Monthly Archives: July 2012

Tisha b’Av is on its way (Saturday July 28, 8pm)

Dear holy friends,

On the rollercoaster ride of the Jewish calendar, we have been slowly creeping up to the top of a hill, and we’re about to take a plunge which will carry us into new spiritual territory.

In some ways, the Days of Awe season begins on July 28 at sundown when we observe Tisha b’Av with an evening service (8pm) featuring a reading in English of the book of Lamentations alongside poetry both old and new on the day’s somber themes. This is the spiritual nadir of our year.

On 9 Av we remember the destruction of both Temples. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonion king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and the second was destroyed by the Roman general Vespasian in 70 CE. Both, according to tradition, were destroyed on this same calendar date. Also on this date we remember expulsions from England and Spain, pogroms, the Crusades — historical traumas throughout the ages. Traditionally, Tisha b’Av is observed with fasting; sitting on the floor or on low stools, as mourners do; and with sorrow for the two fallen Temples and the brokenness of our imperfect world.

I didn’t grow up observing Tisha b’Av, but it has become one of the most meaningful observances of my summer.

The service is brief. It’s hard to call it “short and sweet” since it is an opportunity to reflect on our communal losses through history, but it is certainly short and meaningful. And I’ve come to believe that there is something valuable about taking one day to allow ourselves to really experience sorrow and grief. Having gone down into those depths, we are in the right position to begin the ascent to the joy of the Days of Awe.

Rabbi Alan Lew writes poignantly about the two months between Tisha b’Av and the end of Sukkot:

These two months merely stood for something that was going on all the time. The business of transformation was going on all the time. It never stopped. The two-month period in question was merely a time when we focused on it, when we gave form to something invisible that lay dormant but was possible to awaken at every moment of our lives.

So the walls of our great house are crumbling all the time, and not just in midsummer at Tisha b’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple. Every moment of our lives, the sacred house of our life — the constructs by which we live and to which we hold on so fiercely — nevertheless falls away. Every moment, we take in a breath and the world comes into being, and we let out a breath and the world falls away…

And the time of transformation is always upon us. The world is always cracking through the shell of its egg to be open. The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open.

Whether or not you have ever experienced Tisha b’Av — whether or not you can easily relate to the notion of mourning for the fall of the Temple nearly two thousand years ago — I hope you will join us at 8pm on Saturday, July 28 to observe Tisha b’Av. We will hear some of Eicha (Lamentations) sung to its mournful melody; we will also sing the penultimate line of the book, with its message of hope and redemption. You can listen to the melody we will use, if you like — it was the song for the month of Av last year.

After Tisha b’Av we enter the “Seven Weeks of Consolation,” seven Shabbatot during which the assigned prophetic readings are intended to cheer and console us. Some people have the custom of doing a kind of reverse Omer count during these seven weeks: meditating on the same combinations of divine and human qualities which were our focus during the Omer journey leading up to Shavuot, as lenses to help us examine our souls and our hopes as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah. (My friend and colleague Shifrah Tobacman has written a book of poems intended for daily use at both of those seasons — Omer/Teshuvah, available on Amazon.)

That seven-week journey leads us directly to Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation. I’ll say more about those weeks and their unique spiritual qualities once we’ve gone down into the depths of Tisha b’Av, and brought forth whatever blessings we may find there.

Here’s one final quote from Rabbi Alan Lew on Tisha b’Av:

Something remained when the Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago. This was perhaps the most significant turning point in Jewish history. Judaism continued without the Temple, an inconceivable possibility at the time. But the truth is that if the Temple had never been destroyed, the renewal Judaism needed so badly could never have taken place…

What is required of us at Tisha b’Av is a simple turn of mind, a turn toward consciousness, a turn away from denial, from the inertia, from the passive momentum of our lives, a turn away from those things that continue to happen unconsciously, and a conscious decision to change. A letting go, letting the walls of identity crumble, and turning toward that which remains.

A rabbinic teaching holds that the messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av: the figure who represents perfect healing and wholeness entering the world on the day when we are most aware of brokenness and sorrow. As that holy day unfolds for us, may we connect with our deepest hopes for brokenness mended, for a world transformed.

I hope to see you on Saturday might at 8 at CBI.


Reb Rachel

D’var Torah for Matot-Masei: redeeming the instructions to displace and destroy

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday morning at CBI on last week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei.


God spoke to Moshe on the plains of Moab near the Jordan, and said: speak to the children of Israel and tell them: when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you will displace all who dwell in the land… and if you do not, they will be as thorns in your eyes, they will wound your sides…and I will drive you out of the land instead of them. –Numbers 33:55-56


Some weeks it’s difficult to draw a clear connection between the Torah portion and contemporary reality. Not this week. This week we’re in parashat MatotMasei, which contains instructions for displacing the Canaanites, as well as instructions regarding the future borders of the promised land.

There are those who hold that this week’s Torah portion is justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over “Greater Israel.” Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet reads this text creatively. He says that we ourselves are the “borders” into which holiness can flow. Those other inhabitants, he argues, weren’t able to experience the holiness inherent in the land. Only when the Israelites entered did the supernal land of Israel, the ideal Israel on high, merge with the earthly land of Israel here below. And when we prepare our hearts and souls with Torah, he says, God causes holiness to flow into us, contained by the borders of who we are.

I love the idea that we ourselves are the “borders” into which holiness can flow…but I chafe at the ethnocentrism. I espouse a post-triumphalist Judaism; I understand other religious traditions as meaningful paths to God. I can’t accept that only we are capable of true holiness and true connection with our Source.

What, then, can we do with these verses? Continue reading

Song for the Month of Av – Breslover niggun

We’ve taken a few months off from having a “song of the month,” but I wanted to return to the practice and to share a melody I love which we’ll be using when I lead services over the next few weeks. The new month of Av will begin at the end of this week (Thursday evening at sundown), so here is our song for the month which is about to begin.

First, here it is as a niggun — a wordless melody. This niggun comes from the Breslov (also sometimes spelled Bratzlav) Hasidic tradition.

(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, above, you can play or download the mp3 directly at

And secondly, here it is as a setting for the words of “Mah Tovu,” which we sing at the beginning of most of our Shabbat morning services:

(If you can’t see the embedded audio player, above, you can play or download the mp3 directly at

This melody also works beautifully for “El Adon,” the alphabetic acrostic which we sometimes sing as part of the blessing for God Who creates light, and for “Adon Olam,” the praise-song with which we sometimes conclude services.

I look forward to singing this melody with you in the coming weeks!

Poet Merle Feld coming to CBI on Sunday, July 22!

A reminder: Jewish poet Merle Feld is coming to CBI this Sunday, July 22, to give a reading at 2pm! She will read her work in the CBI sanctuary; refreshments and a book-signing will follow.

Feld is a widely-published poet, award-winning playwright, peace activist and educator. She is the author of Finding Words, (URJ Press, 2011 — here’s Reb Rachel’s review of that collection, in Zeek magazine) and the highly acclaimed memoir, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition (SUNY Press, revised edition 2007).

Don’t miss this opportunity to hear her share her powerful work. As a foretaste of good things to come, one of her poems is enclosed below.

This program is co-sponsored by Jewish Federation of the Berkshires.

Hope to see you for an afternoon of Jewish poetry at CBI!


We All Stood Together

by Merle Feld

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

Rabbis’ Favorite Films Series, Film 2: Local Hero this Sunday at 10am!

This weekend we’ll have the second installment of the Rabbis’ Favorite Films series — in which three fabulous (and very different) films will be presented at CBI, with bagels and lox, and with some contextualizing remarks / conversation about how these films connect with Jewish ideas and themes.

This week’s movie will be Local Hero.  Here’s how IMDB describes it: “An American oil company sends a man to Scotland to buy up an entire village where they want to build a refinery. But things don’t go as expected…”

The original trailer for Local Hero. If you can’t see the embedded video, you can go directly to it at YouTube.

Along with brunch, Reb Rachel will offer a short introduction to seeing this film through Jewish eyes.

Please join us for something a little different: a fun, relaxing and informative morning. Plus bagels and lox….what could be better?!

Further installments will feature Cantor Bob Scherr presenting Israeli film Walk on Water in August. All films will be screened on a “large-ish” screen in the CBI classroom. Join us!

Donate used eyeglasses during the Three Weeks

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Do you have outdated eyeglasses in a drawer or cupboard somewhere? If you do, please consider bringing them to CBI between now and the end of this month. All eyeglasses collected will be donated to OneSight, a nonprofit organization which provides eyeglasses to those in need around the world.

Right now we’re in the lunar month of Tammuz, which ancient Jewish mystics associated with the sense of sight and with the need to “heal” or “rectify” our sight so that we only see the best in one another. This is a meaningful spiritual endeavor! But while we’re working on healing our ability to see what’s good in each other and in the world, we can also do our part to help others simply see in the first place.

Between now and Tisha b’Av, which we will observe beginning at 8pm on Saturday, July 28, we’ll be collecting eyewear at CBI. If you have old prescription glasses, please bring them to the synagogue and place them in the box in the foyer with the “donate used eyeglasses here” sign.

May we bring blessings to others through our generosity, and in so doing, may we ourselves be blessed.

Reb Rachel

From the Rabbi: the Three Weeks have begun

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

One of the five minor fast days on the Jewish calendar took place this past weekend: 17 Tammuz, the day when we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. On 17 Tammuz we also remember the breaking of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments which happened when Moshe came down the mountain and saw the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf. 17 Tammuz is the beginning of the “Three Weeks,” a time also known as bein ha-meitzarim — “between the narrows” or “in tight straits” — a period of semi-mourning which culminates with Tisha b’Av.

I didn’t grow up observing 17 Tammuz or the Three Weeks (or, for that matter, Tisha b’Av.) The Three Weeks aren’t universally observed in the liberal Jewish world. (See Do Reform Jews Observe the Three Weeks?)  What does it mean to mourn the siege of a city almost two thousand years ago, the breaching of the first wall which led to the fall of the Temple, especially when many of us no longer see the Temple Mount as the axis mundi, the umbilicus of creation, the place where communication with God is uniquely possible?

My colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests that 17 Tammuz is a day to mourn the ways in which the structures of peace are being dismantled in our time. Hearing that, some of us may think of olive trees uprooted and homes demolished; others may think of the removal of settlers from Gaza. What are the impediments to peace in today’s Jerusalem? There’s passionate disagreement on that front — which makes me also think: what are the impediments to peace between and among us, in the Jewish community, who see the situation in Israel and Palestine in differing ways?

The Talmud (tractate Yoma) tells us the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam, “baseless hatred,” within our community. Are we any kinder than our ancestors were? How are the structures of caring and compassion dismantled in our time? The structures of understanding, gentleness, kindness? These, for me, are among the questions of these Three Weeks.

The Sefer Yetzirah, a classic text of Jewish mysticism, says that each month of the Jewish calendar is associated with one of our senses. This month, the month of Tamuz, is associated with the sense of sight; it is considered the best time of the year to “heal” our sight so that we stop seeing what’s wrong with each other and start seeing what’s right.

If we could all spend these Three Weeks healing our sight so that we truly only see the good in one another, how might the world be different? I’m not talking about superficial pretense, but about really training ourselves to see the best in people. Imagine seeing the best not only in your friends, but in the guy who cuts you off in traffic; in someone who looks different from you; in someone whose political positions are the opposite of yours.

Imagine Democrats and Republicans really figuring out how to see the good in each other. Imagine AIPAC supporters and Jewish Voice for Peace supporters doing the same. Secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Soldiers and refuseniks. Israelis and Palestinians. “Us” and “them.” What might the Three Weeks mean to us if we could truly open our eyes to the best in each other?

Whether or not you chose to fast on 17 Tammuz — and for that matter, whether or not you intend to fast on Tisha b’Av! — consider donating what you would ordinarily spend on a day’s food budget to an organization which works to effect healing. Combatants for Peace works to create healing and change in the Middle East; RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) works to create healing for those who have suffered rape or abuse. Or donate to support a month of Take and Eat at CBI, or to another local organization which works to alleviate some of the brokenness of our world.

During these Three Weeks, may we learn to extend hope and kindness to all who suffer. May we learn that in our very brokenness lies the possibility of healing and transformation.

Blessings to all,

Reb Rachel