whose child dies, or someone whose loved one is kidnapped and never found. Loss without closure. (One of the cases she makes, quite cogently I think, is that "closure" is a myth that doesn't actually help us.)

She talks about people grieving loved ones who died in dramatic ways: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or a tsunami that kills thousands. Those parts of the interview are powerful... but for me the most resonant sections are when she's talking about ordinary losses. For instance, she talks about how American culture expects immigrants to not grieve their decision to leave wherever they came from. And she says:

The more you want people to get over it, the longer it will take for them. And why not remember your former country, your former island, your former culture while you’re learning to fit into the new one? In other words, having two cultures is what it ends up being. 

What she says here makes me think of my own life changes, especially the end of my marriage. The life we had been building is the "country" that I left, to which I can't return. I have complicated feelings when I remember the home I used to know -- not so much the literal house where we lived (though I miss that sometimes too), but the psycho-spiritual sense of home that I located in that relationship.

We all go through these changes, and we all experience this kind of loss. "The past is a foreign country," as L.P. Hartley wrote. None of us can revisit what was. Even in a relationship that remains intact, we can't go back to how things were then, whenever "then" was. But in a relationship that comes apart, the sense of loss is more profound... and one can't help remembering what was, even when it is no more.

I'm not the only one who makes the leap between the ambiguous loss inherent in literal immigration and the ambiguous loss inherent in this more metaphorical kind of move between life's chapters or incarnations. At one point in the episode, Krista asks Dr. Boss to reflect specifically on how these ideas about complicated grief and the fantasy of closure relate to divorce. And Dr. Boss says:

"[C]losure” is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them, when they’re lost, you still care about them. It’s different. It’s a different dimension. But you can’t just turn it off...

it’s not as dramatic as the disasters we are talking about, but it’s more common every day. And that is you are leaving someone, you have lost someone by the divorce certificate, but they’re still here. So they’re here, but not here...

[T]hey’re present and also absent at the same time. That’s especially true when you co-parent children. And so divorce is a kind of human relationship that is ruptured but not gone. 

Ruptured but not gone: that feels familiar to me. Once you've been attached to someone in a deep and intimate way, that attachment can't be erased. It becomes part of who you are. (Rabbi Alan Lew wrote about this too, in his brilliant This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, which I have cited here so often over the years.) Even when the marriage is over, it remains, like a phantom limb.

In one sense, divorce is real, and it makes a difference. The ritual that ended my marriage was real, and it made a difference. And in another sense, divorce is a fiction -- or at least "closure" is a fiction. Even when one or both partners move on with their romantic and interpersonal lives, the relationship that was never entirely disappears. It is always something that used to exist, and its imprint remains.

And loss and grief are not linear experiences. It's easy and tempting to imagine that one goes from greatest grief, to lesser grief, to no grief at all. That would be so logical, wouldn't it? And that isn't how life works. Grief comes and goes on its own calendar, in its own ways. (I've written about that before -- see Good Grief, 2014.) And grief can coexist with gratitude and hope. They don't cancel each other out.

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with ambiguity. I can be thriving in every way -- and then be knocked into a spiral of sorrow by the sound of a particular song, or the sight of two people holding hands, or a wedding invitation that arrives in the mail. The grief doesn't negate the truth that I am thriving, and the thriving doesn't negate the truth that I am still navigating grief. 

Getting divorced is an ongoing experience of coming to terms with contradictory truths. I was partnered for 23 years, and now I'm navigating life without a companion. I'm grateful for what is, and sad for what isn't. The relationship through which I once self-defined no longer exists, but it will always have existed, and I will always be shaped by it, even as I work on learning to define myself in other ways.

There's ambiguity in all of these things. And my relationship to the marriage, and to the feelings of loss that still ebb and flow as I approach the one-year anniversary of the day when we agreed that the marriage was over, is also ambiguous. I'm grateful and I'm sad at the same time. In one way the marriage is long over, and in another way the marriage will never stop shaping who I become. 

Deep thanks to Krista Tippett and to Dr. Pauline Boss for giving me a conceptual frame big enough to hold these ambiguities. Listen to the episode or read the transcript here: On Being: The Myth of Closure.


Remembering my grandfather

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Receiving Torah from my grandfather Eppie, of blessed memory. , 

I never knew my father's parents. My siblings did, but I didn't. Nana and Papa died before I was born. I inherited my name from my Nana whom I never knew. But I knew my mother's parents well. They were a major part of my childhood. 

Almost everyone called them "Lali" and "Eppie." Lali, the name we used for my grandmother, was a Czech term of endearment. Eppie, on the other hand, was an abbreviation of his surname (Epstein). It had become his nickname in medical school, and it stuck. 

Eppie was brilliant. I mean that both in terms of his intellect (he spoke seven languages) and in terms of his light. When he was enthusiastic about something, he shone.

He was born in 1908 in New York to Russian parents who decided that they didn't particularly like the goldene medina, so they went back home. He grew up in Stolpce, a town in Belarus near Minsk. He used to tell me that he had such a gift for Hebrew and Judaics that the teachers at his cheder wanted him to become a rabbi, but he wanted to be a doctor. So they sent him to gymnasium, and then he went on to medical school in Prague. The accident of his American birth proved miraculous: it was what enabled him and his Czech wife and their three-year-old daughter, my mother, to flee Prague in 1939.

Once he came to this country he mastered English, became licensed to practice medicine here, and went to work for the VA. My mom and her siblings grew up in a variety of towns across the American south -- places like McKinney and Temple, Texas -- where Eppie was posted at the local VA hospital. I've often wondered what it was like for my refined and cosmopolitan Czech grandmother to rear children in places that must have seemed so strange. 

He was a thoracic surgeon, though by the time I remember him clearly he was already on his way to retirement. I remember him as a builder and maker and tinkerer. He made hand-stitched leather albums to hold his stamp collections. He typed letters and postcards to send to me at summer camp. He cooked breakfast when I stayed overnight at their house -- scrambled eggs and kosher salami. He was an engaged grandparent who came to all of my piano recitals and school plays and applauded everything I did.

What aptitude I have for languages I think I inherited from him. (Though I doubt I will master seven over the course of my lifetime.) When I was a kid I used to say I wanted to be a doctor, because I wanted to be just like him. Instead, I wound up taking the career path he didn't take.

He left this life on the second night of Chanukah, twenty years ago. Sometimes I marvel at how much has unfolded in my life since he died. He didn't live to see me married, nor of course to see me divorced. He didn't live to see me go to graduate school for my MFA, or to see me pursue the rabbinate. He didn't live to see me become a mother. (My son's Hebrew name, Yitzchak, is in his memory.) Sometimes it's almost unimaginable that someone who was so formative for me hasn't known me in these last two decades of my adult life. 

Sometimes I wonder what he would think if he could see me now. I think he would really like my son -- I think my son inherited some of his intelligence, musicality, and determination. I think he would be proud to see me serving as a rabbi. 

The picture at the top of this post makes me wince a little bit, because wow, frizzy hair and braces are not a look I would choose to reprise! But aside from my chagrin at the fact of my own adolescence, the photo is precious to me. That's a staged photo, taken a few days before my celebration of bat mitzvah -- which fell on Shabbat Chanukah, so it's another thing I always remember at this time of year. Today is my grandfather's 20th yahrzeit, and I am remembering him with love.

 

Related:


Lessons Of Divorce in a Cup of Wine

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...That was the first part of my divorce ritual that became clear to me: we would pour wine from a single cup into two, symbolizing that our portions in life are now separate. We no longer drink from the same cup. We no longer share life’s joys and sorrows. We do still share a child, and as co-parents to that child we will be connected for the rest of our lives, but each of us drinks now from a separate cup of grief or delight...

That's from my latest in The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing: Lessons Of Divorce in a Cup of Wine.

 

(If this is of interest to you, you might also enjoy the ritual I crafted for ending my marriage.)


A ritual for ending a marriage

When a Jewish marriage has ended, there is an act that brings closure to the marriage -- the granting of a גט / a "get," a legal document of release. (Here's some basic information about how that usually works.) What follows here is a ritual intended for that purpose. I wrote it for my own divorce. It was important to me that we release each other, emotionally and spiritually, before the Days of Awe usher in the Jewish new year. 

In the most traditional paradigm, the husband grants a get to the wife. In this ritual, the granting of the get is bilateral -- each of the divorcing parties writes out a document of release and gives it to the other. Also, in this ritual the get is written in the vernacular, rather than in Aramaic. In theory a get can be written in any language, but in practice most are in Aramaic. (You can read a translation of a standard get at this page about Jewish divorce.) My choice to use the vernacular follows on the custom of התרת נדרים / "hatarat nedarim," the pre-Rosh-Hashanah "untangling of vows," which is done in the vernacular to ensure that the person seeking release knows what they're saying.

I've been working on this ritual off and on for several months. We used it this morning: on Tu b'Elul, the midway point in the month of Elul, the last full moon of 5776. The Jack Gilbert poem at the beginning of the ritual is one of my favorites -- I met him many years ago, and he was tremendous -- though in part because it speaks in the voice of a partner grieving the departure of a wife, I would not have presumed to include it on my own. But Ethan brought it to me and asked whether I would be open to him reading it as part of the ritual, and I was glad to agree. (Edited to add: here's his essay about the ritual and about embracing change: Going Solo.)

I'm still processing the experience of doing the ritual, and will probably write more about that at a later date, but for now I wanted to share the ritual here in case it is helpful to anyone else. That said, if you are ending a Jewish marriage, please consult with a trustworthy rabbi to ensure that your get is valid.

 


1. Opening

Witness: 

A marriage that has ended is like the first set of tablets and the covenant they represented. They were given in love, but then they shattered. Still, Torah teaches that we carried them thereafter in the ark along with the second set of tablets which remained whole. As the two of you move into a new chapter of your lives, you carry with you hopes for new wholeness -- and you also carry the broken pieces of your marriage, which are also holy.

At your wedding you vowed to betroth yourselves to each other in righteousness, in lovingkindness, and in compassion. May those same qualities be present as you disentangle your lives and separate from one another. 

As we open this ritual, a poem from Jack Gilbert of blessed memory:

 

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Jack Gilbert, 1925 - 2012

 

2. The separate cup

 Witness:

Beneath the chuppah you drank from a single cup, representing the shared cup of your life together. I pour wine now from that single cup into two glasses. Please join with me in blessing this wine, which you will sip each from your own cup, as you drink from your own cup of life henceforth.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם ברי פרי הגפן.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei pri hagafen.

A Fountain of Blessing are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of all space and time, creator of the fruit of the vine.

 

3. Prayer of forgiveness

The divorcing couple speaks these words, either in turn or simultaneously:

Eternal Friend, witness that I forgive [Name]
for any injuries sustained over the course of our relationship
whether by accident or willfully, carelessly or purposely
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes
now or in previous incarnations.
May s/he not experience harm because of me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Who protects and frees me.

 

4. New beginning

Witness:

Every ending is a new beginning. Although these two are no longer married in the eyes of God or the Jewish community, they will always be co-parents to their child. I invite them now to share promises they make to each other as co-parents.

The former partners read, taking turns:

I promise to keep our child's needs at the forefront.
I promise never to speak ill of you to our child.
I promise to maintain good boundaries as we co-parent from separate households.
For the sake of our child, I promise to be as generous and flexible as life will permit.
I promise to join you in revisiting our custody arrangements every few years, so that we can adapt our practices to meet the changing needs of our growing child.
I promise to do everything in my power to maintain a friendly relationship with you so that we can share in our child's joys and sorrows.

 

 5. Writing the release

Each partner copies the following text in silence:

On the X day of the week, the Y day of the month of [Month] in the year 5776 from the creation of the world (equivalent to the secular date of [secular day, month, year]), here in [Place], near to the [name of the nearest river], I, [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name], do willingly consent to release you, my wife / husband [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name].

We are no longer bound together. If you so choose, you may remarry freely. Your doorway is no longer my doorway. Wherever life takes you, may you go in peace. 

This is a bill of divorce, written in alignment with customs of Moses, Miriam, and the Jewish people.

Each document is signed by the person who wrote it and by the court of three witnesses. 

 

6. The cut

Witness:

(making a cut in each document)

As my scissors cut into the heart of this document, divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing. Your hearts have already been torn. May receipt of this document help you heal.

Each partner places the paper they wrote, now signed and cut, into the cupped hands of the other. The partners turn away from each other and take three steps away from each other, signifying the beginning of the new life journey each will take alone. 

 

7. Closing

Witness:

At the end of your wedding you shattered a glass, a reminder that in every joyous occasion there is some sorrow. Now that your marriage has broken like that glass, may you find that even in this sorrowful occasion there is access to joy.

Now go forth in peace, to life.

 

 


Notes:

The idea that a marriage that has ended is like the broken tablets comes from Rabbi Leana Moritt, from Ritual Possibilities Within Traditional Gittin In a Pluralistic / Post Denominational Setting, 2008.

The prayer of forgiveness is adapted from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l's translation of the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, part of the Bedtime Shema. 

The phrase "Your doorway is no longer my doorway" comes from Rabbi Goldie Milgram.

Regarding the cut in the document: "Be sure to explain that the cut does not sever the document in two. Rather, it cuts into the heart of the document just as divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing." (Per Rabbi Pam Frydman.)

 

Related: Immersion, April 2016. 


Words we can't un-say: a d'var Torah for parashat Ki Tetzei

Words2In this week's Torah portion there is an intriguing passage (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) about divorce. Torah says: when a man takes a wife and possesses her, and then finds something about her displeasing, he is to write her a bill of divorce and she is to leave his house. If she should marry a second time, and then divorce a second time -- or the second husband should die -- her first husband is forbidden from marrying her again.

The Sforno says that this is because to allow remarriage in this way would be a recipe for wife-swapping. Rabbenu Bahya says that this is because the woman in the story has been "known" by another man, so of course it would be inappropriate for her to be intimate with her first husband again. Unsurprisingly, these classical commentators and others take for granted the text's apparent assumptions about gender, marriage, and power. 

There's plenty that is problematic about this passage from a modern perspective. For starters, the idea that a woman "belongs" to anyone other than herself. The presumption that divorce is necessarily initiated by the husband because his wife is no longer pleasing in his eyes. The lack of agency granted to the woman. The notion that a woman who has been with another man becomes תמא / tamei, emotionally and spiritually charged in a way that would be damaging to her first partner if they got back together again.

Not to mention the fact that the text doesn't speak at all about how the woman in this situation feels: did she want to divorce in the first place? How about the second place? What kind of grief is she enduring, especially when the second marriage ends? Torah doesn't say, but we can begin to imagine.

That said, I think we can glean some wisdom from this passage despite its troubling dynamics.

First, let's remove the genderedness from it. Torah is teaching us that a marriage has to be consensual, and requires the active participation of both partners. When a marriage becomes irreparably broken for one partner, it's no longer a consensual whole, and the partnership is broken. A bill of divorce must be written so that the partners can release each other.

Anyone who is considering taking these steps needs to know that words ending a marriage, once said, can't be un-said. Once the marriage has been broken, even if one or both partners should later regret the breaking, it can't be glued back together into the configuration it had before. No one should go into divorce thinking "well, if this doesn't work out, we can go back to the way things were." There is no "going back." Only going forward. In our modern paradigm sometimes former partners do re-marry, but there is no re-creating the wholeness of the first marriage when it was new.

That significant words, once said, can't be un-said is a running theme in this week's Torah portion. The verses about divorce come shortly after verses instructing us to take care in vowing vows to God, because when we promise things to God, we have to live up to them or incur sin. It is better not to make vows, says Torah, than to make them and fail to live up to them.

Promises that we make to God and fail to sustain... we'll come back to those on Kol Nidre night. Once we've said them, we can't un-say them, but we can ask God to forgive us for our failure to live up to who we intended to be.

Promises that we make to each other and fail to sustain... once we've said them, we can't un-say them either. Neither can we un-say words that end a relationship. We should take care with our words, and not commit ourselves to promises we can't keep or to endings we aren't really ready to face. But maybe especially during this month of Elul, we can ask each others' forgiveness -- in all of our relationships -- for failure to live up to what we thought would be. 

 

 

[Image source.] This is the d'var Torah I offered at my synagogue yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


The day before

Looking back on one's life is not always easy or comfortable. We all have places where we've missed the mark, relationships that fracture, missed opportunities and frustrations. But we also all have opportunities for gratitude, and we all have opportunities to effect repair.

This is a time of year Jewish tradition dedicates to introspection and repair. This weekend we usher in the new lunar month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus writes powerfully about this new month through the lens of psalm 27, the psalm tradition assigns to this time of year. That psalm makes use of a very powerful word: if. Rabbi David writes:

This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future.... The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead.

(Read the whole thing: "If!" -- Walking Backwards Into Elul.)

This morning I sat by the bedside of someone who is dying and we talked about precisely these things. About gratitudes after more than 90 years of life, and about regrets. About relationships in need of repair, and about the gifts of everyday living. Conversations like that one are profoundly humbling, and they remind me that the inner work of Elul is truly our work all year long.

Our sages say that we should make teshuvah -- we should re-align ourselves with our Source, return to our highest selves, turn toward the good and toward God -- the day before our death. Of course, none of us knows when that will be. In the case of the gentleman I visited today, the odds are pretty good that death will come sooner rather than later... but that could be true for any of us. 

It's the day before Elul. A month of introspection and repair awaits. Are you ready to do the inner work of looking at who you are and who you've been, where you've soared and where you've fallen short, where you need re-alignment in your relationships with yourself and your Source?  If you knew that you might die tomorrow, what changes would you want to make? What repair would you want to effect?

What are you waiting for?

 

 

Related: 


New for The Wisdom Daily: life in the imperfect tense

Logo-twd-header

The folks at The Wisdom Daily have published my latest essay. It's about my sense that divorce happens in the imperfect tense. (The decision to end the marriage may now be in the past, but it's also always continuing in to the present.) And it's about how the hard emotional work of ending a marriage maps for me, this year, to where we're at on the Jewish calendar.  Here's a taste:

...This is hard work. And sometimes I am tempted to try to bypass it. Can’t I just focus on the positive, and turn my attention away from what hurts?

Not if I want to heal, I can’t. When a wound is infected, ignoring it or pretending it isn’t there won’t help. The only thing to do is grit one’s teeth and clean out the wound, and maybe suture it gently so that it can finish closing on its own. When the wound is emotional rather than physical, the same holds true.

No one likes to look at what hurts. But if we don’t face our own brokenness, we can’t sweep away the shards and prepare to rebuild.

That’s the lesson of this time of year on the Jewish calendar...

Read the whole thing: Exploring my imperfection during my divorce.


Joy amidst mourning

All week I've been thinking about what I might say here in shul this morning. Mere commentary on this week's Torah portion feels insufficient. How can I talk about the rituals of the nazir, one who makes promises to God -- or the ritual of the sotah, designed to banish a husband's jealousy -- or even the priestly blessing that we just read together -- when LGBTQ members of our community are grieving so deeply? And yet faced with the enormity of the tragedy at Pulse last weekend, my words fail me.

Into this moment of grief comes an expression of great joy. Just moments ago we welcomed a beautiful little girl into the covenant and into our community. What words of meaning can I offer to her two mothers now?

I can say: you belong here. In this community those of us who are straight aspire to be thoughtful and sensitive allies, so that those of us who are queer can feel safe expressing all of who we are.

I can say: tell us what you need. Tell us where we are falling down on the job of making this a safe and celebratory and welcoming home for you, and we will try to do better. I can say: your child will always have a home here, no matter how her gender expression manifests or who she loves.

And I can say: all of us here commit ourselves to building a world in which hate crimes are unimaginable. A world in which no one could feel hatred toward another human being because of that person's race or gender expression or sexual orientation or religion. Can you imagine what it would feel like to live in that world?

Can you imagine a world in which the tools of massacre no longer exist? In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: "Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them back into plowshares first."

Our tradition has a name for this imagined world in which hatred has vanished like a wisp of smoke: moshiachtzeit, a world redeemed. I don't know whether we will ever get there. But I know that we can't stop trying.

And there is a very old Jewish teaching that each new baby contains all the promise of moshiachtzeit, all the promise of a world redeemed. Maybe this baby will help to bring about the healing of the world for which we so deeply yearn.

May we rise to the occasion of being her community. May we support her and her mothers. May we take action to lift them up and to keep them safe. And may we work toward a world redeemed in which all of our differences are celebrated and sanctified as reflections of the Holy One. 

And let us say, together: amen. 

 

These are the words I spoke from the bimah yesterday morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


New on The Wisdom Daily: a meditation on divorce

Logo-twd-headerI have a new essay at The Wisdom Daily. Here's a glimpse:

I’m in the process of moving through a divorce, and that means I’m in the process of moving. This summer I’ll leave the house that my partner and I shared, and move to a place of my own. Right now I’m taking the first steps toward that shift: beginning the work of winnowing and packing.

Sometimes this work is satisfying. It gives me an excuse, for instance, to let go of extra dishes and pots and pans. I’m filling boxes for Goodwill, and with every item I discard I feel less encumbered (and also virtuous — it feels good to know that someone else will get use out of things I’m releasing).

Other times, this work is grief-inducing. In the middle of poking through my winter clothes to decide which things I actually wear and should therefore keep, I run across the sweater I bought for myself on the Isle of Skye on my honeymoon eighteen years ago, and suddenly I’m weeping into the wool.

Read the whole thing: Moving On: A Meditation on Divorce.


Immersion

Image

On the day that would become the first night of Pesach, I went to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse. Some people immerse before Shabbat; some people immerse before Pesach. This day was pre- both of those, but those weren't the reasons I was immersing. I was immersing to mark a life transition, in hopes of emerging into the liberation of Pesach feeling spiritually cleansed and ready for a new beginning.

I've been to Mayyim Hayyim a number of times -- I wrote about touring the mikveh at the Gathering the Waters mikveh conference in 2010; several years ago I participated there in a beit din as a new Jew entered the covenant; we held a focus group there as part of the ALEPH Listening Tour last fall -- but there's a world of difference between visiting the place as a witness and visiting it as a participant.

(I had planned to come to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse before my ordination as a rabbi, in a ritual of preparing myself to receive the transmission of smicha. But I live two and a half hours away by car, and on the date of that pre-ordination mikveh appointment a winter snowstorm kept me in the Berkshires, so I found an alternate way to immerse. This time the weather posed no such difficulties.)

When we were there for the Listening Tour focus group in the fall I noticed their attention to detail. How even the bench in the garden has a water motif in its tiling, and even the door handles curve like ocean waves. How there are seven steps down into each mikveh (one for each day of the week, one for each of the seven "lower" sefirot), how each mikveh pool is round evoking the womb and its waters.

When I came this time I noticed even more loving attention to detail, and was grateful for all of it. The seven kavanot (intentions) before immersion. The supplies they thoughtfully provide, from a pumice sponge for one's feet to gentle cleansers for face and body and hands. How easy it is to turn the handle to allow living waters (rain from the cistern) to "kiss" the warm waters of the mikveh itself.

When I arrived, the mikveh guide asked whether I wanted to bring a laminated ritual sheet into the mikveh with me. I asked whether they had rituals available for divorce, and they did. (I wasn't obligated to tell her for what reason I was immersing... but I feel strongly that while there is grief in the end of any marriage, there should not be shame, so I didn't mind being open about what had brought me there.)

I chose to immerse without a witness. That was the right move, because as soon as I entered the mikveh room I began to weep. (I had the feeling that was going to happen.) I paused on each of the seven steps and cried. I stayed longest on the bottom step, the one that maps to the aspect of God known as malchut -- sovereignty, or nobility, or the immanent indwelling Presence of the Divine we call Shekhinah.

My mikveh guide had given me four laminated rituals to choose from: one for the end of a relationship, one for difficult life transitions, one for healing, and one for pre-Pesach immersion. I sat with all four of them in the dressing room. In the end, I brought three of them into the mikveh room with me, and used excerpts from each. I began with these words from the ritual following the end of a relationship:

I stand here, having completed the unbinding of a relationship.
I stand here as a Jewish woman with dignity and with strength.
I stand alone, a whole and complete person, no longer bound as a companion and partner.

The third line is the one that cracked my heart all the way open. "No longer bound as a companion and partner." No longer bound; no longer a companion or partner. Even when ending a marriage is the right thing to do -- and ending this one was my decision -- it still comes with tremendous grief. Part of my spiritual work at this season is allowing that grief to ebb and flow as it needs to do, without shutting it off or ignoring it or trying to short-circuit it.

I immersed three times, with different words of prayer and different intentions before each. I paused for a long time before the final immersion, and prayed the words I needed to pray, and quietly sang parts of the Song at the Sea, and went under. I counted the seven steps back out of the mikveh: from Shekhinah back up the Tree of Life to lovingkindness. I took my time dressing and getting ready to go.

As I was about to leave, my mikveh guide told me that everyone there appreciates my work -- which was a gift to hear. (I said I appreciate their work too, which I do! I've been a longtime fan of Mayyim Hayyim from afar, though this was my first time immersing there.) And then she added "I didn't say that until now because I wanted you to be here just as a person, not as a public figure" -- and that was a gift, too.

We wished each other a Pesach of sweetness and liberation. I walked out into the garden and sat for a while on the bench tiled with the water motif. I called a friend, and watched a big fuzzy bee dart from flower to flower. And my friend talked with me about Hallel and Shekhinah and the Song at the Sea until I felt grounded and steady enough to operate a car and to re-enter the flow of the world.

At Pesach we ask "why is this night different from all other nights?" Right now everything feels different from anything that came before. My world has shifted on its axis, and I know it will be a while before I feel steady on my feet again. I'm working on accepting that. Entering the mikveh unlocked a wellspring of tears in me. While those tears are sometimes wrenching, I believe that they bring healing, too.

 

Image source. 


Tears and celebration

Why do we break a glass at the end of every Jewish wedding? There are many answers, but one of the interpretations which resonates for me is this: we break a glass to remind ourselves that even in our moments of greatest joy, the world contains brokenness. That's how I feel today - mourning the Charleston shooting and today's news of horrific terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France; celebrating today's news about the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality across the USA.

Imrs

This image made me cry. [Source]

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I hope that by the time [our son] is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who he will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

I hoped then that by the time our son was grown, our nation might have risen to the new ethical heights of granting the right to marry to all of its citizens, regardless of their gender or gender expression, and regardless of the gender or gender expression of their beloved. I never in a million years could have imagined that it would happen before he even started kindergarten. I'm grateful to everyone who devoted heart and soul to the work of making this possible now, in our days.

It's hard to wrap my head and heart around the disjunction between the sheer joy which I feel at the prospect of the right to marry being granted to every American, and the grief which arises at the news of today's terror attacks around the world. Though I think that kind of disjunction is part and parcel of ordinary life. It's a little bit like having a parent in the hospital while one's child is celebrating a joyful milestone -- love and sorrow, joy and grief, intertwined. Most of our lives contain these juxtapositions.

One of the pieces of framed art on my synagogue office wall contains a famous quote from the collection of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Our nation is still marred by many inequalities, and there is much work yet to be done. Our world is still marred by endless brokenness. But I believe it's also important to stop and celebrate what we can, when we can. Our hearts need that.

Today we celebrate the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Tonight we celebrate Shabbat, and may imagine that the Shabbat bride looks a bit more radiant than usual in reflection of this joyful news. And when the new week comes, it will be time to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep working toward the dream of a world free of hatred, free of violence, free of bigotry, where everyone on this earth truly knows and feels that we are all made in the image of God and all deserve safety and joy.

May those who are grieving lost loved ones in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France -- and for that matter Charleston SC, and everywhere else tarnished with acts of hatred -- be comforted along with all who mourn. May we gather up the shards of their broken hearts and cradle them lovingly as we celebrate today's victories for human rights. And for those who celebrate, may tonight's Shabbat be sweet.

 

Edited to add: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal's official statement.


New prayers for b'nai mitzvah at Ritualwell

LogoI have long been a fan of Ritualwell, an online resource center where one can learn about Jewish rituals and practice, browse a large bank of new and innovative Jewish prayers and rituals, and find resources and materials to enhance one's own spiritual practice.

This spring they've launched a series they're calling #ReimagineRitual, and the first ritual they wanted to explore is b'nai mitzvah, our coming-of-age ceremony for thirteen-year-olds. First they shared some blog posts about new ways of thinking about b'nai mitzvah (don't miss Renewing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah One Student At A Time). Then there was a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat on Twitter. And then they commissioned me to create something new.

My offering is now live on the Ritualwell site. Here's the introduction I wrote to contextualize the prayers I shared:

After the #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah chat, what emerged for me most strongly were not answers but questions. People tweeted a lot of questions: how can we encourage students to take ownership of their own b'nai mitzvah journey? Is there a way to do b'nai mitzvah which doesn't reinforce binary notions of gender? How can we tend to the unique soul of every child, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of gender and sexuality? Is there a core body of material which we expect our b'nai mitzvah students to master? What kind of role does (or should) social justice play in their learning?

These prayers arose in response to the chat. I hope that they will speak to our b'nai mitzvah students,  to those who are entrusted with their care—and also to people in "traditional" congregational contexts, and people whose Jewish lives unfold outside of congregational walls.

I wrote a pair of prayers to use as the b'nai mitzvah ties tzitzit onto their tallit before the celebration, and a trio of prayers (one for parent or caregiver, one for the student who is coming of age, and one for the rabbi or spiritual leader) to be used at the celebration itself.

You can find my offering here at Ritualwell: Blessings for a B'nai Mitzvah. Feedback welcome, here or there!


Preparing for shiva

Looking for a printable shiva minyan liturgy? There's one at the end of this post.

 

I almost always begin a shiva minyan by telling a story about what we're doing and why we're doing it. (Shiva means seven and minyan means the group of at-least-ten who gather together to pray; a shiva minyan is a prayer gathering during the week called shiva, the first week after a loved one's burial.)

The custom of the shiva minyan came about, I explain, at a place and time where it was assumed that all Jewish men considered themselves obligated to pray three times a day. (This often draws forth a chuckle from the room, because we know that this is not how most of us in the room approach our prayer lives.) Imagine that you have the custom of going to shul every day: both because you feel metzuveh (commanded / obligated) to daven (pray) in community, and because you want to help the community make a minyan, the quorum of ten which is required for our call-and-response prayers, among them the Mourner's Kaddish.

Suddenly your life is ruptured by loss. A loved one dies. Now your days feel strange and measureless as you navigate this new landscape of aveilut, mourning and bereavement. The sages of our tradition recognized that in the wake of a loved one's death, the mere prospect of getting dressed nicely and leaving the house may feel completely overwhelming. So during the first week of mourning, the minyan comes to you. The community comes to your home; they bring prayerbooks, they bring food, they sit with you and listen to you and daven with you so that you can recite the Mourner's Kaddish in the embrace of loving community.

A shiva minyan, in other words, is intended to be something to soothe and comfort the mourner -- not yet-another-thing for the mourner to worry about doing, or doing "right." It's not supposed to be an onerous obligation; it's supposed to remove the onerousness from the obligation which one has already taken on, the obligation of daily communal prayer. But for those who don't have a practice of daily communal liturgical prayer, and/or who may not be especially comfortable with the Hebrew of traditional Jewish liturgy, the prospect of a shiva minyan may seem daunting. It may feel like an unwanted obligation, or be a source of discomfort, which is exactly the opposite of its purpose.

Continue reading "Preparing for shiva" »


Visiting those who are gone

OldMy congregation, like many communities, has a custom of holding a short memorial service in our cemetery on the Sunday afternoon just before Rosh Hashanah. It is usually an intimate affair. Those who attend tend to be our oldest members, who frequently have generations of loved ones buried in this hallowed ground. Many of our younger members are transplants to the area (as am I, though after 22 years I have come to feel pretty well rooted here) and don't have graves to visit here. And even if we did have graves to visit, I don't know that most of us would take on this practice.

Every time I prepare to lead this service, I think about my maternal grandmother, Alice Epstein z"l, whom we called by the Czech term of endearment Lali. She grew up in Prague, and used to grouse that Americans were peculiar in our reticence to visit cemeteries. In her childhood it was common practice to visit the cemetery on Sundays, perhaps bringing a picnic, and to spend time paying respectful visits to one's loved ones who had left this life.

I think I must have heard that story from her when we visited the new cemetery in Prague together in 1993 along with several other members of my family. ("New" because it was built in 1891 to relieve the overcrowding at the old cemetery, which had been in use since the 1400s. We visited that one too, though more as a historical site than as a place of our own family history.) Where the old cemetery was a crowded jumble of ancient Hebrew-carved stones, I remember the new cemetery as being stately and green, filled with ivy and tall trees and art deco headstones.

ArchI think of that Czech cemetery when I visit the one where I work today, because this one too is tree-lined and beautiful. And I wonder: is it Americans (as opposed to the Czech) who don't make a habit of visiting cemeteries, or is it the younger generation, no matter where in the world we are? ("Younger" in this case meaning younger than my grandparents, of blessed memory, who were born in the early years of the 20th century.) How many of us, in today's world, still live in the towns where our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are buried?

My shul's cemetery is up in the hills just outside of North Adams proper, in the town of Clarksburg. To get there, one drives along route two and then up into the hills. One drives past houses and trees and horses at pasture before arriving at the gates to our cemetery, our "house of life." That's what Jewish cemeteries are traditionally called. The name arose because of the belief that when this incarnation ends, our souls continue to eternal life beneath the wings of Shekhinah. For many people today, maybe the cemetery is a house of life in that it reminds us that we ourselves are still living.

PnAnyway, our house of life is in a beautiful spot, surrounded by trees whose leaves rustle at this season as they begin to turn orange and red and gold. They'll flame brightly before they brown and fall. There's something especially poignant about holding our cemetery service surrounded by trees which are about to undergo, or are already undergoing, that change. It's so easy to experience the seasons as a metaphor for the cycles of human life.

Each year on the Sunday before the holidays I join a handful of our members in a semicircle of folding chairs and I lead them in prayer. The service itself is brief: a few prayers, a few poems, some singing which rings out against the headstones and the hills. The memorial prayer which I sing at every funeral. The mourner's kaddish, our prayer which reminds us to offer praise even in the face of death. And then the small crowd disperses to walk among the stones, to trace engraved names with wrinkled fingertips, to place pebbles as markers of our visit and our remembrance.

PebblesDuring this year's service I pointed out that the silent yizkor  prayers  of remembrance promise that we will engage in acts of tzedakah (righteous giving) in memory of those whom we have lost. I explained the traditional belief that giving tzedakah in remembrance of a loved one can help that loved one's aliyat ha-neshamah, the ascent of their soul to higher and higher levels of the heavens. Even if that image doesn't work for us, or doesn't mesh with what we believe about the afterlife, it's still a beautiful teaching.

After the service, when we were lingering at our folding chairs, someone asked what I believe about the afterlife. We talked for a while about what I believe -- I offered the image of the droplet of water rejoining the waterfall, the soul returning to its source; I offered my belief that those who have died can hear us when we need to speak to them, at Yizkor services four times a year, or when we visit them in their places of burial -- and how my beliefs fit with some of our tradition's teachings, among them the idea of gilgul ha-nefesh, the "transmigration of souls."

And then I sat for a while with a particular elder congregant, who reminds me every time we meet that when we first met he "engaged me" to officiate at his funeral. I told him, as I always do, that I remember the promise -- and that I'm glad that he hasn't yet cashed in that chit.

There is something awe-inspiring for me about being able to daven these prayers with our oldest members each year, and also with some of the children of our elders who come in remembrance of their parents. Our elders have seen a lot of rabbis come and go. I'm honored that they, along with the rest of my community, have entrusted the care of this holy community to me.

When I wake up on the Sunday before the holidays, there's always a lazy part of me which wishes -- just the slightest bit -- that I could spend this last Sunday of the old year curled up on the couch with a giant mug of coffee, the Sunday Times, and a good football game. It would be nice to relax into a little bit of normalcy and calm before the whirlwind of the Jewish holidays! But I know that when I get to the cemetery, its calm quiet will enliven me. I will remember every funeral over which I have been humbled to preside. I will greet my community's elders with gratitude for their presence and for my own. And for the remainder of the the old year, and well into the new one, I will be glad to have gone.


New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah

Last spring, just before Shavuot, I brought two classical midrash about the giving of the Torah at Sinai to my Hebrew school class, and one of my students made some fannish connections.

Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into seventy human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), “Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice.” With a voice that Moses could hear. (Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

I brought this midrash to my class, and one of my bar mitzvah students -- a big fan of the television show Doctor Who -- raised his hand and said, "It's like the TARDIS was there, translating!" I knew exactly what he meant.

TardisWith some prompting he explained to the class that the TARDIS is a time machine. It appears to be an iconic blue police box, though it is famously "bigger on the inside." And it contains a translation circuit which ensures that no matter where or when its inhabitants travel, everyone can be understood. I told him I thought that drawing an analogy to the TARDIS was an interesting way to think about the teaching that everyone heard Torah in a language they could understand. The tradition also teaches that "Torah has 70 faces; turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." Arguably the Torah too is "bigger on the inside" -- always containing more than we imagined.

Then we moved to the second midrash I had brought:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time. At the Red Sea God appeared to them as a mighty man waging their wars, at Sinai God appeared to them as a teacher, as one who stands upright in awe when teaching Torah; in the days of Daniel, God appeared to them as an elder teaching Torah, for the Torah is at its best when it comes from the mouths of old men; in the days of Solomon God appeared to them as a young man in keeping with the youthful spirit of Solomon’s generation. At Sinai, then, when God said, I am Adonai Your God, appropriately God appeared to them as a teacher teaching Torah. (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 12)

This, too, made my student think of the Doctor, because the Doctor also appears in different guises at different times: young and old, warrior and scholar. He was so enthusiastic about drawing out these lines of inquiry that I promised him that he could speak about this at his bar mitzvah if he were willing to do a bit of extra learning with me, a bargain which he eagerly accepted.

As I worked with him over the summer on his d'var Torah ("word of Torah" -- the spoken-word teaching he would offer at his bar mitzvah which would relate Torah and Jewish tradition to his own life), we talked both about how he understood his Torah portion and its relevance to his life, and about how these midrash evoke his favorite pop culture hero. (Of course we also talked about how Jewish understandings of God are different from the Doctor, because that matters too.) When he spoke from the bimah, he spoke about his Torah portion; about his participation in one of our congregation's social action projects; and about how he related Doctor Who to his understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Continue reading "New beginnings, Doctor Who, and teshuvah" »


May his light continue to shine

My beloved teacher, rebbe, and zaide ("grandfather") Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z"l (may his memory be a blessing) died this morning in his sleep. He was 89.

Here is a seven-minute video in which he explains and explores psalm 23 -- which seems like a fitting way both to remember his vitality, his laughter, and his wisdom, and also to ease the hearts of those who grieve.

I'll write more about him later. Right now I have only tears and gratitude.

Reb Zalman is the reason I became a rabbi. That's a longer story; maybe I'll tell it next week. For now, I am so endlessly grateful to have known him, to have learned from him, and to be a part of his rabbinic lineage.

May all who mourn his passing -- most especially his widow Eve, his many children and grandchildren, his students and the students of his students -- be comforted. זכרונו לברך –– may his memory be a blessing.

 

Memorial contributions may be made to ALEPH's Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment for Jewish Renewal.


Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home

Several years ago, at an ALEPH Kallah in California, I was blessed to take a week-long sacred storytelling class taught by master storyteller Debra (a.k.a. Dvorah) Zaslow. The class was wonderful, not least because Dvorah's way of telling stories, and teaching the telling of stories, goes straight to the heart. So when I heard that she had a new book out -- Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go Through Love and Death (White Cloud Press, 2014) -- I knew I wanted to read it.

Here's a video trailer for the book:

"Seventeen years ago I was immersed in my life as a professional storyteller, wife of a rabbi, and mother of two teenagers when I felt compelled to bring my 103 year-old grandmother, Bubbe, who was dying alone in a nursing facility, home to live and die with my family. I had no idea if I'd have the emotional stamina to midwife her to the other side."

The story unfolds with slow inexorability. There is nothing easy about bringing an elderly relative home to die, and this slim but powerful memoir doesn't gloss over the hard parts. And yet once I started reading, I didn't want to stop; I wanted to know how it would unfold. It's not exactly that I wanted to "know what happens next" -- obviously the book was going to lead to death, the end of every human story since time immemorial. But I wanted to see how it would happen, and how Dvorah and her family would get there, and what blessings might be there for the finding.

Continue reading "Debra Zaslow's Bringing Bubbe Home" »


Reflections on a b'nei mitzvah

3260530587_6495049153_nLeading services on a Shabbat when one of our kids is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah can be an interesting challenge. For one thing, our numbers swell -- from our usual 15-20 to 60, 80, even 100. For another, the people who've gathered for a lifecycle event usually don't all know each other, and they often don't know our melodies, and there are always some -- including the junior high school contingent -- who are not Jewish and perhaps have never been to a synagogue before in their lives.

A particular kind of output of energy is required to lead this kind of kahal (congregation.) In some ways it's more like High Holiday services -- our folding walls folded back, the big sanctuary full of people, my concomitant outpouring of voice and song and self -- than like a "regular" Shabbat morning.

I take pleasure in being able to introduce our liturgy, the rhythms of our prayer, to people (both non-Jewish and Jewish) who may not have much familiarity with these words or the flow of the service. I explain a bit as we go, trying to make sure that my explanations serve as useful guideposts to the service but not obstacles or roadblocks to the way the service needs to flow. I try to make people laugh out loud at least a few times. When I get chuckles from around the room, I know I'm reaching people.

Often I don't know until after the service is over whether it's "worked" for people -- whether it reached them where they are, whether it opened them up to an emotion, whether they are emerging feeling a little bit different than when we began. Often I never find out whether it worked, or for whom. But sometimes after the service people will spontaneously offer me a response, and I treasure those. I love knowing that our morning of worship took someone someplace they maybe didn't expect to go.

Of course, the greatest joy for me is watching one of our kids shine. Watching those years of learning, the hard work of practicing the Torah portion and overcoming the hurdle of reading from an unpointed handwritten scroll, all of the effort that went into preparing a d'var Torah which will teach something about their Torah portion and how it relates to life that they know -- watching all of that pay off. Watching their family kvelling, taking visible pride in their child's lifecycle milestone.

These days I can't help imagining what it will be like when it is our son on the bimah (pulpit). What will his voice sound like at thirteen? What will his sense of humor be like? What will be his passions, his obsessions, to which he will struggle to relate his Torah portion? Will I weep when we offer him blessings? I try not to write scripts. He's only four and a half. We have a long way to go before we get there. I don't want to focus on what's coming and miss what's happening now. But there's a certain sweetness in the anticipation.

Could I have imagined, at my own celebration of bat mitzvah, how much joy I would take in this rabbinic life? I'd like to think that if I could send a message back through time, twelve-year-old me wouldn't be all that startled to hear that this is what I do now, and that I love doing it, every time. I remember aspiring to learn the service well enough that if the rabbi were to call in sick, I would (I imagined) be able to lead the congregation in prayer all by myself. Maybe this is exactly where I was always meant to be.

 

Photo: taken the day before my bat mitzvah. With my maternal grandparents, the rabbi, and the cantor.