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Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

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.


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

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CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Technology

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: Why Make an App from a Book?

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.

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press in 2019, was a perfect candidate for this transformation. Rabbi Debra Robbins’s book guides readers through a meaningful practice that she created, introducing daily meditation and reflection into their lives.

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.

Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart can be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is available as a print book and ebook, with a free companion study guide.


Rabbi Dan Medwin is Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

Pervasive Peace: A Musical Prayer for Erev Rosh HaShanah

Here we go again. It’s just a few weeks from the High Holy Days, and hopes of worshiping in a post-COVID world of congregational togetherness are quickly being dashed. Communities that planned to hold communal, indoor, and possibly maskless prayer services are reassessing. Whatever happens on the individual congregational level, it will be another year outside the bounds of what we once thought as normal for holy day worship.

We have been dreaming of our spiritual reunion with each other for the upcoming holy days; that blessing appears to be postponed. Perhaps, all the more, we should pray for blessings beyond our wildest dreams. We know these are unprecedented times. Most of us could not have imagined the losses and suffering that the pandemic would bring. For those of us who have lost friends or family to COVID—for those who lost income, livelihood, personal connections, mental health, stability—it can only be described as a nightmare.

This Rosh HaShanah, let us renew our hopes in large and beautiful dreams of peace, the kind of peace that means wholeness, health, renewal, vitality, and resilience.

To share that prayer together on Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782, Rebecca Schwartz, cantorial soloist at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, created a new musical setting for my short prayer “Pervasive Peace.” The prayer reads as follows:

Pervasive Peace

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵֽינוּ
שֶׁהַשָּׁנָה הַבָּאָה תָּבִיא שָׁלוֹם מֻחְלָט וְשָׁלֵם
,עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל
.מֵעֵֽבֶר לְכָל חֲלֹמוֹת הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת

Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu,

Shehashanah habaah tavi shalom muchlat v’shaleim

Al kol yosh’vei teiveil,

Mei-eiver l’chol chalomot haenoshut.

May it be Your will, God of our fathers and mothers,

That the year ahead bring a pervasive and complete peace

On all the inhabitants of the earth,

Beyond all the dreams of humanity.

The prayer uses a classic formulation—Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha…, May it be Your will…—imploring God for specific blessings. This formula is typically used in the Rosh HaShanah seder alongside dipping apples in honey, connecting the sweet ritual to the chain of traditional prayers for the New Year.

“Pervasive Peace” was written before COVID, but it took on a deeper meaning of peace as healing medicine last year as the Jewish community experienced our first pandemic High Holy Days in lockdown. It has, yet again, taken on a longing for renewal as we move toward our second High Holy Days under returning public health restrictions.

Rebecca’s music captures both the hope and the longing that the words are intended to convey. We envision cantors using the prayer to open and set the tone for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hear Rebecca sing the music in this video. An MP3 file is available for download. The sheet music can be purchased on oySongs.

Singing “Pervasive Peace” might also be paired with reading an associated prayer written last year called “Wildly Unimaginable Blessings”:

Wildly Unimaginable Blessings

Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
Blessings so unexpected,
Blessings so beyond our hopes for this world,
Blessings so unbelievable in this era,
That their very existence
Uplifts our vision of creation,
Our relationships to each other,
And our yearning for life itself.
Let us dream
Wildly unimaginable blessings…
A complete healing of mind, body, and spirit,
A complete healing for all,
The end of suffering and strife,
The end of plague and disease,
When kindness flows from the river of love,
When goodness flows from the river of grace,
Awakened in the spirit of all beings,
When God’s light,
Radiating holiness
Is seen by everyone.
Let us pray—
With all our hearts—
For wildly unimaginable blessings…
So that God will hear the call
To open the gates of the Garden,
Seeing that we haven’t waited,
That we’ve already begun to repair the world,
In testimony to our faith in life,
Our faith in each other,
And our faith in the Holy One,
Blessed be God’s Name.


“Pervasive Peace” lyrics © 2019 by Alden Solovy, music © 2021 by Schwalkin Music (ASCAP).

“Wildly Unimaginable Blessings” © 2020 by Alden Solovy.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press. Read more of his writing at tobendlight.com.

Rebecca Schwartz is Cantorial Soloist and Music Director at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA. She is a professional singer, guitarist, and award-winning songwriter. Hear more of her music at rebeccasongs.com.

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CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Rituals Technology

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, on ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ and the New Companion App

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, shares her thoughts on the process of writing Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (published in 2019 by CCAR Press) and creating a companion app (just released for Apple and Android).

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.

To further enhance your practice, check out the free downloadable study guide and the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app, now available for Android and iPhone!


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

Categories
High Holy Days

Un’taneh Tokef for 5781

Let these words of our prayers ascend
As we stand embodied, virtual, in our homes, on this screen, alone, together.

Knowing You are God, not knowing what that means…
We proclaim the sacred power of this day,
The sacred power of the shofar’s blast,
The power of the internet connecting us 
While the power of an infinitesimally small virus reshapes the meaning of what human power can and cannot do…
It is awesome and full of dread. 

Our prayers proclaim: You are Judge. You inscribe and seal.
This year we say: We are judged by our own choices, fates sealed by our actions. 
Will we remember all that we have forgotten? 
Will we remember civility and respect, conversation and kindness?
Will we remember the dignity of personal responsibility, the privileges and obligations of belonging to a community?
Can we awaken in time to our own soul truth: that every moment bears the promise, the opportunity of t ‘shuvah, of choice, of change, of return?
What will fill our Book of Memories in this year to come, when so much is still possible?

A Great Shofar will cry–t’kiah!
A still small voice will be heard.
But will we hear it? Will angels tremble? Will we, with our better angels, tremble? Will we awaken to wisdom and compassion? Or will we remain like slumbering sheep? 

On Rosh HaShanah it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many will pass away from this world; how many will be born into it.
How many of us will rise with compassion; how many of us will drift into numbness.
How many will be stricken with a novel virus; how many will be thrust into novel life paths.
Who will reach across barriers with love, and who will have barriers hurled upon them?
Who will recognize the ways life has given them advantages, and who will help others gain advantage?
Who will fall in love, and who will stumble in hate?
Who will find new perspectives, and who will see the world through a prism of banality?
Which book will you write yourself into this new year?
We have this as our guide: Tzedakah is the route of connection to others. T’filah is the route of connection to Source. And Tshuvah, is connection to the root of the soul[1]. These are the ways we choose life. These are the ways we choose love. These are the ways we choose You.

Rabbi Annie Belford has served Houston’s Temple Sinai since 2009 as Houston’s first full-time female solo pulpit rabbi. She is the mother of three amazing souls, loves visiting our National Parks, and is a proud member of the CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice. 

Rabbi Debra Kassoff has made her rabbinic career primarily in Mississippi, first at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life and since 2010 with Hebrew Union Congregation, which she originally served as student rabbi, in a previous century. She is also the new Director of Member Engagement for Mississippi Public Broadcasting Foundation. She lives in Jackson with her family.


[1] Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, Orot HaTeshuvah

Categories
High Holy Days

God Knows Us by Name

God numbers the stars; God calls them each by name. (Psalm 147:4)

Imagine that. The vast numbers of stars, the infinite number of them, not just in our night sky, in our Milky Way, but beyond—star after star after star. They are not mere dots in a dark sky to God. They are individual lights, each special in the eyes of the Holy One. How much more, then, are we, created in God’s own image, b’tzelem Elohim, בצלם אלוהים, important to God as who we are. Each person, with our quirks and talents, our strengths and our sins, each of us, unique before God, named and beloved.

My friend Gino grew up on a small farm. She tells me that when you know sheep from the time of birth, you can tell them apart. It’s like looking at a group of dogs of the same breed, she explained; if your dog is among them, or if they are all your dogs, you would see their individuality, to call them by name. 

I asked her about this because I’ve been thinking about the Un’taneh Tokef, the prayer we read during the High Holy Days. It is often thought of as ominous: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Part of the reason it might frighten us is its pure honesty: “Who will pass on and how many will be created; who will live and who will die?” The reality is that every year, babies will be born and some of us, whether gathered in shul saying these words or in the larger world, will die. Everyone who is born will someday die. And this prayer makes us face that awe-full truth.

The Un’taneh Tokef describes the underlying metaphor of the Days of Awe: the Book of Life. “May you be written for a good and sweet year,” Jews wish one another at the New Year. What is this Book?  God remembers everything, the Un’taneh Tokef proclaims, even that which has been forgotten by humans, by those of us whose memories God is keeping for us. God will open our book of memories and read. There is no escaping our past; there is a Book of Life for each of us, and it bears the signature of every human being.    

“All who enter the world will pass before You like sheep. As a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under his staff, so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by. And You will decide the end of all creatures, and write down their sentence.”

Scary stuff, indeed.

But the image of God as shepherd suggests otherwise. God as judge, as prosecutor, suggests a Divine urge to judge us. God as shepherd, however, is a Holy One who wishes to care for us, each of us in our foolishness and wayward behavior. What is the point of the shepherd’s staff? To make sure that no lamb goes astray, gets lost in the field or wilderness. God’s staff is there to ensure that each of us is included. 

God as “author and sealer, recorder and recounter” might also be less judgmental than traditionally understood. Perhaps our Book of Life might be like a journal, kept for a class. Each year, God takes each of us aside, and reviews our progress. “How’s it going?,” God asks us. “No, really. I know you’ve been working on being more honest in your relationships. Any trouble there?,” God might say. Or, “How is your energy being split between work and family? I know they are both important to you.”

This is a time to look honestly at ourselves: our goals, our failings, our hopes, our regrets. This is God as a Teacher, a Coach, a Parent, putting an arm around us and saying, “Let’s look at your life together. How might it be better? I, God, the Holy One of the world, am here to help.” “For you want them to turn from their path and live.”

If God knows the stars by name, God certainly knows me. Not just my name, but me. The Divine knows the divinity in me, and the not-so-divine. At the turning of the year, God warns us not just that some will die, but that most will live—and how? Can we accept God’s guidance to return to ourselves through repentance, turn to God through prayer, and reach out to others through righteous action. These will not prevent us from dying, but will show us how to live, how to attain a good name, a name that God will be honored to pronounce. 


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

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High Holy Days News

Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to CCAR Members

As CCAR members prepare to celebrate the High Holy Days and lead services safely distanced but spiritually connected to their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Hara Person shares her gratitude for their deep commitment to strengthening the Reform community.


As these really strange High Holy Days approach, I keep thinking about that Baal Shem Tov story about going into the forest, finding just the right place, and the right prayer, and lighting the fire, and saving the people from danger. And how every subsequent generation loses a little bit of original ritual but it’s still enough.

Together, we are writing the next chapter of that story, in which, many, many years later, our people once again face incredible danger.

In this new story, it wasn’t clear what to do at first. The elders recalled bits and pieces of old stories, but there were many conflicting versions and no concrete direction. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and so she had to figure it out as best she could. There was no longer a forest—it had long ago been turned into a suburban development and a sprawling mall. As for the special prayers, those hadn’t been part of the rabbinic school curriculum when she was a student. And she couldn’t light a fire, as no one wanted to risk starting another wildfire. So the rabbi wove together the bits of the different stories she had heard, and talked to her wise colleagues who offered ideas and suggestions, and brought together the community.

Because of the great danger, they were spread out in many different places, each person participating in the service remotely through a computer. She told them the story of the past as best she could, and offered up prayers. The community participated with open hearts, and their fervent hopes for a better future reached right from their souls up to the heavens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t way things had been done in the past. But it was enough.

What we’re doing this year, no matter how different it is from the past, is enough. All the planning you’re doing, all the incredibly hard work you’re doing to make these holidays happen, to keep your community connected, and to take care of them, is enough. Everything you’re doing to take care of yourself, and to take care of those you love, is enough. 

These High Holy Days are going to be different than ever before. They definitely won’t look like the Holy Days of yesterday. But that’s okay. We’re adapting to the present. Despite the strangeness of this experience, you’re still opening up your heart and creating space for others to open theirs. You’re enabling people to gather in creative and virtual ways. You’re helping them speak the yearnings of their souls. Yes, it will be different, but because of your careful work, it will still feel familiar and comforting.

It’s a lot. It’s really a lot. If you’re feeling exhausted and wrung out from all of this, you’re not alone.

Thank you for facing this moment with courage, creativity, and hope.

Thank you for pouring the best of yourself into making these upcoming Holy Days the best they can be under the circumstances.

Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen our community and our people at this difficult time, in all the many ways you are doing so.

Thank you for caring for our college students, our elderly, our sick, our youngest, our newest, our noisiest, our quietest, our bravest, and our most afraid.

Thank you to those just starting your rabbinic careers in a way that no one could have predicted, thank you to those for whom this will be the last time leading High Holy Day services, and thank you for those in retirement for being role models, mentors, and cheerleaders as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. 

Thank you for being part of our rabbinic community, for supporting each other throughout this time, for sharing your ideas and your concerns, your resources and your love.

And thank you for doing all this while balancing your own families and loved ones, perhaps schooling and playing with your children, caring for your parents and other family members, maybe dealing with the loneliness and isolation of distancing, trying to take care of your own health and wellbeing, dealing with fears and anxiety about your financial security and livelihood, perhaps mourning those you’ve lost, the tremendous turmoil of postponed or radically different life cycle events, no summer camp, cancelled plans, and that doesn’t even cover it.

I’m going to end, therefore, with a plea—once the holidays are behind us, please make time to recover. Take time to replenish your souls and nurture yourself. Please take care not only of those you serve and those you love, but also of yourself.

The forest, the fire, the prayers are all being reinvented this year, and how lucky we are to have your leadership in doing so in such a myriad of ways. And it is indeed enough.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Hearing the Shofar As a Wake-Up Call is a Sign of Our Privilege

This Elul, a group of Maine rabbis have been posting videos of shofar soundings from across the state. Many of us are talking about the shofar as a wake-up call. An alarm bell. A reminder that the holidays are coming.

The implication, of course, to waking up at the sound of the shofar is that we need a reminder. A reminder of what is broken in our world. A reminder of how we ourselves have fallen short. A reminder that we had better get to work, because Rosh HaShanah is coming. The need for a reminder implies that we live through the rest of the year with the privilege to forget the pain and suffering that exists in the world. The ways that we as a people, as a society, have gone astray. The need to hear the shofar means that we have been able to close our eyes.

The killing of George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, are a shofar sound calling us to attention. But, the shofar has been wailing continuously for years, for decades, for centuries, we just have not heard it. As Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman said, “So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando, Mike Brown, Sandra.”

As the powerful lynching memorial in Montgomery, with its hanging steel rectangles reminiscent of coffins reminds us, we don’t know the names of all those who were murdered. The slaves who were bought and sold and beaten to death were known by name to their families and friends, but their names are unknown to us today. We have the luxury of needing the shofar to wake us up.

When the murder of George Floyd ripped through our national consciousness like the blast of a shofar, I, like so many concerned white people, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. I wore my social justice tallit, the one made by members of my congregation with colorful quotes about equality and justice. My family and I listened to speakers and marched and held up our signs. And then, like so many others across the country, we lay on the ground in silence for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time it took George Floyd to suffocate to death. As I lay there on the pavement, next to my seven-year-old son, I was powerfully reminded of the Grand Aleinu on Yom Kippur. During that holy time of the year I bow on the ground, face down, before the Holy One blessed be God, who spread out the heavens and established the Earth. It is a voluntary act of humility. A reminder that there is something bigger than myself in this world. I need that reminder, because my heart doesn’t catch in my throat every time I see a police officer, because I don’t worry about my safety when I walk through the trails in my neighborhood, because I don’t have to remind my children of how to act respectfully before they leave the house each day.  Choosing to be reminded, choosing to lie face down, comes from privilege and is born out of the willful ignorance of the day to day lives of others.

Shofarot: A Prayer for Righteous Anger, from Mishkan HaNefesh

Misery for breakfast;
morning coffee with the news of distant deaths –
because someone’s always suffering,
and there’s bound to be a crisis raging somewhere,
or a quieter catastrophe
barely at the threshold of our notice.
We’re accustomed to the feeling
of something going wrong.
Like static in the background,
tuned out so we can get on with our day.
And it’s just the same as yesterday
and nothing can be done;
so there’s not much point
in getting too upset.

But if something were to shock us
like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night,
like a punch in the stomach
or a puncture in the eardrum,
like a savage call to conscience
or a frantic cry for help –
would we scream like a shofar
and get mad enough to act?
“When a ram’s horn is sounded in a city do the people not take alarm?”

So let us get mad.
Let us scream.
Let us be punched in the stomach.
Let us end, for once, without a nechemta.



After ordination, Rabbi Asch worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. She currently serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine and Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. Rabbi Asch serves as Vice President for Leadership on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
High Holy Days

Seeking Anew

I never thought this would happen again.

Five years ago, after my congregation received the newly published Mishkan HaNefesh, I made it my mission to carefully evaluate every page to determine what prayers, songs, and meditations would speak to the souls of my congregants. I relished evaluating the exquisite reflections and poems and marveled at the stirring interpretations and commentaries.

This appraisal process was mostly exhilarating thought I admit at times it also was exhausting. Such a bounty in the machzor required discernment in selecting elements for each service that would be elevating and inspiring. 

Once I finally determined the scope of every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur service, I unexpectedly felt sad. I thought I would never again have the opportunity to begin the High Holy Days with such an open mind and spirit.

Such has been the case for the Yamim Noraim for the past four years. Sure, I tinkered with the order of prayers; pruning some readings and changing some melodies, but the scope of each service was largely unchanged.

Not this year. Not with the pandemic and the impossibility of gathering in our sanctuary. Not with livestreaming and the necessity of reimagining every aspect of the High Holy Days 

The themes for the Days of Awe are timeless: celebration, self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. But we are living in a time of pervasive anxiety and uncertainty about our present and future.

So, just like in 2015, I am compelled to start fresh. I am putting aside my well-used copies of Mishkan HaNefesh and looking only at an unmarked machzor; searching again for the prayers, poems, and reflections that will embrace and uplift my congregation.

Despite the pandemic, and in spite of the effort it takes to reimagine our High Holy Day services, I am thankful for this opportunity. For in beginning anew, I become a seeker once again. I have trust that the rich expressions of spiritual yearning in Mishkan HaNefesh will guide the hearts of my congregants. 

I am strengthened by Larry Hoffman’s exhortation in a June webinar for our rabbinic chevrah to have faith in ourselves; to have confidence in our ability to seize this moment and create meaning for those we serve. To which I say: Amen!  Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik!    


5781 will be Avi Schulman’s fortieth year leading High Holy Day services.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Open the Gates: A Reflection during Elul 5781

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

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

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



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