Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Open Door – a guest sermon from Steven Green

Each year at CBI, one or more congregants offers the sermon on erev Rosh Hashanah. This year’s sermon was given by Steven Green, a member of our Board and chair of our Spiritual Life committee.

You are the Open Door

That beckons me in;

Peeking around the door frame,

I begin to enter into Your glory.

You move me forward, O Eternal,

to step beyond self-made boundaries:

lift my foot over the threshold

that I might abide in You.

In the house of the eternal,

I found my questions:

Waiting to be posed,

They filled me with wonder.

Sit with me, Eternal Teacher,

encourage my seeking:

as I fill my hours with Your mitzvoth,

so shall I be filled.

Send me through Your door

Stretching up to honor Your Name,

Sharing out this wonder,

Enriching myself in the giving.  

— Shabbat Siddur

Sometimes these poems/prayers from our siddur are a bit obtuse. You are the open door? And yet we have an opportunity, yet again, to experience the depth of this. But…how? And what is one to expect?

Fair to say that we are here tonight and will be here tomorrow and on YK and spend a veritable ton of time in shul. We are likely to hear a lot about teshuvah, about turning, we will beat our chests confessing sins that, well, I certainly didn’t commit. I think.

Over the next few days in shul the power of the liturgy, the relentless, the poetic, the melodic, the beautiful, the familiar words enable us to actualize one of those phrases from the piyut I just read, “Send me through Your door”. Propel me. Compel me. Enable me to go through that door.

And what might I find on the other side of that door?  Why do I want to go there? Again from the piyyut (poem), “I found my questions: Waiting to be posed, They filled me with wonder.” But how? What does it even mean to go through the door? Talk about esoteric. Ya know when I go to your house, I walk the path, see your front door and knock. You answer and open. Tonight you did the same thing as you came to this building. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur — indeed, each service here in this building — has as its primary goal to open us to a deeper sense of our connection to G!D, the imminent presence and the transcendent power. For way too long I sat in the pews of a synagogue without ever really sensing/feeling/seeing, indeed even believing that it was possible to experience…anything. How did that change? I think it starts with an intention. A desire to more deeply understand. An inchoate sense that I want this, I want what the sages were talking about. I want to have deeper, more profound sense of wonder.

People travel to wonder at the heights of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering. – Augustine

So, how do you get to this place of wonder? Sometimes it’s just a matter of a change in perspective. I experienced this last week at Mass MoCA. The Turrell exhibit is fascinating. He works in light. He has flat panels that have a light in it…I guess. The instruction is to sit with each panel for a bit. My intention at that point was to figure this out. How is this a significant piece of art? What is he attempting to do and communicate to me. I wanted to know.

From a distance I saw nothing. Walking a bit closer I noticed the light but still was curious as to why this was a big deal. And then. And then standing in front of the panel, walking around it, turning my head I noticed that there was a light, a colored light and the light was actually 3 dimensional, it came out of the flat panel and formed a pyramid in the air. But it didn’t. Yet it did. His whole fascinating exhibit challenges us in so many ways. When I changed my perspective with deliberate intent I could see and understand his art for the first time.

During this season we have the opportunity to change our perspective as to our lives. To approach our life and this season with a sense of…wonder. Plato pointed out that, the unexamined life is not worth living. This is our chance. This is our opportunity, again, this year, again, this holy-day season, again, starting tonight, to begin to see the wonder, to begin to explore the depths of our hearts, the huge waves of the currents of our lives, at the circular motion of our habits, our tendencies that bring us back, always bring us back, to the place where we started. This season allows us to look more closely, to spend a moment and set an intention, to ask the questions that in our busy lives we forget to ask, or fail to ask or are afraid to ask. This is our opportunity, again, being presented to us on that silver plate of our liturgy to explore with intent to change our perspective and to see with new eyes.

Start with an intention.

This is my goal for this season. Join me.

 

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After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

One Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” They shouted, “white lives matter.”

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I’ve never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it’s not just hatred of us: it’s hatred of everyone who doesn’t fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work… and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I’ve had cause to say, “this isn’t the America I thought I lived in,” my non-white friends have said, “…this is the America we’ve always known.” And they’ve pointed out that the fact that I’m surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I’ve never had to walk a mile in their shoes. Continue reading

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Returning. Like last year, this will be a contemplative service, allowing us to go deep into our own internal landscape of repentance and return.

Of course, before we get to Shabbat, join us for High Holiday services! (Here’s our schedule for the Days of Awe if you need it. And here’s a link to a recent post containing some high holiday melodies.)

This week we’re reading Ha’azinu (when we’re not reading the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings!) 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:  Ha’azinu at the URJ.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll be reading from the story of the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael; on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll experience a contemplative Torah journey into the akedah, the Binding of Isaac. If you’d like to read some reflections on those stories, here are a few:

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

About this weekend: Selichot and cemetery service

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Although Rosh Hashanah doesn’t arrive until next week, we will begin the High Holiday Season at CBI this weekend. On Saturday evening at 8pm we’ll gather for Selichot services, and on Sunday afternoon at 2pm we’ll meet at the CBI cemetery in Clarksburg for our annual cemetery service.

Have you ever wondered what happens at Selichot or at the cemetery service? Here’s a brief description of both of them.

Selichot

The word “selichot” is the plural form of the word for pardon or forgiveness. It’s the name given to a group of prayers that we recite together during each of the services of Yom Kippur, in which we seek forgiveness for our mis-steps. And it’s also the name given to the service that welcomes us into the Days of Awe.

On Saturday night we’ll begin with havdalah, the ritual that brings Shabbat to an end and ushers in the new week. We’ll sing some of the selichot prayers that will be the centerpiece of Yom Kippur in a couple of weeks. And we’ll take time to think about our mis-steps over the last year, and to write down anonymously things for which we seek forgiveness, places where we’ve missed the mark and want to do better in the year to come.

For me, what makes Selichot services meaningful is the return to beloved High Holiday melodies. “Return Again,” “Adon Ha-Selichot,” “Lach Amar Libi” — the words of these prayers speak to me, and over the years the melodies have become infused not only with the meaning of the words but with the experience of singing them fervently during these holy days. Singing these prayers at Selichot services begins to open my heart so that the High Holidays can do their work on me and in me.

After our short service we’ll adjourn to the social hall for a potluck dessert reception, so bring your favorite dessert and join us! Selichot services are at 8pm on Saturday at CBI.

Cemetery service

It’s customary to meet at the cemetery on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah for a short memorial service in which we remember our beloved dead who are buried there.

Like Selichot, this is something that happens in many places around the world on the weekend before the Days of Awe.

The service takes place in the afternoon, so it includes the prayers of mincha, the afternoon service. We’ll sing an abbreviated ashrei, and we’ll take time for a silent amidah, reflecting on the themes of our weekday requests. The heart of the service are the silent Yizkor prayers of remembrance, followed by the chanting of El Maleh Rachamim (“God, Full of Compassion”) and the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

The service is brief, usually lasting about 20 minutes, and afterward people stroll among the headstones and pay their respects to those who are buried there. (Here’s an excellent article from My Jewish Learning about why we put pebbles on graves.)

Even if your own ancestors are not buried in our cemetery, you are welcome to join us for this short service of remembrance before the new year. The cemetery service is at 2pm on Sunday at the CBI cemetery in Clarksburg. (Directions can be found on our website.)

I look forward to being with you soon.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

 

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

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on  Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Chris Kelly.

And join us on Shabbat evening at 8pm for Selichot, the service that kicks off our high holiday season! (Here’s our schedule for the Days of Awe if you need it. And here’s a link to a recent post containing some high holiday melodies.)

This week we’re reading Nitzavim-Vayeilech. 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:  Nitzavim-Vayeilech at the URJ.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

The stranger in our midst: Ki Tavo and Dreamers

635965444098234916-381174497_CYyDgmBUoAA12IkAt the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read instructions for when we have entered the land of promise. When we enter that land, we are to recount where we came from, remember our hardships in life’s narrow places, and then enjoy the bounty of our harvest, together with the Levite and the stranger who lives in our midst. Then Torah instructs us to set aside a tenth of the yield of the land and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

That’s the first dozen verses of this week’s parsha: remember our hardships, be grateful that with God’s help we have made it out of slavery and into freedom, and share what we have with the needy — especially those who have nothing of their own (the Levites), the immigrant or migrant or refugee, and those who have no one to take care of them and keep them safe.

Our Torah was written a very long time ago. Sometimes it reflects sensibilities that are deeply alien. Sometimes we have to grapple with it, or turn it in a new direction, in order to find meaning in it. But for me, this year, these verses sound a clarion call that’s all the more striking for how ancient we know them to be.

No one in this congregation, to the best of my knowledge, is Native American. That means that all of us are descended from people who came to this land in search of something better than what we had known before. The first Jews came to North Adams in 1867 from Eastern Europe and Russia. My own ancestors came to this country more recently than that, from Poland and from Russia and from the Czech Republic — which was called Czechoslovakia when my mother was born there.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to the United States hoping that it would be the “goldene medina,” the land of prosperity and promise. My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to this land in hopes that it was a nation that held to be self-evident the truth that all human beings are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, had to struggle with a governmental system that sometimes held Jews in low esteem. There were quotas. There was red tape. There was economic anxiety, and when there is economic anxiety, people turn on the Other: on those who don’t speak or look or dress like them. You don’t need me to tell you how many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn’t get permission to enter this country where they would have been safe.

Today, this Shabbat, is the culmination of a week during which the President chose to end protection for “Dreamers” — the children of undocumented immigrants who came to this country, often at great risk to themselves, out of those same hopes that brought my own mother and grandparents here. The “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program had given them safety, security, refuge, and belonging. Some 800,000 young Americans are now living in mortal terror of deportation to so-called “home countries” that are not their home.

When you enter the land of promise, says Torah, the first thing you need to do is stop and remember where you came from. Torah cites the story of how our ancestors fell on hard times and descended into the land of Egypt and there were enslaved. (Each of us can tell our own family story of hard times that led someone to make the perilous journey to the United States. There were pogroms in the village. There was antisemitism in the town square. There were Nazis marching. We remember where our people came from, and how fortunate we are to be where we are now.)

And then, says Torah, you take your abundance and you share it. Share it with the stranger who lives among you: the immigrant, the refugee, the powerless. Share it with the Levite, who has no land of their own to farm and no crops to harvest. Share it with the person who has no protector to keep them safe from the cruelty of predators. Then, and only then, can you go to God and say, I’ve kept Your commandments, please give me blessing.

All of us are migrants to this land of promise. And if we have the safety of citizenship, we owe it to the Dreamers to fight for their safety and their inclusion and their continued right to live in this nation they already call home. We owe it to the Dreamers to protect them from the cruelty of a predatory government that would strip them of their status and send them packing. Then, and only then, can we go to God and say that we’re honoring the mitzvot and we seek blessing.

Sometimes Torah is ambiguous. And sometimes Torah offers teachings that appear to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. But on this issue, Torah’s teachings feel timeless and timely and unspeakably important. Today is Shabbat: a day to live as if the world were already perfected and suffering were already a thing of the past. But tomorrow when we re-enter the work week, I hope you’ll remember Torah’s call to action. We live in a land of promise. It’s incumbent on us to remember how fortunate we are to be here, and to share our good fortune with others in need.

 

See also: HIAS Slams Trump Administration’s Decision on DACA, Urges Congress to Protect Dreamers (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), US Jewish Groups Blast Trump’s Decision to Scrap ‘Dreamers’ Program as Cruel, Unnecessary (Ha’Aretz) How You Can Help (Mashable)

Also, from the Reform movement: Take Action to Protect DREAMers.

(This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this Shabbat, and is cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Contemplative Second Day of Rosh Hashanah

seconddayDear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

You may be aware that as a Reform-affiliated congregation, we celebrate many holidays more briefly than our Conservative and Orthodox family and friends. Passover, for instance: Reform Jews observe seven days of Pesach, while Conservative and Orthodox Jews outside the land of Israel observe eight. Long ago, many Biblically-rooted holidays gained an “extra Diaspora day.”

The original reason for this had to do with ensuring that new moon and full moon were being appropriately marked, and keeping Diaspora celebrations aligned with those in the Holy Land. (If you’re curious about this, read Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside Israel at MyJewishLearning.com.)

But an interesting thing happened with Rosh Hashanah. All of the other holidays that got an extra Diaspora day remained their original length in Israel (and Reform Judaism opted to maintain their original length even in the Diaspora)… but Rosh Hashanah became a two-day festival both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Rosh Hashanah lasts for two days no matter where we are.

At CBI we have always observed two days of Rosh Hashanah, and this year will be no exception. And this year, like last year, we’ll be diving into a Contemplative Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. (That’s Friday, September 22 this year.)

The sanctuary will shift: we’ll sit in a circle, facing inward into the circle and inward into ourselves. Our use of the machzor (high holiday prayerbook) will shift: we’ll use the same book, but we’ll daven fewer words, and go deeper into the ones that we do chant and sing. Our Torah reading will shift: instead of three aliyot, we’ll have a contemplative Torah service experience led by Rabbi Lori Shaller.

Like last year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we’ll place a special table in the middle of our circle, on which members of the community will be invited to place meaningful objects. On the second day, we invite you to bring something with you that has spiritual or emotional significance for you, and place it on the table during our davenen.

If you’re one of our second day “regulars,” we hope you’ll enjoy this deeper dive into the liturgy and the meaning of this very special day. And if you’ve never before joined us for second day of Rosh Hashanah, we hope you’ll consider giving it a try. The second day of Rosh Hashanah is a special day with its own unique energy. We look forward to opening that up for you this year in this rich way.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel and Hazzan Randall

ps: here’s our High Holiday Schedule for 5778 / 2017 in case you need it.