Categories
Healing High Holy Days

A Less Lonely Path to Repentance

The High Holy Day days can be a lonely experience. Though many of us gather in overflowing sanctuaries, together with family and friends who constitute a community, each of us must confess our individual sins, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, change our ways, offer tzedakah, and pray for our own individual absolution. We seem not to receive, or to give, any assistance in the process of repentance.

Our lonely journey to forgiveness was not always the Jewish way. When our ancestors required expiation, they would bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The blood of the animal, slain in the sacred ritual, would atone for their sins. Yes, the penitent Jew had to recite the appropriate words, and was required to provide the animal for the sacrifice, so the individual did have some role in that process, but the Priest did most of the work and the poor animal paid the ultimate price. The ancient Israelite was the beneficiary of what might be called “vicarious atonement,” forgiveness through the sacrifice from the flocks or the herds.

Christianity adopted this idea of vicarious atonement, with the faith that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, atones for the sins of others. Perhaps because Jews tend to disassociate ourselves so forcefully from that specific Christian claim, we have shied away from any notion that anyone or anything other than ourselves can help return us to the good graces of our God. Perhaps we protest too much. After all, we confess in the first person plural, “the sins we have committed.” Why not seek forgiveness communally?

Our Rosh Hashanah prayers do declare that we may find forgiveness in the righteousness of others. One portion of our shofar service is called zichronot, or remembrances. We ask God to hear the blasts and remember the righteousness of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. If we do not deserve atonement on these High Holy Days, we beg God to forgive us on account of their merit.

More personally, each of us recalls loved ones, now gone from this world, who had laudable traits that we wish we possessed. We may pray, in words of Reform prayer books past: “May the nobility in their lives and the high ideals they cherished endure in our thoughts and live on in our deeds.” Our beloved dead can truly live, if we will carry the goodness of their lives into our own. Perhaps, too, when we fall short, God will recall our loved ones’ goodness, and forgive us on their account.

Blessedly, our partners in repentance may include the people who continue to share our lives every day. Judaism teaches us the value of the tocheha, the loving rebuke, delivered in the right spirit, in the right time, in the right place. Nothing makes me a better person than a caring critique from a person who cares deeply about me. Even if we recoil from the rebuke upon first hearing it, we can learn, and become better people, in the process. Living in covenant calls upon us to help each other to abandon our unholy paths.

Let us find forgiveness for ourselves and offer atonement to others in the embrace of community on these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
High Holy Days News

It’s Not the Apocalypse

Many people are speaking like it’s the end of days.

We know these people.  Sometimes, we are these people.  The way our world is talking has escalated our existence from the already wearisome struggles of everyday life to the exasperating level of world-ending scenarios.  But sometimes what seems like an apocalypse is just everyday life.

Jewish history is filled with people predicting the apocalypse.  Amongst the first of those was the last of our Prophets, Malachi.  His final prophecy warned of the approaching day of Divine judgment that like a “smelter’s fire” would purge Israel: Who can endure the day of this arrival, Malachi wonders.  Doom and gloom, destruction and suffering, are the imagery of the prophet’s visions.  Like many prophetic peers, Malachi saw his own time period as the literal “end of days”.

But Malachi’s 4th Century was hardly the end of days… in fact, it was the beginning of a wonderful period of expansion of Jewish thought, literature, and even political power!  The prophet’s perceived apocalypse in fact was the dawn of a far better day than he ever imagined.

Our Rabbis actually lived through a far more violent time than did Malachi: they were eyewitness to multiple failed insurrections in Judea, massacres in the Jewish diaspora, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Despite all this, our Rabbis couldn’t have cared less about any apocalypse.  They needed simply to get through the day, to find a viable way for Jewish values and Jewish life to continue.

Our Rabbis read Malachi, especially the prophet’s final vision.  In fact, they maintained Malachi’s message, but steered it away from a prophecy of doom towards an oracle of hope.  They shifted our communal focus from a violence-ridden apocalyptic end-of-days to a messianic age of hope and glory.  How did they do so?  They aggrandized Malachi’s image of Elijah returning as the herald of an edenic age.  As a result of this Rabbinic revolution, Elijah has since stood as the paradigm of possibility for a world not only repaired, but perfected.  Thus do we make room for the hopeful optimism of Elijah every Passover, and intone only the positive part of the picture painted by Malachi: Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of God.  Elijah shall turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents.

Our Rabbis pivoted from awaiting a day doom towards working for a season of hope.  We need to do the same.

And there’s no better time than right now.  Our High Holy Day season, centered around the possibility of turning towards our better selves, makes clear that the choice we should make in these troubled times is to do everything within our power to restore hope and promise to our world.  In fact, the premise of the High Holy Days could never be more clearly stated than the very words of Malachi: Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you, declares Adonai.  Our entire season of turning helps us focus first our intentions and then our deeds so that we can reorient our lives towards the better people we know we can be.

There’s no doubt there were troubles the in Malachi’s time, or in the age of our Rabbis.  And I would be the last to say there isn’t a lot broken with our world today, both here in America and overseas in Israel.  But especially in difficult days, Judaism reminds us we must make a powerful choice: we can see things as the end of days and turn inward, or we can work towards a messianic era and reach out our hands to fix our broken world.  In today’s times of trouble, in our Holy Day season of turning towards the purest paths, may we all move away from talking about the apocalypse and instead dedicate ourselves even more deeply to the work of tikkun olam, of bringing hope and healing to all.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the immediate past Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and also Vice-Chair of the policy-setting body of the Union for Reform Judaism, its Commission on Social Action, and currently serves on the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice from CCAR Press., now available for pre-order.

Categories
High Holy Days

Elul and the Red Planet

This July Mars was closer than it’s been to Earth in fifteen years.  With giddiness and wonder many of us took a glance at the night sky to see a hazy orange glow that indeed felt far more visible than usual.

In truth, Mars is always roughly the same distance from the earth, 38 million miles give or take a few.  Sometimes, however, as happened this summer, our vantage point changes and we see our neighboring planet anew, as if now immediately by our side.  Rather than have our heads buried in phones and screens of every ilk, we saw in a new light what otherwise seemed so taken-for-granted.  The scientific community used the opportunity to present new findings on the epic volcano, Olympus Mons, the largest in our solar system, which rests atop Mars, as well as a winding lake, long dry, stretching twelve miles across a portion of the red planet.

All of it becomes a reminder that we need to look up sometimes too.  We need to be reminded to turn our gaze elsewhere, away from Facebook and meeting agendas, lengthy emails and service outlines.  Elul pulls us back, and turns our gaze to what matters, even as we feel the stifling pull of planning for our holy day season.  Rather than get drawn to the stark glare of logistics and minutiae, let alone a news cycle that can be so unnerving, Elul brings our attention to those places we often neglect.  During this sacred month, we turn to the full breadth of our faith, community, our Homeland and our God.  As the tangible world competes for attention and commercials blare of sales and upcoming TV premiers, it is Elul that pulls our heart back to what is most fundamental.

As one of the harrowing Haftarah readings of this time of year urges: ‘Look up all around you and see; they are all assembled, are come to you’ (Isaiah 49:18).

As we turn ourselves now to our most central and sacred texts and prepare for the upcoming hagim, we see it all as if anew, against the backdrop of our scary world and the multiple generations within our communities that are in search of perspective and guidance for today.  Like a planet that has always been there, but somehow feels brand new, we stand now to come back to the familiar hues and tones of Slichot, the Binding of Isaac, Tashlich, and of course Jonah.  Like Mars, these narratives feel both mysterious and familiar.  They are both right beside us and as distant as ever.  We squint to see them with clarity and marvel at how many have looked at them over the centuries.

Our task becomes turning them round and round so that our collective vantage point has us see them for what they are: inspiring, beautiful, and offering us the wisdom we so very much need.

Rabbi Benjamin David serves Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, New Jersey and is a co-founder of the Running Rabbis.  Rabbi David is also the Editor of CCAR Press’s  Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

 

Categories
High Holy Days

A Lifelong Process of Becoming

The High Holy Days are that special time in the Jewish calendar for us to take a step back and reflect on who we are as people. We are given the opportunity to look back on the previous spin around the sun to ponder where we were in our lives and where we are going in the coming year. One of the most effective means by which to consider our holistic growth as fully-rounded human beings is to engaging in t’shuvah, the act of returning to our core state of authentic righteousness. And as we approach these most auspicious of days, the question that should be on our lips and inscribed in our heart is: what does t’shuvah mean for me?

On a spiritual level, the process of t’shuvah is akin to finding our innermost point, a phrase we call nekuda ha’penimit. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter—known as the Sefat Emet—taught, “For everything there is a point of essence (nekudah chayut)… and the world is pulled by this single point.” Once we find this constantly evolving place of inner Godliness, we can nurture it and expand it from smallness to its inherent, infinite potential. This is, perhaps, the most important task of our lives. T’shuvah, the literal translation usually rendered as returning, is a process where constantly returning to a deep inner point of being is the objective; allowing these encounters to transform all that we do and all that we are.

On that same thought, Maimonides taught that: “The Jewish People will only be redeemed through teshuvah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5). None of us can hold off a moment of growth as no one has reached perfection. “There is no righteous individual on earth who does [only] good and never does wrong” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

In the trenches of Kabbalistic thought, coming to know one’s inner deepest self—one’s id and one’s angelic self—means coming to know something much deeper. Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera explains it in this way:

They said that whoever knows his soul knows his Creator, and whoever is ignorant of knowing his soul is ignorant of the knowledge of his Creator. How can one believe that a person is wise concerning something else when he is ignorant concerning himself? … Therefore, they said that the knowledge of the soul is prior to the knowledge of God (Sefer ha-Nefesh, translation by R. Jospe).

Similarly, Yosef Ibn Tzadik taught:

By man knowing his own soul, he will know the spiritual world from which he can attain some knowledge of the Creator, as it is written, “From my flesh I shall perceive God” [Job 19:26] (Ha-Olam ha-Katan, translation by S. Horovitz).

While religions across the world maintain their own systems of ritual and symbolism, each with their differing perspectives of human-divine interaction, it is our goal nonetheless that we keep our eyes focused on the main role of organized spirituality: to transform and elevate our core being to actualize our mission in this world. To do so, we must be engaged in a daily process of t’shuvah.

There are no set instructions for performing t’shuvah; it’s not an endeavor that one does carelessly. For example, there is the t’shuvat of refraining from doing the same action we repented for in the past (t’shuvat ha’ba’ah); removing pleasure in one’s life equal to the pleasure gained from the wrong done (T’shuvat Ha’mishkol); realizing the need to correct missed spiritual opportunities; and realizing that we need to t’shuvah for the self and t’shuvah for a collective purpose as that of family, community, or the world.

And these are only the beginning!

As in any major pursuit, too many people focus on the macro effect of their efforts rather than the incremental steps. We need game plans. We need dedication. We need the foresight to wake up every morning and ask: How are we going to make every day count? Each of us has the opportunity develop our plan of reflection and action so that we can actualize our greatest potentials. That is what this time of the year reinforces most strongly.

In this life, we are charged with a seemingly unconquerable moral task: to balance striving (hishtadlut) with trusting (bitachon). These two qualities bifurcate our ethical and empirical selves. How far do we go to cultivate radical empathy for the vulnerable and downtrodden, but at the same time, develop a sense to know that our efforts may not be enough to help everyone? Indeed, these challenges of understanding the limits of our potential require intentional effort; they require us to release a deeply imperfect human need for total control. In that way, t’shuvat reflects our desire for holiness. It’s about ensuring that humanity becomes a force for healing rather than a force for hurting; for building rather than destroying; for contributing rather than diminishing. And when we return (shuv) to our Divine essence (tzelem Elokim), our souls reflect their heavenly origin and reveal the beauty of our human aspirations.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR, 2018).

Categories
chaplains Death High Holy Days

Love and Washing: Preparing for the Days of Awe

The time of death was 6:55 pm, last night.  The patient was 2 weeks old.  Her name means “journey,” her mother explained. As the doctor and nurses prepared to detach the tubes and wires from her tiny body, her tearful family gathered around.  In a soft voice, the head nurse told the family that after the extubation, they would bathe the baby’s body, so the mother could hold her.  Suddenly, one of the aunties looked up and said, “And you said I could help bathe her.”  The nurse agreed firmly.

I looked at the tiny body, oozing and bloody, yet inconceivably pure and innocent. I thought of Psalm 51.7: “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

As we work through this month of Elul, preparing each in our own way for those trembling Days of Awe in which we confront our mortality and lead others in confronting their own, I pondered the relationship between love and washing.  The well-known drash on the name of this month, “Ani l’ Dodi, v’Dodi li,” underscores the sentiment that we approach God with love, not fear, as we search ourselves and inventory our transgressions.  Coming up with this list of smudges and soot what are we to do now?

Not until last night, could I fully conceive of what the relationship between forgiveness and love might feel like, what might it look like?  Love bathes. Love washes away- like a warm basin, like a soapy washcloth, like a gentle waterfall.

Showering with a lover, drawing a bath for a child, performing taharah – love cleans.

As we prepare for these Yamim Noraim only weeks away, let us go about the gut wrenching and the mundane, the trivial and the sacred, the parts we like and those we don’t, knowing that God’s gentle hands are already gathering perfumed soaps and oils, warm towels and holy loofahs, in anticipation of washing us clean.

Rabbi Leah Cohen Tenenbaum, D.Min, C’2000 serves as a chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Searching for Possibility and Hope

A smile can make a huge difference. That is what two of my congregants and I discovered when we came to McAllen, Texas to volunteer for a week with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center for immigrants newly released from detention. McAllen is the largest processing center for immigrants seeking to enter the United States. After arriving at the border, they are detained by immigration authorities. If and when they are released, they are taken to the Central Bus Station. That is where staff and volunteers from the Respite Center pick them up and bring them to the center for a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothes, before being accompanied back to the bus station where they are sent off across the country to meet their sponsor — usually a family member. Once there, they will face a court date and the decision of a judge as to whether they can stay here or be deported back home.

These are the lucky ones. They are not placed in detention beyond a few days, and they are not being permanently separated from their children. It is not entirely clear why they are being released while so many others are kept in detention for many months. It may be because they have a sponsor and a credible case for asylum, but no one we spoke to was entirely sure as the system seems to be somewhat arbitrary. However, their situation is far from fortunate. They come primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries torn apart by violence and plagued by extreme poverty. These immigrants are fleeing the violence, often fearful for their own lives and that of their children. Their dangerous journeys average 3-4 weeks during which they travel by foot, by bus, and/or on La Bestia, the freight trains which they ride on the roof. Some of the women are pregnant, some of the adults are carrying newborns.

Once they turn themselves in or are arrested at the border, they are put into detention for 3-4 days in what the immigrants call “La Hielera” — the Ice Box — because of how cold it is in there. One woman, Maria Luisa, told us that she was separated from her two sons, forbidden from hugging them, forced to sleep on the floor with only an aluminum blanket, barely fed a frozen burrito, allowed to shower once for three minutes, and kicked awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. She along with all the others who are released, was forced to wear an ankle monitor to ensure that she would appear for her court date. Her ankle bracelet, as was the case with the others we saw, was tight and uncomfortable, and made her leg swell.

This inhumane treatment is in marked contrast to how these immigrants are welcomed at the Respite Center, which was established four years ago by Sister Norma Pimentel. In that time, something like 100,000 immigrants have come through their doors. The motto over the front door, “Restoring Human Dignity,” is what drives the staff and the revolving groups of volunteers from around the country. The immigrants here are met with kindness, concern and care. When they first arrive, they are rather stone-faced and wary, but soon they relax and respond to the warmth being shown to them. We tried as much as possible to look them each in the face and to smile, acknowledging their humanity. We served them a bowl of chicken soup, helped them find a fresh set of clothes and shoes, and guided them to the showers where we kept two washing machines and two dryers going constantly to keep up with the volume of towels. Because the clothes on their backs have been worn for close to a month, we threw them away. We also put together snack bags and sandwiches to take with them when they returned to the bus station for the next step of their journey.

One of my congregants was asked by some of her friends whether the children we saw actually belonged to the adults they were with. There is no question that these adults were their parents! They demonstrated a great deal of love and affection for their children, and the children were clearly very attached to them. They are people like you and I, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They are looking for a new start, one with possibilities, one with hope. As we enter the month of Elul on the road to the High Holy Days, we too are in search of a new beginning. Let us be thankful for our good fortune. Let us also resolve to remember those whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil unrest, gangs, and poverty. At the very least, we can offer them a smile, a reminder that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer

On the Same Page

How to get 6000+ people on the same page for a service? When we started Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars more than a decade ago, we didn’t even know this was an important question to address.

Laura Black, a decades-long member of the congregation, mentioned her idea to Cantor Judi Rowland while both were working out at the gym. She told Judi that while her adult children had no interest in joining her for our ‘regular’ services, she thought that she could persuade them if we would hold a service outside somewhere, maybe in a park. We were taken with the idea as Cantor Rowland, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and I thought about the possibilities for engagement and outreach.  We began plans to take our ‘Alternative/Family’ service out of the social hall and into Oregon Ridge Park where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra regularly holds their summer concert series.

As we concocted that first RHUS, we had a couple of principles in mind that still hold 11 years later. We wanted the service to be free, open to the public, accessible and warm. We wanted people to know that even though they would be welcome wearing shorts, eating picnics, not shushing their kids, that this would be a service and not an “event.” For that first year, our clergy team put together a small service booklet and ambitiously printed double the number of attendees we expected. “If 500 people show up,” we thought, “that will be incredible!”  When that first Erev Rosh Hashanah arrived, we found that we had over 1500 in our remarkable congregation.

During the second and third year’s planning meetings, I fretted that many of those booklets had not returned to us. I was concerned about the potential chilul of where those booklets might have ended up and about the environmental waste of resources that would not be re-used and possibly not recycled. I wanted to revise some of the language we had chosen, but didn’t want to get rid of all the books we still had on hand. Some time between the third and fifth year I encountered Visual T’filah at a convention. At first I was wary – prayers projected on a huge screen felt too ‘megachurchy,’ too ‘non-Jewish’ for all the obvious reasons. But I also found the pictures accompanying prayers engaging and the images added intriguing layers of meaning.

I reached out to Rabbi Dan Medwin, Visual T’filah’s creator, and gathered a small group of smart and creative congregants. We studied the Erev Rosh Hashanah service and decided on imagery. One offered his own photography, another her own artwork. We went through revisions with Dan and finalized a beautiful prayer book that would be displayed on a jumbo screen flanking the band shell transformed into a bima.  In 2011 Visual T’filah became the prayer book of RHUS. In the years that followed, we were able to change translations, swap songs and add or remove images without any of the attendant waste. After a year or two, as ipads and smart phones became ubiquitous, we wanted people to have the option of downloading the service in advance. This felt especially important for the attendees toward the back of the ever-growing crowd. Dan devised and revised the download process so that attendees could have it in hand or watch it on the big screen.

Who knows what alchemy has allowed RHUS to grow to over 6000 attendees in the decade+ of its existence? We now have two jumbo screens as well as banks of enormous speakers. There are families whose children have never known an Erev Rosh Hashana without Visual T’filah, lawn chairs, and fantastically vibrant community. BHC members come together with unaffiliated Jews, folks who belong to other Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, Washington DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and a handful of non-Jews who just want to share in the celebration of a New Year with us. It is truly a blessing to have 6000+ people together on the same jumbo page, if only for one service a year.

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is one of the rabbis at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation where she has served for 14 years.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Walking the Elul Journey: My T’shuvah Trail Revolves around Relationship

As I walk this journey this month of Elul, my t’shuvah trail focuses on relationship:

I remember the rabbinic thoughts of the medieval Spanish Jewish sage, Isaac Abravanel. He believed that in preparing our neshamah for the specialness of the High Holidays, we need to sift through our emotional baggage, our life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”  

I remember the thoughts of the 19th Century Musar teacher, the Cheshvan HaNefesh, who focuses on the middot of seder (order): “Set all your actions and possessions in order. Assure that everything is in its place and time, and your thoughts are free to engage with what is before you.” He wants us to clear out distractions from the work of the moment. This connective tissue is a journey of self-discovery, reflection and reframing.

The most important gift that I give to my home hospice dementia patients and their families is the gift of presence.  Like our foreparents in the Wilderness of Sinai, I accompany them on their journey through their wilderness. It requires me to be open to him or her as my teacher. His or her teaching goes beyond words and into nonverbal psychospiritual conversation. The journey may arise as moments of agitation or mumbled words or be a hand held or a simple smile. In this and other ways that we accompany this individual, we reflect, reframe, and validate the individual and the holy space around him or her. All of us learn to value the essence of being. the life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”

By the time I was his student, one man, who taught me how, was 89.  He was a sweet, menschy, scholarly man.  He never let me forget that his Talmud teachers had been my great, great grandfather and my great grandfather. In the early 20th Century, they sent the two Chaims, him and his best friend, my grandfather, to start an American branch of the family Musar yeshiva. At my Bar Mitzvah, my weekly study sessions with him, and at my rabbinic orals, he kidded me about answering his questions with some of their words rather than my own. He retired only when his battle with Dementia took over.

Each morning and early evening he went to his own synagogue. But on Friday nights he came to my first congregation. His wife hoped that being in shul would slow the progression of the disease. At the end of each service, she waited outside for him. But this man could not find his way to the door. One of his other students brought him to her in his own synagogue, and I brought him out to her on Friday nights.

For the first three years of my rabbinate, this wonderful man continued to be my teacher. Dementia peels away the protective mask layers of personality we put up, revealing the inner spark. His smile warmed each person’s heart.

There is a wise teaching that one learns the most from watching how our teachers tie their shoelaces:

My teacher taught each of us patience. He taught us how to deal with things out of our control with joy. He taught us the sincerity of prayer, and how God answers us. But his greatest life lesson to us was what his disease left of his true priorities-

What makes us angry and frustrated?

How do we behave when stripped of our masks?

How do we set our practical life priorities?  

He was 98 when he passed. His spark piece remains close to my heart and my own piece of light. This is one journey to Elul…the T’shuvah trail to relationship.

Rabbi Charles P. Rabinowitz, BCC is a member of the CCAR Rapid Response Team as a Rabbinic Bereavement and Pastoral Counselor.  Rabbi Rabinowitz also works for Caring Hospice of New York where he provides home hospice and palliative care services to patients and families.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Bnei Belial—The Children of No Avail

Hannah, heroine of our Haftarah for Rosh HaShanah, has continuously challenged communal assumptions.  For me, her plea not to be considered a child of no avail resonates with the outcry of recent weeks from 800,000 children who likewise want their human value recognized in the face of an Attorney General and President who only deem them wothy of deportation.  And so I offer this intention, this Kavvanah, as a potential frame for our reading of the Haftarah this High Holy Day season.

 

 

 

בני בליעל—Bnei Belial—The Children of no Avail

a poem for the Haftarah of Rosh HaShanah

there she stands
silently
praying for a better future
any future
bitter spirit notwithstanding
crying praying crying
keeping to herself
the taunts and trampled hopes
the privileged provoke

there he stands
positioned authority
abusing the power he was born into
watching the signs
misreading as he spoke
unknowingly asking
how long?
how long will your worthless lot
intrude upon my sacred land

so it has been for handmaids
immemorial from time
misread by priests and potentates and presidents
mistaking women of valor
for the children of no avail

men stand on the steps
of Shiloh the Statehouse of Congress
and pay no attention
to the prayer on a hopeful mother’s lips
mistaking piety for insobriety
drunkenness for dreaming

how long?
how long will your worthless lot plague us with your petty problems
they rebuke the crying women
who want but a better future,
or only just a future

Abraham stood atop Moriah
risked his son’s very life for the very life of his son
the paradox of a dream denied a dream deferred
becoming dream fulfilled

we break the law
out of ultimate respect for the law

Hannah stood on her steps
prayed for her child’s very life for the life of a son
who might listen where others’ ears turn deaf
a human being
who would look at prayerful lips
and seek to heal and not to harm
to bless and not to curse
the paradox of a dreamer denied a dreamer deferred
becoming dream fulfilled

how long?
how long will our worthless lot
remain indifferent to all who cry to all who whisper wanting
but a better future,
how long will we remain silent
our lips pursed not in prayer but in resigned indifference
as dreams are deferred, denied, deported
how long will we remain children of no avail

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the immediate past Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and also Vice-Chair of the policy-setting body of the Union for Reform Judaism, its Commission on Social Action, and currently serves on the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

A Rosh HaShanah Reflection on Birth and Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are responsible for executing God’s master plan.

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

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

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

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

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

L’Shana Tova U’Metukah!

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

 

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

[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 29:1

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

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

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

[6] Pesikta Rabbati 40:5

[7] Edi Nelson