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Oakland, CA
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 My name is Ariel Root Wolpe. I am a Jewish musician, artist, and community organizer. I love figuring out spiritual community and transforming people's hearts through music.

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Ayeka: where are we in the stories we tell?

Ariel Wolpe

Any artist will tell you—once you create something, it can take on a life of its own. Musicians say that songs they wrote are no longer their songs, not only because they mean something different to each person who hears them, but because when they play or sing that song, they are transported into an experience beyond themselves.  Visual artists describe an urgent drive to manifest a feeling or a vision on canvas, only to step back and behold something they cannot describe in words. Once created, art becomes its own entity.

In parshat Bresheit, the creation story, God is the artist, and we are the painting.  Methodically and intentionally God separates light from dark, water from dirt, designs the stars and planets and everything growing on earth. It used to confound me how God could create everything in existence, and then struggle to manage it—its only one week before we read the story of Noah and the flood, when God is clearly unhappy with creation. But when the sculptor draws her hand away from the statue, it takes on meaning separate from her. And on the 7th day God steps back and beholds all of God’s work, and the universe is simultaneously connected to God, and is something wholly within itself.

As my teacher Rabbi Bradly Artson said, “we are walking pieces of stardust and our consciousness is cosmic and we understand the universe because we are a product of the universe.” We are forever connected to God and creation, even though we have our own hearts, our own will, and our own understanding of everything around us.

We know that art is more than a beautiful representation of an idea. Art can heal, art can celebrate, and art always tells a story. As author Robert Wuthnow said in his book Creative Spirituality, “artists are typically in the business of storytelling, either as creative writers or through the lyrics of their songs or the representations in their visual art.” And stories are at the foundation of how we see the world. The stories we read and we tell define who we are.

The rabbis also knew of the power of storytelling. Halakha in the Talmud is backed up by stories of how a rabbi said kiddush, ate in a sukkah, gave to the poor. Gaps in narratives in Tanakh are filled in by midrash, creative stories which interpret events, emotions and divine consequences from white parchment. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev teaches that on Shabbat, we are re-enacting God’s story of creating the world. Stories go beyond the written and spoken word. Our rituals, our mitzvot, the way we speak—it is the physical manifestation of our ancient stories.

books-in-garden_web.jpg

Every time we tell someone about ourselves, we create a story. When someone asks you what you do or what you are passionate about, you, intentionally or not, design a story to tell them. Think of the different ways you’ve answered the question often asked at Beit T’shuvah—why are you here? There can be different versions you tell of your life that are each honest and true, not because what happened in the past has changed, but because who we are and what we know about ourselves changes every day.

If one of you asked me why I want to be a rabbi, I might say, because I love the Jewish tradition and believe it can teach us deep truths of life. But if my best friend asks me, then I might tell her about a vision I had which showed me that this is my true calling. If you ask me what my childhood was like, and then the next week you ask me the same question, I will probably answer differently. It depends on how I feel, what I think will connect me to the person I’m talking to, what I am insecure about or what I am proud of. The more aware I am of how I am telling my story, the more I see how far I have come, and where I still need to grow.

Even God has multiple versions of one story, and Bresheit is the most obvious example of that.

2008-09-26_torarolle-jhwh-1.jpg

The first Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we read two versions of creation, one after another.  The Torah goes through the 6 days of creation, says “this is the story of heaven and earth,” and then the next verse starts with day one again. And the second story about the same days is very different. It is an age-old question that tempts us again and again: what does it mean that there are two stories of creation in our tradition?

I believe it reflects our creative power, our storytelling. When we share a story, in a moment we describe who we are and indicate what our values are.You can create a version of your present or your past that is deceitful and manipulative, maybe because you feel unsafe, you don’t trust the other person, or you want something from them. I takes hard work and wisdom to change those patterns. But even more difficult is when we tell an untruth because we cannot even face the truth of our past. Then we fabricate a story based on our own delusions and are unable to truly see ourselves.

But as Bresheit teaches, there is no fear in facing ourselves, because we are beautiful and holy souls made b’zelem elohim, in the image of God. It is in our nature to forget this—even in the Garden of Eden, we hide from ourselves. Adam hides from God after eating the fruit of a forbidden tree. And God calls out: ayeka. Where are you. Not, what happened, what did you do. Where are you hiding.

Whenever we share ourselves through words with others, we must hear the challenge: ayeka. Where are you. Where are you hiding in this story, in this moment. Are you being true to yourself? Are you taking responsibility for your creation? Because what you say will take on a life of its own. And you, the soul artist, are fueled by the stories of your life.

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Our world is filled with artist souls, trying to make sense of things. And what a gift that we have so many to journey with in this garden. Let us all try to start this new year by telling our true story. Let us respond to the call ayeka. We will not hide from ourselves and each other. We will speak with honestly. And we will listen with hearts wide open.

Commanded to Love

Ariel Wolpe

 

Today is Tu b’Av, the holy day that celebrates all the love in the world and beckons us to pour more love forth. Love is a central theme in Jewish life, and some would argue it is at the core of what it means to be Jewish. 

To love is actually a mitzvah, a commandment — v’ahavta lareicha kamocha — love your neighbor as yourself. And in the Shema, said three times a day — v’ahavta adonai elocheicha bchol levavcha — love your God with all your heart. 

These are worded like commandments — you must love. But can we really be commanded to love? Isn’t love something organic that wells within us, that inspires us and calls us into service of another, that fills us with the feeling that everything is whole and sometimes instills in us the fear of loss? Can you make yourself love, or make someone else love you?

http://www.madartdesigns.com/pop-of-love.html

We all know of loves that have died away. Close friendships that faded, lovers that fell out of love, marriages that lost the love they were formed by and could not recover it. When I decided to get married, I felt burdened by the possibility that one day, that love between Jon and me could disappear, and I wouldn’t have any control over it, would not be able to find it. On my wedding night, I saw all my family and friends celebrating the triumph of love, and I thought to myself, what if it doesn’t last?

The rabbis claim that love cannot just disappear, because love is not a feeling that comes and goes; love is a consciousness, an orientation to the world. Hillel HaGadol, arguably the greatest Babylonian rabbi, said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” For Hillel, love is the emotion or intention you foster in yourself to orient you towards the good.

We must work on loving the right things, and we have powerful examples of that in our tradition. It was out of love for her little brother, Moses, that Miriam followed him down the Nile, arranging for her mother to care for him. It was Abraham’s love for God that led him to leave all that he knew and bring loved ones and strangers alike under the wings of the Shechina. Our ancestors’ loves led to greatness, to family, to the pursuit of truth.

Baal HaTanya, a great Chasidic master, teaches that although we rebuke our fellow Jew for mistakes, for the ones that are unlike us and don’t follow our ways, all we must do is love them. Only through love can we bring people into our world and into learning Torah, the ways of justice and righteousness.

And how do we achieve this kind of love, the love that does not fade, the love for a stranger? We must begin with ourselves. The more you understand yourself, the more you can open up yourself to love, and the greater your capacity to love others. This kind of love takes work. It means waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror, and recognizing the spark of the divine that is within you, and accepting yourself with all your quirks and gifts, and loving them. It means reminding yourself that every person you ever meet has a natural desire to love and be loved, and deserves love. 

https://www.tallengestore.com/collections/sina-irani/products/valentines-day-gift-cute-love-painting

So perhaps the commandment is to work on loving, to actually dedicate time towards that end. God’s words can be seen as potential; if God says to do it, that means I can do it. I have the potential to expand my love, for my love to lead to great things. I can love myself enough to feel safe and secure enough to welcome the stranger. I can love God by connecting in prayer and in silence, by beholding nature. I can love others by making them a priority and staying attentive to the respect, affirmations and understanding that keeps relationships alive.

If I want to love, I must commit to love. Tu b’Av is the day to stake your claim on love.  Wherever love is lacking, here is the invitation to fill your cup, to fill your neighbors cup. We are meant to love and be loved. Now go and drink your fill.

Tu B’shvat in the Negev

Ariel Wolpe

Many years ago, in ancient Israel, Choni the Circle Maker was walking along the road. He passed an old woman planting a carob tree and asked her, why she plants a tree from which she will never taste fruit? The old woman replied, "I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my forebears planted for me, so am I planting for my children.”

For past five months in Israel I've been wisdom planting, shoveling into deep religious and political soil. In my Talmud class, I'm digging through tractate avodah zara, idol worship, learning intimately the way the rabbis of old coped with living in diversity. When I step outside of the beit midrash, I marvel at how little we have learned over the centuries. I look out from my cushy neighborhood into east Jerusalem, and read American news of constitutional violations and protests, and it seems clear to me that the world is becoming more and more divided, people less willing to partner with those across the aisle. The Talmudic rabbis had their own guidelines for how to separate themselves and exclude sections of their community. We hold equally destructive narratives and systems in place to surround ourselves with those who share our ideals and sensibilities, and block out those who differ.

After Choni speaks with the old woman, he falls asleep for seventy years by the sapling she planted. We can imagine the years spinning by the sleeping Choni, people planting and harvesting a lifetime’s worth of fruit around him. But when Choni awakens, he is unaware of it all—he sees only the carob tree, now grown, and so much has changed.  The new world Choni wakes up to is too much for him to bear, and he dies. 

 
 

I know that moment of despair when Choni gives up. Sometimes the pain of the world lays heavy on my heart and my conscience, and it’s overwhelming, and it seems like nothing can be done. But I cannot choose Choni’s response, because that would be the end. I want to be like the woman in the story, thrusting my hands into the dirt to ensure a future for myself and my children. I know that some of seeds I plant today will bear fruit for generations. After all, the more we sow, the more we can grow. 

Tomorrow is Tu B'shvat. The Jerusalem grocery stores are full of fresh fruits, and my oud teacher has assigned me special piyutim to learn for the holiday. But unlike the Israeli school children, who are going on trips to the park and learning the names of trees in the Torah, I will be spending my Tu Bshvat in the Bedouin village of Umm Al Hiran. The Israeli government has been attempting to demolish this village of Israeli citizens in order to build a town for religious Jews in the negev. (From what I’ve learned, this is in part a political response the Amona evacuation, in order to appease the settler community which feels that non-Jews shouldn’t be settling land in Israel). A recent demolition clash has made its way into headlines around the world, in which a Bedouin Israeli resident and a Jewish Israeli police officer were killed. I am sure our visit tomorrow will be heavy with the loss of a member of Umm Al Hiran’s community, and it will be hard to witness the homes that have been demolished. I hope that our presence there, and planting olive and fruit trees with the village, will help their cause and show them that there are people on their side.

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Now, when I read the story of Choni, I see an ancient text speaking to an ongoing truth: we live in complicated space and time, and often feel discordance between what we see and what we imagine the world could be. I don’t know whether the coming months and years will bring the world closer or farther from the potential I see. But I do know that I am committed to the future, and I believe in fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised, in building bipartisanship and tolerance, and in fostering spiritual resilience in the face of hate and fear. I am committed to keeping my eyes open and my hands dirty. I have seeds in my hands, and I am not alone. 

 

May your Tu B'shvat be full of nature, celebration, and looking towards the future.

 

Yours,

 

Ariel 

Joseph's Dreams

Ariel Wolpe

Fourteen years ago I stood up on a bimah in front of hundreds of friends and family members, and told them about Joseph and his dreams. I don’t think I could have imagined where that step into Jewish adulthood and responsibility would lead me, or what my Torah portion would one day come to mean to me. Moving through the world as a rabbinical student, ever-surrounded by the stories of my ancestors, the connections between these lessons and the world around us grow stronger each day .

The card I designed for my bat mitzvah invitation - Joseph's story woven into the hanukkiyah

The card I designed for my bat mitzvah invitation - Joseph's story woven into the hanukkiyah

Joseph is a dynamic and intriguing character. His gifts and flaws are relatable, and his floundering relationships hit close to home. Who hasn’t felt unfairly judged and teamed up against, betrayed by those we trusted? Joseph’s storyline is the ultimate fantasy—his rejection leads to success and ultimate power over those who hurt him. But it was a long road: first he was dumped in a pit, then sold into slavery, then falsely accused and sent to prison. Throughout these trials, Joseph is given many opportunities to transform into a better person, and it is this journey that is holds greatest lessons for us. 

What is the quality that Joseph needs to transform? It is his humility. Joseph is the son of Jacob and his beloved Rachel, and his father gives him a “coat of many colors,” a clear sign to his brothers that he is the most cherished. When Joseph is 17, he tells his family of two dreams, in both of which each member bows down to him. Joseph is deeply spiritual and holds the gift of divination—his dream is indeed a view of the future. But his poor tact leaves us wanting. Even Joseph’s father, who loves him more than anything, is offended by the dream. It is easy to imagine Joseph relaying these dreams in his colorful coat, rubbing his father’s favoritism in his brothers faces while he predicts their obedience to him. He acts arrogantly, without humility, and this leads to rejection by his own family.

I can definitely relate to Joseph’s experience of rejection. When I experience rejection, it forces me to acknowledge that there is hard work to be done, and that my pain has to give way to transforming myself into the person I hope to be. I believe that my life is about my purpose in the world, the way my gifts support the earth, its peoples, and the energies that surround us. When I think this way, I accept that each experience of being rejected will make me a better person, better able to empathize and advise others, better able to understand humanity.

Joseph also acknowledges that there are greater forces at work in his life. When his brothers come to Egypt to seek food, they soon realize that the brother they betrayed now holds power over them. But Joseph assures them that they should not feel scared of what they did, for it was God’s plan to bring Joseph to Egypt so that he could prepare the nation for a coming famine. He tells them, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (Genesis 50:20). 

Joseph sees that his life, and what happens to him, is not just about him—he is one thread in a complex web of destinies. This is the ultimate humility, to know that even our suffering is not just about ourselves. In fact, we can be grateful to those who are the source of rejection or pain, because those experiences lead to greater discoveries about how we can be better, and can teach us greater compassion for others.

This Hanukkah, may we learn from Joseph’s example, pursuing our dreams, forgiving others, and spreading our light with humility and love. 

Chag Sameach,

Ariel 

Moon-Time Revolution

Ariel Wolpe

I don’t always love my period. But I am always grateful for it, even through the cramps, the bloating, the super sensitive stomach. This is not just because my future self needs a functioning menstrual cycle to get pregnant and have the children I will someday want. My gratitude stems from the regular gifts that my period gives me, gifts that I have only learned to accept in the past two years, gifts that I want more women to know exist and experience.

http://www.mysacredcycle.com/home/

http://www.mysacredcycle.com/home/

Yesterday, I told a friend of mine about the mindfulness I’ve developed around my cycle. I told him that now, on the first day of my period, I enter into an altered state, an easy meditation, daydreaming and swimming through thoughts that I normally suppress. At the end of my description, he told me he was jealous that I could have that. How many men have ever said that to you, how many of you have ever said that to a woman? Despite the mind-blowing power of menstruation and its mystical connection with our earth and moon, few men think it is something worth experiencing.

This is because our culture does not honor our periods nor make having them easy. Period products are promoted as helping you hide that you are having a period, control your period, so you can function "normally". Have you ever tried getting drunk or smoking pot (with a legal prescription, of course) and then go to work or school for a normal day? I sure hope not! But that is what women have learned to do their entire lives, when their bodies are flushed with hormones, their entire cycle in an altered chemical make-up. Just like there is an appropriate place for altering your state of mind, there is an appropriate place for being on your period. It is certainly not going about your day per usual. And when we force this regularity on a moon-day, it often results in frustration, anxiety, irritability, and worst of all, a lost opportunity.

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/07/claiming-our-power-to-end-the-shame-of-bleeding-period-photography-series-the-picture-instagram-wouldnt-allow/

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/07/claiming-our-power-to-end-the-shame-of-bleeding-period-photography-series-the-picture-instagram-wouldnt-allow/

I can’t exactly tell you what this opportunity is for you, because I only truly know what it feels like for me. But I do know that there are women all over the world reclaiming this time as their own, and continuing to claim it as a piece of their culture. Many ancient societies used to distinguish this time from the rest of the month. Whether this separation was empowering or repressive to women speaks to the patriarchal system of that culture or religion, not the need for distinction. When done in a way that honors women, this time apart results in rest, women’s community, connection with the divine, and a welcome return for each woman and the wisdom she gained during her time of communion. (If you want to learn more read Lara Owen’s “her blood is gold.”)

For women today, the most important thing we must learn around our periods is permission. Permission to disconnect, permission to miss that meeting, that class, permission to take a bath, permission to sleep an extra hour, permission to lie on the couch and cry softly. These are the things that my period asks for—and when I give a little and let myself take a few of these, the results are amazing. The world around me goes on without me. I become tranquil. I feel high on this amazing natural drug that makes the winds softer and the trees more beautiful. I encounter aches and cramps in my body less as a nuisance, and more of an invitation to slow down, to lovingly soothe myself, to humble myself before powers greater than I. I feel connected to women all over, to the power of women’s bodies and of the long journey that created us in our astounding complexity.

I sometimes ask myself, what would it look like for me to create a life for myself where I could take this time to center and connect? What would I have to sacrifice to take the space I need to honor my body? I wonder what Jewish community might say when I tell them "I can’t schedule that day, I am having my moon time." What powerful modeling that could be for women in that community! But would it be accepted as valid, as real, as truth?

http://www.kristibeguin.com/blood-moon-menses-and-the-cycles-of-life/

http://www.kristibeguin.com/blood-moon-menses-and-the-cycles-of-life/

As a rabbinical student, I wish I could include a nice quote from the Jewish tradition that supports moon-time. After all, we have a deep connection with the cycle of the moon in Judaism, shouldn’t that be reflected in honoring the human biological cycle that matches the moon? While Judaism has a concept of separation (nidah) there are not guidelines for how women should practice spiritual connection to their bodies in our ancient texts. Modern Jewish women are revolutionizing rituals around the period (for example celebrating a first period, Rosh Hodesh/New Moon groups) and creating spaces for women to be present with their cycle (like the Red Tent at Wilderness Torah). But if I want to know how to turn my period into Jewish prayer, I have to look inwards and create it. The blank slate is liberating but also restrictive, because I know there is more, there is so much more to know, but I don’t have the accumulated wisdom of Jewish women throughout the ages to guide me.

http://www.kristibeguin.com/blood-moon-menses-and-the-cycles-of-life/

http://www.kristibeguin.com/blood-moon-menses-and-the-cycles-of-life/

I want to start this accumulation of wisdom now. I am becoming a rabbi—my focus is on serving the Jewish community, men and women and everything in between included. But women from all backgrounds are calling out for a radical re-understanding of our bodies, and our periods are an integral part of that reframe. Right now, we are throwing a gift away. We are ignoring an integral part of our lived experience. We are forcing a cyclical body to fit into a linear world. It is time to reclaim our time. It is time to reclaim ourselves.

Let the moon-time revolution begin.

Breaking A Vow: my take on Matot-Masei

Valerie Wolpe

Earlier week, as I was going to sleep, I made the most sacred of vows. I made a vow that has been made in different forms by generations before me, and one that I myself have made before. I promised myself that the next day, I was going to stop eating sugar and start doing yoga. 

It is our nature to  make promises to improve our behavior. Yet despite all our good intentions, we tend to slip every now and then. It was only after looking at this weeks torah portion, which begins with the meaning and rules of vows , that I began to wonder about the gravity of the oaths we make to ourselves, to each other, and to sometimes, God. 

In this week’s parsha, Matot Masei, as we are making our way towards the promised land, Moshe teaches the laws on the annulment of vows to the heads of the tribes of Israel. He tells us that if any man, or any woman, makes a vow or oath to God, than he or she must fulfill it. These vows can be a positive commitment, like giving $100 to charity, or a negative commitment, like  swearing off alcohol. Once you take a vow, The Torah offers no course of absolution—you are committed to living with that promise. 

I pinky promise!

I pinky promise!

This is a bit disconcerting. Obviously the Torah forgot about the exception of having a glass of wine when your parents or children come to visit, or eating cake on your birthday, or not doing your daily stretches because you went on a really long walk yesterday! How can the text be so strict about not breaking a vow, when we are so prone to it?

The rabbis of the Talmud were so worried about people breaking their vows, that many of them discouraged Jews to make them at all. There is no way we can know what the future will bring when we make a promise, and we may be put in a situation where we have to break our vow. Therefore, its safer not to make them. 

But does mean we shouldn't make them at all? Should I not to vow to improve my diet, excerise, or change any behavior, because i might not succeed? Doesn't making the vow actually increase the chances that I will change my behavior, since I made a serious declaration about it? I think the answer might vary from person to person. 

And on the other hand, if I do break my vow, then i am burdened by shame and weight of not fulfilling my promise. My trust in myself might be damaged, my word could loose some of its power and value.  And if I break my vow to another, then I could be hurting someone else, and I will have to rebuild the diminished trust between us. 

Rashi, a great biblical commentator, notes that the word for “break” in this parsha, the word yakhel is related to yekhallel, meaning to secularize or make ordinary.  Instead of "do not break your word," he reads, "do not profane your word." Don’t treat your word as if it is unholy. Because the words we say with the goal of becoming a better person, are inherently holy, and if you don’t follow through, you are not honoring the holy power in you. 

In my eyes, equally as holy is our power to forgive. Our tradition teaches us that there can be no vow without the possibility of forgiveness. The rabbis made sure that we would be forgiven for breaking a vow — if you break an oath, you appear before three people and present why you couldn’t keep it, what information you were missing when you made the promise, they would absolve you. On Yom Kippur, the rabbis included the Kol Nidre, which nullifies all oaths that we made before and any we will make in the future. We already know that we are going to make mistakes.

It is hard to break habits and improve ourselves, and it can be difficult to forgive yourself when break a promise to a friend, or break a vow that will make you healthier and happier. This is why I have a sacred practice. If I say a vow to myself, and I break it, then I must say, that I forgive myself. If the words of the vow are holy, then the words of forgiveness are just as holy. And it is impossible to live fully if you are dragging behind you a string of broken promises. 

So tonight, when you are lying in bed, say these words: “I forgive myself. Any promises I’ve broken, mistakes I’ve made, I forgive myself.”

May we keep yearning to be better, promising to help each other, and forgiving ourselves when we fall short. 

Stillness in Summer: a meditative musical morning

Valerie Wolpe

Join Rabbi Jill Zimmerman and I July 11 from 9:30-11:30 for a morning of music and mindfulness in the home. Through creative practices we will journey through an alternative Shabbat morning service and explore the meaning of the week's Haftarah reference to "a still, small voice". The morning will encourage reflection, centering, and exploring our intentions for this pivotal point in summer. As we sing and sit together we will invite our souls to remember, rejuvenate, and restore!

The morning will be $36. To register, click:

Address given upon registration. For any questions or issues with registration, contact me@arielwolpe.com.

I hope you can come!

Ariel

Shattering Our Broken Stories

Valerie Wolpe

This past Shavuot I was invite to speak at the Sermon Slam at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. The theme was how we can find healing in a shattered Torah, in a shattered world. When Moshe broke the tablets at Sinai, the Torah says "asher shibarta," which you shattered. Resh Lakish interprets this to mean that God said, "Yasher Koach Sheshibarta," thanking and congratulating Moshe for breaking the tablets (Shabbat 87a). This teaches us that there are times when the shattering of Torah is actually its foundation, that there are moments when our stories and texts must be broken.

This prompted me to contemplate the tropes in our society that need shattering, and I honed in on a particular story that is crying out to be remade. To support the "slam" vibe of the evening, I wrote the sermon in a spoken word form often utilized at poetry slams. Here is a video of my slam, with the words below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lacBpuTd_Bs

Have you heard about Rabbi Joseph and the Sorcerer?

Well one year, in Saltzbug, on the eve of Yom Kippur,
three Jewish maidens disappeared,
and then the next year, three more,
until the town arose in a frenzy, begged their rabbi find
the source of their women’s decline. 
he went in search of a great rav
who could travel long distances in a moment *snap!*
who sight was unbound by time
and he described a most heinous crime - 
a sorcerer had turned the women into asses.
as they neared his home, 
they could hear them braying from their lonesome stalls
stamping their hooves against the walls
praying with desperate donkey calls. 
The great Rav uttered a sacred name
and the sorcerer dropped dead, the donkeys turned back to ladies
and returned to the synagogue as they began Kol Nidre. 

Isn’t it nice when it turns out our way?

There is another tale, about a wizard wedded to Lillith, versed in dark magic
who captures a beautiful queen from her bed
spreads her long legs, and takes her for himself. 
or as the book puts it, “plucked the flower of her beauty.”
But never fear, the king and his soothsayers fashioned a trick
the curse was flipped
the wizard slipped, and fell to his death.

oh that reminds me, that in the first story,
the sorcerer transformed the asses to maidens at night
and ravaged them, out of earshot, out of sight. 

which conjures up a contemporary scene,
you might have watched on your tv screen
where a young lady whose parents have died
in fact, she believes only she has survived, 
marries a Lord with an evil mind and wicked games, 
and after she takes his name
he rips her dress and bends her over
forces her brother to watch, who cries in the corner. 
another dramatized rape of a show,
running short of ideas of where to go.
Is this the best magic that hollywood knows? 

We know, 
that these are not just tales - there is a real crisis
from world-wide women imprisoned for reporting their rape
to the horrors of women escaped from Isis, 

to 1 in 5 american women sexually assaulted in their life, this
is our world. But you probably know the statistics
they haunt me when I look at my sisters and realize their risks
and i wonder back to my Jewish tales. 

Were they also angry that God missed her cue - 
that only magic and sacred words could subdue
the demons that haunted their lives?
Our ancestors must have identified with the damsel in distress
shamed, brutalized, and oppressed by
the countries of their exile. They cried for mercy but only 
a powerful Rav and prophetic dream
could offer a scheme to redeem their losses-
God is cut from the scene. 
probably smoking cigar behind the screen
wondering when shell get her big debut
God, don’t you know we already signaled you?

Instead, we’ll fill our plots with spells and magic,
to turn our endings a bit less tragic.
And in real life, use new sorcery to change our reality
we send out energy and transform our mentality
cast up hands and reconstruct our
Sexuality.
Because its these stories themselves that make rape real
as we portray sex as something to steal
sexual violence as way to entertain, an erotic appeal.
we need to reveal these fantasies
as toxic, forceful fallacies 
that gift each generation a fresh ordeal. 

Come, help me shatter these tropes to start anew
imbue each other with respect for women
violent urges - subdue 
trust and love - pursue
It is upon us all to undo what we’ve been handed,
it is upon us together, and it is upon you.

Why We Must Not Honor an Anti-Gay Leader, No Matter His Stance on Israel

Valerie Wolpe

Some of you may have heard about the recent push to reverse the decision to honor Dr. Charles Stanley at JNF Southeast for his anti-gay preaching. I want to share my reasons for supporting SOJOURN in this push, and explain my understanding of text interpretation and community leadership as it applies to Dr. Stanley’s position on homosexuality. 

When I first shared my support of SOJOURN, a friend of mine challenged my stance with what I see as an instinct to protect religious freedom and interpretation. When considering Dr. Stanley’s statements on homosexuality, he asked:

“Is this a case of freedom of religious? Dr. Stanley is quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which clearly states that that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God. He is dedicated to speaking the word of the Bible, so is he obligated to promote biblical anti-gay claims?”

I took a minute to explore the implications of this approach. Does the biblical literalist argument actually legitimize someone’s discriminatory statement? Well let me ask you this: would Dr. Stanley encourage one to beat one's children (Proverbs 23:13) or stone an adulterer (Leviticus 20:10) or promote various other harmful verses in the Bible? Clearly this isn't wasn’t about what the Bible says — it is about Dr. Stanley’s own agenda and sense of what is moral behavior, and he uses the Bible to support that. We all interpret religious text shaped by our own beliefs, fears, and motivations for what we want the world to look like. This necessarily means picking and choosing what verses we focus on and how we enforce them. Dr. Stanley interprets the Bible through a homophobic lens, and teaches others to do the same.

The religious leaders I admire and support interpret text based on the evolving morality of civilization and the needs of their community. They bring out the insightful, accepting, ethical elements of the tradition and use them to guide us through life. If someone asks me or those who represent my community to honor a religious leader not living up to that standard, I must object, because it goes against my sense morality and the broader social good.

If you watch this video of Dr. Stanley responding to concerned parents about their gay son, you will see that Dr. Stanley is promoting false science — he claims that we can make gay people not be gay through counseling! That is a dangerous assertion which denies the validity of an entire population. Not to mention the fact that parents who follow Dr. Stanley, like the ones in the video, are trying to manipulate, pressure and reprogram their children to deny a core piece of who they are. I am sure you can imagine how damaging that is to one's sense of self and hope of future happiness in relationship and family. In a beautiful open letter, Leanne Rubestein, president of SOJOURN, presents the harmful implications of this on mental health, include higher rates of suicide and drug abuse.

That said, I wouldn’t show up at Dr. Stanley’s church and start raving about homosexuality. People choose to follow him despite his bigotry, and they have the freedom of religion to do that. But in no way does that mean my Jewish community should honor him because of his support of Israel. To me, that makes a public statement that money flowing towards Israel trumps freedom of sexuality and the right to be ourselves. Clearly we should encourage support of Israel, but that doesn’t mean we can compromise the dignity of part of our community — and of the global community — because of that one issue.

Also consider this: there is a lot of textual support in the New Testament for Jews to convert to Christianity. Yet we would never honor a preacher who publicly proselytizes to Jews and makes public videos of why they should convert. Why then would we do so when homosexuality is under attack?

Jews can be a light unto the nations, and that means making difficult statements about what is right and wrong. Denying the legitimacy of homosexuality is just wrong. There is a clear civil rights progression towards equal rights for gay people, and I firmly believe that Jews should be behind this full force. I encourage each of us to point a critical eye to what Dr. Stanley promotes — the dominant religious culture of this country which accepts unquestioningly the immoral and outdated fundamentalist view of homosexuality. And at the same time, we must consider the best way to assert our ethics respectfully and compassionately, inviting those who disagree into dialogue and conversation.

This Shabbat, I invite you to consider what spiritual responsibility we have to protect the minorities among us. Jews are committed to the sacred act of tikkun olam, of repairing our world, by working toward freedom and equality for all. Considering signing this petition to reverse JNF's decision. Take a moment at your dinner table to consider what implications this for how we live our lives, what we speak out against, and what we remain silent about. Through self-examination, we can encourage our flames to burn brighter and spread our light across our nation and our world.

Cleaning out our Hametz on Passover

Valerie Wolpe

This year gearing up for passover, I’ve been thinking about the hametz habits in my life. By hametz I mean the metaphorical "bread" that I carry, eat and benefit from all year round, but want to clear out for Passover, to journey into freedom without it’s burden. I know my hametz isn’t completely bad, just like bread isn’t completely bad. It’s necessary for my survival and flourishing throughout the year. But too much bread, as my digestion well-knows, is not good for the body or the spirit. What behaviors and patterns, what personal hametz, I asked myself, do I have in excess?

While contemplating this question, I began preparing for a program I am teaching at Passover in the desert with Wilderness Torah on the prophetess Miriam. Miriam holds a key role in the story of Exodus, and she is associated with the Kabbalist sphere Gevurah, strength. Her story is one of a powerful, confident woman and child: first she challenges her father for divorcing her mother, causing them to remarry and conceive Moshe; she challenges Pharaoh’s authority as a midwife’s assistant; she prophesied the birth of Moshe, who she predicts will save all of Israel; her merit caused a well of fresh water to accompany the Israelite through their desert wandering; in the eyes of God, she is considered a leader just as much as Moshe and Aharon, and functions as such in the community; and the most well known story, where she leads the Hebrew women through the dead sea with song and dance. She is an embodied, confident women, and she is not afraid to show leadership and express her visions. 

This Gevurah, I realized, is my hametz. Throughout the year I foster my inner strength, my confidence, my self validation that I have something important to offer the world and I deserve to be heard. My strong Gevurah is one of my greatest gifts. It supports the way I walk in the world, and encourages me to be myself despite external pressures. It helps me judge difficult situations and protect myself, and it helps me protect others from injustices I witness. Just like saying ha’motzie over bread covers the blessings for everything at a meal, my Gevurah lays a supportive blanket over my various qualities and aspirations. 

But power is a tricky thing; it can hinder just as easily as help. Sometimes I see my Gevurah get out of hand — it thinks it is protecting me with a harsh word or a confrontation, but really it is embarrassing me and alienating others. Miriam also struggles this way, which we learn when she gossips about her disapproval of Zipporah, Moshe’s wife. God’s punishment for Miriam’s actions teaches us that too much Gevurah is dangerous: the goal is to maintain a balance between Gevurah and its partner, Chesed, lovingkindness. 

For passover, I am going to give Gevurah a backseat and put Chesed at the wheel. I wonder, what will it be like to let myself be a little weaker, more vulnerable, to douse the fire? Will I feel quieter and calmer, or will I feel frustrated and limited? What will it be like too let every action be dictated by loving-kindness as the goal?

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In the larger story of Passover, it is important to question the balance of strength and kindness. Our story is rich with moral dilemmas and retribution and suffering, and our world is filled with the same. Passover is a time to tell our stories, and to challenge our stories. It is a time to take a new approach, a new behavior that is “unlike every other night.” It is time to tell our Gevurah opinions, and to share our Chesed warmth around a table of friends and feasting. 

In our last hours of slavery, I bless you to have a Passover filled with stories and memories, of insight and judgement, of disappointment and of hope. I invite you to discover the qualities of your personal hametz, whatever that may be, and give it a critical honest eye. And I encourage you to share your growth with your loved ones and community, and invite them to do the same. 

Yours,

Ariel

The Lowest of the Tribes

Valerie Wolpe

 

Shabbat shalom everyone! I want to share with you some thoughts about this week’s parsha as we enter a day of much needed rest. I will be delivering these thoughts tonight at Sason, a lay-led Kabbalat shabbat service organized by myself and other rabbinical students at Ziegler. Wherever you are this shabbat, I hope this bit of Torah reaches you. 

Here is where we are in our desert journey. In Vayakhel-Pekudei, the people of Israel come together in the name of God. Moshe begins with the instruction to observe shabbat, and describes the spirit and wisdom of God embodied by the people of Israel. Women and men come together through generous hearts, “nideiv lev,” as they hand over their treasures to build the Mishkan and Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting.  Today, we co-created soulful davening; the Torah tells us a story of our ancestors setting this precedent, by joining forces to bring gifts to God and invest in their holy space. 

God singles out Bezalel, son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, praising him for showing leadership and generosity in his efforts to build the Mishkan. For four verse Moshe is describing how God has blessed Bezalel, and then in Exodus 35:34 Moshe says,

 וּלְהוֹרֹת נָתַן בְּלִבּוֹ הוּא וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן 

And He put into his heart to teach, both him [Bezalel] and Oholiav, the son of Akhisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 

The text goes on to explain that God imbued them both with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of fine craftsman work on the Mishkan. The focus on just Bezalel shifts to include Oholiav. When I first read this I wondered, where did Oholiav come from, and why wasn’t he included from the beginning? Rashi asks the same question, and responds by teaches us about who Oholiav is: 

ואהליאב: משבט דן, מן הירודין שבשבטים מבני השפחות

And Oholiav: of the tribe of Dan, of the lowest of the tribes, of the sons of the handmaidens.

Rashi draws a distinction between two of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Dan holds lowest social status of all the tribes, because Dan is the son of Jacob and Rachel’s maidservant. Judah was born of Jacob and Leah and thus holds a much higher status. So why is the lowest tribe honored alongside the greatest with God-gifted wisdom and the power to teach? Rashi explains:

, והשוהו המקום לבצלאל למאלכת המשכן, והוא מגדולי השבטים, לקיים מה שנאמר (איוב לד יט) ולא נכר שוע לפני דל 

Yet God compared him [Oholiav] to Bezalel for the work of the Mishkan, and he [Bezalel] was of the greatest of the tribes [Judah], to fulfill what is said: “and a prince was not recognized before a poor man” (Job 34:19).

In this chapter of Job, we read about how God sees us an equal beings, for we are all the work of His hands and all return to dust at our end. Therefore God would not favor a prince over a poor man—there is no true difference. Rashi draws an analogy between the prince and Bezalel, and between the poor man and Oholiav. Although we perceive an inherent difference between them due to their tribal origins, God equally touches their hearts and inspires them to teach and to build. 

Out in the desert, our social roles are becoming increasingly defined. As slaves, we were equally powerless—now we are tribes living by reputation, judges gaining authority, priests fulfilling the rituals for worship. But when it comes to building the Mishkan, status falls away and the Israelites build collectively, motivated only by nideiv lev. Each one of us holds potential to serve our community, and to rise to the honor of building a holy space. 

Rashi’s word for God in his commentary is “Makom,” literally “place.” Rashi is speaking about the God’s presence on earth, in the community, in the Mishkan. Today we understand Mishkan as also meaning the place within ourselves where God dwells. I’d like to offer that our prayer together, right now, in this holy room, can be our the building blocks of our Mishkan. Through nideiv lev we can build up a Tent around each other, and by singing our praises, nourish the sanctity within our own bodies. And to create a Mishkan that lasts and grows, we must commit our generosity, our humility, and the belief that we all hold within us unique gifts and treasures. 

I want to leave us with a question.  In your life, in this Mishkan of this moment, who are you—Bezalel or Oholiav? Are you stepping up to the roles that are expected of you, the holy work of your status, like one from the Tribe of Judah? Or are you Oholiav, from the tribe of Dan, pushing past your doubts and self perception, inviting the wisdom and works of holiness to run through you? Both men are honored, yet Oholiav is the much more needed of the two. By aspiring to his example, we can teach our hearts to lift towards giving, and together, we can reach new heights of community. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Ariel

Are Moshe, and God, worth believing in?

Valerie Wolpe

This past shabbat’s Torah portion was the first six chapters of Exodus, telling how Moshe is born in Egypt, flees in fear after killing a slave-master, and then returns with God’s instruction to free his people. When Moshe returns to Egypt, God has him perform three miracles - not to be done before the Egyptians, but to convince the Hebrews to believe in his leadership. 

Gods turns Moshe’s staff into a serpent, and tells him to grasp the tail to turn it back to wood. He then instructs Moshe to place his hand in his bosom, and when he draws it out, his hand is encrusted in “snowy scales,” mitsora’at kisheleg. God returns Moshe’s hand to healthy skin and tells him that if the Hebrews don’t believe theses two signs, he should pour Nile water on the ground and it will turn to blood. What is the significance of these miracles? How come they convince the Israelites that Moshe, and God, are worth believing in and following?

The Israelites realized that these miracles signify the coming rebirth of our people. The staff-serpent harkens back to one of our earliest stories, eating from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. However in this moment the snake redeems itself from the earlier act of defiance. It is now a key instrument in the freedom of the Jewish people - it is Moshe’s right hand, helping him walk as he leads the people from Egypt. And it appears later from Aaron’s staff to display God’s might to Pharaoh. Instead of aiding a woman to consume wisdom, it now supports two men in attaining freedom for their people.

The snake helped transform humankind from innocent garden dwellers to an imperfect, creative people - it is a force of transformation. It’s ability to shed skin and grow anew reflects the ongoing cycles of the creation, and makes the snake a powerful symbol of rebirth. God’s second sign reinforces this meaning - from placing his hand on his chest, Moshe’s skin is turned to scales, representing his ability to transform himself. The transformation comes from his bosom, khaeko, from the tender part of his body which covers his heart. God shows Moshe he has the power of rebirth, to free himself from his past, but he must do so with tenderness in order to lead his people to freedom.

The final miracle, Nile water turning to blood, is the renewing power of the Hebrew women. Just as a Jewish woman can immerse herself in the mikvah, in running water, to mark the end of her menstrual cycle, God demonstrates the connection of water and blood in Egypt’s life-force: the Nile River. The Nile and the love of three women ensured Moshe’s survival, which in turn enables the survival of the Israelites. Through this sign, God tells Moshe: women are central to the task. They are the instigators of change, the masters of renewal, the givers of life. Their love conquers all, and only together will you reach liberation!

The Mizvah of Tefillin and Shema

Valerie Wolpe

In the 21st century, after thousands of years of Jewish, adult, able-minded men adhering to an evolving halakha, the Conservative movement declared that women were equally bound by all the halakhic obligations. For the first time in history women were required by Jewish law to wrap tefillin and pray the Shema. Although I was raised in an egalitarian, religious conservative household, I was never taught how to wrap tefillin. My bat mitzvah training didn’t include teachings or instruction on tefillin, and although I received a tallit, the other physical mitzvah one fulfills during prayer, tefillin was never mentioned. Either no-one thought I would wear it, or it was still seen as a man’s obligation. 

When my Zadie, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe zikhrono livrakha, passed away in 2009, I inherited my first set of tefillin. I  treasured it as my heritage and connection to him, but didn’t know how to use it, or feel moved to. The next time I took it out was the first day of rabbinical school. That morning in shacharit, every woman around me davened with tefillin on her left arm and between her eyes. I realized I was missing out on something I didn’t understand, and I went home, learned how to wrap, and the next morning I prayed with tefillin for the first time in my life. In that moment I sorely wished that my Zadie, or my father, had taught me how to wear tefillin, instead of a youtube video. Since then I’ve craved a deeper connection to tefillin, an intimate awareness of its power and place in prayer, and of its history. I decided to explore the halakhic role of tefillin in praying the Shema, hoping it will bring me one step closer to a meaningful relationship with a beautiful custom and halakhic obligation. I will share with you a bit of what I’ve learned. 

In Hilchot Tefillin, Rambam, a 12th century rabbi who wrote the Mishna Torah, begins the chapter by teaching us:

Four passages [of the Torah], Kadesh Li and V’hayah ki y’viacha Ado’nai  in the book of Exodus (13:1-10 and 13:11-16) and Shema and V’haya im shamo’a (Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) should be written separately and covered with leather. They are called tefillin. They are placed on the head and tied to the arm.”(Hilchot Tefillin 1:1)

ארבע פרשיות אלו שהן קדש לי והיה כי יביאך יי' שבספר ואלה שמות ושמע והיה אם שמוע הן שנכתבות בפני עצמן ומחפין אותן בעור ונקראין תפילין ומניחין אותן על הראש וקושרין אותן על היד.

Rambam goes on to explain that tefillin is such a sacred mitzvah that when one wears tefillin, she must be fully attentive to the mitzvah: if she is unable to concentrate, she is forbidden from donning them. Wrapping tefillin is powerful sign that Jews are bound to God in history, love and law, we must be conscious of that. Each tefillin contains the above passages in the order in which they appear in the Torah, passages which represent the everlasting covenant between God and Jewish people. Since the latter two are found in the Shema prayer, it makes sense that there is a powerful connection. Rambam tells us:

Our sages declared “whoever recites the Shema without tefillin is considered as if he is giving false testimony. (Hilchot Tefillin, Halacha 26)

אמרו חכמים כל הקורא קריאת שמע בלא תפילין כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו.

So it seems I’ve been missing out - and according to some, transgressing by praying without tefillin.  Others say it isn’t a transgression, you just haven’t fully fulfilled the mitzvah of the Shema. The Sefer Ha-Chareydim writes that when one says during the Shema, “and you shall love the Lord” she should introduce the love of God into her heart, so that she speaks the truth. (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:4) To me, this means that it is important that our intention motivate our actions, and also that our actions symbolize our intention. We mean what we say, and we act out what we mean. 

The Mishna Berura gives us a beautiful explanation of the state of mind one should have when donning tefillin, and the way to lift our consciousness of the Creator when fulfilling this mitzvah:

When one dons tefillin, she should have in mind that the Holy One, Blessed be God, commanded us to place the relevant four passages which contain the uniqueness of God’s Name and the Exodus from Egypt, on the arm opposite the heart and on the head against the brain, so that we should remember the miracles and wonder which God performed for us…In view of this, one will subject to the Holy One, Blessed be God, both the soul, which is situated in the brain, and also the heart, which is the root of the desires and the thoughts. In this manner one will remember the creator… (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:5)

יכוין בהנחתם שצונו הקב"ה להניח ארבע פרשיות אלו שיש בהם יחוד שמו ויציאת מצרים על הזרוע כנגד הלב ועל הראש כנגד המוח כדי שנזכור נסים ונפלאות שעשה עמנו שהם מורים על יחודו ואשר לו הכח והממשלה בעליונים ובתחתונים לעשות בהם כרצונו וישתעבד להקב"ה הנשמה שהיא במוח וגם הלב שהוא עיקר התאוות והמחשבות ובזה יזכור הבורא וימעיט.

I love this metaphor - imagining the soul in my head, and my desires stemming from my heart. It is amazing to see these ideas articulated over a hundred years ago. Here, the focus is on remembering - binding ourselves with tefillin is like a physical chain, a connection with that that has happened before.  Therefore when we pray, we feel the touch of our stories and our ancestors on our skin.  In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray. In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray.

These passages of halakha on tefillin and Shema teach me a beautiful truth about the Jewish tradition: that of humility before action. As we read the Shema, the Gemara instructs us to accept the “yoke of heavenly sovereignty", to surrender ourselves to the abundant love of God and accept our dependence in this world. The tefillin is a symbol of our bond to God and to the world, as well as the spirit world, and helps us remember the miracles in our history, to let the God’s love and power enter our beings through a physical metaphor. And in return, we must take responsibility for our intention and how we act that out for ourselves and the world. 

I look forward to what else I will discover as I continue the practice of wrapping myself in the words of the Shema, and watching women around me do the same.

Happy Hannukka,

Ariel

Beginning Rabbinical School

Valerie Wolpe

This sunday I will start my first year at rabbinical school at Ziegler, where over the next five years, I will study to become a Conservative rabbi. I am filled with gratitude and awe when I consider how the years have brought me to this junction. And when I look at horror occurring in the middle east and Furgeson and across the world, I feel called all the more to strengthening my mind and heart through the Jewish tradition. 

As I uprooted my life to begin a rabbinic path, my rabbis transformed from teachers into promises. I watched their arguments and pleas about Israel and Gaza in the news, and my sources of insight, guidance and comfort were suddenly accompanied by intense expectation and instruction. Every time I read a rabbi’s Facebook post, I asked myself: How will I carry the responsibility of publicly denouncing injustice? How will I respond to anti-Semitism and unfair standards? What will I face from the Jewish people and wider community for voicing my opinion? How will I ensure to represent the Jews as an ethical and compassionate people? Should I express any unsureness in what is right, if people are looking to me for answers? When should I hold back my political opinions, and when should I shout them from the rooftops?

Luckily, I have five years to explore answers to these questions, and a growing community of rabbis to learn from. If I am to become a spiritual teacher to others, I must become sure in myself, my beliefs, and my tradition. As much as religion has accompanied bloodshed throughout history, I believe it is the most powerful way to bring people together in loving community if done with an honest heart.  Every person, every moment, is filled with divine light - the question is, how can we make it shine the brightest?

One way I try to lift other peoples spirits with mine is through my music. I expect my art will transform alongside my mind as it gets filled with Jewish learning and a religious life. 

The journey begins!

Ariel

Chants from Passover

Valerie Wolpe

Over Passover, I went on two vision quests during a festival run by Wilderness Torah, called "Passover in the Desert". It took place in the serene Panamint Valley near Redwood National Park, miles away from any industrialization. Thanks to the beautiful guidance and the strong intention of the questers and community, I had a series of transformative experiences. I wanted to share two songs that I received during these quests. Here are the demo tracks "My Teachers" and "Spirit World" if you want to take a listen. You should be able to free download them if you like it!

I am recording an album this summer and will be including a professional recording of 'My Teachers.' I'm planning on selling this album to help raise money to pay for my first year of rabbinical school at American Jewish University in the fall. I look forward to sharing this album with you and staying connected as I begin my new journey!

"Portal" Released!

Valerie Wolpe

After many months of writing, singing, playing and practicing, my partner Jon Mitchell has just released "Portal," an amazing music album that a number of friends participated in creating. I am grateful to be the female vocalist on the album and lead singer on "Root: waking up with you." You might be able to guess who that song was written about...

Enjoy the portal, everyone: www.jonmitchell.net/music/portal

My Concept of God

Valerie Wolpe

I am currently applying for a rabbinical program at American Jewish University, and have to answer a number of essay questions for my application. I want to share this piece of an essay with you, and would love your thoughts and feedback on it. The questions is, what is my concept of God?

I use many names for God, depending on what I am doing or who I am connecting with. In music, I praise God through the names El, Shadai, Hashem, Adonai and invent metaphorical titles like the Gardener and Sweet One. In explanations of my visual art, I often refer to God as The Source, The Divine Presence, and Shechina (which I specify as feminine). These terms unlock different faces of God, and using the right term can do wonders for opening someone to experience God through conversation, music or art. “God” is a hard word for many people to swallow because the term is often weighted by Christian associations, political aggression and images of a male ruler. Some Jews hold the opinion that the term God is unredeemable, that it should be replaced in siddurim with new titles like “The Source of Life”. While these names may be more palatable in some ways, I know that it is possible, is in fact beneficial to re-understand the word God, to assign God the personal meaning and experiences that make divinity relevant and powerful.

It took years of frustration and seeking to re-understand God in my life. It was most difficult during prayer, when instead of opening my heart to wisdom and love, I was having irritated reactions to the written and spoken word God. After services at a Jewish retreat I finally became fed up with the defenses that were robbing me of truth and nourishment in the Jewish prayer service.  I found a large piece of paper and wrote at the top “God is…’ and began drawing pictures of anything that came to me.  The page filled up with images of Jewish people, nature, Torah, feminine and masculine figures, images of love and fights and birth and death, and individuals holding hands across a globe. These concrete concepts helped me redeem the term and uncover where I truly believe G-d is found: in relation.

I believe that G-d is found in relation between people, between people and the external world, and between individuals and the internal world. Like Martin Buber explains in I-Thou, it is difficult to have an honest, authentic encounter with another and with the world, because we have biological impulses that are selfish, and live in a society and that value relationships for personal gain. These can obscure the beauty and divinity found in each being, in each piece of earth. Even when we look inside and try to understand ourselves, judgment and shame keep us from encountering the delicate world of our true self. It is in superseding these insecurities and unhealthy values that God emerges in our every interaction. And it is in seeing God that we are able to deeply love.

Freedom Workshop

Valerie Wolpe

I recently ran a workshop themed on freedom. The attendees and I sat in a circle, and I began with a meditation, which evolved into breath based vocalizations. It was amazing to see and feel what a simple exercise can do for us: we were all cast into serenity, eyes closed, breathing evenly. When I stopped I couldn’t move onto the next section for many minutes, everyone needed to just soak into the new atmosphere we had created. Finally I started playing my song Dragon’s Egg, in which the singer, a bird, relinquishes her freedom of flight in the sun-filled world to care for an egg she knew would soon bring her joy. She knew this because she saw it in a dream, and despite her bird instinct and her troubled community, she followed her dream into darkness.

It is so hard to relinquish our freedom to pursue a passion that will limit us in the moment. But we are always far more limited when we hold back, and it is this lesson I am constantly re-teaching myself. To relinquish myself to the challenging visions of my mind that wants to change the world through action, to my heart that yearns to heal the world through love. To get up the courage to expose myself in unfamiliar territory. Thank you to everyone who came to my workshop and created this experience: the journey was so beautiful.

Welcome!

Valerie Wolpe

Hello friends! Welcome to my spanking brand new website, arielwolpe.com. I am excited to have things to share with you and a digital place to share it. 

What are these new things that have inspired me to launch a site? Well, there are a few. First are my new cell phone covers, which I began hand painted this year. I started out just making one for myself, and not very well either - I only gave it a thin coat of fixing spray, and carried it everywhere as acrylic paint chips littered my bag. Despite this, it got a lot of attention every time I answered a call in front of a group, and I began receiving requests. I have since perfected the art of creation, which requires multiple layers of coating to protect the paint. It takes a bit of time but the results, I find, are really beautiful.

My other exciting project is a new album, for which I am currently recording demos. This album will be original music, some acoustic, some with a full band, and will include various themes that have emerged within the last few years of my life. I will also be including some niggunim (wordless melodies) in the album, either interspersed or as a corresponding track list. I am excited about how this album dances in and out of my tradition, stepping into biblical hebrew phrases in one track and twirling with a west coast love story in the next.

As the holidays are approaching, I hope to get my cell phone covers into some gift boxes for your mother/father/sibling/parter or your own self! Please share my page with your family and friends. 

B'shalom,

Ariel