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Oakland, CA

 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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The Path of Our Lives

Ariel Wolpe

Last week, after five years of study, I received my rabbinic ordination at American Jewish University. It was an incredible few days of celebration and transformation, made sweeter by the fact that my father Paul Root Wolpe was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony while receiving an honorary doctorate. During his commencement speech, my father offered a challenge and a blessing to the impending graduates: that we use our education to reinvent Judaism, as every generation has done, through creating and reinvigorating rituals which reflect our values.

My father handing over my diploma at commencement.

My father handing over my diploma at commencement.

It was a poignant charge for our class, which consists of a spread of innovative and traditional viewpoints, but all of whom carefully consider the evolving needs of the Jewish community. Balancing the new and the old is a classic tension in Jewish living and in rabbinic text. Chazal uses rabbinic logic to flip pshat understanding in Tanakh, the kabbalists add layers of meaning to every letter, and all while the Torah says that we should not add or subtract a single thing (Deut 4:2). So, as the descendants of Hebrew ancestors who upended the beliefs of their time to follow a divine calling, and also as the descendants of Jewish ancestors who preserved a complex and demanding tradition through centuries of exile, where do we find our balance?

This week’s parshah Bechukotai warns us that if we follow God’s laws, we reap peace and prosperity, but if we stray, the land and its inhabitants will curse us. But what it means to follow God’s law is quickly expanded. According to Rashi, in the opening verse of our parshah, Leviticus 26:3, the work chukim in the phrase אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ/If you follow my laws, refers not to laws, but to studying Torah. Rashi concludes this because the verse already says וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַ֣י תִּשְׁמְרוּ/and observe my mitzvot, and actions must be balanced by wisdom. Unsurprisingly, Rashi believes that studying Torah, thus gaining the ability to interpret and apply its teachings to the present world, works in tandem to the observance of mitzvot. This elevates Torah from an instruction manual to a conversation through the generations, empowering each generation to reinterpret our holy texts.

Our parsha continues that if we follow the chukim and mitzvot, God will bless us and be with us: 

 וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי֙ בְּת֣וֹכְכֶ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֥י לְעָֽם׃

I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Leviticus 26:12)

Italian commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno hones in on the phrase והתהלכתי בתוככם, I will be ever present in your midst. He says that the meaning of this reflexive conjugation can be read as, “I will walk with you in whatever direction you are going, back and forth and sideways.” God is not in a single location, not even in a single route of God’s choosing—God, if we pursue righteousness, will walk with us in whichever direction we go. Wherever the righteous are found, Sforno adds, holiness will be present.

When you think back on your Jewish life, at what moments did you feel holiness present? Which of these moments are from the Judaism of your youth, that older generations presented to you, and which moments came from the creations of your generation? Have you noticed any of your peers using their Torah learning to shift practice and create Jewish observance? Can you identify ways that your generation has shaped the path we are walking on?

Sforno and Rashi, while interpreting different verses, hang their understanding on the same verb, הלכ, to walk—in the first case, referring to the path of Torah study, and in the second, referring to the path of righteous lives. Halakha, the body of mitzvot and process of enacting Torah in our every step, comes from this same root. From living halakhic lives, these commentators know that this root indicates a layered, complex process of living Jewishly. Our tradition teaches us that while we must observe mitzvot and draw on an ancient understanding of God’s voice, the ultimate goal is to walk beside God in present time on the path of righteousness. How we get there depends on what each generations needs and believes, but it can only occur with a balance of observance and study, of deeds and wisdom, of old and new. 

Receiving my  smicha , May 20 2019

Receiving my smicha, May 20 2019

We walk through our neighborhoods, passing blooming flowers and playing children, and so too we step through time, our traditions and innovations directing the path of our lives. I know that through my rabbinate, it will sometimes be unclear which practices to observe as my grandparents did and which to experiment with. But it is not the rabbi’s job to reinvent and conserve the pieces of Judaism they find lacking or meaningful. That is all of our job. And our rabbis and Jewish professionals and teachers are here to empower each generation to find a way to build a communal Judaism of righteousness and meaning. 

May we continue to choose the path which brings us in step with God, holding dear what we’ve been given, and what is yet to be.  

The Heart Will Follow

Ariel Wolpe

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:2)

Every person must bring gifts—but not all gifts are to be accepted. How would you feel if, after selecting a few items from among your precious, scarce possessions, you brought them to the mishkan and were rejected? If you were told you could not help build the dwelling place of God and center of ritual practice because your contribution did not come from your lev, from your heart?


We all have different reasons we contribute to projects in our communities. Sometimes the guilt of our fortunate circumstances motivates us, and we alleviate that feeling through giving our wealth to just causes. Sometimes, our giving is initiated by a sense of obligation, a belief that we are commanded to invest in Jewish institutions and philanthropic endeavors. And sometimes we give purely because we see a need and desire to fill it. Sometimes, we give from the heart.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim Alter applies the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear, to the above verse of Parshat Terumah:

כיוון שאמרו ישראל נעשה ונשמע, מיד אמר הקב"ה למשה ויקחו לי תרומה. פירוש הדבר: מצוות צדקה צריכים לעשות בלי התחשבות יתירה, בלי שיקולים, אלא נעשה ואחר כך נשמע. כי אם יחשוב וישקולקודם, לעולם לא יגיע ל"נעשה". 

Since Israel said ‘we will do and we will listen’, the Holy Blessed One immediately said to Moshe, ‘and you must take terumah for me’. An explanation of the matter: the commandment of tzedakah requires action without excessive contemplation, without excessive consideration, but rather to ‘do’ and afterwards to ‘listen’. This is because if one contemplates and considers beforehand, one will never arrive at ‘we will do’.

Giving, Rabbi Alter explains, is something we must get into the habit of just doing. If we overthink our impulse to give to a person or organization, we will come up with better ways to use our money and will be less likely to part with it. Before our mind begins to turn with warnings of careful spending, we must reach out our hand and give.

In this way, it doesn’t matter whether your original motivation to give comes from guilt, obligation, or desire. All that matters is that you strive to be generous with your resources, to be someone who donates money and energy to the causes that deserve support. Over a life well lived, your desire to give will only grow.

Where the hand gives, the heart will follow. 

Parshat Va'era: Steps Towards Redemption

Ariel Wolpe

The Israelites moved through four stages from slavery to freedom, teaches Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica, a 19th century chasidic teacher. Walking out of the gates of Egypt is only the beginning of the journey to mental, physical and emotional freedom. God hints at each stage through these promises in parshat Va’era:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will remove you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I am YHVH your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.


When God says, וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will remove you,” Rabbi Yaakov teaches that God is promising to make the Israelites aware of their suffering. We know that the Israelites called out to God when they were in slavery, and God heard their cry. But while they knew their circumstances were inhumane and their souls cried out in protest, they did not grasp the extent of their suffering. Generations of slavery had numbed the Israelites to their inner experience, subduing hope of freedom, encouraging acceptance of their enslavement. Not only were their bodies bound to labor; their minds were weighted with mortar, disabled under bricks. But in order to become a free person, each Israelite had to fully understand the suffering he or she was going through. A person can only change their circumstances when they are conscious of what needs to change. 

The promise וְהִצַּלְתִּי, I will deliver you, refers to the physical release from slavery. This is when the Israelites cease their work and flee, right before Pharaoh’s change of heart. In that moment, they are delivered out of making and lifting bricks, out of the reach of the taskmasters. Their bodies are their own, their work their own. This could only occur after the Israelites became fully aware of their suffering because otherwise they wouldn’t have left. To a people who had dwelled in the cities of Egypt their entire lives, the desert was unknown, uninhabited and full of dangers. As they journeyed towards the promised land, the Israelites fondly recalled the delicacies they ate Egypt, lamenting the loss of such luxuries. They had soothed their suffering with food, grown dependent on Egyptian lifestyles, and they had to tear their bodies away from such comforts on the road to freedom. Gaining autonomy over their bodies and their work was the second step towards freedom.

This step rings true for many of us. We live in a society with abundant luxuries, and we grow dependent on them even when they are not good for us. Pleasures of the body numb the complaints of the heart. We may soothe loneliness or purposelessness with food, TV, drugs or the internet. We begin to pursue a momentary release of serotonin instead of a holistic happiness. Escaping this state of slavery requires experiencing our suffering without distraction, so that we are motivated to put forth the effort to leave Egypt. 

Then God says וְגָֽאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔הI will redeem you with an outstretched arm. The Israelites are already released from slavery in body and mind—what is God referring to? Rabbi Yaakov explains this promises a release “from the depths of the imprint that slavery left on you.” Imagine God’s metaphorical arm reaching deep into the inner psyche of each Israelite, pulling out the thorns that cling there, one by one. While they appear free on the outside, God knows that they are still enslaved within. This is not something that happens spontaneously, is not a moment of revelation or rebellion. This is a process that takes years, 40 years for all of the Israelites to complete. It is the process of clearing out all of the beliefs, the doubts, the apathy and the hatred that has accumulated from enslavement. Only after this process is there room to develop a new sense of identity and worth. Only then can the Israelites see the promise of the future. 


Without reaching inwards, each one of us will inevitably return to our state of slavery. It is the skipping of this step which causes cycles of suffering in our lives, when we make the same mistakes again and again despite desiring a change. As we age, our own thoughts leave imprints in our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. Like our ancestors, we must root out our harmful beliefs in order to transform ourselves and live freely. 

The final step, וְלָֽקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם, I will take you to me as a people, is God’s promise to free every Jew from the bondage of slavery, and instead bind them to Torah. God reminds us that we are part of a people with a rich tradition which guides us in living our lives. Unless all of us are free, none of us are free. We are responsible for our families, our communities, and every being in this world. Freedom, ultimately, is not just a state of mind or a state of body. It is a universal transformation that we have yet to achieve. 

Through learning Torah, good works, and acts of lovingkindness we move closer to freedom. It is our purpose as a people who have journeyed out of the bonds of slavery to instill freedom in the world around us. But first, we must begin with our own enslavement. First, we free ourselves. 

Birthing Oriah Noa: my pregnancy, birth and postpartum journey

Ariel Wolpe

I was prepared for the birth of my first baby. It was what came before and afterwards that caught me by surprise.

Below, I share my journey to shed more light on a less-often talked about part of birthing, and to contribute to the national effort to raise up women’s voices and experience. I hope that those who haven’t had much exposure to birthing, especially future mothers, will find this personal sharing helpful. I welcome any mothers who feel inspired to share their story in the comments. We are part of a village, and the more we honestly share the realities of our lives and choices, the more support we will find in one another. 

This is my pregnancy, birthing and 2 weeks postpartum story. 


When I got pregnant, my main worry was about relinquishing my independence to enter motherhood. I wasn’t too concerned about how I would handle being pregnant—I was healthy and fit, and I figured I would have an easy pregnancy. Considering all the things that can go wrong during a pregnancy, I was very lucky that I was able to stay active and grow a healthy baby. But the process had challenging periods—I developed gestational diabetes, and it took many months to figure out how to control it with diet and exercise. I had debilitating stomach aches and acid reflux, which would keep me up at night and drain me in the morning. I got sharp rib pain in the second trimester that never went away and made it uncomfortable to sit down or lie on my right side. In retrospect, these difficulties helped me have a healthier pregnancy, because I ate better, exercised more, and would stand instead of sit to relieve the pressure on my ribs, keeping me in better shape. But combined with my hormonal rollercoaster and preparing my life for a huge change, these unforeseen challenges in my pregnancy sometimes brought me quite low. In fact, the happiest I felt during my entire pregnancy was the last month when I had finally figured out how to manage my gestational diabetes and stomach aches. I felt strong and healthy, albeit very swollen, and the end to my rib pain was in sight. 


Throughout my pregnancy I focused on doing all I could to have the birth of my dreams. I knew what I wanted—a natural home-birth in water, to feel calm, positive and spiritually connected throughout the experience, and a small birth team who would support my choices and my needs. I got my prenatal care from a midwife team and found a doula. I took a hypnobirthing class to tackle my fears and strengthen my mind for birth. I read books on natural approaches to pregnancy and birth, listened to a hundred hours of birthing podcasts, and wrote the first draft of a book that explores Jewish texts through the lens of pregnancy and birthing. I went to yoga classes and swam at the gym multiple times a week, did squats and various exercises every morning and night, got regular body work done. I kept a restrictive diet to control my gestational diabetes, measuring my blood sugar 10 times a day, knowing that if I needed insulin I’d have to birth in a hospital. I began a number of natural induction methods before my due date, worried I’d go past my 41 week cut off and need to be induced, which would mean birthing at a hospital. It would appear that those methods worked, because I began my birthing time the day after my due date.

My surges began October 30th at 6pm (“surges” and “birthing” are more positive terms for contractions and labor in hypnobirthing terminology). I’d been in school all day and then went to a bris. The mohel said that when the baby cries, the gates of heaven open, and at that moment our prayers are more easily heard. I prayed for an easy birth and that it would happen the next day. I walked home and took a bath, listened to a hypnobirthing track and told my uterus that whenever it was ready for birthing, I would give over the reins. About 20 minutes later, I felt my first surge, and it came on strong. I had to pause from working on my homiletics sermon and breathe deeply through the tightening. I gave up on writing within ten minutes and tried to get some things ready for the birth. But the surges were so strong so quickly that I wasn’t able to help for long. I felt surprised by their strength. I wondered, if this is how they feel at the very beginning, how much more intense are they going to get? But I reminded myself that my body was built to birth, and that I would handle whatever came.  

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We ended up calling my parents, who were visiting in town, to bring us some things from the grocery store and help Jon get the apartment ready for the hours of birth while I focused on my surges in the living room. I put down our foam camping pad on the floor once the surges became too powerful to lie down through. I spent most of the time on my hands and knees, kneeling over my couch, yoga ball, and leaning back on Jon. They came like waves, a quick peak and then a slow descent that I tried to breathe and relax into. I entered into a steady rhythm of surging, breathing and releasing. At one point I asked Jon how long I had been having surges, thinking it had been an hour. It had been four. 


By ten o’clock my surges were four minutes apart and a minute long, and we called our doula to relieve my parents. She and Jon helped support my body and guide my breathing as the surges increased in strength and length. With each surge I tried to will my cervix to open, imagining it spreading apart like a blooming flower. After an hour I found my mucus plug. I never felt scared—I felt overcome by some of the surges, especially when they occasionally merged together, but I trusted that things were progressing well, and the time went by quickly. At midnight the midwife arrived, and I asked to go in the tub (if you go in the tub too early it can stall your labor, so you have to wait until you are in active labor). The midwife said that she thought it was too soon—after all, it was my first birth, I’d only been having surges for 6 hours, and I was very calm and communicative between surges. I asked, “if I let you check my cervix and I am dilated enough, then could I get in?” She said yes and did a cervical check. She was surprised that I was already 8 centimeters. I looked around at my doula, Jon and my midwife, and said, “FILL UP THAT TUB!”

I got in the tub around 1:30, relaxed for a little and then pushed for 90 minutes. I did NOT like the pushing part. When it was just surges, I would wait and ride them out—the pushing took every ounce of strength I had. I felt like I was reshaping the inside of my body by force, and I needed encouragement from my doula and midwife to push through. Through most of it I was facing Jon on my knees and gripping his arms with all my might. I asked him to sing to me the chant, “I am opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love-light of the One.” My midwife asked if I wanted some guidance with my pushes to move things along. After contemplating it through a few surges I said yes, and she started coaching me. Oriah Noa was born in water at 4:41am, 11 hours after my first surge. The midwife put her straight into my arms. She didn’t cry, just looked up at the world for the first time, her eyes wide open. 


My team helped me out of the tub and onto our bed as I held Oriah Noa, where I delivered the placenta, and then left Jon, Oriah and I alone for an hour. Oriah was still attached to the cord and placenta. I nursed her, and Jon and I cuddled and stared at her, massaging vernix into her skin, trying to grasp the enormity of the moment. I wanted to cherish every second but was distracted by the pain from the tear I endured from pushing out her head. The midwife team came back in, helped Jon cut the cord, gave Oriah a vitamin K shot and checked her vitals. She was 8 pounds 8 oz, with quite a large head, and the team commended me for pushing out such a big baby. Then they set to sewing up my tear, for which I needed 4 stitches. They kept checking my uterus, painfully massaging my belly to help it contract and prevent hemorrhaging. When they helped me up to go to the bathroom I could barely walk, and it began to dawn on me just how much I had pushed my body to its limit. The next few days showed me that recovering from this birth was going to be a bit different than I expected. 

Using the bathroom created painful burning. I couldn’t stand, sit or walk for more than a minute without pain. Nursing Oriah caused my uterus to contract, which felt like the worst menstrual cramps I’d ever had. Her latch was shallow and pinched me, and I saw two lactation consultants who couldn’t fix it. But I was still her life-line—I had to nurse her, and my post-birth injuries and exhaustion made this very challenging during the first few days. My uterus was emptying out, and it was like having my period on steroids. After 5 days my pain increased, and I discovered all my stitches had fallen out, the wound had reopened, was infected, and couldn’t be resown. This meant bedrest, a longer recovery time and stricter self-care. Advil dulled the edge, but I was in constant discomfort and felt searing shots of pain throughout the day from moving the wrong way or using the bathroom. 


Throughout these days I was falling deeply in love with Oriah Noa, in total awe of what Jon and I had birthed. I’d look at her and spontaneously start crying with joy and amazement. I felt grateful for my birth experience and proud of how Jon and I made it happen. I loved having family around to help us and fawn over their first grandchild and niece, and enjoyed delicious food made by family and friends. I felt held, supported, loved, appreciated and validated in everything I was experiencing. But I didn’t like being dependent and unable to care for my own needs, and obviously it was hard to be in constant pain. For the first week and a half, I could not do anything for myself besides walk to the bathroom and back to bed. The midwives assured me my recovery rate was normal and I should rest and receive. I just had not anticipated this level of incapacitation and slow healing. A big part of my postpartum journey has been learning to accept my pain and the time it is taking to heal myself. 

Now I am two weeks from Oriah’s birthday. I helped cook myself breakfast for the first time this morning. Every day I can stand a little longer, lie a little bit more upright. Nursing is improving every day. But the road of recovery is long, and I’ve learned over the past weeks from my health team and through postpartum books that if I push my recovery now, I will pay for it later. Many traditions throughout the world have postpartum customs that shower new moms with special food and medicine for 40 days after birth, and don’t allow them to do any sort of work or to even leave the house. Now that I am in a body healing from 9 months of pregnancy and birthing a baby, while learning to nurse and care for her, I see the wisdom in setting apart that kind of time for recovery, discovery and self-care. 

So for as long as my body tells me to, I stay on the couch. I am Skyping into classes with help from my awesome classmates, taking medicinal baths, eating nourishing foods with Jon and constantly cuddling with Oriah Noa, who lights up my world. Birthing her was the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done, and every day brings a new adventure of getting to know her and discovering what it means to be a mother. 

I am grateful for this journey, and feeling ready for whatever comes next.


Tree of Life Prayer

Ariel Wolpe

Saturday morning I learned about the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh right before I got up on the bimah to lead services. I held those killed, their families, and everyone present in my prayers throughout the morning. And on my walk home, a new tune came to me for Psalm 130, which we recite when we are so distraught and desperate that all we can do in the moment is call out for help. The words are:

מִמַּעֲמַקִּ֖ים קְרָאתִ֣יךָ יְהוָֽה
אֲדֹנָי֮ שִׁמְעָ֪ה בְק֫וֹלִ֥י תִּהְיֶ֣ינָה אָ֭זְנֶיךָ קַשֻּׁב֑וֹת לְ֝ק֗וֹל תַּחֲנוּנָֽי

Out of the depths I call You, Havaya. 
Adonai, hear my voice,
Let Your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

Channeling our suffering into song and prayer is the beginning of the road to healing and change. I hope this tune offers you some comfort and can give you strength to keep moving forward, keep working against hatred and bigotry, keep transforming our world into a place of peace and love for one another and the generations to come.

It’s a long road, but we are walking it together.

The Prayer of "Amar"

Ariel Wolpe

The other night, I didn’t pray. I was upset, I was alone, I was looking for something to comfort me. But I didn’t open my siddur or my Tanakh to find a psalm or a blessing. I didn’t ask God for guidance, or invite God to witness my suffering. I lay in my bed and cried. I cried big tears, where my body shook and my jaw ached. My heart was crying out to nothing and no one. 

The psalms are full of voices of calling out from a dark place, seeking comfort, strength, guidance. A well known line from psalm 118:

מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽה,

In the narrow place, distress I called out to Ya; Ya answered me in the open space

This verse shows us how calling out can be met with expansion, with relief. But sometimes, we call out and are met with nothing and no one, like psalm 123, words which ask for mercy from God and express anguish without respite, without response. 

My problem with calling to God for help is that my prayer may be answered, or it may not, or I might not know whether I have gotten what I prayed for. I have prayed in desperation for things that then came to pass, and then for things that were seemingly ignored, and I’ve come to accept that my asking didn’t make a difference in the outcome. I don’t believe in a God that is busy responding to prayers, like in Bruce Almighty, when Jim Carey answers a list of email requests, and prayers begin to overwhelm his brain, demanding he decides whose wishes to grant, and whose to deny. And yet we continue to petition for things we want, for health, for peace, for good weather. Like Noah, we send a dove out and hope she will bring back the sign we desire. Three times Noah sends her out—the first time she comes back empty handed, the second she brings a branch, and the third time she does not return. 


Over time, my doves stopped returning, and my prayers began to feel like throwing petals to the wind. I tried a different approach in prayer, instead trying to uncover something internal, in search of transformation. I wondered if the whole purpose of prayer was to help me figure out what is going on inside of me emotionally, a kind of checking in, an internal thermometer. I tried praying just for the strength in myself to overcome the obstacles I faced, but these approaches felt internal, disconnected with a spirituality I felt beyond me. Although I may start with honest introspection and an invitation for my emotions to emerge in prayer, this was ultimately an uncovering of partnership, like what happens in good therapy, or when I am making amends with someone. More than making requests or a getting to understand myself, prayer is encounter with a truth beyond me. In our tradition, this exchange is modeled by centuries of conversations with God. 

These conversations begin far before any structure of prayer was established—in fact, before the very concept of prayer emerged. The earliest prayer is simply a dialogue with an assumed and palpable divine presence. It occurs in Bereshit between Adam and God right after Adam and Chava have eaten from the tree of knowledge. They are hiding the Garden of Eden when God calls out:

:וַיִּקְרָ֛א יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ אַיֶּֽכָּה

And God called out to Adam and said, “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)

The first voicing in this conversation is vayikra, and God called out. The same root that the psalmists use in reaching to God, God uses to find Adam. Because just as God’s face is hidden to those psalmists, Adam is out of sight, hiding in his fear and his shame.  קרא is the word that yearns to pull closer what is out of reach. It is the word we use when we are alone, when we are in narrow straights and seek relief. In my own prayer, it comes from a pain and desperation where all I can do is blindly stretch my voice or my hand or my heart out into the space around me and see what, if any, help is there.

The rest of this conversation—beginning with the end of the verse itself—uses the root אמר. Amar is closer than kara, more intimate. Amar is a conversation between beloveds, with the one who knows you. Amar is an invitation to uncover what is beneath desperation. Adam respond in the spirit of amar when he says: 

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־קֹלְךָ֥ שָׁמַ֖עְתִּי בַּגָּ֑ן וָאִירָ֛א כִּֽי־עֵירֹ֥ם אָנֹ֖כִי וָאֵחָבֵֽא׃ 

I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid. (Genesis 3:10)

Although Adam was hiding, now he responds with truth and emotion. I am hiding, I am afraid, I am ashamed. I though I could avoid this moment but now I see this is no way forward but to uncover myself. These two verses are the most basic instructions for the transformative potential of prayer—to move from hiding to honesty. Being willing to sacrifice the thing that you believe is saving you, is protecting you, in order to connect: in order to pray. 

We hide in all kinds of ways, and when we are suffering or feel we don’t have what we need, our fear tells us to tuck away our needs, our feelings, our beliefs in little pockets throughout our systems and our lives. We can call out and still be hiding things away, protecting ourselves from the response or lack thereof. This is sometimes the starting place of kara. But amar doesn’t allow for that, even in the darkest moments of our guilt and our sin. Amar is the emotional honesty that we must work to express, that empties our pockets and lays everything on the table. 

After Cain kills Abel, God’s entire conversation with Cain uses the root amar. Like with Adam, we feel Cain’s emotional turmoil in this words: גָּד֥וֹל עֲוֹנִ֖י מִנְּשֹֽׂא, “My punishment is too great to bear” (Genesis 4:13). But Cain cannot engage in this for long. He announces to God, I must avoid Your presence, וּמִפָּנֶ֖יךָ אֶסָּתֵ֑ר, and become a restless wanderer on earth (Genesis 4:14). Perhaps Cain is mimicking the exile from Eden, assuming that expulsion from God’s presence is the only possible option  after sin. Either from this modeling from his own shame, Cain chooses to hide, and that is the end of any more encounters between him and God. 

At the end of parshat Bereshit, people begin calling in the name of God,  לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה (Genesis 4:26). They move from amar to kara, away from the intimate conversations of their ancestors towards something more removed, calling in the name of something, not to God, or with God. RaDak (Rabbi David Kimchi, a great 12th century rabbinic scholar) says that during this time, people lost faith that prayer would help affect their fate on earth, and believed that God’s decree was irreversible (Radak Genesis 4:26:2).  It is in this world that the generations of Abraham and Sarah are so unique that they merit to fill the book of Bereshit—because they are still in dialogue with God in a world where the rest are calling in the name of, calling out. Even though humankind began with capacity for conversation with God, over time the masses turned away for other interests, and lost faith that our prayers would help us. 

This marks the beginning of an expanding role and understanding of prayer. Our texts reveal prayers of praise, of rejoicing, of gratitude, of negotiating, and prayers which are not necessarily verbal at all. Masechet brachot teaches us that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively) instituted the times of prayer through the verbs  וישכם , to rise, לשוח, to wander, and  פגע, to encounter. And the verb מִתְפַּלֵּל, which emerges in Tanakh as the Hebrew equivalent of the english word prayer, is used to describe all kinds of expressions and conversations with God. 

And yet the prayer of the desperate, that begins with a calling out, is unique in that in those dark hours it may be all we have left. “My anguish, my anguish, I am in pain. The chambers of my heart. My heart moans within me,” cries Jeremiah, and we feel in our own bodies the world falling down around us (Jeremiah 4:19). We sing עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽה, and if we tune into the words on our tongue, we taste the relief of an impossible burden lifted.  These ancient verses speak to us, but the question remains—does prayer serve me in my hour of need? Do I pray if I don’t believe in a God that is listening, if I don’t expect a response? How do I continue this earliest prayer tradition of an emotional outpouring into an intimate and honest encounter in a way that is authentic to me and what I believe?


Maybe, like me, you stopped turning to prayer when you truly needed help because of too many doves never returned. And yet, in anguish I still I called out for hours, hearing nothing, feeling no one. And then at a certain point something shifted and I began a conversation. I entered the prayer space of amar, where my heart was broken open and everything went on display, my guards down. But the conversation was not with a conscious presence, with One who could witness my suffering. My exchange, instead, was with a series of my own beliefs, with a Truth beyond myself. 

The beliefs I held in the moment, of being abandoned and a victim of circumstance, gave way to a greater set of ideas which are larger truths that guide my life. I believe that it is okay to be alone, even though I often hate the feeling. I believe that I will adapt to whatever happens, even though I do not know how events will unfold. I believe that pain is not evil—pain is part of life, and resistance to pain creates more suffering. These beliefs floated around me on this night, waiting to be pulled in as I called out for help. But only when I was open to receiving their teachings was able to have a conversation with my beliefs. And as soon as I moved from kara to amar, my suffering subsided. I accepted my feelings, and thus I was able to share them with open ears, and that is when I heard a response—that my resistance to my situation and my pain were keeping me stuck, and if only I would accept my reality, I would find ease. My own beliefs, which are particular to me yet stretch beyond me into the very fabric of the world, offered the answers to my prayer.

Our tradition teaches that the more you practice speaking to God, the more easily your words will flow when you are in need, that you will feel the comfort of a divine presence. Like any relationship, you need to invest time and energy to develop intimacy. I find my relationship with my own beliefs to support me the best once I’ve invested thought and time in them. The more I develop my belief that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, the more readily I can stay motivated in the face of setbacks in our country and around the globe.  The more deeply I know that I can birth this child with the strength of my body, the more I will be able to call on that truth in my hour of need. 

In every prayer, there is a journey of belief, a seeking of something. If not God, then faith in a system, a truth.  Discovering what it means to have an encounter with those beliefs is a journey unique to each one of us. It is a conversation—it is an amar encounter, where we uncover our feelings and see what our belief offers us in return. We begin with Adam’s response to “ayeka,” opening our mouths, or our hearts, or our hands, and speaking our most vulnerable moments and questions.  The response may be not be the voice of God. If you are like me, you may hear a simple belief which sheds light on a dark hour, a truth that holds your emotions and draws you out of hiding, showing you a way forward. 

Riding the Waves of Motherhood

Ariel Wolpe

This past week I've come across a few pieces of women sharing the difficulty of their transition into motherhood. These women are writing to break down the assumption, and for new mothers the expectation, that pregnancy and motherhood is only a blissful process and that nothing can bring down the delight of welcoming a baby into your life. For them, the process has been trying and depressing, and they wonder, why didn't anyone tell them what it would actually be like?

Me at 24 weeks pregnant

Me at 24 weeks pregnant

Even though mothers know that motherhood is not all sweet-smelling roses, when sharing with moms-to-be, this information is replaced by more positive memories, or shame hides the difficult nights of hopelessness and regret. Because we are supposed to be able to do this. And if you are like me, then you are supposed to be able to be pregnant, give birth, and adjust to parenthood while staying on track socially and professionally--plus keep up with the creative side projects that make you the well-rounded person you are. 

I felt well-informed about what I was getting myself into when my pee-stick turned positive. And because of this, I had a few first months of fatigued and nauseous freak-out, which included one evening of a frantic "why did you do this to me?! " accusation to Jon. As my baby grows and the time to deliver draws near, I seriously consider the world I will leave behind, and feel tinges of sorrow at the thought of saying goodbye to my current lifestyle. My moments of delight and wellings of love at a kick or an ultrasound, and our evening caresses of a growing belly fill Jon and I with a deep pleasure, unlike anything I've known--and they are accompanied by tears at the way my body is burdened, frustration at sleepless hours at night, and nervousness towards getting everything ready. 

Last night, after 4 midnight hours of no sleep due to baby kicking, I finally relaxed into a bad dream. In the dream I woke up with a baby, but I had no memory of the birth, how I'd gotten to where I was, or where Jon was. I saw a scar on my belly and realized I'd had a C-section, and looked at the calendar, and saw that it was only August. But the baby was large, seemingly many weeks old. I stumbled around the dream trying to find information about what had happened but nobody knew. I felt alone, confused, and like nothing had gone to plan. When I awoke, I realized the truth of my dream: having a healthy baby is not, in fact, all that matters. I need other things to feel safe, to feel healthy, to make it through the challenges of parenthood while staying connected to myself. 

This little one is already a member of our family, making their own assertions about what time they want to sleep, to exercise little fists, and will hopefully make the final call on when they want to leave the womb and be held in our arms. Our world shifts to orient towards the new life coming into the little home we've created. I remind myself I am doing all I can to prepare for the transitions ahead, and take time to self-sooth and care for my body, knowing it is OK to feel challenged and resentful at times. I am, after all, making many sacrifices for this being, who I know I will love more and more as the years go by. 

The ups and down of being a mother have already begun,  a journey unlike any other. Filled with holiness, and fueled by growth, I ride the waves towards the unknown.  

You are Doing a Beautiful Job

Ariel Wolpe

"When I swim laps, I wonder, 'am i holding my breath too long?'" I tell Jon, lying on the couch in our camp bedroom at AJU's Brandeis Bardein. "When I exercise, eat, take medicine, I'm always checking myself--muffin's health is constantly on my mind." Jon smiles sympathetically. "You'll know how this feels soon enough" I warn him, and watch nervous delight wash over his face.  

For the past few weeks, the stress self-monitoring has increased in intensity as I've become concerned with my blood sugar levels (no need for concern, I am working closely with and OB and my midwives on this).  With my already complex dietary issues, eating has become very involved and emotionally laden. During a particularly difficult night last week, I became overwhelmed with guilt for not preparing my body properly for this endeavor. Maybe if I had tried harder to figure out my stomach issues, maybe if I paid more attention to my sugar intake, maybe if I exercised more, etc., this would be easier. I lay awake in bed and chastised myself for my laziness in being healthy. 'Now you're paying the price', I told myself, 'and maybe muffin will too'.

The next morning, I divulged these feelings to a sympathetic ear (Jon was away on the week-long Or HaLev meditation). Tears fell as I named my faults around my current challenges and suffering. But even as I spoke, I knew I was being unfair to myself. I am doing everything that I know how to do to be healthy and take care of muffin. I am eating well and getting advice from family and professionals. It's just the feeling that it's not enough, the weight of responsibility for an unborn life, exists beyond reason. The guilt around self-care I am no stranger to--but the level of consequence is quite new. 

Yesterday I ate well, exercised twice, did beautiful self-care, and still felt like it wasn't enough. "This is ridiculous!" I thought to myself, so I sat down and I made this sign:

muffin is our nickname for our unborn babe. muffin's sex will be shared after the birth. 

muffin is our nickname for our unborn babe. muffin's sex will be shared after the birth. 

If I've learned anything about pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood, it is that physical well-being must be accompanied by emotional well being. Feeling confident and positive about your pregnancy and birth will create a more positive experience during pregnancy and birth. The evidence that a mother's mindset about her body's ability and her faith in herself impacts the outcome of birth is overwhelming. I know that just as I must care for my body, I must be proactive about caring for my mind. 

One day I hope to actually hear muffin say these words to me. Until then, I will feel the little kicks inside as high-fives of encouragement, and this sign will have to do. 

A Lesson from Miriam

Ariel Wolpe

Rav Epstein, a kabbalist rabbi, comments that when Moshe led the people from Egypt, his sister, Miriam, gathers the women for a celebration of music, song and dance:

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to YHVH, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Rav Epstein notes that Miriam sang her thanksgiving song in the present tense while Moshe formulated his nearly identical praise in the future. This demonstrates that Miriam, in her dance, accessed a higher state of consciousness than did Moshe through song. Miriam drew the future into the present, initiating the Jewish nation into an embodied expression of their promise and their yearning.

Sourced from

Sourced from

The ability to sing into the present moment is a muscle that is strengthened with practice. No matter what chaos is going on around you, being present with what is and accepting what comes will help you make it to the promised land. Miriam's way of doing that was song, and we each have our own form of self-expression that help us come alive. It may be writing, moving, snuggling, crying, buying a new outfit or eating our favorite food. Miriam teaches us to trust that inner voice and let her flow out, because that will help us live what is actually happening, instead of living in a future that may or may not come to pass.

We try to take Miriam's example to heart as we focus our minds on the present every day, in every moment.

A Jewish Journey through Pregnancy

Ariel Wolpe

Jon and I are overjoyed to share that we are pregnant! Hopefully we will welcome a new life into our family this fall, and want you to be a part of the journey. 

I am currently 18 weeks pregnant and starting to show. It has been a beautiful and educational journey thus far, and every day offers new surprises. Through the beginning of my pregnancy, I looked for Jewish resources to help guide and support me through the changes that were going on in my body, my spirit, and my relationships. I realized that the Jewish, creative, personal companion through my pregnancy journey didn't quite exist--and decided to create one myself.

Jon drew the picture on the right, I drew the left. Together they create our hope for the future. (And yes, those are flying birds and orangutans, and a tiny yoda is talking!)

Jon drew the picture on the right, I drew the left. Together they create our hope for the future. (And yes, those are flying birds and orangutans, and a tiny yoda is talking!)

Thus emerged the beginnings of my new project--writing a book for pregnant women that draws on Jewish texts, stories and prayers to provide inspiration, meaning and connection with our tradition. I am excited to journey through my first pregnancy with this writing as a partner, and curious what the fruits of my labor (pun intended!) will look like. 

I will be sharing my thoughts of what I'm learning and experiencing as my pregnancy progresses on this blog. Please follow along with me on these new adventures and share your wisdom with me along the way (you can subscribe here).

A new life is forming, and our lives will be changed forever. 

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.


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.


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.


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?

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.

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 in the German Colonty towards 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 across the aisle. The Talmudic rabbis had their own guidelines for how to separate themselves and isolate themselves from unwelcome ideas and practices. We likely tend 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 to 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 its potential. 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.

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,


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.

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.

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?

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.

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

I hope you can come!


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:

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
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 of 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?


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.