It was Friday morning, the day after Yom Kippur. Even though we were exclusively worshiping on Zoom throughout the High Holy Days, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, and a strong connection to the Temple Sholom family. All of our services were held using Visual T’filah. Without machzorim in hand, we were able to truly pray as a community with our electronic devices. I was very tired after all the preparation leading up to the Holy Days and after leading so many different types of services, but Shabbat comes every week, ready or not. I could have reused a previous Visual T’filah Shabbat service I had put together, but I had a strong desire to create a new service. And then it dawned on me that crafting a Visual T’filah service is a form of praying for me, in and of itself.
I start with a set of Mishkan T’filah Visual T’filah slides from CCAR Press, which have all the prayers from the prayer book. I focus on the service as a whole and explore the feeling I want the day’s prayers to convey. What is going on in the world around us? What inspiration can I glean from the Torah portion? Should the service be upbeat and celebratory, or more contemplative and calming? What do we, as a community, need this particular Shabbat?
Next, I focus on one prayer at a time. What is this particular prayer saying to me today? I look through my collection of photographs and art to find the image that best portrays that feeling. I also search through my collection of music to find just the right melody to enhance the feeling of the prayer as it speaks to me. As I work on each prayer slide, finding the best way to arrange the text around the picture, the words of the prayer permeate my soul. I am praying as I create each slide.
For example, the Mi Chamochah has many different melodies. Many of them are joyous. Others are more contemplative. The celebratory melodies reflect the excitement of the Israelites finally making it to the other shore and rejoicing in their newfound freedom. I see the more contemplative melodies reflecting amazement and awe. “Wow. Did we really make it? Are we really safe now?” I choose a particular melody based on the emotion the congregation might most benefit from that Shabbat.
Then I attach a visual. I often use visuals containing water for Mi Chamochah. It doesn’t have to be the Red Sea; it can be a river or an ocean. The visual helps me—and the congregation—feel as if we were there with the Israelites on their journey. As I put each prayer slide together, playing the music to make sure it goes with the visual, I find myself praying the Mi Chamochah as I compose the slides. I feel completely immersed in the message of the prayer and experience connection to God through those words.
Some of the images I use are photos. Others are graphics. Sometimes I choose more abstract images to allow for each person’s imagination to explore the words of the reading or prayer.
Shabbat is about creation. In the Kiddush we read, Zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit —“A reminder of the work of Creation.” Made in the image of God, each Shabbat I create a prayer world, for myself, and for the congregation.
Update: In the time since this post was published, the Supreme Court has ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade. The CCAR is committed to continuing its advocacy for abortion access and reproductive rights. Read the CCAR’s statement on the Supreme Court decision.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:
When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)
The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.
The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4
Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5 The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.
The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.
These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.
The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …
The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.
3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.
4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.
Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixlerserves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.
Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Can you speak to my child about God?” The concern showed on her face. She had no idea how to explain who, what, why, and how God is.
She is not alone. God is the other three-letter word that makes some parents cringe when they are asked about it. Actually, it sometimes feels like explaining sex is easier and more rehearsed in our minds than getting involved in a conversation about God. The truth is, many people feel uncomfortable having this conversation.
Why is it difficult to talk about God? Is God like a mathematical equation we could solve if only we could get the right definition? There are many ways to describe God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded on the principle that all the disparate gods are really One God. There is no god of the seas, or the sky, or even the underworld. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah found one God uniting the universe and united by the universe. Jewish tradition teaches that their tent was open on all four sides in order to receive wayfarers from any direction.1 The image of the tent serves another purpose as well: it signifies that there are countless paths to come closer to this One God. Within our own tradition, many passageways lead us to an experience of the Divine—an experience that so many of us are longing for.
The title of this book, Because My Soul Longs for You, comes from an old Sabbath hymn, formally called Shir HaKavod (“Song of Glory”) and also known by its first two words, Anim Z’mirot. It is ascribed to Judah HeChasid of Regensburg (d. 1217). The entire song features a number of original verses and some language from the Bible. Our title is taken from the first stanza, אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג (Anim z’mirot v’shirim e-erog, ki eilecha nafshi ta-arog, I seek pleasing melodies and thirst for songs because my soul longs for You), itself a reference to Psalm 42:2. The tradition is to open the Torah ark before reciting this prayer, a way of suggesting that God’s spirit is summoned when it is sung.
It is human nature to long for God’s presence in our lives. However, many of us do not know what to do with this longing. The subtitle of this book is Integrating Theology into Our Lives. There are many and diverse Jewish paths to experience and think about God, and we as Reform Jews have the privilege of having more than one path open to us. With a little bit of study and a lot of living, our soul’s longing can be addressed. All we need is intention, some humility, and the honesty that open up before us a warm and redolent world.
Shir HaKavod includes these words:
And so I tell your glory, yet never have seen you; Imagine you, find names for you, yet never have known you
By hand of those who prophesied and throngs who worshipped you, You gave imagination to the glory beyond view.2
Within these pages, we hope you will discover the One in the different forms described and experienced in the many and diverse paths by talented writers, rabbis, cantors, scholars, and seekers who allow and welcome God into their lives. In their wisdom, we hope you are inspired to allow and welcome God into your own life, too, while also drawing God out—in the path that is yours.
The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence.
We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.
Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.
Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.
Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.
We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.
These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.
With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.
There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.
This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.
What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.
What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.
Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change? I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.
Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices? For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.
How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27? The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.
Why was the app created?
We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.
What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?
The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.
Who helped with the app’s creation?
Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.
How can people best use the app?
I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.
Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.
And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.
Let me give you two examples:
Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:
Eloheinu Is our God
Echad Is One.
Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.
I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.
I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.
I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.
Mishkan HaSeder, the new Haggadah from CCAR Press coedited by Rabbi Hara Person and poet Jessica Greenbaum, contains a wealth of poetry in conversation with the seder text. In this preface to the book, Greenbaum explains how poems were selected for inclusion.
Metaphor’s regenerative powers of imagery, expansiveness, and personal connection have singularly sustained the imagination of the Jewish people and enabled us to arrive at this moment. Chaos—our first metaphor, and one we seem in relation to on a daily basis—became separated into harmonious parts to compose our first home, the Garden. We call Shabbat a bride, and during the Yamim Noraim, both the Great Book of Life and the Gates of Heaven are open. Metaphor has carried the Psalms through the ages so that goodness and mercy pursue us the rest of our days—they are always just now on our heels. The image of God, especially, is wholly reliant on metaphor, in the metamorphosing images of clouds, smoke, wind. Our close reading of the parshah continues, over centuries, to mine metaphor and uncover flashes of new truths like mica beneath rocks. Tradition teaches that Talmud is not finished being written until everyone has read it—because our individual sensibilities share in the creation of revelation.
By joining with our imaginations, metaphors write us each into the text; and of all the holidays, Passover’s dynamism wins the metaphor count. We are instructed to relive our ancestors’ enslavement, escape, and deliverance as though it were our own journey—while sitting around a table. How will each of us envision the mitzrayim, the “narrow space” from which we will make our way? And how will each envision a promised land? What signs show us the need to change, and what wonders nurture our faith that we can? The seder plate announces itself as a constellation of symbols and metaphors, and we connect the dots as we do the individual stars, for how it makes up a firmament of directions.
I first felt the organic relationship between poetry and Jewish text when I studied The Torah: A Women’s Commentary with Rabbi Hara Person, one of its editors, long ago. Seeing the text through its interaction with the poems was like being able to see the wind because of the fluttering of leaves. This revelation has led me in my own study and teaching since, and I can’t overstate my good fortune and pleasure from working with Hara here. In choosing poems that might encourage an authentic inhabitance of the seder’s progressions, Hara and I looked for ones that reflected, or countered, the text so that each participant might, then and there, relate candle-lighting, drinking, washing, breaking, telling—and questioning—to their own journey. We hope the poems hold a “bit of Torah,” an opening out of that moment of Passover. For their discerning suggestions toward that Jewish value, I thank Central Synagogue’s adult engagement class, who studied with me from an earlier draft of the Haggadah, test drove the poems at their own seders, and returned with (as usual!) salient and revelatory comments. But positive or negative, our personal responses to poems are ours to have, and huzzah for all responses, because passion reflects our profound sense of aliveness—and defines the authentic to each of us. The seder table allows us to be authentic together.
With the opportunity of co-editing this Haggadah, I thank all the poets, regard-less of their background or ways of identifying, for how they offer Jewish values to me, always: values of Havdalah, as a way to make time and experience distinct; tikkun olam as a response to brokenness and injustice; and turning it and turning it to see new coherence in the very world being considered. If you think of a poem you would prefer to the text, tuck it inside for next year! We invite your imagination, your history, your aspirations to the seder table through these stanzas—which live, as does the Haggadah, by being read and going through our own breath.
Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker who has published three collections of poetry. With Rabbi Hara Person, she is the coeditor of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, now available from CCAR Press.
Read the same psalm every day for fifty days? The same one we read last year? Using the same book and the same practice? Yes. Yes. Yes and yes. Get a new notebook or open a new computer file. Sharpen your pencils or find your new favorite pen. But yes, return to the psalm, return to the book, return to the practice (this is after all the psalm for the season of return, t’shuvah).
Why? Because the world has changed. Because the ways we see or hear, experience and reflect on the same words have changed. We know it to be true from our experience, reading the same Torah portions in their annual cycle. We see a character or situation from Genesis in a new way because of something or someone we encountered or considered. We understand the ethical demands of Leviticus differently because we are sitting in a different chair, the light is brighter or dimmer, we’ve lost or gained: a friend, a few pounds, some perspective. And so this year, as we make our way in a world infected with COVID-19, we hear, read, experience Psalm 27 again.
Who has not felt fear that the deadly virus will approach us, ravage our bodies? (27:2) Who has not waged a battle against the enemy, scrubbing, wiping, wiping again, hands and handles, with disinfecting bleach? (27:3) How many of us, confined to our homes, small or large, alone or with others, have not imagined being in a better place, a Palace? (27:4) Who has sought out a hiding place, a fort or cave of pillows and blankets, constructed by children or adults, a shelter for body and soul? (27:5) How can we sing, knowing it spreads disease with vengeance, needing the balm of music to tamp down the fear, still the heart, calm the breath, fill the soul? (27:6) Will a face be recognized behind this mask? (27:8) Who have we abandoned? (27:10) On these chaotic days that merge one into the other, when voices of leadership sow discord, who has not noticed that facts are seen as fiction and fiction becomes fact? (27:12) And what about gratitude for those who have followed the right path, stayed home or gone to work, first responders, caregivers, grocery store workers, truck drivers? (27:11) When did we last cry out the Psalmist’s prayer? Protect me, protect my loved ones, my coworkers, the most vulnerable, all of us.(27:7) Are we ready to affirm the ancient words? Fill us with hope, keep us patient as we wait, for we have strong hearts and we have courage, we have each other, and we have You and Your light; we can wait, hopefully. (27:14)
The psalm is the same but the world is not, and none of us is unchanged. If you are new to the practice, welcome. If you are returning, welcome back. The Invitation (page xv) will help you get focused and organized (you have until August 21). This year, in response to readers and rabbis, there is a Navigation Chart to help match the Reflections for Focus to specific days of the season, as well as a Study Guide with textual passages and activities to accompany each verse. We have also provided a musical recording of Kavei El Adonai composed by Cantor Richard Cohn. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is available from CCAR Press, and I welcome you to join with my congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, weekly to engage in the practice online. We will be meeting Wednesdays at 9:00 a.m. CT starting August 19; details will be available at www.tedallas.org
It is not an
exaggeration to characterize the Revelation at Sinai as the prime foundational
experience in the life of the Jewish people. At Sinai, Jewish law, peoplehood,
theology, and ethics were all conceived simultaneously amid thunder, smoke, and
the blare of the shofar. With the first syllable reverberating from the
mountaintop, Israel assumed a new relationship with their God, who would—for
all time—be their unique, transcendent Teacher.
But for the Jewish people, the mechanics of revelation do not unfold merely in a vertical dimension between the Commander and the commanded; Torah is also revealed in the horizontal dimension, through the democratic, communal bonds between study partners. From Sinai until now, in every Jewish community, each successive insight that Jews bring to their study of Torah makes it possible for God’s self to unfurl in new ways. In this way, the beliefs and practices of Jewish life take on sharper clarity in every generation of Israel’s peoplehood.
Initially, of course, our Israelite ancestors were not eager to embrace their relationship with God’s word; they cowered from God’s voice and retreated from Sinai, leaving Moses alone to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:15–18). Despite Moses’s high hopes about the inspiring power of divine speech, its sheer force terrified the first generation of God’s students huddled at Sinai’s foot and might have ironically led to their spiritual impoverishment if the people hadn’t quickly developed the skills of interpretive and imaginative Jewish learning.
and innovation are critical skills for Jewish learners, and these skills were inculcated
in us by Moses himself at the very beginning of our relationship with Torah. Looking
down at the frightened Israelite masses at the base of the mountain, Moses must
have realized quickly that, in order to worship an invisible God who demands
faith in the not-yet possible, he would have to nurture Israel’s capacity for interpretive
imagination. Moses needed to demonstrate that the exercise of Jewish learning
can bring the impossible and the intangible into being—and so, immediately
after the commandments are revealed, he goes on to teach his homeless, landless
people about cisterns, vineyards, and olive groves (Deuteronomy 6:10–11).
The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Makot 23b–24a) suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments directly; the rest were heard only by Moses and translated faithfully to the people. But Moses refers to the entire Decalogue as having been heard by “every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3), not only those who stood at the mountain. Thus, each subsequent repetition of the words of Torah comprises a miraculous, eternal act of religious witness, and every opportunity for learning Torah is an endeavor of radical imagination. For the generation of Sinai, this meant molding their minds and hearts to accommodate things that did not yet exist; for us, the imaginative work of Torah study may mean imagining versions of ourselves that do not yet exist, and then working to bring those selves into being.
Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, a new publication from CCAR Press, was conceived to simultaneously recognize the primacy of the Sinai moment and embrace the multivocality of contemporary Jewish learning—both within and beyond the Reform Movement. The book presents two or three chapters focusing on each of the Ten Commandments. The essays are written by a diverse group of authors, who explore the ways in which those timeless utterances led to the formation of law and ethics, and continue to inform the lives of modern Jews. The contributors represent a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specialization: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live all across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents; the diversity of these contributors helps give voice to the richness and variety encoded in the Revelation moment, and their voices highlight the ongoing impact and eternal relevance of Torah that flourishes in today’s world.
can fairly assume that God’s words no longer sound the way they did at Sinai, their
echoes still continue today. And, in a beautifully ironic turn, millennia after
our ancestors hid from the sound of God’s voice at Sinai, today we hold a
unique ability to keep that ancient sound alive each time we learn or teach the
words of Torah. Our willingness to remain attuned to the hum of a holy presence
in the world is what preserves our heritage as a timeless nation of learners. As
we continue the process of sacred study that began at a smoke-wreathed mountain
in the desert, the work of radical spiritual imagination inscribes itself
continuously into our hearts and minds.