I first came to Beit T’Shuvah for an Elaine Breslow Institute Immersion training for rabbinical students in January 2015. Within minutes, I fell in love with the community; within hours, I knew that I wanted to stay connected to Beit T’Shuvah long after the training was over. After almost every EBI session, I spoke to the facilitator, expressing my gratitude and asking them what I could do to stay connected. Across the board, all said the same thing: “Talk to Rabbi Mark.” On the one hand, I was encouraged; on the other, I was intimidated! Yet I approached him before the week’s end, asking him how I could stay involved in the Beit T’Shuvah community. After a quick moment of thought, he answered my question with another: “Do you want an internship?” Of course I said yes, and before I knew it, the spring semester was over and it was time to begin my work as a Spiritual Counseling intern. As I arrived in the building and began to get my bearings for the day, my supervisor explained to me that I’d be sitting in on Women’s T’Shuvah group – a space for women in early recovery to learn and practice transparency in a safe and welcoming environment. I would shadow the current facilitator for a few weeks and then take over the group.
I don’t know if it showed on my face at the time, but I immediately felt an overwhelming wave of trepidation: it was going to be MY responsibility to facilitate recovery, healing, and personal growth for a group of WOMEN?! Up to that point, the positive experiences I’d had in all-female spaces had been few and far between. But I didn’t want to reject the first major responsibility of my internship, so I nodded, took a deep breath, and steeled myself to dive in.
I facilitated Women’s T’Shuvah Group for two years, and the experience changed my life. Week after week, as the women worked to change their lives and as I witnessed them interact with one another, I discovered that I had been seeing women – and seeing myself – inaccurately. Yeah, sometimes they (and we) could be gossipy and catty and petty and afraid to open up. But more often, they (and we) could be loving and welcoming, caring and supportive, insightful and open, and inspiringly honest. We could yield to the good of the whole; we didn’t have to rally behind a ringleader or split into factions. We could create a safe space for ourselves, and we could work together to do so.
When I read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, I think of our Women’s T’Shuvah Group. In the Torah portion, the five (!) daughters of Zelophehad go to Moses to advocate for their family and for themselves. They speak with one voice. They honor the memory of their deceased father, speaking honestly of his righteousness and shortcomings. And they plead their family’s case, saying that just because their father had daughters instead of sons, his heirs should not lose out on their family’s rightful inheritance. The daughters of Zelophehad ask for an exception to the rule that only males – and not females – can inherit. They explain to Moses that their family needs an individualized program.
Because of the moments of kindness and grace, the unity and support, that I have seen in Women’s T’Shuvah group, I read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, and I believe it with my whole heart. I know that there are few forces as powerful as a group of women with one mission and one voice. And that sense of unity does not have to take away one bit from individual identity. In our Torah portion, each of Zelophehad’s daughters is mentioned specifically by name: Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. Each of these women is uniquely herself, and each brings her full essence as they speak with one voice, five women strong.
As we move into this Shabbat together, may we be blessed to have our eyes open anew, to become even more aware of the women in our lives and in our world that are a powerful force for t’shuvah, for healing and for positive change. May we be blessed to rise above our own gossip and cattiness and petty behaviors – no matter what gender we may be. And may we be empowered to be our full unique selves, and to add our full voice whenever we join with others to speak as one.