Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saying Goodbye to my Inspiration

I’ve only had my heart broken once.

It happened on an adventure. My companion grabbed my hand like a trusty friend and told me to close my eyes. He led me to a sunny field where the air smelled fresh and the birches donned a silvery glow. We stood there squinting at the sky as our faces flushed with warmth, then he clutched my shoulder and drilled his gaze into my soul. “Stay here forever,” he urged. He whispered promises of progress and transformation if I would make this place my home. Then he released his grip and fled.

His name is Inspiration.

We’ve all known him. He’s the one whose first appearance happens when we are most in need. His arrival is spontaneous. He’s the sudden surge of momentum that enlivens our cumbersome journeys, he's the headlight that clarifies clouded paths. He makes us fearless. We travel to far-off places without a blink, we shed the safety of our snugly worn identities and start anew.

But Inspiration takes off just as quickly as he comes.

No parting words, no drawn out goodbyes. Just a deafening silence and the stark awareness of betrayal. I remember the day he left. Externally my life remained unchanged, but my faith deflated and my movements forgot their meanings.

And then it was just me. Just me and God, residing in that faraway meadow, its once hopeful song of promise flattened by the dense, formidable night.

I sat there in the darkness, retracing memories of Inspiration in my mind’s eye. I recalled his flickering smile and his soft, encouraging words, I replayed his poignant pronouncements of all that was Good and True. Those words made me do what was right. Infatuated with his eloquent tale of an embracing and visible God, my own will fell listless in the wake of a newly-infused thrust to serve only Him. With each righteous act, Inspiration would nod approvingly and my heart would swell with a deep satisfaction.

I had regarded myself as an earnest servant of God, but a glimpse into the sinews of my memory revealed that God only loomed in the backdrop of each recollection, overtaken by the dramatic love story that blazed between Inspiration and me. The light of our love was so bright and the sounds so melodious that I couldn’t help but do all that Inspiration said was right- but I grew to love the light more than its source and the entity I bowed to was named Self-Satisfaction.

Now, for the first time since Inspiration fled, the lightless sky seemed a more fitting conduit for Truth than the light I once cherished. I realized that my fling with Inspiration was just a story God spun to lift me out from my constrictions and lead me toward Him. God knew that without Inspiration- without my freewill folding beneath the weight of my certainty- I never would have approached Him.

God’s hushed orchestration culminated in a moment of growth charading as tragedy. With Inspiration’s release from his mission, God invited me to share in a more inward relationship with him, one that proved impossible against the blinding light of Inspiration: A bond founded on the choice to commit.

I still reside in that field. Sometimes I think I spot my long-ago friend darting through the underbrush, but his outline is blurry and his face is always turned away. Those moments make me pine for my Inspiration, longing to see the world through his eyes once more.

I know he’ll return. I know God wants him to return, to sweep me up in a tangle of new questions and insights and longings, to rescue me from this shadowy place and catapult me to the next phase of my journey. 

But in the meantime, I know I have the opportunity for something even more valuable. I can connect to God Himself, in darkness and in light, in doubt and in certainty. It’s finally just the two of us.

Now the real love story can begin.


"I want nothing at all! I don't want Your gan eden, I don't want Your olam haba... I want nothing but You alone." (Hayom Yom Kislev 18)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

G-d is Irrational and Emotional and We Should All Start Respecting Him for That

G-d is often characterized as a self-sustaining entity who sits upon his lofty transcendent throne, existing in a spiritual vacuum immune to the world and its failings. He tends to be defined as a state of being that affects but isn’t affected, gives but doesn’t receive, and never falls victim to the anguish of human emotion. When we think of G-d, we think of “beyondness.” The mere suggestion that G-d may experience needs or desires or pleasure seems downright laughable- maybe even heretical. Those are uniquely human qualities- right? So how dare we limit our perception of G-d to our physical human experience and thereby detract from his incomprehensible awesomeness.

But the detached, transcendent G-d character just doesn't seem impressive to me. Something about it seems…natural. Obvious. Intuitively speaking, if a spiritual force such as G-d exists, it’s home would be in the heavens. There is nothing novel about the notion that a spiritual entity would naturally be found in a spiritual (as opposed to a physical) environment. Just as the nature of our physical bodies is to abide in the physical world and perceive a physical reality, the “nature” of a spiritual G-d should axiomatically be within the spiritual world. In general, creation sways in the direction of it’s nature. Fish thrive under water, birds roam the sky, foliage sprouts in the climate suited to its species. A G-d who has been defined as “spiritual” and exists only in a transcendent state would be existing according the rules of its predetermined nature, just like the rest of creation.

But G-d isn’t a creation. G-d is the Creator. He’s beyond the rules, and they don’t have to apply to Him if He doesn’t want them to. By defining G-d as "spiritual," we are limiting Him. By viewing Him as existing only beyond and not within, we are failing to recognize His infinity.

In my opinion, an awe-inspiring G-d is one with no nature. He can reconcile seemingly dichotomous realities: That of heaven and that of earth, that perceivable by G-d and that known to humankind. He is a G-d whose being extends infinitely beyond the scope of our imagination, but within whom burns a deep desire for a dwelling place in the lowest and darkest of worlds. A G-d who loves us and needs us so much that He’s willing to recreate us at every moment, when let’s be honest- He could be doing a zillion other things up in heaven. My G-d intimately knows every sinew of the human experience, feeling our joy and agony more intensely than any created being could. His deep empathy is a testimony to- not a detraction from- His greatness. My G-d existed before existence itself, yet cares about the minute details of what we do during our puny lifespan. My G-d is all-powerful, but depends on me to fulfill the purpose of creation. My G-d is emotionally invested in me. My G-d believes in me.

He is a G-d who clearly doesn’t make any sense at all. He contradicts Himself left and right; He lives in countless worlds at once. But it is precisely G-d’s ability to exist unconfined by nature that makes His epicness so unprecedented. This is an awe-inspiring G-d. This is the G-d I choose as my King.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Farbrengens Belong on the Couch

My fondest moments during seminary took place in what my friends and I termed the “couch room.”

Our cherished space was a musty little corner on the top floor of the school building. Adorned with two couches and a chair wide enough for two, the room begged us to abandon our beds late at night and relish in the air of comfort and camaraderie provided by that haven-like space. We would pile onto the weathered blue cushions and sink beneath a heap of blankets, munching on stale dinner leftovers and that terrible Israeli chocolate spread. The room was a cold-blooded entity: Freezing in the winter and sweltering in the spring. It absorbed the temperature of its visitors, wholeheartedly swallowing our joyful laughter and succumbing to corrosion at the exchange of sharp words and unexpected emotional outpours.

We most often found ourselves migrating to the couch room on Thursday nights, after our weekly public farbrengen had quieted. Those farbrengens were held in the main classroom on the first floor. We’d gather around the table on wobbly plastic chairs as we anticipated our special guest. A rabbi would usually lead the gathering as a guest speaker, awakening our minds with riveting, impassioned storytelling or by publicly reflecting on and clarifying a little-understood concept. By the end, our minds buzzed with excited comprehension of new ideas in Jewish mysticism, our hearts uplifted by chassidic tunes and the giddy aftertaste of sweet wine.

After the rabbi concluded his presentation, we’d ascend to our respective dorm rooms to strip ourselves of stiff pleated skirts in exchange for sweatshirts and slippers. Sleep was out of the question, for a storm of new ideas had just jolted us awake, beckoning us to engage with them.

When you’re hit with the initial primitive spark of an epiphany, you don’t automatically process it right away. It just kind of hangs over your head and follows you everywhere like a homeless puppy pining for attention, until you finally stretch out your hands and give it a comfortable home in your thought, speech, and action. You have to develop those epiphanies and endow them with a life and a voice. Without us to absorb those realizations into our lives, they’ll ascend beyond the world of action into a state of limbo, losing their potency and their relevance until some other fiery farbrengener seizes them again and releases them back into our world.

That’s why a farbrengen should begin at a table and end on a couch. The couch is where general concepts turn personal, intellectual ideas solidify into emotional convictions, and abstractions become applicable. It's where we learn how to form self-reflective responses to our daily experiences as Jews, housing a spiritual consciousness not restricted to a shul or a classroom. We need a comfort zone where we can explore our spirituality honestly.  The farbrengens in the couch room taught me to relate to G-d with vulnerability, and to do so actively rather than just be a passive recipient of a concept. They taught me what it means to not only commune with ideas, but to commune with my fellow in a raw, genuine way. 

The world “farbrengen” literally means “passing time.” It’s meant to be an exploration of reality in real-time, not isolated as a fancy community function that removes us from our natural way of being. A formal community gathering is only the beginning- not an event in and of itself, but rather an invitation to explore new conceptual frontiers on our own terms, on our own time, in our own space....and on our own couch. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Lately, all I can think about is the current situation in Israel. A clamor of convictions about the conflict lives in the back of my mind, interrupting my internal dialogue with fiery claims as I go about my day. Thoughts of innocent lives stolen too soon, of soldiers who have given up everything to protect their people. I think about this world- this world that contains infinite capacity for kindness and truth is the same world that lives with eyes half shut and hearts desensitized to unfathomable acts of violence. Over and over, I silently assert myself to an imaginary audience: Israel has a right to defend itself. Hamas is a terrorist organization. Israel wants peace. We are ready for peace, but the world isn’t ready for truth.

Those words don't comfort me. Instead, they plague me like a broken record. They pain me because the world isn't willing to listen to them. The same words that I hear in my mind I hear on the news, on the radio, in dinner table conversations. Everything that can be said has been said. Arguments in defense of Israel’s actions have been delivered with eloquence and intellectual honesty, each one culminating with the satisfying blow of cold, hard facts. And it seems that every time, the words ricochet off the globe’s hardened consciousness, their message absorbed by no one and nothing, their conviction now but a homeless echo discerned only by those responsible for its conception.

So I don’t really know what to say. I just feel like I need to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and voice the concern I feel for my friends and family in Israel.

I do believe things will get better. For weeks, I’ve been trying to trying to decipher G-d’s cryptic ways and translate the puzzling stories He tells through His creations. There has to be a message here, some uplifting conclusion that will ease our minds. You may have noticed that my writing almost always follows a question or inconsistency to its final reconciliation, because I truly believe that from darkness and evil sprout light and goodness.

But in this case, I haven't quite figured out yet how to appreciate that hidden light. G-d is speaking a language that we’re struggling to understand, and no real consolation can be offered until the ultimate war between Truth and falsehood has reached its end.

I really wish G-d would be more transparent.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reflections on Gimmel Tammuz

Today is the 20th yartzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I never had the privilege of meeting the Rebbe, but what I have had is the precious opportunity to study a portion of his mystical teachings. Chassidus is a philosophy of depth, complexity, and honesty, but it's also so much more than that.

Chassidus forces you to meet the soul that you are. It balks at the constraints of nature and challenges you to reassess the limitations of a seemingly finite existence. It banishes the notion of a one-dimensional G-d figure, replacing every answer about G-d with a question. It introduces you to a G-d who needs you, a G-d who gives you a purpose simply by desiring you. It speaks of a G-d who transcends all created experiences, yet intimately knows your joys and sorrows even more profoundly than you do. Chabad Chassidus bridges the chasm between physical and spiritual, body and soul, G-d and Jew.

It is the study of Torah through the prism of Chassidus that has kept my personal Judaism alive, and it is due to the Rebbe’s influence that world Jewry has thrived to such an astonishing extent. Words cannot capture the magnitude of the Rebbe’s impact or the gratitude that I feel for having found a path guided by his philosophy.

This day may be the yartzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but the Rebbe is by no means removed from the advances of world. Since his passing, new sparks of his influence enlighten the world every day: A revitalized connection to G-d, a more nuanced appreciation for Torah wisdom, a purer love of one’s fellow.

This day is not a commemoration of that which was. Gimmel Tammuz is a recognition of what is if we simply peer beneath the surface, and what can be if we embrace that hidden truth and live it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Spirituality and the Job Search

I recently completed my Master’s degree and began looking for full-time work.

I knew it would be a difficult process- networking is not my forte and I have little prior work experience.

It would only seem natural that I would reach out to Hashem at a time like this. After all, material blessings are just as much in His control as spiritual ones. Although it may seem that my destiny lay in the whims of HR personnel, G-d’s will is the only true determinant of where I end up. 

But instead of pleading to G-d to redeem me from my “broke graduate student living off dwindling student loans” status, I buried my face in job applications told Him to leave me alone.

I began devoting my energies to overly-enthusiastic application essays at the expense of recognizing G-d’s role in all of this. I called everyone I knew who could potentially get me a job, but I never asked G-d to get me one. I quickly became a slave to nature, focused only on my efforts in the natural world rather than the reality that G-d will ultimately be the one to grant me what I need. 

In this world, you have to follow a specific process if you want to be able to live. Go to school, win over your professors, get good grades, fill out job applications, sound super competent and professional at job interviews. You have to abide by the rules to a certain extent to get what you need materially. But those rules contain no intrinsic power- they just happen to be the channels G-d has chosen for distribution of those brachos. If He wanted to bypass nature in order to sustain us, He totally could.

I just chose not to acknowledge this. I resisted praying to G-d, even though I knew that I should.

At the time, I didn’t know why. I chose not to take the time to think about the emotions underlying my avoidance. But at a certain point, the dissonance between what I knew I should be doing and how I was actually going about it became uncomfortable enough that I finally relented. I reluctantly invited G-d to have a heart-to-heart with me. 

Although my one-on-one’s with G-d usually start out rather cerebral, it didn’t take long for a stampede of uncomfortable feelings to invade the conversation. 

Everything was exposed. My fears, my anticipations, my absolute certainty that I would fail in the wake of a new experience. I meditated on my ambivalence toward change. I had always been successful in the past because I knew how to play the game. But the game of work- of the “real world”- is bound by different rules than those of academia.  What if I can’t learn the rules? Or what if those rules swallow me up entirely, and I cower into a decrepit pleaser of people and society with no moral backbone or spiritual consciousness? Or worse- what if I’m just not cut out for what I’ve always believed to be my calling?

It occurred to me that part of me didn’t want to get a job. And the part of me that did was paralyzed by fear of the unknown. So I had shuffled along all these roundabout paths, half-heartedly going through the motions of playing a “vessel” while circumventing the true source of my destiny. I was scared of Hashem’s brachos. And I knew if I prayed to Him, He’d probably give them to me. 

It was then that I realized: Maybe I believe in G-d more than I thought. Maybe I know deep down that all these rules are phony and G-d is the real deal. Maybe all of us possess a fundamental faith that is misconstrued as fear, a subconscious certainty in G-d’s intervention that clashes with the comfort of that which is familiar. 

Maybe I believe in G-d so much that I'm intimidated by the power of prayer. 

It's often speculated that Moshiach isn’t here yet because we don't want him enough. We’re too afraid to believe in him because we're unsettled by the prospect of the rules changing, even though it would bring fulfillment of the world’s ultimate mission. 

What we need to remember is that faith not only entails belief in our creator. It requires conviction that what He provides for us is wholly good, and that we will experience it as such. Releasing control is difficult- but we must believe we have the capacity to handle whatever He gives us. 

I haven’t found a job yet. But when I do, it won’t be because I talked to the right people or wrote a good essay. I’ll land wherever G-d wants me. 

Maybe I'll even get up the nerve to ask Him for one.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Truth About Exteriors

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

This cliche may as well be the anthem of galus.

Here in exile, we’ve learned to take nothing at face value. G-d formed our physical world with an adulterous flair and fluid loyalties, an unstable plane of existence that either reveals the truth within or commits the ultimate betrayal. Because in this world, the vessel and its contents behave as two disparate entities, coexisting without true partnership.

Regarding ourselves as wise and and discerning, we cross-examine everything until it chokes out a confession. We squint at the pages of books so not to be led astray by the covers; we second-guess our allies and withdraw our trusting smiles.

Because this is galus, and what is true often hides.

But as we dissect the prose and proclaim “Aha!” with new unseen perspectives, the book and its cover still contend with a feverish aggression. The tension is enough to burst the stitches of their binding.

We like the game. We get a rush from the searching, the intellectual toil, the digging beneath the surface. We can call ourselves deep, say we are servants of G-d. We’ve found meaning in an apparently meaningless existence.

But Moshiach isn’t here yet. How can we feel satisfied if G-d isn’t?? The cover is still unsuited to the words on the pages.

We need to get down on the linoleum floor, scissors and glue in hand, and tear off the book bindings. We need to paste on new transparent covers that tell the real, unfiltered story. Our clothes might get dirty and we’ll get dust in our eyes, and we’ll often wonder if we’ve regressed to mindless childhood projects without rhyme or reason. But the job needs to get done.

It’s not enough to identify the inner layer. G-d wants the outer and inner layers to fall in sync with each other, an alignment of spiritual and physical that can only result from doing mitzvos. Both layers need to to commit to each other, and we are officiating the supernal wedding! The revealed world will vow to the hidden one, “If you give yourself to me, I’ll express your truth.”

Think we can’t judge a book by its cover? Just wait till Moshaich comes.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Home is a constant. It fills you like a joyful breath, an unbroken inhale from a bottomless source. It’s where you reflexively return, without even a flickering thought that without it you’d have no place that is wholly yours, no palpable bridge between your past and future self. But then life takes its wandering course, and what you’ve always known is bribed away by time, mortality, choices made in the name of convenience. You went away for a while and your home slipped into someone else’s story without so much as a wave. Didn’t it know you were merely pausing mid-sentence, that you would surely return if it would only have waited a little longer? Soon there is a hollowness in your voice and a restlessness in your feet, and you run toward nothing in particular trying to find that comfortable place.

It’s inhabitants will find each other again. Maybe you’ll reconvene one summer evening by circumstance- or rather, destiny dressed as circumstance. You’ll accuse the humid air of making you lazy, rationalizing that your hasty “hello” melted into a nostalgic four-hour visit only by virtue of your skin sticking to the lawn chairs. But it’s the aura of something unfinished that holds you captive in your seats, like the itch of a half-told story or a door left ajar.

You’re wildly different from each other. You’re creators, dreamers, executives. Inventors who toy with guitars and electronics and relationships. You ran away to find yourselves and start anew, because the ceilings were too low and the childhood photos obsolete. You were just too different from one another.

And yet now, your thoughts all sound the same. Buzzing, panicking, grappling with the notion that all that was is no more, that your collective future may be fragmented into individual ones. You’ll gaze at the dim sky and make vapid remarks until your thoughts drown out your words, and the unspoken will finally pry its way out into the tense air.

“I can’t believe they sold the house.”

You want those words to fix you. To console you in your homelessness, to remind you that you’re a somebody. You want them to heal you on release like a stifled sigh, as though having held your breath was the only mistake.

But they don’t. Instead, they coldly insist that this isn’t about you. Those words glare at you, accusingly: This is about something that was that is no more, a lost artifact that longs for rebuilding. It’s about a home that needs you. The values imparted in that space ache for expression; the love that was sewn there must extend itself to a new generation. Instead you’ve built yourselves up, defined yourselves with grandiose titles and radical works of art. You pinned on a name tag to forget yourself- to forget that where you are and where you came from are fundamentally connected. Those words are a reminder.

As you meet each other’s gaze, a succession of emotions slaps you like a sudden wind- shame, forgiveness, a resolve for reconciliation. The moment wraps itself around you- tightly, so your ego can’t breathe. The walls of the sky seem to arch forward, as though the world were created for the sole sake of this reunion.

A wordless pact rises from your circle of lawn chairs.

It’s time to start building.