Endings and Beginnings

Every story has a beginning, middle and end. One of my writing teachers told me that every story has a prince, a princess and a dragon. I’ve found both statements to be true, even in experimental work. Some of the best stories play with our initial perception of these assumptions — the villain turns out to be the hero and vice versa. Or the cliff hanger, wherein we realize that the resolution to a story is only it’s beginning. Beginnings and endings are tricky that way.

In life, unlike the narrative structure of a story, beginnings are also endings. The human condition in this way is one of bittersweetness, wherein just as we open the door to new adventures, we close another door behind us. In our Torah, we see this play out again and again with the first introduction of humans, who, through their curiosity and their desire to be more like the parent God — and maybe in that way, closer to God — cause humanity’s banishment from Gan Eden. With the Jewish people, it begins with Abraham and Lekh Lekha (Go forth … to a land that I will show you [Genesis 12:1]). Jacob flees his home and ends up in the realm of Laban — that mucky, seemingly endless middle, from which Jacob eventually escapes. Each narrative is both self-contained and part of a larger unraveling story, a structure that in some ways asks us to challenge our concepts of linear constructs. Just as in every year, on Simchat Torah, we read the final words of Deuteronomy, and immediately after and without pause, we read the first words of Genesis.

We’re all here today because of an ending; history closed the door to Temple Judaism and opened the door to Rabbinic Judaism. And there are no greater time travelers than the rabbis of the Talmud, condensing hundreds of years into sequential events, allowing characters to move in and out of history. While the rabbis innovated a Judaism of time, it is still one that frames itself through the lens of a place-based past: the Temple. Let’s just say, Hazal has a hard time letting go. It can be difficult to let go.

I have a secret; I never remember endings. I’ll read a book and then in discussing it, a friend will ask: “But what do you think of the ending?” And my mind is empty. I will remember entire passages, even the placement of a sentence on the page, but those closing paragraphs, it’s like they were never written. And, if I’m reading a book I love, I will tear through it in a matter of days and then take months to read the final 20 pages.

Perhaps it’s something hardwired in me — I don’t like to say goodbye.

But goodbyes are inevitable. If there is one thing that all creatures in our existence share, it is that at some point, we will say goodbye.

If I’m reading a book I love, I will tear through it in a matter of days and then take months to read the final 20 pages.

Perhaps the inability to remember endings has informed how I view life — every stage, every experience, positive or negative, binding together, like strands of DNA, to create a whole that is alive and unique. It’s an artist’s way, and it’s the way in which our Talmudic sages portray their life adventures, too. They ask: Is an ending a culmination, or are endings rather merely manifestations of our human need to create markers through which we endow our lives with meaning? Is the past a road that connects to the future — one we can predict and even one beyond what we could know, wherein time collapses and barriers between earthly and heavenly realms dissolve? It is a world of dreams, of creative energy, this world of our rabbis.

One of the most radical things about Reconstructionist Judaism is that there’s never more than a “soft” ending — Judaism is dynamic and ever-evolving — our goodbyes flow into beginnings, like a river that flows into an ocean. (Or, perhaps out from Eden.)

As I approach this “ending,” I’ve been thinking about what the next “beginning” will look like. What’s the structure of this story? What kind of narrative will it be? What elements of the past, historically, personally, will I bring and thread into my rabbinate?

Maybe I, too, can become a shape-shifting, time-traveling rabbi, like those we read about in the Talmud. I’d also welcome the ability to burn things to ash with my eyes … because sometimes you just have those days. Or, to have the ability to make walls that shake at my interpretations of Torah. That would be cool.

When people refer to me as a second-career student, I always feel confused. Where’s the second career student? Oh, me? Oh, you’re talking about me? I was a theater producer for about a decade and am a fiction writer, and I ran the New York City marathon once. At least two of those things are important to my rabbinate.

In my spiritual autobiography, I wrote: We are taught that after the destruction of the Temple, prayer replaces sacrifice, but what replaces the Holy of Holies, that place where the Divine and human realms met? I don’t long for the restoration of the Temple, but I do long for the Holy of Holies. I long for the theatricality of the Temple, to experience catharsis, to draw God into this world and to tremble in the wake of the Divine.

This is about doorways, portals if you want to get fancy, between the Divine and human realms.

There were four who entered Pardes: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai gazed and died. Ben Zoma gazed and lost his sanity. Akher became a heretic. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.

Three of them walked through a door, and it shut forever. Rabbi Akiva though, he has a revolving door — one that with each passage through reveals a different layer, another mystery to unravel, and perhaps another way of approaching the Divine.

I don’t long for the restoration of the Temple, but I do long for the Holy of Holies.

My revolving door is made through the cultivation of artistic practice and Jewish craft. And I envision a rabbinate that weaves together theater, writing and deep engagement with Jewish text—let’s write new Talmud; let’s perform new Midrash. This is my Holy of Holies, the place where human and Divine realms meet. I want to bring that to others and to keep that door revolving.

Rabbi Akiva has a revolving door — one that with each passage through reveals a different layer, another mystery to unravel and perhaps another way of approaching the Divine.

I’m so grateful to this school, to the teachers, the administrators and my fellow students. Perhaps the greatest thing about RRC, about this community, is that it accepts people for who they are and supports them in who they want to become. It’s a visionary place.

Well, friends, here we are. A beginning. An ending. Our liminal space. Sometimes, I think, God’s presence feels strongest in the liminal space.

Based on the author’s Senior Torah, delivered in May 2023.

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