“I googled ‘Independent Rabbi’ but the internet didn’t know what that was. What does it mean?”
I was delighted to receive the above question from a Spiritual Direction client & to know that my self-proclaimed moniker was unknown in the Googlesphere. It came to me one morning as I was thinking about my website, and how to even describe the work that I do. The term “Freelance Rabbi,” didn’t feel right for me. As I went to don my favorite Powell’s Books t-shirt, I saw the phrase “Legendary & Independent” above a proud & strong Timberwolf. That’s it. That’s me. “Legendary” is not the goal - for some rabbis it is, but it is not mine. Independent sure is, though.
Independent means I do not lead a community. I do not coordinate events. I am not in charge of anyone’s schedule, except my own. I do not answer emails about things that do not directly involve me and my knowledge base. And most importantly, I am not a Toxic Handler, “a manager who voluntarily shoulders the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger that are endemic to organizational life.” (Harvard Business Review July-August 1999)
Being an Independent Rabbi means that I do: officiate weddings, tutor young people in becoming B-Mitzvah, work with conversion students, 1:1 Jewish learning & Spiritual Direction. Coaching is a new skill set that I’ve been working on for the past year, and it feels like the natural next step in my independent rabbinate. This way of working and serving humanity is much more akin to how I envision the shtetl rebbe spending their time: in deep thought and reflection with individuals and families around the impactful and joyous times & walking with them along the tricky and sticky path of being human.
It just struck me that today is a Jewish holiday.
There haven’t been any looming dates on my calendar this year, and while it’s freeing, it has also been hard. For the past 13 years the High Holy Days have been the season around which my entire year was shaped. Even during the early years of trying to get pregnant, I avoided certain months so as to not be birthing a new year and a new human at the same time.*
I’m both sad and not that the holidays have slipped by me this year. Rueful. That’s the word. This is not a year for me to attend synagogue, or to decorate the back portico and call it a sukkah. This is a year for me to take care of my soul and my previous practices don’t currently serve me in that way. I’m sad about that. And also not.
I thought a lot about what I should do for Yom Kippur, but ultimately waited until the very day and then asked myself, “what do you need right now?” Forests were my first sanctuaries; rivers and oceans my first holy sites, images of which emerged in a breadcrumb trail that led me to the Yom Kippur I needed to have.
This is not a humble brag, but an invitation to think beyond the shoulds, when it comes to marking the passage of time. Today is the final day of Sukkot, and tomorrow is Simhat Torah. Embrace the fall harvest & eat some squash! Sit in a moment of gratitude for the abundance that is yours! And tomorrow, if you can’t go dance with a Torah scroll, can you set aside time to learn something new about yourself? Listen to that podcast everyone has been telling you about? Inner work, too, is Torah.
If you forgot that today was a Jewish holiday, that’s ok. You’re not a bad Jew. Nod at the holidays, listen to what they’re trying to teach you, and invite those lessons into your brainspace & heartspace.
Chag Sameach - Splendid Holy Time,
* There is much to unpack here, but we’ll do that another time.
Av is a month of extremes. Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the month), the saddest day of the Hebrew calendar, revisits the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, while Tu B’Av (the 15th of the month) celebrates love & relationship & creation. It’s a time when the wild pace of summer begins to wear us down, when we start to look forward to the more routine pace of autumn.
To communicate with the Deep Self… we resort to symbols… and the actions of ritual that translate abstract concepts into the language of the unconscious. ~ Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
Summertime is wonderful, especially here in the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, but the lack of structure can leave some folks feeling a bit out of whack. By this time in the summer, the days are shorter, but the heat does not let up. Balance is not one of the priorities of this season, and while it is fun to shake up the routine from time to time, the abundance of unstructured time and general excesses that Summer tempts us with comes with its own challenges. We can feel unmoored, adrift, unsure of what to do with ourselves. Conversely, we can over-schedule, letting daily routines slide in favor of making the most of the summer months.
Yes, we all need a break from routine, to refresh & rejuvenate. The brain & body need rest; it’s an essential ingredient in physical health as well as mental, emotional and spiritual health. It's when we let the helpful structures of our lives go that we start to struggle. Shabbat is the perfect example of a healthy boundary around unstructured time*: 25 hours in which I only do the things I want to do, and nothing that I feel I should do (with the exception of keeping the fur baby & human child & myself alive, obviously). But it can’t be Shabbat every day.
The Hebrew calendar month of Av, which begins at this week’s new moon (July 28th & 29th), carries this energy of depletion while the moon grows, but once the moon is full, the energy shifts to gazing towards the future with hope. Because of these two dynamics at play, Av is a month in which rituals are particularly grounding and useful. Ritual is just routine + intention, and it’s not hard to find moments in your day that you can infuse with it: making coffee, washing your face & brushing your teeth, doing your Physical Therapy exercises, etc... All it takes is a dedication to be mindful as you go through those motions. Once you’ve noticed the ways in which your body moves as you go about these routine tasks, begin to slow it down; feel it in your body. Experience it with your senses. Breathe. You’ll likely feel different, changed a bit afterwards, which means ta-da! You did a ritual!
Ritual is the way we communicate with our Deep Self, our souls, our Neshama in Hebrew. Neshama, “the one who listens.”
Your soul is waiting for you to speak to it in the language that it knows and understands. Take some time this moon to infuse your unstructured time with some easy structure. Ritualize the things you already do, and introduce your soul to them, let your Neshama listen, and touch, and smell, and hear, and taste them. Show your Neshama what it is like to live in your body, so that the two can become more closely attuned. Infusing these long summer days with a bit of ritual might be just the thing for helping you to add some helpful structure to all of that unstructured time.
*for some, Shabbat is a time that is highly structured. What I describe here is my typical practice.
I disappeared from public view last November. It has been frightening to contemplate sharing where I went, why, and how I have made my way through. If you are reading this, it is because you know me; perhaps as your rabbi, perhaps as your colleague, perhaps as your friend. These relationships are sacred to me. But my most important relationship, to myself, was in jeopardy, and I had to stop everything in order to save myself. What follows is a journal entry, written two weeks into my mental health medical leave. I hope to share more of the past few months' journey here, but at the very least, there is this.
(Written on 12/18/2021)
Wintering… is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, side-lined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider… Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. (Katherine May, Wintering)
I do feel as though I have fallen between two worlds, but it has been a gradual descent. Falling in slow motion, holding onto a public semblance of functionality, of “normal,” and “ok.” The solitude of the pandemic brought so many truths to the surface, revealed so many ways in which I have been living a performance; all fallen away when there is no audience.
Days before the first Stay at Home orders came down, when “Coronavirus,” was only a word overheard in snippets of conversation, I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I could take another maternity leave.” Those few months, in the cozy nest of sleep deprivation and singular focus throughout the winter, were life-giving. All edifice fell away. No makeup. No worrying about what comments my day-to-day attire might draw. Only comfy clothes, minimal social interaction, privacy… I wanted that again and to a very large extent, with the arrival of Covid, that’s what I got.
Except we kept grinding.
Work was hard, but mostly rewarding, the safety of my own home a catalyst for my most thoughtful teaching and preaching. I spoke and wrote about the opportunities for personal growth that the pandemic brought; the chance to be still, to take stock and make course corrections. A sobering time, in which I learned how to be. By myself.
But then the pressures returned. “Back to normal,” became a premature assignment and I found myself digging my heels in, resisting. Daily, I felt the threat of the Delta variant to my 3 year old child - as well as a sense that to return to “normal” would be a devastating loss. We, as a society and as a staff, talked about how Covid had been an opportunity to re-evaluate, to re-consider how we function. All of that fell away as a manic need for a return to the way-things-were rose like an unstoppable tide.
After months of holding out hope for change, advocating for it to the benefit of all, I began to physically feel the futility of my efforts. I stopped trying to be the voice of change and fell back from the battlefield to fortify my boundaries, repeatedly speaking up for myself and repeatedly being rebuked for it. Each onslaught depleted my energy and infused me with shame and doubt and fear.
And so I let go, into freefall. Released the daily mask of Ok-ness. I fell deeply into my not-ok, the incessant noise in my head from the thoughts telling me I was wrong about my boundaries, the frantic calculating how to do what was being asked of me while also doing what was right for my family. My flavor of not-ok is generally a mix of depression and anxiety which lead to panic and despair. A full-blown panic attack on November 1st left me exhausted and afraid, hyperventilating on the kitchen floor (where I do all of my Big Feeling). Friends and colleagues told me to get help. So I did.
I needed stillness. Quiet. Inspired by Simone Biles, who removed herself from the 2021 Olympics when her mental health threatened her physical well-being, I turned to those I trusted and asked for help. Told my doctor and therapist about my not-ok-ness. They witnessed it, validated it, and stepped in to help. I stopped clinging to the vision of a changed world, a world that I could not will into existence, and let myself free fall into the unknown.
So here I am. Two weeks into medical leave. A time to heal, to pause, to learn how to feel safe again. To retreat and regroup and reemerge truer and more whole. Unwilling to let myself down in order to avoid letting others down. I am learning to listen to my body. To discern and honor its “no,” and its “yes.”
This will all take practice. It is utterly foreign to me.
My life depends on it.
I've forgotten how much I learn from my students when I teach. Tonight I joined eleven 15-year olds in our zoom boxes to explore the idea of responsibility from a Jewish lens. My goal in the lesson was to get the students to a place where they saw collective responsibility as a Jewish value. Maybe that happened, maybe not. What did happen, wound up being a lesson for me.
My YouTube yoga teacher, Adriene Mishler, often says "take a moment to let the nutrients of your practice sink in." It was while on the yoga mat tonight, moving my body, taking care of myself, that the nutrients of these teenagers thoughts about responsibility really sank in.
I began the lesson by asking them to write down a list of all of their responsibilities. As students shared their lists two distinct categories arose: responsibilities to self and responsibilities to others. When I think of responsibilities to the self I think of things like paying bills, flossing my teeth, taking out the trash. From these young folks, though, I kept hearing the term "self-care." While stretching my body on my yoga mat, and breathing deeply, it hit me just how far behind in understanding my responsibilities to myself I am. Growing up steeped in the ideologies of the Reform movement in the 90s, in a liberal town, meant that I learned, over and again, that I was responsible for the work of Tikkun Olam, in all its forms. Responsibility to the other, to right the wrongs of the world, to be relentless in the pursuit of peace. I do believe that, as a Jew and as a human, I do have a responsibility to pursue such wholeness, but you know what I didn't learn? Self-care.
In honor of my 40th birthday I booked a couple of nights at an AirBNB out of town. When a friend asked what I planned to do while I was there, I responded, "exist." I packed a lot of food. My yoga mat. A couple of books. Lots of sweatpants. I spent a full 48 hours returning to the basics of my self-care. The months leading up to my birthday had been stressful and had presented steep challenges to my mental health. All of my caring practices had fallen away as I became slave to defending myself against the pressures that had been consistently mounting since August. It had become easier to busy myself with endless chores, and then to numb myself with TV at the end of the day than to roll out my yoga mat. My retreat was a self-care reboot. I slept. Drank a lot of water. Cooked and ate nourishing meals. Stopped to snack when I felt hungry. Did yoga. Walked. Read. Meditated. Washed my face before bed. Flossed my teeth. Breathed a whole lot. I dialed everything back to the practices (and they do take practice) that actually nourish and sustain me. Reminding me how to care for myself. I had to leave my environment in order to reconnect with the practice of existing.
I'd like to say that the nutrients of that practice kept me in a zen-like bubble of self-care, but mere moments after I walked through my front door, anxiety began to creep right back in. The inner-voice that I had listened to for the past 48 hours, the one telling me to be good to myself, to be responsible for myself, my health and my energies was crowded out by frantic voices of chaos and pressure and stress. And so I paused. I breathed. I took my anti-anxiety medication. I drank some water. And I kept up with my daily practices of movement, nourishment, and breath. Chores still get done, for the most part, and the stack of adulting-related envelopes will still get opened. Those are also my responsibilities. But first and foremost, I rededicate myself to myself.
Tonight those teens told me that their responsibilities towards themselves do, in fact, result in the fulfillment of responsibilities towards others. It's not within my power to fix all of the broken systems around me, or even to stand up to the ones that I think are dangerous. It is within my power to love and care for the broken and dangerous places within me. By being responsible to my self-care, I make myself stronger for those who rely on me, and build myself back up to a place of being able to fulfill my responsibilities to myself and everyone else.
“Does your face light up when your children walk into the room?” Toni Morrison, in an interview with Oprah, said that she used to think that fussing over her children’s appearance was a way of showing care, but that was not what they were looking for. There is a habit in my family where a mother must pick a piece of string, or hair, or fuzz off their child’s outfit before going out into the world. My mother tells the story of my grandmother even retrieving a piece of string, putting it on my mom, and then removing it when there was nothing there to remove upon first inspection. I chalk this up to superstition, probably having to do with the Evil Eye: a deeply rooted, generational-trauma informed coping mechanism observed widely in the Jewish world, but Morrison’s quote makes me think there is more here to explore.
In our parsha this week, Vayera, we find Abraham seated at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day, recovering from his self-circumcision (eek). “The Eternal appeared before Abraham…Looking up he saw three men standing opposite him! He ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them.” (Genesis 18:1-2) It is hot. Abraham is old and in pain. But he sees God in the faces of the three men standing before him and rushes to greet them. The value of hachnasat orchim, Jewish hospitality is derived from these verses. We often think of hospitality as something we extend to those outside of our families but imagine what would happen if we turned that attention towards those we see on a regular basis.
My grandmother, and my mother (and probably generations of matriarchs before them) were in the habit of saying, “I see you,” by lovingly adjusting, removing, fussing. I, too, fall into this habit when I see my child: cuffing a pant leg, or adjusting a crooked collar. I fear that the implied message to this fussing is, “I see you, and I love you, but something about you needs fixing.” Morrison’s question reminds me of Abraham, nearly leaping off the page to greet his guests, eyes lighting up at their approach. When your children appear before you, do you fuss, or do you delight? Perhaps the one can transform into the other as we practice really seeing the children entrusted into our care, and delighting in their beautiful, sacred, messiness.
Lech L’cha, translated as, “go forth,” or “get going,” or, intriguingly, “go towards yourself.” This week’s parsha introduces us to Abram and his journey. No sooner do we meet him and his wife Sarai than God sends him away from his birthplace, to a land that will be revealed, but as we know from Joseph Campbell’s reading of The Hero’s Journey, the journey is what counts.
A midrash on the parsha (Tanchuma, Lech L’cha 3) compares Abram to a sealed container of perfumed oil, hidden in a cemetery – bottled up and kept in a place where there is no life. Once Abram set forth, though, that beautiful fragrance was taken up, spread around, and made familiar throughout the world.
My favorite poem in all of Mishkan T’fillah, “Becoming,” penned by a member of our community, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, is inspired by this week’s parsha (I quote it frequently):
Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha – Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving
But God loves becoming.
While our “radical leavings,” may only occur once or twice in a lifetime, we make the choice to get out and go forth in the world in our own way every single day. Whether we work from home, or outside of it, with people or on our own, each day requires a choice to go forth. For some of us, getting out of bed is a radical act of bravery. I love that the saga of our ancestors begins with this command for it is universal in its simplicity and urgency. We go outward, and we dial inward, and by doing both at the same time, commanded and encouraged by a compassionate God, we offer our beautiful, unique, singular fragrance to the world.
The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is here! Today is the 9th day, which means the moon is making its way from a sliver to a grin in the sky. I love this sweet month. It is a welcome respite from the High Holy day preparations of Elul, and the hustle and bustle of holiday after holiday in Tishrei. Because it has no holy days in it, the ancients referred to this month as MarCheshvan or Bitter Cheshvan. Just because there is no specific holy day in it does not mean that it is bitter – what a tragic worldview. The no-thing-ness of this month is its beauty. It’s a chance to slow down, to let the pace of the new year settle in, for regular old regularity to arrive, and with it, some peace of mind.
While things are far from being “back to normal,” (I just got home from what is becoming my monthly Covid test), I find the pull of the current that rushes in that direction to be nearly all-consuming. Most frightening to me, other than the threat of Covid, is the threat of losing the sacred relationship with time that has developed over the pandemic. Shabbat became a sweet relief, an anchor in time, something to look forward to in the undifferentiated days of working from home. I’ve written about the powerful ritual of baking challah, time for which is slipping away as the demands of the outside world pull at me. This Cheshvan, my intention is to slow down. To sit in no-thing-ness. Not to fill the time but to notice it, even when those hours at home with my 3-year-old stretch out like a marathon before me.
The holy days of the Hebrew calendar aren’t about celebrating special time, but reminding us that time, itself, is special. May this month be for you a MatokCheshvan, a Sweet Cheshvan, as we settle into mindful patterns, build protections around that which matters most, and make time to honor the passing of time.
Sukkot is here! Z’man Simchateinu, the season of our joy! We transition from the heavy themes of the High Holy Days right into this earth-based, gratitude-filled festival.
Maybe this isn’t the year you built a sukkah, or maybe you had your sukkah up and ready to go the day after Sukkot. If I’ve learned anything about these holy day rituals over the past two years, it is that the rituals tell a story, move us through meaning, but ultimately it is up to us to connect with the spirit of the holy days.
This Shabbat, take a nature walk. Connect with the world outside. Talk about how nature is changing, and looking different. Collect leaves. Collect rocks. Collect sticks. Celebrate the natural worls and our place within it.
Children are natural filters of wonder. See the world through your children’s eyes this Sukkot, and revel in the turning of the seasons and the gifts of bounty that the Fall Harvest festival brings.
Be well, sit in joy, and be grateful for this exact moment.