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.”

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A prayer before Yom Kippur

Prayer Before Yom Kippur

I now prepare
to unify my whole self—

heart
mind
consciousness
body
passions

with this holy community
with the Jewish people everywhere
with all people everywhere
with all life and being
to commune with the Source of all being.

May I find the words,
the music, the movements
that will put me in touch
with the great light of God.

May the rungs of insight and joy
that I reach in my devotion
flow from me to others
and fill all my actions in the world.

May the beauty of God rest upon us.
May God establish the works of our hands.
And may the works of our hands establish God.

(Rabbi Burt Jacobson)


Yom Kippur begins tonight and will continue through tomorrow night. This year it once again coincides with Shabbat — the two holiest days of the year, layered atop each other.

May this doubly-holy day offer all of us opportunities for inner work and transformation.

I hope that you can forgive me for my imperfections this past year: the times when I failed to live up to expectations, or said the wrong thing, or chose the wrong melody, or wasn’t present in the way you needed me to be.

Please know that I am carrying no grudges as this holy day approaches. I forgive every hurt and slight, intentional and unintentional. I am grateful to be able to dive in to this special day with y’all.

May this Shabbat-and-Yom Kippur be meaningful, real, and sweet. G’mar chatimah tovah — may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Sukkot invitations

SukkotPotluckDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

A scant four days after Yom Kippur comes the fabulous week-long festival of Sukkot! All are welcome to join us at 2pm on Sunday, October 5, as we build the CBI sukkah together.

Sukkot begins on Wednesday, October 8. On Friday, October 10, we’ll hold a 5:30pm potluck dinner and Shabbat celebration in the sukkah; please RSVP to Jen Burt (peargirl007 at gmail dot com) or to Heather Levy (heathermai at gmail dot com) to let us know what you’re bringing.

The next night, all are invited to a Sukkot potluck in the home of new member Jen Burt, who writes:

We are planning to host a potluck  in our Sukkah for Havdalah on Sat the 11th at 6pm. Anyone in the CBI community is welcome to join us.

Our address is [redacted] in Hoosick Falls NY. The half hour drive is quite scenic. Please call [redacted] or email with any questions. Hope to see you there.

(Address and phone number are redacted for posting on the From the Rabbi blog; if you didn’t receive this information by email, feel free to call the office at 413-663-5830 and we’ll send it to you again.)
And on Sunday October 12th we’ll once again participate in “Sukkah Cycle Sunday,” a traveling sukkah party. Cyclists are invited to bike (and those who are more comfortable in cars are welcome to caravan in motorized vehicles) from the Williams College sukkah, to Bob Scherr’s sukkah, to Erin Casey and Jonah Marshall’s sukkah, to the CBI sukkah. Refreshments will be available in each sukkah, as well as the opportunity to shake the lulav, socialize with friends, and maybe even learn a little Torah! For addresses, pick up a flyer at the table in the CBI foyer when you’re here for Yom Kippur.
More Sukkot information will be forthcoming. For now — may these awesome y’mei teshuvah (“Days of Repentance / Return”) be meaningful and sweet for all of us.

Blessings to all,
Rabbi Rachel

The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, the Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret – what is Yizkor, anyway?

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

yahrzeitThis coming Shabbat / Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services) we’ll experience Yizkor — a 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 9:30am on Thursday 10/16) 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. (Even though mid-October won’t be winter yet, thank God. Some sources hold that the fourth yizkor of the year was once held in midwinter, but was moved to Shemini Atzeret for practical reasons of seasonally difficult travel.)

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 (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside oneself, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person one has lost, and imagine them, and say whatever it is that one most needs to say to that person right then and there.

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:

This was originally shared with the CBI community in fall of 2013; it is re-posted with some slight edits, and the dates have been shifted to reflect this year’s realities.

Looking forward to Yom Kippur!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. Hazzan Randall Miller and I derived great joy from leading this community in davenen last week during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and we are looking so forward to being with everyone again for Yom Kippur.

A couple of tachlis (practical details) items:

If you hope to attend the break-the-fast on Saturday evening but have not yet let us know, please reply to this email or call the office (413-663-5830) ASAP.

On Yom Kippur afternoon at 4pm we will hold mincha (“afternoon offering”) services. We will be piloting liturgy from Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform movement’s forthcoming machzor. Please RSVP to the office to let us know if you are coming so we know how many booklets to print. This is an exciting opportunity to preview the Reform movement’s new material; please join us!

And now on to other things. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.

whiteWhy do we wear white on Yom Kippur?

Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. (There’s also a kabbalistic custom of wearing white on erev Shabbat, to welcome the Shabbat bride and queen — and this year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so that’s two reasons at once to be clad in white finery!)

Another interpretation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality and our equality in the eyes of God.

Our tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah to make teshuvah, to repent and to clear one’s personal and interpersonal slate, the day before death. But how do any of us know when we will die? Aha, say the sages; then we must make teshuvah every day. And surely this is true. But there is something particularly special and meaningful about the teshuvah we make on Yom Kippur, perhaps because on this day we get in touch with our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.

On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.

Why do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?

There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes. And, of course, you will also see others for whom this interpretation is not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation upholds the Reform value of informed choice; each of us is empowered to choose which observances we follow and how we do so.

Why do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.

There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun“) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.

For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are often buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.

Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.

A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.

If you are in town, I hope to see you at CBI this Friday for Erev Yom Kippur. Wherever you are as Yom Kippur unfolds, may you be inscribed for a year of life, prosperity and shalom.

Gmar chatimah tovah –  May you be sealed for sweetness in the year to come!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Children of Sarah and Hagar (Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 1, 5775)

 

The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We’d been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. “I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!” I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y’all have known me for a while now, so you’re probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child’s pose, you’ve had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you’ve had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It’s a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God’s hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

“Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear.” I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it’s always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah’s jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

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