Monthly Archives: October 2014

Practice Makes Practice (a sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5775)


The 20th-century American writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “Writing is the art of applying the tush to the seat.” (She didn’t say “tush,” but the word she used isn’t exactly appropriate to the bimah; you can extrapolate.)

This is one of my favorite aphorisms about the writing life. Writing isn’t, or isn’t only, a matter of talent or genius or having great ideas. One can have all of those things without ever writing a word. Writing requires perseverance. It requires showing up, day after day. It requires putting fingers to pen, or in my case fingers to keyboard, when the inspiration is there and also when it isn’t there yet.

Over the years I’ve learned a variety of techniques for times when I don’t “feel like” writing. Sometimes I promise myself a treat if I manage to write something. Other times I give myself a set period of time — “thirty minutes and then I can get up and do something else.” I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What matters is that I write.

The only way to get good poems is to write a lot of poems, and to accept that although some days are going to be better than others, I’m committed to continuing to write.

This is how spiritual life works, too. There are days when I wake up with prayers on my lips, when I can’t wait to settle in to morning davenen, when I feel in-tune with the Holy One of Blessing from the get-go.

Those tend to be days when I’m on retreat. When someone else is taking care of the logistics of ordinary life, like meals and dishes. And childcare. And the to-do lists. And my responsibilities. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel prayerful and connected when someone else is providing for all of my needs.

But most of the time I am not on retreat. My spiritual life mostly happens in the “real world,” where I have to juggle priorities, where I sometimes feel cranky, or get my feelings hurt, or make mistakes.

The best way to prime the pump for writing is to start writing and trust that some of what I write will be worth keeping. And the best way to prime the pump for spiritual life is to maintain my spiritual practices. There’s a reason we call them “practices” — because, like poetry, they require repetition, trial and error, showing up on the days when the spirit doesn’t necessarily move you. Spiritual life requires putting your tush in the chair.

But it doesn’t necessarily require putting your tush in the chair for hours on end. In fact, it’s arguably better if you don’t. Continue reading

Longing and belonging (a sermon for Kol Nidre 5775)


Do you know what it’s like to feel out-of-place? Have you ever walked into a room and felt uncomfortable? Or maybe you can remember, or imagine, standing with a cafeteria tray in your hands and realizing you have no idea which table to sit down at. Maybe it’s an experience of walking into a cocktail party and noticing that everyone else seems to know each other. Or you show up at an event in your finest suit, only to discover that you’re the only one who didn’t know it was a jeans-and-sandals affair.

There is nothing easy or comfortable about feeling as though you don’t belong. And it’s hard enough to walk into a room full of strangers and feel out of place; it’s even more painful to walk into a room of people you know and feel out of place there. To feel like the square peg in a round pegboard. To feel isolated by invisible circumstances, depression or illness. To feel as though you just don’t fit.

We have all felt that way.

Have you ever traveled far from home and felt lonely? Been away from your family, or away from familiar settings, and felt alien and alone? Maybe it was your first night away at summer camp. Or a business trip where you found yourself in an anonymous motel. Or your first time traveling abroad in a place where you didn’t speak the language and couldn’t find your way around. Have you ever been far away and thought, “I just want to go home”?

Or maybe you’ve felt that way without even going anywhere. Maybe you’ve yearned to return to childhood when everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you’ve wished you could return to the time when your parents or grandparents were still alive. To a moment when things seemed easier. To the time before you had experienced sorrow. Or maybe you’ve yearned to return to the childhood you didn’t have, the one where everything was safe and someone else took care of you. Maybe you’ve sat in your own home and felt distant from your surroundings, distant from your family, lonely in the midst of a crowd.

We have all felt that way, too. The poet William Stafford writes, in his poem “Great Blue Heron:”

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”

Not only everyone, but every thing, in the world feels “loneliness for each other.” And, Stafford teaches, if we keep faith — if we believe — real connections will exist, “at the edge,” rooting us down “in the mud where the truth is.”

Continue reading

A prayer before Yom Kippur

Prayer Before Yom Kippur

I now prepare
to unify my whole self—


with this holy community
with the Jewish people everywhere
with all people everywhere
with all life and being
to commune with the Source of all being.

May I find the words,
the music, the movements
that will put me in touch
with the great light of God.

May the rungs of insight and joy
that I reach in my devotion
flow from me to others
and fill all my actions in the world.

May the beauty of God rest upon us.
May God establish the works of our hands.
And may the works of our hands establish God.

(Rabbi Burt Jacobson)

Yom Kippur begins tonight and will continue through tomorrow night. This year it once again coincides with Shabbat — the two holiest days of the year, layered atop each other.

May this doubly-holy day offer all of us opportunities for inner work and transformation.

I hope that you can forgive me for my imperfections this past year: the times when I failed to live up to expectations, or said the wrong thing, or chose the wrong melody, or wasn’t present in the way you needed me to be.

Please know that I am carrying no grudges as this holy day approaches. I forgive every hurt and slight, intentional and unintentional. I am grateful to be able to dive in to this special day with y’all.

May this Shabbat-and-Yom Kippur be meaningful, real, and sweet. G’mar chatimah tovah — may we all be sealed for good in the year to come.


Rabbi Rachel

Sukkot invitations

SukkotPotluckDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

A scant four days after Yom Kippur comes the fabulous week-long festival of Sukkot! All are welcome to join us at 2pm on Sunday, October 5, as we build the CBI sukkah together.

Sukkot begins on Wednesday, October 8. On Friday, October 10, we’ll hold a 5:30pm potluck dinner and Shabbat celebration in the sukkah; please RSVP to Jen Burt (peargirl007 at gmail dot com) or to Heather Levy (heathermai at gmail dot com) to let us know what you’re bringing.

The next night, all are invited to a Sukkot potluck in the home of new member Jen Burt, who writes:

We are planning to host a potluck  in our Sukkah for Havdalah on Sat the 11th at 6pm. Anyone in the CBI community is welcome to join us.

Our address is [redacted] in Hoosick Falls NY. The half hour drive is quite scenic. Please call [redacted] or email with any questions. Hope to see you there.

(Address and phone number are redacted for posting on the From the Rabbi blog; if you didn’t receive this information by email, feel free to call the office at 413-663-5830 and we’ll send it to you again.)
And on Sunday October 12th we’ll once again participate in “Sukkah Cycle Sunday,” a traveling sukkah party. Cyclists are invited to bike (and those who are more comfortable in cars are welcome to caravan in motorized vehicles) from the Williams College sukkah, to Bob Scherr’s sukkah, to Erin Casey and Jonah Marshall’s sukkah, to the CBI sukkah. Refreshments will be available in each sukkah, as well as the opportunity to shake the lulav, socialize with friends, and maybe even learn a little Torah! For addresses, pick up a flyer at the table in the CBI foyer when you’re here for Yom Kippur.
More Sukkot information will be forthcoming. For now — may these awesome y’mei teshuvah (“Days of Repentance / Return”) be meaningful and sweet for all of us.

Blessings to all,
Rabbi Rachel