Each Day We Choose the Dip
Everything we know leads back to the river of loss and the lessons woven within her gentle ripples and harsh currents.
Each day we choose the dip.
Some days the dip is forever tears.
Other days the tears become a mikveh, we step gently into the waters of the womb of God, offer a blessing, and emerge with a New Name.
Another day comes. We begin again.
Celebrating Rabbinic Ordination
This is the drash (sermon) I gave at my rabbinic ordination in January, 2006. It is still relevant today. As I celebrate my 16th year as a rabbi, I share this with you. The Torah portions mentioned were read in synagogues during the prior two weeks during 2021/5782.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Jacob blesses his son Joseph, by giving Joseph’s sons Maneshe and Ephraim a blessing. He says “y’varech et hana’arim v’yikare b’hem shmi v’shem avotai avraham v’yitzchak .” (Genesis 48:16) “Bless the young ones, may MY name be called through them and in the name of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac”
Simply stated, “May the memories of the ancestors be upon them as a blessing.”
We also see in Shmot, next week’s parashah, God says to Moses, “Ze shmi l’olam, v’zeh zichri l’dor dor.”(Exodus 3:15) “This shall be My name forever. This is my memorial from generation to generation.”
Once again, the name is used for a blessing.
In our tradition, we say of loved ones who have died, “Zichronam livracha” “May their memory be a blessing.”
Sometimes we say, “alav or aleha shalom”…May peace be upon him or her.
This is one of our most precious meditation practices. When we mention the dead and stop to say zichrono livracha, or aleha shalom, we have the opportunity to continue our conversations with them, to receive blessing, and to offer them blessing, through the process of remembering them.
One day, I received an unexpected call from someone I didn’t know from New York who was trying to reach someone else at Kehilla Community Synagogue and stumbled upon my name and number in the process. She told me that she knew my family from when I was a child. My whole family. And then she said, “I knew your sister Julie, zichrona livracha.” She said that they were the same age. It made me stop. The fact that she said her name and then followed it by zichrona livracha took my breath away. I don’t believe I had ever heard anyone say Julie’s name with that blessing before. I asked myself, what was the blessing that I was suppose to receive by remembering her in this moment? I thought about it for many days. What is the blessing? My sister died a tragic death and for most of my life remembering her did not always feel like a blessing. It was a difficult memory. It brought great pain and suffering to our family.
I suspect that there may be people in your families who have died for whom remembering them wouldn’t always feel like a blessing. And yet, our tradition asks us to remember them as a blessing EVERY TIME we mention their name. Is this a mean trick–a way to ignore reality? I believe it offers us an opportunity. An opportunity for healing.
Reb Marcia invites us to see a bracha (a blessing) as the process of humbling ourselves by bending the knees (birkayim), reaching into the pool (breycha) and experiencing the fountain of blessings as ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES.
Zichrona livracha –“may her memory be for endless possibilities”. Whether you are the survivor of someone who experienced a tragic death, whether you have only difficult feelings about the person who died, or whether all you can remember are sweet moments, by saying zichrono livracha, we open the door to endless possibilities. To anger, radical amazement, deep grief, a softening of the belly, the warmth of our heart, deep humility. The key is that there are endless possibilities…The door is open to those who have died, and to our own healing process.
“Zecher tzaddik livrecha l’chayei haolam haba” “Remember this good person for a blessing for life in the world to come.” By saying this expression when we remember someone who has departed, we send blessings to them-endless possibilities-in the world they inhabit.
We come together today in sacred community, a day filled with many brachot, many blessings. A day that offers us endless possibilities from the deep pool of blessing.
Please join me in dipping into that pool by bringing into your heart and mind someone in your life who has died, to remember them for a blessing of endless possibilities.
The door is open to continue your conversation with them. We may think we know what this conversation should be, but just for today, just for today, allow the conversation to arise on its own-in the quiet and sacredness of this community.
Zecher tzaddik livracha — May their memories bless our lives….
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780 (2019)
My sermon from 2019 about unconditional love. Time to revisit this!
I recently watched the movie Boy Erased based on the memoir of Garrard Conleys. It’s a very intense movie which described a true Christian Gay Conversion therapy program in the 1980s and 90s in Memphis Tennessee. It was called Love in Action. Most of the young people who went there were forced to go by their very religious parents. It was an abusive program where the participants were belittled, yelled at, and harassed. Every day they heard real voices telling them they were sick, they were going to go to hell, God didn’t love them the way they were, and much worse. It was not easy for them to voluntarily leave the program. Several people died by their own hands rather than continue in the program.
The movie saddened me, but did not surprise me or shock me. What caught my attention was the two lines at the end of the movie that told us that the main leader of the center, John Smid, had resigned, left the conversion therapy movement and was now living with his husband in Texas. I was curious about him and how that transition happened, so I did some research.
I learned that he had been gay, had two marriages to women, and got involved in the movement because he was trying to stay straight. He was the leader for over 20 years. How did he get out? How did he come out again?
This question is the heart of the Rosh Hashanah journey. How will we change and evolve and ultimately work with forgiveness this year? The story goes that there were protestors who stood outside of the program for eight weeks chanting, “We love you just the way you are!” Although we might think they were trying to support the participants, Smid said that even when he arrived in the morning, they would address him, the head of this program, the abuser, with the same language, “We love you just the way you are.” They may have also added, “God loves you just the way you are.” It took him weeks, but he finally heard their message. He realized in that moment that God’s voice was coming through to him and it was time for him to accept himself. After participating in the harm of so many young people, including those who died because they weren’t allowed to love themselves, he heard God’s voice and got out. He came out. Because of the protestors consistent message of love, he was able to change his self-talk that by being gay he was succumbing to the devil, into self-talk that he was loved by God just the way he was.
Hopefully our lives are not that extreme. Hopefully we aren’t waiting for an epiphany like that to quiet our self-talk.
However, in my years as a Spiritual Director, Rabbi and Chaplain I’ve heard a lot of very harmful self-talk and it saddens me. “I’m not smart enough, it’s my fault I got cancer, it’s my fault my daughter got cancer, I don’t do enough to save the world, I don’t do enough to contribute to my community, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad spouse, I’m a bad daughter, I’m a bad friend, I’m a bad person. I’m ugly, I’m not lovable, I hate my nose, I hate my body, I hate my culture, I hate my life.” How can we expect to engage in a meaningful life when there’s a voice yelling at us all the time and the voice is ours?
It is Rosh Hashanah, and we are looking at our lives, our connection with the Source of All Creation and Love, and we probably are aware of some of the self-talk that is hard to quiet. I suppose the one up side of these repetitive accusations is that we are already very experienced mantra meditators. If we can only learn to change the words that we repeat to ourselves daily, hourly, perhaps we can find a path to kindness and greater participation in our lives. Perhaps we can find a glimpse of a fresh start this year.
Rabbi Naomi Levy in her book Einstein and the Rabbi teaches a beautiful approach to help us calm the negative voices yelling at us from within, using one Hebrew word. Chusah. Let’s say it out-loud together. Chusah. It makes a sound like waves crashing against the shore. There’s a whoosh to the word, a feeling of cleansing. Rabbi Levy interprets CHUSAH this way: It’s not pity, not mercy, not just compassion. Chusah is the special kind of love that an artist has for her own creation, even when it’s imperfect. It’s a compassion for somethings that’s flawed. Chusah involves the absence of judgment. The prayer, Haneshama Lach pleads God to have compassion and tenderness for the soul and the body that God created. We plead with God to have compassion on us no matter our flaws.
Chusah is the way we love our children even though they are messy and unique. Their uniqueness makes them even more beautiful. Chusah is the way we love their artwork and put it on our walls even when it is a mere scribble on paper.
Chusah, is the voice of the soul that says, “Try again, it’s okay, you are precious”.
So instead of the litany of self- talk that speaks like a judge, we can let our compassionate soul fill us with unconditional love using the word Chusah. Chusah doesn’t mean denial. It means that with kinder eyes we give ourselves permission to look at ourselves without cringing and without hate, so that we can actually see what’s there, what needs fixing. So we can face what we resist. The soul’s voice says, “I don’t need to only take stock of my failings, I need to take stock of my strengths. I need to know what I’ve been blessed with so I can understand what I have to work with.”
Chusah can also teach us to soften the judgments we place on others, loved ones, colleagues, and absolute strangers too. There are accusations we hold against people who harmed us in the past. There are snap judgments we make about people we don’t even know based on nothing but their appearance or a single bad encounter. We label people at work, people in our communities, and people in our families. We place them in a box, “immature, lazy, annoying, stupid, ugly”. We rarely take the time to reassess the sentences we’ve passed against them. By doing this, we put ourselves in the box, isolating ourselves from others.
Rabbi Levy teaches that it is deceptively simple to work with the word Chusah for a healing purpose. Tonight we will play with this word for just a minute. Let us sit quietly. Let the word Chusah float inside you. Don’t say the word aloud. Let it roll around inside your mind and throughout your limbs. You can imagine you swallowed the word like a painkiller, and soon it is relieving the pain wherever you hurt. Just let the word do what it needs to do. Don’t worry if you lose the word for awhile. Just return to repeating it in your mind. Take it lightly, don’t try to push or to stress over it. Let it dance inside you like a flickering flame, illuminating you from within.
IF you found meaning in this practice, I invite you to do it for 5 minutes and then stretch it to more and more until you reach 18 minutes of unconditional love. Day by day, the word Chusah begins softening our judgments, melting our barriers.
It allows us to look upon others with a more forgiving eye. We begin to look upon ourselves with a more forgiving eye.
The protestors outside of the Love in Action program were like the word Chusah washing through John Smid every day until he could feel it throughout his body and soul. He internalized what the protestors were saying to him, that he is worthy of love, even God’s love, just the way he is. At the same time, he knew that all the people in the program were similarly worthy of love just the way they were. This deep knowledge allowed him to step back, see all the harm his program had done, accept responsibility for his part, and then move forward to do right by shutting down the program and take steps to make repairs. And then there was the aftermath. How did John Smid face himself in his part of causing serious harm, even death? I can’t imagine what it was like for those who suffered because of the program. I also know that John Smid had to live his life knowing how much he caused the longtime suffering of others. Smid said it was really hard to live with what he had done.
When I hear his story, I see how important the concept of him knowing we are all worthy of love was the catalyst for change. However, using the tools of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah may have helped him begin to repair the harm he caused. For example, he attempted teshuvah by shutting down the program and by making public apologies. He invited people who had been harmed by the program to speak with him directly so he could do whatever repair work was possible.
He also said that sometimes he had to live in denial because otherwise he might not be able to live with the heart break. Denial as a coping strategy, when used in small doses can be very effective to help us manage otherwise overwhelming matter. Our heart can’t survive in a constant state of brokeness. This is also where tefillah/prayer could come in. Sometimes the only place to take our heartbreak is to tefillah. By accepting our heartbreak and expressing it, sometimes the heartbreak softens.
I don’t know if John Smid donated any money to any pro-gay or other causes, but that was and still is an option for him. Tzedakkah doesn’t fix the harm, but it acknowledges that repair is needed and can soften the long- term effect of what happened.
Could he forgive himself? Could he forgive the forces that put him in the closet in the first place? I don’t know, but I do know the protestors, the voices of love without judgment, the voice of Chusah, was key to his “recovery” from negative self- talk, and key to stopping the harm he had participated in. Hopefully it was also the beginning of a process of forgiveness.
On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, I invite us to feel wrapped in the power of Chusah, love without judgment. I invite us to allow our tools of teshuvah/tefillah and tzedakah to help us begin to transform and repair that which is sorely in need of repair. I invite us to soften, soften, soften, towards ourselves and each other.
And let us say Amen,
Prayer as Medicine
One of my favorite things to teach is ways to approach Jewish prayer so that it opens a place in your heart that is deeply personal. The recipe I use is approaching prayer as medicine, unlocking it’s healing remedies through learning, singing, creative writing, sharing, and listening in a small group. We write about how we connect to the prayer and our classmates listen for the words that jump out and touch us. Participants have shared that after this class, prayers they thought they knew were awakened more deeply for them. And the new prayers landed in their hearts.
Please consider joining me or telling a friend about my upcoming class of Prayer as Medicine, four Thursdays at 5 p.m. PST, starting December 2 and ending Jan. 13 (ever other week). Limited to 8 participants, cost is $144. Send me a note if interested. https://rabbichayagusfield.com/contact/
New art endeavors. I end this post with a few new pieces of art I have made. If you like my art, let me know if you would like some cards made with your favorite piece. I’d be happy to order you some for a small donation to cover costs. Check out Chaya’s Gallery https://rabbichayagusfield.com/home/chayasgallery/ to see your choices! They aren’t titled, so take a photo and send it to me. I’ll make you some cards….
Much love, Chaya
I don’t remember the names of my friends I spent my waking hours with when I was a young child. Playing hide and seek in all nooks and crannies in the street. Sitting together at school, and then after school finding our way into each other’s homes, into each other’s rooms. Into each other’s kitchens. I can’t remember if there were cookies. I miss my friends.
I remember the bunnies in the back yard and the lilac bushes that grew outside my second floor bedroom window. A room I shared with my older sister. I don’t remember much we talked about at night. I can still remember the intoxicating perfume of the lilac as if it were this morning.
I remember the cherry trees and the open yards, no fences between us and our neighbors on any side. I climbed the trees with the squirrels and bugs. The cherries were fantastically delicious. Cherry red.
I remember I jumped off the porch onto green grass. Rolling and feeling strong.
I remember the Fall leaves raked high at the side of our house. We jumped into the crunchy pile, disrupting their order. I don’t remember the names of my friends who I jumped with. I miss my friends. Even the ones who weren’t always so nice.
I don’t remember what we did all summer, all day, in the Midwest heat, on days I wasn’t dropped at the public, packed, noisy, swimming pool. With my friends. I can’t remember their names but we had so much fun swimming, and running on the hot cement, and even sometimes kissing under water.
There was a diving board. I was brave. I was scared.
I remember the taste of melting fudgesicles and ice cream sandwiches, but I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast or lunch or how much a fudgesicle cost.
I don’t remember who I spoke to as a child when my heart broke or even why it broke. But I do remember it did. Break. Many times.
I never forgot the special days when there were graham crackers piled high in my bowl like Fall leaves, with milk and sugar covering them until they mushed into a scrumptious soupy mess just waiting to be devoured. No holding back, no moderation. That was breakfast in 1961. On those special comfort graham cracker days.
I remember wearing white polished tennis shoes when this six-year-old white Jewish American kid went to Catholic school in India.
I don’t remember the names of my friends in India, but I miss them. Ever so much.
I remember jumping into my parent’s bed and playing with my mother’s fleshy arms. I don’t remember how old I was. But it smelled good and we were happy.
I miss them. I remember missing them, even then.
The Rest is Just Dance
I have been deployed to listen and accompany others to help them feel the presence of something unnameable, unpronounceable, something Timeless. To deepen and find meaning in those moments. To cry, to laugh, to wonder, to appreciate. To feel.
I call myself a Spiritual Midwife or Accompanist, but in a way, I am a spiritual voyeur. I think “oh, what a beautiful moment of God”, or “how she is uplifted by the Sacred, or “how I love to witness the journey, the movement, the aha”. And then I feel it, too. Through their experience. How delicious.
And then it happens to me. It sneaks up on me, surprises me with a whisper or a melody or a movement. It is indescribable, but I know. I know I am having one of those moments myself. I want to share it, but somehow, I know it is just between me and the Shechinah.
A voice argues with me. If I can get you to feel what I felt, maybe something indescribable will happen to you, too. And then I remember each moment belongs to the moment, not to a different one. Yet, I give in. I will try to describe it anyway.
I have been shaking/waving the lulav for many years now during Sukkot. In my sukkah, made from colorful items, photos of our family and biblical ancestors, solar lights, with homemade and found objects. Like straw walls or screens, or the large palms that fell from a tree.
I know how to say the blessing for waving the lulav, to stand facing East, to shake the lulav 3 times each time I wave it. I wave it towards the East in front of me, then to the South, to the right, then towards the West, in back of me, then to the North, to the left, then up to the Sky and Heavens, and finally down to Earth. I end with the lulav close to my heart. Six directions, and then always arriving home at the heart.
I know different kavannot that remind me there is meaning to this ritual. Of unification, feeling the Presence, acknowledging the fragility of life, dreaming of the possibility of rain. I know when we shake the lulav during the prayer songs of Hallel we are to bring the lulav close to our hearts whenever we sing the name of God (Adonai). Hodu ladonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, or Ana Adonai Hoshiana, or other psalms containing the name of God. We sing, we shake to the rhythm of the phrase, always to return the lulav close to the heart at Adonai. In the past, shaking the lulav during prayer songs has always been an effort. I fumbled, not knowing how to divide up the shaking to fit each word with the melody.
This year was different. Alone in my sukkah with the Pandemic Hallel Sukkot zoom service on my Ipad, this time Something happened. I focused on only one thing. When we say the name of God-Adonai, the lulav must be brought close to the heart. I discovered that’s all that matters. Once we bring God to our hearts, everything else falls into place and the dance of the shaking does its magic.
There is no effort, just God, close to my heart.
Once I feel God close to my heart, the rest of life is just dance.
This Poem Was Always by My Side (revised, October 1, 2021)
The dead. The alive. And those in between.
They are always with us. They always have been. They always will be.
Whether they are invited or not, we hear the hum of their unmistakable presence.
As we learn how to talk about the unspeakable, and when we fail miserably.
By our side, sitting on our shoulders, they comfort us during the nightmare, and whisper reminders of caution when memory is clouded by rage.
They carefully place breadcrumbs for us to follow when we are seeking a path to travel.
We feel them smile when we arrive home.
Our parents. All of them.
Ex-lovers who died before we could become family.
Future lovers, waiting in the wings.
Childhood friends, and even those we had hoped would play with us on the playground, but never did.
Babies we didn’t plan for who never came to be, babies yet to be born, and those who only dreamt of their birthday.
The dead, those alive, and those in liminal spaces, are always with us.
We dance with the memories of those we have yet to meet, woven into our moving hips.
We wail with the ancestors we never knew. Some fled their homeland of Poland leaving families in lost graves. Never to return.
We journey to find them, behind locked Jewish cemetery gates crafted in the shape of menorahs. The cemetery is so large, one wonders how they were ever lost.
We celebrate with the grandson of a distant cousin becoming a bar mitzvah. In Argentina. During a pandemic. Masked on Zoom.
We have known these prayers and melodies for many lifetimes. They fill our eyes with life and heal wounds we didn’t know we had. They touch places that have no words.
We love a great-niece we have never held or touched or smelled. She cracks a smile and babbles through cyberspace. Making sounds of sheep.
The heart hears. The soul sees her neshama.
They all find a place at our delicious Shabbes table. Every one of them.
There is homemade challah. Even dessert. Sometimes there is an apple cake. Or chocolate almond cake so rich you wonder if heaven might taste like this.
We hear the unexpected cries of the shofar in the neighborhood. Is it close? Or from another time and place?
We send sacred blasts back to the unknown shofar blower. We have always known each other. We don’t need to know their name.
They arrive for Shabbes and find a place at the table. They bring sweet wine.
We breathe for the man in the bed struggling to find his breath. We hold up the nurse who is caring for him and so many others with COVID-19. She is tired. We comfort her with song and sweets.
We swim in the river with the children, and we bury the ones who died during the Great Deluge. The First Flood, and the ones that continue.
Grief permeates. Swirling throughout our dreams.
Joy and despair from every time and space make their home within us. They find a place at our Shabbes table and raise a glass.
They are always with us. All of them.