Monthly Archives: June 2013

A note from Rabbi Rachel about this week’s historic happenings (as we prepare for Shabbat)

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

As Shabbat approaches, we pause to take stock of the week now ending. Where did we live up to our hopes, and where did we miss the mark? What do we need to celebrate, and what do we need to release, in order to be emotionally and spiritually open for Shabbat?

It’s been an intense week on the American political scene, and many of us have been glued to our media sources following the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions.

In overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Supreme Court repealed an unjust law which denied same-sex couples access to 1,138 federal benefits granted to married couples and thereby equal protection under the law. Here in our state of Massachusetts we enjoy equal marriage rights — and I hope and pray that someday our friends and loved ones across this nation will enjoy the same rights which are our birthright here. I join CBI’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members (and straight allies and supporters) in celebrating this ruling.

Intermixed with joy at the end of DOMA is sorrow at the Supreme Court’s other decision this week, which struck down an important provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They argued — I think erroneously — that racism is no longer a problem in our country. The likely end result of this decision is that many voters will experience increased discrimination as they endeavor to exercise their right to vote.

These two issues — minority voting rights, and the right to marry one’s beloved — intersect. And both impact the liberty and the righteousness of our nation. The work of eliminating prejudice and discrimination, and of ensuring that everyone has full access to the equal rights which are our God-given inheritance, remains ahead of us. The road to liberation is long and there are miles to go before we sleep.

But Jewish tradition teaches us to celebrate our victories, even when there is still further we need to go. We’re called both to celebrate, and to roll up our sleeves and rededicate ourselves to fixing what’s still amiss in this nation which we love.

Join us at CBI tomorrow morning for Shabbat services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. The Torah study discussion will focus on the lived Torah of this week’s human experience: these landmark Supreme Court decisions, and how they relate to Torah, and how they might help move us closer toward the ideal of what Jewish tradition calls redemption.

May we each experience a Shabbat of connection and joy.


Rabbi Rachel

D’var Torah for Chukat: The red heifer, life and death, and the story

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul for parashat Chukat. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses and Aaron how to cleanse the tum’ah, the “ritual impurity,” which comes from contact with death. Take a red cow without blemish, on which no yoke has been laid. Give it to Elazar, the priest. Bring it outside the camp and slaughter it. Burn it there along with hyssop, cedar, and red thread.

The ashes from this fire, mixed with water, make a potion called mei-niddah, “waters of lustration.” Anyone who comes into contact with a dead body must be cleansed with the waters of lustration. Otherwise that person cannot enter the Temple precincts, and will be cut off from the people.

Contact with death confers tum’ah. And yet the ashes of the red heifer, which is itself dead, confer taharah; they make one pure again. In the Zen tradition, one might call this a koan, a teaching-riddle. In our tradition this is the classic example of a chok, a divine commandment which doesn’t make rational sense.

The sages of our tradition spend a lot of time on this one! Yochanan ben Zakkai argued that the ashes have no intrinsic power. They purify because this is a divine commandment, and following the mitzvot refines the human soul and makes one pure.

In other words: spiritual purity arises when we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God, and therefore do what God asks of us even when we don’t understand it. Through accepting ol malkhut mitzvot, the “yoke of the mitzvot,” we also accept ol malkhut shamayim, the “yoke of heaven.”

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Shabbat is coming!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends —

Hooray: Shabbat is coming!

Our sages teach us that Shabbat is the source of all of the blessings which flow into creation. They compare Shabbat to the tree in the center of the garden, to the Garden of Eden, to the nectar in the heart of the flower. Shabbat is the holy apple orchard, the oasis in the desert where we can bring forth life-giving water.

When we celebrate Shabbat, we open the spigot of blessing on high. When we celebrate Shabbat, we irrigate the thirsty world.

During the week, we live in a world of duality and separation. And that’s not a bad thing! Duality allows for difference: day and night, hot and cold, chocolate and vanilla, me and you. But it also has downsides. We never really know one another. We are each existentially alone. Shabbat is our chance to relinquish dualism and to live in a state of oneness.

Shabbat is our weekly tune-up. It’s a chance to do the spiritual chiropractic work which will re-align us with our deepest selves.

Here are the blessings for Shabbat, courtesy of the URJ — blessings for candles, wine, bread, children, and the Shabbat meal. (And here are two Jewish Renewal settings of a short one-line grace after meals — Brich Rachamana, now with sheet music.)

Of course, you’re welcome at CBI tomorrow morning for Shabbat morning services, as always. I’m looking forward to singing, praying, and being with y’all.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

From the Rabbi: About High Holiday Honors

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Believe it or not, the Days of Awe are only a few short months away. Because we haven’t had a leap year in a while, the holidays are very early this year. We’ll begin with Selichot services on August 31, and Rosh Hashanah will follow a few short days later. (A full schedule of High Holiday activities will be in the next edition of the CBI NEWSletter.)

One of the things I’m working on, therefore, is the task we call “assigning honors.” A few people asked me last year how we choose the people who participate in our services, so I’m writing to share some information about how this works at CBI.

During the year at CBI, we don’t typically assign any honors. But because our High Holiday services draw a bigger crowd and tend to be more formal than our Shabbat worship, we do assign parts in the services beforehand. We assign people the tasks of opening and closing the ark, or reading a prayer in English or Hebrew, or lighting festival candles. We call these “honors,” because being part of co-creating our community’s High Holiday worship is meant to be an honor rather than an onerous obligation.

Here at CBI, we most often invite people who have been active volunteers in the community to be honored in this way. Sometimes these honors are given to board or committee members who’ve worked hard during the year now ending. Sometimes honors are given to new members, as a way of welcoming them into our community; or to people who have experienced a personal loss or a major simcha (joyous occasion) during the year now ending, as a kind of chatimah or seal on the year and its emotional and spiritual impact.

Please know that we don’t offer honors based on fiscal contribution, and that we do our best not to offer them to the same few people year after year! Please know also that I welcome your suggestions for who we should honor through high holiday worship participation — including you, yourself.

If you would like to participate in our High Holiday services in some way, please reach out to me and I will gladly find a place for you. You can let me know whether you’d prefer a non-speaking part (opening the ark?) or a speaking part (reading a prayer?) — and whether you’d prefer to volunteer for one particular service over another. Either I, or a member of the religious practices committee, will get back to you as soon as possible.

I hope this has made our process slightly less opaque. I look forward to seeing you all summer long as the Days of Awe draw nearer!


Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Poetry reading at CBI at 4pm on Sunday, June 9


Join us at CBI on Sunday June 9 at 4pm for the North County premiere of Waiting to Unfold, Rabbi Rachel’s new collection of poems!

Poetry reading and conversation / booksigning / Q-and-A / plus refreshments!

cosponsored by MotherWoman and the Berkshire County Perinatal Support Coalition

Join Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (70 faces, Phoenicia, 2011) for a reading from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013), her new collection of poems, written as weekly poems during her first year of motherhood. Rodger Kamenetz says, “The intense observation of the poet and the intense observation of the mother unite in a celebration of what is new and newborn, what is intensely felt and cherished and what is lost and mourned.” Refreshments & book-signing to follow.

We’ll also hear a few words from a MotherWoman representative, who will speak briefly about the work they do with new mothers across Berkshire County. Please join us!

D’var Torah for Shlakh-Lekha: the scouts, growth, safety, and risk

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for parashat Shlakh-lekha. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Twelve scouts were sent by Moshe into the Land of Canaan to find out what sort of land it might be: Moshe, Caleb, plus ten other men.. This group of ten is called an edah, from the root which means “to witness.” They are a witnessing-community, a microcosm of the entire Israelite community dispatched to bear witness to whatever they might find.

When they enter the land, they find amazing fertility and growth. They also find several native tribes, none of whom are known to be friendly.

The scouts spend forty days exploring the land. In Torah, the number forty represents growth and transformation and change. The Flood lasted for forty days; Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving Torah; and now the scouts spend that same amount of time visiting Canaan.

In the end, most of the scouts quail at the prospect of fighting the people who live in a land where even the fruits are as large as a grown man. They say, “We looked like grasshoppers compared with the natives, and we must have seemed as puny as grasshoppers to them, too.”

And God is sorely disappointed. God brought the children of Israel all this way, and now they’re too scared to enter. So God says: fine — none of you who are now alive will enter the land, except for Caleb and Joshua, who didn’t doubt Me. The rest of you will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day that the scouts spent in the land.

I used to see this as a punitive response. Now that I’m a parent, I read it differently. Continue reading