July 15, 2019

From Terrified to Blessed: Skydiving for my Birthday

As the Winter Olympics begin, I think about the athletes and their great feats of physical strength and commitment to daily preparation to achieve their goals.  For my 50th birthday, I overcame 50 challenges that were new or adventurous and I was scared the whole time. The most amazing thing to me is that I kept saying yes. I never gave up. If I could call myself one year ago and explain everything that was going to happen, I would never have believed it. I was much more courageous than I imagined was possible.

Watch Lisa Niver on KTLA TVFor my birthday, I did something I have always said I would never attempt. I went sky diving. While I was very nervous and excited, I was also prepared for the challenge by my choices all year.

The day before my jump, I read Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book, “Einstein and the Rabbi,” while sitting on the balcony of my perfect room at The Pantai Inn in La Jolla. I strolled on the beach, watched the seals and sea lions playing in the water and then would return and read more.

Video: Sky Diving with GoJump Oceanside

Once in Oceanside at GoJump, it was necessary to patiently wait for  two hours until the clouds cleared. I nearly had too much time to contemplate Levy’s book, my life and if I really wanted to take part in this birthday gift to myself.

When Levy wrote, “Your soul wants to teach you about your strength. It wants you to believe in your abilities and your gifts. It wants you to lift up your head with pride and claim your birthright: the life that is yours to experience. Your soul wants you to follow it through times of darkness, through the fog and confusion.

I was not sure she meant jumping out of a plane but that was where my path had brought me and it was what was going to happen next.

In the plane, I sang to myself: Kol Haolam Kulo

The song means: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the thing is not to be afraid.” I knew in my heart that this is the life I want to live. I do not want to be fearful of so many things. I want to risk and make my dreams come true.

Levy writes:

Your soul will lead you to heights and to loves and to kindness.”

and “Everything has led you to where you are right at this very moment.”

I chose to believe I would live through this scary experience and I imagined I might even love it. If I let fear win and I never try, my life will be smaller. I want to grow and learn to approach new experiences with excitement instead of terror.

Levy says that “The soul wants you to be uncomfortable enough to strive for more, to grow and to learn and to see what needs fixing in this beautiful and broken world. Living with soul can keep you up at night. You suddenly start seeing the humanity in the eyes of strangers you were ignoring.”

Happy Birthday Sky Diving! I DID IT

I wonder where my journey will lead. Sometimes I am not sure that it is the right path but I feel better after reading about following the path of my soul.

The soul’s journey is never linear. It requires patience and perseverance. Just when you’re ready to give up, a door opens and you are granted the opportunity to step inside if you wish. You are invited to explore new realms that were previously locked to you. Were those turns you took back there wrong turns? Were those dead ends you reached worthless? Or were they all part of the “whole”?

I said the Shehecheyanu in the plane. It is a Jewish blessing for the first time we encounter something new or arrive in a new place or for me a new state of being. I was strapped to another human being with five points of connection and I am trusting him to guide us with his parachute safely back to earth.

Levy says we must learn to take soulfie’s instead of selfies! 

If we can learn to take a soulfie, it may very well transform our lives. By making a decision to access and follow our souls, we begin a journey. It is a winding journey full of bumps and pits, stops and starts. Sometimes the road becomes flat and we can cover great distances. Sometimes we will get stuck in one place for what may seem like an eternity before we are ready to continue forward. Yes, there are times when we will get lost, when we won’t know what to do or which way to turn and it’s frightening and frustrating and we wish it could all just be easier. With soul it can get easier.

For a year, I have been following this path of fear and with each challenge I accomplish, my ability to handle fear is better. The hardest thing I did was take a mountain biking lesson at Northstar California Resort. I went down the mountain on a blue intermediate run on my first day and while at one point, I did cry, I never gave up and it was a great feeling of accomplishment. I thought about mountain biking a lot while waiting for my turn in the plane. I kept telling myself I can do it. I did that and I can do this. I want to do it.

Levy continues: “Life’s paths are anything but straight. And yet those winding paths, as frustrating as they may be, can lead us to a life of meaning and blessings. I pray you will choose to follow your soul on its journey.

I am following this path and I wonder what will happen next. I worry about parachutes not opening, bad landings and other horror stories but mainly I sing to myself and say the Sh’ma. “Hear O’Israel the Lord is our God, Our God is One.”

Sky Diving is amazing!I believe that I am being lead. I have made it here and my job for this day for sky diving is to remain as calm as possible and enjoy this incredible opportunity.

As Levy says: “It isn’t easy to make the journey from narrowness to a vast expanse. But we all want to wake up from our sleepwalking. We all want to topple the barriers that are standing in the way of a full life.” I do know I want a full life and by testing my limits and not letting fear win that is what I am getting. I am sure there will be more tests, challenges and scary ideas to conquer. I did jump out of a plane and fly like a bird and I will be able to overcome what comes next.

Within you are powers that you haven’t even begun to tap into. There’s a purpose to your life. A high purpose…You can lift yourself up. And as you lift yourself up, you will lift others up too. May you live to turn your curses into blessings, your fear into strength, your greatest block into your greatest opening. Amen

VideoDo you Love Strolling by the Sea With Seals?

Lisa Niver thanks GoJump Oceanside and the Pantai Inn for hosting her for her 50th birthday.

What will you do to celebrate for your next birthday?

Death, Einstein and hints of eternity

It was the anguish of a father who lost his young son to polio in 1950 that triggered the soulful journey that lies at the heart of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul.”

“His death has shattered the very structure of my existence,” the father wrote in a letter. “My very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings.”

The grieving father, Rabbi Robert Marcus, was desperate for some form of consolation and meaning from his loss. He surely knew that any rabbi could console him with thoughts of the afterlife and of living memories. But he wasn’t writing to a man of God.

He was writing to Albert Einstein.

He wanted to hear how the world’s greatest scientist would respond to his despondent cries: “Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child — a blooming bud that turned its face to the sun and was cut down by an unrelenting storm — has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death?”

Marcus was challenging the genius scientist about something Einstein had written that seemed to dismiss religious transcendence: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”

Einstein, then, was in a tight spot: How would he console the grieving rabbi without compromising his scientific integrity?

His enigmatic answer, which Levy discovered while doing research for a class, is what compelled her to write the book.

“Einstein’s exquisite words stopped me in my tracks,” she writes. “He was expressing everything I believed about our limited vision and about the oneness we have trouble seeing, but that we are all part of.”

The letter resonated so deeply that it triggered a three-year journey that involved, among many things, tracking down the heroic and tragic story of Rabbi Marcus’ life, the eventual discovery of his letter to Einstein and a few other surprises.

The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.

But it is Einstein’s response that especially illuminates the book. The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.

The letter itself is brief — 78 words. Levy writes that she meditated on it “every day for three years.” (I meditated on it myself a few months ago when I had a chance to review the manuscript.)

So, what did Time magazine’s Person of the Century have to say to a rabbi devastated by the loss of his son? I won’t give it all away, but I can say that his answer is a kind of midrash on the gaps in our consciousness.

It is an “optical delusion,” Einstein writes, to experience ourselves as something separate from the universe, as “separate from the rest.” Freeing ourselves from this delusion is “the one issue of true religion,” and trying to overcome the delusion is the way to reach the “attainable measure of peace of mind.”

An attainable measure? An optical delusion? The one issue of true religion? Those are not the words one usually hears at a shivah, but they are the words that planted themselves in Levy’s consciousness.

Einstein used rational words to express a soulful message about our cosmic interconnection. In doing so, he made science caress religion. He validated Levy’s tapestry of human connectivity which unfolds throughout her book.

Of the many stories that comprise this tapestry, the most personal is how Levy deals with the death of her father. As she chronicles this painful chapter, she sets up the spiritual thrust of the book —  “sensing the pulsating rhythm in all things … being attuned to mystery … embracing life’s magic instead of needing to control it all the time.”

This mysterious magic lies in our souls.

Throughout the book, Levy displays a gift for challenging us and empowering us at the same time. She challenges us to access the divine power of our souls to improve our lives, and she empowers us through the simple magic of human stories.

More than anything, Levy wants us to remember that, through our souls, we all are connected for eternity in God’s universe.

“I can see hints of eternity now that I had no access to then,” she writes near the end.

The little boy whose tragic death in 1950 led to a soul-stirring book in 2017 is a poignant hint of this eternity.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbi Naomi Levy’s ‘Einstein’ charts a path to the soul

A pulpit rabbi is called upon to be all things to all people — spiritual leader, teacher, counselor, comforter, administrator and much else besides. Naomi Levy, as the founder and rabbi of the Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community called Nashuva, is all that and more. What we discover in her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books), is that she also is (perhaps above all) a gifted storyteller — courageous, daring, witty and wise.

“The Hebrew word Nashuva means We Will Return,” she explains in the book. “We all have a need to return — to passion, to our dreams, to love, to our own souls, to God.”

Among the many examples of loss and redemption to be found in “Einstein and the Rabbi” is the heartbreaking loss she suffered at the age of 15 when her father was gunned down in a robbery. She had dared to dream of becoming a rabbi — something unheard of in the Conservative movement at the time — but the loss erased her dreams: “I was numb,” she writes. “Prayer died too. All those powerful discussions my dad and I had about God and faith and prayer seemed hollow now. What good was God? I stopped longing to be a rabbi.”

By her senior year of college, however, a door opened — literally. The Jewish Theological Seminary voted to accept women into its rabbinical program, and Levy was a member of the first entering class to include women. She reconnected with both her childhood dream and her father, too. “When I heard the news, I was laughing and crying at the same time,” she recalls. “I knew my father was laughing, too, laughing from pure joy.”

The title of the book refers to a kind of mystery story that runs throughout the work. Levy found her way to an obscure letter whose author turned out to be Albert Einstein: “A human being … experiences himself … as something separate from the rest,” the great scientist wrote. “The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.”

The letter inspired her to play the role of a detective: “Little did I know that this powerful teaching by Einstein about the universe would lead me to the soul of a stranger, and that I would feel compelled to follow the sacred thread of his story.”

I won’t give away the ending — or the fascinating and sometimes sorrowful twists and turns — of the story that she tells about Einstein’s letter except to say that it carries a profound irony. For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.

“What you see with your eyes is only a piece of the truth,” she explains. “But the soul wants to offer us its expansive vision, a consciousness of the whole we have trouble seeing. Soon we may begin to see a bigger picture, how random threads are all actually woven together in a single majestic tapestry.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy

For Levy, the words of a famous man of science reveal a path to something every bit as elusive as the theory of relativity — the human soul.

The crown jewel of “Einstein and the Rabbi,” however, is Levy’s account of a dire medical ordeal she was forced to endure. Again, I do not want to take the edge off her remarkable and ultimately triumphant story except to say that it begins with a triviality and quickly escalates into something truly nightmarish. And yet, as Levy tells it, the final moments before a crucial surgery presented her with an experience of the divine.

“And all of a sudden I crossed a river,” she explains. “From drowning in waves that were engulfing me to the purest stillest water I have ever seen. It wasn’t something I did, it just happened. Grace.

“Whoa!” said a nurse who happened to enter the pre-op room at that moment. “ ‘Something really powerful is happening here,’ and she backed away and closed the door.”

My ethical obligation as a book reviewer requires me to disclose that Levy is married to Rob Eshman, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Journal, but that’s not the only reason to mention him here. Eshman figures importantly in the book and often is in its most poignant and endearing passages, as when Levy describes how he “wooed me with food.”

“Our kids grew up knowing that both their parents would be sitting with them every night eating amazing food together,” she writes. “Love, sensuality, soul, friendship, community, family, food. Eden. Thank You, God. I am full.”

“Einstein and the Rabbi” is Levy’s fourth book, and the readers of her previous work (“Hope Will Find You,” “Talking to God” and “To Begin Again”) already will know that she brings not only eloquence and wisdom but also a wry sense of humor and the deepest compassion to her writing. Yet her new book achieves something even more exalted, an intimate revelation that rings with courage and authenticity. The reader surely will come away from Levy’s latest book with that sense of spiritual fullness she seeks to impart in everything she does, whether from the pulpit or on the printed page.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.