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High Holy Days Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Will You Hear My Cry? More From Mishkan HaNefesh, the New Reform Machzor

One of the most emotionally heart-tugging prayers and melodies of the High Holy Days is a petition called Sh’ma Koleinu. In a beautiful new translation in the forthcoming Mishkan HaNefesh, we pray:


Hear our call, Adonai our God. Show us compassion
Accept our prayer with love and goodwill.
Take us back, Adonai; let us come back to You; renew our days as in the past.
Hear our words, Adonai; understand our unspoken thoughts.
May the speech of our mouth and our heart’s quiet prayer
Be acceptable to You, Adonai, our rock and our redeemer.
Do not cast us away from Your presence, or cut us off from Your holy spirit.
Do not cast us away when we are old; as our strength diminishes,
Do not forsake us.
Do not forsake us, Adonai; be not far from us, our God.
With hope, Adonai we await You;
Surely, You, Adonai our God – You will answer.
(CCAR, (c) 2014, All rights reserved).

Take a listen to this recording, with a melody by Levandowski, that I grew up hearing throughout my youth in the UK (click on the 2nd sound link when the new page opens up). 

Put aside theology for a moment. If you are not sure what God-idea you believe in, you could get stuck on the literal words here. But look instead at the human emotion being poured out. It is a heart crying out for relationship. To be received. To be held. To be seen. To not feel alone and abandoned, uncertain of what lies ahead. Uncomfortable when we sit quietly long enough to notice what thoughts, anxieties, doubts, and self-disgust arise within us. We want to be accepted. We want to be received. We need relationships despite our flaws and imperfections.

To me, this gets to the heart of the human condition. It is a crying out that has been distilled into a few sentences that captures so much of what many of us feel in the dark, when no-one is watching.

As with so many of the core prayers of our High Holy Day liturgy, the new CCAR machzor also offers us an alternative text drawn from a more contemporary source. On Kol Nidre, the text that is offered is a poem by Rachel, an Israeli poet. It’s opening verses, like the prayer they face, express an outpouring of emotion:


Will you hear my voice, you who are far from me?
Will you hear my voice, wherever you are;
A voice calling aloud, a voice silently weeping,
Endlessly demanding a blessing.

This busy world is vast, its ways are many;
Paths meet for a moment, then part forever;
A man goes on searching, but his feet stumble,
He cannot find that which he has lost…


Hear me! Help me find meaning in all of this vastness! Help me live in relationship and connection to others. Accept me, and help me learn to accept myself.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Are We Doing Here?: Mishkan HaNefesh and the High Holy Days

You are probably aware, if you’ve sat through High Holy Day services in years past, that these worship services run longer than most other days of the year. If you have not really studied or examined the words on the pages closely before, you may not be aware of all the ‘extras’ that are part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Of course, the Shofar service is one of the most immediately recognizable additions. And the singing of Avinu Malkeinu. And you may have spent many a year struggling with the medieval piyyut (poem) U’netaneh Tokef (that’s the one that contains those uncomfortable lines, ‘who will live and who will die’). 

But perhaps you don’t remember a series of paragraphs that are inserted into the Amidah that extend the section known in Hebrew as k’dushat Hashem – the Sanctification of the Name. That is the section where we repeat 3 times, kadosh kadosh kadosh… holy holy holy is the Eternal God of Hosts.

The reason why this section of prayer is extended with some additional paragraphs is because the ‘sanctification of God’s name’ was, historically, a big theme of the Jewish New Year. In ancient times there would be an official day of the year to celebrate and honor each year of a king’s reign. Think of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. There was a lot of fuss and fanfare as her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated back in 2012.  Something of this ancient ritual was borrowed in Jewish ritual – one day a year we recognize and honor the coronation of the King of Kings.  In our Rosh HaShanah liturgy we do this when we ‘sanctify God’s name.’ But what does that mean exactly?

The three additional passages that become part of the sanctification prayer over the High Holy Days each begin with the word u’v’chen, meaning ‘therefore.’ What follows in the 3 passages are an ancient liturgists idea of what the world would look like if we all IMG_0716acted in ways that demonstrated our attempt to bring a sense of God’s holiness into our world. First, all of creation would feel a sense of awe and reverence for God. Second, the Jewish people would no longer struggle because they would receive honor and respect and, third, we’d all be acting righteously and we would no longer be witness to evil.

Now, putting the history lesson and the ancient language of kings aside for a moment, what we have here, right in the center of one of the central prayers of our liturgy, are words that remind us that we’ve really failed to do much of meaning if we dutifully sit in synagogue and mindlessly recite words, unless the time we spend in reflection and connection remind and inspire us that, when we get up, we make meaning by doing. That’s why I love some of the alternative, contemporary readings that our upcoming new machzorMishkan haNefesh, has placed across from the three traditionalu’v’chen passages emphasize the centrality of our actions if we really want to do honor to God’s name and bring holiness into our world.  My favorite of the passages is one that I intend to make the focus of this section of worship this year  in my congregation – it is an adaptation of a prayer first written by Rabbi Jack Reimer and published in New Prayers for the High Holy Days in 1971. It begins:

We cannot merely pray to You, O God
to banish war,
for You have filled the world with paths to peace
if only we would take them.
We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them…

And, following additional passages in a similar mode, it concludes:

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.

I know how easy it is to feel frustrated in the ritual of sitting and praying over the High Holy Days. I know how easy it is to look around a room and wonder how many of the people we see will leave the sanctuary after a couple of hours of reciting righteous words and exert themselves to live according to those words. I know how it feels because I have had those thoughts and feelings, sitting as a congregant in years past. But I have come to appreciate that with all things in life, I most often act and do with greater care and greater impact when I have first taken sufficient time to contemplate and consider all aspects of the task that lies before me – not only what needs to be done, but who needs to be included, what challenges face us, and how we can achieve something collaboratively.

So it is with the High Holy Days. There are a great many words on the pages that lie before us. But they are there not to numb us into mindless recitation, but to prod and cajole us into action. Action that, when we rededicate ourselves to our purpose each New Year, might be that much more energized, thoughtful, and effective because we took the reflective time that the High Holy Days give to us to do better.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.

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Books High Holy Days Machzor

Machzor Blog: Rediscovering the Sh’ma

When I pray, words wash over me.  The ideas they carry fill my brain.  The images they convey float through my mind.  The feelings they evoke dance in my heart.  But I don’t even notice the letters that comprise them — the shapes and the lines — because I’ve been trained to fuse them into words, and to treat the words only as springboards to ideas, images, and feelings.  I rarely pay attention to the letters themselves; they simply dissolve as my eyes pour over them.

What a jolt, then, to turn to Page 14a in the draft of the Yom Kippur Evening Service in Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor currently being piloted. That’s where I re-discovered the Sh’ma.  Just as in Mishkan T’filah, the lettering of the Sh’ma gets special treatment.  It’s the largest in the book and the font is distinct, at once elegant and archaic.  It unfurls like a parchment buried for millennia, unseen by human eyes until just now, by me.  It demands my attention.

shema

 

The font evokes the calligraphy of a caravan-leader’s map, with its curvaceous lines and serifs.  At the same time, it’s modern, clean, and strong.  The lines swoop to the left, creating the feeling of forward movement.  The black of the top line is darker than the second, mimicking the volumes with which we sing them.

The unique font of the Sh’ma helps me see how Hebrew letters are constructed from fundamental strokes.  It shows me the ‘yud’ in the ‘vav,’ and the ‘vav’ in the ‘tav’ and ‘chav sofit.’  ‘Hay’ contains a ‘reish,’ and there’s an ‘ayin’ in the ‘sin.’   

Some letters in this shema are pictograms for me.  The ‘lamed’ looks like a tulip, celebrating spring.  The ‘shin’ reminds me of a Viking vessel, crashing through the ocean.  In the ‘sin,’ my husband sees God’s “hand” holding the world.  The ‘reish’ is a cat, rresting on a mantel, purring contentedly.  The ‘mem’ is the same cat, stretching after her nap, meowing energetically.  The ‘mem sofit’ is the bearded face of an Assyrian trader.

Torah is written in black fire on white fire.  That image, from the Zohar, asks us to pay attention to the negative space created by a letter, not only its form.  Negative space is the space that surrounds and penetrates a subject.  It provides boundaries and contrast.  When we notice it, we come to understand that Torah is shaped by what’s missing as well as what’s there.  The negative space in this font is bulbous, bounded by curving lines.  It’s as if blocks of black have been burrowed into by critters.  The lacunae look like little cul-de-sacs, adding to the sense of travel.

No matter how it’s printed, the Sh’ma unifies all Jews, bringing us together like the tassels of a tallis.  When we recite it, divisions of time and place disappear.  We are all One.  This font, at once ancient and timeless, invites me to see with the eyes of the ancestors and to contemplate the hearts of our descendants.  It reminds me to broaden my scope.

I’m excited for my congregants to encounter the Sh’ma afresh in Mishkan HaNefesh.  As the Sh’ma is supposed to do, it calls us to pay attention.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro serves Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh or on piloting, please write to machzor@ccarnet.org

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High Holy Days Machzor Prayer

Machzor Blog: The Gates are Closing, and God’s Hand is Outstretched

The N’ilah service on late Yom Kippur afternoon is notable for its image of the Gates of Repentance closing their doors.  At this late and hungry hour, for the final time during the Day of Atonement, we are summoned to repentance.  The fact that many Sages argue we can actually delay our atonement to the end of the Sukkot holiday does not lessen the drama of the moment.

At the end of N’ilah, often as the sun has set, we will hear the final blast of the shofar.  We will also declare the most essential teaching of the entire season: God is Merciful!  We actually chant this seven times, just to make sure we get the point.  The Gates are closing, but the mercy of God never ends.

In our creative retrieval of oft-forgotten elements of traditional High Holy Day liturgy, the editorial team for the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, have seized on a central image that is suggested by a traditional N’ilah poem: God offers a hand to meet us halfway in our journey towards return.

In our draft version we feature the following version of the traditional prayer:

You hold our Your hand to those who do wrong;
Your right hand opens wise to receive those who return.
You teach us the true purpose of confession:
to turn our hands into instruments of good,
to cause no harm or oppression.
Receive us, as You promised, in the fullness of our heartfelt t’shuvah.

As we note in the draft version, the prayer focuses on God’s constant presence and compassion, even when we have fallen away from God’s expectations for us.  We are never too far from the ability to make peace with God.  The gates do close, the day will end, but the opportunity for return is never taken away from us.

In the first month of the year 5246  (September 10-October 9, 1485), B’nai Soncino (the Sons of Soncino) began the printing of the first Hebrew prayer book, Mahzor Minhag Roma (A Prayer Book of the Roman Rite), in the city of Soncino.  This book’s “You Hold Out Your Hand” is the only prayer printed in large type throughout. Could this have been done with Conversos (also known by the derogatory name, Marranos) in mind, those who had been forcibly converted but retained loyalty to their Jewish faith?  If so, the gesture is a poignant example of the everlasting mercy that God extends to us.

The message is not only reflective of God’s mercy.  It is also a call to us to practice the same mercy with those who have hurt us.  When possible, we hold out our hand to them.  With such a hand, the gates need never close.

The core editorial team of the upcoming machzor include Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Shelly Marder and Rabbi Leon Morris.  For information about Mishkan HaNefesh or about piloting, write to machzor@ccarnet.org. 

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and serves as the coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh.

This post originally appeared on RJ.org.

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High Holy Days Rabbis Reform Judaism

Holy Atheism!: The Role of Faith in Judaism

As Yom Kippur, our only holiday which focuses on our relationship with God, fades behind us, I am reminded of a 2007 article I read in Newsweek. Christopher Hitchens quoted these words Mother Teresa had spoken:

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”   “Such deep longing for God – and…repulsed-empty –no  faith- no  love- no  zeal.”

Mr. Hitchens points out that such doubt for Mother Teresa would indeed have caused crisis, not only for her, but for the catholics for whom she was such an inspiration.  “Mother Teresa doubted God?!”  In the height of heresy, Mr. Hitchens goes so far as to accuse her of (gasp) atheism!

I was puzzled reading Mr. Hitchens’ article.  Mother Teresa doubted God.  So what? As a child I feasted on stubborn Jonah, angry Moses, poor confused Saul, and the one from whom we inherited our name; the struggling Jacob/Israel. I expected to play Divine hide-and-seek with the God of my understanding.   And yet, Mother Theresa’s words reverberated deeply through my soul.

I’ve always seen faith as secondary to Judaism.  Great if you feel it, irrelevant if you don’t.  I can never get too excited about avowed Atheist Jews.  One doesn’t really need God in order to live a Jewish life.

To live a Jewish life, one need only follow mitzvot, doing so with a little compassion is even better.  It wasn’t Mother Teresa’s struggle or doubt which pulled at me.  It was her pain.  It was her pure human pain.

And this is the point of who we are as Jews.  Angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, silence…it is only natural that these words will relate to our search for the divine.  But for us, angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, and silence….these words should shock us, drive us into action when they relate to the feelings of human beings.

When he was hosted in the U.S. during WWII, my father was raised by Morris Bagno, one of the leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Uncle Morris’s entire life was dedicated to bringing dignity and justice to the laborer. Except for family s’machot (joyful events), he refused to enter a shul or synagogue, and, believing that religion drove a wedge between class unities, declined to send my father to cheder (Jewish day school).  He never even mentioned God.  But, this man’s influence on my father and on my family is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. Uncle Morris’s sense of social justice was the epitome of “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (Justice, justice, shall you pursue). He lived Torah so absolutely that he was, in most aspects of his life, the walking personification of Torat Chayim—the  the living, breathing Torah.

In fact Uncle Morris was such an atheist, he would not have understood why Mother Teresa was so worked up.  If Uncle Morris heard her lament, he would have heard the cry of human suffering – and the silence surrounding it.  This, not divine longing, but a human being hearing silence…this would have moved him.   Just as it should move us.  Around us at every moment, near and far, are those who hear only silence and emptiness, those who wish to cry out, but cannot speak.  As a Jew, I know this silence is not God’s; it is ours.

We have neighbors and friends struggling with physical and mental illness, parents who cannot feed their children, and politicians so warped and distracted by their own job security that they cannot hear the weeping all around them. We have masses of citizens gassed and killed by their government’s own hand. “The silence and the emptiness is so great.” Is it ever.

And because it is, we do not have the luxury of struggling long with faith.  As Jews, we are commanded not to believe, but to do. While most religions also command us to action, to response, to feeling and hearing, and then helping – we are commanded with no expectation of belief.  We are commanded with prophetic urgency not to tolerate anguish in this world.

Can we lift the emptiness and silence?  Read anew Mother Teresa’s words, hearing them as an echo of the suffering in this world…   “For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

So I ask you now…what are we going to do about it?

Rabbi Andrea Berlin is Director Congregational Networks – West District with the Union for Reform Judaism and is the co-director of NCRCR.

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High Holy Days Machzor Prayer Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: To Sin or Not to Sin

Machzor logo

The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR Machzor, have thought long and hard about the Hebrew word chet — often rendered as “sin” in English translations of the Machzor.  During the piloting process, some respondents have wondered if the editors’ intention is to eliminate from the Machzor the word ‘sin.’ We have chosen to take a more nuanced approach.

First, it is important to note that the word ‘sin’ does in fact appear multiple times in Mishkan HaNefesh. For example:

In the Erev Yom Kippur service, it appears on p.41b, several times on p.46b, (“it transforms one’s deliberate sins into merits”; “the years of sin are transformed…”; “propel the sinner toward God. Sin is not to be forgotten…” etc.); several times on p.48b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”), p.55a (“Forgive my sin, no matter how great”) and p.65b (“the day when God helps us and forgives our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur morning service, it appears on p.5 (“cleansed of their sins”), p.15 (“Be your sins like crimson…”), p.22 (“must specify the sin”). p.23 (“have tasted sin”), p.25 (“humans inevitably fail or sin”), p.156 [the Viddui – “You have fallen because of your sin”), p.157 (“I admit my sin”), p.160 (“claiming to be free of sin”), p.161 (“a willingness to recognize one’s own sins”; “the isolation of sin”; “the sins are listed alphabetically”; “Everyone confesses all the sins”); p.169 (“For the sin we  committed against You…”); and “p.170 (“we stand together…to confess our sins”).

In the Yom Kippur Mincha service, it appears on p.7 (“to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins”); p.16b (“You will hurl all our sins…”); p.36a (“the sinner”; “sin, remorse, retribution”; “desisting from sin”, etc.); p.36b (“sinfulness,” “the sin of another”); and p.51b (“We sin against You…”; “Who shall say…I have not sinned?”; “Our sins are an alphabet of woe”).

We haven’t yet completed the draft services for Avodah, Eleh Ezkerah and Neilah, but it is likely that the word “sin” will continue to appear as our work goes forward.

The more important question, from our perspective, is whether the word “sin” is always appropriate to describe the various misdeeds enumerated in the Machzor. For example, look at the Al Chet in Erev Yom Kippur (p.47a), and ask yourself if all (or any) of the acts listed there are, in fact, sins. They include “insincere promises,” “speaking foolishness,” “empty talk,” “acts committed through our routine conversations,” “insincere apologies,” and “thoughtlessness.” Or look at p.50a in the Yom Kippur Mincha service, where acts listed in the Al Chet include: “a selfish or petty spirit,” “stubbornness,” “cynicism,” “unworthy thoughts and ruminations,” “offensive speech,” “taking advantage of others,” “through eating and drinking, ” and “losing self-control.”

The dictionary defines “sin” as “deliberate disobedience of God’s will; transgression of a religious or moral law; something regarded as shameful, highly reprehensible or utterly wrong.”  We would characterize certain acts as sinful, such as murder, rape, child abuse, betrayal, deliberate cruelty, and, under some circumstances, adultery and theft, but others, it seems to us, are better described by other English words. We are fortunate, as English speakers, to have at our disposal a language far richer in vocabulary and semantic variation than the Hebrew of the prayer book.

Mishkan HaNefesh attempts to capture many shades of meaning in a nuanced way by using a large variety of words to translate the three primary Hebrew words for wrongdoing (chet, pesha, avon). We do not believe, as some have suggested, that we are minimizing the severity of wrongdoing or portraying all wrongdoing in a therapeutic light. Note that the words we use to capture these different shades of meaning include “evil,” “wickedness,” “depravity,” “crimes,” “brute power,” “malevolence,” “guilt,” “shame,” “failings,” “offense,” “brokenness,” “immorality,” “destructiveness,” “malice,” “wrongs,” “treachery,” “transgressions,” “mistakes,” “cruelty,” “missed the mark,” “stumbled,” “fallen,” “failure,” “harm,” “misdeeds,” “errors,” “defiant acts,” “inner darkness,” and, of course, “sin.”

In all our work on the Machzor, we remember the tremendous variety of people who will be in our congregations, and the misdeeds they will be remembering. Those engaged in viddui and teshuvah may include sexual compulsives who have betrayed their spouses thousands of times, wife beaters, serial rapists, soldiers who have engaged in torture, embezzlers, addicts and child abusers – but also 13 year olds who have been rude to their parents, teased another child on the playground, made snide remarks behind a teacher’s back or cheated on a test, as well as adults who have inflated their resumes, been inattentive to an elderly aunt, received multiple speeding tickets, pilfered office supplies, neglected a friend with cancer, been ill-tempered with their spouse, failed to get to the gym often enough or paid less than their fair share of temple dues. These are certainly not admirable acts, but we hope you would agree that to describe the full range of human misdeeds by the word “sin” simply empties the word of its meaning.

We hope, in fact, to restore some sense of power to the simple English word “wrong.”  There is a difference between right and wrong, and the Machzor wants us to remember that. So do we.

Rabbi Janet Marder is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.  Rabbi Shelly Marder is the Rabbi at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, CA.   They are both editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.  

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General CCAR High Holy Days Rabbis

The Files of Our Lives: An Rabbinic Ephiphany in Retirement

Since my retirement three months ago, I’ve spent a large chunk of time in an industrial-strength cleaning frenzy, culling files (paper and digital), writings, books, newspaper clippings, pictures. What began as a slightly (?) obsessive attempt to cope with clutter and to relegate boxes to the attic (and at least some, but never enough, unnecessary items to the trash) has transformed itself into an unintentional journey into a personal and professional past, simultaneously and paradoxically well-remembered and half-forgotten.

Instead of writing sermons for the High Holidays, I have been experiencing a perpetual Elul, acknowledging past accomplishments, mistakes, choices, regrets, joys, sorrows over a period of years, beginning with childhood letters from camp (yes, my mother never discarded enough memorabilia, either!) extending through college and rabbinical school, trips to Israel, marriage and children, various stages of my professional life. I have saved too much, and yet it is hard to regret coming across a letter from an old friend now-deceased or a child’s scorecard from a baseball game or a particularly gracious thank-you note. The task is bittersweet; were I to analyze and sort every item, there would be no time to live my current life; were I to re-read every note and letter, I could not continue to create in the present; were I to save every document, I would in effect be unable to savor what is truly special and unique and—dare I hope?—eternal (or at least of some value to the next generation).

booksAnd because my personal and professional life overlaps with the acceptance of the first class to include women at Yale (class of 1973) and the first classes of women in the rabbinate (I was ordained in 1980), I discover items of more general historic value (thank you, American Jewish Archives, for your collection of women rabbis’ memorabilia, to which I will happily contribute). These provide a matrix in which to place my individual life, a unique context to which I can feel and see that I made a contribution. Being an ima (mother) and writing the book IMA ON THE BIMA intersect in these dusty files to form a pattern of which I am both grateful and proud.

The sifting and sorting go slowly. I will not be done by Yom Kippur, nor even by Shemini Azeret, the date to which the rabbis extended the possibility of repentance. I am more selective these days about what I save, and of course, as everyone constantly reminds me, one can retrieve everything now on one’s computer (Bahya ibn Pakuda must have contemplated this moment back in the 11th century, when he wrote, “days are scrolls; write on them only what you want remembered”).

Who really needs two huge file folders on “God” or one on “Elian Gonzalez” or another on Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’?  But I am of an age when a loved one’s handwriting on stationery evokes presence in ways that e-mail can never match.  When the rustle of real and yellowing newsprint (now augmented by my hearing aids) jog my memory about events long past but forever documented.

Today, thinking about Syria (particularly in light of my son having just returned to his home in Tel Aviv), I found my file on “Syrian Jews”, with articles and information from the 1970’s to 1990’s. What I found teaches me much about what I cared about, and what our community cared about. Just recently, I re-discovered files about the 20th anniversary gathering (1983) of the “March on Washington”,  at which my husband and I were carrying our then-three-month-old daughter under a “New Jewish Agenda” banner, and stories about the controversy over whether and which Jewish groups would participate (I had not remembered all the fuss). This week, that daughter, now 30, began working at the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.

And so it goes. Our lives do indeed weave a pattern, and our tradition values memory. We can’t remain forever locked in Elul, as tempting as that may be. We must discard, repent, forgive, and even sometimes forget in order to move forward.

We are indeed flowers that fade, but it is lovely in the twilight of summer to review the seeds of a future yet to be experienced. What began as a housekeeping task became an Elul epiphany and the promise of new content for still-empty files for a New Year.

Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy is the Rabbi Emerita of Temple Sinai, in Washington, DC, and is the author of the groundbreaking children’s book, Ima on the Bima.

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General CCAR High Holy Days Machzor Rabbis Reform Judaism

Reading Nitzavim on Yom Kippur

“You stand this day, all of you, before your God, the Holy One of Blessing: you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer … ” (Deuteronomy 29)

The opening of Nitzavim grabs us by our lapels and looks each of us directly in the eye. All of you, each of you, whether you stand at the top or at the bottom of the food chain, whether you command the attention and admiration of many or whether your labor goes almost unnoticed, you stand this day, poised to enter into a relationship with God, a relationship that demands your full attention.

The opening has the urgency of an invitation that’s almost impossible to refuse. Every man, child, woman, outsider and insider is included in this round up. The portion continues as God addresses the people: “I make this covenant … not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day … and with those who are not with us here this day.”

Not only is everyone present included, but those who will come after, children and grandchildren, descendants and heirs are also included. This is a covenant of mythic proportions, a relationship between God and God’s people that transcends time.

Thirty years ago, Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l, and the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis decided that this challenge to the community should not be read solely on Shabbat Nitzavim. These editors of The Gates of Repentance, the High Holiday prayerbook used in Reform congregations, introduced this portion as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning.  As the new CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefeshis being developed, the editors are maintaining Nitzavim as an option for the Yom Kippur torah reading.

This innovation insured that many Jews would hear: “You stand this day, all of you … ” and as an invitation to the link between this eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people and the message of teshuvah/return that is at the center of Yom Kippur. The Gates of Repentance concludes the Torah reading with these words from our portion: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you, this day; I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live.”

Entering into covenant is a choice that opens the way to other choices. We are making our way through the month of Elul, the month that leads into the High Holidays and offers rich spiritual opportunities to begin to review, return and repair. Teshuvah is our process of considering how we’ve stumbled and then making amends, asking others to forgive us, and forgiving ourselves.

Every day during Elul, we blow the shofar. Like the opening words of Nitzavim, the shofar grabs us and shakes us awake to the possibilities of living our lives with greater attention, greater intention, and greater joy. The shofar calls us to choose life and blessing, through small acts of kindness, and through discovering the power of patience for ourselves and others.

This portion reminds us that we are in this together, whatever our roles in life. It reminds us that we are connected not only to those with whom we share time and place, but that our circles of responsibility are beyond our own sight.

Nitzavim reminds us that our choices today have consequences for our descendants, and indeed, for many we will never meet. In this New Year, may each of us choose life, blessing and joy.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. 

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General CCAR High Holy Days Rabbis Reform Judaism

Lost in the Pews: An Ode to the Non-Pulpit Rabbi

Three years ago, I left my congregation to join the URJ.  I proudly professed to my spouse that I did not believe I would miss much, and certainly not the stress of the holidays.  I would rather spend them as a Jew, as a wife, as a mother.

I lied.  As Walnut Creek temperatures neared scorching and the moon began to wax toward crescent and newness, as Facebook posts decried the arduous task of crafting sermons in time for Rosh Hashanah, I slowly became aware of sadness trellising up my psyche.

At first I thought I felt left out.  So, I offered up my editing services to friends preparing their sermons.  How fun it was connecting with old classmates and colleagues across the country!  But, the sadness kept growing.

Perhaps, I missed being part of the amazing Sinai team (Oakland, CA).  So I wrote to each of my former clergy partners, remising about the thrill of standing in the Paramount Theatre’s green room, laughing to the point of tears as we celebrated the joy in each other’s lives and supported the pain.  We all connected over this, but, the sadness kept growing.

Could I miss the adulation I received when a sermon stood out?  I would miss the praise, but not enough to justify the strength of the sadness.

So why was I sad?  Finally, one Shabbat morning a couple of weeks before the holidays, I realized what or who I missed.  I missed God.  Or more specifically, I missed God’s awareness of me.  I subconsciously believed that because I was working toward a uniquely divine purpose, because I was striving to inspire God’s people toward spiritual height, because I was sacrificing my family and my own holiday experience, God had a particular awareness of and gratitude toward me.  And even more surprising; I was afraid.  I was afraid God would not find me that year.  I would be lost as a Jew in the Pew, not where God knew to look for me.

Consciously, I knew how silly this was.  But, subconsciously, I approached the High Holiday’s with a different type of nora from the awe and fear I had felt since I began working the High Holidays at age 18.  And it was with this feeling of trepidation I found a seat in the pews of a synagogue which never knew me in the role of rabbi, and prepared to seek holiness at a service over which I had no control.

I want to write about my lightning bolt moment when I discovered a new soulfulness and connection with God.  This did not happen.  But the next day as we sat with friends and community by our local reservoir laughing and playing, watching our children giggle ruthlessly, talking about the depth and meaning of what our lives could be… I felt the rise of a new joy, a new connection to the divine energy of Yamim Noraim, a new importance to God for just simply and only being me.

RabbiBerlinColor

This feeling and relationship has evolved over the last 3 years.  I do still miss the connection I felt to the rest of you, and especially my immediate team, as we prepared to create a sacred experience together.  But, I don’t miss God.  God knows where I am. Right where I belong.

 

Rabbi Andrea Berlin is Director Congregational Networks – West District with the Union for Reform Judaism and is the co-director of NCRCR.

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High Holy Days Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Ought My Future Hold? Reflections on the Approach of Rosh HaShanah

Think ought.
Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be.
Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be.
Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be.
Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected.  Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future.
Ought challenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities, and to responsibilities to realize yesterday/s dream.
Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.
Ought demands not only a knowledge of history, but of exciting expectation.  Is is a being, ought is a becoming
Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.
Ought is the freedom of spirit.
Ought we not Ought?                                            (Rabbi Harold Schulweis)

What is this summer like? Hot, hot, hot! But how have we used these dog days of summer as the days and weeks now rush to Labor Day and this year towards Rosh HaShanah but hours later. Have we made the time to catch our breath and found some time for rest, relaxation and reflection?  Are we fully aware of what the calendar tells us and even who we really are, what we ought to be doing and ought to be becoming?

We become aware of the nearness of these moments of transition as our calendars tell us figuratively to turn the page to August (only a month left of summer)  … or in Jewish terms to turn the page to Elul, (the Hebrew month with 30 days to get ready for Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)  August is a time to pack in as much of summer as possible. Elul is the time to get yourself ready for the sacred time of the new year heralded by the sound of the shofar for a time of introspection and self-examination.

The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, earned widespread fame for what today we’d call “personal self-help”.  The story is told that Rabbi Kagan was once in a distant village.  In search of a ride home, he met a wagon driver and asked the driver, who did not know his identity, where he was going.  When he learned that the driver was going to his village, he asked if he might go along.  The Hafetz Hayyim asked the driver why he was going there, and he responded excitedly, “I am going to meet the Hafetz Hayyim to prepare for the High Holy Days.”  Though still not revealing his identity to the driver, he responded, “Oh, I know the Hafetz Hayyim, and believe me, he’s not so wonderful.”  With that the driver punched the Hafetz Hayyim in the face and threw him from the wagon.

When he recovered and reflected on the incident, the Hafetz Hayyim said the driver taught him an important lesson, “Never speak badly about anyone, not even yourself!”  From this we learn that the Days of Awe, our High Holy Days and the idea of repentance call upon us to reflect and deal honorably with others, including ourselves.  To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to realize that life is not fiction. God’s inscribing us is about our cheshbon hanefesh, the personal accounting of what is and what ought to be, about how we have been living in the year soon ending … and about how we ought to live in the new year.

It is no easy thing to be human –  so much to tempt us and so difficult to be strong. Our basic humanity hinges upon our being able to discipline ourselves to do the right things, to make the right commitments, to embrace the right people, to do good, to work for tikkun olam, repairing our lives and our world. Elul, and August this year, amidst summer’s heat, is about asking yourself questions:  Have I healed or have I hurt?  Have I helped or have I hindered?  Have I been a model for those who look to me, or have I fallen short of my potential?  As one of my hero’s and teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  We cannot allow wrongs to pass unnoticed; we cannot all retreat to the convenience of being busy:  living as a Jew mandates that we be responsible, face the challenges, address problems and make a difference!

RabbiGelfandFor us and our families, and for our world,
Amidst August/Elul & summer’s warmth, may what is be filled with blessings
And may what ought the future to hold  in 5774 be filled
with sweetness, human kindness and peace.

Rabbi David Gelfand is rabbi of Temple Israel of the City of New York.