I seek out the divine spark in each person while trying to understand their unique talents and contributions to our world.
I walked into the hospital room, where a man lay actively dying. His breathing was ragged. Amidst the noises of the ICU equipment, I slipped in with the gathered family members. From the doctors, I knew the prognosis was poor. The patient’s mom asked for a prayer. The family desperately wanted a cure, to see him wake up. I knew that my obligation lay in offering salve, not salvation, so I offered these words: “Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, our God and God of our fathers and mothers, please protect this man in his fragile state. Please guide his doctors and nurses to provide the best possible care at this moment. Please grant them the ability to use the tools at their disposal to manage his pain. And please provide his family with the vision to see how to best support him.”
My prayer reflected a belief that rather than acting directly in the world, God acts through the divine spark in each of us. God gives to doctors the wisdom to know which medical intervention is best, to nurses the instinct to offer care at just the right moments, and me as the chaplain the ability to offer space for grief, pain and loss. Although this family was in deep pain, I wanted to reflect to them that each of us has an ability to strive toward God, but that God does not solve the problems of the world: we do. The divinity in each of us provides us with the ability to connect on a deeper level, to fortify a relationship or to offer comfort to someone in need of healing. The divine spark within me encourages me to seek a rabbinate where I encounter people to whom I can offer comfort, healing, and connection.
I thrive when the rich narrative of our tradition intersects with today’s Jewish landscape.
“I don’t believe in God!” my 10-year-old student announced to me as I began our lesson. I paused and asked: “What do you mean?” It turned out that this student felt connected to Reform Judaism, but to him the fact that he did not believe in any sort of God meant he could not become a Bar Mitzvah. I heard my 10-year-old self similarly saying that I could not be Jewish because God could not exist. We entered the sanctuary and opened the Torah to the Ten Commandments. I read aloud and translated, asking if these were the things in which he did not believe. He nodded. I suggested that he replace the word God with community. After a few minutes of silence, he looked up at me with a gleam in his eye and smiled. “I need to think about it,” he told me. Four years later, this same student approached me, explaining that our lesson still sits with him each time he feels discouraged by Judaism’s beliefs.
The Jewish tradition provides a deep well of rich sources from which to draw meaning. I thrive on engaging with Talmudic (legal) debates, discovering the juicy midrashim (interpretations), and exploring Halacha (Jewish law), but more than anything, I love translating our tradition into a modern language that comes alive for individuals of all ages. The power of Judaism is that it speaks to a spectrum of individuals, offering something for each person to delve into and explore. My rabbinate focuses on illuminating the depth of Judaism and Jewish text, while ensuring that our conversations are firmly grounded in today’s world.
I believe in the power of kehilah kedoshah (holy community) as a means to confront the challenges of the day.
My rabbinic mentor and I left the smoke and fires raging through the communities we served to drive to a wedding relocated because of the fires. In the hotel lobby, we engaged other Jewish leaders in conversations about how to organize the various congregations impacted by the fires in the San Fernando Valley. We monitored the process of calling all congregants to ascertain their safety and needs. We drafted a letter to the broader Jewish community outlining how to help. Then we walked outside for the wedding. As we stood looking at the chuppah, I marveled at the fact that this wedding was a small tikkun (repair) of the brokenness of the moment. The chuppah, open on four sides, represents our home and our Jewish community. The couple, then unsure whether or not their home still stood, welcomed their loved ones into this temporary home to witness their love. They shined as a beacon of light to the world, demonstrating that even in unstable times, the light and love permeating the world continues to shine.
Kehillah thrives when diverse people come together. For this wedding, our purpose was uniting two women in love. With the fires raging close by, our greater Jewish community, despite denominational differences, came together to ensure that each congregational partner was accounted for and supported. At that moment, I committed to take these purposes and make them the leading principles of my rabbinate: uniting people in love and reaching out to all. My rabbinate will be a tikkun of brokenness by bringing people together. We must be a community with differences, united by our common belief in the sanctity of love and togetherness.
The wedding of good friends, Eliana and Ben, photo by Paul Robert Berman (www.paulrobertberman.com)