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.


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...

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience

About a year ago, I printed out the following on a flyer and posted it inside the stalls of the bathrooms at my shul:

Asher Yatzar / Blessing for the Body

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת.

Blessed are You, Adonai, source of all being,
who formed the human body with wisdom
and created within us various openings and closings.
It is known before Your throne of glory
that if one of these were to be open where it should be closed,
or closed where it should be opened,
we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

This blessing, which teaches us to notice and appreciate the marvel of a human body which works, is traditionally recited upon going to the bathroom. (It originates in Talmud.)

I was inspired by the memory of the old Elat Chayyim Jewish retreat center in Accord, where I first encountered this blessing ten years ago. It was posted on a laminated sign outside the bathroom door as a reminder to be mindful of the miracle of having a body which works. (The sign wasn't exactly this one, but it was similar. Nor was it as lovely as this all-Hebrew one crafted by soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, but it was the same general idea.) I didn't grow up with this blessing, but when I first encountered it as an adult, I loved it. What an amazing set of intentions for noticing and recognizing an everyday miracle.

In more recent years I've developed a special relationship with this blessing. During my pregnancy with Drew, I needed to give myself an injection of blood thinner in my belly every day. I fear needles, so this was a major hurdle for me. I got myself through it by reciting this blessing as I pushed the plunger home. The injection kept my blood flowing smoothly and prevented another stroke; the blessing kept me able to make the injections. Anyway: the blessing has become a part of my daily spiritual practice, and I wanted to offer it to my shul. We often recite this blessing near the beginning of morning services -- but most of our members do not come to services frequently, and those who do are often not there at the very beginning. So I posted it in the bathrooms.

Over the months after I posted the blessing I received a lot of feedback, mostly positive. Several people came to me and said: what is that, where is it from, it's beautiful! Some asked me to email it to them so they could have a copy at home. Some visitors asked if they could take a copy home to their own shuls. People said that it had sparked new awareness in them -- both of the miracles of their own bodies, and also of the reality that Judaism contains a way of sanctifying even this most earthy of acts.

I also heard from a couple of people who found the posted blessing troubling. God's name, they argued, shouldn't appear in such a room. From a traditional halakhic perspective, that is correct, and when these members raised this issue I did some renewed learning about it. At that time, I decided that that since many (perhaps most) of our members do not understand themselves to be bound by halakha, the consciousness-raising upsides of the posted blessing outweighed the halakhic prohibition. And then a few weeks ago, the newly-revitalized religious practices committee asked me to take the blessing down.

Continue reading "On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience" »

Reflections on a first year

7508209290_b52c44e20d_mOne evening, about a year ago, I brought my son to the synagogue in the evening and fed him supper while meeting with the president of the board. When he started to melt down, I signed the contract which had been sitting on the table between us, and took him home to prepare for bedtime. The next day, while he was playing with his grandparents, I loaded up my car with boxes of Judaic books and brought them to work -- where I wound up beginning to prepare for a funeral, a bat mitzvah, and the Days of Awe. (So much for "I'm just going to bring over some boxes of books, I won't be long...")

Last night, at the tail-end of the congregational Fourth of July party, as "We Are Family" poured forth from a congregant's ipod and my son ate his millionth slice of watermelon, I signed a contract again. When I had signed all three copies, and so had the board president, she grinned at me and we shook hands with mock-solemnity.

I want to write something about this first year of my active rabbinate -- this first year of serving my community as its rabbi -- but I find I'm not sure where to begin. Is it even possible to begin to encapsulate this first year? The kaleidscope of images in my mind's eye is too full and varied. Preparing for Shabbat after Shabbat. Preparing for the Days of Awe. Celebrations of bar and bat mitzvah, watching our kids shine. Funerals of congregants I had known, and funerals of people who had been unknown to me until their deaths brought them front-and-center into my consciousness.

Speaking with a congregant one-on-one about something unfolding in their life. Sitting by the bedside of a man who was beginning his passage out of this life, singing him the niggun which asks the question of why a soul incarnates in this world. Standing in front of the open ark at the final service of last Yom Kippur, singing Avinu Malkeinu with all my heart and all my hoarse voice. Meditating in our sanctuary immersed in the silence of a thick winter snowfall -- and surrounded by the waterfall of summer birdsong. My son, at the cookout yesterday, gleefully banging the cymbals he had found in our basket of sanctuary instruments.

7508246080_946dce2ccc_mTimes when I tried something and it worked -- and times when I came away feeling that I hadn't lived up to what I wanted to be. Times when I felt I was really reaching people, and times when I felt as though I had borrowed Sisyphus' rock and it was about to roll back down the hill. The quiet glow of satisfaction when someone who had seemed just the tiniest bit dubious about me began to call me "Rabbi," and the chagrin when a lesson I had thought would move our b'nei mitzvah students devolved instead into a flurry of paper airplanes and inappropriate remarks. The gladness when I was able to give over a teaching I'd received from my teachers, a melody I had learned from a friend, and to feel that it had hit home.

When I began telling people, a year and change ago, that I was working with this community to develop a job description for a "halftime pulpit," many of my friends and colleagues laughed. There's no such thing as a halftime rabbi, people said; only a halftime salary! And they weren't wrong. I'm a rabbi all the time, just as I'm a poet all the time, just as I'm a mother all the time. The rabbinate is a vocation, not merely X hours of work for Y dollars in pay. And a rabbi's work is never done. I could always be doing more: more pastoral care visits, more trips to the hospital, more phone calls to check in, more b'nei mitzvah tutoring, more preparation for services, more learning, more Torah study, more teaching.

And yet. In this first year I have found that the halftime model is a blessing. Not only for practical and financial reasons, but also because it gives me a different way of thinking about life and work and how they intersect. A rabbi's work is never done -- but it would be all too easy to keep trying to finish it even so. All of us who enter this line of work do so because we want to serve. How easy it would be to say to myself, "if I just put in another hour today..." If I just stayed a bit later tonight -- if I picked up the laptop again after the toddler goes to bed -- if I worked both days this weekend instead of only one...

But the work is neverending, and I know that. And that's the blessing, assuming I can let go of the fantasy of ever being "done." All I can do is what I can do today during the hours I've allotted. After that, I have to leave work and pick up my son and take him to a playground, or make him dinner, or read him books. This turns out to be an incredible gift. I am blessed to serve as a rabbi. And I am also blessed to step away from my desk at the end of the day, having done as much as I could, and to let go of what remains un-done... which in turn allows me to return, ready to pick up the yoke again. "It's not incumbent upon us to finish the task" -- that's as much a statement about life as it is about my job. That's the way life is meant to be.

Of course there are times when this truth is hard to remember. Like any working parent, I have days when I fear that I'm shortchanging either my family or my job (or both.) But my tradition teaches me that in every moment, God speaks the world into being, and in every moment teshuvah -- re/turning, re-orienting, starting-over -- is possible. Even when a lesson plan has failed, or I've communicated something poorly, or the to-do list looms, I can take a deep breath, find the blessing in whatever is arising, and begin again. As, now, I take a deep breath, thank God and my community alike for the gift of this first year of serving Congregation Beth Israel, and begin to write the book of year two.

A prayer for my installation

Last night, after havdalah, we celebrated my installation as the interim rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel. My dear friend Cantor Bob Scherr gave me a beautiful blessing; two board members spoke on behalf of the board. For my part, I offered a new prayer-poem which I wrote for this occasion. I'm sharing it here because I wanted all of you to have a little bit of a sense of having been present for my installation, too. (And to anyone who finds this post in the lead-up to your own installation as clergy, if you want to use this poem in your ceremony, you are more than welcome to do so -- just indicate where it came from, please and thanks.)


Prayer for installation


Dear One!
You Who are near
as the blood in my veins

Ribbono shel Olam!
You Who are grandly distant
as galaxies unfolding

be with me
as I accept responsibility
for this community

strengthen my arms
as I cradle Your children
in celebration and in sorrow

sustain my heart
that I may open other hearts
to Your presence

uplift my spirit
that I may lead prayer
which makes You manifest

help me to learn, to teach
and to live
Your Torah

when I minister
to my own family
and to this family

Holy One of Blessing,
consecrate my hands
to Your service.



Edited to add: for those who are interested, a photoset of images of my installation is now available on flickr. Thanks, Len!


I brought my son with me to the synagogue on the evening when I was slated to sign the brit (covenant) between me and the congregation. He skipped around gleefully, found a calculator and held it up to his ear, tore up a piece of paper with great gusto, and successfully begged to hold and jingle the giant keyring which the president of the synagogue board was wearing on her belt. I fed him supper in a high chair there as I chatted with the president of the board about the year to come. When Drew started to melt down, I signed the contract and then I took him home for pyjamas, story time, and bed.

The next day, once my in-laws arrived to look after Drew, I loaded the back of my car with several boxes of Judaic books and headed for the synagogue. My intention was to begin settling in; I am the kind of person who feels discomfited until my boxes are unpacked and my work space feels like home. To my surprise, my first day on the job turned out to be deliciously full. I connected with people around two different upcoming lifecycle events. I met with the religion committee chair to begin planning the Days of Awe. I unboxed everything I had brought, and marveled that there are still more feet of bookshelves to fill.

When I left the synagogue, my mind was buzzing with everything on my to-do list. It felt good to be thinking about phone calls to congregants, pastoral care, high holiday prep, planning for summer and for fall...and then it felt good to come home, to swoop my son into my arms and listen to him babble, to lie down on his colorful play mats in the position I knew would entice him to come running over to me beaming his hugest grin and climb all over me as though I were a jungle gym.

Sometime in the early months of Drew's life, I remember talking with my sister about balancing work with parenthood. I seem to recall that she said something like, on the good days I feel like I have it all, and on the tough days I feel like I'm failing everyone -- my children, my clients, my spouse. I think about that conversation often now that I'm entering the workforce for the first time since becoming someone's mama. I pray that there will be more good days than tough days, but I know that both will inevitably arise in the months ahead.

When I went to the ALEPH Kallah a couple of weeks ago, I was first amazed by the glorious experience of being on my own for a week, and then humbled by the difficult experience of missing my son and knowing that he was missing me. I loved seeing my teachers and friends, I loved the learning and the davening...and I missed Drew desperately. (And Ethan, too! But he and I have years of practice at being apart and then coming together again; Drew is a different story.) I'm glad that I went and glad that it was wonderful -- and I'm glad too that it was so hard.

I hope I can approach the gift of this job in the same way. I'm glad to be serving as this community's rabbi, glad in anticipation of how wonderful I know it will be -- and glad that it will be difficult sometimes, too. I am blessed to have a vocation which I love and a family who I adore, and I wouldn't trade either of those for the world. 

Drew is already at-home at this synagogue; he's been going there with me since he was an infant. (I still remember the first time I brought him to Shabbat morning services, back when he was new and the experience of taking him anywhere was still faintly terrifying.) I don't know what it will be like for him to grow up with a mama who is a poet and a working rabbi. But I trust that there will be blessings in this experience: for him, for me, and hopefully also for the community-at-large which will be enriched by his laughter and his energy (even if those sometimes come hand-in-hand with his frustration and a tantrum or two.)