Category Archives: contemplative practice

Shavua tov, moadim l’simcha, join us for Friday Yizkor and for Shabbat morning!

Shavua tov and moadim l’simcha — a good new week, and wishing you joy in the festival of Pesach!

On Friday April 26, the seventh day of Pesach, please join us at 9am for a contemplative experience around crossing the sea. (Tradition holds that the seventh day of Pesach is the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds. For more on this, see: The seventh day: crossing the sea.) Weather permitting, we’ll walk the labyrinth as part of our meditation and our embodied sea-crossing. We’ll conclude with Yizkor memorial prayers, an opportunity to remember our beloved dead.

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. Following the Reform calendar, CBI observes seven days of Pesach, so Saturday we’ll read from the first part of parashat Acharei Mot. We’ll also read from Acharei Mot on on the following Shabbat, whereupon the Reform world will be back in synch with the rest of the Jewish world.

Here are some Torah commentaries on the first part of Acharei Mot from the URJ:

Today is the second day of the Omer, the 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed (lovingkindness.) Here are 49 poems for the Omer.

There are a bunch of good Omer-counting apps to help us remember to count and to reflect on the qualities we’re invited to cultivate each day; I recommend MyOmerCounter and the Omer app from NeoHasid.

The 49 days of the Omer count lead us from second seder to Shavuot. During these seven weeks, we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew. May your Omer journey be meaningful and fruitful!

Wishing everyone a sweet and liberating continuation of Pesach —

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.


Contemplative Meditation – a guest post from Steven Green

Morning! Last year between Selichot and Yom Kippur I did a spiritual practice that I would like to share with you.

As you know, Rose and I have been sharing a contemplative practice on Yom Kippor afternoon. Last year as I was preparing, I realized that between Selichot and Yom Kippur was about 13 days. During HHD we recite the “13 Attributes” many times. I started contemplating each attribute, one per day, until YK. By the time we began chanting the 13 Attributes in our service I had become intimately familiar with all of them. This made that part of the service much more meaningful.

I will be doing that practice again this year and invite you to join me!

Below you will find part of the handout we used last year in our YK practice with an explanation of how to do a contemplation. You will also find the English translation of the 13 Attributes. Please note: This year it is 15 days from Selichot to Rosh HaShana which, coincidentally, in Hebrew is spelled such that it is a name of G!D: Yah. This can be an auspicious practice this year!

If you intend to take up this practice, let me know. If you have any questions on the mechanics of how one might conduct a contemplative practice please do not hesitate to contact me – I would welcome the opportunity to work with you on this.

Shana Tova,


Instructions for Contemplative Meditation 

  1. Calm the mind by resting on the breathing.
  2. When you feel ready, bring up a certain thought or intention in the form of words.
  3. Use these words as the object of meditation, continually returning to them as distractions arise.
  4. In order to help rouse the heartfelt experience of their meaning, think about the words. Bring ideas and images to mind to inspire the meaning.
  5. As the meaning of the words begins to penetrate, let the words drop away, and rest in that.
  6. Become familiar with that meaning as it penetrates.
  7. Conclude your session and arise from meditation with the meaning in your heart. “Meaning” is direct experience, free of words.
  8. Now enter the world aspiring to conduct yourself with the view of your contemplation. For example, if you have been contemplating the preciousness of human birth, your view will be one of appreciation.

From, Turning Your Mind Into An Ally, Sakyong Mipham




The Thirteen Attributes

Adonai, Adonai, G!D of mercy and grace, patient, loving and faithful, Who extends love to the thousandth generation, forgiving transgression, rebellion and sin, and granting pardon.


Walk the Labyrinth on Yom Kippur

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Weather permitting, we hope to have a meditation labyrinth on the grass behind our sanctuary on Yom Kippur day. During the break between morning services and our afternoon offerings, you are welcome to stay at CBI and to walk the labyrinth.

This labyrinth is a temporary one, printed on canvas; we are borrowing it from the Williams College Chaplains’ Office, with gratitude. But we hope that in time there will be a permanent labyrinth on the CBI grounds, and we are exploring options for building one in coming months! (Ours will probably be a seven-circuit labyrinth, because seven is a number with deep spiritual significance in Judaism.) We extend deepest gratitude to our member Cheryl Small, whose fiscal support will enable us to build our permanent meditation labyrinth in memory of her parents, Frances and Al Small. For now, we’ll have a temporary one, and I invite you to come and experience it on Yom Kippur afternoon!

Walking a labyrinth is an ancient contemplative practice. A labyrinth, unlike a maze, is not designed to get you lost and is not a puzzle to solve. It has only one path in and out. When one walks a labyrinth, slowly and contemplatively, one will find twists and turns — but the journey always goes in to the center, and then back out to the exit. It is a metaphor for spiritual life writ large: life takes twists and turns, and there is always beauty to discover along the way.

For more:

May the labyrinth enrich your experience of Yom Kippur. I can’t wait to be with y’all soon.


Rabbi Rachel

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

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.

This just in: contemplative Shabbat this weekend

Here’s an addendum to this week’s post about Shabbat services:

This Shabbat (April 22)

the CBI Spiritual Life committee

and Rabbi Rachel

invite you into a deep, sweet Shabbat

of contemplation and chant


Contemplative Shabbat Morning Service

April 22 / 26 Nisan, 9:30am

Join us in going deep into silence and song.

Though we will be praying only selected “pearls” from the liturgy,

we will recite mourner’s kaddish in full.

A note from Rabbi Lori Shaller

A message from Rabbi Lori Shaller, who will be leading davenen (prayer) at CBI this coming Shabbat:
Please join me this Shabbat, Saturday, December 3 for a contemplative service. I will be on my yoga mat, suggesting movement and meditation prompts, as well as chanting some, and I invite you to bring your mat, if that speaks to you. You are also welcome to participate sitting in a chair. We will be praying the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, an Amidah and Kaddish, if there are those who want to pray kaddish. I hope to see you b’Shabbat!