Only when we can know and experience the journey from slavery to redemption each day can we truly taste freedom and enjoy the milk and honey that is our inheritance.
Last week I emailed Rabbi Jan to ask for some spiritual guidance. I told her that I had this inexplicable feeling that there was something “wrong” with me, though I knew it wasn’t true. “I just feel so sad,” I wrote, later adding, “I feel lost.”
Not surprisingly, she sent her deepest and most sincere unconditional love, and then she asked, “oh, and did you notice that we have entered the book of Exodus? welcome, slavery and being oppressed, and on our way to Sinai! hineni! i am here! says Moses…as are we all..”
I hadn’t noticed, but as soon as I read her response, it all made sense. How could I have forgotten all the times in the past year when I couldn’t explain sudden, oppressive feelings of grief and loss? Or those dreams that coincided with that week’s Parsha, before I even knew what that meant, or that the Torah was read in portions?
When I met with Jan for the first time, I sipped my double Americano and unabashedly told her, “I know this might sound crazy, but I had this dream about Joseph and his technicolor coat a few months ago. I hadn’t thought of that story in years, and when I emailed one of my Jewish friends about it, she immediately responded with a link to a site discussing that week’s Torah portion. And it was the same story…”
There were other dreams, other parallels, that I could not explain. My heart and brain were finally speaking the same language, so it would seem.
About four months after our first coffee together, Rabbi Jan and I had a phone meeting to make up for the one we had scheduled at her office. It was late July, and I felt depressed. It hit me without warning. I could not explain it, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I didn’t begin the conversation by telling her that I felt as if I were mourning but could not understand why. We began talking about Yom Kippur and the other major Jewish holidays, and then she asked if I knew that Tish’a Be’Av began at sundown that day. “No,” I said, “what is Tish’a B’Av? I don’t think I’ve made it that far in the Strassfeld book.”
Again, as soon as she began describing the destruction of the temple, everything fell into place.
It had been raining on and off that day. I was standing in the backyard—which has become my labyrinth—and when she finished telling me about the 24-hour fast, I looked down and noticed that I was soaked, and kneeling in the mud, where I had apparently been since the beginning of the story.
I stood up as we got off the phone and looked down at the two distinct impressions of my kneecaps in front of the shed door. They looked like a sunken welcome mat in front of my temple, as if they had always been there, reassuring me, “Welcome, my dear, you are home now”
…that cry only happens when self-awareness is achieved and the spirit is set free to be heard, remembered, seen, and known. The spiritual challenge of Shemot is to cultivate the awareness of our own enslavement.
—Rabbi Shefa Gold
Follow the Bouncing ball
A few weeks ago, I found a lump in my right breast. I didn’t tell anyone. I knew the stats: Nine times out of ten, it’s nothing. It was. I found it during one of those inexplicable moments. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I immediately began a self breast exam, as if some larger hand were guiding me. As if my body knew something wasn’t right.
I went to work the next day and tried to maintain a “business as usual” composure, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t focus or get a single word onto the page. I stared at the same Word document for hours. Every time I went to the bathroom, I’d check to see if it was still there. Maybe I was mistaken, or maybe it was just my imagination. But it was still there, like a BB stuck to my ribcage. I walked to the bus station. On my way, unzipped my down jacket, placed my hand underneath my scarf, one more time. Still there.
I listened to Springsteen’s Greatest on the way home–lyrics I had never fully listened to– stepped off the bus, watched the headlights in both directions, “Secret Garden” playing its part in the soundtrack of my life. Dark house. I checked again. Still there. I didn’t call anyone that night. Didn’t answer the phone. It was the only time, since finally—and fully—coming out, that I put a lock and key on my mouth.
That night, the house was a different kind of empty. It echoed. It was drafty, colder. I walked through every room, opened every closet, every cupboard, cabinet, drawer, and crawlspace. And I let go of the words. All the words I thought were right. I listened for a different kind of silence.
hammer & a vice
“You can never know where another person’s heart is,” she says, shifting to the other side of her chair.
“I know,” I say, pushing down the knot in my throat.
“But she knows where your heart is,” she pauses and we make eye contact, “she knows.”
I look up at the clock and take my cue, “Yeah, I know.”
“What you are doing takes real courage, because when you’re in it,” she leans in, “you’re in it.”
I nod, not knowing what else to say.
“And it sucks! Believe me, I’ve been there. You feel awful, and pathetic, and like you just want to die, and the worst part about heartache is this false notion engrained into our culture that somehow the person who’s hurting, the one whose heart’s broken, is somehow the loser, that somehow the other person won. But it’s not about winning or losing.”
I look up from traversing the patterns in her oriental rug and open my mouth to speak, but I don’t say a word.
We spent the first half hour of the appointment talking about my job, mostly because I wanted to avoid this subject. I assumed most people in my life were sick of hearing about it, but suddenly I remembered that it was her job to listen.
“Not many people get the chance to experience loving someone so completely, and if they aren’t able to hear you talk about your pain, it’s only because they are scared of their own vulnerabilities.”
She pauses and waits for my response.