Tag Archives: Rabbi Naomi Steinberg

Nitzavim-It is Not in Heaven

Dancing with the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth El, in Eureka, CA on September 15, 2001. All photos in this post were taken by my dear friend and Mussar sister Amanda Devons.

The teaching below is one I gave about the piece of Torah that I was born under. It’s called Nitzavim and reflects who I am. My Bat Mitzvah was four days after 9/11. Some of my family couldn’t come because planes were still not flying then. Other members got in cars and drove for days. The Temple was full beyond capacity with friends and family and the larger community looking for a place to mourn and be together in the face of the horrible events of 9/11. On Shabbat, Jews have the practice, which we’ve maintained for thousands of years, in the face of pogroms and horrors, as best we can of praising and finding good and resting from ugliness and violence on the Sabbath. I remember my mother remarking that perhaps this was why we were still around, because we found a way to have joy and goodness despite everything.

I’ve been following Greta Thurnberg’s massive impact lately and was remembering my sixteen year old self. Back at Boulder High School in 1979. a long time ago, my friends and I started a club called “Students for a Positive Future.” We were trying to do what is happening now. Of course, if our movement along with so many others’ who have been trying to do what is happening now, had been remotely effective, Greta and her generation wouldn’t be facing the horror they are making everyone face up to now. As, many of you know, this issue is not new or trending. Scientists have known about this for over fifty years. Spiritual people, tribal people, dreamers, artists and visionaries have known all of this as well for a very long time.

It is not impossible to make change, it is not too late. Nitzavim written thousands of years ago, states that if we ignore doing the right thing, there will be consequences. When we don’t care for each other and the earth, this action brings about the curses mentioned in the Torah in Nitzavim. When we honor each other and the earth, Blessings will ensue and miracles and change. I wrote this 18 years ago. I’ve been advocating what I shared then about this reality for my entire life. I will continue to advocate this way for the rest of the days I’m granted on this earth.

Lo Vashamayim Hi ~ It is not in Heaven

D’var Torah Nitzavim

by Nicole Andrée Barchilon Frank/Shoshanah Adamah Cohen 

September 15, 2001 ~ Elul 27, 5761

Wisdom, Joy and hope are not in some distant time; they are not in Heaven or across a great stream. We have access to the best in life and we indeed are responsible for infusing the world with Joy, Wisdom and Hope or Misery, Greed and Violence. It is our actions that make the world a Holy Place or not. Those actions if they are to be connected to Heaven or to Holiness must be generated in our hearts and then manifested in our mouths “Ki Karov Elecha, Ha D’Var Me Od, B’ficha U’vilvavecha La’soto.” “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart-to perform it.”

Nitzavim is rich; it has a wealth of beauty and delight in it. I was powerfully moved when I learned that Nitzavim was my Torah portion/Parsha; the one I was born under 37 years ago in Paris, France. My whole life has been a journey towards joining the core of my heart to my mouth and actions. The Torah is not just a book to me, but a Holy Living Presence in my life. My birth Torah parsha reflects who I am and who I can be in this world.  As Rabbi Mordechai Gafni teaches, each of us has a “soul print,” our own unique essence. Nitzavim is one such reflection of my soul, and sharing my Torah here with you, is my invitation to you, into the heart of my soul.

My choices here today are an affirmation of who I am and how I am choosing to connect to the whole of creation in a covenental way. There are many kinds of relationships and ways of maintaining them. My relationship to my Judaism, profound and deep as it has been in the past, is shifting today. In my lifetime, no one person has insisted that I take on this tradition. This lack of coercion has been a great gift, allowing me to enter into my Judaism without prior wounding or dissatisfaction. No one asked me to observe the Mitzvot or to come into this covenant. It has always been a choice, for which I bless my parents. And yet, I hear my ancestors speaking in my heart. I felt compelled to learn Hebrew, I feel connected to my Jewish family in my kishkas. I have needed to touch the Divine in a uniquely Jewish way. To do that, I have had to learn Torah. Today, I share my Torah with you, with my ancestors and with all those who are here in other than physical form. I am making physical my bond, my covenant, my dedication and my commitment to Torah on this 27th day of Elul.

Receiving a Blessing from my sister by Love/Choice Terret Smith, Rabbi Naomi Steinberg is smiling in the background here.

The great French 11th Century Torah commentator Rashi reminds us, at this point in our biblical story, that we are being bound to Holiness a second time by our presence before Moses on his dying day. Remember that Torah time is different than our time. Moses’ final day was a biblical day. It went on for quite a long time. Rashi quoting Verse 9 states the following about this day:

“YOU ARE STANDING THIS DAY [ALL OF YOU BEFORE THE LORD] –This teaches that Moses assembled them in the presence of the Omnipresent on the day of his death, in order to initiate them into a covenant.”

Moses initiates us into the covenant on his final day. Rashi also teaches that The Holy One is undertaking to make a second covenant with us,

“THAT THE HE MAY ESTABLISH YOU TODAY FOR A PEOPLE UNTO HIMSELF–He undertakes so much trouble (in making another covenant with you) in order that He may keep you for a people in His presence…. because he has promised it unto you and sworn unto your fathers not to exchange their descendants for another nation. For this reason. He binds you by these oaths not to provoke Him to anger since He on His part, cannot dissociate himself from you.”

Not only are we being bound, but also the Holy One is being bound to us. The very nature of creation is woven into the fabric of you and me.

This beautiful weaving is different in Hebrew than it is in English. For many of us it is difficult to connect with the Torah in English. It is only in Hebrew that it has become embodied and exciting for me. Two years of Hebrew studying in between dishes and child-rearing is by no means enough. I’m still a beginner, but a beginner with a deep desire to continue learning. In our tradition, each Hebrew word of the Torah is itself a tree bearing fruit. There is a root within each word and each root has branches. We are invited, once we know these letters deeply, to explore their branches.

The Kabbalists and great Torah Scholars do this all the time. The word Yisrael is often translated as the one who wrestles with the Divine. The Hebrew word Yisrael is often used concurrently to mean the Jewish people or the Holy Land. Shoshana Cooper teaches that if we play with the letters of the word Yisrael, we can get the word Sari-el. She reminds us that our biblical mother Sarah was a priestess in her own time and had the name Sarai prior to joining herself to Abraham’s El. Women today can claim Yisrael as their name too, because it can mean the El of Sarai. This Sarai El for me is part of the word Yisrael. I am connected through my biblical fore-mothers and forefathers as well as through the action of being a wrestler or dancer with the Divine. There are many ways to refer to Holiness in the Torah. There isn’t one word for the Divine Being.  There are feminine words and masculine ones.

Reuven Moore/Reuven Uri ben David v’Feygela, May his memory continue to be for Blessing, reading from the Torah at my Bat Mtizvah.

The very beginning of this parsha says all of Israel, those who are present and those who are not present, are included for the final binding as they were for the original Holy Sharing at Sinai. The workers and the priests, all of us, those not yet born and those already gone are included. What does it mean when the Torah says all of us are present, even those who are not physically present are included in the covenant? What is this saying about the nature of creation and the universe? The Torah is revealing here one of her deepest mysteries, asking us to enter into a world that is not easily accessible, yet nevertheless present for us.

This task is still not too far away though, “it is as near to us as our hearts and our mouths.”  On one level this is simple. It has been understood by generations of Jews. It refers to a different sense of time, of responsibility and of oath taking.  The time referred to here is both linear, and circular. It extends forever inward as well as outward. It includes the past generations as well as the future ones. This notion of time is difficult to understand because many people still think of time as only linear and forward directed.

The Torah is not only the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is also considered the body of Jewish thoughts, writings and rulings over time and in time. From the beginning of time beyond our ability to know is Torah. In linear time the Torah includes the knowledge and work of several thousand years. Since ancient times sages and students have been wrestling with these teachings. We have brought these words into our hearts through prayer, meditation and deep thought. We have and still do respond and enter into dialogue with the text. This is the fundamental characteristic of a living tradition. However, despite the wide range of Jewish thought, I believe, there is one Divine code for Jews. It is the one pattern, one DNA, one underlying order to our universe. It is the Hebrew Torah.

That Hebrew Torah speaks not only about relationships in time, but also about our responsibilities in time and across time. In his book Of Water and The Spirit, African Shaman Malidoma Patrice Somé talks about his people’s sense of time and obligation. He points out that, in his tribe’s belief system, he must redeem the actions of his ancestors. If his ancestors hurt another person and that hurt was not resolved or healed in the past, it is likely his life will be affected, and he may be called upon to create resolution. This is a radical concept for many.

Receiving my parents’ Blessings. Helen Redman and Kenny Weissberg jumped in their car and drove up from San Diego to make it to my Bat Mitzvah right after 9/11.

This African tribal belief is like many Native American beliefs about time, responsibility and our place on the earth as well. And let us not forget, as Jews, we are a tribal people. Nitzavim reminds us that if we fail to keep our obligations or we fail to follow the teachings, not only will we pay, the earth itself will become barren.

The Torah can be read as an environmental code book. The land must rest, just as we must. Fruit bearing trees are never to be cut down in acts of war, animals are to be treated with compassion and concern. Lack of foresight, vision and respect for our planet leads to ruin. This parsha both cautions us and guides us. It asks us to be both respectful and to use our hearts as guides about how to live.

If I am responsible for the mistakes and woundings of my ancestors then I have a lot of work to do, especially if they weren’t good people. Likewise, I reap the benefits of their goodness and grace if they were devoted to good works and loving-kindness. Conversely, if my great great grandchildren will be paying for my mistakes, then I really want to be careful about what I do. I want to step gently on the earth and work very hard to do no harm. My children reap pain or grace based on my choices.

Pictured here are: Ethan, my youngest who was four years old at my Bat Mitzvah, my husband Kevin’s only time attending Temple Beth El, he carried Ethan around for hours while I waxed poetic; my G!d-daughter Aleta was sporting fuchsia hair for the event! My nephews Owen and Soren are also here in the front row with me. Their mom, my sister by Love/Choice, Calryn Aston got in a car from Boulder, Colorado and drove for three days to make it to my Bat Mitzvah in California. They found out on the drive about 9/11.

This parsha describes in detail what will happen to the person who thinks he or she can do lip service to this covenant. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 29: verse 22, we hear of the earth drying up “all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing.” This is the result of not living correctly. This is not some myth, this is the reality of our planet. Those who study and understand the earth, know we are in deep trouble. Too many of us live out our lifetimes as if it were the only one that mattered.

In our prayer service though, we sing of another way. We sing L’dor Vador “from generation to generation. The first letter of the Torah is a Beit, the last letter is a Lamed. These two letters create the word Lev. On Simchas Torah, what do we do? We read the last letters and immediately follow them with the first letters, so we create the word Lev/Heart. This teaching about Torah being in our hearts is woven throughout. We are nothing without our hearts.

This photo was taken right after Kevin’s mother gave me a powerful blessing, I call her my Mother in Love (because we have such a loving and good relationship). Luckily, she had come out earlier from Tennessee so she didn’t have to miss out and neither did we!

All of this is very close to us, “exceedingly so.” I found Rashi’s teaching on this fascinating. He teaches that even if it were in Heaven or far away, we would be obliged to go seek it and do it. Why are we obliged to seek out the correct path or teaching? This takes us back to our fundamental crossing over or acceptance of the covenant. Being bound to the covenant means it is a part of us, and if we were somehow separated from a part of us, we would need to go looking for it. This teaching also is about Teshuvah as I mentioned earlier. Returning to our center, our originally glorious soul is the way of Torah. It isn’t far away, yet it can seem impossible to reach. Following the correct path means flowing with the current of life instead of against it. It means walking gently on the earth. Being tender with each other becomes an imperative. By doing this, we find that we are connected to Holiness and that we have chosen Life, the honoring of this uniquely complex and beautiful world.

The Holy One has given us a chance to be partners of a sort. Our ways of speaking and being in the world can either be linked to our hearts and leading towards life-affirming choices. Or we can be apathetic, not actively engaged. As Sam and Pearl Oliner’s research shows this is an unfortunate and all too common path. Being a “bystander” can lead to a lack of caring that promotes violence and all the “isms” in our world. We are being asked in Nitzavim to listen to our hearts and to bind our mouths, our expression of self, to the true knowing of our core. Doing this reminds us that we are responsible and capable and that our actions and words have power.

Learning to recognize the Hebrew words and to chant the trope was a completely terrifying and daunting experience at first. My fear of singing goes back to an Elementary school teacher who told me I couldn’t sing and put me in the “B” choir with one other kid. It was too awful and after a few classes full of her impatience and disdain, I gave up. I found my voice again while pregnant with my daughter, determined to sing to my child. My voice has surprisingly undergone a transformation while learning to chant trope. With practice, perseverance and help I’ve felt the beauty and the music of the Divine’s teaching flow through me. It became possible to bind my heart to my mouth. By engaging with my tradition and working on my Bat Mitzvah I made a deep connection that carried through from my Lev to my mouth to you!

When I first heard Hebrew as an 18-year-old woman, my whole being was affected. The moment was timeless, as if I were a gong, which had just been struck, the vibrations have carried me through to this day. In The Book of Blessings, Marcia Falk speaks my heart when she says: “English is my s’fat eym “mother tongue,” but Hebrew is my s’fat dam–the language of my blood.”

So, too for me, Hebrew is my s’fat dam. Learning these letters is a way to encounter the source material of my being. This day is the culmination of years of study, of my blood pounding out a steady rhythm of longing for the Divine, for Holiness and for a language that truly speaks my heart.  Thank you for being here as witnesses to my process. I am deeply grateful for all of you who have traveled far, both physically and spiritually; for all of you who have helped me to get to this moment and especially all of you who continually support me in my life and choices. I am a very lucky and Blessed woman. I pray that all of you will find the language and messages of your hearts and be blessed with people to share with and be supported by as I am by all of you.



On the Bima right to left: Arnie Herskovic, Rabbi Naomi Steinberg, Phil Lazzar, Issac Barchilon Frank, Kevin Frank, my daughter, Nicole Barchilon Frank and Roz Keller.


Bibles/Torahs: Kaplan, Rabbi Aryeh. The Living Torah. Jerusalem: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981; Rosenbaum, Rev. M, and Dr. A.M. Silberman et al, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth & Rashi’s Commentary. Jerusalem: The Silberman Family, 5733; Scherman, Rabbi Nosson Editor, and Contributing Editors: Rabbi Yaakov Blinder, Rabbi Avie Gold, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. The Stone Edition, TANACH. New York: Metsorah Publications, 1996.

Other Works Cited: Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 14: Jerusalem: Keter, 1972,  Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. The Schocken Bible: Volume I. New York: Schocken Books, 1995., Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. The Altruistic Personality, Rescuers of Jews In Nazi Germany. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc, 1988; Somé, Malidoma Patrice. Of Water and The Spirit. Winkler, Gershon, and Lakme Batya Elior. The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1994.

Quotes to put in text: Sherman, Rabbi Nosson & Contributing editors. The Stone Edition TANACH. New York: Metsorah Publications, p. 501; Rosenbaum, Rev. M, and Dr. A.M. Silberman et al, Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth & Rashi’s Commentary. Jerusalem: The Silberman Family, 5733.p. 144; Ibid., p. 144. Ibid., p. 144.;Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 14: Jerusalem: Keter, 1972. p. 125.; Winkler, Gershon, and Lakme Batya Elior. The Place Where You Are Standing Is Holy. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1994. p. 21.; Oliner, Sam & Pearl. The Altruistic Personality. 1988; Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996. p. xv.

In addition to all of my beautiful friends and teachers at Temple Beth El, I have been  Blessed with so many Special Teachers who have helped me find my way. I can only acknowledge some of them here. I hope you will get the chance to experience their teachings: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (May his memory be for a Blessing), Frida Kahlo (May her memory be for a Blessing) Devorah Mann (May her memory be for a Blessing),  Emma Goldman (May her memory be for a Blessing) Anne Frank (May her memory be for a Blessing)   Etty Hillesium (May her memory be for a Blessing) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a Blessing), Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi,        Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, Rachel Heller, Malidoma Patrice Somé, Rabbi Gershon Winkler,  Rabbi Marc Gafni, Noam Heller, Gloria Steinem, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Judith Mohling, June Jordan, Rabbi David Zaslow, Rabbi Shefa Gold,              Elie Wiesel, Fatima Mernissi, Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, Rabbi David Cooper, Marge Piercy,      Marcia Falk, Shoshana Cooper, Alice Walker, Ellen Frankel, Rabbi  Margaret Holub,            Rabbi Jackie Brodsky, Starhawk, Kendra Moshe, Rabbi Marcia Prager, Ross Albertson,        Louise Erdrich, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevitt, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Leonard Peltier, Nawal El Sadawi

Take Heart

Purple Poppy with Frilly/Frayed Edges from my deck in California
There is no way to tell this story without lots of tears, mine, yours and the world’s. It’s an old story and one that repeats all the time and is going on now. It’s my story and it, unfortunately, may be yours as well. I begin to unfold it, here and now, breaking years of silence, on my part. I do this for my healing and hopefully for the healing of someone I love, in the spirit of Elul, and because it is time. There will be much more about this in the future….this is just a beginning.

I failed my prime directive as a mother. I did not keep my children safe from harm.

I was young, single, on welfare and living with charlatans, who I trusted. I cannot justify my failure and indeed it is against Jewish understanding to ask forgiveness or try to explain or justify a wrong action when asking for forgiveness. I’m not asking for forgiveness here. Forgiveness, if it is granted, is a private personal process between my children and myself.

Nevertheless, Here, I am/ Hi Ney Ni, turning in the harsh and cold wind of my pain and regret. One of my beloved sisters, by Love, Terret, recently gave me a piece that has helped me understand this territory more. She has been part of this particular story from its beginning, in terms of being present for my children, and being with me since we met when I was eighteen. I became pregnant with my first child when I was nineteen. Terret reminded me that I would willingly have cut off both my arms, if it had meant I could stop the suffering of my child. Cutting off my arms will not stop the suffering, nor will wishing I had been smarter, wiser, seen what was happening or prevented harm from happening.

If there was a sacrifice, of any kind, that I could make so that the pain in my child’s life would lessen, I would have made it a thousand times over. We cannot go back in time and erase what was done to us or those we love. Hindsight is always 20/20. I can and will continue to support healing and hope for there to be a Refuah Shelemah (Complete Healing of Body, Mind, Heart and Soul). I will do whatever I can to make amends, but I cannot change the past.

Just a few days ago, I met with my child’s therapist, with permission. My children are all adults now, but I am wanting to respect their privacy, so I’m not naming them. This man told me to “take heart.” He said that the fact that I was allowed to speak to him meant that there was an inclination, on the part of my child, for reconciliation.

Taking Heart, for anyone who knows me, seems like a no brainer. I’m all about that, I’m all over it, I’m a poster child for it. Nevertheless, it’s not something I have done or can easily do in this situation. So, it was nice to hear those words.

In two weeks I will stand before the Holy One, with my congregation, with my friends and with my teachers. I will hope for renewal and to be granted a new vessel to hold my soul in. I’m definitely due for some renewal!

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of Boulder, Colorado, passed on this image in a teaching she gave. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but it’s an ancient idea about the vessel our souls inhabit. On Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One grants us a new vessel, clean and vibrant to hold our self in and to pour ourselves out of. If, we have worked on our stuff, looked at our faults and made an effort to turn back to who we truly are in our hearts than we will not only notice this new vessel, but be enlivened by it. Every mistake we make during the year creates a crack in this vessel, big errors, like hurting other people makes for big holes. This means that by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, all that might be left of our vessels could be a shard or two; nothing that can hold water or light or love or laughter. In my tradition, if I do the work between myself and others, on Yom Kippur, the Holy One forgives me for the mistakes I’ve made between myself and myself, between myself and the Divine. Only those I wrong can forgive me for the wrongs I’ve done them.

Vase/Vessel by Paul Barchilon, Table by Shullie Steinfeld, Flowers by Ha-Shem, arrangement by ME! This is the kind of vessel I inhabit, a very colorful, Moroccan one made with love and of EARTH.

Tikkun Olam/Mending the World, and Refuah/Healing are continual processes. Every year of my life, until I leave this world, I will have to look at myself, my mistakes, my leaks and holes. There is no free ride or free lunch when it comes to personal spiritual growth or practice. If you want to serve the Divine and to serve Goodness, you do not ever rest on your laurels. When all people on earth are fed, when all children are safe from harm, when all those whose lives have been broken by hurt are healed, when the planet is free from wanton and grievous pillaging and rape, when we honor and treasure each other in our differences of shape, size, religious inclination, age, gender identity, sexual preference, pigmentation of our skin, income bracket or whether we are human, animal, plant or river, THEN and ONLY THEN can we rest.

This doesn’t mean you can’t take a break. I take a break every Shabbat, and on every Holy Day. We have days for mourning and feeling all the hurt in my tradition. Those are important for me. Most of the time, I live in a state of constant gratitude to the Divine. I am lucky enough to be able to hear the song of the flowers and the planet. I have tremendous support from family and friends. I have a phenomenal husband who has my back in every way imaginable and who has been with me on this journey for a long time.

I will never regret having my children young and alone. This was how they came to me and I chose to keep them and have them, even without support. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. Their unique genetic blends, their deliciousness and magnificence is something I will forever delight in. Being their mother has been and is the greatest gift the Holy One has ever given me. And then, I was blessed, to have a third child, finally, with a man who loved me. A man who, not only has stayed the course through very difficult territory, but who has held, supported and nurtured all of us.

I am profoundly and painfully remorseful and sorry that I did not protect my children. I am working all the time to make amends for that harm. My husband was our rescuer, the person who brought us all into his heart and under the protecting shelter of his arms. He came into our lives when my children were three and one. Because of him, healing for all of us is possible.

This photo was taken by my husband, our rescuer. I was 24.
Since starting this post, I’ve broken down and cried several times. This territory is so terribly hard and I feel such shame, pain and grief. I’m listening to Berel Alexander’s music right now, it’s helping me. He’s singing a gorgeous song called “Giving Thanks,” from his album Hooked, and because of him, his mother  Rabbi Naomi Steinberg, my family, my friends, my community, my prayer practice, and my teachers, I am able to hold this much pain and grief. Because I am not alone, I can and will keep trying to make Tikkun in the world and in my family.

I cannot know if there will be a Refuah Shelemah in our lives, but I won’t stop working for it and praying for it. A wound cannot heal if it is kept in the dark and never tended to. Wounds need to be seen and to have the pus drained out. There is no way to do that without pain and without addressing the root causes of the wound. 

The great South African Archbishop, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, gave us the Truth and Reconciliation process/model. With that in mind, I am hopeful. How can anyone think that it isn’t possible to “take heart,” when we have this amazing example of South Africa and their courageous efforts towards healing from the most heinous crimes?

So, I will Take Heart. I hope you will as well, and together, with our very broken hearts, we can come together, each of us, being honest, taking chances, crossing hard territory and trusting that the only way to be whole is if we all are holding hands and working hard to speak truth, being kind, endeavoring to forgive those who have hurt us (if they are genuine in their efforts towards reparations), and even if they aren’t. Forgiveness is healing for us as well as for those we forgive. We still and always must take responsibility for the wrongs we have done and hope and pray to be forgiven.

May you find yourself held and supported as you navigate your own hard territory. You are not Alone!

Rose and Dew drops by the Holy One, reminding us all that there is more Beauty and Grace in the universe than we can ever fathom. I grew this Rose and she returns every year to remind me of this and she smells like Heaven!

Yom Kippur, Yom Ha-Din, Yom-Ha-Difficulty

Erev Yom Kippur at my cabin in Ireland, getting ready for a day alone of fasting and prayers, by setting the space with beauty and white for purity of intention and space
Erev Yom Kippur;  getting ready for 26 hours of fasting and prayers alone. This photo is from my window-seat. I set my intention/kavannah and space with beauty and white flowers and decor to enhance and imbue my prayers with purity and clarity.

This was the hardest Yom Kippur that I can remember.

My beloved Rabbi Naomi Steinberg says, we should never compare Holy events. She remarks, “this Shabbat was in the top 500,” rather than saying this Shabbat was “the best.” I appreciate this teaching and try to incorporate it into my life, especially around Shabbat observance. It’s a very good reminder to not judge joyful occasions and a great encouragement to be fully present in the moment. The human tendency to compare and contrast and look at something from one celebration and measure it against another celebration can be a way to not honor the people you are together with and it can be decisive.  Not doing this requires tremendous conscious effort. I consistently have to remind myself about this “top 500” idea. Nevertheless, sometimes making a comparison is what needs doing.  Marking the boundaries of this Yom Kippur and defining them feels important because what transpired for me was so intense and significant.

I knew it would be hard to fast and do all the prayers without the support and help of a community of folks, all working together. Those who observe the full fast refrain from eating and drinking from sunset of the holiday, called Erev/Evening until the concluding service called Ne’ila which happens when three stars are visible in the sky of the following day. It was about 25 hours long this year.

On Yom Kippur, congregations around the world, come together and share in the heavy load of prayers. We pray for all people in the world and ask for forgiveness, stating all the wrongs a person can possibly do, we name each act of ugliness and violation that humans do to each other and our planet. We recite these prayers and confessions and supplicate for mercy and look deeply for hours and hours. We rise and we tremble before the Holy One as one giant body of beings, we sway and sing and chant and hope that our sincere presence and effort will help mend the suffering in this world. We support each other with our combined efforts and are all humbled by the process. Doing this all by myself turned out to be very, very hard.

I felt closer to death by 8:00 pm right before the end of the fast than I’ve ever felt in my life. After 25 hours without water or food I was weak and beyond weak, stumbling and dizzy when I tried to stand or walk. It was acutely intense and I was afraid, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel alive again.

My head ached, my limbs were heavy and hard to move, I felt awful, wrung out and completely DONE. I roused myself, in the dark, because my Holiday candle, which had been burning for 25 hours, had just sputtered out. I stood up to say the final three prayers and blow the shofar to mark the end of Yom Kippur. I made it to the end of Yom Kippur and as I chanted the final words of the service, my tears flowed, as they had been doing all throughout this never-ending day. I was dehydrated already from not drinking and because I’d cried so much as well. My water-reserves were at an all time low.

There is an element of Yom Kippur that is about death and getting close to it in a ritual, supported and honest way. We are not exactly trying to emulate the feeling of death, but rather to attend fully to our souls and their life within our bodies. This awareness perhaps will help us be a more alive in the here and now and also gives us a taste of what it might be like when the Holy One takes our souls back to journey among the stars.

I find myself weaving in and out of Holy Time and Connection when I pray, so there is timelessness to all my supplications and praying, and a loosening of the boundaries between space and time. The difference on Yom Kippur is that you can see everyone moving towards their angelic selves and it helps you get through the day when you feel bereft of vigor. We wear white, and in the most traditional communities folks actually wear their burial kittel (part of the Jewish shroud, but also worn for Pesach/Passover). This garment is always white and simple, but modeled after the garment that the High Priest wears. Indeed the Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur from Leviticus 16 describes these garments that the High Priest Aaron is to don in order to come close to the Divine:

He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches over his body; with a linen sash shall he gird himself, and with a linen turban shall he be crowned. These are sacral garments and so he shall bathe himself in water before dressing in them. ~ Leviticus 16:4

These simple sacred garments are what we bury all people in. We are all clothed as the High Priest, rich or poor, we all get the same shrouds, made out of linen preferably or cotton, with no fuss, finery or pockets (who needs a pocket in Heaven?). This equalization in death, that does not happen in life, is an essential teaching. We are all bodies, we are all dust and ashes, in the end and will return to dust, our bodies that is. Our souls are another matter entirely. So, when we loosen our connection to our bodies and focus on our souls that process reminds us to attend fully to being in a body. It’s a funny twist of human nature, that we feel things more in contrast to their opposite. We feel most alive after a long illness, as if we have never ever had it so good. We feel most grateful for everything usually in direct relationship to how long or far away from it we are.

So, I miss my husband extremely now and when I see him again my joy will be beyond measure. I love him the same amount when we are seeing each other every day, but being away from him makes me appreciate and notice his presence and his absence even more.

If we are lucky or we work for it, sometimes all of us, in moments of deepest connecting, we can cross the boundaries of our habitual patterns and conventionality and then we can and do reach that deep place without having to be separated. But we do have to SEPARATE ourselves from the idea that we are individuals or that we are just bodies, in order to have that oceanic, intense, beautiful eye to eye, heart to heart, soul to soul feeling. We can have this feeling  alone in prayer or contemplation, or with friends, with strangers, with beloveds, whenever we get over ourselves, literally.

GET OVER YOURSELF, and move into the person or the tree or flower across from you or near you.

Or, in the case of the Divine, we have to let go of our sense of being alone or thinking that we are only just a body without a soul. We have to get over our tired old story, or our fear, or all the mess and walls that we construct between all that is good and available for us. Yom Kippur is the perfect prescription for doing this.

Mireia, a new friend, and I, getting over ourselves and connecting from a deep place, in Barcelona, April of 2013
Mireia, a new friend, and I, getting over ourselves, in front of a wall, and connecting from a deep place, in Barcelona, April of 2013

So, I am SUPER glad to be in a body today!

The sun is shining and I will go outside and work on creating a Sukkah, since the next Jewish Holiday, my favorite, very embodied holiday (NO FASTING, LOTS OF FEASTING), is in four days. OOPS, I just made a comparison between Holy Events. It sure is hard to avoid doing that. And, I do really enjoy Sukkot a whole bunch. I’m not sure how I will observe it alone, but like all the other adventures I’m having here, I’m sure it will work out beautifully! We do invite in our Holy Ancestors, so I won’t actually ever be alone, and the faeries are always happy to play and dine with me.

What enabled me to actually get through to this moment of aliveness and joy was the NOT BEING ALONE part of my being alone. Let me explain. I was able to connect with my Temple Beth El community, thanks to modern technology and the kindness of some Temple Beth El members who made it possible for there to be a live-stream of their entire Yom Kippur services, all of them.

So, when I was losing it, or too weak to continue my praying I could sometimes manage to log-on to their livestream and see my friends praying. They even said hello to me from the bima and for the Kol Nidre service I could hear my son Ethan’s voice, which made me immensely joyful. I think it was Rabbi Naomi’s husband Saul, who took the camera and turned it at the end of Tuesday night’s services, so that I could see my boychik in the flesh. There he was, clapping and singing  and I got a glimpse of him for one joyous moment before the livestream went offline. I cannot even begin to express the joy I felt. It was beyond expression! It was 5:45 a.m. for me and I’d been tuning in and out to their prayers since 2:45 a.m.

At Temple Beth El, they were eight hours “behind” where I was in my prayer cycle, but finding them wherever they were throughout the 25 hours of my process made all the difference for me. Here’s a link to one of the services, so you can see for yourself these magnificent humans in their white angelic garments and in their angelic personifications and expressions:


A friend also turned me on to a wonderful streaming of services. I could watch this community when I wasn’t able to connect with the Temple Beth El community. It is a new experimental community based in New York City and is called Lab/Shul.  Here’s their definition of self-hood from their website: “Welcome to LAB/SHUL, an artist-driven, everybody-friendly experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.” They have a musical line-up and people singing straight from their hearts and souls and their services were AMAZING.

They chant a line or two from one of our traditional long prayers and dispense with the volumes of words that accompany the usual liturgy. Their knowledge of the Hebrew and the prayers was deep, deep enough that they could fly out to the stars with their roots grounded but able to fly straight up towards the Heavens. It was pretty extraordinary when I could catch them. Amichai Lau-Lavie, their Spiritual Leader, also gave a great teaching, in between the chanting, music and praying. I was transported when I could catch up with them. He mentioned Pope Francis and his Encyclical. I’m  in the land of Catholics and Pope Francis and his teachings are a common feature of discussion here. I’m not sure how many Jewish folks were talking about Pope Francis this Yom Kippur, but it was pretty perfect for me, considering where I am.

And, here at my hermitage, three other hermits came and spent a brief amount of time with me in prayer. They did this out of the kindness of their hearts and because, even though this week is a silence and solitude week, they wanted to support me in my Jewish practice. So, two Catholic nuns and one Catholic contemplative came to sit with me and pray with me late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, This is usually one of the hardest times of the day, when I was feeling pretty gray and not interested in continuing to pray or even be much in a body. Their presence uplifted me. It was lovely to pray with folks across the boundary of religion. It made no difference what specific faith tradition we identified with. We were able to be as one in our GETTING OVER OURSELVES. That’s my new mantra, I hope I can carry it through beyond this moment.

My “getting over myself” Yom Kippur crossed several time-zones. I started before all my community, eight hours earlier than the Californians, five hours before the East Coasters, two hours later than the Israelis, but somehow all of us were joined in a completely other place, a Holy time. After all, Divine time is nothing like human time. So, I crossed lots of boundaries and went a little too close to that feeling of weakness and torpor that comes from the body not having enough nourishment. I almost always observe the complete fast, no water or food, so this year’s feeling closer to death was unexpected. It gave me tremendous compassion and more appreciation for those who are actually approaching death of their bodies, friends who are in hospice care right now, friends who have been and are struggling with long debilitating illnesses and/or cancers that come and go, folks who are starving, literally because they are poor or because they are being tortured.

Why would anyone willingly choose to feel these things?

Doing so, even once a year, renews my commitment to serving the Divine in all my parts, with all my organs, senses and abilities. Until the world is a place of wholeness, kindness and equality, like what we pray and hope for, we all have to dedicate ourselves and look at ourselves deeply so that we can attune to Justice and to Goodness. This day is also called Yom Ha-Din which means the Day of Judgment or Trial. We are on trial for not doing enough for those who are suffering and for whatever we do that increases suffering on this planet.

Now, the good news is; that many, many, more people are doing this good work and are engaged in lessening suffering and violence, than the newspapers, news agencies and stories you hear in the mainstream media, would make you think. We are the majority. Those of us working, praying, living for Goodness, Justice and Mercy are in numbers beyond measure. We will make and are making a difference and every time one of us reaches deeper and longer and connects it makes a change in the flow and fabric of time and in the flow of events on this beautiful and wild spinning orb we call home. We are all b’tselem Elohim (in an image of Holiness). This means we are POWERFUL and CAPABLE of doing miraculous things!

To end my fast, before I began it, being the Virgo, Alpha female that I still am, even alone, I had made my brother Paul’s Dahl. I did indeed have a little bowl of it, which was more than I could actually finish, at the end of my ordeal. I was still a little too close to the other side and felt sick and weak. I ate because I knew I needed to, not because I felt hungry. I was beyond hunger when the three stars in the sky had emerged to announce the END of the fast. So, after my three glasses of water and my small bowl of soup, I slept for a few hours.

My usual sleep pattern is, if I’m lucky, four hours, than maybe another two if I get really lucky. So, at my usual time, which was around 2 a.m., I got up. I was hungry then and I opened my tiny fridge and decided to have a small bowl of yogurt.  This was yogurt that the nuns had gotten for me.  I had asked for organic plain whole yogurt. I am endeavoring to not eat sugar or gluten currently. But, somehow, they and I, missed the blueberries on the label. Those small blue berries were tiny in the picture at the bottom of the container. In fact, the plain yogurt and the blueberry yogurt look very similar, but guess what, they aren’t similar at all.

I was so HAPPY, you have no idea, with that blueberry surprise. That marvelous “mistake,” that the Holy One surely orchestrated for me, of blueberries and just a drop of sugar in a perfect blend of Irish whole milk yogurt, ummmmm, yummmmm. I cannot even begin to tell you how fabulous that bowl of yogurt at 2 a.m. in the morning was. I only hope, wherever you are, in whatever timezone, or faith tradition, or state of wellness or illness you are currently experiencing, you stop and take a moment to breathe and appreciate this moment of your being alive, in a body. Hopefully you can find a moment and are able to say with all your being Todah Rabah/Immense and Great Thanks! If not, have somebody go get you some blueberry yogurt!

I’m closing with a photo of my lunch today, which was at 3 p.m.; this seems to be when I want to eat lunch here. I basically don’t eat dinner, just a snack, or piece of fruit. But, my appetite has returned and so this was my lovely large luncheon. The carrot salad was a new invention and I’ll put up that recipe sometime soon. The Dahl, yogurt raita and lightly cooked kale are all recipes you can discover here, should you want to recreate this meal. The lamb chops are from a local butcher with lamb from a nearby field. The kale and carrots and cucumber (in the raita) are all from the garden here. It’s nice to feel alive again and have this kind of feast for my tummy as well as for my eyes and heart.

Food for my Body and Soul
Food for my Body and Soul
Detail of the Holy Feast!
Detail of the Holy Feast!