Categories
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. 

Categories
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.

Categories
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.   

 

 

Categories
Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh

Wandering in the Desert with Mishkan HaNefesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Categories
Holiday Reform Judaism spirituality Torah

When Torah Becomes “Mine”

That look in their eyes when, for the first time in their lives, Torah is placed in their arms, is precious.

In that moment, they realize that they are cradling the Jewish story. They recognize that what was once at arm’s length, is now quite literally in their arms. They become Moses or Miriam, or Michael or Mandy, standing again at Mt. Sinai, receiving Judaism’s most sacred text.

Each year on Simchat Torah, it happens.

After we unroll the entire Torah scroll around the sanctuary.

After we read the end of Deuteronomy.

After we review the five books of our people, highlighting the most poignant stories and Torah’s most abiding Jewish values.

After we return to the beginning again to read the opening words of Genesis.

Then, the celebration of Torah leads to Kabbalat Torah, the receiving of the gift of Torah: Those priceless moments when someone holds Torah from the first time and finds herself right there in shalshelet hakabbalah, the unbroken chain of transmission of Torah.

Sometimes it is an older woman whose synagogue back then did not allow girls to become bat mitzvah. Or an Israeli secularist who once saw Torah as the province of only an entrenched Orthodox political establishment. Or a college student coming back to Judaism after dropping out too early. Or poignantly a Holocaust survivor who missed out on receiving Torah before the world darkened around him. Or a Jew by choice choosing to embrace a new people. Or a ger toshav, a non-Jew who has dedicated her life to raising their children in the Jewish faith. Or the multicultural Jew whose skin color once made her feel unwelcome in the synagogue. Or the older gay man who for the longest time thought he was written out of the story.

For each of them, the progression – so delicious – is similar. Always, it reaffirms the power and poignancy of our most sacred Jewish text.

First comes the worry, a split second of terror: Am I holding it right? Will I be the one to drop it? What happens if I drop it?

Then comes a reassuring sense of calm: I’ve got this. I can hold this. I am doing this.

Then the amazement: I have Torah in my arms. I am holding Torah. Me.

Then the dancing: Look at me. Torah and me. Together. As one. I am part of its story. And it’s story is part of me.

Round and round the Torah goes, in and out of the circle of dancers. In and out of the arms of the community. In and out of the lives of its adherents.

Some might come back for Torah study. Some might disappear until next Simchat Torah. But all leave refreshed and renewed, having once again stood at Sinai and received the Torah.

Some love the unrolling of Torah. Others value the return to the beginning. But me? I love those moments when the public becomes the personal and for yet another person Torah becomes “mine.”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
Holiday

The Lulav and Jewish Unity

We hold the four species of the lulav together, as we wave them in every direction, symbolizing that all Jews – indeed, all humanity – must be united if God is properly to be praised. Nevertheless, I’ve never resonated to the specifics of the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, detailing the four types of Jews which the species are said to represent: the etrog, with taste and smell, representing Jews who study Torah and perform mitzvot; the palm branch, with taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not practice what they’ve learned; the myrtle, with good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who perform mitzvot but are not learned in Torah; and the willow, with neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both learning and Jewish observance.

Let me suggest an alternative.

Perhaps the etrog represents those who participate actively in Jewish worship, study, and performance of mitzvot as well as the stewardship of the Jewish community. The palm, then, might stand for those who practice Judaism actively but aren’t engaged in the business of the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The myrtle would symbolize Jews who give their time to Jewish communal governance but don’t often worship, study, or observe the mitzvot.

Dan Hotchkiss, author of Governance and Ministry, writes about a woman who has participated in building perhaps more Habitat for Humanity homes than any other volunteer. However, she has never attended a committee meeting. She wants to do the good work; governance doesn’t interest her. The converse is true of others, though they may engage in at least token volunteer work in Habitat’s service. The mistake we make, Hotchkiss teaches, is that we often ask people to be on committees, then frustrate them with unclear expectations: People who are eager to do the work end up being asked to make decisions, and vice versa. The palm branch and myrtle remind us that different Jews prefer engagement in different aspects of our community, and that we should embrace both.

But what of the willow, that symbol with neither taste nor smell? Which Jews does it represent? Each congregation I have served is blessed, and I do mean “blessed,” with more than a few “willows,” members who are neither eager to practice Judaism actively nor be involved in governance. Active congregants sometimes speak of these folks derisively, emphasizing that they attend “twice a year,” if ever. I, on the other hand, see these “willows” differently. Yes, I’m eager to find ways to engage everyone in Jewish life. Still, I am grateful for the “willows” who haven’t totally disengaged from the community, who stand up and let themselves be counted as Jews – and, in the case of the congregations I have served, continue to pay their annual financial commitments faithfully, even as they rarely “take advantage” of the “privileges of membership.”

On this Sukkot, let us rejoice in every Jew in our midst, appreciating even the “willows,” as we embrace members of the Jewish community of every proclivity. May we all pull together, appreciating one another, rejoicing that we do band together in diverse ways to serve the Holy One of Blessing.

Rabbi Barry Block serves serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.