Categories
High Holy Days

In the Middle of the Night: A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

Can I be honest? In these past months, I have lost more sleep, wrestled with more anxiety, and endured new levels of second-guessing myself, all because the intersection of High Holy Days and the coronavirus pandemic has upended finely honed planning and practices. Where once many of my fellow rabbis and I felt pressure over sermon writing, now, like so many colleagues around the world, we are stressing out over megabytes needed and minutes to cut, and platforms to stream on, and prayers to preserve. And then one late night, this confession came forth. Perhaps it speaks of your truth too:

In the Middle of the Night:
A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

In the middle of the night 
I am feeling the fright
About how to do this right—
My High Holy Days COVID-19 rewrite

Can I be an inspiration?
Will I shine a comforting light?
Will the internet hold up
Providing sufficient megabytes?

Are my kavannot kosher?
Are my stories too trite?
Should we prerecord or livestream
At the temple or offsite

What passions can I convey
From my living room as I sit tight?
What comfort can I bring
Streaming from a distance satellite?

Will I uplift enough souls
To make my community unite?
Will my sermons make them think
Or will they just cause a dogfight?

Can my services really stem
The feared membership flight?
Will my appeal really raise Tzedakah
From each philanthropic socialite?

Did we think it all through
Was our preparation airtight?
Did I fail to strategically plan
Without sufficient foresight?

Will I fall to the virus
The thermometer’s rising Fahrenheit?
Or from something unexpectedly random
Like a West Nile virus mosquito bite?

Have I already ruined Yom Kippur
Like a wayward satellite? 
Will I watch it come crashing down 
Like a fiery meteorite?

Will I later kick myself
With 2020’s hindsight
After I quickly crash and burn-
Oy, I’m getting stage fright

Yes, I’m trying for homeostasis 
To be patient and polite
But my heart’s being attacked
By anxiety’s lymphocyte

So as I ride the rollercoaster
Like a frightened suburbanite
I’m trying to discern the future 
Like a soon-to-be extinct Canaanite

Worrying, when we gather together 
For Rosh Hashanah’s first candlelight
Will my rabbinate already be over
Before I step into the limelight

Like all my clergy friends
I’m trying to breath through the fright
Though the pressure’s overwhelming
For us clerical leading lights

I know our people have the desire 
And a massive spiritual appetite 
So I wonder what else can I bring
During this moment of irreligious blight

What else can I offer
That will make my community delight?
Oy, I’d better calm down
So I don’t seem so uptight

And I’d better get some sleep
Hours after midnight
So I can get up and get working
At the first morning’s light

Just one more thought…
What if… 

My sermons are ready
And the chanting seems right
And the Torah’s all rolled 
And my machzor’s in sight
Will it all be for naught
Even if I get it all right
Because I simply forgot to send
The congregational Zoom invite?

Anxiety, I hate you
But at least you’re my constant friend
I’ll see you every night
Until these High Holy Days end.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Poetry

Hin’ni: Here I Am, The Confession of a Broken Heart

I am here.
I am here.
I stand before the open Ark and
the eternal scrolls of our people
dressed in white light.
I stand ready to enter into the Holy Days,
to offer prayers that urge me
to live better, kinder,
ever present to the pain of others,
to become a compassionate vessel, trustworthy
holding hope in the midst of despair.

Hin’ni
I am here, I am here.
I stand on the edge between earth and heaven,
between what I know and what I can never understand,
between life and life everlasting.
Mortality hovers, a rippling presence,
always there, lingering, waiting, holding.
I am here.

Hin’ni
I am here
I stand resilient, determined,
though I have been taken down,
forced to live a different way.
The rhythm of life has been altered.
Time unfolds and morphs, expands and stands still.
I have been called to be present, to pay attention.
What have I learned?
What have I done with the time I have been given,
glorious time of never-ending possibility?
Have I squandered the beauty, the radiance of life,
an offering to my inner being?

Who am I?
Where have I gone astray?
Am I worthy to pray with my people?
May I be worthy to pray with my people.

Hear my plea,
grant me the faith, courage and wisdom
to enter into cheshbon hanefesh:
the fragility and humility of self-examination.

Hin’ni,
I am here, I am here.
May this fractured heart, softened
and hold love and compassion,
in a way it never has before.

Hin’ni, I am here.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area and is renown for her creative liturgy. Her work explores the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work includes Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, available for purchase through the CCAR Press.

Categories
Ethics

The Mitzvah of Choosing Life during the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22, we are taught:

“When you build a new house you shall make a parapet (a guardrail) for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

In traditional Middle Eastern architecture, homes are often single story and built with flat roofs. Those roofs are often play areas for children or places to relax at night. But, they can be dangerous were someone to wander off near the edge and fall. The Torah states that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to place a fence, a guardrail, or parapet surrounding the roof in order to prevent unintentional harm to others.

Most of us understand that it is our responsibility not to place others at risk of bodily harm or especially in mortal danger. We don’t drink and drive or buy faulty baby equipment or give dangerous toys to children.

Most of the time, we are able to avoid endangering others. But this pandemic has challenged many of our assumptions. We should all be very aware that personal choices we make might have very negative consequences for those around us, both those close to us, as well as total strangers. It is challenging to think of ourselves as sources of danger in the outside world. But it’s true.

It is up to each of us to wear face masks, insist on social distancing, and be meticulous in pursuing personal hygiene. We are constructing metaphorical parapets surrounding ourselves. This is not easy. We are social beings, and we thrive on human contact, but we must sacrifice for the well-being of all.

My synagogue, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, made the difficult decision not to meet in person for prayer for the upcoming High Holy Days. We are sad knowing we will not be able to greet each other warmly, see our friends and family, pray together, and sing as one congregation. But we simply could not risk the health and safety of any one of us. Many congregants have written in support of that decision.

Of all the rules of Jewish law, one commandment takes precedence over all the others. To save a life overrules all other requirements. It is a command—a mitzvah—to protect human life. It is also true that Judaism never allowed faith to deny the truth of science. In Jewish thought, there is no conflict between the Biblical narrative and the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, and others. Indeed the greatest of all Jewish theologians and legal authorities, Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, was himself a physician.

There are those who are choosing to deny what medicine and science tell us about Covid-19. There are those who would make a partisan political issue of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. There are those who might call coronavirus harmless.

In contrast, we must take this pandemic very seriously. It is up to each of us to insure our own well-being and the health of our family and loved ones, but we are also responsible for our neighbors, community, and larger society.

Elsewhere in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, we read:

“I place before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your offspring shall long live and endure upon the soil that the Eternal your God swore unto your ancestors”

We must choose life.
Be safe.
Be healthy.



Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.

  1. Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.

  2. Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.

  3. Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?

  4. Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?

  5. Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.

It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.


Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer spirituality

Our Avodah (Work) during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice had dedicated its work for 2019–2020 to the question: What are the spiritual practices and needs of Reform Jews—both non-ordained and ordained? We began meeting and working last fall and winter—and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

And so, after taking a short break to adjust to an altered reality, we dedicated two of our meetings to the questions: What is the meaning of our avodah in the year of the pandemic? and What is our avodah especially during the High Holy Day season this year? 

We learned that what we as rabbis are asked to do is similar to the work of translation: We need to go back to our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings—and then we have to “translate” those into a new language of Zoom, Facetime, Vimeo, and Google Meet. As Reform rabbis, we are intimately familiar with the practice of translation. It is one of the first skills we practice in rabbinical school, and it forms the basis of our work after ordination: translating the wisdom of our tradition, originating in languages and cultural frameworks vastly different from our own, into an idiom that our communities can understand and appreciate. In this way, we help Torah to adapt itself to every generation.  

As we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days this year, with many of us learning an entirely new language, we found it helpful to be guided by questions—questions we want to share with you, our colleagues, along with some preliminary answers (far from being exhaustive!): 

Core Theologies, Spiritual Practices, Communal Commitments, and Ethical Callings: What Remains the Same?

  • We as clergy still model spirituality and spiritual practices.
  • Pre-existing relationships matter. It is much easier to maintain pre-existing relationships, than create new ones.
  • While some people enjoy active participation, others still simply join to watch.

Name What Hurts: Which Changes May Be Painful?

  • There is an immense pressure on clergy to learn many new skills, especially technical ones, in a short time. 
  • Virtual communities in a time of social distancing collapse the boundaries between our private and our synagogue lives.
  • Virtual communities sometimes encourage passivity, we “show” rather than “share.” 

Lean into the New: Which Changes Might Be Inspiring and Insightful?

  • The visual components of prayer become center piece. 
  • One-on-one prayer, counseling, and meetings allow for a new intimacy. 
  • Virtual communities allow us to demonstrate our vulnerability and imperfection, and this promotes connection. 

Comfort: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Our (Jewish) Homes? 

  • Private, personal, and home rituals and prayers gain new importance in the lives of Reform Jews. 
  • Showing our homes on screen also gives us an opportunity to share the sacredness of our own homes—this can be a form of hidur mitzvah.  
  • Leading our services from home allows for a more improvised and spontaneous experience of prayer. 

Familiarity: What Can We Learn from the New Centrality of Jewish Time? 

  • Jewish time has taken on a renewed meaning. The cycle of the holidays, the Omer, and above all Shabbat, help us differentiate between days that seem otherwise indistinguishable

While it might not have been a big surprise, it is still worthy for us to reiterate: our work is sacred work, and it has always been “mediated”—that means, it has always been communicated through books, phones, videos, touch, smiles, words, livestreams, and melodies. Our core theologies, spiritual practices, communal commitments, and ethical callings remain the same also in the time of the coronavirus.

However, during a time of prolonged distancing and a potentially altered reality to return to, we are asked to do the work of “translation”: to ask, once again, how we can make sure that our Torah may enrich, comfort, and engage our people. This is the work we do.  

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Reckoning with the Sins of Slavery & Racism

I was pleased to see that the Central Conference of American Rabbis led a rabbinic mission to Montgomery, Alabama. A little more than a year ago, I, too, went on a pilgrimage to the deep South with members of my congregation. Our trip changed me. As we enter our most sacred season and prepare to make teshuvah, for the wrongdoings of our past, the lessons from my pilgrimage stay with me still. I believe as a nation, the United States must make teshuvah, atoning for our legacy of slavery by making reparations to African Americans. 

As we traveled by bus through the region, I recalled how in the Hebrew Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and God, horrified, exclaimed: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the earth!” All these generations later, here on American soil, nothing has changed. Blood also cries to us from the earth, the blood of millions of individuals kidnapped in chains, tortured, beaten, brutalized, lynched, incarcerated and senselessly shot down. This is why the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, where we commemorate the thousands of victims of lynching, is hallowed ground.

Teshuvah, atonement, is recognizing our sin and repairing the damage it has caused. Sometimes, when shame blinds us, we cannot see our wrongdoing clearly. Our nation has suppressed our shame over slavery and its consequences for far too long. Many of us who benefit from systemic racism—that is, those of us who are white—often suppress our shame because we are repelled by the agony that has been wrought to our advantage. We avert our eyes from the terror that’s been inflicted on millions of African Americans; we’re sickened to realize that we’re safe by virtue of our skin pigmentation. For some of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, we resist the truth because to accept it means we’ll need to shift the status quo and make substantial sacrifices. And many other white people are paralyzed by the knowledge that the full damage caused by slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, will never be rectified. Whatever the reasons, when white people sublimate our shame over slavery, our moral standing as a nation is diminished, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

I believe our shame as a nation has kept us from doing the right thing: We must make reparations to the African American community. I do not know exactly what a reparation package looks like, but I do know that there are economists, lawmakers, and scholars who have given this issue deep consideration. I know that Congress has rejected HR 40, a bill that seeks to develop reparation proposals. I know that The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has reported that “the transatlantic trade in Africans and enslavement…were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism…Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.” I also know that truth and reconciliation commissions have helped other nations begin to heal from heinous crimes against humanity that occurred on their native soil.

We in the Jewish community have a unique perspective on this issue. The shadow of the Holocaust still looms large; we will never fully recover from the grief over the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Yet, because of reparations offered by Germany, we Jews know what it means when perpetrators (or the descendants of perpetrators) acknowledge their crimes and try, insufficiently but earnestly, to make amends. Some of our energy expended on anger and mourning has been re-channeled into rebuilding our lives. Because of our experience, Jewish Americans can bear witness to the healing power of repentance and reparations.

We can set ourselves free from the past. We can create our nation and ourselves anew. It is time. Let 5780 be the year in which we make teshuvah and begin the reparations process.

Ruth A. Zlotnick is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Seattle, Washington, and is Vice President of Membership of the CCAR Board of Trustees. A version of this post appeared in The Seattle Times.

Categories
High Holy Days

Deeds, Not Fasting

In Talmudic times of trouble, tractate Taanit tells how the Jewish community needs to move forward:

The elder among them says words of admonition, “People! It does not say of the citizens of Nineveh that God say their sackcloth and their fasting, but rather: God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.”

Our High Holy Days are a time for turning.  And we know that it is neither our fasting nor our penitence that matters, but how we change our daily behavior, our deeds.  What is true for individuals is true for nations: the entire citizenry of Nineveh needed to turn from the improper path they walked together.  We know the ways in which our own nation walks are sometimes stepped in sin; our High Holy Days come to admonish us to find better pathways to the future.

This past August, we marked two sad national commemorations.  2019 marked a century since America plunged into its Red Summer, a season of violence in which white supremacists in over 36 cities (and many rural areas) unleased their fury on  black communities, killing hundreds of human beings, injuring countless others, burning many black neighborhoods to the ground.  August 18 of this year also marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores.  Our summer has forced us to confront the evil ways of racial injustice that have been a part of our country since its inception.

This past August also witnessed fifty Reform Rabbis stepping forward, learning what we could do to help repair this historic and painful breach.

We travelled together to Montgomery, Alabama.   The destination was the new Legacy Museum and Memorial, build by the Equal Justice Institute to teach our nation about the direct racist trajectory from slavery through Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration.  Bryan Stevenson, the heroic founder of EJI, delivered a powerful keynote at our Cincinnati convention that called us to get proximate to this narrative, to the history, and to the lived experience of others.  Of course, Stevenson called us to learn the lessons so we might take action.  Over 50 CCAR colleagues answer Stevenson’s call for three powerful days this summer.

What did we learn? To begin with, we saw how deeply structures of injustice are built into our American way.  For many of us who had grown up proudly counting important pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the heyday of the Movement, we realized that those laws guaranteeing equal protection and equal opportunity never took their full effect.  Inequalities along racial lines are still starkly visible whether looking at the poverty line or at the distribution of prison sentences.  We learned that while individuals might consider themselves “colorblind,” our system still not only accounts for the color of one’s skin, but—according to overwhelming data and research—also disproportionally disserves people the darker their pigmentation. We learned that in an America that has always baked racism into the system, it is not enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist.”  In a system as consistently oppressive as ours, we must actively become anti-racist.

Being anti-racist racist means many things.  First and foremost, being  anti-racist means we cannot be passive.  Being anti-racist it means actively learning about the depths of American racism, and then actively working to end our racially unjust system.  Being anti-racist means travelling outside our comfort zones to get proximate to difficult truths.  Being anti-racist means looking at the benefits we have unjustly won from the American system, and then being willing to sacrifice those most ill-gotten gains.  Being anti-racist means we have a whole lot of work to do, not just in our words, but in our deeds.

On the very day that marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah taught us about the difficult of dismantling racism.  The Talmud questions the extent to which we need to return objects that were stolen.  The example is brought of a stolen log that has been used—for decades—as the structural support for a grand palace.  Our Rabbis of blessed memory remind us that that stolen beam needs to be returned, even if it mean taking apart the palace, brick by brick. 

We learned this lesson in the cradle of the Confederacy, just hundreds of feet from the Confederate White House.  Yet we know that the other White House, the one that stands as symbol to many of America’s greatness, was built by enslaved individuals.  The labor that built the White House in Washington, D.C., was stolen.  The White House, therefore, symbolizes America in a different way: a structure rooted in injustice whose foundations must be rebuilt, and that which was stolen, returned.  That return, in Hebrew so appropriate for this Holy season called teshuvah, goes by many names we should not be afraid to say in English: repayment, restoration, reparations.

It is not enough that we learn about, that we talk about, that we write about these injustices of old that continue through to today.  Fasting and lament have their place, but they will move the Divine no more than they will change society.  We need a national time not just of truth and reconciliation, but of restoration and reparations.  Our High Holy Days call us to turn from our evil ways.  It is time for all of us to act.  It is time for all of us to help turn our nation from its inarguably racist path towards a future of true liberty and justice for all.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and also as a Member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.  Together with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, he is editor of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Justice, available from CCAR Press.

Categories
High Holy Days

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall perish by water and who by fire…

The Unetaneh Tokef – Rosh Hashanah’s central prayer – is truly terrifying and disturbing.  It tells us that next year at this time, some of us will be gone via a series of dreadful possibilities: floods, fires, illnesses and the like. God issues this decree from high above, sitting on a throne of judgement. Our behavior determines our fate according to the biblical and rabbinic system of reward and punishment. Not only does the prayer arouse people’s fear of dying, it adds a layer of blame and shame, suggesting that our illnesses and losses are deserved and self-inflicted. For this reason, I used to much prefer the interpretive versions by Jack Riemer and Stanley Rabinowitz. They transform the prayer into a psychological reckoning. For example, rather than “Who shall live and who shall die,” Rabinowitz’s version offers “Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist.[1]

These interpretive efforts are much more in line with my theology. I do not believe in the kind of God who metes out our fate according to strict rules of justice. Indeed, I am not even certain the Bible believes in that kind of God. For example, the book of Job is a powerful challenge to that theology. As the story goes, Job is righteous and good, he loves and praises God even when everything is taken from him. However, Job suffers unfairly, not because he deserves it, but because God has made a bet with Ha-Satan, the Prosecuting Angel. Presumably, the rabbis included Job in the Bible because they realized that the world does not work like clockwork — and neither does God.

So it is no doubt surprising that I have come to value the prayer in its original. I appreciate it because it lends itself to multiple interpretations. If you believe in reward and punishment, you can read the prayer that way. If you prefer a psychological understanding of how our attitude affects our lives, that is an option. And the prayer gives expression to a reality we are forced to face, often regardless of our intentions and our behavior: the fact that some of us won’t be here next year or will be struck by heartache. Some will die of old age; some will become ill; some will lose homes to fires; some will lose loved ones to floods. These are life events over which we have limited control. And God is not necessarily responsible for them.

The question we must really ask is: How will we respond? The concluding verse of the Unetaneh Tokef suggests: U’t’shuvah, u’filah, u’tzedakah, ma-avirin et roa ha-gezera, “Repentance (return), prayer, and righteousness will mitigate the harshness of the decree.” A beautiful way to understand how this works is offered by Rabbi Helen Plotkin:

Teshuvah—repentence (sic), response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.

Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.

Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.[2]

If we follow these practices, our lives will be richer and more rewarding, despite tragedies and setbacks. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah – a happy and sweet New Year.


Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA. She is also a member of the Reform movement of Judaism’s Commission on Social Action as well as on the Leadership Team of California’s Religious Action Center.


[1] Adapted, in David Teutsch, ed., Kol Haneshamah: Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Elkins Park, PA: The Reconstructionist Press, 1999, p. 345,
[2] https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/142538/unetanah-tokef

Categories
High Holy Days

What We Do Matters and it is Good for the Soul

“The High Holy Days are upon us.  The High Holy Days are upon us!”  Shouts Paul Revere –stein.   Behold the miracle of the Almighty!  They are either early or late… but somehow never on time!  A miracle of Jewish time.  Or how we count Jewish time.   

We who live in two worlds.  Much of our life is spent in our secular universes. We earn a living. We raise a family. We tend to the every day challenges of life-health, bills, a hobby or two. And yet, there is another world.  A world which you to be as integrated into our life as the ubiquitous cell phones are today. As we peer addicted-ly at our phones and onto the world wide web for the answers to our everyday questions. Answers to riddles that come up? Who won the super bowl in 1986? (Answer: Chicago Bears). Who stared in the original Star Is Born? (Answer: Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.) The internet has become our new Torah.

But we know in our heart of hearts, it is soul less. 

We may be addicted to our selfies. But we are Jews, gosh darn it. And we must try, with all of our might and all of our soul to capture “Soul-fies.”  

What is it that captures our hearts and our souls? What is important. We can name a lot of things. But the proof in part of the response is that we are here are we not because we wish to take a “soul-fie.”  Because we know deep down that the answers to life’s questions can not all be found on the world wide web, they are found in the endless learning of Torah, and the eternal values of our people.

Our torah portion, Ki Tavo is a harsh one. Full of warnings of terrible things…illness, famine, poverty…evils that will befall the Israelites if they abandon God’s commandments.

Like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, our desire to do good things, seemed to be snatched from us and we fall on our “tuchus.”   Like a bad diet we quit way too early at the first temptation of celestial chocolate.   

No one said reaching the promised land would be easy.   

No one said running a Temple would be easy.    

It is not.  It is easy to take short cuts.  It is easy to take a short view.   It is much harder to take the long view.  To understand the importance of laying the foundation for a strong board; a vibrant Temple; nurturing a culture of giving;   It is all too easy to take for granted that which others would be amazed at programmatically.  To live in fear of the unknown– money, membership, keeping the “Israelites” happy.

Moses endured it for 40 years.  Most of you have a two year term or four.   And the burden is sometimes heavy.  Because we aim to please.  And we know deep down it is important.  For our community.  And yes, dare I say it, for our souls.   

We are here not just because we care.  We do.  Not just because we have a fiduciary responsibility to secure the integrity of the Temple.  We do.  We are here because we want to be part of a process that truly matters.  It matters what we decide.  It matters to us, to our community, and to the future of our faith. 

OMG.  When you put it that way rabbi, I am not sure that’s really what I wanted to sign up for!  

And yet. We all did. Because unlike a business which produces a specific product.  We are a sacred community and everyone here are levites in service to God. And our product is not a widget.  Or a better mouse trap.  Or a car.  Or a cell phone.  Our product, pardon the term, is producing Jews.   

And we understand that this matters. It matters to us.  It matters to the world.  It matters to all that we stand for deep down. And when we come here to take our “soulfies” we hope to capture now and always the sacred, special and awesomeness of this task.  

And yes, Dear God, that is what we have signed up for.   And it ain’t easy.   But this task is all of ours.   And it does both drain, and fill our souls.  

Both can be true. May this be our blessing.  Indeed, may this be our blessing.  Amen.


Rabbi Sanford Akselrad serves Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada. Rabbi Akselrad wishes to thank Rabbi Naomi Levy for her inspiration on the concept of “soul-fies.” 

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Books

Written in “Just Five Minutes”

A reflection by Rabbi Barry H. Block on working through Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, by Rabbi Debra Robbins, CCAR Press, 2019.

Debbie Robbins says:
“Just five minutes.”
Set aside five minutes,
No more,
To write my Elul reflections each day.
Much to my surprise,
I’ve disciplined myself to do it,
Just five minutes,
Every day.
Some days, I really need it,
Like the day that a traumatic pastoral need
Led me to extreme anxiety,
And I needed to figure out why.
Every day, I really need it.
As a rabbi,
My Elul preparation
Is all about writing sermons,
Musical cues,
Selecting reading,
Doling out honors,
All “work.”
I’m liable to ignore the inner, spiritual work of Elul;
There’s so much “rabbi work” to do.
And so I’ve resolved:
Take those five minutes a day,
And actually prepare my soul
For 5780.
Psalm 27 has opened my heart.
Funny thing:
For the first time,
Ever in my 29th year,
And that’s only since ordination,
All of my sermons are drafted—
Not “finished,” but fully drafted—
More than two weeks before Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Can that be a coincidence?


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year is now available from CCAR Press.