Things I love about b'nei mitzvah

I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b'nei mitzvah.

I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.

I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they'll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.

I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I've practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.

I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community -- members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends -- and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.

I love inviting anyone who's never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It's in Hebrew; it's on parchment; it's a scroll; it's handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there's no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.

I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they've learned to the entire congregation.

I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.

And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren't necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn't expect to be moved, or who didn't expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.

Mostly I love knowing that we've co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.


Accompanying mourners, with gratitude

When I walk out of a mourner's home, having spent an hour or two listening to stories about the person who has died, I feel unspeakably lucky to be doing this work.

It's an incredible honor to be able to walk beside people in their mourning. To bear witness to their emotions and their memories.

Sometimes we look at old photographs or newspaper clippings. Sometimes one story leads to the next and suddenly everyone's talking over each other, eager to reminisce.

Sometimes the relationships were healthy and sweet, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something beautiful which has moved into memory.

Sometimes the relationships were painful or broken, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something which wasn't what it needed to be.

I try to take notes as unobtrusively as I can, asking questions -- if I need to -- to spark more stories. Bit by bit, anecdote by anecdote, a picture emerges.

Sometimes people ask me about Jewish ideas of the soul and the afterlife, wanting to know where (I think) their loved one is now, what comes next.

Sometimes people tell me stories about being present at the moment of death, the luminous quality that may accompany that transition into what we can't know.

Always when I make my farewells, even if I feel daunted by the task of writing a eulogy which will live up to their memories, I'm grateful to be able to try.


Happy Purim / חג פורים שמח!

Drew at CBI me as McGonagall

 

We had a sweet little Purim shindig at my shul tonight. A few folks decorated masks beforehand with the markers and stickers which Drew and I had purchased at the art supply store. Then we all adjourned into the sanctuary for our Purim Spiel, ably written and directed by my friend David Lane.

I chanted a handful of verses from the megillah, and our Purim players retold the Purim story in fine style. Then we adjourned for hamentaschen (and tiny cupcakes, Drew's favorite) and, for the adults, a few celebratory nips of slivovitz. And then I brought Drew home while the party was still going on, because it was already well past his bedtime.

I came home to a beautiful Purim poem by my friend Kate Abbott. It's called Mordechai -- scroll down to reach the poem on that page. I love her imaginative insights into what it might have been like for Mordechai to rear the orphan Esther.

Whatever your Purim may hold, I wish you ora v'simcha, light and joy.

 

Professor MacGonagall and her son say: Happy Purim to all!

 


For more images from our Purim celebration, don't miss the Purim, 13 photoset at my congregation's Flickr account.

(The individual photos, above, are from that photoset, and were taken by Len Radin -- thanks, Len! The one of Drew and me is a cameraphone photo, but I love it anyway.)


Rehab

What moves me, right away, is the gentleness. They're standing a few feet apart, two adults younger than I am, each of them coaching someone elderly. They help them rise from their wheelchairs, stand with relative stability, and toss a bright plastic ball back and forth, back and forth. Each of the patients wears a wide striped belt for the therapist to hold onto.

After the game of catch, they work with cones. Each plastic cone is slightly smaller than a soda can, and each is a different vivid color, red and green and yellow and blue. Each physical therapist holds a cone somewhere just out of reach, and prompts their patient to reach for it, to stretch or bend as needed, and then to hand it to her or his counterpart. Back and forth.

Afterward I chat with the woman I am there to visit. She praises the physical therapists: they're young, she agrees, but they know what they're doing. She tells me that she's gotten to know everyone there, at least enough to greet them and say hello. And when someone is in really bad shape, she says, and they manage something they hadn't been able to do -- that's inspiring.

It has the feel of a kind of strange private club, though not a club anyone particularly wants to join. Its accoutrements are so determinedly cheerful they remind me of preschool. My son would love the mats, the cones, the ball. I wonder how many of the people there wrestle with frustration at needing to practice things like balance, or grasping, or bending down.

What fragile things these bodies can be. Thin skin and delicate bones and so many places that can hurt. I want to bless the hands and heart of every doctor and nurse, every physical therapist, every orderly. Afterwards I take myself out for a quick Chinese lunch. I warm my hands on a teacup. I whisper prayers into my tea.

 

 


5 ways to celebrate Purim

Now that Tu BiShvat is behind us, the next festival on our radar is Purim. In preparation for our coming holiday of masks, costumes, food, and merriment, I've shared a post at my congregational blog about five things you can do to celebrate Purim wholly this year. It's here: How to Celebrate Purim in 5 Easy Steps.

A few of the items on that list are geared toward my local community. For instance: the first one is "listen to the megillah," and if you're local to me, you are welcome to do that at my synagogue on Saturday night February 23! And the second one is "give to the needy," and it happens that Purim afternoon coincides with the one Sunday a month when my community cooks meals for 100+ homebound senior citizens in North Adams, so if you're local to me, you are welcome to come and help out with that. But these five ways of celebrating Purim are possible no matter where you live.

Anyway, if you're looking for tips on how to make Purim fun and meaningful, check out the post over there. Shabbat shalom, y'all.


On beginning a Torah podcast...with my students

Last week was the most fun, and possibly the most successful, week in my Hebrew school teaching career. And in some ways, I didn't even teach: I just set the stage, and let the kids roll.

I can't remember how the idea came up. Maybe it was when I asked my students -- I teach the fifth through seventh graders in our b'nei mitzvah prep program -- whether any of them might be interested in recording our services from time to time for those who are homebound. I think that's when the kids asked if they could make a podcast as part of their learning with me, and I said sure. This year we're studying Torah, writ large, so the podcast would have a Torah focus.

After that, they asked pretty much every week: can we make a podcast now? So I spent some time looking at the syllabus I'd put together for the year, and pondering when might be the right time to scrap the roadmap and go somewhere new. I decided the podcast should center around the story of Joseph. Working on it now is seasonally-appropriate (we'll start reading it in shul on December 8), it's a rich and multilayered story, and it's substantial enough to give them a lot to dig into.

Over the Thanksgiving break I asked the kids to read the Joseph story. (And some of them actually did.) When we returned to Hebrew school, I outlined the process I had in mind. The podcast would take place in four acts -- a structure I admit I borrowed from This American Life. Act One: the kids would retell the Joseph story in their own words. Act Two: midrashic explorations of the Joseph story, staying in the Biblical milieu. (They might write scripts where they explored one character's motivations, or another character's emotional reactions.)

Act Three: they could take the story as far-out as they wanted to go. Set it in a science-fiction future, make Joseph into Josie or Josephina, set it on a planet where everyone is a cow (yes, they actually suggested that last one): up to them. I knew that this was the part they were really excited about. When I asked them to write something creative about lulav and etrog, a while back, one of my kids wrote about a Quidditch game where Harry was riding on a lulav to chase the golden etrog. I knew they would find some goofy way to relate to Joseph.

The podcast would close with Act Four, in which I would interview them about what the process had been like and what they had learned from the experience of immersing in their own creative takes on the Joseph story.

We started last week with Act One, the retelling of the Joseph story. I asked them to tell me the story of Joseph, prompting them occasionally if they seemed likely to skip over an important plot point. I transcribed their words, printed copies of that script, and handed it around the room. We recorded the script together in class. For Act Two, I had anticipated that they would want to work in pairs or small groups to write short scripts which explored aspects the Joseph story in their own ways, but to my surprise, they wanted to work all as a single group, and to find their own responses in realtime, as a kind of improv theatre. So I pressed "record" and let them roll.

I spent a few evenings last week doing some technical work: going through each recording and boosting the sections of the audio which had been too quiet, finding a theme song through the Free Music Archive's list of Creative Commons-licensed material available for remix and reuse. (I chose a track by the Boston-based Debo Band - "Aderech Arada (Kiddid Remix)" -- you can learn more about the band and about the track here at the FMA.) This afternoon in class I'm planning to work on Acts Three and Four. Then I'll have some more editing work to do, and we should be able to release the podcast right around the time that congregations around the world are reading the Joseph story!

I'm not sure this podcast will be a major contribution to the world of Jewish commentary on Joseph. But the process of making it has gotten my students excited about Torah and excited about Hebrew school, and as far as I'm concerned, that's priceless. And their insights, and phrasings, are fresh and often surprising. (Did you know that Joseph's brothers failed to recognize him, when they met him as Pharaoh's vizier, because he was all decked out in bling?) I'm proud of my kids for embracing this Torah story, even if they're embracing it with silliness.

And I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

 

Edited to add: if you're curious, you can listen to the first Ne'arim podcast here at my congregational blog.


Three gratitudes

I'm grateful this morning for colleagues who pause our phone calls to make the blessing for Torah study, mindful that the words we're going to exchange are themselves Torah; who remind me to pay attention to the movements and signals of my own heart; who urge me to recognize and to honor both the act of stretching my comfort zone, and the act of remaining safely within it; who offer their own stories and experiences to match mine.

I'm grateful this morning for students who offer me the key to unlock their enthusiasm; who ad-lib interviews with Biblical characters, giggling wildly as they insert cows into scenes where, truth be told, cows were never meant to be; who earnestly ask permission to skip Hebrew this week so they can spend more time with the Torah story; who laugh and shout so loudly I know the whole building must be listening to their glee.

I'm grateful this morning for recordings of my beloved friends singing the morning prayers, with heart and harmony; for their presence, real with me again through the miracle of praying together across the miles and the months; for their reminder that I am most wholly the person I want to be when I take the time and space to enter into our liturgy, to be washed by its waves, to be rooted in its soil; for this ineffable togetherness.


On preparing a nondenominational funeral

It was a challenge I had not sufficiently pondered: how to create a meaningful nondenominational (read: non-Jewish) funeral service which would serve its ritual purpose, bring comfort to the mourners, and use language familiar and accessible to those assembled, without taking me out of the comfort zone of what I can authentically pray as a rabbi and as a Jew?

One of my dearest teachers, when I was in rabbinic school, taught me that a funeral is the one time when we always say yes. If someone asks me to do a wedding, and I say no -- because the date isn't convenient, or because I'm not comfortable with their stipulations, or for whatever reason -- they can always find another officiant. There are a lot of rabbis who do weddings, and generally speaking, a nuptial couple approaches potential clergy well in advance of the blessed date. But if someone needs a funeral, the need is immediate, and it is incumbent on me as a rabbi to say yes. It's my job to be there for them and to use the prayers, skills, and teachings at my disposal to help them navigate the shoals of grief.

So when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a congregant's loved one, I said yes without hesitation. The only question in my mind was what words, exactly, might be appropriate to the situation, because this family member was not Jewish. I have a fair number of dual-faith-heritage families in my community, which means I have a lot of congregants who have Christian family members. When those family members belong to their own faith-communities, then their funerals are a matter for their clergy. But when they're unaffiliated -- "unchurched," in Christian parlance -- a different situation arises. (Other liberal Jewish clergy, I expect you've run into this situation too; I'd love to hear from others about how you've handled it.)

I knew that most of the family members who would be gathering to mourn would not be Jewish. But all of them were grieving a loss, and all of them were in need of a liturgy which would create a safe container to hold them in their grief. This was a new spiritual assignment for me, and an opportunity to think about how I understand funerals to work and what I understand my role at a funeral to be.

First I looked to the funeral liturgy I usually use, which is based in Ma'aglei Tzedek, the Reform Rabbi's Manual, though has grown from there. (I've adapted my practices over the years, drawing on Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgies and teachings.) I turned also to poetry, thumbing my copy of Beloved on the Earth, which I reviewed here some time ago. I knew I wanted some things which the assembled could read or recite together, ideally familiar words and cadences. Psalms, then: I chose parts of Psalm 90, and Psalm 23, and also the Lord's Prayer. (For all that it's a Christian prayer, there's nothing in it which is uncomfortable for me as a Jew -- actually when I've heard it rendered in Hebrew I've been amazed and moved by just how familiar its turns of phrase are, and how similar to the liturgy I love and know.)

What might the mourners be expecting, what forms and structures would be most comforting to them in their grief? I consulted Google to see what I could learn about Christian funeral liturgies. (I'm grateful to those who've put the Book of Common Prayer online!) Of course, there are certain central elements of Christian funeral ritual which are foreign to me. Christians and Jews have different teachings about what happens to our souls after death, and I can't in good faith affirm Jesus as the resurrection and the life or as the only path to God. But I fashioned a prayer of committal to recite at graveside, which I hoped would serve to sanctify, with our words and intentions, this place in the earth into which this beloved body would be returned.

I hope and pray that the words I assembled were the right ones, and that my presence was a comfort. For those who are interested in the end result of my labors, two short services are enclosed here: a memorial service intended for use in the funeral home, and a graveside service intended for interment. (Neither includes any identifying information or anything specific to this family.) I welcome your thoughts, questions, and feedback in response. And if these liturgies are useful to someone else, by all means, use them elsewhere; I share them freely, with hope that all who are bereaved will find comfort.

Memorial [pdf]

Interment [pdf]


Election week Torah

If, after you have entered the land which Adonai your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

I decided yesterday morning to modify the lesson I had been planning to teach to our fifth through seventh graders, our b'nei mitzvah prep students. We still did some of what was originally on the syllabus for the day, but in honor of this week's Presidential election, we also took some time to read and discuss the short Torah passage above.

I was curious to hear how my students would respond to this short Torah teaching. Would they interpret this passage from Torah as favoring the idea of appointing a king, or not? (I tend to read it as begrudging acceptance -- it might be preferable not to have a king, because it's too easy to get attached to human sovereignty and power, but once the children of Israel have a nation-state of their own they'll inevitably want a government like everybody else's, so here are the Torah's stipulations about how the ruler should be chosen.)

How would my students understand Torah's qualifications for a king? Which of those qualifications still resonate for us today? What might be a modern equivalent of keeping too many warhorses, or of sending people back into slavery in order to add to the might of the army? What is the Teaching, or Instruction, which our modern leaders study and interpret and live by?

And is any of this relevant to us in an era and a place where we vote for a President instead of living in the old system where the power was shared between a King, the priests, and the prophets? My answer to that last question is, of course, yes -- there are always ways to find relevancy and meaning in Torah, even as times change. But I was interested to know how, and whether, my students would relate this passage to the process of choosing the American President.

The kids settled first on the matter that a king of Israel needed to be an Israelite, not a foreigner. We talked a bit about the extent to which different peoples worshipped different gods in those days, and they drew the connection between this idea in Torah and the American system in which only native-born citizens can run for President. We talked a bit about the matter of warfare and wealth, then and now. And then we talked about the question of whether or not, in our modern paradigm where we elect our government, kids ought to be able to vote. (My class's opinions were divided on that one.)

I'm curious to hear your responses, too. Does this bit of Torah have any bearing on how you think about our government today?

 


 

Related reading:

  • Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 2008. "The perek hamelekh (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America."

  • YU Torah on Elections, a collection of texts about the Torah's concept of democracy, the responsibility of voters, the responsibility of elected officials, etc. Read it online, and/or download a PDF or TXT file to keep.

  • A Prayer for Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth, which I've shared (with permission) on my G+. "On this day we are called to discern and choose, to embrace a vision and cast our vote..."

Visiting the nursing home

Late morning I go to visit a congregant who's recuperating in a nursing home / rehab facility. I call ahead to make sure it's a good time, and the staff tell me that it is. When I arrive, my congregant is sitting in a kind of parlor, where some fifteen or so elderly folks are singing hymns along with a cassette tape.

Slowly I realize that there is no standing furniture in the parlor. Even the flowered recliners which appear at first glance to be easy chairs are wheelchairs. Their inhabitants are sound asleep, mouths open. Some of them mumble words I can't make out. My congregant sleeps, too, even though several people are singing with gusto. "Amazing Grace." "When the Saints Come Marching In."

I murmur quiet prayers. The Mi Sheberach prayer which asks God to bring complete healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit. A prayer I learned years ago from my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg: may this person be blessed with simcha, joy; may he be blessed with shalom, peace; may he be blessed with refuah, healing; may he be blessed with whatever is best.

As a nurse collects the xeroxed hymn handouts, a parade of children with Halloween masks marches into the room. They make a quick circuit, waving to everyone and saying happy halloween. Most of the residents beam at them. One little boy, lagging behind the rest, enters the room and then takes the circuit almost at a run. "He wants to get away from all these ladies," chortles one white-haired woman, amused.

Behind me there's a man muttering that everyone can kiss his ass. The staff chide him: that's not a nice way to talk! Don't say that to people! but he doesn't seem to want to stop, so they wheel him to a different part of the room. Someone turns up the television, which is playing an old Western. The closed-captioning scrolls across the screen shortly before each line is delivered, giving me a peculiar sense of déja vu.

I don't want to wake my congregant. Maybe it's because I'm the parent of a three-year-old, but I can't bear to wake someone who is peacefully sleeping. He is breathing easy and his face is unworried in repose. I murmur to him that I am there and that I am holding him in prayer. I whisper a few more prayers for healing, for joy, for peace, for whatever is best. I pray for my congregant, and for the others who are sleeping, and for the man who's still grumbling that he can say "kiss my ass" if he wants to.

When I leave the nursing home, I feel curiously less anxious than I did when I went in. The aftermath of the storm has not changed. The coming election, and the nasty rhetoric around it, have not changed. But I feel I'm on more solid ground. We live, and if we are lucky, we grow old. We care for each other. We love one another. What else is there, in the end?


Jen Marlowe, "The Hour of Sunlight," is coming to town

I picked up The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker -- by Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe -- after reading a review of the book in The Jewish Daily Forward. The review is by Israeli-American Emily L. Hauser, and here's how it begins:

BookAmericans often hear about Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. We read Israeli authors in translation, buy Israeli products, and anyone within driving distance of a JCC can hear an Israeli speak on a nearly weekly basis.

What we don't often hear are Palestinians.

This is, I believe, understandable — particularly for the Jewish community. We want to know more about ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our homeland. We want to support our people and our future. We know the story, and don't feel a need to hear the version told by Israel's enemies.

But perhaps that's exactly why we do need to consider Palestinian voices — because after all these years, Israel and the Palestinian people are still enemies.

(Read her whole review here: Hearing Palestinian Voices.) Reading Emily's review made me curious about the book, so I picked up a copy last winter, and last spring I shared my own review (Book review: The Hour of Sunlight.) In my post about the book last March, I wrote:

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones.

My review reached the attention of Jen Marlowe, the American co-author of the book. I learned that she'd actually given a reading in Williamstown in recent memory, which I had somehow missed. And then she mentioned that she would be happy to return to the Berkshires to share the book and to engage in conversation about it, if there were interest.

Continue reading "Jen Marlowe, "The Hour of Sunlight," is coming to town" »


Days of Awe 5773: a baker's dozen of moments to remember

4-DaysofAweSitting down with my family -- parents, in-laws, husband, sister, nephew, son -- for an early Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner. Fabulous food, good conversation, pumpkin panna cotta with hazelnut brittle, and most of all, the joy of seeing my far-flung family gathered around our dining room table again.

My friend and colleague David Curiel, our cantorial soloist for this year, teaching my community a three-part Ilu Finu melody (find it online here or here) on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, and hearing my community enthusiastically singing along. The way the harmony rippled like sunlight on water.

Walking to the river for Tashlich, holding a young man's hand and talking about his lego creations all the way there. Tossing matzah into the river and thinking with each bit I threw about something I wanted to let go of, a place where I'd missed the mark in the year which just ended.

The impromptu pedicure my mom treated me to, after second-day Rosh Hashanah services were concluded. An unexpected gift. And oh, getting gently pummeled by the massaging spa chair felt so good!

Picking apples with my husband and son on the Sunday between the holidays. Drew knew apples, and he knew trees, but he never knew apples grew on trees! His glee at being able to pick apples himself. The sweetness of honeycrisps fresh off the tree. His proclamation that apples are his favorite fruit.

Leading a dear friend and her family through the process of taharah, in the family home, on the day which would become Yom Kippur. The love present in that room. The mikveh of tears. How putting on my white linen garb before Kol Nidre reminded me viscerally of the white linen shroud I had unfolded only a few hours before.

Singing "Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale! He made his home in that fish's abdomen, oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale" in my very best sultry Gershwin style before my Yom Kippur morning sermon on Jonah. The ripple of laughter, and how it transmuted into rapt attention.

Going beneath my tallit during the silent prayers of Yizkor to engage in what my teacher Reb Zalman calls a "holy Skype call" with the spirits of my beloved dead. I talked to my grandparents, who I loved and who I miss. To our dear friend Dick, who I loved and who I miss. I told them what I needed to tell them. I imagined them right there in front of me, beaming at me.

Settling into afternoon yoga with Bernice Lewis, who leads such a loving and gentle yoga class. Rediscovering what I had forgotten since last year: that perhaps the sweetest gift of that yoga time is relaxing into letting someone else take care of me on Yom Kippur afternoon. Child's pose, and how it reminded me of the prostration of the Great Aleinu.

The amazing Avodah meditation led by David. The low hum of the sruti box. The way he brought the story of the rituals performed by the high priest once upon a time into right-here, right-now. His sweet chant of Ana B'Koach in place of every time the Great Name -- whose ancient pronunciation is, these days, lost to us -- arose. His teaching that every place can be the holy of holies, every person can be the high priest, every moment can be the holiest moment.

Bob blowing that one final tekiah gedolah. The long arc of the sound, the way it seems to tunnel right inside me, reaching that most profound place. The intermingled sadness and relief when it was over: the shofar blast, the holiday, the Days of Awe, all come to their inevitable end.

Breaking my fast with that nip of ice-cold vodka, as my grandfather Eppie -- may his memory be a blessing -- always used to do. The cold fire of it going down, the flush it brought to our faces, the laughter. The knowledge that people in my community who weren't blessed to know Eppie were thinking of him in that moment, if only because I was thinking of him, and that in this way, he is still here, still with me.

The gift I received from one of my dear congregants, one of the older fellows in our community, when he came up to David and me at the break-the-fast and told us that our services on this day allowed him to really understand the prayers, and made him happy to be Jewish. What more could I hope for? I feel so blessed.


Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)

"Think of Rosh Hashanah as the stem cells of the year." So says my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known to his friends and students as Reb Zalman. Stem cells can become anything as they mature and grow; they contain infinite potential. This day on the Jewish calendar is the same way.

The old year has become fixed in time. We know what happened; our memories, both bitter and sweet, are already formed. But we don't know what the new year will contain. The shape of 5773 depends on what we decide to grow out of the stem cells of this day.

The Jewish mystics we know as kabbalists teach that today the door of wisdom and insight opens for us. Tomorrow, on the second day of this holiday, the door of discernment and understanding swings open, too. These are the origin points of our year, our springboard into whatever's coming next.

And who decides what's coming next?

We do.

Continue reading "Being Change (A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah)" »


The Gates Are Opening: Selichot

We arrive in a torrential rainstorm. The winds are gusting and water is pouring off the metal roof of the synagogue in sheets. But the synagogue shines brightly (to my great relief, we do not lose power!) and all ten members of the cast of The Gates Are Closing make it in despite the rain.

We usually draw about 25 people for Selichot, and this year is no different. The weather advisories and tornado warnings surely keep some folks from joining us, but enough people venture forth in the rain to make the small sanctuary feel populated, and that's all we need. 

Every character in the play is struggling with her or his history and memories. Everyone is searching for something. Everyone has a deep sorrow or question with which they perennially wrestle when this holiday rolls around. I wonder, as the play is unfolding, which stories are resonating with which of our audience members.

For me, the most powerful parts of the play are the parts where the characters' individual stories interweave with the liturgy. I know that this is because I have learned and led and loved this liturgy, and I'm always looking to interweave it with the lives of the people in the room, to make it feel real and meaningful to the people in the room.

After the play is done, we break for a brief intermission. People eat pumpkin bread and blueberry cake, drink apple cider, and chat about the play while a few of us move chairs around and re-set the sanctuary for Selichot. Then I start playing guitar, and everyone files back into the sanctuary.

I dim the lights and we make havdalah. By now the rain has stopped and our voices fill the room. I offer this year's standing explanation of what Selichot is for: it's the sourdough starter which gets our process of teshuvah (repentance / return) into high gear. We'll have all week for whatever awakens in us tonight to percolate and rise.

We sing the opening songs of our shortened Selichot service; we read my selichot poem aloud. And then I play quiet guitar and sing wordless niggunim while people write down whatever they want to atone for this year, whatever they want to release. I play the Janowski Avinu Malkeinu and segue into the waltz refrain we all seem to have grown up with. Some people hum along.

As the last few people are finishing up their cards, I ask for a volunteer to choose one of the two poems in the middle of the booklet to read aloud. And then we move into our last songs. I offer a word about Ana B'Koach, about what it means to me to ask God to untie our tangles -- all of the places where we tie ourselves in knots over our perceived failings, the things we should have done but didn't, the things we shouldn't have done but did.

We end with Return Again, and I offer an impromptu closing benediction, and we sing it one more time, and then we are done, and everyone gathers their things and melts away into the dark but no longer stormy night.


Rehearsing

As we gather at the synagogue, the hour of seven p.m. arrives. There are hellos and a few hugs and a few introductions. Some of us haven't seen each other since the start of the summer. Some of us may not know each other very well. We spend a while getting organized: do we have the right number of scripts? Are they all hole-punched and filed in three-ring binders? Does everyone have a pencil? And then we set up our chairs in the sanctuary and, with almost no preamble, we begin.

We're rehearsing for Saturday night's Selichot play, "The Gates Are Closing" by poet Merle Feld. Ten congregants (well: nine congregants plus me) will be playing the ten roles. The play takes place in a synagogue over the course of Yom Kippur. There is a rabbi in the play, though I'm not playing that role; I'm playing the fifty-something middle-aged hazzan (cantor.) There is some occasional laughter as we accustom ourselves to embodying people who we are not.

There are parts of this play which give me shivers, even on our first read-through. There are other parts which had seemed a bit overblown when I read them on the page, but when I hear them given voice -- especially in a synagogue sanctuary, the very kind of "stage" where the play is set -- they reach me in a different way.

I wonder what this experience is like for the other cast members. The play interweaves the personal stories of these ten people with fragments of the traditional liturgy for Yom Kippur. There are bits of the vidui (confessional prayer) and bits of Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King.") Just singing the short snatches of prayer required for the play is opening an emotional floodgate in me.

Both of the day's traditional Torah readings are woven in to the script -- though our shul follows Reform practice; we don't read either of those Torah passages on Yom Kippur, preferring alternative readings instead. By the same token, the script features interplay between the characters' stories and the Martyrology, and I don't think we've touched the Martyrology in a decade. I wonder whether those who come to the play will notice either of those things.

Yom Kippur is sometimes called a rehearsal for the day of our death. We wear white, like our burial shrouds. We eschew food and drink, as though our bodies didn't need them. We make teshuvah, we turn toward God and take stock of our actions, as though we were on death's door. Yom Kippur teaches us that there is no time like the present to connect with our loved ones. As Rabbi Shefa Gold has written, "On Yom Kippur, Death becomes our rebbe."

But now we are rehearsing for that cosmic rehearsal. Some congregations present this play on Yom Kippur, before Ne'ilah, before the final service of the day. I'll bet that's intense. But I love that we're presenting this play at Selichot, at the beginning of our High Holiday season. Whatever magic it works in us will have time to percolate and deepen before we reach Yom Kippur, before that wondrous day unfolds, before the gates of the season begin to swing shut.

 


For more information: CBI Presents "The Gates Are Closing," Selichot services, Saturday 9/8. All are welcome.


A squirrel who wants to meditate

I clear my throat in the silence of the sanctuary. Eyes closed, I offer the following:

The Baal Shem Tov -- regarded as the founder of Hasidism -- offered the following teaching about what to do when you are engaged in prayer and foreign thoughts bubble up in you. When this happens, he said, don't castigate yourself for having these thoughts. Rather, recognize that the thoughts ultimately come from God.

He would say: if you are distracted from prayer because you've been caught up in fantasy about a beautiful woman, remember that the woman's beauty comes from God, and so does your desire. Don't think of it as getting in the way of your prayer; make it part of your prayer. Lift it back up to God.

The same is true for us. Whatever bubbles up in us, whatever thoughts or distractions -- whether about a beautiful woman or beautiful man, or about politics, or whatever it is -- we can just recognize what comes up, without judgement, and recognize that it comes from God, and lift it back up.

Some moments later, I am distracted from my meditation by a sound.

Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble scrabble thump.

Thump thump thump.

I open my eyes. A squirrel is peering into our sanctuary through the glass door. He takes a few steps away, then flings himself at the door, scrabbling to get in.

Then he tries the next little window. Scrabble scrabble thump.

And the window beside that. Scrabble scrabble thump. Scrabble thump. Thump.

Squirrel with churro. Photo by Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries.

By now I am holding back giggles as silently as I can. The squirrel is trying diligently to enter our sanctuary, poking and scrabbling at every single one of our small low windows, taking a few steps back and then flying through the air to bang into the glass again. THUMP. THUMP.

Our other meditators have also opened their eyes. We are all laughing. We have been sitting here in silent meditation every Friday morning, some of us for years on end, and we have never seen anything like this at all.

"Obviously he wants to meditate too," one of the women offers. "Their little lives are so busy."

Scrabble scrabble thump. THUMP.

A second squirrel has appeared on the patio and is watching the first one, head cocked. I imagine that he is thinking: what on earth are you doing? Why do you want to get in there?

Then the two squirrels run away. I close my eyes again and return to silence, but the silence is different now, charged with our laughter.

Sometimes thoughts bubble up. Sometimes it's squirrels. It all comes from God.



If this makes you grin, don't miss The squirrel said to the Buddha.


This is real, and I want to be prepared: Elul, Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah

26ac228348a01076986d3110-lThis coming Shabbat at my shul we'll continue discussing one of my favorite books: This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Rabbi Alan Lew. I've posted about it several times before. I try to make a practice of rereading it each year as we move through this season. This year, I'm sharing that practice with my community.

If you live locally, I hope you'll join us at CBI this Shabbat for a discussion of the middle three chapters of this book (come at 11am -- or join us at 9:30 for davenen first!) We'll be discussing chapters 4-6: "The Horn Blew and I Began to Wake Up: Elul," "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: Selichot," and "The Horn Blows, the Gates Swing Open, and We Feel the Winds of Heaven: Rosh Hashanah." (Even if you don't have a copy, or haven't done the reading, you're welcome to join us; I've put together a handout of choice quotes from these chapters which should give us plenty to talk about.)

And for those who don't live nearby, I thought I might share those choice quotes here, along with a few thoughts about them. I hope you'll find these passages as thought-provoking and inspiring as I do.

"Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse." So begins parshat Re'eh, the weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins. Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter. (pp. 65-66)

I really like the way R' Lew connects his Elul teachings with the flow of the Torah portions we're reading this month, and I like what he has to say about this blessing-and-curse passage (which is, as it happens, also the portion my community reads on Yom Kippur morning.)

    [T]he month of Elul -- a time to gaze upon the inner mountains, to devote serious attention to bringing our lives into focus; a time to clarify the distinction between the will of God and our own willfulness, to identify that in us which yearns for life and that which clings to death, that which seeks good and that which is fatally attracted to the perverse, to find out who we are and where we are going.
    All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we must do these things during the month of Elul. We must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgement, to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this. So allow me to make some suggestions.
    * Prayer -- The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The infinite form of this verb is l'hitpalel -- to pray -- a reflexive form denoting action that one performs on oneself. Many scholars believe that the root of this word comes from a Ugaritic verb for judgment, and that the reflexive verb l'hitpalel originally must have meant to judge oneself. This is not the usual way we think of prayer. Ordinarily we think we should pray to ask for things, or to bend God's will to our own. But it is no secret to those who pray regularly and with conviction that one of the deepest potentials of prayer is that it can be a way we come to know ourselves. (pp. 67-68)

I love the fact that our Hebrew word for prayer connotes judging oneself, looking inward, coming to know oneself. Because boy, do I agree with Rabbi Lew on this one: regular prayer, like regular meditation practice, is a way of coming to know my own internal landscape and coming to understand myself in a deeper way.

* Focus on one thing -- It may not be realistic to expect a significant number of people to suddenly begin showing up at prayer minyans or meditation groups during the month of Elul -- some of us are simply not made to engage in these activities; not in Elul, not ever. Many will never get over finding the daily prayer service tedious and opaque. Many others will always either be frightened to death or bored to tears by the prospect of meditation and the blank wall of self it keeps throwing us up against so relentlessly. So I am pleased to inform you that it is perfectly possible to fulfill this ancient imperative to begin becoming more self-aware during this time without doing these things... Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. (p. 72)

I love the way that, after spending many paragraphs describing prayer and meditation and how valuable they can be, he acknowledges without judgement that for many people, they just don't work. Daily prayer can be tedious and opaque; meditation can be either terrifying or deadly dull. But, he says, that's okay! You don't actually have to do those things! What Elul calls us to do is to be conscious, to be present, to be awake. Just choose one aspect of your life (he suggests a few, among them eating, sex, and money) and be totally conscious and honest about it for thirty days. Easy, right?

Continue reading "This is real, and I want to be prepared: Elul, Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah" »


If you're attending shul during the Days of Awe...

This is a draft of something I'm hoping to make available at my synagogue during High Holiday services. It's loosely based on something I remember reading when I was an undergrad. I welcome responses, comments, and suggestions. Have you ever tried something like this? What did your version say?


Welcome to High Holiday services at CBI!

Over the course of the Days of Awe, we gather frequently to pray. At most services, we'll experience some of the elements of daily and weekly prayer: psalms of praise and thanks, the Shema and its blessings, the chance to stand before God -- whatever you understand that word to mean, God far above or God deep within -- during the standing prayer called the Amidah. At our morning services we'll read from Torah, as we do every Shabbat.

We'll also experience some things during these services which aren't part of daily and weekly prayer at CBI: a reading from the prophets (called the Haftarah -- this is done weekly at many synagogues, though not at ours), a sermon from the rabbi (which only happens here during the Days of Awe; the rest of the year, if I offer any remarks, they take the short and informal form of a d'var Torah), and a variety of special prayers written for use during the Days of Awe.

It is my deep hope that these services will resonate with you. I hope that the prayers, in their music and in their language, will open something in your heart and in your spirit, and will help you feel connected with God, with our community, and with our tradition at this holy time of year.

But I know that prayer services don't speak to everyone. And these are some of the longest, and most intellectually challenging, services of our year. If you find that our services aren't speaking to you, here are some options. You might:

  • leaf through the machzor (high holiday prayerbook) in search of pages which resonate with you or interest you -- Torah readings, poems, meditations;

  • move to the back of our sanctuary and pull a book off of the shelves in our library, which surrounds the big sanctuary -- all of our books relate to Judaism in some way, and who knows, you might pull exactly the book you didn't know you needed to read;

  • sit in silent meditation and let the service wash over you, taking care to be attentive to your breath and to what arises in you as you listen to the singing and the prayers;

  • slip outside and experience connection with God through walking in the grass and near the wetlands beside our synagogue, or through sitting in our gazebo; you might try the practice attributed to the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, who had the custom of walking in the fields or in the woods and speaking quietly with God as he went;

  • find your way to the back of our sanctuary, claim some space for yourself, and do some gentle yoga while you listen to the davening;

  • visit our classroom, where there is childcare during many of our services, and connect with divinity through spending quality time with the next generation of our community.

This is a unique season in our year, and I want you to experience it wholly. Your shlichei tzibbur (leaders-of-prayer) will do our best to keep our services meaningful and engaging, but if what we're doing isn't speaking to you, we hope you'll forgive us -- and will do whatever you need to do in order to connect with the Days of Awe, with our traditions, and with God.

(Though please don't text or engage with social media in our sanctuary while others are in prayer.)

Wishing you every blessing as we move through this holy season!

Reb Rachel


To-do lists, teshuvah, and whatever gets in the way of the work

I feel this week as though I'm running at a faster clock speed than usual. It's not quite mania, but it's not all that different from it, either. There's a low buzz of anticipation at the base of my spine. When I sit still in silence, a million waves of thought rise up and crash on the rocks of my consciousness. Elul is upon us, and I am vibrating.

Just before Shabbat began last week, I bought a copy of Rae Shagalov's Elul Book as a downloadable pdf, and I showed some of the calligraphy to my congregants on Shabbat morning. Here's the passage which particularly struck me. Here's the text (and a thumbnail which shows part of her calligraphy...)

7824828536_a00586b87f_mWake up from the beautiful dream of the whole year! If you received a court summons in the mail, you would feel a shock of fear. You would call the best lawyers. You would call all your friends and ask for their advice. You would carefully go through all of your accounts to determine the truth of your situation.

It's Elul! Your summons has come in the mail! Feel the shock! Call your lawyers! Call your friends! Go through your accounts today! Determine the truth of your situation! Who are your lawyers? Your mitzvahs. Who are your friends? Your good actions!

Sometimes, a person refuses to wake up. What happens? His friend shakes him awake so he won't be late for an important engagement. We have a choice. We can wake up on our own, early, and prepare ourselves carefully; or we can pull the blanket over our heads, refuse to wake up, and be shaken awake by our greatest friend in the world...

I wish I thought that Elul and its teshuvah work were the only reason I'm feeling a bit busy and buzzy and aswirl. I know this is the month for serious internal work. I know I have only four weeks during which to kick my teshuvah process into gear. But I suspect that another big piece of the reason why I'm feeling so agitated is that there's just so much to do before the Days of Awe begin.

Time to reach out to people who never responded when I offered them honors in our high holiday services. Time to check my high holiday songsheet drafts against the prayerbook to make sure I have the right things on each songsheet. Time to intensify the search for someone willing and able to take ownership of the project of getting our congregational sukkah built. Time to troubleshoot and figure out why the high holiday cds we burned for our entire congregation won't play on a cd player, and only half of the tracks will play in my car. Time to, time to, time to --

And at the same time, there's a part of my brain which whispers: time to wake up. Time to take a good hard look at my life. Time to discern, where do I habitually miss the mark? How can I become a better version of myself? What are the places where I'm spiritually lazy? Only four weeks now to prepare myself to attempt to lead my community in prayer, to stand before the King of Kings in God's own throne room, to make something meaningful for those who join us in prayer, and how can I do any of those things if I haven't also done my own teshuvah?

This is my second year as a congregational rabbi, and I'm still figuring out how to balance all of this. I feel as though my own internal work has to take a backseat until the congregational logistics are under control -- and yet if I don't do my own internal work, I won't be able to lead the congregation in the way that they deserve.

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. I learned that from the poet Jason Shinder, of blessed memory. Can I find a way to tackle the congregational pre-high-holiday to-do list which will allow me to live out the teshuvah, the repentance and return, that I know I need? Can I make phone calls, send emails, generate revised to-do lists with prayerful consciousness? I've said for years that my challenge is figuring out how to live out my spiritual aspirations not when I'm on retreat, not when I'm on a break from ordinary life, but precisely in and through my ordinary life. Not separation, but integration. Here's another opportunity to (try to) do just that.

Here it is, Elul again at last, the scant four weeks between now and Rosh Hashanah dwindling by the minute. Can I trust that what I'm doing is what I'm meant to be doing? That everything will get done, somehow, some way? That I can make teshuvah not when I'm done with the work at hand, but even as I do the work which needs to be done?


Music for the Days of Awe at CBI

Two years ago, when I first served as cantorial soloist at my shul alongside my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser ("Reb Jeff"), we put together a cd of some of the melodies we'd be using during the chagim and shared the cd with our membership.

People seemed to like it. So I did it again last year. And I'm doing it a third time this year -- this time in consultation with my friend David Curiel, an ALEPH rabbinic student who will serve as our cantorial soloist for this year's Days of Awe.

We haven't burned the cds yet, but this year I'm also trying something new: putting all sixteen tracks online so that they can be either streamed (using the embedded audio player) or downloaded (if you want them on your own computer or iPod or what-have-you.)

This year's cds features a few old favorites (among them recordings of me singing "Achat Sha'alti" and Barbra Streisand singing Max Janowski's setting for "Avinu Malkeinu") and a few things which are new (the "Modeh Ani" chant written by our hazzan David Curiel, and Shir Yaakov's beautiful new setting for Rabbi Rami Shapiro's "We Are Loved," recorded at Romemu -- among others.)

If you're interested, you can find our Days of Awe playlist for 5773 / 2012 online at my From the Rabbi blog: Music for the Days of Awe. Feel free to listen, download, share at will! The High Holidays are just short of six weeks away...