Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776

I'm doing something new with our b'nei mitzvah kids this year. (Credit where it's due: this is an idea I adapted from my friend and teacher Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in the Bay Area.) It's called Mitzvah Experimentation.

I brought this to our seventh graders in our first Hebrew school class of the year. The first thing we talked about was, what's a mitzvah. Some of them said "good deed," which is a fine answer, though not a direct translation. Others said "a commandment," which is what the word mitzvah means. A mitzvah is something which we are commanded to do, or to not do.

Commanded by whom? The most traditional answer is God. That word raises some eyebrows. Not all of my students are certain that they believe in God. What if you don't believe in God -- does that scotch the mitzvot?

There's a story about Reb Zalman z"l, the teacher of my teachers, faced with someone who didn't believe in God. He asked that person to tell him about the God they didn't believe in. Because "maybe the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either!" Over the millennia we've thought about God, talked about God, and described God in all kinds of different ways. Some of those ways work for me. Some don't. Some might work for you; some might not. The name "God" can mean a lot of different things. And if my students want to talk about that, I'm happy to do so.

But when I go deeper into the question, what I hear is: if I don't believe in God, do the mitzvot matter?

Continue reading "Do, Hear, and Be Changed - a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5776" »


The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That's a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it's equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I'd taken that job...
If only I hadn't hurt her feelings...
If only I'd married someone different...
If only I'd known then what I know now...

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn't been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it's as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. "She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long..."

There's nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That's what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it's easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it's easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my "if onlies," what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It's not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination.

Continue reading "The Dream of a Better Past - a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776" »


Almost Yom Kippur

TeshuvahYom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. We'll wear white garments as a sign of purity, or as a reminder of our mortality. We'll eschew leather, choosing instead to symbolize our conscious vulnerability with soft canvas shoes. (More about both of those here if you are interested.) We'll go without food or drink for 24 hours, subsisting instead on song and praise. (That makes me think of the last time I was with my Jewish Renewal community...)

Yom Kippur is a day set aside from ordinary life -- like Shabbat, only more so. It's a day for reminding ourselves of what's most important. On Yom Kippur we remember that we will die, and we think about what changes we need to make in our lives so that when we do leave this life we will feel that we lived as righteously and as well and as meaningfully as we could. On Yom Kippur we set aside the needs of the body and focus instead on the needs of the soul.

Yom Kippur is a day for intense teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning-around, turning our lives around, turning to face God again, returning to who we most truly and deeply are. Some of us have been engaged in introspection and cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of the soul) since the start of Elul, the lunar month which preceded this one. Some of us have been doing that work since Rosh Hashanah. And some of us may begin doing that work on Yom Kippur, in what feels like the eleventh hour. It's never too late. The great 12th-century sage Rambam (also known as Maimonides) taught that one who makes teshuvah is more beloved to God than one who never messed up in the first place. He taught that one who makes teshuvah rises closer to God than one who has never sinned.

I love Yom Kippur. I have loved it ever since my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur retreat at the old Elat Chayyim, and that love was intensified through the years of Yom Kippur retreats which followed (until I was privileged to begin serving my shul.) I love Yom Kippur because the Zohar teaches that it is the day when God is closest to us and most available to us, when we can most powerfully create repair in our broken souls and in the broken world. I love Yom Kippur because it is a day dedicated to prayer, song, Torah, introspection, inner work -- things I love deeply, and on Yom Kippur I get to share them with others. I love Yom Kippur because it is always a journey, and I never know exactly what it's going to feel like, but I trust that I will emerge on the other side feeling emptied, opened, and purified.

May your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


The Shabbat of Return

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul...

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, "the Shabbat of Return." This Shabbat invites us to come home to our deepest selves. To join together in that existential move of teshuvah: turning ourselves around, returning to who we most deeply yearn to be.

On one level this season -- especially these Ten Days of Teshuvah -- is a time for taking stock of who we are and repenting for our missteps. We ask forgiveness from those whom we've wronged. We try to learn how to forgive ourselves for the places where we've fallen short or missed the mark.

On a deeper level this season -- especially these Ten Days -- is a time for making teshuvah for our distance from God, our distance from our own souls, our distance from love and from holiness and from our deepest yearnings. Shabbat Shuvah is a time to re/turn to God. To re/turn to ourselves.

What do you yearn for? From what wholeness do you feel exiled? What part of yourself have you been denying? This Shabbat is time to come home. Come home to the Source of All. Come home to your own soul. No matter how far away you feel, you can always return. You can always come home.


Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah

ThisisrealLongtime readers know that I maintain a practice of rereading Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation at this season. I begin reading it at Tisha b'Av, and finish reading it at the end of Sukkot. That's the period of time which the book covers, and Rabbi Lew annually enriches my journey through those two months and through my own spiritual life. 

One of the things I love about reading this book is that I have been underlining and making marginal notes in my copy for many years. There are passages I've underlined, and places where I drew exclamation marks in the margins. Blue ink, black ink, pencil markings. Each year my eye is drawn to the passages I marked in previous years, and often those passages still resonate for me. And each year my eye is drawn to something I haven't underlined before which is speaking to me in a new way this year because of where I am or what's on my mind and heart.

Here are some of the lines which leapt out at me this year.

First of all, we learn that Teshuvah can arise in the most hopeless circumstances... Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us to the point of a significant leave-taking... Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for. Interestingly, God is depicted as the one who is doing the pushing here. We are in the predicament that has brought us to the point of transformation because God has driven us there. In other words, that predicament is part of the process. It is a gift, the agent of our turning.

It's easy for me to be glib about teshuvah, repentance / return. This year I am resonating with his point that sometimes transformation is most possible when we have exhausted every other alternative. Sometimes we aren't ready to change until we've tried everything else we can think of. Sometimes we only become ready to seek transformation when it becomes clear that the status quo is untenable. We may not know where we're going or who we're becoming, but we know we can't stay here.

Continue reading "Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah" »


I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776

One of my most consistent childhood memories is saying my prayers before I went to sleep. I can still remember the pattern of the wallpaper on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and the gentle dip of the bed from where my mom would sit next to me.

I would sing the one-line shema, and then say my litany of "God bless." I began with "God bless Mom and Dad," then named my grandparents, then named my siblings and in time their spouses and children. At the very end, I would ask God to bless "all my aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and everybody else, Amen."

I'm not sure what I thought it meant to ask God to bless someone. But clearly being blessed by God was a good thing, and I didn't want anyone to accidentally get left out.

There's a blessing called Oseh Shalom which appears throughout our liturgy. Here are the words as you may have learned them:

עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָּׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן:

"May the One Who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen."

In many communities around the Jewish world today, including this one, another phrase is now added. That phrase is וְעַל כָּל יוֹשבֵי תֵבֱל -- "and all who dwell on Earth." Adding that phrase to Oseh Shalom is a little bit like what I did in my childhood bedtime prayers: "and everybody else, amen."

Why am I so invested in praying for "everybody else, amen"?

Continue reading "I Seek Your Face... in Everybody Else, Amen - a sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5776" »


New Year's Poem 2015 / 5776


When the list of school supplies arrives
my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.

How can I be surprised? I've known all along
how one month follows the next, but

kindergarten looms. (Not, though,
for the five year old. Time renews itself

every time he opens his eyes.) When the days
of awe appear again on the horizon

my heart skips a beat. I'm not ready.
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

how the spiral of the year recycles end
into beginning again. Another summer

yields with less or more grace to fall
and I do too. Sometimes my gears grind,

I wish tomorrow would come sooner
or yesterday would return. I blink

and a month disappears. Where was I?
How can I be surprised? I've known all along

without my attention next new moon won't be
the world's birthday, just a night with less light.

And this impossibly precious moment
when I could be cupping my hand

to the side of your face with tenderness --
gone like the numbers on a digital clock.

But if I stop to see what's in front of me
and choose the blessing in it, if I

sanctify the threshold between now
and what comes after now, and after now,

then every moment gleams, infinite
as the love which links your heart and mine.

 

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year!

From me and my family, to you and yours.

 

(For those who are so inclined, here's a link to my archive of new year's card poems... and here's the new year's poem I co-wrote with my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus.)


Selichot

The Days of Awe begin at the next new moon. Our journey into those awesome days intensifies tomorrow night, and we'll kick off the "high holiday season" at my shul, with the service called Selichot.  Selichot means "pardons," and is the name our tradition gives to a set of poems and prayers designed to help our hearts experience teshuvah, repentance or return (in the sense of returning-to-God or re/turning ourselves in the right direction again.) Some people say the selichot prayers every day during Elul. And a lot of congregations have a special service dedicated to Selichot, as we do.

It's customary to do this on a Shabbat evening near, but not too near, to Rosh Hashanah. Since the New Year begins next weekend on Sunday night, next Shabbat would be too close -- we wouldn't have time for the experience of the Selichot to resonate in us -- so we'll do it tomorrow night.

This may be my favorite service of the year. We begin with havdalah, which I love dearly. (And I have recently come to feel especially attached to the opening prayer, which proclaims evtach v'lo efchad, I will trust and will not be afraid.) Then we dip into some of my favorite prayers of the Days of Awe -- prayers whose words, and whose melodies, speak to me deeply. We'll sing some prayers which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to music; we'll read some poems which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to words. And midway through the service we'll pause for a short writing exercise.

People will be invited to write down on index cards, anonymously, places where they've (we've) missed the mark in the last year. Things for which they (we) seek forgiveness as the Days of Awe approach. I'll collect those cards, and will leave the cards and pencils and a basket for collecting them out in the synagogue lobby for about ten days so those who don't make it to Selichot services can still participate. And then I'll use the words on those cards to craft a personalized Al Chet prayer for Yom Kippur morning, co-written by our community, expressing the things for which our hearts most seek forgiveness and release.

If you're local to western Massachusetts, you're welcome to join us at 8pm at Congregation Beth Israel tomorrow night. And if you would like to dip into the prayers and songs of Selichot tomorrow night by yourself, the pdf file of our service is here for you.

SelichotCover

Selichot 5776 [pdf]


When we are mindful

-1

Judaism believes in the particularity of time, that certain times have special spiritual properties: that Shabbat has an extra degree of holiness; that Pesach (Passover) is the time of our liberation; that Shavuot is a time unusually conducive to revelation. But they have these special properties only when we are mindful. If we consciously observe Shabbat, Shabbat has this holy quality. If we don't, it is merely Friday night, merely Saturday afternoon...

That's Rabbi Alan Lew z"l in the book I reread slowly each year at this season, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Every year I start rereading the book around Tisha b'Av, the day of deep brokenness which launches us in to the season of teshuvah, repentance or return. Every year I find myself drawn to some of the same passages I underlined last year or the year before -- and every year some new passages jump out at me, too.

This year the first new thing I underlined was the quote which appears at the top of this post. I've been thinking a lot lately about sacred time, and about how being aware of where we are in the rhythm of the day and week and the round of the year can help us attune ourselves to spiritual life... and also how being unaware of where we are, or ignoring where we are, can damage that attunement. It's as though lack of mindfulness were a radio scrambler which keeps us from hearing the divine broadcast.

One of the things I love most about my Jewish Renewal hevre (my dear colleague-friends) is that we are jointly committed to seeking mindfulness. To living with prayerful consciousness, as my friends and teachers Rabbi Shawn Zevit and Marcia Prager taught us during DLTI. Knowing others who care about this stuff as much as I do is restorative. It lifts a weight of loneliness off of my shoulders. My hevre inspire me to try to be the kind of person, the kind of Jew, the kind of rabbi, I want to be.

There's much in ordinary life which pulls me away from the awareness I want to maintain. Away from consciousness of Shabbat as holy time, and of its internal flow from greeting the Bride to rejoicing in the Torah to yearning for the divine Presence not to depart. Away from consciousness of the moon and the seasons, and from the process of teshuvah (repentance / return.) Ordinary life is full of obligations, frustrations, distractions, and a whole world of people who don't care about the things I love so deeply.

Sometimes it's a little bit alienating -- carrying this tradition around with me like an extra pair of glasses, an extra lens which shapes the way I see everything in my world, all the while knowing that most of the people around me don't have this lens and probably don't want it, either. Sometimes it feels like an exquisite gift -- as though I had the capacity to see a layer of beautiful magic which overlays all things, because I'm willing to open myself to this way of seeing and this way of being in the world.

Without mindfulness, Shabbat becomes plain old Friday night and Saturday. Without mindfulness, the new moon of Elul coming up at the end of next week is just a night when we'll be able to see a surprising number of stars. Without mindfulness, Yom Kippur doesn't atone -- it's just a long day, maybe one we're spending with grumbly stomachs saying strange words in a language we don't understand. I don't want it to be like that. Not for me, not for you who are reading this, not for anyone.

There's nothing wrong with plain old Friday night and Saturday. (And so on: plain old new moon, September days instead of the High Holidays...) But because I've tasted the transformation that's possible when consciousness of holy time enlivens those hours and makes them new, I want to make these holy times more than "just ordinary." I want to sip that nectar again, and to come away with my spirit renewed. Because I know that diving deep into Jewish sacred time sustains me like nothing else.

What our tradition is affirming is that when we reach the point of awareness, everything in time -- everything in the year, everything in our life -- conspires to help us. Everything becomes the instrument of our redemption.... The passage of time brings awareness, and the two together, time and consciousness, heal... This is precisely the journey we take every year during the High Holidays -- a journey of transformation and healing, a time which together with consciousness heals and transforms us.

Here's hoping. May it be so.

 

Elul begins in one week. Rosh Hashanah begins five weeks from Sunday.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


Second edition of Days of Awe

RtoLHalfCoverLast year I released a pilot edition of Days of Awe, a machzor (high holiday prayerbook) for the yamim nora'im (days of awe.) It was used in three communities that I know of, one of which is the community I am blessed to serve.

The book had a team of proofreaders, and had gone through more than 30 printed revisions before I released it, but I knew that once it was used in realtime -- "pray-tested," as it were -- I would find things which needed to be updated.

Sure enough, I found things I wanted to fix. And I discovered a few places where I wanted to add material for the second edition. In January of 2015 I began revising. A native Hebrew speaker helped me better proofread the Hebrew.

I included a new aleinu variant, and a Shaker-inspired Ahavah Rabbah. (I learned both of these from Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu.) I replaced some art which hadn't printed well with new art which reproduces better.

I added more poetry. Some is my own (like the trio of new poems for the shofar service, inspired by teachings from Rabbi Daniel Siegel and from Reb Zalman z"l), some is by other writers. I added a second option for the Torah blessings, so that people now have the option of the classical wording or a more inclusive variation. Throughout, I kept the pagination the same as the pilot edition so it can be used alongside the pilot edition if needed.

I made about 50 changes, based on my own impressions of leading davenen with this volume, my student hazzan's impressions, and the feedback I received from those who used the pilot edition last year both inside and outside my own community. The second edition is now available: bound L to R (like an English book) at Amazon, and bound R to L (like a Hebrew book) at Lulu.

I'm happy to make the source files available if you want to print and bind your own copies (or use it on an e-reader)... with two stipulations: 1) Please don't sell the books anywhere at a profit, since the rabbis, artists, and poets who donated their work to this project did so on the understanding that no profit would be made from their work; and 2) If you use the machzor, either on your own or in community, please drop me a line after the holidays to tell me what worked for you and what didn't. 

The creation of new liturgy is iterative. I know that this second edition is as perfect as I can make it -- and I also know that by the end of this year's high holidays, I'll discover things I want to improve. For now, I'm deep in preparations for this year's holiday services, and I'm looking forward to using this second edition as I join with our student hazzan in leading prayer. For all that is meritorious in this machzor I thank my ALEPH teachers; any remaining imperfections in this machzor are my own.

 

Available at Amazon $7.53 L to R (paperback) | Available at Lulu $8.46 R to L (paperback)

 

 


Revising my sermons; revising me

One of the things I talked about last week at Kenyon, with my students who were there to learn how to blog, was the question of whether one is an external or an internal processor. Some people think and ponder and mull and then sit down to write and everything pours onto screen (or paper) fully-formed. Others sit down to write, and as they do, the piece takes shape. The writing is integral to the thinking.

I am an external processor, for sure. I do my best thinking through writing. I suspect that this has always been true -- ever since I started writing in a cloth-bound diary at the age of ten, which I did for years. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" asked EM Forster. I know the feeling! Of course, revision is always part of my process. But I think best when I have keyboard at hand.

This is one of the reasons why my high holiday sermons go through so many iterations. I start jotting down ideas in early summer -- sometimes a quote, or a thought, or a yearning. Then three of those questions or ideas sprout their own documents, and when I can make the time, I sit down and write. Eventually I have drafts which are the right length -- but that's still only the beginning of my process.

I let them sit. I come back to them a day or a week later and notice, sometimes, that what I had thought was extraneous is actually the heart of the thing. Time to tear it apart and rewrite around that. Or I discover that what I've written would make a fine lecture for a class on a subject in which I am interested, but it isn't a sermon, especially not one for the Days of Awe, this lofty and powerful season.

The stakes feel high. When it comes to many of those whom I serve, this feels like my one chance this year to reach them -- to make them feel something, to awaken something in them, to give them hope and inspiration. And there's a lot going on in high holiday services: melodies we don't hear at other seasons, prayers we don't otherwise recite. Can I cut through that to reach people where they are?

By any ordinary count the journey toward the High Holidays has yet to begin. Some begin with Tisha b'Av, the emotional low point of our liturgical year, and from there count the days up toward Rosh Hashanah. (See, e.g., Rabbi Alan Lew's tremendous This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared.) Some count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, a reverse Omer.

Some begin their preparations for the holidays at the start of the month of Elul, and dedicate those weeks to a process of internal teshuvah, repentance / return, perhaps focusing especially on relationship with self and with God in order to be able to focus on interpersonal teshuvah during the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See, e.g., See Me: Elul poems.)

But for those of us who are blessed to be in my line of work -- and I mean that wholeheartedly; I still wake up some days and marvel that I get to do this! -- preparations for the Days of Awe begin months in advance. My community maintains a 90-item to-do list on a wiki page which begins with "seek and find cantor" and ends with "get volunteers to take down the sukkah after Shemini Atzeret."

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of cats to herd, if you prefer that metaphor. A lot of details to manage. The danger for me is that I can get so caught up in the details that I don't do my own inner work of preparation. Over these last five years, I've learned that working on my sermons in bits and pieces all summer can be part of my inner work. As I revise them, I'm also revising me.

 


New poems for the Shofar service

On the eve of this year's first meeting with Randall, the student hazzan who will co-lead our high holiday services with me, I found myself humming the weekday evening liturgy...in the nusach, the melodic mode, of the Days of Awe. This is one of the ways in which my years in the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program rewired my brain! As soon as the high holidays are even a glimmer of future on the far horizon, their melodic waves lift me up.

I've been continuing to revise Days of Awe, the machzor which I released last year in pilot form. (More about that in another post.) One of my changes has been swapping out the poems which had previously appeared at the beginning of each section of the shofar service. I wrote those poems years ago, and one of my congregants suggested to me that we could use something new in that place.

I am indebted to my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Siegel for his writings on the three themes of the shofar service: sovereignty, remembrance, and the shofar itself. I commend to you his posts Malchuyot, Zichronot & Shofarot and especially Malchuyot, Zichronot, & Shofarot Take Two. Rereading those posts and marinating in those teachings (and also marinating in Reb Zalman z"l's teachings about the shofar and its spiritual meanings, as collected and cited in a variety of places, including the Jewish Renewal Hasidus blog) informed these poems greatly.

These poems will appear in the second edition of Days of Awe, though if they speak to you, you're welcome to use them even if you're not using the rest of the machzor.

 

 

MALCHUYOT

What does it mean
to proclaim Your sovereignty
when we don't understand kings?
Before the Big Bang, there was You.

In the old year
we allowed habits to rule us.
Help us throw off that yoke
so our best selves may serve You.

Help us surrender. The cosmos
is not under our control.
Help us fall to our knees
and find home in Your embrace.

Let Your power increase in the world.
Help us be unashamed of yearning.
Strengthen our awe and our love
so our prayers will soar.

Continue reading "New poems for the Shofar service" »


Revising Days of Awe

One of the great pleasures for me of last year's Days of Awe was getting to co-lead davenen (with the fabulous student hazzan Randall Miller) using a pilot edition of Days of Awe, the machzor which I created building on the wonderful work of Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. Days of Awe was several years in the making, and went through more than thirty printed proof drafts -- and, of course, once we used it in realtime for our high holiday services, I found things which I wanted to fix. I knew that would happen; that's why this was a pilot edition! Still, it was interesting to see what needed revision.

Some of the edits are minor, e.g. places where two Hebrew vowels were trying to occupy the same space and therefore looked blurred, or Hebrew typos which needed a global find-and-replace, or places where I left out a line of transliteration. Others are more substantive. For instance, after the Days of Awe were over, I translated a relevant Lea Goldberg poem and now I want to include it in Ne'ilah. Or I realized while leading services last fall that I wanted to include the Hebrew refrain for "We Are As Clay." Or I realized that I hadn't included "Eliahu Hanavi" and "Miriam HaNeviah."

I've been working this winter on revising Days of Awe toward a second edition. Some additions, some subtractions, some general improvements. I've made a point of not changing any of the pagination. So if a community has copies of the pilot edition and then augments their collection with copies of the second edition, their prayer leader will still be able to give page numbers and they will work for both versions. The nifty material which is new to the second edition won't be in the first-edition volumes -- but a creative shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) should be able to work around that.

I'm uploading revised versions of both manuscripts (the right-to-left edition and the left-to-right edition) now. I plan to order a printer's proof of each, and spend some quality time with it, to make sure that I'm happy with how the changes look in print. (I may also reconvene my editorial / proofreading team.) What this means for everyone else is that Days of Awe is temporarily unavailable while I'm proofing the second edition. I assume that most people aren't thinking about the high holidays during January and February, so I figured this was a good time to do this work.

If you used Days of Awe last fall in your congregation or in your own solo prayer, and have suggestions to offer for the second edition, I welcome them!

 

 

Edited to add: the machzor is now available again, with all of the abovementioned changes made. Thanks for your patience!

 


Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)

The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, "Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat." (She didn't say "tush," but the word she used isn't exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn't, or isn't only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn't there yet.

Over the years I've learned a variety of techniques for times when I don't "feel like" writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time -- "thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else." I can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I'm committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can't wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I'm on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It's remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the "real world," where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There's a reason we call them "practices" -- because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn't necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn't necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it's arguably better if you don't.

Continue reading "Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5775)" »


Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)

 

Do you know what it's like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it's an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you're the only one who didn't know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don't belong. And it's hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it's even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don't fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn't speak the language and couldn't find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, "I just want to go home"?

Or maybe you've felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you've yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you've yearned to return to the childhood you didn't have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you've sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem "Great Blue Heron:"

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels "loneliness for each other." And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith -- if we believe -- real connections will exist, "at the edge," rooting us down "in the mud where the truth is."

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Before Yom Kippur

Prayer Before Yom Kippur



I now prepare
to unify my whole self—

heart
mind
consciousness
body
passions

with this holy community
with the Jewish people everywhere
with all people everywhere
with all life and being
to commune with the Source of all being.

May I find the words,
the music, the movements
that will put me in touch
with the great light of God.

May the rungs of insight and joy
that I reach in my devotion
flow from me to others
and fill all my actions in the world.

May the beauty of God rest upon us.
May God establish the works of our hands.
And may the works of our hands establish God.


(Rabbi Burt Jacobson)


Yom Kippur begins tonight and will continue through tomorrow night. This year it once again coincides with Shabbat -- the two holiest days of the year, layered atop each other.

May this doubly-holy day offer all of us opportunities for inner work and transformation.

I hope that you can forgive me for my imperfections this past year: times when I wrote something you didn't like, or failed to write about something you consider important; times when I didn't respond to comments or didn't do so quickly enough; times when my writing revealed unconscious racism or was hurtful in other ways.

For my part, I have done my best to let go of my internet-related frustrations from the old year -- the posts and emails and comments which were hurtful or frustrating for me -- and aspire to move into Yom Kippur bearing no grudges, with no cosmic or karmic baggage weighing me down or blocking my journey of teshuvah.

May this Shabbat-and-Yom Kippur be meaningful, real, and sweet. G'mar chatimah tovah -- may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


Three psalms from Leonard Cohen before Yom Kippur

6.

Sit down, master, on this rude chair of praises, and rule my nervous heart with your great decrees of freedom. Out of time you have taken me to do my daily task. Out of mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between the crown and the kingdom. In utter defeat I came to you and you received me with a sweetness I had not dared to remember. Tonight I come to you again, soiled by strategies and trapped in the loneliness of my tiny domain. Establish your law in this walled place. Let nine men come to lift me into their prayer so that I may whisper with them: Blessed be the name of the glory of the kingdom forever and ever.

 

19.

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher's care, you bound my arm with my grandfather's strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.

 

43.

Hep me in the rain, help me in the darkness, help me at my aimless table. Bend me down to the rain, and let the darkness speak to my heart. Blessed are you who speaks from the darkness, who gives a form to desolation. You draw back the heart that is spilled in the world, you establish the borders of pain. Your mercy you make known to those who know your name, and your healing is discovered beneath the lifted cry. The ruins signal your power; by your hand it is broken down, and all things crack that your throne be restored to the heart. You have written your name on the chaos. The eyes that roll down the darkness, you have rolled them back to the skull. Let each man be sheltered in the fortress of your name, and let each one see the other from the towers of your law. Create the world again, and stand us up, as you did before, on the foundation of your light.

 

These can be found in Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy (McClelland & Stewart, 1984; re-released, 2010.)


A Communal Al Chet for 5775

I experienced my first Jewish Renewal Yom Kippur at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York ten years ago. One of the practices which moved me most was a practice of collaboratively writing our own Al Chet prayer.

The Al Chet prayer -- "For the Sins (Which We Have Sinned Against You By....)" -- is a laundry list of places where we have missed the mark in the last year. That year at Elat Chayyim, before the holiday began, we each wrote down the places where we felt we'd missed the mark in the previous year. Then the index cards containing our words were mixed up and re-distributed. When it came time for the Al Chet prayer, we sang each others' words. The intimacy of that experience moved me deeply.

For the last several years, we've adapted this practice at my shul. At Selichot services on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah I play quiet guitar music while people write down places where they've missed the mark, things they feel they need to release in order to reach forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Some of our Hebrew school kids engage in this same practice during Hebrew school. Then I collect the basket of cards and type up what's in it, and that becomes the Al Chet which our student hazzan and I chant on Yom Kippur morning.

For those who are interested, here's my community's Al Chet for this year. I share it in hopes that it might speak to you, too, and might help this prayer come alive for you in a new way.

(And if you're going to be at CBI on Saturday morning, you might consider not reading any further, so that these words can reach you fresh when we sing them from the bimah...)

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Yom Kippur, Eid, and remembrance of sacrifice

Happy_yom_kippur_1This coming weekend, when my community will be observing the solemn-yet-joyful fast of Yom Kippur, the Muslim community will be celebrating Eid al-Adha, "the feast of the sacrifice," commemorating the story of how Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and God provided a sheep for the slaughter instead.

Jewish readers may be nodding along in recognition; after all, we read that story just last week at Rosh Hashanah. (In my community, as in many communities, we read the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the story of the akedah, the "binding of Isaac," on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.)

Of course, there are differences in how our two traditions have memorialized this shared story. In Torah, the son who was almost sacrificed is clearly named as Yitzchak (Isaac.) In the Qur'anic account the son is not named, though there is a passage in which the son consents to what is to come, which becomes a model for the virtue of gracefully acceding to God's will.

In the class on Islam I took several years ago, I learned that there are Muslim commentators who  taught that the son in question was Isaac, and others who taught that the son in question was Ishmael. Muslim tradition offers support for both viewpoints; Wikipedia notes that

Though it is generally believed by Muslims that Ishmael was the son who was almost sacrificed, among scholars and historiographers of early Islam there is much debate. There are such persuasive arguments for both, that in fact, it is estimated that 130 traditions say Isaac was the son, while 133 say Ishmael.

(If this subject interests you, don't miss Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice Isaac or Ishmael?, which cites a wide variety of Muslim sources on each side of the debate, and also includes both the Torah text and the Qur'an text in English translation.)

I remember learning that classical tafsir (Muslim exegesis / scriptural interpretation) was "polyvalent" -- in other words, it presumed that sacred text naturally supports more than one reading. But as the tradition continued to develop, commentators began to lean toward resolving ambiguities. The Persian scholar al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) argued that the almost-sacrificed son was Isaac. Later commentators, among them al-Tha'labi (11th century CE) and al-Kathir (d. 1373 CE) argued instead that it was Ishmael. Perhaps these later commentators were writing with the intention of further differentiating our communities, and asserting the primacy of their narrative and genealogy over ours.

Today most Muslim sources indicate that the son in question was Ishmael. And Ishmael's willingness to allow God's will to unfold makes him the paragon of islām, the spiritual virtue of surrender or submission to God, from which that religious tradition takes its name. That Arabic word comes from the 3-letter root s/l/m, which connotes peace and wholeness. Peace and wholeness are found when one is able to "let go and let God," to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step lexicon.

Over on this side of the family tree, that same root -- ש /ל/ מ -- is at the heart of the word shalom. And our tradition too contains interpretations in which the son indicates his willingness to be sacrificed. (In my Akedah cycle, poem #2 draws on the midrash which depicts Isaac saying to Ishmael that if God were to ask him to be sacrificed he would not object. In that midrash, God promptly replies, 'This is the hour,' and sets the akedah in motion.) I wondered whether that version were influenced by the Muslim telling of the story, in which the son's submission is a central virtue -- but then I realized that Bereshit Rabbah was written down in the 5th century C.E., and Islam began in the 7th century C.E., so the arrow of causality isn't so clear.

(And, of course, on the Christian branch of this family tree, the son's willing submission to the will of the father is exemplified by Jesus' willingness to die on the cross. But that's a whole other post. Maybe I'll manage to write about that before Easter.)

I spoke in my Rosh Hashanah sermon (Children of Sarah and Hagar) about the the Isra'iliyyat, the body of interpretive traditions transmitted during times of close connection between early Muslims and Jews. It seems to me -- in broad generalization -- that during times of tension, both comunities have pulled back from accepting (or even acknowledging) our influences on one another. I'd like to see us instead choose to honor our cross-pollination and interconnection.

UrlOur traditions both hold dear the story which says that God provided a ram for sacrifice in the place of the boy. Jews celebrated that story last week in shul, and will link back to it again at the end of Yom Kippur when we blow a tekiah gedolah on the shofar which reminds us of the ram God provided so that Abraham's son might live. Muslims will celebrate that story this coming weekend, with feasting and prayer and providing food (mutton, from sheep sacrificed in remembrance) for those in need.

In both versions of the story, God sends an animal to stand in for the child. My friend and teacher Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested that we can read this story as a divine instruction not to kill our children in the name of faith, but instead to pour our zeal into feeding those who hunger. What might our world look like if every nation could take that instruction to heart?

I am perennially moved by the ways our traditions have shaped and informed each other. To me this is one of the most beautiful things about being a person of faith in the world: exploring the differences and similarities in the ways we tell our sacred stories of encounter with the Infinite, and honoring how others' stories have informed and impacted our own.

To my Jewish readers: g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for good in the year to come. To my Muslim readers: eid mubarak, a blessed festival to you!

 

Related:


Rabbi Alan Lew z"l on these ten days of teshuvah

For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...

These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.

For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.

If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.

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