Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Ki Tavo, Selichot, and our Cemetery Service

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all! Join us this coming Saturday morning for Shabbat morning services where we’ll read from parashat Ki Tavo.

This coming weekend brings the beginning of our High Holiday season with two very special events: Selichot services at 8pm on Saturday, and our annual Cemetery service at 2pm on Sunday.

“Selichot” means “Forgiveness,” and it is a beautiful short service designed to open our hearts and souls to the Days of Awe. We’ll begin with havdalah, sing some favorite High Holiday melodies, take some time to write down the things we need to release, and sweeten our journey into the new year with a potluck dessert reception.

The cemetery service, which lasts for about 20 minutes, is our annual opportunity to visit our beautiful Clarksburg cemetery, pay our respects to the generations of CBI members who are buried there, and pray the afternoon prayers and some memorial prayers in the “sanctuary” of the woods and headstones. Usually most of the people who come are our eldest members; I know that it would mean a lot to them if some of our younger members came to bear witness and to help us make a minyan so that we can recite the mourner’s kaddish.

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: Ki Tavo at the URJ.


During the month of Elul it’s customary to pray psalm 27 every day. We’ll be singing different excerpts from the psalm over the course of this month and the Days of Awe — the song “Achat Sha’alti,” which we’ve sung here for many years at this season (and here’s a beautiful instrumental version), and also the verse “Lach Amar Libi” to a melody from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal congregation of Jerusalem, which we introduced last year:

Here’s an embedded mp3 of that melody so you can listen to it at home:

And here’s sheet music, for those who find sheet music useful: Psalm 27,Lakh Amar Libi notes [pdf] The words translate to “You [God] called to my heart, saying ‘seek My face;’ Your face, Source of All, is what I seek!”


Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Words we can’t un-say: a d’var Torah for parashat Ki Tetzei

Words2In this week’s Torah portion there is an intriguing passage (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) about divorce. Torah says: when a man takes a wife and possesses her, and then finds something about her displeasing, he is to write her a bill of divorce and she is to leave his house. If she should marry a second time, and then divorce a second time — or the second husband should die — her first husband is forbidden from marrying her again.

The Sforno says that this is because to allow remarriage in this way would be a recipe for wife-swapping. Rabbenu Bahya says that this is because the woman in the story has been “known” by another man, so of course it would be inappropriate for her to be intimate with her first husband again. Unsurprisingly, these classical commentators and others take for granted the text’s apparent assumptions about gender, marriage, and power.

There’s plenty that is problematic about this passage from a modern perspective. For starters, the idea that a woman “belongs” to anyone other than herself. The presumption that divorce is necessarily initiated by the husband because his wife is no longer pleasing in his eyes. The lack of agency granted to the woman. The notion that a woman who has been with another man becomes תמא / tamei, emotionally and spiritually charged in a way that would be damaging to her first partner if they got back together again.

Not to mention the fact that the text doesn’t speak at all about how the woman in this situation feels: did she want to divorce in the first place? How about the second place? What kind of grief is she enduring, especially when the second marriage ends? Torah doesn’t say, but we can begin to imagine.

That said, I think we can glean some wisdom from this passage despite its troubling dynamics.

First, let’s remove the genderedness from it. Torah is teaching us that a marriage has to be consensual, and requires the active participation of both partners. When a marriage becomes irreparably broken for one partner, it’s no longer a consensual whole, and the partnership is broken. A bill of divorce must be written so that the partners can release each other.

Anyone who is considering taking these steps needs to know that words ending a marriage, once said, can’t be un-said. Once the marriage has been broken, even if one or both partners should later regret the breaking, it can’t be glued back together into the configuration it had before. No one should go into divorce thinking “well, if this doesn’t work out, we can go back to the way things were.” There is no “going back.” Only going forward. In our modern paradigm sometimes former partners do re-marry, but there is no re-creating the wholeness of the first marriage when it was new.

That significant words, once said, can’t be un-said is a running theme in this week’s Torah portion. The verses about divorce come shortly after verses instructing us to take care in vowing vows to God, because when we promise things to God, we have to live up to them or incur sin. It is better not to make vows, says Torah, than to make them and fail to live up to them.

Promises that we make to God and fail to sustain… we’ll come back to those on Kol Nidre night. Once we’ve said them, we can’t un-say them, but we can ask God to forgive us for our failure to live up to who we intended to be.

Promises that we make to each other and fail to sustain… once we’ve said them, we can’t un-say them either. Neither can we un-say words that end a relationship. We should take care with our words, and not commit ourselves to promises we can’t keep or to endings we aren’t really ready to face. But maybe especially during this month of Elul, we can ask each others’ forgiveness — in all of our relationships — for failure to live up to what we thought would be.

 

 

[Image source.] This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday morning at services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Ki Tetzei

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all! Join us this coming Saturday morning for Shabbat morning services where we’ll read from parashat Ki Tetzei.

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: Ki Tetzei at the URJ.


During the month of Elul it’s customary to pray psalm 27 every day. We’ll be singing different excerpts from the psalm over the course of this month and the Days of Awe — the song “Achat Sha’alti,” which we’ve sung here for many years at this season (and here’s a beautiful instrumental version), and also the verse “Lach Amar Libi” to a melody from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal congregation of Jerusalem, which we introduced last year:

Here’s an embedded mp3 of that melody so you can listen to it at home:

And here’s sheet music, for those who find sheet music useful: Psalm 27,Lakh Amar Libi notes [pdf] The words translate to “You [God] called to my heart, saying ‘seek My face;’ Your face, Source of All, is what I seek!”


Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Balancing judgement with love: a d’var Torah for Shabbat Shoftim

Have you ever been asked the question “if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?” One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.

Here’s a short quote from that book, talking about this week’s Torah portion:

Parashat Shoftim… begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: ‘Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.’ But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort — an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates — seven windows — to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.

On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it’s about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that’s at the heart of this season.

‘Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.’ We can’t always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there’s political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who’s acting unfairly or unkindly. I can’t un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.

I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say “enough is enough.” I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgement. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.

Shabbat Shoftim — “Shabbat of Judges” — always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we’ll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we’ve written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.

But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn’t in the Palace on high, but “in the fields” with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one’s most dearly beloved friend.

Because here’s the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can’t help seeing everything that’s best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that’s how God sees each of us. That’s the backdrop against which the judgements of Rosh Hashanah take place.

This week’s Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn’t seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?

And it’s also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others — in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgement in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that’s a temptation we need to resist.

Balancing love and judgement is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness.

May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgement, and to infuse our discernment with love.

 

This is the d’var Torah Rabbi Rachel offered on Friday night at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

A Contemplative Second Day of Rosh Hashanah

secondday

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

You may be aware that as a Reform-affiliated congregation, we celebrate many holidays more briefly than our Conservative and Orthodox family and friends. Passover, for instance: Reform Jews observe seven days of Pesach, while Conservative and Orthodox Jews outside the land of Israel observe eight. Long ago, many Biblically-rooted holidays gained an “extra Diaspora day.”

The original reason for this had to do with ensuring that new moon and full moon were being appropriately marked, and keeping Diaspora celebrations aligned with those in the Holy Land. (If you’re curious about this, read Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside Israel at MyJewishLearning.com.)

But an interesting thing happened with Rosh Hashanah. All of the other holidays that got an extra Diaspora day remained their original length in Israel (and Reform Judaism opted to maintain their original length even in the Diaspora)… but Rosh Hashanah became a two-day festival both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Rosh Hashanah lasts for two days no matter where we are.

At CBI we have always observed two days of Rosh Hashanah, and this year will be no exception. But this year, Hazzan Randall and I have decided to try something a bit different. Instead of simply replicating the first day’s service, this year we’ll be having a Contemplative Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. (That’s Tuesday, Ocrober 4 this year.)

The sanctuary will shift: we’ll sit in a circle, facing inward into the circle and inward into ourselves. Our use of the machzor (high holiday prayerbook) will shift: we’ll use the same book, but we’ll daven fewer words, and go deeper into the ones that we do chant and sing. Our Torah reading will shift: instead of three aliyot, we’ll have one aliyah, which we’ll enter into in a contemplative manner.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll have a special table in the middle of our circle, on which members of the community will be invited to place meaningful objects. On the second day, we invite you to bring something with you that has spiritual or emotional significance, and place it on the table.

If you’re one of our second day “regulars,” we hope you’ll enjoy this deeper dive into the liturgy and the meaning of this very special day. And if you’ve never before joined us for second day of Rosh Hashanah, we hope you’ll consider giving it a try this year. The second day of Rosh Hashanah is a special day with its own unique energy. We look forward to opening that up for you this year in a new way.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

ps: here’s our High Holiday Schedule for 5777-2016, in case you need it.

and here’s a flyer for the second day.

Shavua tov and chodesh tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shoftim & Shabbat Across the Berkshires

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all, and chodesh tov / a good new month to all — happy new lunar month of Elul!

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This weekend brings Shabbat Across the Berkshires. Join us at CBI at 7pm on Friday night (note: not our usual time) for a Kabbalat Shabbat service which we hope will be attended by congregants and clergy from throughout Berkshire County. This is the first time that Shabbat Across the Berkshires has happened in North County: join us! After davenen there will be a celebratory oneg hosted by the CBI Board.

Join us also at 9:30am on Saturday morning for Shabbat morning services where we’ll read from parashat Shoftim.

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: Shoftim at the URJ.


During the month of Elul it’s customary to pray psalm 27 every day. We’ll be singing different excerpts from the psalm over the course of this month and the Days of Awe — the song “Achat Sha’alti,” which we’ve sung here for many years at this season (and here’s a beautiful instrumental version), and also the verse “Lach Amar Libi” to a melody from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal congregation of Jerusalem, which we introduced last year:

Here’s an embedded mp3 of that melody so you can listen to it at home:

And here’s sheet music, for those who find sheet music useful: Psalm 27,Lakh Amar Libi notes [pdf] The words translate to “You [God] called to my heart, saying ‘seek My face;’ Your face, Source of All, is what I seek!”


Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Seven ways to enrich your Elul

elulDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This weekend we’ll enter into the lunar month of Elul — the four weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. This is the time to begin the journey of introspection and reflection which can deeply enrich your experiences of the High Holidays. Who have you been, over the last year? What are the things you feel great about, the things you’re proud of? What are the things you feel not-so-great about, the places where you missed the mark?

One tradition says that Elul is the time to work on teshuvah, usually translated as “repentance” though the word really means “return,” in our relationship with God — whatever you understand that term to mean — God far above or deep within, the Source of meaning, Love, the Cosmos, the Cosmic Parent, the Beloved, whatever metaphor works best for you. This is also a good time to work on repairing our relationships with ourselves: where have we disappointed ourselves, and how can we learn to offer ourselves forgiveness? What are we most grateful for, and how can we cultivate that gratitude in our lives every day?

If we spend Elul engaged in this work, then by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around we will already be steeped in the themes of the season, and the prayers in our prayerbook may resonate in a different way… and we’ll be better prepared to spend the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mending our relationships with the people in our lives. (Of course, that kind of interpersonal repair work can be done during Elul, too.)

Here are seven ways to dive deeper into Elul:

  1. Take a few minutes every day to breathe deeply, be present in the moment, and take your emotional-spiritual temperature: how are you feeling, not physically but emotionally? What’s arising in you today?
  2. On social media check out the hashtag #blogElul, which all month long will bring you blog posts and tweets on themes of repentance and return. (This is an annual thing organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, a.k.a. Ima Bima.) Or check out #Reflect4Rosh, a new online pre-high-holiday initiative organized by Rabbi Dan Horowitz of The Well, which invites people to reflect each day and to post photos and reflections tagged with that hashtag.
  3. Read an Elul poem every day and spend a few moments letting the poem soak in and seeing what it awakens in you. (In my office I have copies of my collection See Me: Elul Poems available for borrowing or purchase; you can also buy the book on Amazon if you are so inclined, and if you do so, you can get the e-book for 99 cents.)
  4. Come to Shabbat services. Dip into song and prayer with our community. You may find that it opens your heart and enlivens your spirit in ways you didn’t expect… and you’ll also get some advance glimpses of some melodies we’ll be using during the Days of Awe.
  5. Read, pray, or sing Psalm 27 every day. This is the psalm our sages assigned to this month. Here are some different versions to try:
    1. Reb Zalman (z”l)’s English translation
    2. One verse of the psalm set to music, in Hebrew, by Nava Tehila
    3. Alicia Ostriker’s psalm 27
    4. Achat Sha’alti melody by I. Katz
    5. R’ Brant Rosen’s English translation 
    6. Kirtan Rabbi’s Achat Sha’alti (info) and mp3
  6. Go for a walk. Another tradition teaches that Elul is the month when God leaves the divine palace on high and wanders in the fields, waiting for us to come and walk and talk and pour out our hearts. Take time this month to walk in the fields, hike up the mountains, and silently or out loud say to God whatever you need to.
  7. Hear the shofar each day. Tradition invites us to hear the sound of the shofar during each day of Elul as a spiritual wake-up call. What do you need to wake up to: in your own life, or in the world around you? There are many shofar videos on YouTube — here’s one:

I hope that some or all of these methods speak to you. We’re entering one of my favorite months of the year. If we open ourselves to it, it can work some powerful transformations on our hearts and on our souls.

Wishing everyone an early chodesh tov — may your month of Elul be meaningful and sweet.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel