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The World as It Is: Passover 5780

The World as It Is: [1]: Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.

The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.

In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment. 

Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”

While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.

Passover asks us to do exactly that.

Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage [2]. Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt [3]. After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.

When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.

The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.

Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.

We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.

Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.

I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.

Amen.


[1] I am grateful to Alan Goodis, whose song, Shekacha lo ba-olamo, inspired this reflection.
[2] Exodus 12:39
[3] The Passover Haggadah


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.

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Holiday Passover Pesach Prayer

A Passover Like No Other

Last year we ended our Seders with “Next year in Jerusalem,” imagining a new year filled with hopes and dreams realized, parting ways with visions of a whole new kind of gathering.

Now, here we are, a whole new gathering for sure, but one none of us could have imagined. Instead of the sounds of bride and groom singing in the streets of Jerusalem, we are reminded of Lamentations: Lonely are the streets.

We will gather electronically and spiritually, even if not physically. We will return to the beginnings of our peoplehood to nurture hopes for brighter and healthier tomorrows.

Passover during a pandemic places parents and children apart and together, connected and distant all at once.

Still, look around, look at the screen and see the smiles, look outside and see the season’s new growth, sense the hope so central to Passover and to us as Jews.

Still, take a breath, take in the beauty of the Seder table, no matter the particulars. See the people coming together to retell a tale, finding our own voices in our shared inheritance.

Still, listen to the voices, some near and some far, some with us physically, some on screen, some in spirit. Hear the voices urging us on, helping us to see beyond today to a brighter tomorrow.

Pesach presents an intersection in time for all of us. Our old ways and our new, our enslavements and our freedom, our history and our future.

We are reminded of the intersections of our people—with Egypt, Rome, and so many more. Each presented both possibility and potential problems.

This Passover, as we join in new ways, remind us of our perch at history’s intersections. Will we go back or move forward? Will we survey the land and learn from all that is arrayed before us, or charge ahead into an unknown?

Tonight, the voices of our past join with us. Listen close and you will hear the whispers: We Jews believe in hope. We Jews believe in possibility. We Jews pursue freedom for all. This year we are enslaved. Next year, we pray, may we be free!


Rabbi Daniel Fellman is the rabbi of Temple Concord in Syracuse, New York. 

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Chanukah Holiday

The Full Story of Chanukah Has Much to Say to Us Today

In the fall of 1976, a young Jew stood at the crossroads. Recently confirmed, just back from a summer in Israel, a veteran of our URJ camps, and now a religious school intern — for the first time honestly confronting the story he, and countless generations of Jews, had learned about Chanukah. The one where a religious zealot named Judah Maccabee, with the help of a ragtag bunch of pious Jews, defeated the army of the evil King Antiochus. And when they rededicated the Temple, the story of the miraculous oil that burned for eight days.

That kid was me, and it seemed like we had learned that Chanukah was a celebration of militant Jewish zealotry. In 1976, the only contemporary Jew who fit that description was Meir Kahane of the JDL, a Jew I wanted nothing to do with. So why should I celebrate this holiday if he was the modern embodiment of Judah Maccabee? And, worse, if that is what Judaism values, why should I want to be Jewish?

Fortunately, I found myself at a teachers’ workshop, taught by Rabbi Manny Gold, where, for the first time, I learned of the Books of the Maccabees and the Apocrypha, and an entirely different tradition for why we celebrate Chanukah — one that made more sense to me and might just have saved me for Judaism. So, when I got to rabbinic school, I was open to harmonizing the two versions under the tutelage of Rabbi Martin Cohen, and found an even deeper story.

A story that starts with Jews divided over the best way to approach our Jewishness — either exclusively according to our traditions, or as part of seeking to participate in the larger (Greek) society. A division of the community in and around Jerusalem severe enough to cause King Antiochus to declare martial law in Judea to calm things down. Martial law, in this case, meant suspending the “constitution” (i.e., Torah) and sending in the troops to enforce the ban, garrisoning them in the most secure location in Jerusalem — the Temple complex.

This becomes the background against which Judah enters the story, not as a religious zealot, but as a compromise leader that the previously feuding Jewish factions all could rally behind to fight the common enemy. Among Judah’s first actions as leader was to allow his forces to take up arms on Shabbat — hardly the act of a religious zealot, but smart strategy, which eventually also allowed them to attack the enemy on Shabbat, to gain the element of surprise.

Using these tactics, Judah was able to hold the Syrian-Greek army at bay for three years, by which time there was enough going on elsewhere in Antiochus’s kingdom to convince him to pull his troops from Jerusalem. In the Maccabees version of the story, this led to cleaning the Temple from the Greek soldiers’ use, and an eight-day rededicatory celebration based either on Sukkot, or Solomon’s dedication festival after building the original Temple.

If things ended here, we would have a story that speaks to the tension between traditionalism and assimilation, and, as we will see, teaches us important values still today. But the story doesn’t end there, and over the next 700 years takes a series of twists and turns — all of which end up reinforcing these same values. The feuding picks up and is eventually ended by Judah’s last brother Simon, who inaugurates the Hasmonean Dynasty, which loses its control when the group that will become the Pharisees, and then the rabbis removes its support, leading to the Roman takeover that eventually leads to the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Once in power, the rabbis try to make Chanukah go away, but cannot, and so add the oil story to recast it within parameters that they can live with. (Yes, that summary was rushed, for space reasons, but these events are each well worth studying and understanding on their own!).

For the next 1000 years, the oil story becomes the only story Jews learn within our isolated communities — so even though it is added late with deliberate purpose, it is important to see that without it, there is no guarantee that the holiday survives on its own into the modern world, given the rabbis’ earlier efforts to make it disappear. It is only when Judaism emerges from isolation into the world of the Enlightenment and America that we Jews finally have access to both versions of the history.

So, at roughly the same time we American Jews were elevating the significance of Chanukah, mostly in response to the commercialization of Christmas around us, we also were given the texts, the opportunity, and the responsibility to change our understanding of the Chanukah story, bringing both versions together. Doing so replaces the miracle story with one that, with multiple examples over time, emphasizes for us the importance of rededicating ourselves to being serious Jews, participating more fully in the life of the Jewish community and its institutions, adapting our Jewish practice to allow us to navigate successfully between the polar pulls of strict traditionalism and full assimilation, and live lives of positive Jewish value.

And THAT is a story that has much to teach us about our Jewish life today.

Rabbi Steve Weisman is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD and a long-time teacher of the Chanukah story to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

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High Holy Days Holiday

Going Beyond the Shanah Tovah Email

I miss Rosh Hashanah cards.  They used to begin arriving in my mail box about three weeks before Rosh Hashanah.  Sometimes I knew I was one name on a list of thousands.  Other cards were a message from a great aunt or a member of my community who wanted to tell me something personal.  I always felt a bit ashamed of this enjoyment because I have never sent cards at the New Year.  To have one more thing to do, one more list to compile, seemed way beyond my practical and emotional capacity at this time of year.   But I looked forward to receiving them, and then hanging them as the major form of decoration in the Sukkah.

Now I receive New Year’s greetings in the form of emails.  I deeply appreciate that emails are significantly better for the very world whose creation we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah.  Still, receiving a greeting in an email has a different flavor.   It lacks the distinctive signature, the feel and texture of the paper, the option to place it where it can be seen as a small connection to the broader circle of Jews ushering in a New Year. An email is transient and ephemeral, gone when the delete button is pushed.  In an in-box that is too often overflowing, somehow the greeting becomes just one more thing to click on, one more item to get through.

I know that my feeling is not about cards vs. email.  It’s about connection.  While there is shared commiseration on Facebook about sermons not yet written and the challenge of finding just the right story, for those who are leading services there is an element of loneliness in the work we do this time of year.  The decision about what our particular community needs to hear from the pulpit rests with each individual rabbi.  Are there consequences in my particular location and community if I say something that may be controversial or unpopular?   Sitting in front of a blinking cursor, an open machzor is a solitary task.

We hold personal burdens as well, burdens that are not so easy to talk about with each other.  Is my rabbinic leadership being evaluated based on my Kol Nidrei sermon or the perceived ‘quality’ of the worship?  Is my authenticity lessened when I preach about spiritual preparation and can’t seem to make the time for my own Elul introspection?   What do I do with the guilt I carry about the impact this time of year has on my family?

We may face many of the same questions, but we do so in our own silos, by ourselves.  This need not be the case.  We know from you that you want to reach out to each other, to help and support, in a way that goes beyond the superficial email.  As a rabbinic community, we can live up to that intention.  Amidst the stress of the season, it’s a blessing to hear the voice of another rabbi – the rabbi you talked with at convention but haven’t spoken to since, the new colleague who came to town who you don’t really know yet, the classmate you haven’t seen in a year, a friend.  The nourishment that occurs of those moments of relationship is a way to prepare for the sacred days that lie ahead.  You can’t hang a phone call in a sukkah, but the connection will stay with you long after the sukkah has come down.

Rabbi Betsy Torop is the Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

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Books Holiday Inclusion

Sukkot Inclusion and Children’s Books

After the power drill is put away and all of the pointy parts of the s’chach that is just right for poking your brothers’ eyes out is finally on top of our little booth, Sukkot transforms into one of my favorite holidays to celebrate with my children. In the Moroccan Sephardic tradition, we leave a chair out for Elijah. This special chair is often laden with books for ushpizin. As the younger of my three year old twins still occasionally chews on the furniture, I prefer to leave more child-friendly books within reach (rather than, say, my favorite binding of Psalms I enjoy periodically weeping over). But which books to pile onto our special chair this year?

To me, the value of inclusion is deeply related to the concept of hachnasat orchim (the welcoming of guests). After all, hachnasat orchim, treating each other with empathy and kindness, is the first step into true inclusion. We particularly celebrate these values at Sukkot, as we welcome both real and spiritual guests into the sukkah. In honor of a holiday in which we greet and happily receive others into our dwellings, here are eight non-traditional children’s stories about welcoming others into our hearts. I included several about narwhals; narwhals are so hot right now.

You could read one a night with the ushpizin who come to your sukkah!

Wendell the Narwhal How do we invite in though who want to be included, but don’t know how and feel overwhelmed?

Not Quite Narwhal How many communities do you belong to? How does belonging to a variety of communities enrich our identity?

Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea Sometimes it is hard to make friends with someone from a different background; but these friendships can be some of the most important. (This is set up in semi-graphic novel style and is the beginning of a series about Narwhal and Jelly’s adventures together.)

Something Else Have you ever felt excluded? What does that feel like? How can you use that experience to prevent someone else from feeling the same way?

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed  Authority figures setting the standard to create a culture of inclusion

Can I Play Too? Learning how to find a way to play together might take some creativity, but means that everyone can have fun!

Ada Twist, Scientist Sometimes even the people who we love most (and who love us the most) aren’t quite sure how to acknowledge who we are, celebrate our differences, and include us. Inside a family, how can we figure this out?

Winnie the Pooh Written in a time before many of the diagnoses we now use today, Winnie the Pooh’s friend circle as an example of inclusion of individuals with a variety of dispositions and procivities. No matter which story you choose, note how this community of toys consistently and naturally includes one another, without ever asking anyone to “just get over it.”

Do you have any other books you love to use when talking about inclusion? How do you practice including your Sukkot guests?

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.

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.

Categories
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.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

A Rosh HaShanah Reflection on Birth and Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are responsible for executing God’s master plan.

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

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

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

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

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

L’Shana Tova U’Metukah!

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

 

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

[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 29:1

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

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

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

[6] Pesikta Rabbati 40:5

[7] Edi Nelson

 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Everything Is Waiting For You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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