Daily Archives: October 10, 2011

A note from the Rabbi: we want your feedback!

Dear CBI members and friends,

It was a joy to see so many of you at CBI during the Days of Awe.

I’ve put together a short survey about your experience at CBI during this high holiday season. It won’t take long to fill out. Please go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/YX3WW2S and give us your feedback.

The survey is completely anonymous. I hope you will speak up about what you liked, what you didn’t like, what moved you, and what you want more of next year.

Thanks in advance for taking the time to let me know how we could make our Days of Awe even more awesome next year. I value your feedback, and I want to know how I, and we, can serve you better.

I hope to see you at our Sukkot potluck on 10/14 and/or our Simchat Torah celebration at Williams on 10/20 — and any other time you feel like dropping by.

Onward to Sukkot!

Three poems of teshuvah: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

August Rain, After Haying

Through sere trees and beheaded
grasses the slow rain falls.
Hay fills the barn; only the rake
and one empty wagon are left
in the field. In the ditches
goldenrod bends to the ground.

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
chair. We are shorn
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.

Those are the words of the poet Jane Kenyon, of blessed memory. August may feel like a long time ago now, but try to remember it. Close your eyes if you have to. Can you recall the scent of hay, the sound of summer rain? I love this poem; I love its imagery, “the steady benevolence / of water washing dust,” the grass “receiving” the rain in order to grow again. The grass knows what it is doing. But the soul…the soul may be another matter.

“My disordered soul thirsts / after something it cannot name.”What do you yearn for? Not water, not coffee, not whatever your bellies are already beginning to crave: what are you really thirsty for? Is there something you cannot name which pulls you forward, which leaves you wondering, for which you cannot help but hope?

Kenyon named her soul as “disordered.” I suspect that each of us has a disordered soul. Our spiritual lives are like kitchen tables which become piled with unopened mail. After a while we don’t even want to face the sliding stack of envelopes: there are probably bills in there, requests for things we don’t want to give. It becomes easier to just look the other way. But not today. Today is the day to sit down at that table, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what’s there. Today we put our souls in order at last. Continue reading

Unexpected Joy: a sermon for Kol Nidre

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

I’m going to let you in on a secret: this is one of my favorite days of the year.

It’s not that I enjoy being hungry, or standing up here at the front of a room as my body grows increasingly weary, or reminding myself of all the ways in which I’ve missed the mark over the year we’ve just completed. And yes, all of those are part of Yom Kippur.

But those aren’t what’s truly central to this holiday. Here’s what I love: Yom Kippur is the day when we get to focus most on being in connection with something beyond ourselves.

In my love of Yom Kippur, I’m in good company. We read in Mishna Ta’anit that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “there were no yomim tovim (holidays) in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” On both of these days, the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards dressed in white, and call out to the unmarried men to join them.

What makes these two days special? Why were they days of dancing and courtship and joy? On each of these dates, God gave us clear signs that God had accepted our repentance. Yom Kippur is understood as the anniversary of the day when Moshe returned from atop Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets of the covenant, a sign that God had forgiven us for the idolatry which caused the first set to be shattered. On Yom Kippur, we experience our bond with God anew.

Most of the time, we have to balance the desire for spiritual life with the mundane realities of cooking, cleaning, taking the kids to daycare or school. Not today. Today, we only have one job: reaching out beyond ourselves to connect with the source of blessing. Jewish tradition, of course, names that source “God.”

The Jewish mystics teach that we connect with God all the time without even knowing it. God’s abundance flows down into creation all year long. Wisdom and understanding, mercy and judgement: we find all of these in God, and we find God in all of these. God is a fountain of blessing, and blessing flows from that divine spigot without ever stopping. Ideally, we receive that blessing every day in our ordinary lives.

But over the course of a year, the channel through which God’s blessings flow becomes shmutzdik. It gets clogged with our spiritual detritus. Our inattention, our frustrations, our mistakes, the hasty words we wish we could retract: everything we do wrong over the course of a year is spiritual sediment which blocks the conduit through which blessings are meant to flow. Our job today is to clean out those spiritual pipes so that divine abundance can flow freely into our lives again. Continue reading

Spiritual Lessons of the Arab Spring: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

(Also posted at Velveteen Rabbi.)

Last winter there was a revolution in Tunisia. It began on December 17, in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

A policewoman, seeking a bribe, confiscated the illegal vegetable stall of an unemployed man named Mohamad Bouazizi. For years, the police had been routinely confiscating his wheelbarrow of produce, demanding bribes. On this day, he had already gone into debt to buy the vegetables he needed to sell to feed his family. And now his vegetables, and his street cart, were impounded, and he was harassed and humiliated by a city official and her aides. Bouazizi tried to see the governor to beg for his cart and his weighing scales, but the governor refused to see him.

Out of despondency, or out of desperate desire to make a statement, Bouazizi set himself on fire. This was not an act of violence against others, but a way of protesting and showing his despair. On December 17, the day when Bouazizi self-immolated, protesters took to the streets. They posted videos of their marches on Facebook. After 23 years of dictatorship under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian people were fed up with corruption and misrule. Al Jazeera broadcast this smalltown Tunisian revolution throughout the Arab world. Less than a month later, Ben Ali stepped down from power.

That same month, a revolution unfolded in Egypt. Protests took place in a Cairo square called Tahrir—“Liberation.” More than a million people took to the streets and the square, rallying behind the aims of free speech, an end to police brutality and corruption, and an end to the state of emergency law which had persisted since 1967. They protested high unemployment and food price inflation. They demanded free elections, a say in the management of Egypt’s resources, and justice.

The protestors faced police willing to use tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back. Ordinary people who lived near Tahrir opened their homes so that protesters could shower, and showed up in the square to cook food and sing songs. You may have seen news footage of Egyptian Christians linking hands to protect Egyptian Muslims as they prostrated themselves in prayer—a prostration which is akin to what some of us will do, later this morning, during the Great Aleinu.

Within days President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and a new chapter of Egyptian history began. Continue reading

Note to the community re: the Days of Awe

The Days of Awe are almost upon us. Our first service of the high holiday season, Selichot (featuring havdalah, songs, poems, and a contemplative / creative meditation) will take place this Saturday night (9/24) at 7:30pm, followed by a potluck dessert reception. I hope to see you there.

As we enter into this holy season, I want to offer an invitation.

Each of us comes to the High Holidays laden with memories. Memories of what shul was like last year, or the year before, or when we were kids sitting beside our parents or grandparents. Memories which we cherish, and also memories which may cause us pain.

Each of us also comes to the High Holidays bearing expectations. What do you imagine services might be like this year? When you anticipate sitting in synagogue, how do you feel: eager? anticipatory? already bored? (All of the above?)

I’d like to invite each of us to cherish the memories which bring us joy, and to release the memories which bring us pain. To let go of the vision of what we imagined these holidays would be, and embrace instead whatever they actually are.

I want to bless you that you might find the connections, the insights, and the spiritual richness you need in whatever your experience of the Days of Awe may be.

A complete schedule of our offerings for the Days of Awe — from Selichot services, to Rosh Hashanah services, to the pre-Yom-Kippur mikveh immersion, to Yom Kippur services, to the gentle yoga on Yom Kippur afternoon, to the break-the-fast, to Sukkot and Simchat Torah — is available on our website, http://www.cbiweb.org.

I look forward to seeing you, to (re)connecting with you, and to celebrating with you as we move through this beautiful and awesome time of year.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu: may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Note to the community before Yom Kippur

I am filled with gratitude for the many wonderful gifts of Rosh Hashanah: our tireless ushers (with umbrellas in the rain!), all who set up chairs and prepared our sanctuary, Bob Greenberg’s beautiful blowing of shofar, the way the rain let up on the first day of Rosh Hashanah just long enough for us to trek to the river and do tashlich — and most of all, seeing so many of you here. Thank you for the gift of your presence.

Soon we’ll begin the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. Whether or not you’re coming to the mikveh on Friday (please email Reb Rachel today if you wish to join us), whether or not you’ll be wearing white on Yom Kippur (in emulation of the angels, and in mindfulness of our white burial shrouds), whether or not you’re interested in gentle yoga before mincha in the afternoon, I hope that this powerful day will be everything you need it to be.

We will provide babysitting for children aged 6 and under (please note the age range) in the classroom during the Kol Nidre service on Friday evening, beginning at 6pm, and the Yom Kippur morning service on Saturday, beginning at 9:30am. We ask that parents please accompany children to and from the classroom. The babysitters cannot be responsible for children once they leave the classroom.

CBI member Cheryl Sacks will lead a brief, child-friendly Yom Kippur service in the classroom at 10am; children of all ages are welcome to attend. Children are also especially encouraged to attend our afternoon mincha service, where — if we have enough young actors in our midst! — we will invite the kids to act out the Jonah story as it is told.

Cantorial soloist Shayndel Kahn and I look forward to praying, singing, learning, and just being with you soon.

G’mar chatimah tovah: may you be sealed for a good year to come.

Update re: Tropical Storm Irene and the Spruces

I met this morning with the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy group to discuss our continuing efforts to support those who were displaced by Hurricane Irene last week, and I want to fill you in on the situation and on what you can do to help.

The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy group has hired Robin Lenz to coordinate local disaster relief and to help our aid (clothing, food, money, housing) reach those who are dispossessed. Robin, who is working out of the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, can be reached via phone at 458-4273, and via email at robinlenz@rocketmail.com; if you want to donate gift cards (Stop n’Shop, Walmart, Rite Aid) or if you want to volunteer your time to help Spruces residents, she’s the person to contact.

The most dire need is housing. The 300+ residents at the Spruces are still stuck paying their utilities, rent, and other expenses at the trailer park, even though no one can get back in to their trailers and many of the trailers have been condemned. Current estimates from FEMA are that 70% of the residents there will not be able to return for some time — perhaps ever. Right now the interfaith clergy group is putting people up at several area motels. Hopefully FEMA checks will start arriving soon for emergency housing, directly into the checking account of each of the displaced folks. Meanwhile, we’re exploring the longer-term questions of housing for the refugees. It will likely be necessary to house these folks for the winter and we’re not yet sure where or how that will happen.

Food is also needed. The Northern Berkshire Interfaith Clergy group is planning to begin offering a weekly community meal (on Sunday evenings) to the Spruces community so that they may be sustained both by the food and by the togetherness. If you would like to be part of these efforts, the person to reach out to is Peter Daniels at First Baptist Church – peterdaniels@mac.com. (For now, the dinners will be at First Baptist Church on Thomas Street in Williamstown, with seatings at 5 and at 6pm.)

I’ve been tasked with thinking about the big-picture issues: affordable housing for seniors in our community, what is the town already doing and what’s not yet being done, what else might be the longterm needs of these residents (donated legal time to help them navigate their situation? what else?) If any of you would like to help me think through these questions, please let me know.

If you want your tzedakah to take the form of a monetary donation, I recommend sending it to one of the following two places:

Community Fund for the Spruces
Williamstown Savings Bank
795 Main Street, Williamstown MA 01267

Spruces Tenants Association
memo: disaster relief
c/o South Adams Savings Bank
273 Main St., Williamstown MA 01267

The Days of Awe are fast approaching. This is the season of teshuvah, of re/turning to God, of doing what we can to ensure that our lives are aligned with holiness. A lot of people in our community still need our help. May we each find blessing in helping as much as, and however, we are able.

Take care, and l’shanah tovah,

Song of the Month: Tishri 5772 / October 2011

This month’s song of the month is one of my very favorites. The melody belongs to a Shaker hymn, and the English words are precisely those of the hymn:

O Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
And in thanksgiving I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for You!

The Hebrew verse comes from the book of Exodus, and is on exactly the same theme as the English. The first line is God’s request “make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in y’all.” The second line is our response: “and we will bless God, now and forever.”

ועשו לי מקדש
ושכנתי בתוכם
ואנחנו נברך יה
מעתה ועד עולם

V’asu li mikdash
V’shachanti b’tocham
Va-anachnu n’varech Yah
Me-ata v’ad olam!

You can download, and/or listen to, the mp3 here: http://velveteenrabbi.com/cbimusic/sanctuary.mp3

We’ll sing this on Yom Kippur afternoon. We’ll also use it as our opening and closing song on the other Shabbat when I’m leading services this month, which will be October 29.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu — may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Song of the Month: Elul 5771 / September 2011

We’re entering into the month of Elul, the last month before the new year begins. It’s traditional to read Psalm 27 every day during this month, as we begin the work of teshuvah, re/turning toward God, aligning ourselves in the right direction again. (You can read my favorite translation of this psalm at my blog: http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2009/08/psalm-27.html)

The song for this month is “Achat Sha’alti,” which means “One Thing I Ask.” The words come from Psalm 27, and they are:

Achat sha’alti me’eit Adonai, otah avakesh (2x)
Shivti b’veit Adonai, kol y’mei chayay
Lachazot b’noam, b’noam Yah, u’l’vaker b’heikhalo (2x)

One thing I ask, I ask of You, I earnestly pray for (2x)
That I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life
Knowng the beauty, the beauty of You, and to dwell in Your holy place! (2x)

Here’s a recording, which you can listen to online or can download onto your own computer:

Achat Sha’alti: http://velveteenrabbi.com/cbimusic/achatshaalti.mp3

We’ll use this as our closing song on the two Shabbatot when I’m leading services this month (9/3 and 9/17), and we’ll sing it during Selichot services (the evening of Saturday, 9/24) and at other times during the Days of Awe, too.

May this melody, and these words, open your heart to the blessings of Elul and the holy unfolding of teshuvah in your life.

Song of the Month: August 2011 / Av 5771

SONGS OF THE MONTH – AUGUST 2011 / AV 5771

The song for this month is a setting of the penultimate line from the book of Eicha (Lamentations) which we read on Tisha b’Av. Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning, and Lamentations is a mournful book — but there’s a tradition of always closing with this penultimate line of the book, which offers hope.

The words are “Hashivenu, hashivenu, Adonai Eloheinu / v’nashuva, v’nashuva / chadesh, chadesh yameinu k’kedem,” and they mean “Return us to You, return us to You, Adonai our God / and we will return, we will return / renew, renew our days as of old!” Here’s the audio:

Hashivenu: http://velveteenrabbi.com/cbimusic/hashivenu.mp3

The two Shabbatot when I’m leading services this month are both Shabbatot when we’ll be celebrating b’not mitzvah — and they’re both after 9 Av, when our mood will have shifted from mourning into the celebratory anticipation of the journey toward the Days of Awe. So we probably won’t use this melody in services — though we will sing it at Tisha b’Av. Join us at 8pm on Monday, August 8.