I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.
Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.
Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.
This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?
David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”
At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”
We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die. We yearn to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.
Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.” For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.” These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”
The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)
How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday? We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.
“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”
I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.
What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.
But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.
The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)
And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.
I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.
There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.
These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.
The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?
When I was growing up, I used to listen to records of GI Joe or Sci Fi stories that came with an accompanying book. The reading was punctuated by a high pitched beep that cued the listener to turn to the next page. It always seemed forced and artificial. Whether or not you have a chance to finish the words yourself, let alone take them in and reflect… It’s time to move on. Not that GI Joe vs. the String Bean Monsters from Outer Space was likely to require much rumination…but still.
These past few days, under much more serious circumstances, I have felt like I have been listening to one of these records. Seven weeks of bloodshed… of anguish over Israeli teens abducted and murdered, heartbreak over the brutal slaying of a boy from East Jerusalem, terror of rockets and fragments showering down on Israeli cities, despair over faces and names of Palestinian men, women, and children getting lost in both the sheer number of victims and the knowledge that the ordinance that took their lives was aimed at a cruel and deadly foe that hides underground and plots the death of as many Jews as possible. And after all these days of violence, a cease fire that lasts longer than 24 hours. Beep. Turn the page.
And yet, even with uncertainty about the significance of the current hiatus and with great certainty that the bigger story is far from over, there is something comforting about the forced and artificial cue to move on.
After all, this very concept is built into the structure that underlies Jewish time. The last three weeks the conflict paralleled the darkest period in the Jewish calendar and the day the cease fire began to take hold was Tisha B’Av, the fast to relive the sorrow of Jerusalem’s fall and the brokenness that endures in the world. However, our tradition teaches that even before this darkest of days is over it is possible that the messiah has come into the world. And the next Shabbat is the occasion of Nachamu, the comforting words of Isaiah promising that the night ends and peace will dawn. Beep. Turn the page.
Three weeks of decreed darkness, capping months of terrifying bloodshed, now gives way to seven weeks of consolation. Seven weeks that lead us to Rosh Hashana and its promise of a brand new year of possibilities. The Shofar sounds. Beep. Turn the page.
Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right. Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.
With seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.
“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”
“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy? Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”
“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”
“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”
“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.
Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.
There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.
When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.
Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ” -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).
As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”
“How do I go on?” I was asked recently at a service following the death of a beautiful woman in our community. The neighbor asking had lost a good friend, someone with whom she shared culture and tradition, language and passions. My neighbor was bereft but she was also scared. This was not the death of an old person who had lived out a full life. This death at early age was a reminder to us all that we are not in control of our own mortality. Knowing this, understanding the power and potential of loss, how indeed are we to go on?
Most of us manage day to day by simply avoiding thinking about just how fragile life is. To live moment to moment with that level of uncertainty can indeed be incapacitating.
In trying to answer my neighbor’s question, I drew on the one of the central teachings of the holiday of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating. On a purely programmatic level the holiday is a drag, coming on the heals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it can feel like too much. But the message of the holiday is profound.
On Rosh Hashana, we embrace the reality of life, in all its messiness, filled with missteps and unfulfilled dreams. On Yom Kippur, we simulate our own death, not eating, abstaining from sex, and wearing white to simulate shrouds. We confront our own mortality. If take it seriously, we too are left asking “How do I go on?”
Only days afterwards, our tradition has us sitting out in temporary booths looking up at the stars in the sky. In prayers, Sukkot is referred to as z’man simchateynu –the time of our joy. Having faced death, we feel life’s fragility. Our tradition knows this and prescribes a way forward. The structure of a Sukkah is a metaphor for life. It is temporary and while affording us some level of comfort it cannot protect us from all harm. Sitting in the Sukkah we are able see the grandeur of the universe in the rising and setting of the sun, the moon and the stars. And we are meant to be happy. It is precisely the recognition of just how fragile, just how temporary, just how grand life is that allows us to embrace the joy of the everyday.
I could not take away the deep loss or the fear from my neighbor. They are the painful reality of living. Try as we may, we cannot avoid the realities of mortality. Instead, I offered her the wisdom of Sukkot. Go home, kiss your boys, tell your husband you love him. Notice the splendour that is your life. Cherish the moments that are, because while they are temporary, they are also extraordinary. Truly value the time that we do have. Live life with joy.
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
This soul work begins with the ancient Greek dictum, “know thyself”? Or, to put it more rabbinically, “know before whom you stand?” I ask myself: What am I afraid of? Deep down, what are my real hopes?
An investment of time and focus in anticipation of the holidays elevates the experience. Without the prep-work, is there any doubt that 5 hour services could be a drag? It’s like showing up to the Olympic marathon having not stretched, not worked out, and perhaps not having run in an entire year (or more). The results won’t be good.
I base my approach on practices of the Penn Resiliency Project, of Positive Psychology – this soul’s accounting tackles our fears and hopes for the coming year head-on and in a practical way. Here are the steps:
For each of the categories of your life (friends, relationships with each family member, work, personal health, etc.) do the following:
1) List 3 things that you are most afraid will happen in the coming year. (I encourage you to be honest with your fears – just get the realistic and unfounded flow out of you).
2) List 3 things that you deeply hope will happen in the coming year.
3) List 3 things that are most likely to happen this year.
You’ve just put pen to paper about your worries and your hopes as well as what is most realistically going to happen – Reality is most often found in that middle ground between worst and best.
Now, list steps to take:
A) For each of your fears listed, give yourself 3 simple steps to take to prevent the worst from happening.
B) For each of the things you hope will happen this year, give yourself 3 simple steps that would help make that happen.
Having the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears, and creating realistic steps about how to prevent or coax them along, has a tremendous empowering effect on our spiritual preparation for the New Year. It leads to greater joy and to greater optimism.