Monthly Archives: September 2012

Sukkot Begins On Sunday!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Whew! What a wonderful High Holiday season we have had. From our Selichot play “The Gates Are Closing” through our final Ne’ilah service and Break-Fast on Yom Kippur, it has been a truly wondrous season here at CBI.

And the season isn’t over. On Sunday at 2pm we’ll gather to build our congregational sukkah; the festival of Sukkot begins on Sunday at sundown. In honor of its arrival, here are some frequently-asked questions about Sukkot — and answers, too.

What is Sukkot, again, exactly?

Sukkot — sometimes called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles — is a week-long festival in which we build little temporary houses in our backyards and “dwell” in them. Some people actually camp out in their sukkot; for most of us, “dwelling” in the sukkah means hanging out, eating meals, and enjoying time with friends.

Some scholars suggest that Sukkot, as an autumn harvest festival, was likely the Pilgrims’ inspiration for creating a celebration of harvest and thanksgiving.

Remind me: what’s a sukkah?

A temporary hut. It needs to have a roof made from organic material (we usually use corn stalks; in south Texas where I grew up, people used palm fronds) through which one can glimpse the stars.

Much has been written about the variety of possible shapes for a sukkah. Generally speaking, sukkot are shaped to look like one of the letters in the word סכה — so either two and a half, three, or four walls. With, again, a permeable roof through which one can see the moon (full at the beginning of the festival) and the stars.

What does one DO during Sukkot?

The primary mitzvah of this holiday is sitting in the sukkah and rejoicing. Sukkot is known as Zman Simchateinu, “The Season of Our Rejoicing,” and it is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the Three Pilgrimage Festivals when we used to congregate in Jerusalem. So the most important thing to do during Sukkot is to sit in a sukkah and have fun.

(The sages are clear that if it is raining or otherwise nasty out, then it is a mitzvah to not sit in the sukkah — unless, I guess, you’re someone who derives joy from being rained-on.)

Another big mitzvah of this holiday is gathering the Four Species — willow, myrtle, palm, and a citrus fruit called an etrog — and shaking them in all directions. Depending on who you ask, this may be either a fertility ritual, a prayer for rain, or a way of beckoning blessing to come from all sides. If you didn’t order yourself a lulav-and-etrog set, no worries: we have three of them at CBI for communal use.

There’s also the custom of welcoming Ushpizin, or exalted guests, into our sukkah. Traditionally these guests are the spirits of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Today many of us also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and/or Ruth.

And finally, during Sukkot we get to recite the psalms of Hallel during morning prayer, which means there are wonderful songs to sing. (There’s also a tradition of doing hoshanot — moving in a circle around the sanctuary with lulav and etrog and Torah while singing — every morning. We’ll probably only manage that here on Shabbat, though.)

How can I celebrate Sukkot this year?

I’m glad you asked! Here are some options:

– show up at CBI on Sunday 9/30 at 2pm to help us build our sukkah. Our sukkah is built from metal tubes which attach together; the walls are made of tarps; the roof is cornstalks. It’s not heavy labor, but the more hands we have on deck, the easier it will be

– bring items to beautify our CBI sukkah: strings of lights, ornamental gourds, whatever says “harvest festival” and “beauty” to you (as long as it’s waterproof!)

reserve the CBI sukkah for one night next week (do so by signing up on the sign-up sheet on the corkboard near the CBI restrooms) and sit / rejoice in the CBI sukkah: with friends, with a bottle of wine, with a portable radio so you can listen to baseball, or just in sweet moonlit solitude

– pack a lunch and bring it to the CBI sukkah any day next week

– come to Reb Rachel and Ethan and Drew’s house in Lanesboro on Tuesday evening between 7 and 8:30 to enjoy cider in their sukkah

– come to morning meditation next Friday — weather permitting, we’ll meditate in the sukkah, surrounded by the sound of the birds and the rustling leaves

– bring a vegetarian/dairy dish to our First Friday Shabbat / Sukkot Potluck on Friday October 5 at 5:30pm

– and, of course, you could build your own sukkah! Here’s a very simple set of instructions for How To Build a Simple Sukkah from my friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg at

What’s the point of all of this?

Joy. Togetherness. Renewed awareness, perhaps, that our lives and our dwellings are temporary. A remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt (our sukkot are meant to remind us of the tents in which our ancestors lived while leaving Egypt) and a remembrance of the harvest (our sukkot can also remind of us of the temporary tents erected in the fields during harvest-time.) Hospitality — both ours (when we invite people over during Sukkot) and God’s (tradition says that Shemini Atzeret, in particular, is when God says to us, “don’t go yet! Linger with Me a little longer in My sukkah!”) Renewed awareness that we live not only under roofs but also under the skies, the heavens, God’s sheltering presence.

And once Sukkot is over, then we’re done?

Almost. Sukkot culminates with Hoshana Rabbah (“The Great ‘Save-Us!'”) on the 7th day of the festival, Shemini Atzeret (“The Pause of the 8th Day”) on, you guessed it, the 8th day of the festival, and Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah.”) In Israel and in Reform Jewish communities such as ours, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day; in Conservative and Orthodox comunities in the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are on subsequent days (so in those communities Simchat Torah would come on day 9.)

I’ll send out more information about Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah soon.

For now: I wish you a sweet Shabbat and a joyful journey into this Season of Our Rejoicing! Hope to see you at CBI soon.


Reb Rachel

A sermon for Yom Kippur Morning: In The Belly of the Whale

This is the sermon I offered this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Once there was a man named Jonah, “Dove,” son of Amittai, “Truth.”

And God spoke to him and said, Go to the great city of Nineveh and tell them to make teshuvah, otherwise I will destroy them for their wickedness. And in response, Jonah fled.

This is a familiar story. We’ll read it again this afternoon during mincha, and we’ll look at some fascinating modern commentaries during our Torah study afterwards. But I want to lift up a few details now, because some of you may not return for mincha, and there’s something powerful about encountering this particular story on this particular day of the year.

Jonah flees from God, onto a ship bound for Tarshish. He heads in precisely the direction God didn’t tell him to go. An actual Wrong-Way Corrigan. Does he really think he can escape from the Holy Blessed One, the King of Kings, Who can see him anywhere he goes?

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a Sufi story about a great teacher whose disciples wanted to learn his mystical wisdom. Okay, said the teacher; here is a dove; go someplace where no one can see you, and kill it, and when you come back, I will teach you what you want to know.

Of his 12 students, eleven came back with dead birds, and he sent them away. One returned with the living dove. “I couldn’t find a place,” said the student, “where no One could see me.” It was to that student, who understood God’s omnipresence, that the teacher chose to transmit his blessing and his wisdom.

But our Jonah, our dove, forgets that. He flies from his calling, flees from God.

Once his ship is at sea, a mighty storm arises. The sailors are in a panic. And Jonah is sound asleep belowdecks. This is comedy. Imagine the ship rocking wildly from side to side, sloshing with seawater and in danger of foundering: and our hero, or perhaps our anti-hero, is sound asleep!

It’s also a deep spiritual teaching. How often, in our lives, do we hide from what we know we’re meant to be doing? How often are we spiritually asleep? Continue reading

Kol Nidre Sermon: What Are We Here For?

Once there was a great rabbi named Yekhiel. Reb Yekhiel could discern the deepest truths in a person’s soul just by looking at them. He would gaze at your forehead for a moment, and then tell you the history of your soul in all of its incarnations.

Some people sought him out, wanting to know who they had been before. Others avoided him. Some would pull their hats down over their faces to try to hide from him. Which was ridiculous, because surely a man who can gaze into the history of your soul just by looking at you can also gaze through a bit of leather or cloth!

It was said that Reb Yekhiel turned every day into Yom Kippur. In a good way! Because he was able to see into the depths of people’s souls, and help them understand where they had gone wrong, and how to correct their mistakes in this life.

One year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yekhiel saw an apparition. He recognized the man immediately: it was the cantor who used to chant so beautifully in Reb Yekhiel’s hometown. “What are you doing here?” asked Reb Yekhiel.

“Surely the holy rabbi already knows,” replied the soul of the hazzan. “On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life. With every deed, we inscribe ourselves in that book. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born — and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn.”

“So tell me,” the rabbi asked, “why are you being sent down into the physical world again?” Continue reading

CBI Wants You…to help build our Sukkah!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Yom Kippur is almost upon us. And four days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, the festival of booths / tabernacles, in which we build little houses in our backyards and “dwell” in them (or at least dine in them) for a week.

You’ve heard the proverb “many hands make light work.” Please come add your hands to ours on Sunday, September 30, as we build our sukkah at 2pm! It’s not difficult labor, but it gets so much easier when we have multiple people on hand to help set things up.

(And if you happen to have anything which would make a good sukkah decoration — strings of lights, autumn wreaths, anything waterproof — bring it along!)

Then join us to rejoice in the sukkah on Friday evening, October 5, at 5:30pm with a potluck. (More on that later.) And feel free to reserve the CBI sukkah for your own use anytime during the week, if you want to host a dinner party or come enjoy tea or wine under the stars — there’s a sign-up sheet in the hallway near the restrooms.

Thanks for lending your hands and your hearts to our celebration of this wonderful festival. Look forward to seeing you soon!


Reb Rachel

Three Yom Kippur customs, explained

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.

Why 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. Another interpretatation 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.) As members of our chevra kadisha 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.

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.
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A message about hearing each other

Dear holy friends.

It was a joy to see so many of you in our beautiful sanctuary over the two days of Rosh Hashanah.

On the first day of the holiday something unusual happened: someone who took issue with my sermon came up to the bimah to offer impromptu remarks in response.

Please know that I welcome responses to my sermons and my divrei Torah. If something I have said resonates with you, or concerns you; brings you joy, or upsets you; whatever your responses are, I want to hear them. My office door is always open. Please don’t hesitate to email, to call, or to come and see me. But I ask that you please not offer your responses during services, as doing so is disruptive for others who have gathered in prayer.

I want our synagogue community to be a space where we can all be heard and where we can all feel safe. We all need to partner in creating both a safe place for all kinds of expression, and a safe space for prayer and spiritual experience. Being in community isn’t just about how I relate to each of you (and vice versa) — it’s also about how we all relate to each other.

Shema, Yisrael — Hear, O Israel! Every day we are called to hear the still small voice of God, and we are called to hear one another. Sometimes this means hearing things which are painful or uncomfortable. During these Days of Awe, we focus on teshuvah: we turn toward God, we re-turn to our truest selves. Learning to hear one another is part of that process of teshuvah.

During these holy days, I invite each of us to think about how we respond, individually and communally, when we hear things we don’t like. We learn about ourselves when we bump up against viewpoints with which we disagree. I invite each of us, during this holy season, to consider what we do with our most deep-seated and heartfelt reactions. I invite us to examine how we respond to conflict and to disagreement in our own lives.

And I invite us to learn, together, how to hold with love and compassion the people whose opinions may push our buttons. In our local community there are surely disagreements; how much more so among the global Jewish community of klal Yisrael. I believe that our many diversities are holy; that our community is strengthened, not weakened, by our differences.

It’s the beginning of a new year. There could be no better time to set the conscious intentions of listening to one another, of caring for one another, of creating a community where all perspectives are valued and everyone feels safe. We have an opportunity to make space in our community, and in our hearts, for a pluralism which is deep and real.

May these Ten Days of Teshuvah bring you ever closer to God, to our community, and to your deepest self. I am blessed to be able to serve you.

L’shanah tovah,

Reb Rachel

Guest Post: The Still Small Voice by Cantorial Soloist David Curiel

Here’s the sermon which cantorial soloist David Curiel delivered today. Enjoy!


I’m just getting over a cold. It’s okay, I’m fine: it was a warning sign. Beyond the epidemiology of the thing, it was a way for my body to tell me, in no uncertain terms what I already knew, but was denying myself: Starting the school year at two separate Hebrew Schools, starting two new classes as a student AND preparing for my first ever High Holiday pulpit was a lot to take on in the last couple of weeks. OK, I got it!


We are all repositories of deep inner wisdom, sometimes manifested in really obvious ways, but more often much more subtly. In a short while, we’ll encounter the Unetanah Tokef—the centerpiece of Rosh Hashana liturgy—and sing about the “still small voice.” While we might argue with the prayer’s theological implications—is there REALLY a Shepherd On High writing “who by fire, who by water?”—the imagery and poetry, even in translation, are both powerful and beautiful, reaching their crescendo in that “still small voice.”


This still small voice, our deep inner wisdom, is nothing less than the part of God that is within us. This isn’t to say that we’re God, God forbid! But rather, that we are a channel for God to act through us. But that still small voice gets drowned out and the channel gets clogged. You only need to turn on the TV during primetime or try driving through Boston at about 5:30pm any weekday to experience that.


But even if we avoid the obvious pitfalls—limiting our media intake, turning off our mobile devices—it’s easy to get distracted by the vagaries of the mind—re-arguing old arguments or pre-arguing potential new ones, because maybe this time, it’ll come out right.


Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of being human: we have the faculties to act out God’s will in the world, but by that same token of free will and conscious thought we distract ourselves from the things that are truly important.


And yet, our tradition equips us with a roadmap: the cycle of the Jewish year. This map signals rhythmic inflection points for great joy, disconsolate sorrow, self-examination, contrition and renewal. It is rich with traditions, food, music and all the commentary you care to discuss. But it is only a map, and as we know, there’s a world of difference between the maps we use and the world they represent. More than most, the cycle of the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—draws us into that place of contact between map and reality.

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