Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, the Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret – what is Yizkor, anyway?

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

yahrzeitThis coming Shabbat / Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services) we’ll experience Yizkor — a memorial service during which we remember our beloveds who have died. Twelve days later, on Shemini Atzeret, we’ll experience Yizkor again (at our morning service led by Rabbi Pam Wax at 9:30am on Thursday 10/16) What exactly is Yizkor, and why are we saying it twice in such rapid succession?

The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons: Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret. (Even though mid-October won’t be winter yet, thank God. Some sources hold that the fourth yizkor of the year was once held in midwinter, but was moved to Shemini Atzeret for practical reasons of seasonally difficult travel.)

Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.

The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays.

Of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur writes: “For an entire day, through fast and introspection, we face our own mortality and dive into our deaths by playing the dead. But equally, we are the living who seek to reunite with those who are really dead. Yizkor arrives with the opportunity to summon our beloved ones who have left and to remember them. As we remember them, we should marvel at the fact that the relationships we had with them remain alive as long as we are alive to do the remembering.”

Of the Shemini Atzeret Yizkor, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “On Sh’mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone — or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B’Av — but tears of memory and compassion?”

What Yizkor affirms for me is that our relationships with those we have loved (or perhaps not-loved) continue even when the person in question has died…and that there is wisdom in pausing, four times a year, to connect with memory and loss. There is deep spiritual wisdom in taking the time to remember.

My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (may his memory be a blessing) used to speak of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside oneself, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person one has lost, and imagine them, and say whatever it is that one most needs to say to that person right then and there.

I hope you’ll join us for Yizkor: on Yom Kippur (probably around noon, though it follows immediately upon our morning service, so the best way to be sure you’ll make it to Yizkor is to come to morning davenen!) and on Shemini Atzeret, that day of holy pausing and lingering just a little bit longer — with God, with this festival season, and with those whom we have lost but will never forget.

Rabbi Rachel

For more on Yizkor:

This was originally shared with the CBI community in fall of 2013; it is re-posted with some slight edits, and the dates have been shifted to reflect this year’s realities.

Looking forward to Yom Kippur!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. Hazzan Randall Miller and I derived great joy from leading this community in davenen last week during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, and we are looking so forward to being with everyone again for Yom Kippur.

A couple of tachlis (practical details) items:

If you hope to attend the break-the-fast on Saturday evening but have not yet let us know, please reply to this email or call the office (413-663-5830) ASAP.

On Yom Kippur afternoon at 4pm we will hold mincha (“afternoon offering”) services. We will be piloting liturgy from Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform movement’s forthcoming machzor. Please RSVP to the office to let us know if you are coming so we know how many booklets to print. This is an exciting opportunity to preview the Reform movement’s new material; please join us!

And now on to other things. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.

whiteWhy 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. (There’s also a kabbalistic custom of wearing white on erev Shabbat, to welcome the Shabbat bride and queen — and this year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so that’s two reasons at once to be clad in white finery!)

Another interpretation 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. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) 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 and our equality in the eyes of God.

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.

Why do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?

There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes. And, of course, you will also see others for whom this interpretation is not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation upholds the Reform value of informed choice; each of us is empowered to choose which observances we follow and how we do so.

Why do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.

There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun“) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.

For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are often buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.

Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.

A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.

If you are in town, I hope to see you at CBI this Friday for Erev Yom Kippur. Wherever you are as Yom Kippur unfolds, may you be inscribed for a year of life, prosperity and shalom.

Gmar chatimah tovah –  May you be sealed for sweetness in the year to come!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Children of Sarah and Hagar (Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 1, 5775)


The story I want to tell you begins on the final day of a retreat for spiritual leaders. We’d been asked to pair up and share a favorite spiritual practice.

My partner and I sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I told her about my favorite prayer, the modah ani prayer of gratitude. I try to focus on these words first thing in the morning: if not the very first thing which comes to mind when our son wakes me, then at least the first conscious thought I summon into my mind. “I am grateful before You, living and enduring God. You have restored my soul to me. Great is Your faithfulness!” I love the modah ani because it reminds me to cultivate gratitude.

My colleague took this in, nodding. And when it was her turn to speak, she told me that her relationship with the words of formal prayer has shifted and changed over the years. Sometimes the words allow her to speak from her heart; other times the words may feel hollow, or her relationship with the words may feel complicated. (I can relate to all of those.) But the prayer practice which she cherishes most, she told me, is non-verbal. Her most beloved spiritual practice is prostration, which her tradition calls her to do five times a day.

This conversation took place on a Retreat for Jewish and Muslim Emerging Religious Leaders. I particpated in this retreat as a rabbinic student. This summer I went back as an alumna facilitator.

When my new friend told me about her favorite prayer practice, I felt an immediate spark of recognition. Jews prostrate in prayer, too. Though unlike our Muslim cousins, we only do it during the Days of Awe.

Y’all have known me for a while now, so you’re probably aware that I love words. As a writer, as a poet, as a liturgist, as a rabbi, as a scholar: words are at the heart of everything I do. And yet the power of our annual moments of prostration, for me, lies not in the words but in the embodied experience.

If you practice yoga, and have relaxed gratefully into child’s pose, you’ve had a flicker of this experience. If you have ever curled into fetal position and clutched yourself close, literally re-membering the position each of us once held in the womb, you’ve had a flicker of this experience.

But prayerful prostration is something a bit different from each of these. It’s a visceral experience of accepting that there is a power in the universe greater than me. Of acknowledging that I am not truly in charge. There is something in the cosmos greater than I am, a force of love and connection which we name God, and in prostration I place myself in the palm of God’s hand.

As we sing in Adon Olam:

ּבְיָדֹו אַפְִקיד רּוחִי, ּבְעֵת אִיׁשַן וְאָעִיָרה.
וְעִם רּוחִי ּגְוִּיָתִי, יְיָ לִי וְֹלא אִיָרא.

“Into Your hands I entrust my spirit, When I sleep and when I wake; And with my spirit, my body, too: You are with me, I shall not fear.” I love that on our holiest days of the year, the days when we might feel the most wound-up, our tradition reminds us of the profound gift of letting go. And when we do so, we get a glimpse of what our Muslim cousins have the opportunity to feel five times a day.

I find this ancient practice very powerful. And it’s always resonant to me that we do this on the first day of Rosh Hashanah: the day when our Torah reading tells the story of Sarah’s jealousy and the casting-out of Ishmael and Hagar.

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Watching our holiday services from afar

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

This year we are experimenting with livestreaming some of our High Holiday services so that those who are homebound or hospitalized can watch, listen, and daven along with our community as we gather for these holy days.

We are doing this with technology we already had on hand; the picture quality and audio will almost certainly not be perfect. We don’t have a dedicated cameraperson filming our services, nor do we have a dedicated tech person who can serve as tech support if this doesn’t work! But we hope to record and livestream Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday evening, Thursday morning, and Friday morning. (I’m not sure we are going to record Thursday evening services, though we might try.)

The videos should appear on our livestream webpage as the services are happening, and they will remain archived there for 30 days (so if you’re not able to watch while the service is happening, but would like to watch them later, they will be available.)

Here is the link for our Rosh Hashanah livestream: Rosh Hashanah 5775 at CBI.

You will need to register with in order to see the video, but there is no cost associated with doing so.

We hope that this will be useful to our members who are homebound or hospitalized, and also to members of our community who are far away and are missing the chance to be present with us this week. Of course, if you are nearby and are able to join us in person, that is what we hope you will do! I am looking forward to seeing every one of your shining faces as the holidays unfold. But if you aren’t able to be here, we hope that these livestream videos will work and will be a comfort to you.

We are still in need of someone who can start the recording on Rosh Hashanah morning 1 (Thursday morning). This person would need to press a button to begin the recording, and then to wait a few moments and make sure that the camera connects with the internet and can begin broadcasting. If you will be here on Thursday morning and would be able to serve in this way, please let me know (rabbibarenblat at gmail dot com) as soon as you can.

Wishing you every blessing as the old year winds down,

Rabbi Rachel

D’var Torah for Vayeilech-Nitzavim: Returning in love

Here’s the brief d’var Torah I offered at yesterday morning’s Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


If you only take one thing away from this morning’s Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.

This week’s Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those “good outcomes” and “bad outcomes.” We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn’t wish for, even when we’ve chosen as wisely as we could.

Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn’t mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we’ll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.

And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.

We’ve all had the experience of hurting someone’s feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn’t like that. When we make teshuvah, God responds to us in love.

If you’ve paid attention to the Torah readings we’ve been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It’s true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.

Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.

Here is one thing I know for sure: that ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. “Don’t worry,” the Torah seems to be telling us. “It’s going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what.”

On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:

11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn’t require us to be someone that we’re not. It doesn’t demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.

Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.

Three special moments in the week to come

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I hope this note finds you well. We have many special moments coming up. I’d like to draw your attention to three of them.

Tomorrow night at 8pm we’ll hold our annual Selichot services. This is one of my favorite services of the year (I recently posted on my blog about why I love it so much.) We’ll begin with havdalah, sanctifying the transition from Shabbat into the week. We’ll sing some beloved High Holiday words and melodies, easing our hearts and souls into the journey of teshuvah (repentance / return) which is so central to this season. We’ll also take the time to write down some of the places where we’ve missed the mark in the year now ending, things for which we seek forgiveness and release. We’ll end with a potluck dessert reception; please bring a dessert to share.

This year Selichot is extra-special because it falls on the weekend of the fall equinox — the temporal doorway through which we walk from one season to another. As we enter into the new season of fall, and the coming new year of 5775,  what do we want to hold on to, and what do we want to release?

On Sunday at 2pm we’ll have a brief service of remembrance at the CBI cemetery in Clarksburg. Our cemetery is a beautiful and peaceful spot, and there is something very special about gathering there just before the Days of Awe to honor the memories of our loved ones who are buried there. The service is brief, and afterwards all are welcome to take their time exploring the cemetery and placing pebbles, symbols of our remembrance, on the headstones. Even if you don’t have any loved ones interred there, you are welcome to join us and help us make a minyan.

On Wednesday evening at 7:30pm we’ll begin our celebration of Rosh Hashanah with a festival evening service. This year we’ll continue our longstanding tradition of having three congregants speak that evening on a shared theme. This year’s theme is “Hope,” and we’ll be hearing from Rich Cohen, Steven Green, and Wendy Penner — each offering a different take on the theme and a different set of ideas about what hope means to them at this moment in this year. (Our Rosh Hashanah services will continue on Thursday morning at 9:30, Thursday evening at 7:30 once again, and Friday morning at 9:30.)

I hope you’ll join us for some or all of these sweet observances of this beautiful time of year.

May this last Shabbat of 5774 be meaningful and sweet!

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayeilech – and to Selichot!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a (slightly belated) good week to you! This is an extra special week; not only are we looking forward to Shabbat already, but we’re also looking forward to Selichot on Saturday night.

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Nitzavim-Vayeilech in the book of Deuteronomy. The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:


This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be Rabbi Rachel.

And, on Saturday evening, we will enter into the High Holiday season with one of the most beautiful services of our year, the evening service called Selichot. “Selichot “means “pardons,” and is the name for the liturgy of forgiveness prayers we recite during the Days of Awe. We’ll begin at 8pm on Saturday evening with havdalah, the ritual which formally divides between Shabbat and workweek.

After savoring the light of a braided candle and the scent of wine and spices, we’ll move into a short-and-sweet service which will contain some of our favorite High Holiday melodies and some  inspiring contemporary poetry. During Selichot services everyone will have the chance to write down, anonymously, the things for which we seek release or forgiveness. We’ll collect these cards and the rabbi will weave the responses into one of our communal “Al Chet” prayers on Yom Kippur.

After Selichot, we’ll enjoy a potluck dessert party — please bring a favorite dessert to share.

We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service hosts. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also extend thanks to our member Helene Armet for the beautiful home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!