Monthly Archives: September 2018

Join us on Monday to seal the holiday season

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Monday morning at 11am I will lead a service at CBI which will be the formal close, the “seal,” on our holiday season. Monday is the festival known as Shemini AtzeretShemini means “Eighth” — this holiday is the eighth day, coming right on the heels of the seventh day of Sukkot. But what is an atzeret?

The word atzeret means something like “holy pause.” There’s one other day in our tradition described with this word: Shavuot, which comes as the 50th day after 49 days of Counting the Omer. Shavuot is an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, the culmination of seven weeks of spiritual work. And Monday — Shemini Atzeret — is also a day of pausing, the culmination of the seven weeks of spiritual work we’ve done since Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the lunar month leading up to the Days of Awe.

Monday’s service will feature some morning prayers of gratitude and awareness, a guided meditation which will give us the opportunity to remember the last seven weeks of intensive holiday time, and the prayers of Yizkor, the memorial service which we recite four times a year. (I wrote more about that a few years ago.) We’ll also dip into a special prayer for rain.

Our service will be intentionally spacious and uncluttered — in recognition of this special day which is like the silence following the song, the white space on the page which follows all of our holiday season’s many, many words.

Hope to see you at CBI on Friday night at 5:30 for our Sukkot / Shabbat potluck (please RSVP), on Saturday morning at 9:30 for Shabbat services, and on Monday morning at 11am (note new time) for Shemini Atzeret.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Sukkot is here!

Dear CBI members and friends,

Sukkot has begun! Hooray!

Our sukkah is your sukkah: come dine, schmooze, relax, stargaze, drink coffee, drink wine, even sleep there if you want!

Join us on Friday night at 5:30 for our annual Shabbat Sukkot Potluck — bring a vegetarian / dairy dish to share.

Families with children are welcome to arrive at 5 for some Sukkot learning and storytelling and also communal soup-making — bring a vegetable to add to our Sukkah Soup which we will cook on the spot. (Here’s a flyer for more information on that.)

Please RSVP to cbinadams@gmail.com and/or at the Facebook Event for our Shabbat Sukkot Potluck so we know how many chairs to set up.

Moadim l’simcha — a joyous Sukkot to all!

Rabbi Rachel

We want to hear from you about your high holidays at CBI

Dear all,

It was an honor and a privilege to serve you during the Days of Awe this year.

We want to know what worked well for you and what we could have done better. Please take a moment and answer our survey (below) about your experiences during the high holidays this year. It only has three questions: what did we do well, what could we have done better, and what else would you like for us to know. It won’t take long, but your feedback is invaluable to us and we will take it into account as we plan for next year.

Blessings to all for a Shabbat of sweetness,

Rabbi Rachel and Hazzan Randall
and the CBI High Holiday volunteer team

It’s Almost Sukkot!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Sunday at sundown we will enter into the festival of Sukkot. After the hectic pace of the Days of Awe, Sukkot is a welcome opportunity to relax. The primary mitzvah of Sukkot is to dwell (or at least dine) in a sukkah for a week and to rejoice there.

Sukkot is a harvest festival. In antiquity this was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals when our ancestors would have taken the fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer them to God. Today we harvest memories, emotions, and experiences. What memories from the High Holidays do you want to bring with you into the sukkah this year?

Sukkot is an opportunity to remember the Exodus from Egypt, as the sukkah is meant to remind us of the temporary shelters in which our ancestors dwelled during the forty years of wandering.

Sukkot is also an opportunity to reflect on what’s temporary and what really lasts. We move for a week into these flimsy little houses (which must have roofs made of organic material through which one can see the full moon and the stars) in part to remind ourselves that even a beautiful and stable dwelling is ultimately as temporary as a sukkah… but if we cultivate faith and trust, we can know ourselves to be sheltered beneath the Divine Presence, even if our structures / our lives / our bodies don’t last forever.

And here in northern Berkshire, Sukkot is a glorious opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors during these beautiful days of fall.

Thanks to a group of wonderful volunteers, CBI’s beautiful sukkah will be set up today before Shabbat begins.

“Our sukkah is your sukkah” — please come and take advantage of the CBI sukkah anytime during the coming week, day or night! Bring lunch to the CBI sukkah and dine there beneath the rustling cornstalks; bring dinner; bring your book group to meet there; bring a bottle of wine and enjoy the moonlight; even bring a sleeping bag and camp out if you’re so inclined! The sukkah is here for you.

And, of course, I hope you’ll join us next Friday night for our Shabbat / Sukkot potluck, where we’ll also have a kids’ program called Sukkah Soup (bring a vegetable to add to the soup pot) and an optional sleepover for kids and parents in the sukkah after the potluck. Please do RSVP so that we know how many people are coming and what people plan to bring.

Chag sameach / a joyous festival to you! And for now, Shabbat Shalom —

Rabbi Rachel

What the labyrinth helps us see

40065048_10155360643331330_2440611845942280192_nA few weeks ago, while the Al and Frances Small Memorial Labyrinth was still under construction, my eight year old son was with me at synagogue and ran outside to explore it. He immediately wanted to walk its spiraling path. And I asked him whether he knew what made a labyrinth different from a maze.

He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “You can’t get lost in it.”

He’s right. A maze is designed to confound and confuse. Think of the hedge mazes on elaborate European estates, or the placemat mazes that challenge you to draw a path from entry to exit without lifting your pen. A labyrinth is something else entirely.

In a labyrinth, there’s only one path. It goes all the way in, and then you turn the other way and it goes all the way back out. The purpose of a labyrinth isn’t to see whether you can figure out where you’re going, because there’s only one footpath. The purpose of a labyrinth is to attune you to where you’re going, and how you’re going, and how the path twists and turns.

As some of you have seen, we have a beautiful new meditation labyrinth outside our sanctuary. It was designed by Lars Howlett, a professional labyrinth designer — yes, that’s an actual profession — who came to CBI and walked our land and selected a shape that is suited to our grounds. Deepest thanks to Bill Riley for transferring the design to the ground, to Valerie Ross and Josh Goodell of New England Lawn and Garden Care for stonework and installation, and to Cheryl Small for her generosity.

Our labyrinth has seven circuits, which is a traditional shape for Jewish labyrinths. Seven is a meaningful number in Judaism: the seven days of creation. There are seven colors in the rainbow. There are seven qualities that we and God share, which we meditate on and cultivate during the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot — and some of us do this during the seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah, too. In a Jewish wedding, the partners make seven circuits around each other, and we hear seven blessings. At a Jewish funeral, the pallbearers pause seven times en route to the grave.

Some look at our labyrinth and see the Tree of Life, another one of our tradition’s great metaphors for divinity: we enter at the roots and walk all the way into the crown. Some look at our labyrinth and see the crenellations of the human brain. All of this informed the design of our labyrinth.

A labyrinth serves to remind us to pay attention to the journey, not the destination. If I wanted to reach the center of the labyrinth quickly I could walk across, from one stepping-stone to the next, directly inward. Four or five big steps and I’d be there. But that defeats the purpose. It’s not about how quickly I can get there. It’s about the feeling of my feet on the pavement, and how the view changes as I move along the path. It’s about how sometimes it feels like my goal is tantalizingly close, and then the path swerves and I’m heading in an entirely different direction from what I expected. It’s about surrendering to the journey.

I have to pay attention to where my feet go on the path, and that serves to mostly keep me in the moment, in this place, in this here-and-now. And even if I can see the journey’s end when I begin it — even if I lift up my eyes and see the switchbacks and turns that await me before I reach the center — I don’t know how it will feel to walk the path until I actually do it. And I don’t know how walking it this time might feel different from walking it that time.

A meditation labyrinth is an embodied metaphor for spiritual life — for all of life, because all of life is spiritual whether or not we call it so. Here are four things that our labyrinth keeps teaching me:

1) How we get there is as important as where we are going.

2) Every journey has unexpected twists and turns. We may think we’re headed in one direction — a job, a marriage, a happily-ever-after — and then it turns out we’re headed somewhere entirely different.

This is true not only on an individual level, but a collective one. Of course, on a national level the metaphor breaks down, because we aren’t locked in to a single labyrinthine path. But the emotional experience of being an American these last few years has felt a little bit like walking the labyrinth — wait, you mean we’re going this way? — and it demands some of the same patience as walking the labyrinth. There are no short-cuts to the center. The only way to get where we need to go is to keep on walking.

3) The labyrinth reminds us that we can’t hold still. Everything passes. Sometimes this is grief-inducing: I’m so happy right now, and I never want that to go away, but I know that it will. And sometimes it’s a profound relief: I’m in the narrow straits of despair right now, but I know I won’t be here forever. But if we work at it, we can learn to draw comfort from the fact that everything changes.

4) What we see depends on where we are. In a physical sense, this means that our view changes depending on how much of the labyrinth we’ve walked: we’re gazing at the mountains, no, at the gazebo, no, at the wetland, no, at the shul. In a metaphysical sense it’s equally true.

Yom Kippur is like a labyrinth. You can’t get lost in it: there’s only one path through. It began last night and it will end tonight. Over the first half of the day we’re moving ever deeper in, and over the second half of the day we’re moving slowly back out again.

It’s the same path every year. We start with Kol Nidre. We end with that final tekiah gedolah. In between we reach the same touchstones, the same stories and Torah readings and prayers.

And every time we walk it, we are different. We bring the sum total of our life experiences to Yom Kippur, and every year we have grown and changed since the year before.

If you think about Yom Kippur in terms of where it “gets you,” it may not seem like much of a destination. It’s not a cruise or an adventure, a birth or a wedding or a promotion. But if you think of Yom Kippur as an opportunity to see yourself more clearly, then it’s an entirely different kind of journey.

After our closing song we’ll break until 3pm when we’ll gather for contemplative practice, followed at 4-ish by mincha and a talk from Hazzan Randall, followed at 6:30 by Ne’ilah, our closing service. I hope that some of you will choose to stick around, or to return early, or to take advantage of the break before or after mincha — so that you can walk the steps of our beautiful new labyrinth, and see what unfolds in you on this holiest of days and most beautiful of places. May the rest of your Yom Kippur be meaningful and sweet.

 

This year CBI’s theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways. This isn’t one of my formal sermons, but it touches on the theme even so.

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

 

What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? “You may ask yourself, how did I get here? … You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.” Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It’s clean, and clear, and polished. It’s about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It’s about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that’s the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year’s theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn’t feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what’s urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day’s gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day’s grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don’t feel especially urgent, either. They’re part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

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The awe of being seen: a sermon for Kol Nidre

SeenIt was four in the morning on Shavuot in the year 5770, also known as 2010. I was on retreat at Isabella Freedman, a Jewish retreat center in northern Connecticut. My son was seven months old.

My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear Reb Zalman (z”l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.

But it turned out that my son didn’t like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.

Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.

Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.

“Why didn’t you kill your bird?” asked the Sufi master.

“I tried to do as you asked,” said the student. “But no matter where I went, I couldn’t find a place where no One could see me.”

Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.

That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, “awe” or “fear of God.” Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.

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