Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Noach and special guest Reb Lori Shaller

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a (slightly belated) good week to you!

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Noach (Noah) in the book of Bereshit (Genesis). The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:


This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be ALEPH rabbinic student Lori Shaller. Reb Lori will receive rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH in January. She has led davenen at CBI a few times in recent years. Here’s how she introduces herself:

I live on the island of Martha’s Vineyard with my husband Matt Pelikan (a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy) and our cat Pitzi. I am studying in the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Ordination Program. I’ve been an educator for more than 20 years and currently write English and History curricula and teach teachers in content institutes. Areas of expertise include curriculum design and alternative assessment, Shakespeare and World and American History. I am currently writing curriculum on Jewish Women in the Labor Movement for the Jewish Women’s Archive. I occasionally also work as a personal chef and a meeting facilitator. I enjoy being outdoors walking, running, cycling, hiking and gardening, and I am an active member of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

This coming Shabbat will also herald a new moon and new month, the Jewish month of Cheshvan.

We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service hosts. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also extend thanks to our member Helene Armet for the beautiful home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!

Starting at the very beginning – a note before Shabbat Bereshit

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

We’ve come a long way together over the past seven weeks: the internal and interpersonal teshuvah work of the month of Elul, then the Days of Awe, then Sukkot which culminates in Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. These last seven weeks have been a kind of “time out of time” — an opportunity to journey together on one of Judaism’s sweetest and most intensive paths. And now it’s time to sigh a deep breath of release, and return to ordinary life.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Bereshit, the Shabbat when we will read the very first parsha in the Torah, with those famous opening lines “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” Or perhaps it’s “As God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” Or “With beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” The Hebrew is rich and supports a variety of readings. One way or another, we’re starting at the very beginning — which, as fans of The Sound of Music know, is a very good place to start.

Join us tomorrow morning for Shabbat services at 9:30. We’ll read from parashat Bereshit and sing our usual Shabbat melodies together. During Torah study, we’ll explore some texts about beginnings.

One small piece of practical business: next Thursday we are scheduled to have an event called “Compassionate Listening: Israel, Gaza, and Us.” We will break into small groups and enter into a process of listening to one another, facilitated by me and by a local therapist, in which the goal will be to express our feelings, fears, and hopes after the summer’s Israel/Gaza war and to appreciate the diversity of opinions within our community. We need at least a minyan in order for this program to run. If you are planning to come to that program next Thursday, please RSVP to the office (office at cbiweb dot org) by Monday midday.

Wishing you blessings as we approach Shabbat Bereshit!

Rabbi Rachel

The fall festival season draws to its close

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Moadim l’simcha — I wish you joy in our festivals! I hope your Sukkot has been sweet thus far. We had a lovely Sukkot Shabbat potluck in the synagogue sukkah; a few photographs have been posted to the CBI Facebook page. Many thanks to all who joined us. This week we’ll journey through three final festival doorways: Hoshanna Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

Hoshanna Rabbah means “The Great ‘Save Us!'” It is observed on the seventh day of Sukkot (that’s tomorrow.) On Hoshanna Rabbah, it’s customary to make seven hakafot (circles / circuits) around the synagogue sanctuary carrying our lulavim (the bundles of branches which we wave in all directions during Sukkot.) There’s also a very old custom of taking the willow branches from our lulavim and beating them against the ground as part of a prayer for rain; the falling willow leaves might represent the raindrops which we pray will fall in months to come. (This tradition, like many of our liturgical traditions, arose in the Middle East where rain never falls during the summer — but if rain doesn’t fall during the winter, then life can’t be sustained.)

Although we won’t have a formal service at CBI for Hoshanna Rabbah, you can take a moment to experience the poetic flavor of the day by reading these contemporary Hoshanot (prayers for salvation) written by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Hoshanot by Reb Zalman z”l.

Shemini Atzeret means “The Lingering of the Eighth Day.” One of my favorite Hasidic tradition holds that Shemini Atzeret is the day when God turns to us and says, “It’s been so sweet to spend the week of Sukkot with you; don’t go quite yet, can’t you linger a little longer?” On Shemini Atzeret, even though the seven days of Sukkot are over, we linger an extra day in the close presence of God. Shemini Atzeret is one of the four days of the year when we recite Yizkor, the service of memorial prayers which offer an opportunity for us to remember and reconnect with our beloved dead.

Rabbi Pam Wax will be leading a Shemini Atzeret morning service, with Yizkor, at 9:30am on Thursday morning. On Shemini Atzeret we recite special prayers for rain. (This is another liturgical tradition which arose in the Middle East, where winter rains are so precious and necessary.) Our morning service will feature several beautiful readings/prayers about rain/water/drought, etc. Environmentalists should come!

Simchat Torah is the final mini-festival in our fall festival cycle. Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah,” and is the time when we rejoice in the completion of one Torah cycle and the beginning of another. Often we read the very end of the Torah followed by the very beginning of the Torah. Other customs include dancing the Torah scrolls around the room seven times. Our Thursday morning service will be a celebration of both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, so there will be a lot of music, as well.  Weather permitting, we will be having our last meal in the sukkah after services. Rabbi Pam Wax will be bringing some food to share, but if you want to join us for a fuller meal please bring a brown-bag lunch.On Friday, our monthly spiritual discussion group will meet at 3pm in my office. We’ll speak together about what has opened up in us during this long stretch of festival time.I wish you continuing joy in the unfolding of our fall festival season.Blessings to all,Rabbi Rachel

Chag sameach – happy Sukkot!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Tonight at sundown we enter into the festival of Sukkot. After the hectic pace of the Days of Awe, Sukkot is a welcome opportunity to relax. The primary mitzvah of Sukkot is to dwell (or at least dine) in a sukkah for a week and to rejoice there.

Sukkot is a harvest festival. In antiquity this was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals when our ancestors would have taken the fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer them to God. Today we harvest memories, emotions, and experiences. What memories from the High Holidays do you want to bring with you into the sukkah this year?

Sukkot is an opportunity to remember the Exodus from Egypt, as the sukkah is meant to remind us of the temporary shelters in which our ancestors dwelled during the forty years of wandering.

Sukkot is also an opportunity to reflect on what’s temporary and what really lasts. We move for a week into these flimsy little houses (which must have roofs made of organic material through which one can see the full moon and the stars) in part to remind ourselves that even a beautiful and stable dwelling is ultimately as temporary as a sukkah… but if we cultivate faith and trust, we can know ourselves to be sheltered beneath the Divine Presence, even if our structures / our lives / our bodies don’t last forever.

And here in northern Berkshire, Sukkot is a glorious opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors during these beautiful days of fall.

Thanks to a group of wonderful volunteers, CBI’s beautiful sukkah is once again standing behind the synagogue. “Our sukkah is your sukkah” — please come and take advantage of the CBI sukkah anytime during the coming week, day or night! Bring lunch to the CBI sukkah and dine there beneath the rustling cornstalks; bring dinner; bring your book group to meet there; bring a bottle of wine and enjoy the moonlight; even bring a sleeping bag and camp out if you’re so inclined! The sukkah is here for you.

And, of course, I hope you’ll join us on Friday night for our Shabbat / Sukkot potluck. Please do RSVP to our hosts Heather Levy and/or Jen Burt so that we know how many people are coming and what people plan to bring.

(We’re also seeking a CBI host for Sukkah Cycle Sunday; participants will be bicycling between four sukkot in northern Berkshire county, and the final sukkah on the ride is supposed to be CBI’s. If you are able to be in our sukkah on Sunday and to welcome the cyclists, let us know; we can provide refreshments.)

Chag sameach / a joyous festival to you!

Rabbi Rachel

How were the holidays for you?

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Thank you so much for being a part of our community at this special time of year. Hazzan Randall and I both felt blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to lead you in prayer.

This year we have a two-question follow-up survey for you. Only two questions, I promise! (The third question is optional, and only asks for a single word in response.)

The questions are enclosed below, but please don’t answer them here on the blog — you can answer them anonymously online at our survey.

The questions are:

1) What worked for you?
Over the course of the Days of Awe — whichever services you attended — what did we do well? What did you enjoy?

2)  What didn’t work for you?  
Over the course of the Days of Awe — whichever services you attended — what could we have done better? How could we make next year better for you?

3) Optional: one word?
What one word would you use to describe how the High Holidays at CBI made you feel?

Blessings to all as we approach Sukkot,

Rabbi Rachel

Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5775)


The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat.” (She didn’t say “tush,” but the word she used isn’t exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn’t there yet.

Over the years I’ve learned a variety of techniques for times when I don’t “feel like” writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time — “thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else.” I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I’m committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can’t wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I’m on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the “real world,” where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There’s a reason we call them “practices” — because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn’t necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn’t necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it’s arguably better if you don’t. Continue reading

Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)


Do you know what it’s like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it’s an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you’re the only one who didn’t know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don’t belong. And it’s hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it’s even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don’t fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn’t speak the language and couldn’t find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, “I just want to go home”?

Or maybe you’ve felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you’ve yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you’ve wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you’ve yearned to return to the childhood you didn’t have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you’ve sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem “Great Blue Heron:”

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels “loneliness for each other.” And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith — if we believe — real connections will exist, “at the edge,” rooting us down “in the mud where the truth is.”

Continue reading