Category Archives: days of awe

How do the Days of Awe “work” for us? Groundbreaking research – at CBI!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I hope that this note finds y’all well! I have sweet news to share with you. We at CBI have an opportunity to be at the cutting edge of understanding how Judaism functions at the beginning of the 21st century.

Some of you may recall that I was chosen as a Rabbis Without Borders fellow last year. Rabbis Without Borders is a program of Clal (the Center for Learning and Leadership — the Hebrew word clal means “inclusive”), and the fellowship experience gave me all kinds of tools and ideas to bring back to my service of CBI.

Because of my participation in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, our congregation has been invited to participate in the first ever national study of the impact of the High Holiday experience on the strengths and virtues central to human flourishing. In other words, do you get something out of the High Holidays? Does some aspect of the experience of coming to shul during the Days of Awe help you in your life? No one has ever asked these questions before. Our answers could shape the Jewish future.

Here at CBI, we’re already hard at work planning the experiences we’ll open up to you during those special days. We want your high holiday journey to be meaningful and sweet. We hope that our services will uplift your spirits, connect you with each other and with God, and launch you into a new Jewish year filled with renewed desire to be your best self. This mirrors what Rabbis Without Borders aims to create nationally, a Judaism which helps us flourish as human beings.

How will the CBI community participate in this research? Those who choose to do so will be invited to fill out a survey both before and after the high holidays to measure how we are affected by the holidays. The survey will be anonymous. If you are interested in participating please let me know (email rabbibarenblat at gmail dot com, or call the office and leave your name with Jack.)

The information we gather will be a novel contribution to the fields of positive and social psychology, and will benefit the Jewish world as a whole. Beyond that, in filling out the survey, we ourselves will learn more about how the High Holidays work for us to increase our capacity for gratitude, optimism and belonging.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this process. I look forward to sharing more about it with you in the months ahead.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

This year’s erev Rosh Hashanah mini-sermons

Over the last several years, it’s been the custom at CBI for the Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon to be given by three congregants speaking on a shared theme. This year, in anticipation of my Rosh Hashanah Morning 1 sermon on Creating Community, I asked Bob Bashevkin, Robin Brickman, and Lisa Howard to speak about finding home at CBI. Here is what they said. — Rabbi Rachel

Bob Bashevkin

My assignment tonight is to give you some of the history of this congregation as I have lived it, and to do that in a limited amount of time.

One cannot fit very much into a limited amount of time, and I will do my best to stay as close to that limit as I can manage. So please be aware that between these lines there is a lot more history that I have not included –some of it humorous, and some of it serious.

When I was born, the North Adams synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the northern half of Berkshire County.

The Jewish population of North Adams was quite large, and many of the retail stores in downtown North Adams were owned by members of our congregation. In fact, every fall, when the High Holidays were coming, the Jewish merchants in North Adams would join together and pay for a full page ad in the local newspaper. The ad listed all their stores. And it announced the dates of the High Holidays, when their stores would all be closed. Continue reading

High Holiday Survey

Dear Congregation Beth Israel community,

main_25Shavua tov / a good week to all! I hope that your journey through the Days of Awe has been meaningful and sweet.

We want to hear from you about your experience: what worked for you, what was good, and what we could improve for next year. To that end, we’ve created a very simple survey. It’s only five questions, and won’t take long! It’s online here: Days of Awe at CBI 5774 / 2013 Survey.

The survey will be open for ten days, until September 26 (which is, coincidentally, the day when we’ll be celebrating both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — join us!) We want to receive your responses while your memories of these days are fresh in your mind.

Thanks for taking part in the survey. We look forward to hearing from you.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

 

 

Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b’Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather –
I can’t bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

“I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.” I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b’Av: if we aren’t also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is “enough” even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life’s work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah’s words, and I know that he is right.

There’s a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y’all are doing isn’t enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don’t act justly, then it doesn’t matter one bit whether you’re doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn’t enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today’s world. But I don’t think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it’s our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It’s incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly — and also to hear God’s call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b’Av I sat with a group of y’all here and we talked about Isaiah’s furious words. Two days before Tisha b’Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

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Yom Kippur and Shabbat: Lightning and Light (A sermon for Kol Nidre)

This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can’t blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don’t remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn’t enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything’s going to be okay.

So that’s what I do. I tell him it’s all going to be okay. I tell him it’s only thunder, it’s only lightning, it’s not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it’s the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it’s the clouds playing their drums.

This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.

I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.

And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I’m going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R’ Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:

In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.

You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.

The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.

Here’s the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.

If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.

The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what’s with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.

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A note from Rabbi Rachel as we approach Yom Kippur

As we approach Yom Kippur

Please_forgive_me_by_geekindisguise-d4rv291Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This late afternoon / early evening we’ll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.

These aseret y’mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs and xeroxing handouts) to the emotional (the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (putting finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.

I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this note will have to do.

I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.

Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. Let us not carry relationship tangles from the old year into the new one.

May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g’mar chatimah tovah — may you be sealed for good in the year to come.

In case you need them, two helpful links: the schedule for the Days of Awe at CBI, and an explanation for why some of us will wear white, avoid leather, and wear a tallit during the holiday.

See y’all tonight!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

(This post was also shared, in slightly different form, on Velveteen Rabbi. Image source: geekindisguise on deviantart.)

What is Yizkor, Anyway?

yahrzeitDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services), we’ll experience Yizkor — our memorial service during which we remember our beloveds who have died. Twelve days later, on Shemini Atzeret, we’ll experience Yizkor again (at our morning service led by Rabbi Pam Wax at 9am on Thursday 9/26.) What exactly is Yizkor, and why are we saying it twice in such rapid succession?

The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons. Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret.

You may now be thinking: wait a minute. Winter?! Shemini Atzeret isn’t during the wintertime (especially not this year, when our holidays are so early on the Gregorian calendar!) Some sources suggest that the fourth repetition of Yizkor was originally meant to happen at midwinter… but because that’s the rainy season in Israel, and arduous winter travel could keep people from making it to Jerusalem to gather for this memorial remembrance, the sages of our tradition moved the wintertime Yizkor to that “extra day” at the end of Sukkot.

Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.

The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays.

Of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur writes: “For an entire day, through fast and introspection, we face our own mortality and dive into our deaths by playing the dead. But equally, we are the living who seek to reunite with those who are really dead. Yizkor arrives with the opportunity to summon our beloved ones who have left and to remember them. As we remember them, we should marvel at the fact that the relationships we had with them remain alive as long as we are alive to do the remembering.”

Of the Shemini Atzeret Yizkor, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “On Sh’mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone — or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B’Av — but tears of memory and compassion?”

What Yizkor affirms for me is that our relationships with those we have loved (or perhaps not-loved) continue even when the person in question has died…and that there is wisdom in pausing, four times a year, to connect with memory and loss. There is deep spiritual wisdom in taking the time to remember.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person we have lost, and imagine them before us face-to-face, and say whatever it is that we most need to say to that person at this moment in this year of our lives.

I hope you’ll join us for Yizkor: on Yom Kippur (probably around noon, though it follows immediately upon our morning service, so the best way to be sure you’ll make it to Yizkor is to come to morning davenen!) and on Shemini Atzeret, that day of holy pausing and lingering just a little bit longer — with God, with this festival season, and with those whom we have lost but will never forget.

Rabbi Rachel

For more on Yizkor: