"Push!" I cried. "Push! Push! Push!"
Michelle held her breath and her face turned deep red. The baby's heartbeat was slowing. A nurse shoved me aside and fastened an oxygen mask around Michelle's face. "Push!" I insisted.
"Who's she?" the nurse asked, looking in my direction. "She's our rabbi," Michelle's husband Paul responded. The nurse thought he was kidding and laughed.
The doctor raced in and, without explaining why, ordered the nurses to quickly roll Michelle's bed from the birthing room to the operating room. Paul and I threw on sterile blue gowns, masks, and caps. I kept cheering "Push!" over and over again. My heart was racing. Something in the doctor's expression made me worry. Was the baby in danger? Was Michelle in danger? The fetal monitor beeped, the IV bag dripped, and the blood pressure cuff hissed, but to my absolute amazement, not a sound escaped from Michelle's lips. During the breaks between contractions, I recited prayers for a safe delivery and the health of the baby. Paul held his wife's hand, his grip conveying a loving calm.
One more push, then a miracle: the baby's head began to crown.
A few more minutes of excruciating pain, which Michelle endured in silence, and the baby pressed its way through the birth canal. Soon the raspy cry of a beautiful baby boy filled the air. A new life breath, a sweet fragile soul entered this universe.
As she held her child swaddled and safe, Michelle looked up at me. "I almost lost my life," she whispered. "I know," I responded. But neither one of us was thinking about the danger she had just come through. We were remembering another time. It was the day after Yom Kippur and I was emotionally and physically drained. It had been a grueling two months of preparation for the High Holy Days, but now they were over. I was relaxing in my study, still reeling from the previous evening. The service had been the most moving of my life. I had never felt such holiness in the sanctuary. The entire congregation had fused into a single voice of prayer. As I was reflecting on the experience, my intercom beeped. "There's someone here to see you, Rabbi," my assistant said.
I walked to the front door of the synagogue, still in a reverential daze, and there stood a woman with two black eyes hidden behind her dark sunglasses, a broken nose, bruises everywhere. I held Michelle's arm and led her to my study. She could barely walk. I was mortified. I had seen her just the week before at Sabbath services. Now, as she sat in my study, I could hardly believe this was the same person. Not knowing how to begin, I waited for her to speak, but she refused to look my way. She stared at the floor, and when she finally raised her face, she looked out beyond me as if I weren't there sitting before her.
She broke the silence with one word: "Why?"
I waited for more. And slowly she began to speak.
On the afternoon before Yom Kippur, Michelle had showered and dressed in her holiday clothes. She was on her way to a festive meal with her best friend. Afterward the two of them were going to come to synagogue to begin the daylong fast. She picked up her keys, locked the door to her apartment, and walked toward her car. Suddenly a man came up from behind and grabbed her. When she resisted, he punched her in the face, knocked her to the floor, and beat her. Then he picked Michelle up, opened the trunk of her car, threw her in, and slammed it shut. The engine started to roar, and soon the car was moving. It was pitch-black in that trunk and Michelle was terrified. Her entire body shook in fear. Where was he taking her? Was he planning to kill her? Would he dispose of her body in a place where she would never be found? All she could do in the blinding darkness was say to herself over and over again, "I want to live! I want to live!" The car stopped. The trunk opened, her eyes were assaulted by the stinging sunl
ight. He dragged her into the backseat. He raped her. And then he let her go.
When she finished speaking, Michelle remained silent for a long while. Then, from behind the dark sunglasses, she looked at me for the first time and quietly asked, "Where was God? Was God so busy at the Yom Kippur service in synagogue that God forgot about me?"
I kept silent. I didn't want to offer her any platitudes. Searching my mind for answers, I found that I had none to offer. All I had were questions. Just the night before, at the concluding service of Yom Kippur, I had felt so complete, so whole in my faith. In the sanctuary that night, all of us who were there had chanted, "O Lord our God, have mercy upon us, watch over us, grant us a good life in the coming year." Yom Kippur had ended with such words of hope. I had left the synagogue and returned home filled with the conviction that it was going to be a good year. A year of strength and health. But as I sat beside Michelle the very next morning, all I could think to myself was, "Why did this happen? How could God have let it happen?"
We both sat in silence for a long time, then Michelle said, "Yesterday was also my birthday." What a strange and horrible coincidence. I said to her quietly, "And you lived to see it." She replied, "But I'm not sure I want to be alive. I don't know if I can carry on."
Michelle was overwhelmed by so many horrible feelings. She felt betrayed and abandoned, violated and petrified, angry and dirty and ashamed and alone. She was silent again for a long while. Then she asked, "Can we pray the Kol Nidre?"
Yom Kippur was over, and the time for praying the Kol Nidre, the opening service of Yom Kippur, had passed. According to Jewish law, there is a very precise time when the Kol Nidre may be said. The service must take place before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur. On the other hand, as Tevye the milkman loved to say, there is always an other hand. In this case, I believed that God would accept the prayer regardless of its late date.
I stood up, took Michelle's hand, and helped her to her feet. We walked slowly into the pitch-black sanctuary. I turned on the lights and pulled out two prayer books. Then I opened the Holy Ark, carefully removed a Torah scroll, and placed it in her arms. She grasped it like a child clutching her mother. We stood side by side on the pulpit, the two of us alone in the large empty space. She swayed gently with the Torah in her arms, while I chanted the words of the Kol Nidre. We were both trembling, and as we stood there, an eerie feeling came over me. Usually the Kol Nidre is a service of repentance. It is a time when we beat our breasts and ask God to pardon us for all our sins. But in the sanctuary that day after Yom Kippur, I could have sworn that it was not Michelle who was repenting. It was God. It was God, I imagined, who was beating a breast, who was praying to Michelle for forgiveness.
By the second repetition of the prayer, I could see a calm settle in Michelle's face. At the third repetition, the tears came pouring out of both of us. And when we could cry no more, we returned the Torah to the ark.
When we got back to my study, I wondered to myself whether there was something more I could do. Was there anything I could say to take away her pain? Were there any words to describe how much I wanted to help? Then she said to me, "I always thought that God was my protector. I guess I was wrong." I told Michelle I didn't believe that God had forgotten her. I said that I firmly believed God was with her, even inside that dark trunk. I said, "If God could prevent all tragedies from occurring, then there would be no tragedies. I don't believe that's in God's hands." She said, "Then what good is God?"
The question stopped me short.
Being a rabbi means I am asked questions every day of my life. Some questions are easy: What time do we light Sabbath candles this week? Or, how many Jews make up a prayer quorum? But most of the important ones are unanswerable. I used to have a running joke with Sam, the sexton at my synagogue. Every time a question arose, he knew how I was going to respond. He'd ask, "Rabbi, what should we do about such and such?" And I'd say, "Sam, what do you think?" Then he would start to laugh. He'd say, "A rabbi is supposed to have all the answers." "Sam," I would reply, "a rabbi is supposed to have all the questions."
People have asked me so many impossible questions. Is God punishing me for my sins by striking my child with this illness? Should I keep the baby or should I have an abortion? Should I leave my wife? Should I divorce my husband? Does prayer have healing powers? Can it cure my cancer? Should I tell my wife about an affair I had, or would it be better to keep it to myself? Do I have to forgive my father for abusing me? Is there any way to repent for having killed two people while driving under the influence?
But by far the most difficult question I've ever faced was the one posed by Michelle: "What good is God?"
Dozens of responses raced through my mind. Then I thought about my own life and my own struggles with God. I realized that this was not the time to defend or explain God. This was a time to offer comfort. We hugged long and hard, then said goodbye. And I thought: There are questions that can never be answered properly with words. The answers are not matters of logic. Nor are they about philosophy or theology. Each one of us carries a question for which there is no answer. Why is this world filled with such ugliness and cruelty? Why did my loved one have to die? Why must I suffer? What are we to do with these painful questions? Where should we be searching for answers? Will we ever find them?
Many people assume that because I am a rabbi I spend my days trying to explain why God created a world that is so full of tragedies. I don't. I can't. Nor have I ever heard from any religious leader an answer to that question that has satisfied me. The question I have tried to answer again and again, both for my own life and for the lives of my congregants who have come to me in pain, is not: Why did this happen? But: How will I go on? It has been a little over seven years now since that terrible crime was committed against Michelle. And it has been a very difficult and painful time for her. A time of fear and depression, of anger and shame and struggles. She stopped working. She moved out of her apartment. Worried that she had perhaps brought this attack upon herself, for a long while she could not bring herself to wear anything even vaguely feminine. She was haunted by flashbacks. For many months she lived with the fear that she had been infected with the deadly AIDS virus. Scared to drive anywhere alone, s
he stayed home by herself much of the time. Every birthday brought with it a renewed dose of depression and fearsome flashbacks. Every Yom Kippur was a nightmare to be relived.
But somehow Michelle found a path back to life. Somehow she found the way to trust again. Eventually, she allowed a man to get close to her. She fell in love with him and they married. As I stood before her and Paul under the wedding canopy, performing their marriage ceremony, I thought to myself, "Resurrection is possible." When, after a number of years of waiting and trying, Michelle took me aside one Sabbath and whispered, "I'm pregnant," I thought to myself, "Resurrection is indeed possible." And when that blessed baby came forth from her holy body, I uttered the ancient blessing, "Blessed is the One who gives life to the dead."
But how did this resurrection occur? What enabled Michelle to overcome her pain and fears? To open herself up to love? To trust again? To want to bring a fragile child into this all-too-uncertain world? To forgive God?
Five years after her rape, Michelle sat on that same chair in my study with her tiny son suckling at her breast. Once again we walked together into the sanctuary, and we stood on the same pulpit where we had stood that awful day. But this time the room was filled with onlookers, rejoicing as her son was placed on the table for his bris, his ritual circumcision. And as he was brought into the covenant of our people, the community cheered "Mazel tov!" I stood on the pulpit beside Michelle with tears in my eyes, singing and clapping. To find our way back to hope and joy, as Michelle did, is perhaps the hardest task each of us can face. Whatever our hardships have been, so many of us find ourselves merely surviving, just going through the motions. Many of us have long since given up the struggle. Perhaps we have lived through hell. Or feel trapped or alone. Perhaps we have been hurt, betrayed, abandoned. Or have suffered losses, illness. Perhaps we have grown callous and bitter. Perhaps we have forgotten a very s
imple yet crucial truth: Each of us possesses the power to overcome the unthinkable and be reborn, to live life not as survivors but as partakers, rejoicers, participants.
But what is the path back to life? Why are some people unable to embark on that journey? What makes others so capable of rebirth? We all know someone who has been permanently crippled by a hurt, someone who has become cynical and untrusting, fearful and unable to move forward. I have been in that position. My guess is, so has almost anyone reading this book. But we also know someone who has astounded us by responding to pain with a rare combination of resiliency and hope. How is that possible? What are the steps that restore people to life and to faith?
This is a question I have asked myself over and over again. During my years in the pulpit I also posed it to my congregants. They shared with me their pain and their courage, their strength and their faith, their wisdom and their insights. When I was in rabbinical school, I never planned on leading my own congregation. After leaving the seminary, I was working happily in a university when a member of Temple Mishkon Tephilo's board of directors phoned me. He told me about his congregation in Venice, California, then asked if I might be interested in applying for their rabbinic position. I responded with a definitive no. I wasn't sure that synagogues were ready to embrace women rabbis, and I was in no hurry to pioneer that cause. I also had terrible stage fright. The idea of speaking before a congregation petrified me. But this man was persistent. He kept calling and calling. Finally, I agreed to come and have a look. Still, I was so ambivalent about this meeting that I waited until the last possible second to
buy proper interview clothes. I raced to a clothing store and told the salesperson that I had a job interview that night, but the only suit she had to offer me was a size too large. So she took me aside and said, "Listen to me, darling, wear it with the tags tonight, bring it back tomorrow, and I'll order you the right size." I grabbed the suit and sped off.
That night I walked up the steps to the temple and shook hands with the members of the search committee; then we sat down to talk. They fired questions at me-about my background, my beliefs, my interests, my Judaic knowledge. They posed hypothetical scenarios and asked how I would respond in each case. An older man asked me to explain how I, as a young woman, would be able to offer advice to people who were old enough to be my grandparents. The whole time we spoke, I kept praying that the price tag wouldn't suddenly pop out from under my sleeve. We met for over two hours; then I asked to see the sanctuary.
The moment I set foot inside, I knew in the depths of my being that I had come home. A chill shot up my spine. The path before me suddenly seemed so clear and so certain I knew instantly that I had entered the next leg of my journey through life.
Mishkon Tephilo, meaning "home of prayer," is a congregation of some two hundred families. My congregants were mostly under forty or over seventy. Membership had been declining for years, until a lot of younger people moved into the neighborhood and began to get involved. The building is a stately but simple structure situated just a block from the Pacific Ocean, sandwiched between trendy boutiques, gyms, caf?s, and a New Age bookstore, and just across from Arnold Schwarzenegger's office. The stores turn over year after year, but the synagogue remains the one constant in this city of fads and fashions.
In my first days there, I felt like such a kid and worried that my congregants would never take me seriously as their rabbi. But a wise colleague of mine explained: "Naomi, when you start marrying them and burying them, you will become their rabbi." And he was perfectly right. Initially, people did treat me like a curiosity. But it wasn't long before I went from being their new young woman rabbi to being their rabbi. Even my stage fright melted away, and over time I began to find my true voice.
As I settled into my position as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo, I quickly realized that nothing could have prepared me for the life that was unfolding before me-not for the intensity of joy I would experience, not for the depths of pain I would also come to experience.
I fell in love with the temple and with my job almost immediately. The people were so warm, and so eager to learn. The thing I liked most about my synagogue was that it was thoroughly unpretentious. At my services, people came dressed casually, some even in shorts and jeans; children pranced up and down the aisles. The focus was always on faith, not on appearances. I quickly shed my business suits for casual clothes and got to work. I soon abandoned the more formal speaking style I had studied in rabbinical school and began to speak from my heart.
My responsibilities ranged from the holy to the mundane. I tutored bar and bat mitzvah students, prepared my sermons, and taught adult education classes at night. To see people so eager to study after they had just come from a long and busy day at work was a source of constant inspiration to me. Every day people came to me with their questions, their problems, their moral dilemmas, their rage, their stories. I offered them my ear, my heart, my counsel. I'm sure that when they came to me for advice they never realized how much they were helping and teaching me about faith and about God. Presiding over baby-namings, circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals also taught me much about the never-ending cycle of life. The joyous occasions always reminded me how miraculous life is. The tragedies always forced me to remember how fragile our lives are, and how fleeting. Sometimes I would have to perform a wedding and a funeral back-to-back. I saw firsthand how joy can turn to pain, and how pain can a
lso give way to joy. My most powerful spiritual experiences took place when I would lead my community in prayer each Friday night and Saturday morning. Occasionally we would take our prayers to the beach, and the fervor that came forth from hundreds of us singing, dancing, and praying to God on the sand, before the ocean, beneath the vast expanse of the sky, was truly breathtaking. And then, of course, there were the routine responsibilities-the numerous committee meetings, the never-ending administrative tasks, the fund-raising duties-that were also integral aspects of my pulpit life.
After seven years at the synagogue, and many months of soul-searching, I decided to step down from my pulpit. It was a decision made with more than a little ambivalence and with much trepidation. I left in order to spend more time with my two small children-my most precious and important responsibilities. But I continue to pray together with the members of this remarkable community, and I continue to reflect on the lessons they have taught me.
In the pages that follow, what you will find are stories. My story and the stories of my congregants, intertwined with the wisdom and lessons of my religion and faith, Judaism. I believe that these stories go a long way toward answering the questions we all need answered no matter what pains we have suffered. I believe they can help us make the journey from tragedy and grief back to life.
Throughout the book I have also included prayers I've composed that give me strength to carry on. I hope they are helpful, but please use them only as preludes-don't let them be obstacles-to your own unique way of relating to God or to your own source of strength.
Sometimes when we're suffering we feel as if we have been singled out. We wonder why God has picked on us. But my life as the rabbi of a small synagogue taught me that if that's what we think, we are mistaken. We are never alone in our suffering. Scratch the surface of any family, any social gathering, any congregation, and you will find loss and pain there. We may not always be privy to the pain, but it is there just the same. If we had the power to peer inside the heart of any human being, we would uncover there a silent anguish. I didn't need to look any further than my own little temple for heroic tales of suffering and triumph. In fact, I couldn't even begin to fit all the moving experiences in my community into this one book.
I hope the lessons I have learned from my congregation can be a source of inspiration and comfort to people of all faiths. Words that come from the heart enter the heart, an ancient rabbinic proverb instructs us. The words in this book come from the heart-mine and the hearts of others. I pray that you will find within them a spark that will ignite the flame of hope and the passion for healing that lies within us all. A Prayer
Teach me always to believe in my power to return to life, to hope, and to You, my God, no matter what pains I have endured, no matter how far I have strayed from You. Give me the strength to resurrect my weary spirit. Revive me, God, and I will embrace life once more in joy, in passion, in peace. Amen.
Excerpted from To Begin Again by Naomi Levy. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.