Taking Turns Holding Hope: Shlach 5783

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This week’s parsha, Shlach, holds the story of the scouts. God tells Moses to send scouts to explore the land of promise, one from each tribe. Twelve are chosen. When they reach the land, they find grapes so big that they require two men and a carrying-frame. Upon returning, ten of the scouts say: there are giants there. We felt like grasshoppers. We can’t do this.. 

Joshua and Caleb argue otherwise. They plead, “don’t be afraid!” (Num. 14:9) But the ten who’ve lost faith carry the day. And their loss of faith is contagious. “If only we had died in Egypt!” the people shout. “Or if only we might die in this wilderness!” The children of Israel don’t have hope that anything will ever become better than they’ve known it to be so far. 

And God says, “fine, you know what: if you don’t trust in Me even after everything you’ve just seen, the Exodus, the signs and wonders, you can stay here in the desert for forty more years. When this generation is gone, then I’ll lead the children of Israel into the land of promise. But you are clearly too scarred by the traumas you’ve endured. You don’t get to make it there.”

This year I’m feeling empathy for the minyan of ten who didn’t think they could do it, the ones who said, “I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. This is too big. I’ve spent my whole life slaving to meet Pharaoh’s demands, or to try to feed my family in traumatic circumstances. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart for the struggle.”

I suspect we’ve all felt that way. I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart. Loss can put us in that place. Or depression. Or grief, or overwhelm, or illness, or disappointment – you don’t need me to count the ways. The scouts get a bad rap for losing faith, but I suspect we can all relate to them.

There’s nothing wrong with fear or doubt. “Spirituality” that pretends we never have those feelings is at best incomplete. I don’t think any life is entirely devoid of those – not if we’re paying attention and being real. The place where the scouts got themselves into trouble, I think, was giving in to despair. As Reb Nachman of Breslov teaches, “it is forbidden to despair.” 

It’s forbidden because despair means giving up on God’s capacity to lift us out of life’s narrow places. If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: despair is giving up on the possibility of change, the possibility of hope, the possibility of anything ever being better than this. It’s noteworthy that Reb Nachman was depressive. Was he giving the advice he himself most needed to hear? 

Enter Caleb and Joshua: the scouts who say, “wait, we can do this.” Sometimes we need to hear that the future can be more than whatever limitations are currently constraining our hearts. When we’re in the narrow place of not being able to see a way out, we need someone to remind us that change is possible and that the future can be sweeter than we can currently see.

These roles – the person who despairs; the person who offers hope for better – aren’t innate. We take turns. Sometimes I'm the one with the reminder that life can be better than we fear, and sometimes I’m the one who needs to be reminded. All of us are the weary souls too demoralized to imagine better, and all of us are the dreamers who can see a better world.

When we despair we need someone to walk with us, to feel with us, and to remind us that when we feel most stuck, change can be waiting in the wings – even (or especially) if we can’t see it. I think about how Isaac might have felt during the akedah: bound, immobile, his father’s knife raised over him – not yet knowing there was a ram waiting just outside the frame.

To be clear: the loved one who is ill may not be cured. The grief that comes with loss can’t be short-circuited. Sometimes what’s broken can’t be repaired. But change is always possible, even if that change is “only” internal. Honestly, internal change can be… everything. Maybe not what is, but how we feel about what is. How we experience what is, and how we respond.

The scouts represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Our mystics associate the tribes with different qualities, weaknesses, and strengths. The cleric, the judge, the scholar, the sufferer: each tribe is linked with a different archetype or journey. In today’s world, I don’t think these energies define us. I suspect we each resonate with different core qualities at different times. 

The tribe of Judah, Caleb’s ancestor, is associated with leadership and with gratitude (hoda’ah). And Joshua descends from Ephraim, who is associated with transformation and with thriving even in tight places. These same qualities can fuel us when we accompany each other into tough times, and when we hold on to hope for those who can’t feel it right now themselves. 

I’ve come to see God’s threat of a lifetime in the wilderness not as prescriptive but as descriptive. It’s not that our lack of faith is punished by a lifetime of suffering. Rather: when we’re mired in despair, that’s what our lived experience becomes. Our work is to transform the prospect of a lifetime of wilderness wandering into a sacred journey of becoming. 

And we can’t do that alone. We all have moments of feeling like grasshoppers faced with giants; we need each other. When we’re in this together the fact of the wilderness is the same, but the internal dynamics and lived experience can be different. And when we hold hope for each other, we keep open the door to possibility, and the promise of blessing, and change. 


This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

At the bottom of the well (Vayeshev 5783 / 2022)

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Vayeshev is an amazing Torah portion. Joseph and his brothers, dreams, jealousy, the descent into Egypt and rise into Pharaoh's service, plus the story of Judah and Tamar! And yet when I first turned to the wellspring of Torah to see what calls to me this year, my dipper came up empty. I felt like I had nothing new to say. I felt tapped-out: a well that’s run dry.

I said to a few people: wow, I'm kinda tapped-out this week. Help me out here: if you were going to shul this week, what would you want your rabbi to talk about? And a surprising number of people said: talk about exactly that. A lot of us are feeling empty, tapped-out, struggling. We're heading into our third Covid winter, and to a lot of people it feels like we've given up.

There's cognitive dissonance between, "We just have to live with it," and yet anyone who's had Covid has "increased risk of stroke, blood clots, heart failure and heart attacks." (Source: Johns Hopkins.) Meanwhile there’s a tridemic. And medicine shortages. And the drumbeat of the next presidential election. And let's not forget the climate crisis or global geopolitics.

That's a lot. It's really, truly a lot. And there's also all the ordinary stuff that can make life difficult sometimes: injustice, illness, mortality. If your well feels empty, you are not alone. So what do we do with that? I read the parsha again, and this time I noticed when Joseph's brothers "took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it." (Gen. 37:24)

What does that evoke for you? I get a flurry of images: I’m at the bottom of a stone tower set deep into the earth. The light of the sky is far away. I can’t climb out. Rashi says there are scorpions. Torah doesn’t tell us anything about Joseph’s internal state at the bottom of the pit. But we do know something about the experience he has later, when he’s thrown in prison.

When Joseph is imprisoned, Torah tells us, God is “with Joseph.” (Gen. 39:20-21) We don’t know what changed in him or how it changed, but it seems that now he can feel God’s presence. And while in prison he interprets dreams for his fellow prisoners. He helps the people around him. That's one of our tools for tough times: helping others however we can.

When I’ve felt depressed, it’s hard to believe there’s a way out. But when someone I love is at the bottom of that well, I assure them that life won't always be this, and I mean it. I can reach emunah, trust or faith, for others when I can't feel it for me. And I think that’s part of the human condition. As Talmud teaches, "A prisoner cannot free themself from prison." 

My friend and hevruta Rabbi David points out that Torah uses the term בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר / beit ha-sohar, while Gemara says בֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים / beit ha-asurim. Sohar means round, like a round dungeon. Ramban says it implies a place of very little light. In other words, Joseph’s symbolically back in the empty well where he began, but now he feels God with him.

Talmud’s term asur means forbidden, prohibited, no way, no you can’t. Beit ha-asurim is the House of Can’t. It’s that helpless, maybe despairing, sense of being stuck. The Gemara is clear that we can’t free ourselves from the House of Can’t. Someone – or some One – has to free us. And maybe it’s both at once: God deploys us to help each other break free.

As for Joseph, so for us – even if we can’t feel God’s presence. (And as always I mean whatever “the G-word” evokes for us: justice or love, integrity or hope.) Our job is to help each other trust that, in Torah’s language, God is with us even here. That holiness and justice and hope are with us, even if we can’t feel them. That our cup won’t always feel empty.

If you're not feeling stuck or disheartened or at the bottom of the well, you have an opportunity to reach out to someone who is. And if you are at the bottom of that well, trust me when I promise you that life won't always be this. We can hold on to that for you until you can feel it again.

We can’t free ourselves from the House of Can’t. It’s right there in the name. But we can be liberators for each other, and I’d argue that we have to be. Even (or especially) now, approaching the year’s darkest day, here at the bottom of December’s dry well. 


This is the d'varling that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783

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Last month, the Academy of American Poets shared a Poem of the Day by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza called “The Sunset and the Purple-Flowered Tree.” Here’s how it begins:

I talk to a screen who assures me everything is fine.
I am not broken. I am not depressed. I am simply
in touch with the material conditions of my life. It is
the end of the world, and it’s fine...

The poem reminded me of so many of our conversations over the last year. We are not broken. We are simply in touch with the material conditions of our lives.

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Long Covid continues to mystify doctors. Apparently polio is back.  Election denial corrodes our civic life. There are heartbreaking stories out of states where reproductive health care is now banned. And don’t forget school shootings, 29 of them so far this year. And Putin trying to take over Ukraine. And this year has brought a rise in laws designed to abridge the rights of LGBTQIA+ folks, and antisemitism, too.

And then there’s the climate crisis. Floods like the one in Kentucky – or in Pakistan, or in Chad. Wildfires (when I wrote this, there were 624 wildfires burning in eighteen states, plus many more around the world.) Extreme heat melting airport runways

As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz sometimes says, “the world is super broken.” I know that many of us are struggling. Some are languishing, living with “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.” (per Adam Grant in the New York Times.) And for some of us, languishing can slip into hopelessness.

Our liturgy proclaims: hayom harat olam: today the world is born!

Okay, but how do we celebrate the world’s birthday when things feel so hard?

This is not the first time the Jewish community has lived through collective crisis.  The question I’ve been asking is: what spiritual tools did our forebears use to get through hard times? What did Judaism’s toolbox offer them, and what can it offer us?

Continue reading "Tools for Tough Times: Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5783" »

A fog, a weight, a program running in the background

"I don't know why everything is so hard," you say to me. Everyone's hitting the wall, I point out. We're reaching one year of global pandemic. Even if we're okay, it's okay with an asterisk. Okay within global pandemic parameters. Not the same.

You protest: "but I'm fine. I'm not sick. My family isn't sick. I don't know why I'm struggling so much. I'm healthy, I have a job, I have electricity and internet, I'm as lucky as anyone can be. And yet life still feels like slogging through cold molasses."

I can't tell you how many people have said those things to me. (So if you're reading this and thinking, "Is she blogging about our conversation?" the answer is, I've had this conversation lately more times than I can count.) Almost everyone is struggling.

As longtime readers know, I've lived with grief (the end of my marriage, mourning my mother's death) and I've lived with depression. As we reach the end of the first year of COVID-19, I think a global pandemic is a little bit like both of those. 

The pandemic is a fog: we can't see the future clearly, or plan, or dream, or anticipate. The pandemic is a weight pressing us down, always there. It's a program running in the background, draining resources and slowing processor speed. 


Half a million people have died in our nation alone. Five hundred thousand human beings. Remember the horror of learning that 100,000 had died? Now it's 5x that. And then there's "long covid" -- people who survive, but don't get well. 

New and deadlier variants are sprouting. Asymptomatic spread means we never know whether we are carrying a deadly pathogen that might kill the next person we breathe near. That's background noise in our hearts and minds, now, always.

Last spring most of us believed that if we sheltered in place for a few weeks, we could stop the spread and that would be the end of it. And then two weeks of staying apart turned into two months turned into a year and we're still nowhere near done.

Sure, we've grown accustomed to wearing masks, social distancing, not embracing, not shaking hands, not being indoors with other human beings who aren't in our quarantine pods. But it's still impacting us in countless subconscious ways.

Purim is in a few days. Last year, Purim was the last holiday we celebrated with others before lockdown began. Traumaversaries are real. And it's February, which doesn't help anything, at least here where I am. So if you're not okay? You're not alone.


There is light at the end of the tunnel. We've made it through the darkest part of the winter. Warmth will come. The ability to see each other outdoors will come, and that will relieve some of our isolation, and some of the feelings of being stuck in place.

Vaccines will come. The rollout has been slower than we might have hoped, and we all know people who are trying to get appointments only to learn that supply has run out again. But vaccines exist, and they work, and they will reach everyone.

We will make it to the other side of this sea. For now, what I can offer is this: it's okay to feel the way you feel. (I mean. It's not okay. It's miserable. But it's normal and human and you are truly not alone in it, even if you feel isolated in every way.)

Be gentle with yourself, and with each other. If you can, seek out little ways to be kind to yourself. For me that means hand lotion as a treat for winter-dry skin, coffee, a bouquet of bright flowers, cooking good food. You'll know how best to take care of you.

Be gentle with yourself. If you're finding that it takes longer to get tasks done, or if you can't get them done at all. If you're forgetting things, or struggling. If you feel hopeless or low. Be gentle with yourself. I promise, life will not always be this.

The tiniest spark of joy


We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it's easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it's still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart.

On both of these holy days, there's a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate (according to Talmud in tractate Yoma), just so on Purim. Even if a person isn't feeling joyful the way one's supposed to, and therefore one's service of God doesn't feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow -- and that potential is open to us even now.

-- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh aka R' Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Purim 1940


Last year, Purim happened a scant few weeks after my mother's death. I was shellshocked. I was in a fog. I scarcely remember the holiday at all. But I remember taking comfort in a text that R' David Markus taught me over the phone. The text said that Purim itself would do its work in me and on me, as Yom Kippur does, and that even if I couldn't access real joy, there would still be a flow from on high that would come through me to those whom I serve.

This year I sat down twice to study this short text from the Aish Kodesh, once with my Bayit hevre, and once with my other hevruta R' Megan Doherty. And only today, on Purim itself, did I realize why this text resonates with me so deeply and why it feels so familiar: this is the teaching R' David shared with me last year when I was in the pit of grief. And, in fact, it turns out this is a teaching I had shared with him a few years prior and had forgotten!

What jumps out at me in this text this year is the idea that we are obligated to welcome into our hearts whatever tiny spark of joy we can find. This isn't spiritual bypassing. This isn't "put on a happy face." This is the spiritual practice of opening our hearts even in difficult circumstances, so that some measure of blessing can flow in. The Aish Kodesh was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto; he knew something about difficult circumstances.


God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
How much more can we be joyful
When there's really something
To be joyful for?

-- To Life, To Life, L'Chayim / Fiddler on the Roof


I thought of this teaching a few days ago when I was blessed to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. "God would like us to be joyful / even when our hearts lie panting on the floor" -- Tevye might have been citing the Piazeczyner! Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor, Purim invites us to open our broken hearts to a spark of joy. Even when our circumstances (individual or collective) are dark, our tradition invites us to open to joy.

And when there is within reach "something to be joyful for," in Fiddler's words -- maybe a birth, or a wedding, a friendship, a sign of hope, a Shabbes -- we've got to seize that joy with both hands. Because joy is part of what fuels us. Because without joy, we can't go on. And the world needs us to go on, because there's a lot of work we need to do to bring justice and hope and ethics and opportunity and peace to everyone everywhere, and that's what we're here for.

So if today we're in the narrow straits of a personal grief, a loss or an illness or a sorrow... or if we're in the narrow straits of communal anxiety about the election, or the economy, or the pandemic that is sweeping the globe... we shouldn't kick ourselves for not being able to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing. Instead, let's open our hearts the tiniest crack, and let the tiniest spark of joy and hope come in -- and trust that the day itself will do the rest. 


The Slonimer on serving, even from within the cloud

The mishkan (the dwelling place for God) wasn't just an external thing our ancestors built in the wilderness way back when. It's also something we're each called to build and maintain in our own hearts. And just as the mishkan was covered with cloud by day and fire by night, our hearts have times of feeling covered with cloud, and times of burning bright. When the cloud lifted, we journeyed, and when the cloud rested, we stayed put. (Numbers 9: 17-19) As for our spiritual ancestors then, so too for us now.

Every life contains times of darkness, times of feeling tested. Authentic spiritual life asks us to serve from that place -- to do our spiritual work from the place where we are, even when that place is darkness or fog. (And when we're in the fog, it's our job to stay where we are -- to be where we are -- not to try to race on to the next thing, but to give ourselves permission to stand still and be with what's happening.) And when the cloud lifts and we can ascend, then moving on and ascending becomes our work.

The thing I really love here is: God is also there in the cloud with us -- heck, God speaks from within the cloud, Torah says so! Life's dark times might feel devoid of God's presence, but they're not. God is there with us in the dark times, and in those dark times, we have work to do even from that fogged-in place. Wherever life's journey takes us, it's from that place (not some other place; not the place where we imagine we "ought" to be; but the place where we actually are) that we are called to serve in love.


With thanks to Rabbi Megan Doherty for studying the Slonimer with me. (This teaching is an encapsulation of the teaching titled על פי ה׳ יחנו ועל פי ה׳ יסעו, on pages מז–מח of Sefer Netivot Shalom.)

For those who are struggling this thanksgiving


In the United States today is Thanksgiving, a day for cultivating gratitude and giving thanks. I'm a big fan of both of those things. And I also know that there are times when I haven't been able to access gratitude -- and that feeling cut-off from gratitude can be especially painful on special days like holidays. If you are in that place, or if you think you know someone who might be, don't miss this post from Rabbi David Evan Markus at the Rabbis Without Borders blog at My Jewish Learning. He begins:

Happy Thanksgiving.

Now, let’s get real: some don’t feel thankful today. We might feel like the turkeys got us down. We might feel burdened by hosting, harried by travel, lonely for having nowhere to go, bothered for having to go somewhere we don’t want to go, or pre-triggered by a secular holiday season happier in advertising than anticipation or reality. It’s well to act grateful even if we don’t feel it (a practice worth trying), or imagine Plymouth Rock as the House of God (my post last Thanksgiving), but what if we (or people we love) don’t feel “thanks” on Thanksgiving?

Turns out, we have a turkey for that, too.

Rabbi David tells the parable of the Turkey Prince, which comes to us from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and offers some deep wisdom for those who are struggling today and those who love someone who is struggling today. Worth reading -- today and every day: It's Thanksgiving, But What If One Doesn't Feel Thankful?

Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"

GoT-220x300Have you ever felt that a book's arrival in your life was a perfectly-timed gift? That's how I felt when I received my copy of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, new this month from Ben Yehuda Press. As I delved into the book, that sense deepened.

This book was not easy for me to read, but I am grateful for its presence on my bookshelves, and I know that I will read it again.

"Joy and sadness are not opposites. Sometimes, they coexist, like two consonant notes of a complex yet harmonious chord," Jay writes. Most of us would probably prefer joy, and probably try to avoid sadness. Sadness isn't something we want to focus on. That's part of the backdrop against which the book is written:

At our contemporary moment, the ordinary sadness that is part of a life richly lived is often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the surrender to sadness that causes it to pass -- not the suppression of it.

I know that I have shamed myself for my sadness. I so value gratitude that when sadness arises I can feel like I'm failing. Sometimes my mental monologue has demanded, what's wrong with me that even with all of these gifts in my life I still feel sad? But I've come to see that being aware of sadness is not a sign that something is wrong with me -- rather that something is right.

I try to cultivate gratitude: first thing in the morning, last thing before sleep, and a million moments in between. And that doesn't cancel out the fact that learning to sit with sadness can help me connect with God. As Jay writes, "The art of being with sadness, and other unwanted houseguests of the mind, brings about an intimacy with what is -- what the mystics call the One, the Divine, the Beloved."

The book is clear that there's a difference between sadness and depression:

[A]s someone who has experienced depression at times in my life, I feel qualified to say that sadness is not the same thing. Depression is a medical condition, a function of brain chemistry. It can be crippling, devastating, bleak. It makes it hard to live one's life. Subjectively, I experienced it as a dullness, a kind of lessening, or graying, of all emotion. Sadness, on the other hand, is part of being human. So is loss, pain, and loneliness. These are not veils in the way of feeling; they are feeling.

A thousand times yes. Longtime readers know that I experienced postpartum depression in the months after our son was born. I have experienced depression in other ways at other moments in my life. Sadness and depression are not the same, at all. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-livable. Sadness is not like that.

Sadness hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But sadness passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes I can feel that joy even while the sadness is present. That's the experience at the heart of this book, for me.

Or, in Jay's words, "When the desire to banish sadness is released, sadness cohabitates with joy, and gives birth to holiness. More moments merit being named as Divine. After surrendering the fight to stay afloat, I drown, but find I can breathe underwater." There can be release in letting go.

Continue reading "Jay Michaelson's "The Gate of Tears"" »

When sadness and joy co-exist - at The Wisdom Daily


My latest short piece for The Wisdom Daily is excerpted from a longer post I'm writing about Jay Michaelson's new book The Gate of Tears, which just came out this month from Ben Yehuda Press. Here's a taste:

Sadness can feel like something shameful, especially for people (like me) who make a practice of practicing gratitude. But sadness is a necessary part of the emotional landscape.

It's worth noting: Sadness is not the same as depression. The book distinguishes between the two, and so do I. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-liveable. Sadness is different.

Feeling sad hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But the emotion passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes, on rare occasions, I can feel that joy even while sadness is present. For me, that's the experience at the heart of The Gate of Tears.

Read the whole thing here: When Sadness and Joy Co-Exist. (And stay tuned for my longer piece in response to the book -- coming soon.)

Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah

Sukkot is called זמן שמחתנו, zman simchateinu, which means "season of our rejoicing." But what does one do if one isn't able to rejoice at this season? If sorrow, or grief, are getting in the way of the ability to rejoice? What then? My answer is this: we bring whatever we are feeling, in its fullness, into the sukkah with us. Even if it isn't joy. Spiritual practice asks us to be present to what is, whatever it is.

There are five megillot (scrolls) in Jewish tradition which are associated with particular festivals. At Purim we read Esther. At Pesach, we read Song of Songs. At Shavuot, we read Ruth. At Tisha b'Av, we read Lamentations. And at Sukkot, we read Kohelet (in English, it's called Ecclesiastes.) Think "A time to be born, and a time to die..." In every life, there is a time for gladness, and a time for sorrow.

When I am wrestling with sorrow, there is comfort for me in the knowledge that everything comes and goes. "This too shall pass" -- even the deepest of grief. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל -- often rendered as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- can also be translated "Breath, breathing; everything is fleeting as a breath." Even our sorrows are not forever -- though they may feel that way when we are in them.

Sukkot is a festival of impermanence. For a week we do our best to dwell in our little harvest houses which must have roofs through which one can see the stars. We remind ourselves that the structures we build in our lives are not forever. The challenge is finding joy not despite the temporariness, but in it. Not despite life's sorrows, but even as we allow ourselves to wholly feel those sorrows.

Enter Rabbi Jay Michaelson's essay Entering the Gate of Sadness, published in Zeek in 2007. (Speaking of which, I'm looking really forward to reading his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, coming in a few days from Ben Yehuda Press.) Jay writes:

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.

For me the critical words there are "Not by denying its painfulness[.]" There is always a temptation to respond to sadness by shutting it down, or papering it over, or pretending it's not there. Maybe especially at times of year when we feel we're "supposed" to be happy -- at anniversaries or birthdays, at holidays. But spiritual practice calls us to resist the temptation to put a bandaid on what hurts.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is  לישב בסוכה / leishev ba-sukkah, to dwell -- literally, "to sit" -- in the sukkah. If your heart is breaking, then bring that into the sukkah and sit with it as best you can. Sitting in the sukkah can be a kind of embodied meditation, an opportunity to feel what comes and what goes. Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals, but if you can't, that's okay. God is with you, wherever you are.

Maybe singing the praise-psalms of Hallel will "help," in the sense of lightening your heart, and maybe not. (You might find more resonance in מן המצר קראתי יה / min ha-meitzar karati Yah -- "From the narrow straits I called to You!" -- than in the more overtly joyful verses.) Either way, bring what is with you into the sukkah. Let yourself feel whatever you feel. And remember that this, too, shall pass.


Related: Joy, 2009.


Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, "Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat." (She didn't say "tush," but the word she used isn't exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn't, or isn't only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn't there yet.

Over the years I've learned a variety of techniques for times when I don't "feel like" writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time -- "thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else." I can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I'm committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can't wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I'm on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It's remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the "real world," where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There's a reason we call them "practices" -- because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn't necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn't necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it's arguably better if you don't.

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Maintaining hope in the face of depression

Depression-loss_of_loved_oneSomeone asked me recently how to maintain hope when depression is dogging one's heels.

The first thing I want to say is: no matter how isolating depression feels, you are not alone. Others have been where you are. We recognize the terrain and we recognize the tricks that depression plays on you -- the ways it makes you feel existentially solitary, disconnected, broken. We recognize, too, the way that depression tries to preserve itself. How it murmurs into your ear that nothing will ever be different -- that this is what life is and you will never feel any other way. It is lying to you.

There is help, and I urge you to take it. If you are in therapy, call your therapist. (If you're not in therapy and want a referral, ask someone local to you -- your rabbi or someone you trust.) If you are in spiritual direction, call your spiritual director. (If you're not in spiritual direction but want to explore that possibility, here's one way of finding a spiritual director; you might also reach out to one of my teachers for a referral.) Consider antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication; know that there is no "weakness" in not being able to bootstrap yourself out of depression.

Extend kindness to yourself in whatever ways you can. Try to eat well. Try to get enough sleep. For me, a hot shower and a cup of good tea are always restorative. (So is good hand lotion. I know, it sounds silly, but it really does help.) Walking outside in the fresh air sometimes helps too. Take advantage of whatever small things you can do to make yourself feel better, even if the feeling-better is only temporary. Lather, rinse, repeat. Our sages famously listed things which "have no limit" -- and though self-care isn't on their classical list, it's definitely on mine.

Recognize that depression may at times be disabling, and give yourself ample credit for any goal you set which you are able to achieve. Sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning may feel like you're trying to climb Everest from inside an iron lung. And -- this seems extra-unfair -- bear in mind that sometimes depression brings with it a kind of emotional paralysis which makes asking for help almost impossible. The depression may whisper to you that no one wants to hear from you when you're "like this" or that there's no point in seeking help. Let me say again: it is lying to you.

I heard Rabbi Jeff Roth teach years ago that if one reaches the hour for reciting the modah ani prayer for gratitude in the morning, but finds oneself unable to access the gratitude with which one wishes to invest the prayer, one can say the prayer with the intention of someday being able to feel gratitude again. I know that there are days when gratitude feels impossible to reach. I know that there are days when it feels implausible to even hope for better. On those days, know that people who love you are willing and able to hold on to that hope for you even if you can't reach it yourself.

You who are struggling with this right now: I am holding you in my prayers. If you can't believe that you will ever feel better, don't beat yourself up for that. That's not a failing on your part: it's something the depression has stripped from you. But I believe that this isn't all there is, and I believe that you will reach a better place again. If you can't believe that right now, it's okay -- I'll hold on to that belief for you until you're able to hold it for yourself again. You are loved by an unending love: not only when you are healthy, but also when you are sick; not only when you are optimistic, but also when you feel the way you feel now.

May you find comfort, speedily and soon.


Image source: wikimedia commons.


Deep Waters: a d'var Torah for parashat Noach

This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday during Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Deep Waters

"Postpartum depression caused the Flood..."

That's the first line of the first poem in 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011). It comes out of last week's Torah portion, Bereshit -- which begins with the creation of heavens and earth, and ends with God recognizing that humanity has become wicked, and vowing to wash us off the face of the earth. In this week's Torah portion, Noach, we encounter the flood itself.

Many of you have heard me speak about the "four worlds:" action, emotion, thought, and spirit. In Jewish Renewal we frequently use this idea as a lens for understanding our lives. Sometimes, as in our Tu BiShvat seder, we map each of the four worlds to one of the four seasons, or to one of the four elements. The world of yetzirah, emotion, is represented by water.

Jung wrote that water is a symbol for the unconscious. In Tarot, water represents emotion and intuition. Think of the language we use to speak about strong emotion: emotion poured through me, my heart overflowed with feelings, emotion welled up in me. And, when it gets to be too much: I was afraid my emotions would wash me away. I was flooded with emotion.

The first lines of Torah teach that before creation, God's spirit hovered over the face of the waters -- maybe the waters of the unconscious, the waters of chaos, the waters of what-existed-before. Then God divided between the waters above and the waters below. Our ancestors believed that primordial waters flowed below the earth, and above the heavens; that everything we know and experience is surrounded by cosmic waters which we cannot see.

Before each of us is born, we inhabit a space of living waters -- a mother's womb. Waters above, waters below, waters sustaining us. When we are born, most of our bodies consist of water. Waters run through us and sustain us. Maybe that's one of the deep truths reflected in Torah's metaphors.

And in this week's portion, God stops holding the waters back. The waters become too much. There is an excess of water. And everything that isn't held safely in that little wooden boat is washed away.

For those who struggle with depression, there is often fear of emotional flood. "If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away." Or: "If I let myself really feel the depth of my sorrow, I will wash away everyone I love."

We need to trust that we, and our loved ones, can weather our storms. Like Noah, who builds a floating home which can survive even the greatest deluge.

Many years ago at a Shabbat service at the old Elat Chayyim, Rabbi Jeff Roth recounted the following parable. Two waves are hanging out together in the sea, a big wave and a little wave. And the big wave is anxious and scared. The little wave says, "Why are you so afraid?" And the big wave says, "If you could see what I see, you'd be afraid too. Up ahead of us there are some cliffs, and I can see where we're going -- every wave in front of us goes up to those cliffs, and smashes into them, and disappears."

And the little wave smiles and says, "If you could see what I see, you wouldn't be afraid." And the big wave asks, what's that? And the little wave says, "We're not waves -- we're water."

We're not waves: we're water. The essence of who we are is greater than our stormy weather, greater than the rising and falling of any wave or any tide or any life. We aren't just our crests and troughs, our highs and lows. Even when an individual wave shatters on the shore, its water nature remains. Even when an individual life feels shattered -- or comes to its end -- what is eternal in us still flows.



When the floodgates open
build a boat with many spaces

here in these cubbyholes
stash your scales and feathers

pack provisions for the forty days
required for transformation

push off from the dock and set sail
for wherever the current carries you

don't be surprised if you wobble
back across the gangplank

when you raise the partitions
you'll run like new watercolor

offer yourself on the altar of stone
beneath the varicolored sky

(from 70 faces)

Essay and postpartum poems at Postpartum Progress

When I look back now, I can’t believe it took me so long to recognize the postpartum depression for what it was. Sure, I felt hopeless and overwhelmed and I cried a lot, but I was a new mother, sleeping in 45-minute increments; surely that was how every mother of a newborn felt? My old life was over and would never come back; I just needed to accept that, or possibly to grieve it for a while. But the grieving didn’t end, and the acceptance didn’t come.

Before our son was born, I had been a poet and rabbinic student. I struggled, once he was born, to figure out how to hold on to those identities. When he was two months old I would enroll in one single rabbinic school class. But before that, I wrote poems. Not very many of them, but I wrote them. This sounds melodramatic now, but when I was writing them I felt as though I was saving my own life....


PPPlogoMy thanks are due to Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress not only for her amazing blog and resource site, but also for publishing my guest post Unfold: Poems of Postpartum Depression, excerpted above.

My guest post at Postpartum Progress includes short excerpts from some of the poems in Waiting to Unfold, my second book-length collection of poems, published this year by Phoenicia Publishing and available both from Phoenicia and from Amazon.

If you don't already have a copy, I hope you'll consider buying one -- for yourself, for a new mother in your life, or for anyone you know who has struggled with depression and might find hope in this chronicle of motherhood and charting a new path through.

Daily April poem: same word


-- and some days are grey from the start
of the too-early dawn, and when I hear
footfalls on the stairs I can't bear
to open my eyes. The sky is striated,
sadness and overwhelm in alternating bands.
And tomorrow will be the same, and --




This poem came out of the NaPoWriMo prompt which invited us to use the same word at the beginning and the end of a poem. Beginning and ending the same way put me in mind of depression, which can take the form of feeling as though nothing will ever change and the clouds will never lift.


Dear you, who are feeling sad and afraid --

You know those days when the light seems all wrong, when your skin feels too tight, when anxiety or sorrow clutch at your heels? A sense of heaviness, as though your heart were made of lead. Tears banging at the back of the throat.

Oh, those days are so hard. It's almost funny, how completely your perspective can switch. Suddenly things which seemed manageable, even laughable, when you were feeling okay become more than you can possibly bear.

I could publish this post today, or next week, or a year from now, and someone reading it will be nodding along, thinking: she's talking about me. That's where I am. That's how I am. I don't know whether it will ever get better.

A wise friend told me, earlier this week, that her grandmother used to say that the painful things will always pass. I like that way of seeing the world. Yes: the hurt will pass, and things will get better. Though sometimes it's hard to trust that that's true.

Here's what I want to say, if you're feeling scared, or trapped, or overwhelmed. If, in Mary Oliver's words, "your spirit / carries within it // the thorn / that is heavier than lead -- / if it's all you can do / to keep on trudging --"

I am thinking of you. I'm holding you in my heart and in my prayers. Keep breathing. Be kind to yourself, in whatever ways you can. Indulge your body with a hot bath or a pot of good tea. Indulge your heart; let it feel whatever it needs to feel.

You're going to be okay. You won't always feel this way. We're all adrift on this vast ocean, and when the storms of depression kick up, the waves feel dangerous and endless -- but they will end. The waters will become smooth as glass again.

And when they do, you'll see all the rest of us in our little boats, waving. We'll paddle alongside each other, and lash our crafts together, and share meals and music, and travel together toward our collective destination. You are not alone.

The black dog; the shadow; the fog


Vincent van Gogh's 1890 painting "Old Man with his Head in his Hands (At Eternity's Gate.)"

When I think about depression, and about the writers I've encountered who are able to write about it in a meaningful way, I always think of the poet Jane Kenyon, may her memory be a blessing. Her poem Having it Out with Melancholy is extraordinary. I have read it countless times over the years, and every time I read it, it teaches me something new about depression and about being a human being who suffers. (I also love her poem Back, which is about healing from depression. Both of these poems can be found in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, published by Greywolf.)

Depression comes in many forms. Acute depression and chronic depression. Depression which is situational, and depression which is existential. I'm neither a therapist nor a psychologist; these gradations aren't my bailiwick. But as a pastoral caregiver, I think often about the people in my care who struggle with depression. I wonder when they most need to hear that I have been there, too -- and have, thank God, found my way back. I wonder when they most need to just speak their experience, without hearing about mine.

Often all I can do is listen. Listen, and say "I hear you." If they can't access hope that things will get better, I can hope it for them. If they can't find their way to prayer, I can pray on their behalf; can pray that they find their way back to being able to connect again with God, whatever they understand God to mean. I can be kind. I can urge them to try to be kind to themselves.

I can hold them in my thoughts and in my heart; I can hold them in prayer. Sometimes I don't believe that intercessory prayer makes a difference in any tangible way, and yet I can't imagine not doing it. My teachers taught me to pray for the people under my care, and that includes my congregants and friends and loved ones who live with the shadow of depression peering over their shoulder or stealing their breath. The black dog; the shadow; the fog.

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is said to have suffered from terrible depression. And yet he is often remembered for his powerful teachings about the importance of joy. (Many of these teachings are collected by Rabbi Debra Orenstein on her page Reb Nachman's "Rules" for Joy.) Some say that we teach best what we most need to learn; maybe he wrote so beautifully about joy because these were the teachings he needed to receive. "Depression," he wrote, "does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy."

Rabbi Debra also offers Reb Nachman's prayer:

God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. [We must] overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.

I wonder how I would have responded if I had read this prayer when I was struggling with postpartum depression. I suspect that the words wouldn't have penetrated the fog. My inadequacies felt insurmountable: there I was, a new mother, supposed to be enjoying the precious moments of my child's infancy, and instead I so often felt broken. I am grateful even now for the family members who convinced me to seek the help I needed.

But reading Reb Nachman's prayer now, I'm struck by his insistence that we must live with joy, not despite our sorrow -- not in a way that ignores our perceived inadequacies -- but because doing so is central to spiritual life. "Joy," he writes, "is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital." Maybe the most fervent prayer I can offer on behalf of those who struggle with depression is: may the clouds lift so that you can once again remember how to access joy.

No one "deserves" depression. The voice of depression often whispers, insidiously, that this is who one really is, this is what life really is, that anything which has seemed pleasurable or joyful was merely an illusion -- but it's not true. Depression does not mean that you are weak-willed or not trying hard enough. Depression is real and it is awful -- and there are ways to banish it. If one way doesn't work, there are others. Always.

For many of us, one of the challenges of depression is the fear that one's friends and loved ones don't want to hear about it. The little voice that whispers, "No one likes you when you're like this." I am here to say: that isn't true either. The people who love you may be worried about you; they may be frustrated with themselves for not being able to magically make you feel better; but that doesn't mean they don't want to hear.

We want to hear. Even if we can't fix it, we will sit with you in your suffering. We will not judge. We are here.




Another mother poem (for Read Write Prompt #115): Belief


The days will lengthen
the voice of the veery thrush
will be heard on our land

the tiny stars of crocuses
well-rested from the long dark
will adorn the icy mud of spring

the sap already rising
will feed a million tiny banners
unfurling across the hills

and this small blue pill
will banish anxiety, restore to me
the woman I only dimly remember

laughing in photographs
with her hand on her round belly
hope curled inside, waiting to unfold

This week's prompt at readwritepoem is #115: what do you believe? Back in 2005 I made a post called Credo, in which I articulated my own set of beliefs (though I carefully didn't look back at that post until I'd written this week's poem!) -- this time, I wound up taking a different tack on the question of what I believe. (For what it's worth, I still resonate with everything I put in that credo, though most of those statements are too general to feel like good poetry to me.)

If you're not familiar with the call of the veery thrush, take a look at (and listen to!) this 2008 post -- the veery's song is one of my favorites around here, though not at this time of year.

This is another in my continuing series of mother poems.

One in eight women suffer from postpartum depression (source: Postpartum.net.) Or maybe the figure is somewhere between 11 and 20 percent of women nationwide (source: the CDC, cited in this article.) One way or another, like miscarriage, it's more common than I realized. It's also a source of shame for many women, and it shouldn't be. If you are the mother of a new baby and have been unhappy for more than two weeks, please seek help.

As always, you can read others' responses to this RWP prompt at this week's Get Your Poem On post.