Monica Steiner Hooray!: Abraham the Woman Would Have Stayed
Monica has served as a lay leader at CBB for 11 years and on our professional staff for the past 5+, most recently as Director of Donor Relations. This month, CBB wished Monica and her family farewell as they move across country so Monica can begin studying for the rabbinate at Hebrew College.
Monica delivered this sermon on May 20, 2022 at Friday night services. Click here to view
“How did you decide to go to rabbinic school?? When did you know you were called to the rabbinate? ” These are the questions I keep hearing and having no adequate answer for. You have asked me in the lobby and in emails, at the gala and on the phone, and so I decided I’d try and share something of substance about my calling. You’ll have to tell me later if any of this makes sense. If it doesn’t, well, I’ve got a lot of learning to do, so let’s stay in touch. : )
First, I can tell you that I never went to Hebrew school or learned the cadence of communal Judaism as a child. But I gleaned an important sense of self in chevruta, in learning partnership, with my mother.
Often, as I grew up, we’d study the alef bet’s mystical meanings, copying each Hebrew letter from a Xerox my mom kept in her bed stand. Always she listened to my ideas like a peer.
She taught me to make matzo brei, to bless Hanukkah candles. She would tell stories, recounting how her grandfather hid in an iron oven as a little boy to survive the pogroms in Tsarist Russia. I hardly breathed as she spoke in caressing words, as if to rock that child he once was. Fascinated yet unmoored, I’d smile and shrug when she would finish; tears in the hold of my little body’s ship, leaking with studied silence onto my pillow at night. It was, I knew, a pillow made from the bundle of goose feathers our family salvaged, fleeing. I never went to Hebrew school, but I laid my head on Jewish history every night of my childhood.
I was also a theatre kid all the way through elementary and high school. Musical theatre was what I did for fun, and what I thought about as I watched the clock in math class. I was antsy inside me until I could get out again on the stage.
In high school, I would walk through the doors of our performing arts center lobby and breathe a deep and involuntary breath of satisfaction and -at the same time- nervousness, excitement maybe, vulnerability. I’d walk to the inner doors and into what they call “the house,” where we had 500 seats, raked, all the way down to a beautiful expansive stage. An orchestra pit. Two stories of red velvet curtains. I felt intoxicated, every time I walked into that space. With my friends in the cast, the camaraderie of kindred company, I felt expansive, and alive, and … at home.
Theatre was –almost– everything to me. The lines and melodies I would start out not knowing, and puzzle together in rehearsal and alone in my room at night. I would practice in front of my mirror, loving the music …and myself… with a religiosity that felt sacred. And I’d arrive backstage for our shows in stitches of anticipation, but when I’d step on stage, I felt electric. When I sang to an audience, I felt like there was nothing between me and eternity.
But the show would always end. The house lights would come up and I was just me again. And as much as I reveled lustily in my passion, I just wasn’t enough. The project of performance, even in a community of actors, was not enough. I felt a suspicious inkling that grew into cynicism about my plan to become a professional performer. I was a senior in high school and I looked out, forward over my lifetime ahead, however long or short I had, I imagined what success might look like at its very best. Show after show, Broadway I conjured! – and yet even in that unlikely best case scenario, I wondered: to what end? Towards what ultimate purpose?
I had an inkling, an intuition, that my consuming passion and desire was a poor idol to worship for this lifetime. This passion was not bad objectively, but I didn’t know how or where else to channel that side of myself to serve something bigger. I just felt consumed by it. So I ran from it.
We read in our Torah how our first patriarch, Abraham, was called to leave his home and everything he knew of himself for a land Gd would show him. “Lech, l’cha” said Gd – Go, GO! Get yourself going! GO to your truest self. GO to what you might become. GO on behalf of something bigger than YOU. GO to a future you can create ONLY IF you leap. This is the seed story from which our entire Jewish people eventually emerged.
There are, as you can imagine, many commentaries on this foundational story. One I just heard last week from one of my teachers made me smile. The commentator thinks, what if Abraham didn’t actually hear Gd say “GO,” saying “lech l’cha,” when Abraham first set out. No, Abraham set out because of an intuition, an inarticulable inkling that he had to get going, that he had more he had to be. And he kept going for the same reason. He had inklings that he had to follow at each step along his journey, but could not have said quite why.
The commentary continues: Only as Abraham got to the Land Gd was taking him to did Abraham finally hear Gd say GO, lech l’cha. Only as Abraham saw the place he’d been traveling to all along, did the many inklings resolve into a big picture he could finally see, into what we might describe as a calling that made any sense at all.
I am thinking about theatre right now because, when I left high school, I left theatre behind. I ran from the part of me that felt comfortable in service to my passions and ego. But, now I see that I was not just running away, but toward something more. I was running –GO! Lech l’cha! I can only hear it NOW– towards the parts of me that could balance that consuming fire in me. The parts that could combine into a balanced whole, a self channeled towards a lifetime of service.
Of course, at the time, without theatre, I felt insubstantial and broken. But that, as it turns out, was good too.
Our tradition teaches, it is not when we are full but when we are dwelling in our brokenness, that Gd is with us. This is why the theme of wandering and rootlessness in our tradition is so prevalent and powerful. And we don’t even need to physically go somewhere to risk breaking through our comfort, and into sacred growth.
What do you still want to learn? We could ask that question every single day of our lives and it would always be relevant. What do you still want to learn? Who do you still need to become?
The humility in that question creates space to become more. To serve more. To plant for a future that we won’t see, but that needs us now so that it will exist at all.
I couldn’t have articulated this 20 years ago, but its truth is what I had an inkling for.
And it was our Judaism that held me as I ventured into my wilderness of learning and becoming.
At 19, packing for college, I happened on an old certificate in the closet, which my mom explained was from my grandfather. He’d given me a Hebrew name when I was born: Morasha—legacy. This was the first time I’d heard my own name. My grandfather’s hopes echoed down the decades. But his legacy? I knew so little!
Inspired and hungry, though trembling, I checked out a book, kind of an encyclopedia, called Jewish Literacy from our local library. I attempted to fill in—by rote— the expanses lying empty between matzo brei, feathers, and very basic blessings.
I failed to get far.
But the book, as I held it, felt holy. I quickly stopped reading to “know enough” and continued on because as I freed the words from the page, it was like I had felt puzzling through my lines and melodies in play practice. I felt my old passion stir, but also a partnership forming, this time in a bigger way that went beyond myself. I was breathing in our history and culture; and Gd, it seemed, across all our generations, flooded the most intimate places within my atoms.
I was insatiable, but I felt daunted at leaping into all I did not understand. The little bit of Jewishness that lived so familiarly in my soul felt —with sudden vertigo— newly infinite.
It was disorienting at the time, and frankly, I felt like setting Judaism down and stepping away completely. However, a new inkling, a sense of responsibility, surprised me: I had a legacy to carry, stubbornly if for reasons I could not yet articulate.
Wrestling inwardly, I held fast to this inkling and descended on the rabbi at UC Berkeley Hillel. “Tell me!” I demanded, “What the hell do I do with all of this?!” She laughed, and I knew I’d be ok.
She listened to my questions with an excited smile, she saw me peering hungrily at her bookshelves, and she pulled down Berakhot. She showed me my first page of Talmud. She helped me pair my hunger with self-restraint; my ego with patience. She taught me, “The wise learn a little every day.”
And we did.
I never considered rabbinic school then. I could not hear the possibility –yet– when the weight of all I didn’t know about Judaism overwhelmed me.
I became a lawyer instead.
My husband and I joined this temple. We became parents –three times over– and I pivoted professionally, lickedy-split, when I had the chance to join our professional staff and dwell in this place every day of the week.
I was learning, finally, not just Jewish texts like I had at Hillel, but what it means to dwell fully in Jewish community: our services, our festival year, our compassion in action through tikkun olam, and our deep and sacred friendships. When can I start calling this a vocation? When can I start saying I was called to the rabbinate?
When I enter the sanctuary here, I always catch my breath, involuntarily. It is electric to me. It is sacred theatre. And it is intellectual, ancient sacred law. It is our generations of parents and children loving each other and learning every day together —all at once.
The demands of our shared endeavor in Jewish community is a chance for me to be everything, and too much, and my offering is given and received entirely in good faith.
Everywhere I’ve come from –All those tries. All those real parts– have slowly resolved into a bigger picture and a calling I can hear will integrate and use ALL of me.
It has taken me my lifetime so far to try, and feel I’m failing, and realize: I’m growing. To feel too daunted to leap, but to try, and feel I’m failing, and realize: I am something wonderful and also I am a speck of dust, but in just the right way to serve something sacred. On this path of inklings, I can finally hear that no learning is lost. I can finally hear that I have been called all along.
I will take this community with me. The years we have shared –the love and support and good faith you have shown me every day.
The Jewish life we all create together is everything to me. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. And now you make it possible for me to venture again to a place of unknowing.
I am so full. And beyond these boundaries where I have grown comfortable, rabbinic school will push me –joyfully– into humility again. Into new melodies to puzzle through, and new modes of encounter with our tradition and our People, writ large. It’s time to go forth again, not running away from anything at all, but heeding a call that I can hear clearly (enough) now. I am full and empty, ready to integrate what I am and what I might yet become and be able to contribute.
I want to acknowledge my husband Michael. I don’t talk a lot about Mike because it’s like bragging at how good a job your heart does. It’s there, beating crucially whether its function is deserved or spoken about… or not. Mike, thank you honey, for making it all possible. As you like to tell me, it’s not easy being married to a great lady. Thank you for putting up with me and loving me. I love you.
I thank my children and my mom and family, my dear friend Paul who reminds me that it really is YHVH or the highway; my boss and dear friend Elizabeth who took a chance on me here and helped me grow exponentially, my mentors and loving clergy guides Rabbi Steve, my chevruta Rabbi Daniel, and Cantor My Cantor Mark. I thank the whole cast of this sacred play: our staff and especially their families –Shari, I’m lookin’ at you babe! Also the Board, our volunteers and congregants – living and of blessed memory. I wish I could take the time to name each one of you, my dear friends. Thank you.
Lech lecha! my beloved– GO!
But please. Before you do. TELL ME. What do you still want to learn?
Til death, I think, friend of my soul,
you have to rush towards them,
those angels approaching the
we keep open
on all four sides.
Together in this small and infinite room, we are the same. What do you still want to learn?-And there! Right there. You are raising the sparks.
You are these sparks.
who would have stayed
had she not grown wings under static stars
took her flight
in the home
with the children
who tie her down
and offer her up
who leap with her
– OH, GO. –
into the Unknown.
Wherever we go.
My beloved and I.
And the rest, as they say, is commentary.