This year marks the 10th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi and only now am I beginning to see what God had up Her sleeve when I got the call. For me the call came like a throb, prodding me to keep moving along my path, to open my heart, to forgive, to take another look at what I had left, to get down to work. But what was the work? What was the fire I felt that spurred me to become a leader in a religion with which I had such a love-hate relationship?

Was it simply to prove wrong the Orthodox world in which I had been raised? Was it to break down the divider, the mechitzah, in synagogues and temples, behind which women had been banished? Was it to finally seize some of the sacred power that had been appropriated by the men exclusively to themselves?

Although all of these causes may have their merit, the truth of my call went much deeper. Many others have heard this call and feel this urgency. It is a call to dig down and raise up the principles of life that are the root truths of our ancestral traditions. Whether we are working within a formal tradition or freelancing on the labyrinth walk to God, we must learn to listen with our hearts to the inner voice that compels us and tells us "Don't give up!" Have faith in your yearning, believe in your dreams for a world in which we and our children can live with our hearts open, unafraid to speak our truth, to be ourselves, to reach out across barriers and the unspoken laws that tell us we must hold ourselves back and cut others off.

There is a fine old story about a student who came to a wise old rabbi and said, "Rabbi, in the olden days, there were men who saw the face of God. Why don't we anymore?"

The rabbi replied: Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.

Whatever else you may say about women, one thing is certain: women know how to stoop. After centuries spent serving others, hidden behind the veil and the divider, we know what it means to be humble. We know what it means to serve. And there have been some of us who, while stooping down low, have seen quite a lot of God's face.

As women the world over become fueled with the fire of the Divine Spirit, and come into more and more power and prominence in our communities, how do we remember the humble, earthy voice of wisdom? How do we remember to listen down low, to the heartbeat of the world? How do we keep our hearts open when our world is on fire? When we fear for our children? When there is suffering at every turn? As one teacher put it: How do we keep our hearts open in hell? Three points from Jewish tradition show the way.

The first part of the Jewish approach is summed up in a Yiddish proverb: "There is no heart so whole as a heart that is broken." This saying reminds me that it is all right, and necessary nowadays, to live with intense feelings of pain--my own and those around me. There is a certain kind of strength that comes when we live with a broken heart. As a female rabbi, on days that I am feeling the full strain of my own imperfect life, the river of human kindness flows between me and others so much more easily; I feel others' pain more deeply and I can feel what they need. On the days when we have the courage to go out into the world with a broken heart, our heart becomes whole because our pain is shared. And that is because our heart is connected to every other heart.

Second: The Torah tells us many things and there are many things that have been misused by those who would like to promulgate hatred. At the source of all the many Jewish laws about how to live, what to eat, how to treat one another, there is one basic injunction that is often overlooked. It is the verse that reads: "I set before you Life and Death, blessing and curse. Choose Life that you may live long on the earth." I use this verse as a touchstone that guides me through many tough decisions and situations.

What does it mean to choose life? As women who have been given the astonishing power to bear life, to nurture life, to live from the heart, the idea of choosing life is natural. Women know that the flow of life is a river far more powerful than any one of us and that we must stand back to allow it to flow, over us, through us, beyond us.

But we live in a world in which there is a growing element of anti-life, of hatred and intolerance, exclusion and greed. We run for cover from this power of anti-life, but it is everywhere, church and synagogue, government and business. Is there any question why many of us feel called these days? However you name it, Spirit needs us now, to fight this dark force of greed and grabbing, and instead, choose life.

The third point is balance. There is a story about a man who tried to keep humble while also remembering how much God needed him. He kept two little notes in his pant pockets. Both were quotes from Hebrew scriptures.

One said: "For me the world was called into being." The other said: "I am nothing but dust and ashes."

On the days that he questioned his life and his purpose for being, he pulled out the piece of paper that said: For me the world was created. On days when his head was swelled and he felt cocky, he took out the other note, I am nothing but dust and ashes. Both are true. Both need to be remembered and balanced.

Our daily lives can often show us how important keeping this sense of balance is. Last week was a hard week. I felt bombarded with anti-life voices, from the world and from within and I became doubled over with a terrible pain in my back. I decided I needed to get away to find some peace and found a little cabin for rent far into the mountains, Once inside I looked around. Empty and quiet. On the pantry door I found a small note pinned to the pantry door. It read:

Everything here is meant to be shared. Eat well. Rest.

Whoever had written that note did not know me, but those words, so simple, went right through me as if they had been written by the Great Mother herself. I could not stop the flood of tears that they touched off. When I finally got over my sobs, I straightened up. The painful kink in my back was gone.

All of us on the spiritual path are looking for messages like that little note, words of mercy and kindness, giving us permission to take care of ourselves, reminding us that it's OK to rest, it's OK to eat without feeling guilty, and that everything is here on earth to be shared with one another. When we take care of ourselves well, there is a good chance that we can and will naturally do the same for others.

These are the three humble lessons I have learned from my Jewish tradition, the deep down bones of my faith, which help me keep my heart open in hell:

  • Don't be afraid to feel your pain and the pain of the world because the broken heart is the only whole heart.
  • Always choose Life. Have faith in life and in your yearning for peace.
  • And finally: Keep balanced. There is much work to be done, but we can afford to share, and never to forget to eat well, and to rest.
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