Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Walking the Elul Journey: My T’shuvah Trail Revolves around Relationship

As I walk this journey this month of Elul, my t’shuvah trail focuses on relationship:

I remember the rabbinic thoughts of the medieval Spanish Jewish sage, Isaac Abravanel. He believed that in preparing our neshamah for the specialness of the High Holidays, we need to sift through our emotional baggage, our life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”  

I remember the thoughts of the 19th Century Musar teacher, the Cheshvan HaNefesh, who focuses on the middot of seder (order): “Set all your actions and possessions in order. Assure that everything is in its place and time, and your thoughts are free to engage with what is before you.” He wants us to clear out distractions from the work of the moment. This connective tissue is a journey of self-discovery, reflection and reframing.

The most important gift that I give to my home hospice dementia patients and their families is the gift of presence.  Like our foreparents in the Wilderness of Sinai, I accompany them on their journey through their wilderness. It requires me to be open to him or her as my teacher. His or her teaching goes beyond words and into nonverbal psychospiritual conversation. The journey may arise as moments of agitation or mumbled words or be a hand held or a simple smile. In this and other ways that we accompany this individual, we reflect, reframe, and validate the individual and the holy space around him or her. All of us learn to value the essence of being. the life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”

By the time I was his student, one man, who taught me how, was 89.  He was a sweet, menschy, scholarly man.  He never let me forget that his Talmud teachers had been my great, great grandfather and my great grandfather. In the early 20th Century, they sent the two Chaims, him and his best friend, my grandfather, to start an American branch of the family Musar yeshiva. At my Bar Mitzvah, my weekly study sessions with him, and at my rabbinic orals, he kidded me about answering his questions with some of their words rather than my own. He retired only when his battle with Dementia took over.

Each morning and early evening he went to his own synagogue. But on Friday nights he came to my first congregation. His wife hoped that being in shul would slow the progression of the disease. At the end of each service, she waited outside for him. But this man could not find his way to the door. One of his other students brought him to her in his own synagogue, and I brought him out to her on Friday nights.

For the first three years of my rabbinate, this wonderful man continued to be my teacher. Dementia peels away the protective mask layers of personality we put up, revealing the inner spark. His smile warmed each person’s heart.

There is a wise teaching that one learns the most from watching how our teachers tie their shoelaces:

My teacher taught each of us patience. He taught us how to deal with things out of our control with joy. He taught us the sincerity of prayer, and how God answers us. But his greatest life lesson to us was what his disease left of his true priorities-

What makes us angry and frustrated?

How do we behave when stripped of our masks?

How do we set our practical life priorities?  

He was 98 when he passed. His spark piece remains close to my heart and my own piece of light. This is one journey to Elul…the T’shuvah trail to relationship.

Rabbi Charles P. Rabinowitz, BCC is a member of the CCAR Rapid Response Team as a Rabbinic Bereavement and Pastoral Counselor.  Rabbi Rabinowitz also works for Caring Hospice of New York where he provides home hospice and palliative care services to patients and families.

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High Holy Days Holiday

Bnei Belial—The Children of No Avail

Hannah, heroine of our Haftarah for Rosh HaShanah, has continuously challenged communal assumptions.  For me, her plea not to be considered a child of no avail resonates with the outcry of recent weeks from 800,000 children who likewise want their human value recognized in the face of an Attorney General and President who only deem them wothy of deportation.  And so I offer this intention, this Kavvanah, as a potential frame for our reading of the Haftarah this High Holy Day season.

 

 

 

בני בליעל—Bnei Belial—The Children of no Avail

a poem for the Haftarah of Rosh HaShanah

there she stands
silently
praying for a better future
any future
bitter spirit notwithstanding
crying praying crying
keeping to herself
the taunts and trampled hopes
the privileged provoke

there he stands
positioned authority
abusing the power he was born into
watching the signs
misreading as he spoke
unknowingly asking
how long?
how long will your worthless lot
intrude upon my sacred land

so it has been for handmaids
immemorial from time
misread by priests and potentates and presidents
mistaking women of valor
for the children of no avail

men stand on the steps
of Shiloh the Statehouse of Congress
and pay no attention
to the prayer on a hopeful mother’s lips
mistaking piety for insobriety
drunkenness for dreaming

how long?
how long will your worthless lot plague us with your petty problems
they rebuke the crying women
who want but a better future,
or only just a future

Abraham stood atop Moriah
risked his son’s very life for the very life of his son
the paradox of a dream denied a dream deferred
becoming dream fulfilled

we break the law
out of ultimate respect for the law

Hannah stood on her steps
prayed for her child’s very life for the life of a son
who might listen where others’ ears turn deaf
a human being
who would look at prayerful lips
and seek to heal and not to harm
to bless and not to curse
the paradox of a dreamer denied a dreamer deferred
becoming dream fulfilled

how long?
how long will our worthless lot
remain indifferent to all who cry to all who whisper wanting
but a better future,
how long will we remain silent
our lips pursed not in prayer but in resigned indifference
as dreams are deferred, denied, deported
how long will we remain children of no avail

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the immediate past Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and also Vice-Chair of the policy-setting body of the Union for Reform Judaism, its Commission on Social Action, and currently serves on the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Categories
Books Holiday Passover Pesach

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family

Passover Seders in my family were always large affairs.  Persons who had no place to go for Seder (“Welcome the stranger…”) and persons of other faiths joined family members in celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years ago.  Whether conducted by my grandfather (mostly in Hebrew), my parents (much more in English) or my father-in-law (a Reform Rabbi who used a healthy mix of Hebrew and English), we joyously celebrated together.

Several years ago, I began to attend a series of programs focusing on interfaith issues for Jewish professionals and lay leaders conducted by the Outreach Training Institute (now Reform Jewish Outreach Boston).  After attending panel discussions, workshops and seminars over several years I decided to write a Passover Haggadah for the contemporary Jewish family – which may include members who were born Jewish, those who have chosen to be Jewish, and family members of other faiths.  Looking across the spectrum of knowledge, religious practice, and faith – from the observant to those for whom Judaism and Jewish Festivals and traditions were new – my purpose was to create a text for a joyful and inspirational family Seder.

The result of my efforts is Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press (CCAR Press).  It is illustrated with magnificent original art work by the contemporary Jewish artist Mark Podwal.  Sharing the Journey is an inclusive Haggadah that addresses the needs of every family member.  For family members and guests who are attending their first Seder or do not know what questions to ask about the observance of Passover, Sharing the Journey explains the meaning of the symbols and rituals of Passover in language that is clear and understandable.  For family members whose participation in a Seder is an important religious occasion, Sharing the Journey provides an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of God’s teachings through the story of the Exodus and to renew and strengthen commitment to the pursuit of freedom, tolerance, and justice.  For everyone, Sharing the Journey provides the framework for a joyful and meaningful Passover celebration – enabling all family members to truly experience the power of the Seder and the story of the Exodus: A shared Jewish experience that has historical and contemporary significance to persons of all faiths.

This year, the CCAR Press is offering a special 40% discount to “friends of the author” and I am able to extend the discount/offer to all ravblog readers and their families.  If you would like to take advantage of this offer, visit the CCAR Press website.  Add the book(s) to your cart and use promo code PASSOVER40 at checkout to receive your 40% discount.  Please pass along the discount information to members of my “extended family,” that is, your family and friends.

Early Best Wishes from me and the entire Yoffie Family for an inclusive, joyous, and inspirational Passover Seder.

Alan S. Yoffie is a former president of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, MA and an active member of its Jewish community.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Worcester Jewish Community Center and The Jewish Healthcare Center and as a member of the Ritual Committee of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.   In addition to Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family, Mr.Yoffie wrote a Seder Leader’s Guide, also available from the CCAR Press, which includes two CDs (instrumental and vocal) that provide a “musical companion” for the Seder.