Monthly Archives: December 2017

Shavua tov; looking forward to Shabbat Vayechi

return-to-shabbatShavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30amWe’ll be reading from Vayechi, and services will be led by Rabbi Pam Wax.

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:  Vay’chi.

Wishing you blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

A note from Rabbi Rachel before Christmas

Some of you may remember receiving this note in years past. It seems to really speak to people, so I’m sending it again; the sentiments remain true!

Dear friends,

One of the interesting asymmetries of being a minority religious culture is that while members of the dominant religious tradition often have little awareness of our festivals, we can’t help being aware of theirs. At no other time of year is this more true than now, as we approach Christmas.

Across the breadth of our community, we respond in many ways to this omnipresent holiday.

Some of us may enjoy Christmas although it is not our holiday. We may admire our neighbors’ Christmas lights, appreciate the festive beauty of each household’s unique decorations, enjoy classic Christmas movies, and delight vicariously in the pleasure our Christian friends and neighbors take in their festival of light and hope.

Some of us may find Christmas overwhelming because it is not our holiday. We may feel excluded from public displays of Christmas celebration; the day and its trappings may evoke entrenched feelings of isolation and “otherness.” For those of us who associate Christmas with uncomfortable memories of being an outsider, or communal memories of antisemitism, this can be a challenging season. We may resent the way mainstream American culture ignores the reality that not everyone celebrates this holiday, or may struggle with the message that everyone is “supposed” to be happy at this time of year.

Some of us may enjoy Christmas because it is a festival we share with loved ones. Our community includes many Jews by choice (many of whom still have Christian family), and many families of dual heritage (who likewise have Christian family, as well as Jewish family). For those in such families, this holiday may offer a time to connect with loved ones across a variety of traditions.

Some of us may experience December 25 as a secular midwinter holiday of gift-giving and cheer having little or nothing to do with Jesus. Others may experience its customs as as a thinly-camouflaged variation on pagan winter solstice festivities. (Did you know that in ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated on December 25? It was called the festival of sol invictus, the birthday of the unconquered sun.)

Some of us may take Christmas as an opportunity to serve others. I know many Jewish doctors, nurses, therapists, and chaplains who choose to engage in pastoral work on Christmas so that our Christian colleagues can take the day off. Others may choose to work in soup kitchens or homeless shelters so that all who are in need will be cared-for and fed on that day and all days.

And some of us — single-heritage households and dual-heritage households alike — may engage in the age-old Jewish custom of eating Chinese food and going to the movies! (Okay, that one wasn’t handed down to Moses on Sinai, though we’ve been doing it since the late 1800s.)

Whatever your next week may hold, a blessing:

May we experience light in this season of darkness.

May renewed awareness of Jesus as a Jewish teacher open for us new ways of relating to our neighbors’ commemoration of his birth.

And may we emerge into the secular new year ready to enjoy the increasing daylight!

And for now: Shabbat shalom to all — the first Shabbat after the solstice; the first Shabbat when the days are getting just the tiniest bit longer, hooray!

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Save the date: a January 20 Shabbaton


Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Save the date: we’re planning a special Shabbaton (an immersive Shabbat gathering of learning, joy, and togetherness) on January 20. This Shabbaton is taking place thanks to the students in my Journey Into Judaism class, and is open to the whole community.

The day will begin at 9:30am with Shabbat morning services. After services there will be a potluck Shabbat lunch at the synagogue (please RSVP by January 12 so we know how many places to set at the table!) — bring a vegetarian / dairy dish to share.

Following our leisurely Shabbat lunch we’ll gather for an afternoon of learning. (Stay tuned for more information on that.)

We’ll close with se’udah shlishit (the “third meal” of Shabbat — in this case, we will “dine” on song, poetry, and teachings about the very special qualities of the final hours of Shabbat) and havdalah (the ritual that ends Shabbat and ushers in the new week) at 4:45pm.

Please save the date and plan to join us! If you’re a Facebook user, feel free to RSVP via the event page: A Sweet January Shabbat.

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov; looking forward to Shabbat Vayigash

return-to-shabbatShavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30amWe’ll be reading from Vayigash, and services will be led by Rabbi Pam Wax.

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:  Vayigash.

Wishing you blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Miketz: Letting yourself dream

OriginalThe beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, describes two of Pharaoh’s dreams. First he dreamed about seven healthy cows who got devoured by seven gaunt cows. Then he dreamed about seven healthy ears of grain that got devoured by seven thin gaunt ears. Disconcerting images.

Both times, he woke and realized he’d been dreaming. And then one of his servants remembered the fellow named Joseph, languishing in prison, who was able to interpret dreams. And so Joseph was released from prison, and brought to Pharaoh to help him understand the meaning of his dreaming.

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z”l, wrote:

When my daughter, Shel, was 8 years old, she asked me, “Abba, when you’re asleep, you can wake up, right? When you are awake, can you wake up even more?”

(– Expanded Awareness and Extended Consciousness)

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, we can wake up more. We can wake from complacency. We can wake from routine. We can wake from taking things for granted. We can wake to hope and to wonder. That’s the good news. The frustrating news is that such awakenings are rarely permanent. We wake from complacency and recognize that if we want a morerighteous world, we have to build it… and then we forget. We wake from routine and recognize that being alive is a miracle… and then we forget.

This is spiritual life: being awakened into awareness, and then falling out of awareness, and then awakening again. None of us can live in a perennial state of gadlut, expansive consciousness. The great thing about the fact that we keep falling asleep is that we can also keep waking up. We’re designed to keep waking up. I posit to you that being “asleep” isn’t actually a bad thing. Spiritually, maybe we need the oscillation between forgetting and remembering. And maybe being “asleep” helps us daydream.

Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams. We’ve all had that experience: a recurring dream that sticks with us long after the day’s first cup of coffee. We wonder: what is the dream trying to tell us? What does it mean? My friend and teacher Rodger Kamenetz, author of The History of Last Night’s Dream, teaches that dreams aren’t “texts” to be “interpreted.” Rather, they’re landscapes of feeling. They can give us deep access to our emotions. (If this interests you, learn more about his practice of dreamwork.)

I wonder what would happen if we approached our waking dreams the way Rodger suggests approaching our sleeping dreams: entering the emotional landscape of the reverie, with a trusted guide and companion, and seeing what we can learn from that exploration of our yearnings. Waking reveries are different from nighttime dreams, but I think we should treat our daydreams with the same presumption of depth and meaning that we bring to thinking about the dreams that play out while we sleep.

I think our daydreams can tell us a lot about what we yearn for: not what we think we’re “supposed” to want, but what our hearts and souls actually crave. Maybe we ache for love, or for comfort, or for justice, or for being fully uplifted in all that we are. But most of us are taught, in a variety of ways, not to credit those yearnings. What would happen if we chose to wake up: not from those dreams, but with those dreams? What would happen if we brought our daydreams more fully into our waking lives?

We always reach parashat Miketz at this time of year. I imagine there’s something different, psycho-spiritually, about reading Miketz in Australia or Argentina where right now it’s high summer. Where I live, this is a season of deepening winter. Long nights, short days, battening down the hatches… Winter’s a great time to hunker down and pay attention to our dreams — the sleeping ones, and the waking ones — to see what they tell us about what we fear, and what we love, and what we yearn for.

What do you dream of: for yourself? For your family, whether blood or chosen? For your community? For your world?

If we allow ourselves to face our yearnings, we also have to face fear that our yearnings might not come to pass. The dreams of our hearts are tender. (If you’re going to delve into them, I hope you do so with a trusted guide, maybe a therapist or spiritual director.) When Joseph helped Pharaoh understand his dreams, Pharaoh made decisions about the future of his nation (and ours, too). What changes might we make if we took our own dreams seriously — the sleeping ones, and the waking ones too?

May this winter give you us space and safety we need to look at what we yearn for… and may we find the inner reserves of fuel we need in order to make those dreams come true.


With gratitude to my hevruta partner for opening up for me these connections between Miketz and dream.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.


Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Miketz and to Chanukah!

return-to-shabbatShavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us in bringing more light into the darkness! On Friday December 15 (Shabbat Chanukah), we’ll meet at 5:30pm.

Bring your own chanukiyah (menorah) – we’ll light them all together at 5:30, sing songs of Chanukah and Shabbat, and then celebrate Chanukah and Shabbat with a vegetarian / dairy potluck meal (bring a dish to share.) The synagogue will provide latkes made by Heather Levy and Tim Hermann, so let Heather and Tim know if you’d like to help!

RSVP at the Facebook event if you’re a FB user, or via e-mail to the synagogue if not, so we know how many chairs to set up.

If you need a refresher on the Chanukah blessings, you can find them at the URJ website here.

Also, join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30amWe’ll be reading from Miketz, and services will be led by me.

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:  Mikeitz.

Wishing you blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

The people who partner with God


In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is given a new name — twice. Or maybe even three times. (It’s the same name each time.)

The first time comes on the cusp of his meeting with his estranged brother Esau. He is alone; he wrestles all night; as dawn is breaking he tells his opponent “I will not let you go until you bless me,” and the angel with whom he has grappled all night tells him his new name will be Yisra-El, Wrestles-With-God.

The second time comes later in the parsha. God appears to Jacob and says, “You whose name is Jacob: you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Then Torah reiterates the name yet again, adding “and thus, God named him Israel.”

What’s up with the triple reiteration of this name? One answer is that the redactor wasn’t paying attention and he repeated himself, and said the same thing twice, and also conveyed something in multiple ways. But I think that’s a cop-out. Our tradition invites us to find meaning in these repetitions. If Torah says it three times, it must be important. What is it telling us?

It’s interesting that immediately after the third reiteration of Israel’s new name, God introduces God’s-self to Israel, saying, “I am El Shaddai; be fertile and increase, for nations will descend from you…”

Notice the juxtaposition of introductions. First God tells Jacob who Jacob is becoming: one who wrestles with the divine. (This is one of our people’s names to this day.) And then God tells Jacob who God is: אֵל שַׁדַּי‎‎ / El Shaddai. In Hebrew, names have meanings: they aren’t just sounds. So what does this divine name mean? “El” is pretty straightforward; it simply means “God.” But “Shaddai” is less clear.

El Shaddai is often rendered as “God Almighty,” but I’m not sure that’s a good translation. Some argue that the word relates to mountains or wilderness. Others, that it relates to a root meaning “destroy.” But in modern Hebrew, “shadayim” are breasts. I like to understand “El Shaddai” as a name that depicts God as the divine source of nourishment and flow. God as El Shaddai is the One Who nurses all of creation, Whose abundance flows like milk to nurture and nourish us.

In a related interpretation, Shaddai is seen as related to the word meaning “sufficiency” or “enoughness.” (As in די / dai, “Enough!” — or dayenu, “It would have been enough for us.”) El Shaddai is the God of Enoughness, the One Who gives us everything we need and then some. Perhaps the name El Shaddai can remind us that we too — made in the divine image — are “enough” just as we are.

There’s a sense of gender fluidity to this divine name, because “El” is a masculine word, and “Shaddai” (if you accept the shadayim connection) connotes femininity. Fluidity seems appropriate; after all, we call God the source of divine flow. The discipline of spiritual direction invites us to discern together where and how God’s flow manifests in the life of each seeker. God flows into our lives in different shapes and forms.

El Shaddai is only one of our tradition’s many names for God. The names we use for divinity change, as the faces of divinity we seek change.  Sometimes we need God to be the All-Mighty, our defender. Sometimes we need God to be All-Merciful. Sometimes we need God to be Friend, or Beloved, or Parent. For me, the name El Shaddai is a reminder that I can relate to God as the nursing mother Who aches to bestow blessings.

As the sages of the Talmud wrote, “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow yearns to give milk.” More than we yearn and ache — for love, for abundance, for sweetness — God yearns and aches to give those things to us. Think of someone you deeply love, to whom you want to give every good thing. Feel how your heart goes out to them: you just want to give! The name El Shaddai describes a God Who feels like that toward us.

This piece of Torah reminds us who God can be for us — and who we can be for God. The name Yisrael says it’s our job to be in relationship with God. To dance, to push back, to waltz, to fight, to suckle: the wrestle takes many forms, but the relationship is always there. Even when we’re angry with God, or when we feel as though God is angry with us, the relationship is there. The centrality of that relationship makes us who we are: the people Yisra-el, the people who partner with God.



This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered on Shabbat morning 12/2. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


Related: El Shaddai (Nursing Poem), 2009. (Also published in Waiting to Unfold, Phoenicia 2013.)