Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
It’s the great communal experience of the Jewish people. We fill halls and sanctuaries and homes in eager anticipation. Some came simply because they are Jews or married to Jews; this is what we do on the High Holidays. Some came for the camaraderie; it feels good to be with our people. Some came to be with family, some came to be with friends and communities, a touchstone of connection whether frequent or occasional. Some came to pour out their hearts in prayer, connect with traditions and values, and with the Holy One of Blessing.
Holy Days preparations were reflected in the Jewish and secular press; a lot of expectations and wishes were shared. There were many columns on what rabbis should or should not say on the holidays. Rabbis spent many weeks developing ideas, learning together and refining their craft of High Holiday sermons and prayer. If a complete outsider looked at the Jewish world they would perceive a fairly high level of anxious anticipation. Were we happy or were we worried?
Yes. We were both. But we were also in it together. Together, we laughed and cried and reflected and prayed—using the words of the machzor (holiday prayer book) or not. And we ate some great holiday food, the holidays nourishing our bodies as well as our souls, which, of course, go together! The great gathering connected us to something larger than ourselves.
Today, some of us will build our sukkot (sukkahs) for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, five days after Yom Kippur, extending the season of joy, community and Jewish experiences. We may be exhausted, but we are riding the wave of spiritual high straight through to Simchat Torah, 12 days from now.
But most of us will settle back into our routines, perhaps relieved that it is over. The holidays were an island in our secular lives, though hopefully uplifting and meaningful. Whatever the takeaway from the High Holy Days, it gets tucked back into the box called “Jewish” or “religion” that we open only when needed.
Yet, the need for spiritual nourishment and the need to belong remain. The questions of the High Holy Days, “Who am I?, Where am I?” live in our souls all the time. How can these needs be met in meaningful, satisfying, accessible, accommodating ways?
This is a conversation worth continuing. There are lots of great answers to these questions, and now is the time to share them together. Jewish tradition is a path for meaningful spiritual living; a treasure that enriches those who hold it. If it’s out of reach, let’s get there together. This is the good stuff—the day after the holiday, when, filled with possibility, the reboot of our souls begins.
Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.
A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).
As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness. Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.
Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else? Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for. It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.
TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.
Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical. Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.
When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.
TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.
B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.
“May you be Written in the Book of Life” is such a nice phrase to utter at this time of year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most years I don’t think much about it. It is easy to ignore the weight of the words when everyone in your life is healthy.
This year is different. A close friend is struggling with aggressive breast cancer. Instead of casually saying these words, I am fervently praying them on her behalf.
Themes of life and death wind their way through out the liturgy on the High Holidays. The Torah and Haftorah portions speak of the struggle to conceive and bring new life in to the world. The Unetanah Tokef prayer which wails, “Who will live and who will die. Who by flood. Who by fire. Who by hunger …” speaks plainly of the many ways we may die. Most years, I acknowledge these themes, yet concentrate most of my prayers on myself, praying to be a better person, mother, and teacher.
This year is different. This year I am praying for my friend. The mother of young children should not suffer from such a serious illness. It should not be this way.
The liturgy states that “repentance, prayer, and charity, will avert the severe decree.” I do not find this prescription useful in this case. She could do all of those things. I and many others could do all of those things on her behalf, and it might not make a difference because cancer is such an unpredictable disease.
So I sit in synagogue, and I contemplate life, death, and the meaning of prayer. Using the High Holiday prayers as a magical incantation will not cure her. I know this in my bones, and yet I am called to pray. The very act of reciting the words brings me comfort. I feel so helpless in the face of this situation. Yet, here is something I can do.
I can pray.
May you, my dear friend, be written in the Book of Life.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!
The rabbis of the Talmud have taught that the shofar must be blown with a particular intention: to sound like the wailing cry of the mother whose son we have killed in battle. In other words, the shofar is not the sound of our own pain, but the anguished sound of the grief we have caused another, even a distant, anonymous “other.” And if we engage in the mechanism our tradition offers for moving toward repentance as the New Year approaches, we submit to hearing the blast of the shofar every day of this month, confronted every morning by a single shriek, as if the universe is leaking visceral expression of the pain we have caused.
I wonder whether there isn’t a degree of gratification in being reminded that we cause pain, the pain we cause evidence of our agency in what might seem like a fate-driven life. We want to know that we have an impact on the world, that our misdeeds have consequences. The great late 18th century Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you believe that you have the power to destroy, you must also believe you have the power to restore.
If our misdeeds can tear the world open and expose that raw cry, maybe our repentance also matters. I think that’s why we Jews flock to the synagogue during the Days of Awe and beat our breasts, bringing that reminder of our power to both harm and heal closer to our hearts.
In beating our breasts we externalize our very heartbeats, the pulse within us that my dearly departed teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted the Song of Songs in calling kol dodi dofek, the sound of our [Divine] Beloved knocking [from within]. If we put our finger on the pulse of another we feel that same knocking, the same Divine Beloved pulsing within all of us simultaneously, and we do appreciate that we are all connected as a single god-breath.
We understand that the reason we must love our neighbors as ourselves is because, bottom line, there is no such thing as a neighbor, near or far, to whom we are not connected as limbs of the same organismic whole. And this brings me ‘round to the blast of the shofar expressing, after all, not just the pain we’ve caused to others but also the pain we cause ourselves in harming others.
Surely world events bear out this truth. Wherever we stand on Israeli politics, don’t we feel the pain of the mother whose son we have killed in battle? Isn’t the retaliation against our own sons a reverberation of her pain? And don’t we feel her pain simply because we are human with human hearts? Don’t we experience the blast of the shofar as our own anguished cry?
Jolted to awareness of something greater than ourselves, raised up in awe as we confront our mortality and the underlying miracle of our lives, we might catch a glimpse of the interconnected web of humanity. In the elevated state of consciousness the rituals of the High Holidays invite, we just might momentarily achieve a birds’ eye view of all that is contained in Echad, in God’s Name as “One.” That’s the moment in which the sob of the mother of our enemy becomes our own cry. It’s a moment to pursue and savor.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on shofar, Paul Horn on flute, voices of participants at a Transpersonal Psychology conference in Mumbai, 1980’s.
Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.
Modern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.
Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?
The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life? Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?
We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.
The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.
Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.
For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.
The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?
Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.