Shabbos Blessing- Week 28

Shabbat is very soon. It’s been a pretty tough week. Today was a tough day. I’m tired. I’m anxious. I’m trying not to be either. This year has been great in some respects, but it has also been traumatic, and that trauma emerges in different ways at different moments. I’m tired and I don’t really have anything to say. Maybe I will tomorrow.

This week’s blessing comes from a dear friend from college. I’m grateful to her for giving me a little something to hold to in tough moments. Tonight I’ll light my candles, eat something nourishing, and try to be ok. I wish the same for you.

I know that recent months have been tough and in some respects things will continue to be tough for a little while yet. I just want to let you know that you always have people out there who you can lean on and count on in tumultuous times. “The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.” — JRR Tolkien


Showing Fear the Door

One of the most incredible gifts RRC offers its students is “Spiritual Direction.” It’s a little difficult to describe. It’s therapy-like, in the sense that you meet one-on-one with a “spiritual director” (someone, often a rabbi, who went through a specific training program to be certified as a director), and the conversation is focused around your needs and experiences. The sessions can be more emotion-based or more steeped in Jewish text and practice. They can focus on pieces of religious and spiritual life (“I want to deepen my prayer practice”) or on non-explicitly religious and spiritual elements of life meeting spiritual existence (“I’m so busy with school/work/family that it’s hard for me to feel centered in anything God-like”). Some students choose to switch directors during their time in school, and others continue with the same person throughout their time at RRC (and sometimes even arrange to continue privately once they graduate). RRC covers 10 sessions a year for each student. I gobble them up.

I got really lucky my first year, in that the director I tried out ended up being a great fit for me. It’s amazing to have worked with someone for going on five years now. She met me when I was barely a month into rabbinical school and has been accompanying my journey ever since, including during my time here in Israel. During my phone session with her today, our long history made itself known.

I had a sort of plan for our session. We were going to continue a conversation around a particular issue that impacts my religious and spiritual life a lot. But I barely got into our call before my director figured out that something was up. I ended up telling her what was going on. And so, instead of talking about what I thought we were going to talk about, we talked about anxiety and uncertainty.

Spiritual Direction can be a little like yoga, in that sometimes learning and growth set in immediately, and other times the poses have to percolate a little before you know what to do with them. Today, maybe because I followed up my session with yoga, things set pretty quickly.

All this to say, I think that my emotions are really basically a cat.


Everyone, meet Pico. Pico is my cat. He’s living in Philly this year with a lovely classmate while I do this Israel thing. I miss him something fierce.

So here’s the thing about Pico: he’s kinda, well, wacky.


Pico and a buddy of mine having a ball.

I love the little guy so much. I love watching him chase toys all over, bound down the stairs like a dog to greet me at the door, and hide out in Trader Joe’s bags.


I love watching him sleep.


And sleepIMG_5396.jpg

And sleep (he is a cat, after all).


I love carrying him around and dressing him up.


One of these things is not like the other.

I love it when he makes me laugh.


And I love it when he wants to hide out in bed as much as I do. IMG_3401.jpg

But here’s the thing about Pico: Sometimes, he can get really annoying. Those are the things I don’t have many adorable pictures of. I don’t have pictures of him tracking litter out of his box or spilling his food because he never learned to be particularly dainty. I don’t have pictures of him nipping at my roommates’ feet and ankles because she was wearing brightly colored socks. I don’t have pictures of him scratching and biting my arms, or my friends’ arms. I don’t have pictures of him standing in front of any door he wants to enter or leave meowing and scratching pitifully for what feels like hours on end. I certainly don’t have a picture of the time when I was doing yoga and he (accidentally– he really was trying to play) cut my eyelid badly enough that I had to go to urgent care and almost needed stitches.


I do have a picture of him mutilating this would-be knitting project.

Pico is a cat. He’s a great cat. Sometimes, he and my life don’t mesh perfectly and he’s more annoying than lovable.  I don’t have to love every impact Pico has on my existence to love him. I just have to know that they’re all a part of the package. Usually, he’s welcome. Now, when I do yoga, I have to close the door and keep him out to keep myself safe, even if he scratches and meows pitifully.

Emotions are tough. They contain the best and worst of human experiences. They are this totally chill and wonderful cat:


And this slightly perturbed cat: IMG_5233.jpg

And this “nothing is safe so long as I can get it between my teeth” cat.


That cat is the closest to what my emotional state has been for the last few days. It’s been chaotic. It’s been meowing outside my door and messing with my concentration on everything else I’m working on. I’ve felt compelled to open the door and let it take over my space.

But here’s the thing: I shut the cat out while I do yoga for a reason. I know it’s safer for me to limit his access when his style of play makes it impossible for me to hang out in pyramid or cobra. It’s not that I’m never willing to play with him, or even that I’m not willing to get a little scratched up from time to time. But having him with me when he could really hurt me isn’t good for either of us.

So it is with my fear. It’s not that there’s no reason for fear. It’s a piece of the emotional bundle just as much as Pico’s occasionally overzealous play is a part of his personality. I love my emotions. I love my cat. They both add value to my life. Sometimes I even cuddle them. And sometimes, my cat and my fear have to go hang out by themselves so I can live normally. My work is to get better at acknowledging the meows without always opening the door.


Shabbos Blessing- Week 27

Even for a blessing, this week’s is special. Most of y’all sent me blessings early on in the year, with a few others trickling in here and there. (On that note, if you’ve thought about it and haven’t sent one yet, this is the time. I’m running real low here. Not to be greedy or anything– if I don’t end up receiving 40, I’ll just start sending my own blessings out to y’all instead– but it’d be lovely to share your words instead of mine.) This week’s blessing came from an RRC classmate relatively early in the year. I don’t remember exactly when, but it was sometime last fall. However, unlike every other blessing, which showed up in a card or an email or a Facebook message or some other form that I could access right away, this one came as a google doc with instructions: Open “at a time where you feel like the task in front of you is huuuuuuuuge and OMG what.”

There have definitely been times over the course of the year where I felt that way about various tasks before me, but I always saved this blessing, until today I felt like I truly needed it.


The last six weeks or so since getting to Yafo have been so lovely. Maybe that’s why facing down an uncertainty now feels like a more abrupt difficulty than facing down similar uncertainty in Jerusalem. It feels like a bigger shift. Things there were always a little less settled. Things here have felt more relaxed until this new worry came in. I don’t want to talk about specifics right now. Hopefully this will all clear itself up soon. But, right now, I’m balking.

It doesn’t help that I’ve finally shifted from feeling quite introverted to feeling more extroverted…at the exact moment when I’m looking at 4 days straight without class and with most of my friends in Jerusalem while I’m up here. When I’m feeling extroverted and don’t have folks to extrovert with, I tend to get pretty insecure pretty quickly. (At least I know myself.) The next few days are likely to be difficult, and depending how things go I could be entering a longer period of uncertainty. I don’t know yet. I hate not knowing.


I went for a beautiful walk during a patch of sunshine this afternoon. It’s supposed to be muggy and stormy over the next few days, so I wanted to get a burst of outdoor time. I’ll get more in an hour or two, when I head way uptown to a friend’s for shabbat dinner. I’m looking forward to being with people tonight, and I hope to have the opportunity to connect with folks back home more over the next few days.

For now, I’m just trying to hold a lot of presence and gratitude. This week has also been amazing, and easy as it is to let anxiety crawl over the good so that it’s hard to see, I know I have much to be thankful for. More to come on that count soon enough.

In his google doc blessing, my classmate told a story from his own life and then opened it to meet me. I won’t include all of his beautiful words, but these two paragraphs are ones that I will hold to in the days to come. Interestingly enough, I think they connect as much to the good and new in my life as they do the potentially bad and new:

I wish for you that you embrace that spirit of balking. Of feeling like you’re ill-prepared. Maybe you are in some tangible way, or maybe in some less tangible way. But hell, you’ve got grit and perseverance, and a few more stamps in your passport than most. You know how to stick it out, and make the crazy into the familiar. Balking is part of the process of incorporating new things, finding out who we were, and who we’ve become. This moment before the plunge is shockingly scary, and also a bit sweet. You’re never as well prepared as you’d like to be… but I trust that since you’re smart and wise, you will be as prepared as you need to be. And once things get going, the rest of the way down is observing your surroundings keenly, listening to your instincts, keeping a cool head, and heaven forbid, quick reflexes! 

So Emily, I send you blessings for the moment of balking. I wish for you that in a moment of “what is this where am I omg how am I going to do this”, you find strength in remembering who you are, what you’ve accomplished, and even what you’ve been through. I wish you serenity in feeling ill-prepared, and knowing that you still have a great deal under your belt. I wish you moments of stillness and quiet in anxious situations—I believe that God speaks to our instincts as we pause and just circulate air. Respiration works. True, the Russians may believe that there is no amount of breathing that will make you prepared to pass beyond, but the breath itself is sweet and enough while we’re still here. Let that be its own anchor.

I live on the sea now. I can’t hear the waves from my apartment, but I don’t have to walk far at all to be able to. Every day, the waves drift in and out, sliding with the moon, growing and ebbing in their strength. The waves breathe. May my breath and the ocean’s prove an anchor. IMG_0853.jpg



Asher Yatzar

Just over five months ago, I had my first 24-hour on call as a chaplain at a large Trauma One hospital in California. I was so scared. I remember sitting at home the night before, trying to review everything I had learned during the previous month of Clinical Pastoral Education, hoping that it would be enough, certain that it couldn’t be. I didn’t know what awaited me. This first shift happened to be on a Sunday, which meant that for the entire 24 hours, I would be the only chaplain at the hospital. It felt like an incredible responsibility.

That day was difficult, and the night, although relatively quiet in the hospital, was quite loud in my mind as my desire to rest wrestled with my fear of sleeping through a page or a call. I really didn’t need to be concerned, since the one time I got a page, around 4 in the morning, I dressed and was halfway to the relevant unit before I even realized that I was doing.

At the hospital, over the course of my 10-week CPE program, I dealt with diverse experiences of life and death in a very tangible way. I learned from every encounter. I developed immense gratitude for the ability to walk and to breathe and to feed myself. I have many stories from the summer, but they belong to my patients and their loved ones. They aren’t mine to tell. My own story is.


For the last month or so, I’ve been dealing with a spat of health issues. Low grade back pain that I’ve had for over a year flared up significantly, I developed flank pain, I lost weight, and I found myself noting a number of other issues that alone I might have been able to ignore but that together became a beast. I was so scared. I didn’t know what awaited me. I made the mistake of consulting google and convinced myself that I had all kinds of diseases. I became my enemy.

The month was difficult. I went to the doctor (an English-speaking one, thank goodness). On his recommendation, I had more intensive tests done than I have for years. I went to a large Hebrew-speaking health center across town for more tests. I called clinics and my insurance company countless time. I fretted. I cried. As I waited for follow-up appointments and test results and insurance approval, my mind told me “You are Not Ok. Nothing is Ok. Everything is Wrong.”

I tried to keep everything as normal as possible on the surface, but I couldn’t always manage it. I had trouble writing. I had trouble sleeping. I had trouble eating. I couldn’t focus in class. I couldn’t relax at home. Sometimes I would forget that I was worried about my body and I would feel at ease and full of my normal creative energy. Then I would remember and the anxiety would sweep back in. My mind would tell me “You’ve developed a terrible disease while you’re on the other side of the world from your loved ones. Coming here was a mistake. Your body is breaking and you are alone.”

וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. (Genesis 32:25-30

The Torah Portion this week, Vayishlach, includes this passage. When I was a child I learned that Jacob wrestled with an angel. But, as is the case with many childhood versions of these stories, the text is more complicated. The text itself says that Jacob wrestles with a man– an איש. Rabbis have gone nuts with these verses for a very long time, and for good reason. Who was this mysterious figure? Was it simply some man? Was it Esau? Was it, as Rashi thought, Esau’s guardian angel? Was it God? Or, was it Jacob himself?

Jacob, after all, is in a tough spot. He is going home to make peace with the brother whose birthright he bought and whose blessing he stole decades ago. He has separated himself from his possessions, his servants, his wives, his wives’ handmaidens, and his children. He intends to meet his brother the following day and has no notion of what awaits him. He cannot sleep. He wrestles until dawn.


Yesterday, I went to an appointment to get the results of the last test my doctor recommended. I sought to keep myself in the present, but the present was frightening, the potential future all the more so. There were so many things to worry about. I wondered if my symptoms were all due to stress. I knew they could be. I knew I could be completely fine. But I could also be dealing with something very serious. I sat in the waiting room, wrestling with my mind, cutting it off whenever it pointed into fear, telling myself “I am about to get more information and whatever it is will be better than not having information.”

The doctor looked at the results. He was silent for a long time. Fear pinned me. The doctor looked at me and spoke incredible words. My body has a few quirks, but nothing appears dangerous. There was, with the exception of PT for mild scoliosis that went unnoticed when I was a teenager, no need for further follow up at this time.


Early morning at the Egalitarian Kotel

Dawn broke. I didn’t get a new name, but I felt a blessing settle over me. My body has been holding my stress and my grief and my fear, and it is tired and it hurts. Someday, my body may hold serious illness as well. Most bodies do eventually. I can’t know how or when or if that will happen to me.

Jewish prayer includes a number of blessings for physical bodies, and one that I appreciate most, asher yatzar, speaks of the openings of the body, reminding us that if a passageway were to be open when it should be closed, or closed when it should be open, it would be impossible to exist. I thought of that prayer countless times over the summer as I witnessed the marvels of modern medicine opening and closing passageways on the body’s behalf, allowing life to continue and healing to happen. But these passageways are more than just physical, and many times I witnessed patients’ minds opening and closing to the possibilities of healing and of vitality and of hope. As a chaplain, I sought to accompany the patient and their loved ones– wherever their openings and closings– to allow each person to experience what was present, to cradle it with them, and to hand it back to them.


Today, waking up without a doctor’s appointment on the calendar, I felt an openness handed back to me. I let the worry-ridden part of myself pull away from the rest. It is still present, but it is not pinning me down and I am not engaging it on the mat. I am alive. I am here. I am enough. I am thankful.