April 19: Don’t miss The Jar of Tears at CBI


The Jar of Tears: A Memorial from the Warsaw Ghetto – one-man storytellng performance, 3pm on April 19, for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

This full length storytelling performance is based on the life of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Rabbi Shapiro wrote while in the ghetto and buried his writings in a milk jug which were found nearly a dozen years later by construction workers.  This telling re-imagines his sermons as journal entries; his diary to the Master of the World.

This portrait provides a window into his changing experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and show his struggle to remain a compassionate leader even then, even there.

The Jar of Tears has been performed widely including in Warsaw Poland, and won the Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award in honor of its artistic excellence, depth of vision and technical mastery.

About the performer:

Maggid David Arfa (Mah-geed; Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom.  His latest CD of stories, The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived won a nationally acclaimed Parents’ Choice Award .  His first CD of stories, The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe, includes ancient mythology, old world Yiddish tales (set here in the Berkshire foothills), medieval folktales and other surprises.  His storytelling performance, The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Cohen Center’s Hildebrandt Award for Holocaust memorial art based on it’s depth of vision and artistic quality.

David’s workshop ‘Try Stories for a Change’ helps organizations build volunteers and raise funds through authentic storytelling and listening circles.  Other workshops explore the relationships between wonder, grief, hope and activism in a Jewish context.  David earned his MS in Environmental Education from Lesley College, spent a year studying traditional texts in Jerusalem, and earned degrees from Michigan State University in both Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Policy.

David lives in the Berkshire foothills of Shelburne Falls and is the Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shemini.

Shavua tov – a (belated) good week to you! This week we’re reading the Torah portion known as Shemini in the book of Leviticus.

return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion: Sh’mini | URJ.

This coming Shabbat morning, April 19, services will be led by Rabbi Rachel.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact Pattie Lipman. We hope to see you soon at CBI!

A poem for the first day of the Omer

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Today is the first day of the Omer — the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Jewish tradition offers us these seven weeks as a time for the spiritual work of discernment, refinement, and inner growth.

Our Omer discussion group will meet every Friday at 3pm during this holy corridor of time. (Read all about it.) All are welcome.

I’ll be posting daily Omer poems on my blog Velveteen Rabbi over the next seven weeks. The first one is included here. If you’d like to receive those daily Omer meditations, you can go to Velveteen Rabbi and sign up to receive my posts via email.  (If you scroll down on that page a bit, there’s a box in the right-hand sidebar which says “enter your email address” and a button which says “subscribe.”)

May these weeks of the Omer yield an abundant harvest of wisdom and insight for all of us.


Rabbi Rachel


The Egyptian sky
was a goddess
doing a backbend.

Once we crossed
the watery barrier
she gave way

and the heavens
became sapphire floor
beneath the throne.

And we stood
by the sea
and sang praises

because what else
could we do,
we who survived?

Here we are
again, shaking off
salt water tears

on a shore
we’ve never seen.
There’s no map.

Above us, miles
of air stretching
to kiss vacuum:

all that freedom
impossible to bear
sometimes. Too much

depends on us.
Last night’s maror
stings our eyes.

Ahead: uncharted space,
the holy wilderness
of the heart.

Take one step
into the labyrinth.
Leave Egypt behind.

Today is the first day of the Omer.

“The Egyptian sky / was a goddess / doing a backbend” — one of the deities in the Egyptian pantheon was Nut, sometimes depicted as a star-covered woman arching over the earth.

“[T]he heavens / became sapphire floor / beneath the throne” — see parashat Mishpatim and its description of the floor beneath the divine throne as being like sapphire. The idea of the sky changing as the prevailing beliefs change also owes a debt to Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky books.

Today we take our first step on the journey between Pesach and Shavuot. What are we headed toward? What are we leaving behind?

Online resources to enrich the next seven weeks

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

As I write these words Pesach is almost upon us. I can’t wait!

At our second-night seder we’ll begin a seven-week journey known as the Counting of the Omer. We count the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, linking liberation with revelation. Once these were the weeks during which we grew our spring wheat harvest to bring to the Temple in Jerusalem; today these are weeks during which we nurture and nourish an internal harvest of personal and spiritual growth.

I hope you’ll join us on Fridays at 3pm in my office for our Omer discussion group. All are welcome.

And if you’d like some terrific Omer resources which will come directly to your home computer, here are a few:

  • I’ll be sharing daily Omer poems on my personal blog, Velveteen Rabbi. The poems will draw on kabbalistic (mystical) and Mussar (personal refinement) teachings to deepen and enliven each day’s counting. You can subscribe to the blog by going to Velveteen Rabbi and entering your email address where it says “enter your email address” in the right-hand sidebar of the page. (My collection of Omer poems will see print in late winter of 2016.)
  • Rabbi Dr. Orna Triguboff will be sending out a daily email during the omer, with kabbalistic insights for daily awareness practice; if you want to be on the list, email orna@neshamalife.org
  • Rabbi T’mimah Ickovitz has the custom of sharing  a daily teaching or inspiration related to the Omer count at Holistic Jew (Facebook), and is sharing new ones this year during the Omer.
  • Rabbi Goldie Milgram will be offering daily Omer teachings online at ReclaimingJudaism.org.
  • Joy Krauthammer adds writing and art to her Omer website each day of the Omer.
  • Brian Yosef Schachter Brooks is offering an online meditation class, with an in-person Omer component, as a fundraiser for ALEPH. Read all about it: Jewish meditation e-course.
  • And Rabbi Jill Zimmerman and Rabbi Cindy Enger of the Jewish Mindfulness Network will once again be offering daily Omer emails this year; to sign up, go here: http://eepurl.com/bir5sX

May these various offerings enrich these next seven weeks and help all of us journey toward Shavuot with mindfulness, discernment, and joy!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel


Shavua tov! Looking forward to Pesach!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov — a good week to you! This is a special week indeed, because it culminates not only in Shabbat, but also in Pesach, the festival of our liberation.

At Pesach we gather to retell the story which is most central to who we are. “Once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy One of Blessing led us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” The haggadah teaches that in every generation, one must see oneself as though one had personally been liberated — not just our ancestors once-upon-a-time, but also us, even now.

Every year someone asks me whether I think our people were actually, historically, slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt. I suspect we probably weren’t — at least not in the way that our story indicates. But to me, that question misses  the point.

What’s important to me is that this is the story which we have told about ourselves for thousands of years. This is the story around which Jewish peoplehood coalesced, the story that makes us who we are. Once we were enslaved, and now we are free. Once we lived in constriction, and now our hearts know expansiveness. Once we labored under cruel conditions (whether enslavement to a Pharaoh, or grueling credit card debt, or the emotional straitjacket of grief) and now we are given the opportunity to let our hearts open and to feel ourselves free.

I love Pesach not only because I love the songs (though I do!), not only because I love the foods (though I do!), not only because I love my memories of childhood seders with my extended Texas family (though I do!), and not only because I love the fact that this is a dinner party centered around storytelling, poetry, and song (though I do!) I love Pesach because its message speaks to me anew every year.

Where have you felt enslaved in the last year? And what changes would you need to make — in the tangible practical world, in your emotional world, in your mind, in your spirit — in order to experience freedom as we ring in Shabbat and Pesach this Friday night?

If you’re in need of a free, downloadable, printable haggadah for the first night of Pesach, you’re welcome to peruse The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat and Festival morning services which I will lead. We’ll sing the usual prayers of Shabbat, plus the celebratory psalms of Hallel, and during the oneg (joyful kiddush) we’ll delve into a Torah study text about Pesach.

And join us on Shabbat evening at 6pm for our Second-Night Community Seder (which I will also lead.) Please, if you are joining us and have not yet RSVP’d, let the office know today! And please sign up for one of the many volunteer opportunities which happen around the seder; contact Steven Green and Rose Ellis to volunteer, or reach out to us at the synagogue office.

Wishing you joy in our journey toward liberation,

Rabbi Rachel


Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Tzav.

Shavua tov – a good week to you! This week we’re reading the Torah portion known as Tzav, the second Torah portion in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus).

return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion: Tzav| URJ.

This coming Shabbat morning, March 28, services will be led by Rabbi Pam Wax.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact Pattie Lipman. We hope to see you soon at CBI!

Love, Leviticus, and embracing the middle

Here’s the d’var Torah which Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday at CBI for parashat Vayikra.

In cheder, the Hebrew elementary school of late 19th and early 20th-century eastern Europe, boys began learning Torah at the age of five. They began with Vayikra, which we call in English “Leviticus.” (They’d go on to learn mishna at the age of seven, and Talmud once they had mastered the mishna.)

We have a five year old. And I cannot for the life of me imagine him reading Torah fluently at this age. But setting that aside, I am perennially fascinated by the fact that the cheders of old — and contemporary schools which follow the cheder model, mostly in the Hareidi / ultra-Orthodox world — begin their studies of Torah not with בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, “as God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…”

They begin with  וַיִּקְרא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה , “and God called to Moses” — which is to say, with Leviticus, the book of the Torah which I suspect most modern Jewish adults like the least. Sprinkled blood and burnt kidneys and laws about nakedness — it couldn’t be further from the post-sacrificial Judaism we know and cherish.

Many scholars and rabbis and literary critics make the case that Torah has a chiastic structure. In a book with a chiastic structure, the most important part is not the beginning or the end, but what’s in the middle. Leviticus is in the middle of the Torah: ergo it’s the most important part.

The scholar Mary Douglas argued that Leviticus too has a chiastic structure, which tells us that the most important material in Leviticus is in the middle: the holiness code, which exhorts us to be holy as Adonai our God is holy. Leviticus is the heart of Torah, and holiness is the heart of Leviticus.

And what is at the heart of the quest for holiness? וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי ה׳: “and you shall love your neighbor, your ‘other,’ as yourself: I am Adonai.” (Leviticus 19:18.) It may not be exactly the verse in the dead-center middle of the Torah, but it’s close.

Here’s Martin Buber on that verse:

“Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together.

The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you.

For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world.

This seems a far cry from dismembering animals and burning them on the altar. But for Torah, there’s no disjunction between bringing a calf to the Temple to make up for having committed a wrong, and this lofty injunction to love each other and to be holy like Adonai. Our deepest values aren’t separate from the messiness of everyday living: they’re expressed in and through that messiness.

Today we’re beginning a new book of Torah, the one in the very middle. And today I’m beginning a new “book” in the unfolding Torah of my life — the book of being forty.

Forty’s a big number in Jewish tradition. The flood lasted forty days and nights; Moshe spent forty days and nights atop Sinai; the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. In the rabbinic imagination, forty was a number of fruition and completion: for instance, the number of weeks between conception and birth.

Forty is an ending and a beginning. In antiquity, someone who was forty was getting on in years. Today, not so much. Perhaps I’m entering the Leviticus of my own life: I’ve lived for twoscore years, and I can hope for at least twoscore more. I’m at the beginning of the middle. Birth is a new beginning, and its holiness is obvious. Death is an ending, and its holiness too is clear. But where is the holiness of the great grey middle?

The holiness of the middle may be hidden, disguised beneath logistics and details. In Leviticus, those details are sacrificial, calves and turtledoves and grain offerings going up in smoke. In my life, those details are committee meetings and playdates, preparing for Passover and teaching Hebrew school. But Leviticus comes to teach us that there is holiness, and there is love, even here in the middle of things.

Maybe especially here in the middle of things.

Maybe especially here in the middle of things.

Today is the vernal equinox: another kind of middle, the mid-point between the shortest day of the year and the longest day of the year. Here in the Berkshires winter hasn’t quite let go, and warmth hasn’t quite begun; we’re balanced, like the planet, between one season and the next. A perfect time to look back on the winter now ending, to cherish its sweetness and let go of its bitterness, as we ready ourselves for Pesach and the coming spring. A perfect time for me to look back on the forty years now ending, to cherish their sweetness and let go of their bitterness, as I ready myself for whatever comes next.

May the Holy One of Blessing open our hearts to the continuing journey which is no longer beginning, and not yet ending, but contains beautiful twists and turns along the way. May we be enlivened as we begin this new chapter of Torah — and this new season. May we rejoice in finding the holiness hidden right here, in the middle.