Radical amazement for sunsets, backpacking through Israel, and the writings of A.J. Heschel and Jack Kerouac initiated a spiritual journey for Rabbi Brad Greenstein that would fuse his love of music, Torah, nature, and poetry. Rabbi Brad is currently the Senior Director of Jewish Learning for Moishe House. He graduated from the University of California Davis with a B.A. in literature. He earned a master’s degree in rabbinic studies and received his rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. He can be reached at RabbiBrad@moishehouse.org.
Forty of us gathered at the waters edge. The lake before us was glistening in the Wisconsin morning sunlight. It was Moishe House’s National Resident Conference just weeks ago, where hundreds of young community builders gathered to learn from one another. These participants elected a Shabbat interactive experience that included prayer and a walk to the lake, instead of attending the multitude of other offerings including things like a traditional tri-chitzah minyan or deep dive into Harry Potter and sacred text.
We stared across the morning fog lifting from the blue lake. I had planned to have participants imagine Miriam’s well and crossing the red sea; we would, perhaps, sing the niggun (song) Ozi v’Zimrat Yah. But instead, one person asked if the lake could be a mikvah (ritual bath). It was one of those moments that any Jewish educator knows all too well, where you have to pull an audible and throw your lesson plan to the wind, because the question is just too timely. Eventually we did sing and visualize traditional water narratives, but first we paused to talk.
I explained the mikvah’s traditional uses, the modern uses, and opportunities. I acknowledged the limits of my own experience, and invited people to find a time to try it throughout the weekend. But as I spoke about about how people use the ritual bath before Yom Kippur to experience a sense of renewal for the new year ahead, coming very soon, something interesting happened. I said “You dip into the water as one person and emerge anew and are born….” I stopped myself from finishing that sentence. I bit my tongue and couldn’t finish. Was I really about to tell people how to be “born again?”
That type of language is pretty much off limits, reserved for so called fanatics. But the truth is, and we are particularly reminded of this as we enter the holiday season, we are all constantly born and reborn again. Of course, we are not “literally” born again; and yet, 90 percent or so of our cells today are not the same ones that made us up years ago.
What a shame it is that “born again” belongs only to the religious right, not left, or center. The natural world we see around us is always being born again. Grass withers, flowers fade, and new sprouts hurriedly shoot to the sky again. We think we are so distant from the wild, but we too are always occupied with regeneration, albeit spiritual. New jobs, new attitudes, old ways, old houses, new partners, new children, new loves, and dying loved ones: When we are fully present in the moment we feel alive. When we fear the future we’re missing opportunities to live. “…He not busy being born is busy dying” hauntingly wrote the Jewish poet Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan (who went through his own different sort of “born again” phase). Many of us go through life bouncing between things that both enliven and decay our souls, constantly evaluating and renewing who we really want to become.
Our professional lives also demonstrate constant rebirth. We trade roles, change titles, apply for and review new grants and funding. Often initiatives appear only refreshed in name or packaging, though we all know the difference between programs that have taken the hard work to reinvent themselves and ones that are simply rebranded. Projects and positions need to be born again.
Most importantly, we ourselves need to be renewed and refreshed. The world today can seem, at times, terrifying and impossible to navigate. No matter one’s specific role, as Jewish professionals we are truly in the trenches working for the wholeness of our constituents’ souls and their connection to one another. And that means we have to first be whole ourselves, nurturing and rejuvenating the aliveness and spark within. Practically, this means figuring out how to see the horizon of burnout far before its right in front of us. It means embracing the sacredness of boundaries to fuel the focus of our work. It means letting go of that which no longer serves us so that we may grow again. And yes, it means sleep, nutrition, time with loved ones and in nature.
The cycle of our own Jewish calendar year reflects this renewal, and right now is the time for rebirth, it is soon the birthday of the world (“Hayom harat haolam” we read on Rosh Hashanah). We celebrate God’s creativity in bringing forth the cosmos and we link the world’s creation to our new year’s re-creation. It’s been suggested that our new year not be marked with the creation of the world but with the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Even Rashi, the most celebrated Torah commentator, inquires as to why the Torah and new year begin with the book of Genesis and not the book of Exodus. Intuitively, we should begin the Torah with our tale of freedom, and the New Year in the month when Passover takes place. But ours is a tradition not lived in isolation. By marking the New Year with the creation of the world we celebrate not only our beginnings, but everyone’s beginnings. We affirm that our constant renewal and rebirth are predicated on being linked to the renewal of the world and people that surround us.
The rekindling of our own drives and passions becomes a model for all the concentric circles of care that surround us, beginning with the loved ones most connected to us, moving to our colleagues and constituents, and ultimately extending to our everyday acquaintances and the greater world at large. It’s no easy task to refresh ourselves, it takes more than a simple proclamation or dip into the water, but what’s at stake is nothing less that the dynamism of our own lives. So dare I say it, this year, how will you be born again?