Categories
Books CCAR Press Holiday News Shavuot

Author Interview: Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, Editor of Inscribed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon of Congregation Emanu El in Houston shares insights on the process of editing Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments.

What inspired the creation of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments?

I contributed an essay to the 2017 collection Seven Days, Many Voices, which was a compilation of articles focusing on each of the first seven days of creation, as described in Genesis 1. That project sparked my interest in editing a similar collection of essays, from a diverse lineup of authors, offering different complementary perspectives on the Ten Commandments.

What was the most challenging part of editing this book?

From its earliest proposal, one of the most important aspects of the book for me was that it include contributions from a diverse list of authors. I wanted the chapters to come from writers within the Reform Movement and beyond it, those who work as Jewish professionals and those who don’t. It was a challenge to secure contributions from such a diverse group of authors while still producing a finished book that would be comfortably at home in Reform settings.

What is something new that you personally learned while working on Inscribed? Did any of your own perspectives change?

I learned so much! The best part of my role in editing this book was that it gave me the ability to learn from amazing teachers with extraordinary expertise and insight in areas I had not explored deeply before—philosophy, military ethics, journalism, and so much more. For me, an educational imperative is at the center of Jewish life, and it was a joyful experience to spend so much time with so many marvelous writers and scholars.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

As a literary bloc, the Ten Commandments have endured and remained stubbornly relevant for thousands of years. I don’t think it’s impious to suggest that this is not because these Commandments are especially inspiring; instead, it’s because hundreds of generations have worked energetically to build relevance into the Ten Commandments. The beautiful and provocative writing of Inscribed’s contributing authors shows how this process of meaning-making continues to grow and unfold even in our own day.

If you would like the opportunity to learn more, six authors from Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments have created short video teachings based on their chapters in the book. These videos and the free downloadable study guide can be used for Shavuot study with your community!


Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, from CCAR Press.

Categories
Holiday Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

Hallel in a Minor Key

We face another year of pandemic Passover. Most congregations are still shuttered, and Pesach worship will be remote and online. Seders will be small or socially distanced, a far cry from our usual crowded, joyous gatherings. Nevertheless, we will still sing Hallel, our liturgy of praises, as part of the Haggadah.

Hallel (praise), Psalms 113 to 118, is sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals (including intermediate days), as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), on all eight days of Chanukah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Hallel is also recited on the eve of Pesach during the seder.1 

On these sacred days of communal rejoicing, we are asked to set aside our sorrows to praise God. But how do we sing God’s praises during a time of catastrophe or pandemic? How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss?

Depending on personal practice—what one chooses to include in the seder, how often one goes to services, whether an individual participates in two seder nights, and how many days are observed—Hallel can be recited as many as ten times during the festival period.

This raised a hard question for me as a liturgist. How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? Could I find a liturgical response? Personally, I know how difficult this can be. My wife passed away the Shabbat before Passover twelve years ago, and the shivah ended abruptly after only two days.

I began by rereading all my prayers written about COVID and came across a line in a piece called “These Vows: A COVID Kol Nidre.” A line from it reads: “How I wish to sing in the key of Lamentations.” From there, the idea for “Hallel in a Minor Key” was born.

As I started writing, it became important to me to create a liturgy that was robust enough to stand as a full alternative Hallel, reflecting praise in the midst of heartbreak and sorrow. To me, this meant two things. First, I wanted to make sure that each psalm in the classic Hallel was represented by at least one Hebrew line in this liturgy. Second, I wanted to include the sections for waving the lulav in this liturgy, to ensure that it could be used on Sukkot by those with that practice.

Still, something was missing—music specific to this liturgy. Song is a vital part of the public recitation of Hallel, and it serves to create a personal connection with prayer. So, I adapted the opening poem into lyrics—carrying the same name as the entire liturgy—and began searching for someone to compose the music. I listened to a lot of Jewish music online, starting with my small circle of musician friends. When I heard Sue Radner Horowitz’s Pitchu Li, my search for a musician was over.

“Hallel in a Minor Key” begins in minor, but mid-chorus, with words of hope, it switches to a major key. In discussing the music, we both felt it was important to follow the tradition of ending even the most difficult texts with notes of hopefulness. Indeed, the shift reflects our prayer that sorrows can be the doorway to greater love, peace, and—eventually—to growth, healing, and joy.

We also talked about drawing on Eichah trope—used to chant Lamentations on Tishah B’Av, as well as the haftarah on that day—as a musical influence. This idea follows the tradition of bringing Eichah trope into other texts as a sort of musical punctuation. Many will recall its use in M’gillat Esther on Purim. Eichah trope is also traditionally used during the chanting of Deuteronomy 1:12, as well as in selected lines from the associated haftarah for Parashat D’varim, Isaiah 1:1–27. Sue wove hints of “the trope of Lamentations” into the chorus melody of “Hallel in a Minor Key.”

A PDF of the liturgy, including sheet music, can be downloaded here. You can hear a recording of the music here. Sue’s rendition of Pitchu Li, written prior to this liturgy, is also included as part of “Hallel in a Minor Key.” That music can be found on her album Eleven Doors Open.

This is our gift to the Jewish world for all the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We offer it with a blessing. We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would add meaning to your worship. If you use the liturgy in your worship, we’d love to hear from you. You may reach Alden at asolovy545@gmail.com and Sue at srrhorowitz@gmail.com.

Portions of “Hallel in a Minor Key” were first presented during a Ritualwell online event, “Refuah Shleimah: A Healing Ritual Marking a Year of Pandemic.” Portions were also shared in a workshop session at the 2021 CCAR Convention, held online.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


1 Rabbi Richard Sarason PhD, Divrei Mishkan T’Filah: Delving into the Siddur (CCAR Press, 2018), 190.

Categories
Books Holiday Passover

The Poetry of Passover

Photograph: Leslie Jean-Bart

Mishkan HaSeder, the new Haggadah from CCAR Press coedited by Rabbi Hara Person and poet Jessica Greenbaum, contains a wealth of poetry in conversation with the seder text. In this preface to the book, Greenbaum explains how poems were selected for inclusion. 

Metaphor’s regenerative powers of imagery, expansiveness, and personal connection have singularly sustained the imagination of the Jewish people and enabled us to arrive at this moment. Chaos—our first metaphor, and one we seem in relation to on a daily basis—became separated into harmonious parts to compose our first home, the Garden. We call Shabbat a bride, and during the Yamim Noraim, both the Great Book of Life and the Gates of Heaven are open. Metaphor has carried the Psalms through the ages so that goodness and mercy pursue us the rest of our days—they are always just now on our heels. The image of God, especially, is wholly reliant on metaphor, in the metamorphosing images of clouds, smoke, wind. Our close reading of the parshah continues, over centuries, to mine metaphor and uncover flashes of new truths like mica beneath rocks. Tradition teaches that Talmud is not finished being written until everyone has read it—because our individual sensibilities share in the creation of revelation.

By joining with our imaginations, metaphors write us each into the text; and of all the holidays, Passover’s dynamism wins the metaphor count. We are instructed to relive our ancestors’ enslavement, escape, and deliverance as though it were our own journey—while sitting around a table. How will each of us envision the mitzrayim, the “narrow space” from which we will make our way? And how will each envision a promised land? What signs show us the need to change, and what wonders nurture our faith that we can? The seder plate announces itself as a constellation of symbols and metaphors, and we connect the dots as we do the individual stars, for how it makes up a firmament of directions.

I first felt the organic relationship between poetry and Jewish text when I studied The Torah: A Women’s Commentary with Rabbi Hara Person, one of its editors, long ago. Seeing the text through its interaction with the poems was like being able to see the wind because of the fluttering of leaves. This revelation has led me in my own study and teaching since, and I can’t overstate my good fortune and pleasure from working with Hara here. In choosing poems that might encourage an authentic inhabitance of the seder’s progressions, Hara and I looked for ones that reflected, or countered, the text so that each participant might, then and there, relate candle-lighting, drinking, washing, breaking, telling—and questioning—to their own journey. We hope the poems hold a “bit of Torah,” an opening out of that moment of Passover. For their discerning suggestions toward that Jewish value, I thank Central Synagogue’s adult engagement class, who studied with me from an earlier draft of the Haggadah, test drove the poems at their own seders, and returned with (as usual!) salient and revelatory comments. But positive or negative, our personal responses to poems are ours to have, and huzzah for all responses, because passion reflects our profound sense of aliveness—and defines the authentic to each of us. The seder table allows us to be authentic together.

With the opportunity of co-editing this Haggadah, I thank all the poets, regard-less of their background or ways of identifying, for how they offer Jewish values to me, always: values of Havdalah, as a way to make time and experience distinct; tikkun olam as a response to brokenness and injustice; and turning it and turning it to see new coherence in the very world being considered. If you think of a poem you would prefer to the text, tuck it inside for next year! We invite your imagination, your history, your aspirations to the seder table through these stanzas—which live, as does the Haggadah, by being read and going through our own breath.


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker who has published three collections of poetry. With Rabbi Hara Person, she is the coeditor of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, now available from CCAR Press.



Categories
Holiday Rituals

Purim When You’re Not in the Purim Mood

This Thursday evening, the Jewish world begins celebrating the raucous holiday of Purim, when silliness prevails over seriousness and levity wins the day. But some years, Purim feels harder than other years, and levity just doesn’t feel accessible on demand. This year, many of us are thinking back mournfully to Purim last March—our very last uninhibited communal gathering before we went into lockdown and life as we knew it changed forever. Since that gathering, Covid-19, has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in our world, leaving loved ones to grieve in solitude—without hugs and touch, familiar rituals, or company. Lives have been disrupted, insulted by the harsh effects of the Covid-19 economy and its prolonged, painful fallout. This Purim may feel like a hard one to throw yourself into.

And yet Purim’s coming, whatever our mood. It’s always a curious proposition when a Jewish holiday comes along on which a strong emotion is commanded: whether the command is to “rejoice on your festival,” revel on Purim, or be tragically sad on Tishah B’Av. We know what the mood in the room is supposed to be, and that sanctioned mood confronts us, as individuals, with a choice—whether to participate with the community when this is what the community is meant to feel, or whether to just sit this one out. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, our tradition almost always lands on the side of participation. 

This traditional Jewish preference for participation in the prescribed emotion of a special day expresses itself in a host of ways. For instance, when we’re in shivah—the first week of mourning after a death, and Shabbat rolls around, which is meant to be a day of joy and contentment, we are not to display the outward signs of grief that we do the rest of that difficult week. During the first year of mourning for a parent, we are not to join in the dancing and singing at a wedding, lest we appear happy in the face of our loss, but we are still encouraged to attend the wedding ceremony and even take on a role, like serving the meal afterwards. Poskim hold that our suffering may only be increased if we suffer the additional loss of communal participation, especially in an event we were once looking forward to sharing with people that we love.

Jewish people are always shocked when they hear that a festival like Pesach or Sukkot cancels the formal mourning period—the seven days of shivah or the thirty days of shloshim after a death. How can this be? Our grief doesn’t stop, but we stop expressing it? For the sake of participating in a festival whose joy we’re really not in the frame of mind to absorb? My soul used to writhe against the thought of this practice. Until one year, I was at a Jewish convention, the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, and on the second morning, I lost a beloved uncle unexpectedly; he died after what should have been a routine surgery and recovery. I didn’t know what to do with my grief—should I just go home? Was it wrong to stay? Did my family need me? Would I even get anything out of being at the festival? (And yes, when 5,000 Jews show up for a convention that only meets every two years, travel there, and look forward for months to learning and singing and joining in stirring worship together, yes, that is our contemporary Jewish chag—our pilgrimage festival of holy time together.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up all I’d invested to be there, or all that I’d hoped it would fill me with spiritually. The truth in my heart was that I wanted to stay, because this wasn’t just some party—it was, rather, exactly what my soul needed to cope and begin to heal. My purposes for being there hadn’t changed with my uncle’s death. In fact, they’d amplified: I longed more for connection, more for communal opportunities to pray, more for a community to say Kaddish alongside other mourners, and a shoulder to lean on. More, for moments of levity to pull me out of my own head and take me to another place, if only for fleeting moments of relief.

The Biennial—festive though it was—was exactly where I needed to be, and my religion gave me permission to be there. I didn’t ignore my grief. My shivah wasn’t cancelled in that sense. In what was probably one of the first online memorial services, I “gathered” with my broken relatives on my computer screen, while in my hotel room colleagues from rabbinical school and past congregations where I’d interned sang and chanted psalms. My roommate and I planned the ceremony together, which was in itself a healing act and a learning experience, as she faced my raw grief so ably and compassionately. And in the days that followed, I let my mind be carried off to wherever the speakers took me—my rabbinic teachers, the keynote address by President Obama, the musicians that made my heart soar and my eyes sore from crying.

Somehow, the tradition knew that’s where I needed to be despite all, and because of all, that life had thrown at me that week.

So how should we approach the unrelenting expectation of festivity on Purim, if we happen to find ourselves in a struggling state of mind? If you are someone for whom levity feels possible, delight in it fully. Laugh heartily. But if you’re not in such a place, after a difficult year, then maybe Purim offers a different but healing path, and blessings you have yet to discover. Perhaps sitting it out will only increase loss and exacerbate pain, because something will be happening that you’re meant to be a part of. Where there’s a place carved out just for you. 

You don’t have to feel happy every minute in that place. A curious rule on Purim is that we should not send mishlo-ach manot—Purim gifts—to someone in mourning, because we shouldn’t force joy upon them while their dead lie before them—and yet the mourner is not exempt from the Purim mitzvah of sending gifts to others. We’re also taught that while a mourner on Purim needn’t act silly and rejoice, they should still partake of the Purim feast. Our forebears knew how much a communal meal could nourish body and soul.

Our sages found ways that we could grow spiritually, even in the darkest times, by participating in the life of the community even when we’re not in the mood.  Our participation is perhaps a prayer for finding levity again after a hard year—and in those days, for the Jewish people, they were all hard years. The wisdom they gleaned and passed down to us is our guide in times of confusion. May their memory bless our days.


Rabbi Nicole Roberts is Senior Rabbi of North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.

Categories
Holiday News Social Justice

Reflections on Purim in 2021: COVID-19 and Modern-Day Genocide

This year, the lessons of Purim feel truer than ever.

This pandemic will not prevent us from celebrating Purim (socially distanced, of course). But Purim needs to be more than celebrated; it needs to be observed. Exchanging disease prevention masks for Purim masks during online celebrations is not enough. To observe Purim is to protest ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We know—viscerally, painfully—that religious freedom is not a lesson from ancient stories but an ongoing quest even today. While many of us are fighting antisemitism in our home countries, we are also in solidarity with the Rohingya people of Burma, who have been persecuted for decades. A predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Burma (Myanmar), the persecution escalated to a full-blown genocide in 2017, and in the wake of the military coup just a few weeks ago, their dreams of one day returning to their homeland grows fainter. The military in Burma overthrew the democratically elected government a few weeks ago in a coup—the same military who, for years, has been carrying out the genocide against the Rohingya people and oppressing other ethnic minorities.

Right now in Burma, people from all ethnic backgrounds are joining together in civil disobedience in response to the coup—and their methods look familiar. People are taking to the streets banging pots and pans. The videos of these peaceful, noisy protests are inspiring: ordinary people are making noise. Listening to a m’gillah reading on Purim, we rejoice in shaking our groggers when we hear Haman’s name—making noise to express our solidarity with each other, and to find joy even in the midst of recalling painful stories. People all over Burma are making noise now—maybe not with groggers, but we are connected to them just the same.

With holidays like Purim to bolster us and our people’s recent history to ground us, Jews today know deeply the importance of standing up with and for people who face genocide, who face state-sanctioned persecution because of their religion. The suffering, mass murder, and forced displacement of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community speaks deeply to us and compels us to act. We know we need to make noise. We need to act.

But we can be grateful to live in a world where action is possible. That’s why the CCAR is now a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network: a network of thirty Jewish organizations from across the U.S. all taking action against the ongoing genocide.

This Purim, we are not only thinking about the Rohingya genocide as we read from the m’gillah once again and shake our groggers. I’m also holding how much the world has changed since last Purim, and what lessons we can learn from Purim in a pandemic.

Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel struggled with the problematic nature of Purim. How is it that a people who has suffered so greatly can make a holiday out of a state-sponsored genocide plot and the fighting that followed? Why is it that a people that values learning, wisdom, and fine distinctions created a custom calling on us to get so giddy that we cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”?

What does it say about our love of justice that not only the villain, but his ten sons too are killed once the king changes sides in the conflict? It doesn’t sound all that Jewish, does it? We were blessed to have Wiesel for as long as we did, but it would have been fascinating to read the insights he had to offer on the meaning of Purim during a pandemic. We now inhabit a reality where wearing a mask is not reserved for holidays and parties but a discipline of daily life. Like the Persians of the M’gillah, the American public has been fed misinformation about minorities while as recently as January antisemites and racists had ready access to the inner courts of power when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.

What would Wiesel, who spent Purim of 1945 in Buchenwald, struggling to stay alive for liberation a few weeks later, have to say about Purim 2021? We will never know the answer. What we do know is that Wiesel devoted his life’s work to bearing witness to genocide in the hope that future ones could be prevented. A modern-day prophet, he preached a message about the perils of apathy, complicity, and inaction. He told us to make noise when people are suffering because of their ethnicity, their religion. Like the prophets of old, his message was and remains all too often unheeded, and millions of people have paid the price.

Even in the midst of this joyful holiday, we mourn those lost to genocide. And we mourn those we have lost to the pandemic. We must bear witness to their deaths by making the world a more just and compassionate place. We must analyze the systemic failures that kept us from preventing more deaths and scrutinize the missed opportunities that would have saved more lives. So, too, we must be mindful that COVID-19 has not meant a hiatus from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya face an uphill battle, as do the Uyghurs in China, and the Yazidis in Iraq, who remain in peril while powerful nations procrastinate instead of using their power.   

To follow Esther’s example requires us to use our privilege and our access to advocate for others rather than just worrying about ourselves. Thank you to CCAR and the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network for giving American Jews a voice against modern-day genocide, so we can continue Wiesel’s work of bearing witness. Today, call your senator and ask them to move forward legislation that would support the Rohingya people, and all ethnic minorities in Burma. When you shake your groggers at Haman’s name this Purim, picture the Burmese people shaking their groggers against modern-day Hamans, and feel the warmth of continued solidarity even across generations and continents. Wishing you a Purim of happiness, holiness and hope.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Holiday Rituals spirituality

Always in God’s Sukkah

You shelter me in Your sukkah at a not-good time…
in Your solid presence I am uplifted.

— Psalm 27:5

Your sukkah, God, I am sure, does not look like mine.

You need no beams or boards, no tubes or trestles,

no Velcro or duct tape or twine to hold the parts together.

You create with words all the structures and shelters, 

all the connections and interconnections,

the gravity and the glue to keep 

our bodies breathing, our planet spinning, our universe expanding.

Of course, the decorations of Your design are stunning in their beauty.

Constellations, maple trees and quaking aspens,

even the matrix of molecules that fuel a deadly virus, 

each unique and awe inspiring, like You.

We too are Your decorations—works of beauty in Your sukkah—

shining light on a dark day and into the night, 

finding words of praise to sing or whisper to each other and to You, 

feeling alone and afraid, and then brave and patient, and then not.

Ever hopeful.

With my feet on the ground I feel you, solid as concrete, like a rock beneath me; 

with my fingers outstretched I sense You in the air around me;

with my head raised high, above the chaos that swirls all around me, 

without my own sukkah, I celebrate in Yours, 

and with abundant gratitude for the harvest that is my life, I offer blessing:

Blessed are You Adonai, Ruach of the Universe, for the obligation to sit in Your sukkah.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press. 

From Mishkan T’filah for Youth Visual T’filah

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Open the Gates: A Reflection during Elul 5781

The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShanah, is a time of increased soul-searching and God-searching. Traditionally, it is also a time when we draw closer to those we love, those we have hurt, and those we want to celebrate the New Year with. As this year, 2020, brings with it distance instead of closeness, and yearning instead of fulfillment, we tap into prayer to connect with our loved ones, ourselvesand God. Here, Rabbi Nicole Roberts shares a poem about preparing spiritually for the High Holy Days during this unprecedented time.

אדון הרחמים
בשנה הבאה
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער
שערי חיבוקים ושערי פנים מלאים
שערי ביתינו ושערי חברינו
שערי סבא וסבתא ושערי משפחה רחוקה
פתח לנו שער כי אנחנו
רוצים לראות את פניך גם בתפילה
וגם בחיוך של אדם בלי מסכה

Adon haRachamim—dear God of mercy
In the coming year,
P’tach lanu sha’ar, b’et n’ilat sha’ar—
Open the gates for us, open them wide:
The gates to hugs and unmasked faces,
The gates to our homes and tea with a friend,
The gates to visits with grandparents,
And our family overseas.
Open the gates for us, open them wide,
That we may once again see Your face, not only in prayer,
But in the full-faced smiles of those we hold dear.



Rabbi Nicole Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in New South Wales, Australia.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.

  1. Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.

  2. Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.

  3. Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?

  4. Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?

  5. Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.

It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.


Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.

Categories
Healing Holiday Passover Pesach spirituality

When Is Enough, Enough Already?

With Pesach just concluded, I am still contemplating part of the seder. In my family, like many others, we add to the singing of Dayeinu, the wonderful custom of smiting one another with scallion. “Dai, dai yeinu, dai, dai yeinu…,” we sing joyfully. “It would have been enough. Enough, enough, enough. To bring us out of Egypt, to give us Shabbat, to give us Torah—enough, enough.

But when examining the stages of Dayeinu, I wonder, would each of these moments really have been enough? To have been brought out of Egypt, but left at the Red Sea? To have been brought into the desert, but with no manna? To have been brought to Sinai, but with no Torah? Would that really have been enough?

And so, too, now we wonder. In each of our lives, we have moments when it is simply not “enough.” To have been given chemo for our cancer, but given —lo dai.  To have cutting-edge treatment for my depression, without feeling better—lo dai. To work towards a vaccine, without lowering the rate of transmission of COVID-19—lo dai.  

And, when, at the time of Elijah’s cup, we remember and recite the tradition of “pour out Your wrath,” when we note that “in every generation, tyrants have risen up to oppress us,” we might think—yes, God, enough. Perhaps more than enough. In this time of coronavirus, we may think, “Yes, oh God, enough already.” Surely we could learn to feel God’s presence, God’s redemption in our lives without yet another plague or persecution.  

I led two Zoom seders this year. Ordinarily I lead one, and my family is invited out to the other. Not only was I exhausted afterwards, but it was hard to tell how they went. As opposed to “in-person” sedarim, online ones are murky. Were other people singing along? Was there joy in being together? Did we lift up our voices together in Hallel, and were we silly as a group in the songs at the end? Or were people just tired, bored, waiting for the end?

If I felt worn out after two nights of leading family and friends, I can only imagine both the over-functioning of my pulpit and other working colleagues, and their need for positive feedback, to know that their efforts are hitting the mark often enough. That they are dai.  

And so it occurs to me that perhaps this is what Dayeinu means to us this year. Not that we say to God, “What You have done for us is enough,” but rather, “Dayei-nu” “we are dai, we are enough.” If our seder leadership brought our families to Sinai (without a major Torah revelation), well, then, we are dai! We are good enough, and we did enough. If our remote visits to the sick and with mourners comforts them, but not as good as a hug would have, אנחנו די, we are enough! And if we are leading remote services on Shabbat, then, remember—we, too, need a Shabbat, a rest—because we have needs, because we are enough, not God.

In this extraordinary time of uncertainty and fear, of rabbis rising to do remarkable work, let our Pesach hymn carry us forth. God, give us enough to work with, when we affirm that we, ourselves, are enough. And that is the blessing of gratitude and limits, of thanksgiving and self-acceptance, wrapped into a song of joy and scallions.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a