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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.

 

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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

 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Everything Is Waiting For You

I watch the moon closely during the month of Elul.  Two weeks of expansion and then the moon contracts.  Such is the moon’s pattern during every month of the year.  But in Elul, I am paying attention. Perhaps you are too. In this month, the moon’s movement tells us that the new year is on the way.  Along with the night sky’s growing darkness, Rosh Hashanah soon will arrive. More than absence, the new moon represents possibility. As poet David Whyte reminds each one of us, “everything is waiting for you.”

This is my first High Holy Day season as Director of Rabbinic Placement for the CCAR.  I recently wrote in the CCAR newsletter that I have been thinking a lot about the spirituality of placement and the possibilities for holiness and wholeness that flow through every aspect of this work.  When I think of the spirituality of placement, the word that most resonates with me is “pilgrim.” Placement is a pilgrimage, and one who enters the process of placement – whether a rabbi or a congregation – embarks on a pilgrimage.

To be a pilgrim, to be on a pilgrimage, is to participate in a journey of return. Though the pilgrim never may have been on that particular path before, the process calls forth a remembering, a return to questions that are elemental, foundational, essential: Who am I?  To whom and what am I committed? For what do I exist?

These are the same questions that we ask ourselves during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) season.  As Elul wans and Tishrei approaches, our annual journey of return calls us to engage in courageous remembrance.  To remember is courageous because it requires that we acknowledge both what is no longer as well as the truth of what now is.

One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance.  We ask that God remember us for life and blessing.  We ask that God remember the merit of our ancestors and credit their blessedness to us.  Yet we are actors in the endeavor of remembrance, too.  Each year at this season, we embark on a journey of return to re-member ourselves – that is, to further integrate the various parts of our life experiences, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect in our relationships with one another, the divine presence, the natural worlds, and our most authentic, best selves.  

To integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. That is what remembrance is. Remembrance engages the fullness of our beings – our minds and our bodies, our hearts, emotions, spirits and souls. Over the course of the year, we forget our deepest truths and yearnings, we abandon our callings and commitments, we ignore and lose sight of the mission for which we exist.

To engage in the sacred acts, which result in our remembering — repentance, prayer and righteous deeds — we must learn to loosen our grip. We cannot return to a state of wholeness if our hearts are hardened and our jaws and fists are clenched.  This past year has brought with it more than its share of pain and disappointment, loss and lament.  Death and so many other endings call upon us, the ones who go on living, to let go, which is to accept the reality of loss and also to accept what is.  To let go is to surrender to reality, but it is not the same as resignation.  We struggle against letting go – out of fear of not being in control, out of fear that we might forget, out of fear of what will no longer be, out of fear of what now is.  

Fear can take us to the most constricted of places, places where we forget how to live. There is plenty to be frightened about at this moment in this country and throughout the planet. But we can acknowledge our fears and still recognize that we have choice and options. We can be with what is. We can be with the truth of our experience – all of it.  And we can loosen our grip. We can begin again.

We do this holy work together. In our relationships and in our communities, we gather to remember – to integrate, to bring together the pieces, to reconnect. May this season be a pilgrimage of renewal, revealing new possibilities for healing and connection. Like the moon, we turn and return. With each breath, expanding and contracting, blessed to begin again.

Rabbi Cindy Enger is the Director of Placement at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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High Holy Days Holiday

Preparing Ourselves

In these times of turmoil we rabbis bring a sense of comfort and steadiness to the communities we serve.  In the storm tossed waters that seem to shake the world these days, our congregants, students, and communities look to us to help them make sense of it all.  They look to our tradition, our prophets, our Torah for soothing, healing, and that most important quality, hope.

These coming High Holy Days will challenge us to bring that spiritual nourishment to the Jewish people like never before. In the aftermath of Charlottesville our people will need a true message of consolation.  How to forgive in the face of such vile bigotry?

We, too, are not immune to these same feelings as those we serve.  Our own outrage and concern as we have to respond to the hatemongers among us affects our well-being too.  I have heard from many friends and colleagues about their own worries and concerns for the U.S. as the racists and white supremacists, Nazis and Klan have come out from their hoods into the light of day and the light of their tiki torches.  I have heard about the fatigue that grips us as we are constantly called upon to march and comfort, speak up and show up.

So how can we in these days and weeks of preparation for the Yamim Noraim prepare ourselves to lead? How can we bring a sense of shalom to our own souls so that we in turn my guide and uplift our communities in prayer and reflection? How can we prepare to lead the Jewish people toward t’shuvah in the weeks ahead?

If we turn to Yoma 2ab we find the discussion of the sequestration of the High Priest. Seven days prior to the start of Yom Kippur the High Priest was removed from his home.  This was done according to tradition to ensure the High Priest’s spiritual purity for the sacred day and sacred service.  The High Priest lived in a special chamber at the Temple during this time and his team went to great lengths to ensure that his spiritual purity could be guarded and protected. During the Avodah service on Yom Kippur the atonement of the people depended upon his spiritual purity.  But our tradition also teaches that the High Priest was sequestered to also search his own soul. This time allowed him to pray and reflect and meditate on the awe-some task that would soon come.

While we are not priests like in the days of the Temple, I believe we have to find the time even as Religious school starts up again, and there are sermons to be written, music to be chosen and our people return from their summer vacations, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the Days of Awe.  Rabbis may not be able to take seven days prior to Yom Kippur to sequester ourselves  but this text does provide us with a reminder that even the High Priest needed to prepare  for his task.  We too have to prepare our spiritual selves for our task. Our spiritual purity and sensibilities do need some time and attention.  Self-care in these times of political disruption and assault will help each of us steer our people’s prayers toward heaven.

I am inspired by the High Priest’s preparation and I am inspired to ensure that my own soul is ready to do the heavy lifting of t’shuvah.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and is the immediate Past President of the CCAR. 

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High Holy Days Holiday

It Will Have to Wait until After The High Holy Days

“It will have to wait until after the High Holy Days.”

My children are used to that refrain.  From late August until early October, many of their requests are answered with the familiar phrase:  after the holy days.  The shopping trip to replace the sneakers, the movie they want to see, the party they need help planning – these are the seeming extras that my family is asked to put on hold while I write sermons, work with the soloist, supervise the distribution of honors and listen to Torah readers.   No matter how much we resolve to start preparing earlier, those of us who lead services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often subsumed by the overwhelming number of tasks that confront us.

This is a time of year when those who are closest to us are asked to make sacrifices because of the sacred responsibility that many of us have to lead our communities in worship during these powerful days.  Our partner or spouse bears a heavier load of household responsibilities.  Our aging parent reluctantly agrees to skip the weekly lunch.  The new man or woman that we have begun to date is asked to wait a few weeks to go out again.   And it goes on and on.

We know from the work we are doing through surveys and focus groups, that many of us feel this tension, particularly in this season. The feelings of guilt that build up when High Holy Day preparation takes us away from our loved ones only adds to the stress that we feel, stress that impacts those we love and live with.  It is, in the truest sense of the word, a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break.

And then there is guilt. Knowing that my children expect the refrain, “it will have to wait until after the Holy Days” does not make saying it each year any easier.  Now that they are older, they are often the ones to say, “I know that this will need to wait”.  And still, I feel guilty.  The feelings of guilt that we carry about this ever-present tension are especially ironic at this time of year.  We often counsel people about the guilt they carry, about the difference between forgetting and letting go.  So many people are weighed down by their wrongdoings, by relationships that are wounded.  We strive to help them let go of self-recrimination, the ever-present guilt that prevents them from moving forward.  In other words, we encourage them to forgive themselves that they may more freely open their hearts to new possibilities and change.

Yet as with so many things, what we strive to help others achieve is much harder to achieve for ourselves.   There is no simple solution to the feeling of being pulled in all directions, of feeling guilty by the sense that we are failing someone as we work to please everyone. But we have learned from you that reaching out helps.  Know that you are not alone in your feelings, and it might help to remind yourself of that by calling a friend.  It is not admitting failure to do so and in fact, your openness may help the person you call by bringing a common feeling in to the open.  And finally:  forgive yourself.   In so doing, may your heart soften and open to allow true change, healing and growth.

 

Rabbi Betsy Torop is the Director of Member Engagement, Support, and Professional Growth for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

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Books High Holy Days Machzor

Pulling Out an Old Friend Before the New Year

With the New Year set to begin shortly, I know most of my rabbinical friends are working very hard to craft their sermons and iyunim.  I know I spend time thinking about each and every word and story to shape a meaningful message to my community.

But each year before I begin to write, I engage in my own process of preparation.  I turn to the original Shaarei Teshuvah—Gates of Repentance.  Not our previous machzor-but Rabbi Jonah of Gerona’s book. I use my now well- worn text as my way into preparing myself for the High Holy Day Season. My copy is written in and has dog –eared and paper clipped pages. It still has some of the original book cover. This is a text that I have studied alone in some years and with a chavruta in others depending on the year.

I love re-reading this powerful text on repentance each year.  I deeply hearken to the way it highlights the practical steps to teshuvah.  The text outlines Twenty Principles that help one move from acknowledging the transgressions one has committed to keeping others far from sin.  Many of the principles would be recognizable from anyone who has worked the 12 steps of an Alcoholic Anonymous Program. But Rabbi Jonah goes deeper into each principle helping to lift up the essence of teshuvah with a focus on keeping the person far from sin.

I love reading and re-reading this text as a spark to prepare my heart, my soul, and as a reflection on the process I need for myself at this time of year.  I have found that the preparation I do spiritually-feeding my own soul matters perhaps more than the messages I will deliver from the bima.  Not in some selfish way but rather as a process to lift my intentions higher. The text study and reflection builds in me the spiritual reserve to frame my messages to my community.

But as much as I study and review the Twenty Principles, I love the notes that I have written alongside the text in my book. The sparks of sermon ideas and questions it raised in me through the years are a good review.  My scribbled notes on grammar or vocabulary in Hebrew, my jotted shorthand mentioning another book I may have been reading at the time bring the various years together in one place; the comment of a chavruta partner; all these notes to myself help me to prepare.   And most of all it is a record of my spiritual journey of years when I felt my sins weighed heavy against me or the years when I felt wronged by others.

My preparation for the New Year is not complete without studying with my friend Rabbi Jonah of Geronah.  In these days before the New Year arrives I hope that you feel that you have filled your spiritual reserve enough to share with your family and friends and the communities you lead.

With every good wish for a sweet and fulfilling 5777.

— 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.  

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High Holy Days News

Growing Deep

How to find and offer wisdom in a polarized world?

We live in an uncompromising age, a time of hard edges and bristling polemic.  Our current culture too often confuses strength with bombast, conviction with absolutism, passion with intolerance.   Deliberation and compromise are portrayed as weakness, and unyielding rigidity as power.  Beit Hillel is AWOL.  Rage is all the rage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck wrote:  “And the mind/wants to shine, plainly, as/machines shine, and not/grow deep, as for example, roots.”  In Gluck’s terms, we live in a machine age:  too readily and too lazily, our minds prefer shine to roots.

And then along come the High Holidays, and urge us to be the klei kodesh of a completely counter-cultural message to our people and to ourselves:  slow down and stop shining.  Look within before you shout without.  Stop.  Reflect.  Struggle.  Consider your responsibilities to others.   Create the space for questions that do not have easy answers.   Permit uncertainties that shake you off center.  Allow for regret and change.  Open your heart to new possibilities.  Grow deep.

Consider the sound of the shofar:  ragged, varied, piercing precisely because it’s not pretty.  It is the sound of roots, not shine.

The Mishnah teaches (RH 3:7) that if the shofar is sounded in a pit or a cistern, if one hears the sound of the shofar, one has fulfilled the mitzvah of listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  But if one hears only the sound of the echo, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah.  The Gemara (BT RH 27b) goes on to comment that if the listener is in the pit when the shofar is sounded, then surely the listener hears the sound itself, and has fulfilled the obligation.  But if the listener is standing only on the edge of the pit, then the listener has only heard the echo, and has not fulfilled the obligation.

An interpretation about the opportunity and purpose of these days:  if you stay only on the surface of things, if you do not grow deep, then in fact you have not fulfilled the obligation of these Days of Awe.

None of this is easy.  The sermons weigh on us, the logistics burden us, we apply all sorts of pressure to ourselves, and we get stuck thinking in terms of shine rather than roots.  Unwittingly, we allow the space of self to crowd out the presence of the sacred:  what will they think of me?  Will I be good at this?  How will they react?  We want to get it right and do it well, but it can be hard to distinguish the commitment to calling from the seductions of ego.

Like many of you, I have certain touchstones at this time of year:  passages, poems, teachers on the page who help me stay centered.  For me, the best of these anchoring teachings comes from my grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin z”l.  Because he wrote these words for a series of homiletics lectures at HUC-JIR (in 1959), they refer specifically to preaching.  But they are surely about more than that.  They are about what it means to be a rabbi, and what it means to be human.  They are about speaking and living with integrity and heart, at any season but especially this one.  They are about going and growing deep, despite all the temptations to shine.  They are a gift to me each year, and this year I hope, to you:

If you do not love those to whom you preach, you will not preach successfully.  If, secretly, you do not respect those who listen to you, then you will not touch them deeply.  Preaching must be purged of condescension, of a sense of superiority.  If it isn’t, then you will not talk so that people will care about what you are saying.  By the same token, if you have no deep concern, you may be engaged in a homiletical exercise, but not in preaching a sermon.  If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should.  If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside.  If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place. 

May these days be eye-opening, soul-opening.  May the call from the heart of the tradition enter our own.  May we hear it and offer it with courage and strength, and the depth of God’s blessing.  Shana Tova!

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El, Dallas, and is President-Elect of The Central Conference of American Rabbis

Categories
High Holy Days

Blank Pages

At this moment of writing I sit in my study at Temple Emanu-El, the early morning quiet contoured by impending rain clouds that promise a wet Atlanta morning.

The clock on the wall, set above my ordination degree bearing signatures of my teachers before me, softly ticks and tocks with each second.  The sound both soothes and beckons me with potential and with challenge.

And in front of me, a blank page stares back, demanding words to share that are ripe with inspiration, aspiration, and meaning.

Perhaps in the space between the ticking seconds, and through the glaring white page, the metaphor calls out to us, “Yes, it is right here. Open your eyes and be awake!”

The High Holy Days are around the corner.  Each year the weeks leading up to them are heavy with a certain weighted intensity that our Jewish tradition fosters as a positive and necessary experience.  The backdrop of the harvest (yesteryear), the new semester, and a return to the fast- paced workplace after the summer lull is part of the atmosphere. But the real pressure that Judaism prescribes is the proverbial tick of the clock and glaring white pages of our lives still to be lived.  There is a spiritual urgency that stirs in us.

What will we do with our time to make the very most of the days that we have left? (tick… tock)

In the Book of Life (Sefer HaChayim) where we implore God to inscribe us each new year, what will we choose to write on that glaring blank page?  For the pen is in our hands, as are the stories, words and deeds…

These questions form the backbone not only of our High Holy Days, but of our collective lives.

The stakes presented in these existential questions are far from hypothetical, but rather are intensely personal.

For this reason, The High Holy Days are often referred to as the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, for it is with ‘awe’ that we are cautioned to approach the honest assessment we are asked to make of ourselves and our lives.  Our liturgy calls this a Heshbone HaNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel helps us understand the concept of ‘awe’, and our approach to it, by asking us how we might approach the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you have been there.  Imagine standing right on the edge, looking out and down.  It is vast.  It is truly incredible.  It makes us simultaneously feel insignificant and luminous.  With our toes on the edge of the precipice, we gaze into the abyss, all the while knowing that our feet rest on firm and unshakable ground.  That is ‘awe’, a mixture of elation and fear.

Elation for what we could yet achieve with our lives, our relationships, and our ability to appreciate the invaluable worth of each moment.

Fear of falling far short of our potential, squandering our relationships, and closing our eyes to the beauty and meaning that permeates our precious days.

On Rosh HaShanah when we pray to be inscribed in the book of life, we are not just praying for more time on earth, but we are jolting ourselves awake to really, truly live!

אב’נו מלכנו כתבנו בספר ח”ם טוב’ם

Avinu Maleinu, kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim.

Our benevolent God, inscribe us (and may we have the courage to inscribe ourselves) in the Book of Lives Well Lived.

May our congregations everywhere, and our congregants be blessed; and in turn bless one another.

And may this year be a sweet year for us all.

Rabbi Spike Anderson serves Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, Georgia.

Categories
High Holy Days spirituality

High Holy Day Self-Care: A Rabbinic Primer

My ex-boyfriend used to joke: I love you every week of the year, except for the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Oh, and the day before Rosh HaShanah. I find it challenging to love you then too.

I get it, and I bet you (and your significant other, or kids, or cantor, or assistant, or all of the above) do too. As a Rabbi’s kid, who’s herself worked for some very anxious senior Rabbis, I can attest: the high holy days often make us crazy. And not just crazy but angry, unpleasant, overtired and sometimes even nasty. My mom (who, strictly speaking, as a pediatric surgeon had a far more stressful job than my father) used to say, “I just try to stay out of your dad’s way during the month before the holy days.”

The irony is, of course, this: ‘tis the season of cheshbon hanefesh, of checking ourselves, apologizing to others, and guarding, a bit more closely, our words and actions. It’s what we preach from the bima, but far, far too often fail to practice in the lead up to the days of awe.

So, in the summers leading up to Elul, I’ve gone above and beyond to set aside some time to prepare myself – not just with cues and sermons and music – but spiritually, emotionally, and physically, for the chagim.

A few suggestions, based on trial and error:

1) The next time you’re agonizing over a sermon, or impressing your biggest donors with your Yom Kippur appeal, or figuring out the perfect balance between the political and the pastoral, stop. Literally. Stop it. Get out of your office. Step away from your computer. Put down the David Wolpe or Jonathan Sacks sermon you wish you’d written, and go for a walk. Get a massage. Hug your kids. Pick up Annie Dillard, or Wendell Berry, or Brene Brown, or Mary Oliver’s new book of poetry, or Yehuda Amichai, or whatever, whoever, inspires you. And then forgive yourself for not being able to produce utter brilliance in one sitting. If you have a creative hobby outside of the rabbinate, do it. Paint. Go to a yoga class. Go for a hike. Walk the dog. Give back to yourself so you have something to give to others.

2) Take your own preaching to heart, and forgive. Forgive the temple president who drives you crazy, the assistant who forgot to mail out the yahrtzeit notices, and yourself, for everyone you’ve failed – knowingly, and unknowingly this year. Be like God: balance your judgment of yourself – and everyone else – with mercy, compassion and gentleness. And then, once you’ve forgiven, apologize to those you need to apologize too. And don’t yell at anyone during the ten days, or you’ll have to do it again. (Yes, even you, Rabbi.)

3) Daven, just a little, just a bissel, every day of Elul. For me, this means mindfulness meditation. For others, it means selichot – prayers of forgiveness. For still others, it’s a niggun that connects us to our hearts. Because if you can’t give to yourself spiritually, or connect with what brought you to the Rabbinate in the first place, you can’t give to your congregants, or your students, or your patients.

4) The morning of Erev Rosh HaShanah, if you can, take an hour, or maybe even two, for yourself. Do something that gets you out of your head, out of your neuroses, and into your body. Last year, I woke up early and went surfing for two hours, which put me (very small person) in perspective (a very, very big ocean). (How important could my own mishegas about everything going off without a hitch be in a world so big?) This year, I’ll go for a trail run. Whatever it is that nurtures you (maybe even watching your favorite comedian for an hour), get out of your anxieties and fears and into a place of joy, and contentment, so that when you’re on the bima, welcoming the new year with all the joy, and excitement that a new year deserves, you mean it. The Jews in the pews can tell when you mean it.

5) Once the moment comes, try to enjoy it. Try to pray while you’re leading services. Try to set aside all of the madness that led up to the moment when tefilot begin and simply be present to the birthday of the world. It’s the climax of our spiritual year, the peak of the arc of our Jewish yearly lives and too often we’re too busy looking for our next cue or trying to make eye contact with the cantor to take it all in. So take an extra breath when you’re facing the ark, or pause for just a heartbeat, and remember what a tremendous privilege it is to lead hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jews in letting go, starting over and beginning again. Even when it makes us crazy, it’s still the best work in the world.

Oh, and finally: Shanah tovah u’metukah – may it be a sweet, happy, healthy and meaningful new year for all of us.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Adventure Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.

 

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How Netflix’s Stranger Things Helped Me Understand the Un’Taneh Tokef

The Un’taneh Tokef calls to mind the profound uncertainties with which we live each day, and the reality that life often unfolds in ways beyond our control.   The words reflect the blinding fears we speak of only in the darkest hours of night and the questions we harbor deep inside: What is our fate and how does it all end?  Who among us will survive?  How do we proceed, knowing that the balance between life and death is far more delicate than we might ever have imagined?

The language of the prayer is blunt and unembellished: “Who by fire and who by water? /Who by sword and who by beast?/ Who by hunger and who by thirst?/ Who by earthquake and who by drowning? /Who by strangling and who by stoning?....”  With its harrowing imagery and chilling propositions, it leaves very little to the imagination.  As listeners, we are left to confront the image-reel in our minds, filled with horrors of wildfires burning out of control and floods overtaking cities, blood shed at the hands of man and beast, and violence populating the earth.

The Un’taneh Tokef speaks to the way we live and the realities we encounter, every day.  It reflects the suffering and the sadness, the destruction and the devastation, the terror and the loss we see all around us, all the time.  It speaks about the cruel nature of randomness and the inexplicable misfortune of chance.  Its words emphasize, unequivocally: Though we are a part of this world, we do not preside over it; and neither the whims of nature nor humanity can be foreseen.

The Un’taneh Tokef is, for some, an exercise in anguish and distress.  Many experience intense grief in the wake of its poetry, and helplessness in the face of its prognostications.  Indeed, the language is so graphic, I found myself searching, like many others before me, for different ways to decode its message.

How could I have predicted that my inspiration would come, from of all places a sci-fi television series?  But oddly enough, it was while watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, that I was moved to look at the Un’taneh Tokef differently.  There I was, scared out of my wits, when a light bulb flashed in my mind (and for those of you watching, I assure you it wasn’t a Christmas light!). Stick with me (and yes, spoilers do follow).

One of the fascinating hooks of this series is the revelation that our world exists, side by side, with a parallel universe called “The Upside Down.”  As Dr. Clarke, the show’s trusty science teacher, explains: “Picture an acrobat standing on a tightrope, and the tightrope is our dimension, and our dimension, has rules.  You can move forwards or backwards.  But right next to our acrobat, there is a flea. Now the flea can also travel back and forth, just like the acrobat, right?  But here’s where things get really interesting.  The flea can also travel this way, along the side of the rope.  He can even go, underneath the rope.”  Just beyond the surface, just below the rope, lies a completely separate universe that we never even knew existed!!  For this uninitiated student of sci-fi, this was WILD!

Now, what do parallel universes and “The Upside Down” have to do with the Un’taneh Tokef?  Well, I got to thinking about these parallel universes and unseen worlds and thought, what if we looked at the Un’taneh Tokef through this sci-fi lens as well?  Could it help us see the “unseen” elements of the prayer?  Could it help us delve deeper into the mire, knowing there is another side to every word printed on the page?  Could we find the life amidst the death, and the hope amidst the despair?  If we immersed ourselves in its words, investigated their many sides and corners, and turned them over again and again, could we come up with an alternate vision of the prayer?  I think so.

The “Upside Down” approach urges us to think beyond the page and behind the words, so to speak.  For example if the Un’taneh Tokef teaches us that life is unpredictable in frightening and unsettling ways, we can extrapolate and surmise that life must also be unpredictable in wonderful and reassuring ways, yes? Unpredictability is a neutral condition, neither positive nor negative.  Moreover, just as we cannot foresee the sadness and grief and misery that will befall us, neither can we predict the joy and gladness and wonder that will enter our lives.  Indeed, just as bad things will inevitably happen to us, it is also inevitable that good things will happen too (the law of averages has got to play a part in this scenario, don’t you think?).

The “Upside Down” lens doesn’t re-write the prayer or negate the plain meaning.   But it opens the prayer up to a broader context and a wider plane of interpretation. It is a tool, an agent for mining deeper meaning and substance.  We know that the world can be a harsh and uncertain place; we live that every day.   We also know that death and destruction and devastation are ubiquitous; we need only open our doors to see such misery.  But, in this very same world, there is also a real chance we will stumble upon decency and kindness, and a real possibility of friendship and community and love.

That is what we find on the “Upside Down” of the Un’taneh Tokef—still a world of unpredictability, but one marked by hope rather than despair and love rather than fear.  “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day,” we shall say, it is both awesome and full of dread.

Wishing you all a Shana Tova, a happy and healthy New Year.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.  Sara now volunteers as the CCAR RavBlog Member Volunteer.  Interested in writing something for RavBlog?  Email Sara.