Content warning: This article briefly references self-harm and an abusive relationship.
A few weeks ago, during a conversation about faith, a friend raised a question about faith and G-d. "How do you feel HaShem's love?" she asked. I felt stumped for the first time in my quest for spiritual fulfillment. While I could answer how Judaism connects me to my ancestors and recite the rituals I wish to adopt, there was a sense of loss and grief.
My deep connection to the Universe provides me with overflowing opportunities to practice gratitude for this resourceful planet, the air I breathe, my body, and even the challenges I face. I am in awe of the profound reverence I feel when I connect with others and stop in my tracks when I view a sunset painted by the brushes of a crimson gold splatter.
However, to presume G-d loves my small self is something I continue to ponder. Why is it that this feeling evades me?
As a child raised as a Protestant Christian, I learned to pour love into prayer, ritual, and care for others. I was taught that if I did not abide by the specifics of these teachings, I would lead a life deemed unworthy of G-d. Instead of cultivating an inner sense of belonging and connection to the divine, I developed a need for external validation where prayer became a source of repentance. As a result, the concept of love was ungraspable.
An internal void grew in that child, setting the stage for a life of disillusioned relationships, anxiety, and emotional turmoil. My inability to experience the love around me created a gap in my experience. As a result, I lived a life with unhealthy relationships and self-harm. As an adolescent, I sought out mind-altering substances, achievements, and other people to numb the pain of emptiness. But all my efforts to fill the void only made it increasingly magnetized.
It wasn't until 2017, when I left a physically abusive relationship with no financial resources or support, that I began my journey into myself. In those years, I cleaned toilets, slept on couches, lived in my car, bartered, and worked low-wage positions as I clawed my way through life. Determined and unsure, each year forward became a stripping away of the comforts I once believed supported me.
In 2019, I visited Israel for the first time, which tied me back to my ancestry. As a Jewish woman raised with only rare acknowledgments of my family’s Ashkenazi lineage, I was desperate to reclaim my lost heritage. With little to no resources, I joined the Birthright trip. While others gathered souvenirs and spent nights on the town, I found solace in the land. Climbing Masada brought peace, playing with children in Tel Aviv inspired laughter, the Western Wall mirrored my grief, and witnessing the strongly built community left me overcome with desire.
What struck a chord on that trip? This question led me to recommit to Judaism on my terms. As a result, I now dedicate Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays to Jewish learning, including an introductory course with Open Temple and Kohenet; Hebrew study with Jewish Collaborative of Orange County; a meditative Minyan with Rabbi Ruth Sohn; Torah Study with the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Sacred Chanting with the Institute for Jewish Learning.
Each step opens a new door, and I feel a sense of containment, home, and foundational connection to Spirit. For example, I recently learned about the Mishkan (Tabernacle) during my Sacred Chanting class. The Mishkan was a portable sanctuary that acted as a dwelling for the Divine. According to the Hebrew Bible, Israelites built this travel-safe sanctuary after the Exodus from Egypt as a precursor to the Holy Temple. The Mishkan served as a way for worship and spiritual connection to occur despite unpredictable external circumstances.
As I connect with this concept, I gravitate towards building an inner Mishkan where I can sit in the space of stability regardless of my external environment. From here, the possibility of feeling HaShem’s love can unite me with the love I crave. The idea that I can build upon an internal barren land and invite G-d to rest inside fills me with the possibility of inner love. An experience of sanctity, compassion, and celebration is possible within this inner holy temple where the reclaimed essence of HaShem can exist.
Through my journey of self-discovery and recommitment to Judaism, I have understood that there is a way to invite love into my life, to build an inner sanctuary where G-d can rest and where I can finally experience the love of the Universe.
So far I have celebrated Hanukkah with an introspective meditation and a Jewish meal, co-led a Tu Bishvat Seder, volunteered at the Stephen Wise Temple for Purim, and planned a special nature-based Passover ritual. While I am still searching for an in-person synagogue that aligns with my values (nature-based and unconventional), I am developing opportunities for practice with At The Well while planning an outdoor Rosh Chodesh circle with movement and meditation. The resonance with the moon cycles and the transcendence of the Jewish calendar aligns with my desire to connect with the earth and the cyclical nature of time while learning more about the specific holidays.
As I continue to take each step forward, I am filled with a sense of hope and possibility, knowing that with each step I take, I am one step closer to experiencing the love of the Universe in all its glory.
My life is flush with twists and turns, highs and lows, and moments of intense darkness and light. This path taught me that a spiritual practice is relational and begins from within. The first step to a more significant relationship with HaShem is my inner work of creating a receptive vessel, an open heart, built to welcome this unconditional love.
I make the commitment to honor my Hebrew name, Rivke Lev, to connect with my great grandmother Rivke Frid from Lithuania and Lev to honor a young child I used to nanny. Lev was one of my first entry points into Judaism as her father and mother were both Rabbis and I was touched by the community, love and devotion to spirituality that the family shared. In Hebrew, Rivke can be translated as “to tie” or “bind” while Lev is translated to “heart”. To mend the internal space where my spiritual heart resides is an intention of my self-care and growth practice.