This is a transcript of a podcast of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, Open My Heart, hosted by Rabbi Jonathan Slater. Listen to it here. You can find Open My Heart on most podcast platforms.
Today, we’re blessed to have with us rabbi Jacob Staub, who is a teacher and colleague
and a friend. Jacob, I’m really happy to have you with us. Tell us a little bit about
Thank you, Jonathan. I’m really delighted to be here and part of this project. I am a Reconstructionist rabbi. I’ve been a rabbi since 1977. I’ve been on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for 38 years. I am the co-author with Rabbi Rebecca Alpert of the book Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach. I was the co-founder of the RRC spiritual direction program in 1999 with Dr. Barbara Breitman. I have been the co-director of two training programs for Jewish spiritual directors: Bekhol Levavkha with Rabbi Myriam Klotz at Hebrew Union College‒Jewish Institute of Religion, and Bekhol Derakhekha Da’eihu with Dr. Barbara Breitman at RRC.
In 1998, I met Sylvia Boorstein at a proto-IJS “Introduction to Mindfulness” retreat, and she has been my rebbe ever since. And at the end of that three-day mini retreat, I signed up for the first IJS cohort of the Mindfulness Leadership Training program, a two-year program.
I was in my late 40s. I was in a 25-year marriage. We had three children, and I was a closeted gay man. And I found that I couldn’t sit in God’s presence as a gay man anymore. That is, I would sit and say, OK, I’m gay. And then I’d welcome God’s presence in, and that awareness of my identity would depart. I’d bring it back, and God’s presence would leave. It was really quite palpable. I could not hold both of those things simultaneously. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I was taught that you get “dressed up” before you go to synagogue. And you’d know before Whom you stand, so you have to be presentable. And so, for 40 years, I had been “dressing up” to be in God’s presence. And that was the situation that I found myself in.
And as a way of addressing that terrible problem, I turned to my daily mindfulness sitting practice: being aware of my breath and my steps, noticing what arises. In fact, that’s one way that I discovered that I really was gay because I noticed what was arising. And I modified my daily mindfulness sit into trying to remain aware of my sexual orientation as I sat in God’s presence. So, I wouldn’t be getting “dressed up” to sit in God’s presence. That’s how I came to this practice. And it really helped me. I sat in this way for six months or more until I was able to put those two awarenesses together. And it is morphed over the years to deal with all kinds of other ways of putting myself before the Blessed Holy One.
I do remember spending some of the time in 1998 to 2000 with you, Jacob, and that process. Not that I knew it was going on, but I knew the end point. And I was moved by that, and invited in by that, and took inspiration from that for myself, which makes me very excited to be part of your practice. So, I’m going to turn things over to you. And so, thank you for sharing your prayer with us now.
My honor, and pleasure. Thank you. So, this is a prayer about sitting as my whole uncensored, unsegmented self in God’s presence. And my initial kavanah, intention, is often a chant of
סומך יה לכל הנפלים
Someikh Adonai lekhol hanoflim
God supports all those who fall.
I noticed sometime early on that it doesn’t say, “God supports those who don’t fall.” God supports those who fall, and in order to fall, you need to let go. You need to let go. So, I might begin
סומך יה לכל הנפלים וזוקף לכל הכפופים
Someikh Adonai lekhol hanoflim vezokeif lekhol hakefufim
(God supports all those who fall, and straightens up those who are bent over; Psalm 145:14) over and over again from a Psalm 145, from Ashrei. So I sit, and in this prayer, I think of the Ru’akh Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit, the spirit, the Divine spirit as a ru’akh, as air, as wind (mashiv haru’akh, “You cause the wind to blow,” from the daily Amidah prayer), the wind. And I sit, usually with my eyes closed. And I feel enwombed by the air in which I sit. If there’s a ventilation where I’m sitting and the air tickles my cheek, I experience that as being touched, being supported, being enwombed by the Ru’akh, the Ru’akh Hakodesh.
So as an aside, this is something I can do any time — when I’m driving, when I’m in the supermarket, when I’m at a committee meeting and need support, I can fall back into the ru’akh in the room, the air, the godliness in the room. Because as we say every day, multiple times a day,
מלא כל הארץ כבודו
Melo hol ha’aretz kevodo
the entire universe is filled with God’s kavod, with God’s perceptible presence. Everything is filled with God or is in God. And specifically, the air is filled with God, is the concrete instantiation of the Divine. So that I sometimes take an instruction that has been very meaningful to me from Sylvia Boorstein. It’s the “don’t duck” instruction: Whatever arises, don’t run away from it. Don’t duck. Let it in. That is hard to do, but it’s a little bit easier to do when you are feeling enwombed by the Ru’akh Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit.
As another concrete image and this will work in your own way; you might use an icon. When my mother died in 1996, I went through all the photos and found the favorite picture that I’d always loved: I’m about eight months old, all bundled up with a hat with ear flaps and outside. My mother is holding me in front of our apartment building on Clay Avenue. She is wearing her skunk coat and a feather hat, and she’s squeezing me cheek to cheek. And she’s really happy. I’m her baby boy. And I’m really frowning. And I suspect might have started crying right afterwards. And so that is an image, to me, of being held, being loved, and sometimes being loved in a way that is uncomfortable, hurtful, painful. So, when I want to feel God’s presence, I imagine God as being robed in a skunk coat and a feather hat and sitting behind me, holding me, so that I can lean back into God’s presence, into God’s arms in a way that I imagine I would lean back into my mother’s arms.
And so, with all of that kind of preparation, which comes automatically after a while, I’m ready to say Hineini; I’m ready to say, “Here I am.” Here I am, all of me. I’m frightened. I’m embarrassed. I’m uncomfortable, but I’m not going to hide. I’m not going to hide anything. I lean back into your arms. Someikh Adonai lekhol hanoflim, in the trust and the experience that God supports all those who fall, all those who stumble, all those who are uncertain, including me.
Thank God, at this point, I’m not focusing on my gay identity, but for six months, I would just say, “I am gay. I am gay. I have never said that to anyone out loud before. I’m saying it to you, and you are still holding me. You are still supporting me.”
Nowadays, as I care for my husband, Michael, it often gets overwhelming, and I get a little short with him for needing this and needing that. I lose my cool. I can sit like this and say, “Here I am. Hineini. Here I am, God. I am human. I am a human doing the best I can — doing pretty well, actually, by objective standards. But I wish I could be even more patient and more loving and more generous than I am. I can always be more patient, more generous, more loving than I am. And I know I won’t always be that way. And God, because I am in your arms, because I am enwombed by your ru’akh, by your presence, it’s OK. I can be who I am and not beat myself up about it. You see me as I am. All of me. You see into my heart; you see into my innards. I cannot hide anything from you. Even when I’m trying to hide, by ostrich-like burying my head in the sand and thinking you can’t see me. But you can see me. I am seen. And that it can be very comforting, when I trust you.”
Recently, I have done this practice in my terror about the future of our country. Truth to be told, I was expecting much worse after the November election. Should I say this for the record: that white nationalists attacked the Capitol was not the worst that I could imagine. You know, the Capitol can be and has been and will be defended. And we will withstand that attack. I was really anticipating pogroms, really violent attacks all over the place and on vulnerable people. I was trying to figure out whether I, at age 69, could go back out into the streets or how I could work to alleviate the danger. And I could sit in the arms of God and achieve a certain level of equanimity, some peacefulness, knowing that whatever came my way, I could rely on Divine support to make my way through.
Sometimes, I do a chant of min hameitzar (מן המצר) “out of the depths, I call. Anani vamerkhav yah (במרחב יה ענני), I get an answer from you, spaciously” (Psalms 118:5). It allows me in, allows me into your womb. Sometimes, when I’m full of shame and self-doubt, I go to “The stone that the builders refused becomes the great cornerstone,” Even ma’asu habonim hayeta lerosh pinah (אבן מאסו הבונים היתה לרוש פנה) (Psalms 118:22). I may feel small. I may feel totally inept. But I am a stone that I am despising, and I can be a cornerstone.
All the while, I remember my mother’s squeeze. The discomfort of being squeezed by someone who loves me intensely. Love and support is not always comfortable. And I work to feel it, feel it, feel that love and support, even when it doesn’t feel so comfortable.
So now I invite you to sit for a minute. To breathe and to feel yourself in the Divine air that caresses your cheek. It tickles you, maybe makes you itch uncomfortably. And to bring what is for you, your whole self — that has everything that you would say about yourself, and everything that you wouldn’t say about yourself though you subconsciously, secretly know about yourself. Your public self and your most private self. Bring it to your awareness and say: “Here I am, God. Hineini.” And, if you’re comfortable, lean back into God’s arms and be held, physically held.
Even though you’re on a cliff, even though it feels dangerous to bring to mind those secret parts that are hidden. Someikh Adonai lekhol hanoflim — God supports all those who stumble, all those who take risks, all those who fall.
I place myself in God’s arms, knowing “God is with me. I will not fear,” the last line of Adon Olam, the final prayer of the morning service.
בּידוֹ אפקיד רוּחי
Beyado afkid rukhi
בּעת ִאישׁן ואעירה
be’eit ishan ve’a’ira
ועם רוחי גויתי
ve’im rukhi gevi’atia
יהוה לי ולא אירא
Adonai li v’lo ira
Into God’s hand I commit my spirit
When sleeping and awake
And with my spirit, my body.
God is mine, I shall not fear.