Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

What an AA meeting Taught Me about Creating Sacred Space

Last week, a good friend of mine invited me to join them when they received their 2-year coin at Alcoholics Anonymous. This is not a world that I typically inhabit, and I discovered during the meeting that that world had a lot to teach me about building community, making meaning, and doing teshuva.

In the synagogue world, and especially in small-congregations, it often feels like we are one step behind in the latest trends, one marketing campaign or social media strategy or new melody away from transforming our congregations.

It was fascinating to watch people engage with a community that takes the exact opposite approach. AA meetings use no technology. There is no social media hashtag, no membership database or targeted emails. Nothing is projected on a screen or set to music. Each meeting is grounded in the same 12 steps and 12 traditions, and therefore is probably very similar to how meetings were when the group was founded in 1935.

And yet, people show up every day, because they know that they need what is offered in this sacred space. They come for the no-frills experience of sharing their stories, offering support to those who are struggling, and being seen and heard by their partners in recovery.

They come to do teshuva in the full sense of the word. Turning away from what made their lives unmanageable, and returning to the right path, even after a painful detour, even after walking a path that may have irrevocably changed their lives and their relationships.

Each person who spoke, regardless of where they were in their personal journey of recovery, essentially told the same story: I hurt myself and others with my behavior, I regretted my actions, and I resolved to make a change. Each day, I have to make the decision to live a better life, and that is not easy. But with the support of my community, I feel like it is possible.

This could have been lifted word for word from Maimonides: “I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1).

As rabbis, we spend a lot of time coordinating the logistics of High Holy Day worship. But when we strip away the songs and slides and service orders, the essence of our High Holy Day experience bears a strong resemblance to that of an AA meeting. No matter what techniques we employ, our goal is to create a sacred space for our people to do cheshbon hanefesh, a “fierce moral inventory,” to acknowledge that our actions have hurt ourselves and others, and to resolve to make a change. Teshuva, like sobriety, requires an ongoing daily commitment to do better, and we are here to remind our community that none of us engages in this hard work alone. Because it is knowing that we are not alone that makes real transformation seem possible.

Shana Tovah.

— 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz serves Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

A Rosh HaShanah Reflection on Birth and Possibility

I love asking my kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because I am always so enamored and tickled with their answers.  One wants to be a policeman, a fireman, a goalie for the Rangers and a professional soccer player—and maybe a basketball player—all at the same time.  Another wants to be a thunderstorm (really!) or maybe one of the Beatles.  And the earnestness, with which they answer me, always cuts right to the core.  My kids, like most children, dream in Technicolor, believing they can do most anything and be most anyone.  There are no limits they cannot overcome, no voices casting doubt on their glorious reveries; they just dream big and wide and free.

What would it take for us to dream those dreams?  What would inspire us to set our sights higher than the sky?  How might we learn to open ourselves up rather than close ourselves off? Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I dwell in possibility;” and while I am certain our children dwell there too, do we?

On Rosh Hashanah, we do.  On Rosh Hashanah, we are beckoned to that Dwelling Place, urged to step in and experience the wonder of limitless possibility.  We call this day Hayom Harat Olam– the day the world “burst into being.” [1] This is the day of the world’s beginning, but it marks our beginning as well.  On this day there is no telling what we can do or who we can become; our potential is endless, limited only by the stretch of our own imagination.

Indeed, this is our day– to create, to renew, to repair. Yes, this is our day to pave new paths, to chart new courses, to begin again. It is Rosh Hashanah, (after all,) Hayom Harat Olam, a consecration of birth itself.

Our Tradition claims that Adam was born this day,[2] along with Isaac and Samuel.[3]  Some even add Sarah and Joseph to the list as well.  This also is said to be the day when our ancestors were freed from Egypt, the day a new nation was born.

Creation is not an end, we learn, but a beginning.[4] This day is not only about cataloguing the birth stories of our history; it is about catalyzing these beginnings in our own lives. Against this incredible tapestry of birth, we stand poised to write our own stories of renewal.

In our highly rational world, the cycle of life still remains a pristine miracle.  How does a tiny seed become a mighty tree?  And how does the lowly caterpillar turn into the majestic butterfly?  It’s a delicious mystery that we are privy to, each and every day.

In birth, we bear witness to a marvel far beyond our comprehension. In birth we are granted a taste of the Divine.  For with every new life, another element of God’s blueprint is revealed.  And with every new life, the order of the world shifts and a new equilibrium is formed.  In a single moment, everything can change, and everything does.

Creation, we learn, is ongoing. As the Hasidic teacher Simhah Bunam of Poland, describes it: “God created the world in a permanent state of reishit, beginning.

The world is always incomplete. Continuous creative effort is needed to renew the world, to keep it from sinking again into primeval chaos.”[5]

Thus we understand why birth is so present during these days of Awe.  We are the agents of God’s handiwork on this earth, constantly implementing pieces of God’s design with every creative act we perform. We are participants in the act of Creation.

We are responsible for executing God’s master plan.

Birth is no longer a privilege; it is a mandate.  We are empowered to create life, to generate ideas, to revitalize ourselves.   We are given the opportunity to forge new paths and rebuild broken friendships.  This is our time to contribute to the world around us, and renew the life that God implanted within and among us, so very long ago.

We learn that the [Holy blessed One] said to Israel:  “Remake yourselves by repentance during the ten days between New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement.  And on the Day of Atonement, I will hold you guiltless, regarding you as a newly made creature.”[6]

My friend once called birth “the sound of a gun at the beginning of a marathon….”[7] The gun has just fired.  As we commence the Ten Days of Awe, our journey begins. How will we renew ourselves during this time?   What will we contribute to the cycle of creation?   How will we emerge when these days of Repentance are through?

Let us feel encouraged by the limitless potential the High Holidays bring.  If there ever were a time to stretch ourselves, it is now.  If there ever were a time to grow, it is now. God is most accessible to us right now, during these Days of Awe.

We are shareholders in this world that God has created. God is our partner in the work we do.  HaYom Harat Olam- Now is the time to continue God’s sacred vision of creation.

L’Shana Tova U’Metukah!

Rabbi Sara Sapadin serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as Adjunct Rabbi.

 

[1] Rabbi Alan Lew. This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 116

[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 29:1

[3] http://telshemesh.org/tishrei/, August 12

[4] Rabbi Malka Drucker, http://www.malkadrucker.com/create.html

[5] quoted in Kol Haneshamah: Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, p. 492

[6] Pesikta Rabbati 40:5

[7] Edi Nelson

 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Everything Is Waiting For You

I watch the moon closely during the month of Elul.  Two weeks of expansion and then the moon contracts.  Such is the moon’s pattern during every month of the year.  But in Elul, I am paying attention. Perhaps you are too. In this month, the moon’s movement tells us that the new year is on the way.  Along with the night sky’s growing darkness, Rosh Hashanah soon will arrive. More than absence, the new moon represents possibility. As poet David Whyte reminds each one of us, “everything is waiting for you.”

This is my first High Holy Day season as Director of Rabbinic Placement for the CCAR.  I recently wrote in the CCAR newsletter that I have been thinking a lot about the spirituality of placement and the possibilities for holiness and wholeness that flow through every aspect of this work.  When I think of the spirituality of placement, the word that most resonates with me is “pilgrim.” Placement is a pilgrimage, and one who enters the process of placement – whether a rabbi or a congregation – embarks on a pilgrimage.

To be a pilgrim, to be on a pilgrimage, is to participate in a journey of return. Though the pilgrim never may have been on that particular path before, the process calls forth a remembering, a return to questions that are elemental, foundational, essential: Who am I?  To whom and what am I committed? For what do I exist?

These are the same questions that we ask ourselves during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) season.  As Elul wans and Tishrei approaches, our annual journey of return calls us to engage in courageous remembrance.  To remember is courageous because it requires that we acknowledge both what is no longer as well as the truth of what now is.

One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance.  We ask that God remember us for life and blessing.  We ask that God remember the merit of our ancestors and credit their blessedness to us.  Yet we are actors in the endeavor of remembrance, too.  Each year at this season, we embark on a journey of return to re-member ourselves – that is, to further integrate the various parts of our life experiences, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect in our relationships with one another, the divine presence, the natural worlds, and our most authentic, best selves.  

To integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. That is what remembrance is. Remembrance engages the fullness of our beings – our minds and our bodies, our hearts, emotions, spirits and souls. Over the course of the year, we forget our deepest truths and yearnings, we abandon our callings and commitments, we ignore and lose sight of the mission for which we exist.

To engage in the sacred acts, which result in our remembering — repentance, prayer and righteous deeds — we must learn to loosen our grip. We cannot return to a state of wholeness if our hearts are hardened and our jaws and fists are clenched.  This past year has brought with it more than its share of pain and disappointment, loss and lament.  Death and so many other endings call upon us, the ones who go on living, to let go, which is to accept the reality of loss and also to accept what is.  To let go is to surrender to reality, but it is not the same as resignation.  We struggle against letting go – out of fear of not being in control, out of fear that we might forget, out of fear of what will no longer be, out of fear of what now is.  

Fear can take us to the most constricted of places, places where we forget how to live. There is plenty to be frightened about at this moment in this country and throughout the planet. But we can acknowledge our fears and still recognize that we have choice and options. We can be with what is. We can be with the truth of our experience – all of it.  And we can loosen our grip. We can begin again.

We do this holy work together. In our relationships and in our communities, we gather to remember – to integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. May this season be a pilgrimage of renewal, revealing new possibilities for healing and connection. Like the moon, we turn and return. With each breath, expanding and contracting, blessed to begin again.

Rabbi Cindy Enger is the Director of Placement at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Preparing Ourselves

In these times of turmoil we rabbis bring a sense of comfort and steadiness to the communities we serve.  In the storm tossed waters that seem to shake the world these days, our congregants, students, and communities look to us to help them make sense of it all.  They look to our tradition, our prophets, our Torah for soothing, healing, and that most important quality, hope.

These coming High Holy Days will challenge us to bring that spiritual nourishment to the Jewish people like never before. In the aftermath of Charlottesville our people will need a true message of consolation.  How to forgive in the face of such vile bigotry?

We, too, are not immune to these same feelings as those we serve.  Our own outrage and concern as we have to respond to the hatemongers among us affects our well-being too.  I have heard from many friends and colleagues about their own worries and concerns for the U.S. as the racists and white supremacists, Nazis and Klan have come out from their hoods into the light of day and the light of their tiki torches.  I have heard about the fatigue that grips us as we are constantly called upon to march and comfort, speak up and show up.

So how can we in these days and weeks of preparation for the Yamim Noraim prepare ourselves to lead? How can we bring a sense of shalom to our own souls so that we in turn my guide and uplift our communities in prayer and reflection? How can we prepare to lead the Jewish people toward t’shuvah in the weeks ahead?

If we turn to Yoma 2ab we find the discussion of the sequestration of the High Priest. Seven days prior to the start of Yom Kippur the High Priest was removed from his home.  This was done according to tradition to ensure the High Priest’s spiritual purity for the sacred day and sacred service.  The High Priest lived in a special chamber at the Temple during this time and his team went to great lengths to ensure that his spiritual purity could be guarded and protected. During the Avodah service on Yom Kippur the atonement of the people depended upon his spiritual purity.  But our tradition also teaches that the High Priest was sequestered to also search his own soul. This time allowed him to pray and reflect and meditate on the awe-some task that would soon come.

While we are not priests like in the days of the Temple, I believe we have to find the time even as Religious school starts up again, and there are sermons to be written, music to be chosen and our people return from their summer vacations, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the Days of Awe.  Rabbis may not be able to take seven days prior to Yom Kippur to sequester ourselves  but this text does provide us with a reminder that even the High Priest needed to prepare  for his task.  We too have to prepare our spiritual selves for our task. Our spiritual purity and sensibilities do need some time and attention.  Self-care in these times of political disruption and assault will help each of us steer our people’s prayers toward heaven.

I am inspired by the High Priest’s preparation and I am inspired to ensure that my own soul is ready to do the heavy lifting of t’shuvah.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is the immediate Past President of the CCAR. 

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High Holy Days Holiday

It Will Have to Wait until After The High Holy Days

“It will have to wait until after the High Holy Days.”

My children are used to that refrain.  From late August until early October, many of their requests are answered with the familiar phrase:  after the holy days.  The shopping trip to replace the sneakers, the movie they want to see, the party they need help planning – these are the seeming extras that my family is asked to put on hold while I write sermons, work with the soloist, supervise the distribution of honors and listen to Torah readers.   No matter how much we resolve to start preparing earlier, those of us who lead services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often subsumed by the overwhelming number of tasks that confront us.

This is a time of year when those who are closest to us are asked to make sacrifices because of the sacred responsibility that many of us have to lead our communities in worship during these powerful days.  Our partner or spouse bears a heavier load of household responsibilities.  Our aging parent reluctantly agrees to skip the weekly lunch.  The new man or woman that we have begun to date is asked to wait a few weeks to go out again.   And it goes on and on.

We know from the work we are doing through surveys and focus groups, that many of us feel this tension, particularly in this season. The feelings of guilt that build up when High Holy Day preparation takes us away from our loved ones only adds to the stress that we feel, stress that impacts those we love and live with.  It is, in the truest sense of the word, a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break.

And then there is guilt. Knowing that my children expect the refrain, “it will have to wait until after the Holy Days” does not make saying it each year any easier.  Now that they are older, they are often the ones to say, “I know that this will need to wait”.  And still, I feel guilty.  The feelings of guilt that we carry about this ever-present tension are especially ironic at this time of year.  We often counsel people about the guilt they carry, about the difference between forgetting and letting go.  So many people are weighed down by their wrongdoings, by relationships that are wounded.  We strive to help them let go of self-recrimination, the ever-present guilt that prevents them from moving forward.  In other words, we encourage them to forgive themselves that they may more freely open their hearts to new possibilities and change.

Yet as with so many things, what we strive to help others achieve is much harder to achieve for ourselves.   There is no simple solution to the feeling of being pulled in all directions, of feeling guilty by the sense that we are failing someone as we work to please everyone. But we have learned from you that reaching out helps.  Know that you are not alone in your feelings, and it might help to remind yourself of that by calling a friend.  It is not admitting failure to do so and in fact, your openness may help the person you call by bringing a common feeling in to the open.  And finally:  forgive yourself.   In so doing, may your heart soften and open to allow true change, healing and growth.

 

Rabbi Betsy Torop is the Director of Member Engagement, Support, and Professional Growth for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

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Books High Holy Days Holiday

High Holy Day Family Sermon Starters

Oh my goodness, are you so tired? I am so tired. Like, my leg bones ache, so tired. And oh good heavens, there is only a month left until the High Holidays begin. Between the start of the school year and the political situation and just getting to the grocery store so we can have something that vaguely resembles food in the house, I bet you might feel the same.

So let’s just get straight to it. Here are some sermon starters for family service sermons, using non-traditional picture books as the jumping off point. Hopefully, one of these will resonate with you (and make things just a bit easier)

 

Oh No, George!: Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance

Central sermon question: What do we do when we make mistakes? What constitutes true repentance?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Who is truly repentant? The one who, when the temptation to sin is repeated, refrains from sinning.” – Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b

Modern References:

 

Emma’s Poem: Privilege and Tikkun Olam

Central sermon question: How do we use the blessings we have to help repair the world?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community” – Pirke Avot 2:5
  • “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” – Pirke Avot 2:21
  • 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Modern References:

Having a hard time talking about privilege? Here is one interesting, accessible resource.

 

Pout Pout Fish: Yom Kippur as the Silver Fish

Central sermon question: Can we choose happiness?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • Selection of references asking the Divine countenance to shine upon us: Numbers 6:22-25, Psalm 31:16, Psalm 67:1, Psalm 80:3, Psalm 119:135, Daniel 9:17. “We pray for God to change Her/His face; are we capable of doing the same? Can we find a way to see the positive in a situation we originally considered negative?
  • Shammai says:… meet every person with a pleasant countenance – Pirke Avot 1:15
  • “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world” – Chasidic, 18th Century (p. 3, Gates of Repentance)

Modern References:

Gretchen Rubin’s podcast “Happier”

 

Knuffle Bunny Too:  Second Chances

Central sermon question: Can forgiveness and empathy help form new, meaningful friendships?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows” (Ben Zoma) – Pirke Avot 4:1 – Learning how to do this healthily can be hard!
  • Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.” – Pirke Avot 1:13

Modern References:

  • TED Talk about the Grant Study at Harvard (Crunched for time? Skip to about 6 minutes in)

 

The Thank You Book: Blessings

Central sermon question: What are blessings?

  • Blessings are an expression of gratitude; an opportunity to remind ourselves of what is truly important in our lives – the food we eat, the people we love, the existence of rainbows and wonders (maybe not in that particular order). What are you grateful for? Who are you forgetting? Is it someone or something that you take for granted so much that you need to break the fourth wall in order to thank?

Do you have any other favorite non-traditional children’s books that you love to use as sermon-starters? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

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Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Mishkan HaLev: Transported Beyond Words

A prayerbook is a repository of rituals and ceremonies; its language is often formulaic and sometimes feels abstract. Yet the rituals contained within the best prayerbooks also speak to our souls: the recurring idioms (for example, “Baruch atah, Adonai . . .”) create a shared spiritual space in which communities gather to affirm their values and beliefs, define their orientation to the world, and try to make sense of life’s vicissitudes. That is, in addition to teaching us the right steps in the right order, a prayerbook worth its salt must be “real.” Its content should touch our hearts — speaking to the lives we live, while aiming to inspire hope and faith and courage.

And so we come to Mishkan HaLev — a book whose name means “A Sanctuary of the Heart” (or “a dwelling place of the heart”). Mishkan HaLev is largely a response — albeit a partial one — to a single question: how do Reform Jews prepare for the High Holy Days? Here is what we learned by asking that question in a CCAR survey several years ago: (1) serious Reform Jews value preparation because they recognize the unique character of these holy days; (2) some Reform Jews have found interesting, creative ways to prepare for the Days of Awe — the season of introspection, repentance, and forgiveness; and (3) many have yet to figure out how to make time for meaningful preparation, but would like to do so. What is the goal of Mishkan HaLev? Its main purpose is to encourage more people to be better prepared, spiritually and emotionally, for the High Holy Days— and we hope that those who pray its prayers, read its poetry, and study its commentary are enriched by the experience.

Mishkan HaLev is comprised of two sections: Shabbat Evening Service for the Month of Elul; and S’lichot: Songs of Forgiveness for the Season of Return. The Shabbat service is intended for all Friday evenings during Elul, the month that leads to Rosh HaShanah; in addition, it includes the liturgical insertions for Shabbat Shuvah — the “Sabbath of Return” between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The S’lichot service is the CCAR’s first new S’lichot liturgy since Gates of Forgiveness was published in 1980. Both services contain many choices for communal worship, study, and discussion, as well as diverse options for private devotion and inspiration — in particular, the “Meditative Amidah” for Friday evening and abundant poetry. Both are designed, as well, to serve as resources for educational programs leading up to the High Holy Days.

Many poems appear in these pages, because, as Edward Hirsch has written, “poetry is a soul-making activity.” At its best, poetry celebrates the gift that allows human beings to see things differently, to remake the world, and to reinterpret received ideas and traditions. Reading a poem can stir within us a sense of intimacy and even urgency.

Why have we called this prayerbook “Mishkan HaLev — A Sanctuary of the Heart”?

Love is the theme of the month of Elul, in part because the initial Hebrew letters of Song of Songs 6:3 — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li) — spell out the word Elul. Our Sages saw the verse as expressing the tender mutual devotion that makes t’shuvah possible. If we turn with open hearts to the Holy One, they taught, God is forever ready to embrace us with love.

No prayerbook can choreograph the turning of our hearts to God and to other people; nor can it possibly choreograph their loving responses to us. Such events are profound and unique; often they are transcendent — moments in which we are transported entirely beyond words, and far beyond the pages of the prayerbook. But it is our hope that Mishkan HaLev will challenge all of us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of such moments in our lives. May this prayerbook help us to make Elul a time of profound introspection, self-examination, and turning.

Rabbi Sheldon Marder is currently the Rabbi and Department Head of Jewish Life at the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Rabbi Marder is the co-editor, translator, writer, and commentator of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, published by CCAR Press in 2015, as well as the co-editor of Mishkan HaLev: Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul, a companion prayerbook to Mishkan HaNefesh. He is also the contributor to other publications, such as Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, published by CCAR Press in 2016; and CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2013 issue.

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Books High Holy Days Prayer

Mishkan HaLev: Trying the New S’lichot Service

I am sitting in the Metropolitan Opera House waiting for my favorite moment.  Those majestic crystal chandeliers start rising high into the sky and the spotlight reveals an elegantly attired conductor.  The house goes silent, the baton lifts, and the orchestra begins.  The sounds of the music go straight into the hearts of the 3,800 people who are enraptured.  This is my favorite moment:  the overture.

S’lichot is the overture for our High Holy Days and my favorite part of the holiday.  With sadness, I wrestle with the fact that roughly 0.001% of my congregation is present for the overture.  Would those same congregants walk into the Metropolitan Opera House late?  I have to wonder.

How could we draw more people to be present for S’lichot?  Yes, I know.  It’s the food.  Bring them in with food.  But even food won’t keep them there and wanting to come back.  Neither will a good performance.  They can go elsewhere for good food and good performances. We can only hold them with what we do best:  focus on meaning, tradition, faith, and a touching of that spot in the heart where no one else can go.product_image-4

When the chance came to pilot the CCAR’s new prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot, I jumped.  My biggest challenge was going to be bowing out of the regional S’lichot service that had been a tradition for years, notwithstanding that it was a tradition that, if the feet do the judging, was not working for us because no one came.  The opportunity to pilot the prayerbook for Elul and S’lichot was my chance to make a radical change and offer our own S’lichot service.  Our Cantor was game to try it.  Our Ritual Committee was game to try it.  We decided to try it.  One benefit of our regional S’lichot was that our lack of participants wasn’t so noticeable, but if no one came this time it would be patently obvious for all to see.  But they did come.  And I am convinced that Mishkan HaLev is why they will come again next year.

The overriding reason why Mishkan HaLev works is that it is rooted in joy.  The season is so somber and the work so heavy, how refreshing it is to begin our overture for the High Holy Days in joy.  We actually celebrate the fact that we can change our lives.  The name of the prayerbook – Mishkan HaLev – promises a connection to the other Mishkan prayerbooks in our lives, but also the focus on the heart.  Mishkan HaLev focuses us on the joyful heart.

I am privileged to work with an awesome cantor.  He and I read through the pilot copy together.  We read it out loud with just each other.  We agreed that our purpose was not a concert by cantor or choir.  There was far too much material to utilize, so we had to edit ourselves down.  We were able to do so by noting the individual movements of the service: Havdalah, Entering the Gates of S’lichot, the Promise of Forgiveness, the Path of Return, the B’rit of Compassion and the Call of the Shofar.  We chose our selections from each of these sections to provide balance and direction for the service.  We chose musical selections that we wanted to teach prior to Rosh HaShanah and those that would be familiar and make the heart beat faster.

God bless the Yehuda Amichai poetry throughout the prayerbook.  How does he do it?  A profound tying of the ancient and the modern and a message that jumps out and hits you on the head without being moralistic or pendantic.  “From the place where we are right…” is but one example.  The appearance of that poem alone makes Mishkan HaLev worthwhile.

Praying with a prayerbook that we knew was not yet “cast in stone,” was part of the excitement.  Like our human selves who were present because of the possibility of changing ourselves, so too the draft prayerbook.  How will the draft version continue to change before going to the printer?  I don’t know.  I hope there may be more chatimot following English readings to better connect them to the original Hebrew prayers, and I hope that layout decisions may afford the opportunity, as in Mishkan T’filah, for the open spread to all reflect one body of work with the more traditional on the right and the interpretive on the left.

But most significantly:  I believe that Mishkan HaLev helps to open our hearts to the tasks at hand.  I saw it with my own eyes and our synagogue has already put in its order for the printed version.  It will be in our hands to open the gates of 5778.

Rabbi Stacy Offner serves Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.

CCAR Press offers special pre-publication discounts for Mishkan HaLev.  A preview of Mishkan HaLev is now available!

Learn more about the book on our website.  The order form for large orders can be found here.

Categories
Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh

Wandering in the Desert with Mishkan HaNefesh

Editor’s Note: Most of the blogs on RavBlog are written by CCAR members. Occasionally, we share a blog by a special guest with a unique message. We are pleased to share this blog by poet Jessica Greenbaum.

I’ve resisted the impulse to tour our country’s beautiful deserts because of my clashing impulse to take a swim most days of my life. These two things just don’t go together. However, caught in that life-cycle moment of watching my youngest daughter gleefully wave goodbye from the window of her freshman dorm, I vowed to set out on new territory myself. Unlike Dante’s mid-life figure of The Inferno who finds himself in a dark wood, I found my mid-life self transported to the squint-inducing sunlight of Mesa, Arizona, which highlighted the orange and red striped canyons, and blue skies of the Tonto National Forest. The “forest” part was clearly tagged on to prize its rarest asset. Like the “green” of icy Greenland. I came to the desert ranch with a tour company that specializes in open water swimming vacations. Yes, they exist! They had mapped out a week’s course through three of the dammed lakes of the Salt River, also within the national forest. So, no problem swimming, but another problem loomed. Yom Kippur fell in the middle of the only week they offered. I took 40 seconds to think. Then, like any good tourist, I paid my money and packed my machzor.

As it works out, and for reasons fascinating only to myself, I was already waist deep in the most solitary experience of the holidays that I can remember. Unexpectedly, Rosh Hashana had been without my husband and girls: just me, Mishkan Hanefesh, and my laptop open on my quilt, for synagogue livestreaming. Whatever the congregation was doing virtually on the screen, I tried to follow on analogous pages. Just when I was getting teary about the yarzheit of my grandmother, I turned the page and—there it was! Stephen Ackerman’s awesome poem, “Effortless Affection,” which begins: “All last requests are granted / and this is mine: grasp my affection / in your hand and hold it there . . .”  Beshert. I had my prayer book, so I had my shul.

Well that had been okay for a Rosh Hashana Plan B in Brooklyn. But determined to hear Kol Nidre in person, I arranged that during my trip I would attend an Arizonan congregation. I brought Mishkan Hanefesh with me in case they were using some old wooden machzor—which they were. I turned to my own when my mind wandered. As uninspiring as the service was, the tiny congregation was hamishe, I was with other Jews, and I needed that. Packing my own machzor made me feel faintly ancient. All those stories of the Jew traveling from one town to another and ducking in somewhere for services . . . all I needed was a donkey.

But what to do on Yom Kippur day? I could return to the shul, but enjoying my first real vacation for nine years, shouldn’t I spend every day of it swimming with the tour? Two words stopped me: Sandy Koufax. If the great pitcher could sit out the 1965 World Series and inspire John Goodman’s line in the movie The Big Lebowski “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition: from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” well, couldn’t I skip a day? The surrounding canyon walls and idiosyncratic menorahs of saguaro cacti designed the most tasteful tabernacle from here to Woodstock. I decided to hang out with Mishkan Hanefesh. I told my fellow swim lunatics to plow on without me. I livestreamed my favorite NYC synagogue and practiced a mix of e-Judaism and reading, wandering around the immediate canyon with my MacBook open and machzor in hand, singing along. The new ner tamid looks like an apple with a bite out of it. Somehow this goes together.

Well, I never spent so long in services. Here’s what I liked about it. At that remove, I happily couldn’t miss the fantasy congregation—of close friends and family—I had never actually had. I was better able to concentrate on the demand Yom Kippur makes on the conscience. I wrote down those aspects of my personality I needed to confront. ( . . . page 2. . . .) The livestream lets viewers chat in the screen’s margin, a cyber gathering of the disenfranchised from all over the world. So you could still tell latecomers what figurative page we were on! If the NYC congregation was mumbling or otherwise leaving me behind, I could page through my machzor and find what I needed, learn what was there for me. I wasn’t bothering anyone when I fidgeted. I wasn’t thinking what I had to bring to break the fast, or if the brisket would be done. I had my prayer book so I had my shul. When the rabbi took a break for two hours, I took a little dip in the ranch pool. I know you’re not supposed to. But a little swim let me return to the pages and the services and take in what I could even if I wasn’t fasting when I was wandering. The desert and canyons surrounded. I was getting someplace, I could feel it.

Jessica Greenbaum is poet living in Brooklyn, and is the author two volumes of poetry, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), winner of the Gerald Cable Prize, and The Two Yvonnes (2012), which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet,  received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2016. Some of her poems are featured in CCAR publications, including The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and Mishkan HaNefesh.

 

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High Holy Days Rabbis

Yom Kippur and Hurricane Mathew: What is Normal?

When one is forced to abandon one’s home due to a hurricane or a natural disaster, it feels strange to walk around another community trying to be normal, engage in normal looking activities like eating in a restaurant, or engaging in normal pleasant conversation when seeing other evacuees from one’s congregation. It is almost surreal to inhabit the world of another town while all along one is thinking about what is going on in our community. What is happening to our house or the congregational facility we cherish? Congregational rabbis make themselves available to their congregants in their time of need, and especially if there is an unusual event. Yet, a hurricane?

For me this Yom Kippur was unusual to put it mildly. As a result of Hurricane Mathew, we in Hilton Head, SC had to leave our homes behind and find alternative accommodations in a short period of time. My congregants spread out throughout the region from Charlotte to Atlanta. Our family traveled first to Aiken and then settled down in Augusta, Ga. At first I happily ran into our congregant friends in Aiken, but when we settled into the larger city of Augusta we felt we were on our own.

Of course, we kept in touch with congregants through social media. At first it was nice to see many pictures of folks enjoying themselves and touring the places they visited. We did that too. Yet, as Mathew rolled into the low country and into Hilton Head, I suddenly realized that all our plans and anticipation for Yom Kippur were going up like dust in the wind during an Israeli Chamsin. Yes, I was concerned about our house and our congregants as I received many calls, emails and texts from congregants who were contending with all sorts of issues. I was grateful to receive calls from local and regional colleagues, assuring us that there would be room for my congregants at their Yom Kippur services. I spoke to some colleagues who had experience with Hurricane Sandy, and with other colleagues who were dealing with Hurricane Matthew as well, and I am totally grateful to the colleagues who took the time to reach out to me and offer assistance. I am also grateful to the CCAR, Dan Medwin in particular, who helped with providing technological advice to live stream our services in Augusta, GA.

The truth is that throughout the weekend I was not ready to admit that we would not be in Hilton Head for Yom Kippur. First I contacted our colleague Rabbi Shia at Children of Israel in Augusta for Shabbat Services. We had a great experience and were welcomed by him and the congregation. Even then I felt we would be able to return home. Saturday night we had dinner with our colleague Rabbi Rachael Bregman and a few evacuees from Savannah. I started to feel optimistic again. The Hurricane, I wrongly believed, would veer off to the Atlantic and we would have a light brush of intense wind and rain and that would be the end of it. Not so. Man makes plans and God laughs, the Yiddish adage goes.

By Monday I could see that reports were that the hurricane would run over Hilton Head with a vengeance. Oh how it did. Rabbi Shia invited us to services and his president had us and some of our leadership over to her house for dinner before Kol Nidrei. Shia invited me to sit on the bimah with him and deliver a few remarks. This was the first time I had not been on a bima as officiant for Yom Kippur since I was ordained in 1984. I sat there for Kol Nidrei and spoke to the congregation. Shia provided me with an extra kittel and tallit. He was the most gracious colleague one could ask for in this difficult time. A group of my congregants who evacuated to Augusta showed up and I felt that familiar surge of joy and happiness. I left with a good feeling even though I missed doing my thing as I would always do on Yom Kippur. Sure, I missed all the congregants I have come to know and love. There was an emptiness in my heart, even though I was relieved no injuries had been reported from our congregants, and that was the most important thing. I received pictures of the trees falling down on my house. The Temple was in good shape. I prayed to God on Kol Nidrei to give me the strength to keep my cool, my sense of humor, and to remain optimistic.

Yom Kippur morning was a different story. A group of 200 folks from an independent living center in my community, Tide Pointe, were taken to a hotel in downtown Augusta. We have about 10 or so Jewish seniors there and so after meeting with them we decided to have a service for them.

Wednesday morning: We went over to the Ramada Inn to conduct a small service. I promised the attendees that I would give them an abbreviated service from shacharit to Neilah in one hour. The seniors were grateful and appreciative. We talked about their feelings regarding being relocated.  I have to say that I enjoyed doing the service for them. Yes, it was a real mitzvah and I know it was holy work. I felt good about it. Again these are not normal times. Something told me that I needed them more than they needed me.

Nor was this a normal Yom Kippur. We returned to Children of Israel in Augusta for Neilah. There we were sitting in the back row: very weird for me to sit there instead of being on the bimah. The rabbi did a fine job and with joy and celebration the congregation danced in the sanctuary. We ended the service and went to into the social hall for a break the fast meal.

The folks in this congregation were fantastic and I think we made some new friends. I’m concerned like everyone else about my own house and the trees on our homes or on the ground. My mother always says, “This too shall pass.”

I am anxious to deal with the house issues and get the process of removal and clean up underway. I want to be there for my congregants and help them in any way I can. I want to be on my own bimah to show that life goes on and we as a community will rebuild brick and mortar, and our spirits too. This is what we do as rabbis in congregations. The truth is that I felt highs and lows helping my congregants this time and I know that the long term effects of this hurricane are yet to be felt. We as a community, not just at Beth Yam, Hilton Head but the entire low country needs hope and healing.

From strength to strength I have faith we will fashion a recovery of the material and the spiritual in which we will emerge a more united community in the long term.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, MSW DD, serves Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina.