Shabbos Blessing- Week 24

“This is a comfortable rain,” I told myself as my socks squelched in my boots and drops from my backpack’s rain cover got into the top of my jeans. “It isn’t too hot or too cold. This is a comfortable rain,” I told myself as I watched my pants and boots grow steadily darker. “This is really good for the plants, and the rainy season will be over soon,” I told myself as I finally got indoors, shaking off my umbrella and momentarily miserable about the lack of heat. “This is a temporary state. I will get dry,” I told myself as I managed to peel off my raincoat and sit. I was wet from the waist down. I had a full day of class ahead. I told myself to be glad, but it wasn’t easy.

Poor Noah.

The ark, after all, can’t really have been dry. Even if it was dry enough to be seaworthy, the humidity alone must have been awful. It wears you down. How did he manage to keep his spirits up as long as he did? I mean, I guess when it comes down to it he didn’t have a lot of choice if he wanted to get through it. Maybe that’s why we tell that story. All I know is that extended rain makes me cranky.  Maybe, if I were somebody who grew up in London or Seattle or another “rainy days are normal days” kinda place, I wouldn’t be so downtrodden, but as things stand, the straight five days of rain this week made me pretty miserable. And, to top it off, sick.

Yesterday, I was supposed to go on a trip to Lod with a bunch of other rabbinical students. Instead, I sat on my couch going through endless tissues and cups of tea. Today, it’s much the same, but my throat has stopped hurting and I’ve started coughing. I know it’s just a cold, but it really does put a damper on things. At least the rain is gone for now.

This week’s blessing comes from a choir friend, and it’s definitely appropriate for a sick day. He wrote:

May you cherish this time on the best days and on the most challenging days, too. May you build strong and lasting relationships with those who are also in this Ark. May you continue to have safety and adventure in your experiences.

It’s not exactly easy to cherish this time when I feel half awake and gross and am nearly out of tissues. Nevertheless, I am trying to get something out of this day. I’m glad for the calm of my apartment and the (at least for today) endless supply of tea. I’m glad that tonight is shabbat and tomorrow is shabbat and therefore I don’t have to go anywhere until Sunday. But, like I said, it’s supposed to be sunny for a while now, and that means that I can be safely PJ-bound for now and adventuresome with my new community in Yafo soon enough!

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[Insert mermaid here]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Sniffling into Yom Kippur

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I really want to sneeze. I’ve been sniffling and sniffling for the last couple days. I don’t know if it’s allergies or a cold or what. The entire time it’s been a drip drip drip kinda thing. I’ve gone through over a box of tissues. I’ve swallowed a dozen cups of ginger tea. I’ve been sleepy. When, once every couple of hours, I actually manage a sneeze, it feels awesome. But, most of the time, I get that itch in my nostrils and I hope and I wait and then…nothing.

In just a couple of hours, the sun will begin to set and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, will begin. I’ve spent most of the day relaxing, drinking water, eating small meals in preparation for the fast, and trying to sneeze.

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The thing about Yom Kippur, and, well, there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll look at this later and ask myself what in the world I was thinking, but here goes… the thing about Yom Kippur is that it’s kinda like a much-needed sneeze for the soul.

Life is busy. We have our routines, however freewheeling or regimented. Some of us have mindfulness practices where we take a few moments to reflect on things, but many more of us (too often myself included) do not. We sniffle. When things go wrong we suck them up, and when they start making their way out we suck them up again or wipe them away as quickly as possible so we can get on with things. We don’t want to sneeze because that’s a disturbance. People might look at us. We might have to say “excuse me.” They might say “bless you” (or, around here, “לבראיות”- for health). We might have to loudly blow our noses. We might even have to stand up with a hand over our noses and run to the bathroom for a tissue. It’s a disturbance. Afterwards, though, we feel better.

Yom Kippur is one heck of a disturbance. For over 24 hours we don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t bathe. We don’t put on lotions or other cosmetic products (some say this extends to things like deodorant). We don’t wear leather shoes. We don’t have sex (or, in some traditions, even share a bed with our partners). In short, it’s unpleasant. Afterwards, though, we feel better.

On Yom Kippur, stuff comes out. The sniffles turn to sneezes as we confess, as a community, what all of us have done wrong in the past year. We don’t confess our individual transgressions to our rabbis but rather confess our collective sins to one another and to God. There’s an accounting, a reminder that no one among us is fully guilty or fully innocent. We share responsibility for our communities large and small.We hold one another up.

Some people think of Yom Kippur as granting a blank slate for the new year. For me, it’s more about taking stock of the previous year’s successes and short-comings. It’s about moving forward into the new year with renewed conviction and perspective. It’s taking a full, deep, uninhibited breath after a sneeze, before the inevitable drip drip drips start up again.

Gmar chatimah tova–May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good, and may your fast be meaningful.

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PS- In additional to the traditional liturgy, there are some awesome alternative (social justice-focused) confessional prayers out there. Here are just a few for Jews and non-Jews alike:

Choppy Waves

Sometimes on the ark things get wet.

I was trying to be responsible. I was trying to pack the night before so that I would have less to do in the morning. The Conservative Yeshiva was heading off to a shabbaton first thing Friday, and the packing list was complicated to cram into my backpack. I managed to fit a dress for services, a swim suit, a towel, a hat, toiletries, a siddur, a tallis, and a book. I also filled my 3-liter camelback, because the desert is hot and dehydration was not on my list of shabbat goals.  All I left for the morning was putting together a lunch and fitting my PJs somewhere. Then morning came. I worked on my last minute packing pieces and then went off to make coffee. Clearly, that was the wrong order of operations.

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Qumran- aka Dead Sea Scrolls land! We went on our way to the shabbaton.

When I came back into my room, coffee in hand, I noticed that something was not right. Not at all. My bag was wet.

I moved fast, moving the tube for my camelback from beneath the bag, where there had been enough pressure to cause the leak. I got everything out as quickly as I could, checking to see what was going to be too wet to bring. I griped as I realized I’d need to bring a different dress that would take up more space. I sighed as I set my hat out to dry. Then I opened up my tallis bag, saw the water stains, and almost burst into tears.

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See, my tallis is special. My best friend and her mom made it for me right before I started rabbinical school. The atarah, the band around the neck, is inscribed with a verse from Esther, because I found out that I was accepted to rabbinical school on Purim. The four corners nod to my study of Mandarin and my time in China and are embroidered with the Chinese characters for love, faith, courage, and wisdom. I learned to tie tzitzit, the fringes hanging from each of the four corners, the day I arrived in Philadelphia, and I tied them myself. The prayer for putting on a tallis is as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu l’heetataf batzitzit.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves in fringes.

When I put on any tallis, I feel wrapped in the faith that I hold and the history that I inherit. When I put on my tallis, kitchy as this may sound, I also feel wrapped in love, held by the many people who have supported me on my journey towards the rabbinate.

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I don’t know if I’ll be able to fix my tallis. Maybe I’ll manage to get the stains out. Maybe they’ll become, as my best friend’s mom said, a part of my tallis’s story. Either way, I’m glad I got to it as quickly as I did, and that the tzitzit remained untouched. A shabbos miracle, perhaps.

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I found this donkey in the lowest nature preserve in the world, right by the dead sea. I’d have taken him on the ark, but I don’t know where his mate is. I’ll have to keep looking. 

Sometimes on the ark, people get sea sick.

I have gotten food poisoning exactly twice in my life. The first time was in rural China, (chronicled here) and was understandably miserable. That was 6 years ago, and I hadn’t thrown up since. The second time was yesterday. I’ll spare y’all the details, but suffice it to say that it’s been pretty awful. I’m not in class today, opting instead to sit on my couch, drinking the sprite that I managed to very slowly and meekly acquire from the nearest corner store. I tried to find gatorade, but there wasn’t any. Getting food poisoning sucks, and getting it in a different country where you don’t have your normal resources available sucks more. On the other hand, at least I’m not trying to take care of a bunch of animals who may, themselves, be sea sick. Props to you, Noah.