Monthly Archives: August 2017

Journey into Judaism

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share news about a Journey into Judaism program that I’ll be offering over the coming school year, and to invite your participation.

There are a few folks in the northern Berkshire community who are not yet a part of CBI who have approached me about taking a journey into Judaism that might culminate in choosing Judaism formally next Shavuot. Y’all will get to know them over the course of coming months as they come to CBI to experience Jewish life in community.

Teaching people about Judaism is a joy and a privilege and an important part of my work. I’m looking very forward to working with this group in coming months. I’m writing now to open the invitation to all of y’all as well. If you, or someone in your family, might be interested in joining this group please let me know?

Starting in September, our intention is to meet on Tuesdays after lunch. I recognize that this will not work well for people with day jobs, and I’m sorry about that.  (The timing is dictated by the work schedules of those who approached me to set up the class in the first place.) We will meet twice a month from September until Shavuot.

We’ll work with the On One Foot textbook that my Introduction to Judaism class used last year, and I’ll augment that book with other materials, from books to experiences to hevruta (paired study).

If any of my students decide to “take the plunge” (as it were) and formally enter the Jewish people, that will take place next May on the cusp of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, the Jewish retreat center where some of y’all have joined me for Shavuot over the last few years.

Shavuot is a traditional time to welcome Jews-by-choice into the community (because at Shavuot we read the book of Ruth; Ruth is often considered to be the first Jew-by-choice). Our new Jews will come before a beit din (a rabbinic court) and then immerse in beautiful Lake Miriam to effect and mark their change. Then we’ll celebrate them over the course of Shavuot as we receive Torah together anew. (Save the dates: next year’s Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman is May 18-22.)

If you’re interested in taking part in this Journey into Judaism on Tuesdays during the coming nine months, please let me know!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

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Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shoftim.

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

If you’re interested in Jewish teachings about the solar eclipse, here’s a wonderful compilation of blessings, teachings, and other materials assembled by my friend and colleague Rabbi Riqi Kosovske: Jewish Solar Eclipse Resources.

The new month of Elul begins tomorrow. Four short weeks until Rosh Hashanah: time to shift our inner discernment work into higher gear. If you’d like to buy or borrow a copy of See Me: Elul Poems to enrich your experience of this special month, drop by my office (I’m in on Monday and Friday this week).

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel.

This week we’re reading Shoftim. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the Union for Reform Judaism:  Shoftim at the URJ.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Re’eh and Shabbat Mevarchim Elul

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax.

This Shabbat has a special name: Shabbat Mevarchim Elul. “Shabbat Mevarchim” means it’s a Shabbat of special blessings because of the coming new lunar month (a new month begins in the following week) — in this case, the month of Elul, leading up to the Days of Awe. Here’s a teaching about the month of Elul:  Seeking the Beloved.

This week we’re reading Re’eh. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

From Rabbi David Markus: This Too Is For Good. From Rabbi Shefa Gold: Re’eh: the Power of Seeing. And here are commentaries from the Union for Reform Judaism: Re’eh at the URJ.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

A note from the rabbi after Charlottesville

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing today to share with you a post that first appeared on Velveteen Rabbi, written in response to the white supremacist rally and march in Charlottesville this weekend. (My post is enclosed below.)

I commend to you also the statement that was released by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: URJ President Rick Jacobs on Charlottesville.

Torah teaches us not to stand idly by when a fellow human being’s blood is shed (Leviticus 19:16). Silence gives tacit cover to white supremacy, especially in a community like ours that is so predominantly white. In the face of what we just witnessed, I will not be silent. I hope that you won’t, either.

One article I’m finding helpful today is How to Talk to Your Kids About the Violence in Charlottesville. If you have other good resources for navigating these difficult times, feel free to share them on the synagogue Facebook page.

On a pastoral note: what unfolded in Charlottesville this weekend may be activating or triggering for many of us — especially the use of Nazi symbols and slogans. If the weekend’s protests leave you in need of support, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ll be away for a few days later this week, but Rabbi Josh Breindel will be providing emergency pastoral coverage in my absence.

Take care of your hearts and souls during this difficult time, and take care of each other, and do what you can to build a better world.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

*

After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of “blood and soil,” “white lives matter,” and “Jew will not replace us;” white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car — all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a “Shabbesdik” (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we’re meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, “praying with their feet,” as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa’s suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity’s worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they’re clearly intertwined — I recommend Eric Ward’s essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that’s a sign of my privilege. I haven’t had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don’t mean to parrot the “all lives matter” rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn’t change the fact that in today’s America, we don’t all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today’s America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won’t all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I’ve often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we’d been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

Eat, be satisfied, and bless – a d’var Torah for Eikev

Shabbath-vachalta-vsavata_07-50x402-e1433537246991I was working a few days ago with a friend’s daughter who’s becoming bat mitzvah in a few weeks. I found myself remembering a moment shortly after my own celebration of bat mitzvah.

Faced with the prospect of writing a mountain of thank-you notes. I took up my pretty new stationery and I wrote, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the gift, love Rachel” over and over and over.

When my mother found out that I hadn’t been personalizing the notes, she made me throw them all out and start again. She insisted that I say what each gift was and why I appreciated it.

And that’s how I learned that one must be specific in a thank-you note. “Thank you for the thing, whatever it was” will not cut it. (Not for my mother, anyway.) Enter this week’s Torah portion, Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יָה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ

And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHVH your God for this good land that God has given you.

From this springs the custom of birkat hamazon, the “grace after meals,” also called bentsching. Our tradition teaches us to offer that prayer after any meal at which bread is consumed in a quantity as large as an olive. Even for a bite-sized gift, we’re meant to say thank You.

The traditional birkat hamazon contains four blessings: for the food, for the land, for the holy city of Jerusalem, and for God’s goodness. Those blessings are adorned with an introductory psalm and a series of blessings that call God The Merciful One, plus additions for Shabbat and festivals. This is how our tradition works: a short text is embroidered with additions, and the additions become canon too.

And while it’s easy to roll our eyes at that process of accretion — this is how we wind up with long prayers: because we get attached to the new additions, but we can’t bear to get rid of the original material! — the process often yields liturgy that I truly love singing. And I do love bentsching (singing the birkat hamazon) when I’m lucky enough to gather a table of people who want to sing it with me.

Besides, one could argue that the impulse comes out of the same place as my mother’s decision to make me rewrite all of my thank-you notes. It’s not enough to just say “Hey, thanks for the thing.” If we’re doing it right, we ought to articulate gratitude for the food, and for the land in which the food arises, and for our holy places, and for the goodness of God that leads to the gift of sustenance in the first place.

Then again, it’s often our custom here to sing abbreviated liturgy. This is true in its most concentrated form when we have contemplative services. But most of the time we opt for fewer words and greater connection with those words, rather than singing the full text of what the most liturgical versions of Judaism might prescribe. Most often when we bless after a meal here, we sing brich rachamana:

בּרִיךְ רָחָמַנָה מָלְכַא דְעָלמַע מָרֵי דְהָאי פִתָא.

You are the source of life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me.

(Aramic translation: Blessed is the Merciful One, Sovereign of all worlds, source of this food.)

You have probably heard me say that that blessing originates in Talmud. You may also have heard me say that it’s the shortest possible grace after meals that one can offer — for instance, if one were being chased by robbers and needed to make the prayer quick. This is a popular teaching, though I can’t actually source it! But it shows awareness, in the tradition, that sometimes we can’t manage full-text.

For me, then, the question becomes: how do we sing the one-liner in such a way that we invest it with the kavvanah (the meaning and the intention) that the long version is designed to help us cultivate? How do we sing the short version without falling into the trap that I fell into as an overeager thirteen-year-old writing “thanks for the thing”?

One answer is to go deep into the words. This short Aramaic sentence tells us four things about God: God is blessed, and merciful, and is malkah, and is the source of our sustenance. I want to explore each of those, but I’m going to save the untranslated one for last.

1) God is blessed. What makes God blessed? We do, with our words of blessing. We declare God to be blessed, and by saying it, we make it so. (If this intrigues you, read Rabbi Marcia Prager’s The Path of Blessing — it’s in our shul library.)

2) God is merciful. The Hebrew word “merciful” is related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” God is the One in Whose Womb all of creation is sustained. When I really think about that metaphor, it blows my mind. The entire universe is drinking from God’s umbilical cord!

3) God is the source. The source of all things; the source of every subatomic particle in the universe; the source of the earth in which our food comes to be, and the hands that raised or harvested or prepared what we eat, and the source of the things we eat that sustain us.

4) And God is malkah. That word can be translated as King, or Queen, or if you prefer gender-neutral, Sovereign. But to our mystics, the root מ/ל/כ connotes Shechinah: the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God — divinity with us, within us, among us.

God is blessed because we invest our hearts and souls in speaking that truth into being. God is mercy made manifest in our lives. God is the source from Whom all blessings flow. And God is that Presence that we feel in our hearts and in our minds, in our souls and in our bones. It’s that Presence — or, if you’ll permit me some rabbinic-style wordplay, those Presents — for which we articulate our thanks.

To be really grateful is to be grateful for the specific, not the general. (That was my mother’s thank-you note lesson all those years ago.) The Aramaic says ‘d’hai pita,’ “for this bread,” not just for bread. I’m grateful for this bread that I took into my body. That makes it personal, because gratitude is personal by definition.  If we don’t take our gratitude personally, then it’s not gratitude; it’s just rote words.

Our task is to eat, because ours is not an ascetic tradition. To be satisfied, because that is a healthy response to consumption. (Alexander Massey suggests that we cultivate satisfaction as a good in itself, and pray from there.) And then our task is to bless, and to really feel the awareness and the gratitude and the presence, to take them personally and make them real — no matter what words we use.

 

Image source: a challah cover bearing the words “you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless,” available at one of my favorite Judaica stores, The Aesthetic Sense. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Eikev.

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel.

This week we’re reading Eikev. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:  Eikev at the URJ.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

49 days until Rosh Hashanah

512px-I-49_(Future).svgThere are seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah. Forty-nine days between the spiritual low point of our year, and the newest of new beginnings.

Reb Zalman z”l taught that these 49 days parallel the 49 days of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. And Rabbi David Markus this year gave me a way to see how the parallel extends too to the themes of those two great festivals, which we now recapitulate in reverse. In the spring we move from liberation (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot). As summer prepares to turn, he writes:

Tisha b’Av focuses us on what’s buried in darkness (revelation), and in seven weeks Rosh Hashanah will open wide the teshuvah gates of spiritual renewal (liberation). Our summer/fall journey is our spring journey in reverse: we return to our beginnings.

During the Omer count, many of us focus on seven qualities that we and God share. Sometimes we call these middot, character-qualities. Sometimes we call them the seven “lower” sefirot, the spheres or realms or channels through which divinity flows and is modulated into different forms. As white light is revealed through a prism to contain all of the colors of the rainbow, so God’s Oneness is revealed through this prism to contain these seven colors, these seven qualities, in which we too partake.

During the Omer count, we begin with a week of chesed, lovingkindness, and then work our way all the way to malchut (Shechinah, immanent divine Presence.) During this reverse count we begin with a week of Shechinah / malchut, and then work our way back “up the ladder” to chesed / love. (Here’s a brief description of these seven qualities from R’ Laura Duhan Kaplan, here’s another way of thinking about them from Iyyun, and R’ Simon Jacobson describes them in emotional terms.)

Tisha b’Av was Monday night and Tuesday. Now we’ve entered the first of the seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and the Days of Awe. This is our week of malchut: immanent, indwelling divine Presence. God with us, within us, among us. The divine feminine, the Shechinah. This is also the first of the seven weeks of consolation (see The Seven Weeks of Comfort.) After facing brokenness on Tisha b’Av, now we open ourselves to healing, to comfort, to balm for our wounded places as the Days of Awe approach.

Through a four-worlds lens, I’m asking myself: what do I need to do this week in order to begin preparing myself for Rosh Hashanah? What do I need to cultivate in my heart of hearts, what do I need to feel? What do I need to ruminate and reflect on? What would best feed my soul and uplift my spirit?What do I need — what do you need; what do we all need — to do and feel and think and be during these next 49 days in order to reach the new year with a whole and open heart, ready to be transformed?

Wishing you joy in the journey —

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted from Velveteen Rabbi.