First Post from Israel: Parashat Chukat and Finding Balance

It’s funny how quickly circumstances can change. I’m writing this in the apartment I’m sharing with a Russian woman in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. I have been in Israel now for a little more than three weeks.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, is uncannily relevant to my current situation. I’ll get into the details in a bit.

This is my first trip to Israel, and I will be here for (at least) a year. I say “at least” because I will be applying to rabbinical schools in the coming months, and may need to stay in Jerusalem for the first year of the program to which I am accepted. I am planning to go back to the States at some point, so please don’t worry.

To everyone who is reading: This means there will be a lot of opportunity to save up and come visit me : )

Living and studying in Jerusalem for this year will hopefully serve as a bridge between the education and work I did to get to this place – physically, emotionally, spiritually, Jewishly – and the type of Jewish leader I want to become.

Unfortunately, because I will be here for a year, I had to make some sacrifices to make this happen. I left my jobs at Congregation Brith Shalom and the security of having a regular, stable income. I left the community, city, and people I loved. I had to leave Pickles with friends. I sold or gave away many of the things I had accrued for myself during the last three years in Houston. Everything I own that I didn’t bring with me is in boxes in a friend’s house.

At this point, some of you will probably be thinking, “Classic Branden.” What can I say? I like to keep things interesting.

Since arriving, I have experienced a lot of emotions and personal revelations. Although Israel did not play an important role in the formation of my Jewish identity during my conversion and in the two years since, I knew that coming here would be an important milestone for me. I wanted the full experience, so I booked my flight through El Al. I had three security checks in JFK before I could board. The couple sitting next to me recited psalms during takeoff. I loved watching groups of religious men praying in the galleys of the plane. I cried when we landed at Ben Gurion.

During the last three weeks, I have traveled to so many places and seen so many things: Tel Aviv, the Jaffa Port and its Old City, Tel Aviv Pride, the Mediterranean Sea, the Old City of Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, Beit She’arim, and now all around Jerusalem. I have prayed in unaffiliated outdoor spaces, in Conservative spaces, in Reform spaces, and in Orthodox spaces. Most significantly, I have prayed twice at the Kotel (the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount), once by myself and once with students and faculty from my yeshiva. In the Jewish tradition, this is the closest we can physically come to God’s presence in the world. It was the perfect place to recite Kaddish for a friend’s father who recently passed. I wept for so many reasons, many of which I can’t even name.

My program right now is immersive Hebrew language study, followed by volunteering in the afternoons. I am volunteering at the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the city’s only LGBT community center. It is in an incredible place that does wonderful work in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. I have the privilege of working on two major projects. One is conducting interviews of older lesbians who live or lived in Jerusalem. We are going to compile their stories into a book to distribute at next year’s Pride, which will celebrate and honor older LGBT people. The other is creating an English-language welcome and resource guide to Jerusalem for visitors and new immigrants. And I’m helping with some smaller research projects when I can.

I have also made some incredible friends. People from all over who have come to Israel to learn and take their experiences here out into the world and transform the Jewish community. I look forward to having them as my classmates and colleagues in the years to come. The only unfortunate part is that we aren’t currently in the same program. But I hope that will change. Tonight a group of us are going to a protest outside the prime minister’s residence to demand action on the Kotel agreement and respect for the rights of progressive Judaism in Israel.


Now, back to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat. In perhaps one of the most confounding descriptions found in the Torah, this parashah describes that of parah adumah, the red heifer. The ashes of the heifer were used in purification rituals, and were only applicable while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. These laws fall into a category that can be simply described as, “Do it because God said so,” like many of the dietary laws, which don’t come with a rational explanation in the Torah.

In her commentary on Parashat Chukat for, Rabbi Vered L. Harris writes about the space between the extremes of “religious practice must be rational” and “Do it because God said so.” She writes: “Finding balance in Jewish life is an exercise in appreciating the golden mean. […] The concept is simple: do not live in the extremes.” To help us achieve this goal, she suggests we ask, “Why not?” when considering our ritual practices. This allows us to bring our Jewish practice into alignment with our core values. If we have a values-based reason for refraining from certain forms of ritual or observance, then we have a rational approach that allows us to create a meaningful personal practice that still reflects our Jewish values. There is balance that is stronger than relying too heavily on one aspect or approach. There is also flexibility and room for change over time.

I converted in the Reform movement, but moved away from it in favor of the more traditional Conservative movement. I find myself, however, taking a more Reform-minded approach to my personal practice since arriving in Israel. In this approach, where personal choice is vitally important, the goal should be to come close to the golden mean: a practice that is inspired by a rational, meaningful, values-based understanding of religious practice and its role/influence in your life.

As I begin to internalize these concepts - with the added freedom of being in a place (Israel) where I can experience and experiment with every level and type of observance there is - I can start asking some of those clarifying questions that will help me focus my education and the nature of my rabbinate.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that it’s funny how quickly circumstances can change. I was originally only supposed to be in Israel for part of the summer. Then I received a Facebook message with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had plans for the fall, for the coming year, and thought I knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Like the golden mean, finding balance and comfort in the vast gap between certainty and uncertainty is unsettling but liberating. My goals have not changed. I still want to be a rabbi, to get married, to have children. It’s hard not to see the hand of the Divine at play in my life right now, as reluctant as I am to say that. However, as I am reminded every so often: Man plans, and God laughs.

Shavua tov.