Monthly Archives: January 2013

Winter weather advisory – no Hebrew school today


Dear CBI Education families,

After conferring with both of our other Hebrew school teachers, I am writing to regretfully inform you that there will be no Hebrew school today. I’m sorry! All forecasts today call for snow followed by sleet and freezing rain, and we don’t want anyone to be out on the roads when it’s not safe. (The North Adams schools have cancelled all of their after school programs as well, so we’re in good company.)

Aleph-Tav, Aleph Garten, and Ne’arim will all reconvene next week. Thank you for your understanding, and stay safe today, please!

As always, if you have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out.


Reb Rachel

Book Discussion Group – Upcoming Titles

All meetings are at 7pm on Monday nights.

Feb. 11, 2013: For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity, by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (nonfiction)

March 18: The Complete Stories, Bernard Malamud (selected stories from the book; fiction)

April 29: A Pigeon and a Boy, Meir Shalev (fiction)

June 10: Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, Rebecca Goldstein (nonfiction)

July 22: People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (fiction)

September 16: Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska (fiction, originally published in 1925)

All are welcome!

The sap begins to rise – a Tu BiShvat message from Reb Rachel

Dear all,

506969604_c6b985e591_mThe holiday cycle is a circle; every year it repeats. There are exceptions — marvels like birkat ha-chamah, which happens only every 28 years — but on the whole, we celebrate the same holidays year in and year out. Tonight at sundown we’ll enter not only into Shabbat but also into Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. One month later, the next full moon will coincide with Purim. One month later, the next full moon will bring us Pesach. Seven weeks and one day after that, Shavuot.

There’s meaning in the way one holiday leads to the next. Just as Shabbat is more special when seen against the backdrop of the weekdays which surround it, each festival is subtly shaped by its place in the wheel of the year. Tu BiShvat, which begins tonight, is the first step on a journey which will lead us to the revelation of Torah and the flowering of glories we can only now imagine. It’s our first step toward the abundance of summer.

1694396916_dc49c4f9c4_mRashi teaches that Tu BiShvat is when the sap begins to rise to feed the leaves and fruit of trees for the year to come.  Right now we’re experiencing the bitter cold of deep winter. At sunrise a few days ago the thermometer registered one solitary degree above zero (Fahrenheit.) We bundle up, we hunker down, we go inward. The freedom of spring feels far away. It’s hard to imagine the air becoming soft, forgiving, fragrant with new life instead of with woodsmoke and snow. TuBiShvat invites us to recognize that the sap begins to rise precisely at the moment when winter feels most entrenched.

And the sap is rising not only on a literal level (though I expect to see maple trees tapped for syrup in a few weeks, when we have above-freezing days and below-freezing nights) but also on a spiritual level. This is the season when we open ourselves to trusting that new ideas, prayers, insights, spiritual “juices” will rise in us. Even if spiritual growth is invisible, we trust that it’s taking place.

8409143956_e4ef2eef4f_mI’ve always loved the Norse stories about Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree which contains nine worlds between its roots and its branches. Judaism too has teachings about a cosmic tree, the Tree of the Sefirot — ten qualities or aspects of God, envisioned through the metaphor of a tree with creation at its roots and infinite unknowable God beyond its highest branches. Tu BiShvat is an opportunity to journey through that cosmic tree, a chance to prayerfully and meditatively ascend from roots toward branches toward what’s beyond our ken.

And, of course, Tu BiShvat is a chance to just celebrate trees. To sing happy birthday to the trees (as I did with our Hand in Hand students last week), to wander in the woods and greet the trees and connect with their quiet sturdy presence. One of the ways we celebrate trees is through eating their nuts and fruits with mindfulness (accompanied by the blessing for tree fruits which sanctifies that act of consumption). The kabbalists saw this as a tikkun, a healing. I suspect most of us need to strive for healing in our relationships with food and eating, and with the natural world on which we depend.

8408052579_8feaec4ae0_mImagine eating a piece of tree fruit with complete focus, with the intention of being conscious of the incredible flow of energy which went into that fruit’s growth and the miraculous flow of divine blessing which resulted in the fruit being here for you to eat. That apple isn’t just an apple; it’s a gift from God! And when we enjoy the apple with gratitude and mindfulness, and we thank the Source of Blessing, we’re stimulating the flow of more blessing into the world, causing more abundance to flow so that we can be fed in the new growing season to come. That’s what our tradition teaches.

A person should intend [on Tu BiShvat], when reciting a blessing, to channel divine life-energy to all creations and creatures — inanimate, plant, animal and human. One should believe with perfect faith that the blessed God gives life to them all and that there is a spark of divine life-energy in every thing, which gives it existence, enlivens it, and causes it to grow. —Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadiger (19th c.)

We’ll celebrate Tu BiShvat (and Shabbat, too) at CBI’s Tu BiShvat seder / Shabbat potluck tonight.) But regardless of whether or not you’re formally celebrating Tu BiShvat, I hope you’ll take some time tonight and tomorrow to consider trees, and to be grateful for them — and to rejoice as your own spiritual sap begins to rise.

Shabbat shalom and happy Tu BiShvat to all,
Reb Rachel

(Adapted from a post on Velveteen Rabbi.)

Join us for a night of Purim revelry!

This Shabbat, when the moon is full, we’ll observe Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. Four weeks later, when the moon is full again, we’ll celebrate Purim.


Come Celebrate Purim at CBI!


Saturday, February 23
at 6:30pm:
decorate a mask
(for Purim is our festival
of merriment & disguises)

at 7pm: enjoy our Purim Spiel

featuring intrigue! disguises! passion! revenge!
ably acted by a cast of CBI congregants
directed and written by David Lane
refreshments to follow

Come in costume (if you’re so inclined)
or come in street clothes and decorate a mask.

All ages welcome!

(Downloadable Purim flyer — print it and hang it on your fridge! — right here: PurimFlyer2013 [pdf])

D’var Torah for Bo: Inclusion and service

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

After the first seven plagues, Pharaoh’s courtiers advise him to let Moshe and his notables go to worship Adonai. Pharaoh says: fine, just tell me: who’s going with you?

And Moshe replies: We will all go, our children and our elders, our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds. Some translations say: We will all go, regardless of social station. Rich and poor, upper-class and lower-class and everything in between.

Pharaoh replies — in effect — hell no. Perhaps he’s beginning to realize that the Israelites’ request to go and worship God a three-day journey away is a ruse, and the real intention is to pack up and depart.

I also wonder whether Pharaoh’s anger also arises from distaste at Moshe’s inclusiveness. Pharaoh is the epitome of top-down power. He’s the kyriarchy. But Moshe’s insistence that we will all go — regardless of age, gender, social station — negates that worldview.

When it comes to avodat Hashem, all of the community is needed. In order to serve the Holy One of Blessing, we all need to be present. Serving God is something we all do together.

If only the men are empowered to serve God, we’re doing it wrong. If only the wealthy are empowered to serve God, we’re doing it wrong. If only those who are cis-gendered, or heterosexual, or able-bodied, or neurotypical are empowered to serve God, we’re doing it wrong.

Avodat Hashem
(serving God) requires all of us. Maybe because each of us is a reflection of God, and only when our entire community comes together can we can see God mirrored in our infinite variability.

Pharaoh says no. The plague of locusts follows, and then a darkness so thick Torah tells us it was palpable. Pharaoh relents and says fine, take your women and children — but not your herds and flocks, I have to draw the line somewhere. Moshe’s answer is: we shall not know with what we are to worship Adonai until we get there.

In a simple sense, he’s saying: you have to let us take our animals, because we don’t know in advance what we’ll be asked to sacrifice. But on a deeper level, I hear him saying that when we enter into service, we have to bring everything: everyone in our community, all that we have, all that we are. We won’t know what parts of ourselves will be needed until we get where we’re going.

And in a sense, we never “get there” — we’re always going. When we wake up each morning, we don’t know what opportunities, what challenges, what blessings lie ahead. We won’t know with what we are to worship Adonai in this moment until we reach this moment. And then the next.

I bless each of us: that we be able to bring all of who we are to our service, whether we think of it as serving God or serving our community or serving the world. That we trust that whatever is needed will arise in us. That we find comfort and sustenance in serving the One, together.

(And let us say: Amen.)

Shabbat with special guest Reb David Markus

DavidThis Shabbat: join Reb Rachel and special visitor Reb David Markus, associate spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of City Island in New York, for Shabbat morning services.

Expect music (both guitar and piano!), harmony, terrific Torah teachings, and an infusion of the sweet, prayerful energy which both Reb David and Reb Rachel soaked up at OHALAH, the annual conference of Jewish Renewal clergy, which took place this week.

During this week we’re reading Parashat Bo, which contains the following verse:

וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא-נֵדַע, מַה-נַּעֲבֹד אֶת-יְה עַד-בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה

Va-anachnu lo neda mah na’avod et Adonai ad bo’einu shamah.

(Exodus 10:26: We shall not know with what we are to worship Adonai until we arrive there.)

We’ll sing that line to a melody written by Rabbi Simcha Zevit, one of Reb Rachel’s classmates. This is our Song for the Month of Shvat, and you can listen to a recording (sung by Hazzan Shoshanna Brown) here:

or download it from

We look forward to seeing you on Shabbat!

Join me at the ALEPH Kallah!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Torah-at-KallahI’m delighted to be able to announce that I’ll be teaching a workshop at the ALEPH Kallah this summer in New Hampshire!

The ALEPH Kallah is the Jewish Renewal Biennial — a week-long gathering which takes place every other year, a magical week of learning and prayer and yoga and meditation and terrific programs and amazing teachers. It’s a great way to experience Jewish Renewal (beyond merely what you experience by having me as your rabbi): a chance to meet people, have meaningful conversations, experience new modalities of prayer, and engage in learning which feeds your mind and heart and soul alike.

If you’re able to make it to New Hampshire from July 1-7, I hope you’ll consider coming. I would love to have some folks from CBI join me there, and if we can get ten of us to attend, there’s a congregational discount for any community which is bringing a “minyan” of attendees. The Kallah moves around the country every two years; it hasn’t been on the East Coast for a while, and probably won’t be again for a while, so this is a unique opportunity to meet my friends and teachers and one of the communities of which I am a part.

Here’s my workshop description:

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We’ll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others’ work, we’ll close by davening together once more. At week’s end, we’ll each take home a compilation of our collected psalms.

Aladjem-and-meOther classes scheduled for the Kallah will include one on Jewish spiritual singing, one on quantum physics and kabbalah, one on talking about Israel, one in Torah yoga / movement, a wilderness Torah experience (involving hiking and the great outdoors),  Jewish meditation, yoga, the interconnected roots of Judaism and Christianity, Hebrew chanting, Torah scroll repair / calligraphy, and a terrific class on Jewish and Islamic mysticism (team-taught by a rabbi and a Sufi) which I took two years ago and loved.

The Kallah Website includes a listing of all of the classes, along with information about the kids/teens program, opportunities for artists, and opportunities for practitioners of various healing arts.

I’ve attended the Kallah a few times before, and have blogged about it here (check out the ALEPH Kallah tag for those posts.) Every time I’ve attended, I’ve come away feeling spiritually renewed, filled-up with all kinds of wonderful teachings and ideas. I can’t wait to bring some of that joy and learning back from the Kallah to CBI.

The Kallah is great fun. I hope some of y’all will join me there.  For more information visit the Kallah webpage, or contact the Kallah office at — or reach out to me directly; I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who’s curious!

Blessings to all,

Reb Rachel

Photos by Ann Silver, taken at the last Kallah, summer 2011 in Redlands, CA. Adapted from a post on Velveteen Rabbi.