Over the last several years, it’s been the custom at CBI for the Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon to be given by three congregants speaking on a shared theme. This year, in anticipation of my Rosh Hashanah Morning 1 sermon on Creating Community, I asked Bob Bashevkin, Robin Brickman, and Lisa Howard to speak about finding home at CBI. Here is what they said. — Rabbi Rachel
My assignment tonight is to give you some of the history of this congregation as I have lived it, and to do that in a limited amount of time.
One cannot fit very much into a limited amount of time, and I will do my best to stay as close to that limit as I can manage. So please be aware that between these lines there is a lot more history that I have not included –some of it humorous, and some of it serious.
When I was born, the North Adams synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the northern half of Berkshire County.
The Jewish population of North Adams was quite large, and many of the retail stores in downtown North Adams were owned by members of our congregation. In fact, every fall, when the High Holidays were coming, the Jewish merchants in North Adams would join together and pay for a full page ad in the local newspaper. The ad listed all their stores. And it announced the dates of the High Holidays, when their stores would all be closed. Continue reading →
Shavua tov / a good week to all! I hope that your journey through the Days of Awe has been meaningful and sweet.
We want to hear from you about your experience: what worked for you, what was good, and what we could improve for next year. To that end, we’ve created a very simple survey. It’s only five questions, and won’t take long! It’s online here: Days of Awe at CBI 5774 / 2013 Survey.
Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b’Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.
Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:
Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God. I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed. Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me. New moon and Shabbat when you gather – I can’t bear the iniquity of this community. I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals. They are a burden to Me. They weary Me. When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes. When you call out in prayer, I will not hear. Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing. Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes. Turn from evil and do good. Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together, says God. Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow. Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.
“I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.” I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b’Av: if we aren’t also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is “enough” even if our world is unjust.
I love our rituals. I have made it my life’s work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah’s words, and I know that he is right.
There’s a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y’all are doing isn’t enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don’t act justly, then it doesn’t matter one bit whether you’re doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn’t enough.
In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.
We have neither priests nor prophets in today’s world. But I don’t think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it’s our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It’s incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly — and also to hear God’s call for justice.
Three days before Tisha b’Av I sat with a group of y’all here and we talked about Isaiah’s furious words. Two days before Tisha b’Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
This summer, for the first time, our son has been afraid of thunder and lightning. I can’t blame him for that. Thunder and lightning can be scary. Especially when you are small, and you don’t remember ever having experienced them before. At times like those, even the comforting presence of your stuffed animals isn’t enough: you need a parent to cuddle you and tell you everything’s going to be okay.
So that’s what I do. I tell him it’s all going to be okay. I tell him it’s only thunder, it’s only lightning, it’s not going to hurt him. When the lightning flashes, I tell him it’s the clouds playing with their flashlights, just like he does. When the thunder cracks and rolls, I tell him it’s the clouds playing their drums.
This is probably proof, if proof were needed, that I am a poet and not a scientist. I think in metaphors. We have friends who teach their kids about electrical charge building up in the clouds. I make up stories about the clouds having parties with their flashlights and their drums.
I did learn something extraordinary about lightning this summer, though.
And because they say the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, I’m going to share it with you now. Here is what I learned about lightning, in a class on kabbalah and quantum physics which I took with R’ Fern Feldman and Dr. Karen Barad at the ALEPH Kallah:
In a stormcloud, air molecules become polarized. The negatively-charged ions cluster at the bottom of the cloud, and the positively-charged ones cluster at the top.
You know how if you hold two magnets near each other, the ends which have the same charge will push each other away? The same thing happens with the stormcloud and the earth. The negative ions at the bottom of the cloud push the negative ions in the ground further into the ground, because like repels like.
The negative ions in the earth sink down low, moving away from the cloud. So the surface of the earth becomes positively charged. Now the earth and the cloud are charged in opposite directions: positive earth, negative cloud.
Here’s the wild part: as the cloud sends electricity down, the earth sends electricity up. Before the lightning ever comes down from the cloud, the cloud is reaching down with its negative ions and the earth is reaching up with its positive ions.
If you look at time-lapse photography of lightning, this is what you see: the cloud sends little rivulets of light downwards, and the earth sends rivulets of light upwards. They are reaching for each other. And when they connect, most of the light goes up.
The moment I learned this, I thought about spiritual life. I thought of the story from Torah about Jacob camping out for a night and dreaming about a ladder with feet planted in the earth and a top stretching into the very heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder in constant motion. One of my favorite teachings asks: it makes sense for angels to be coming down the ladder from heaven to creation, but what’s with the angels going up? And the answer is: the angels going up are our prayers. When we pray, our prayers become angels which ascend this cosmic ladder, and in response, blessings come pouring back down.
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
This late afternoon / early evening we’ll enter into Yom Kippur and into Shabbat.
These aseret y’mei teshuvah (Ten Days of Re/Turning) have been chock-full of preparations in every realm: from the physical (setting up chairs and xeroxing handouts) to the emotional (the emotional rollercoaster of actually making teshuvah), the intellectual (putting finishing touches on those sermons!) to the spiritual and ineffable.
I wish I had the spaciousness to reach out to each one of you individually to ask your forgiveness for any ways in which I have missed the mark in our relationship in the last year. As it is, this note will have to do.
I know that I have missed the mark over the last year. If my words or deeds have caused you pain, I hope that you can forgive me.
Please know that I likewise extend forgiveness to you. If your words or deeds have wounded me, I affirm that I am doing my level best to forgive. Let us not carry relationship tangles from the old year into the new one.
May we all emerge on the far side of Yom Kippur feeling lightened and cleansed. Shabbat shalom and g’mar chatimah tovah — may you be sealed for good in the year to come.
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
On Yom Kippur morning (at the end of morning services), we’ll experience Yizkor — our memorial service during which we remember our beloveds who have died. Twelve days later, on Shemini Atzeret, we’ll experience Yizkor again (at our morning service led by Rabbi Pam Wax at 9am on Thursday 9/26.) What exactly is Yizkor, and why are we saying it twice in such rapid succession?
The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons. Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret.
You may now be thinking: wait a minute. Winter?! Shemini Atzeret isn’t during the wintertime (especially not this year, when our holidays are so early on the Gregorian calendar!) Some sources suggest that the fourth repetition of Yizkor was originally meant to happen at midwinter… but because that’s the rainy season in Israel, and arduous winter travel could keep people from making it to Jerusalem to gather for this memorial remembrance, the sages of our tradition moved the wintertime Yizkor to that “extra day” at the end of Sukkot.
Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.
The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays.
Of the Yom Kippur Yizkor, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur writes: “For an entire day, through fast and introspection, we face our own mortality and dive into our deaths by playing the dead. But equally, we are the living who seek to reunite with those who are really dead. Yizkor arrives with the opportunity to summon our beloved ones who have left and to remember them. As we remember them, we should marvel at the fact that the relationships we had with them remain alive as long as we are alive to do the remembering.”
Of the Shemini Atzeret Yizkor, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “On Sh’mini Atzeret we remember the dead in yizkor and then pray for water. Is our water prayer a plea for drops of rain alone — or also for tears, the ability to cry? Tears less exalted than those of Yom Kippur, less frightened than those of Tisha B’Av — but tears of memory and compassion?”
What Yizkor affirms for me is that our relationships with those we have loved (or perhaps not-loved) continue even when the person in question has died…and that there is wisdom in pausing, four times a year, to connect with memory and loss. There is deep spiritual wisdom in taking the time to remember.
My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi speaks of Yizkor as a “holy Skype call” — an opportunity to go inside, perhaps draped beneath one’s tallit, and call up the memory of the person we have lost, and imagine them before us face-to-face, and say whatever it is that we most need to say to that person at this moment in this year of our lives.
I hope you’ll join us for Yizkor: on Yom Kippur (probably around noon, though it follows immediately upon our morning service, so the best way to be sure you’ll make it to Yizkor is to come to morning davenen!) and on Shemini Atzeret, that day of holy pausing and lingering just a little bit longer — with God, with this festival season, and with those whom we have lost but will never forget.
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.
Why do we wear white on Yom Kippur?
Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. (There’s also a kabbalistic custom of wearing white on erev Shabbat, to welcome the Shabbat bride and queen — and this year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, so that’s two reasons at once to be clad in white finery!)
Another interpretation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial.) As members of our chevra kadisha know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality.
Our tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah to make teshuvah, to repent and to clear one’s personal and interpersonal slate, the day before death. But how do any of us know when we will die? Aha, say the sages; then we must make teshuvah every day. And surely this is true. But there is something particularly special and meaningful about the teshuvah we make on Yom Kippur, perhaps because on this day we get in touch with our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.
On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death. Continue reading →
Here is the sermon which rabbinic student / cantorial soloist David Curiel offered on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
L’shana tova. I am so happy to be back here with you this year. This time without a cold, but with our 10-month-old baby daughter, Dafna, spending her first Rosh Hashana here, with you. Thank you for welcoming us all back so warmly.
As we were getting ready to leave on Wednesday morning, the city of Boston took down a tall, old maple tree from the front of our house. It was sick and had to go, but all the same, we were sad to see it leave. We will miss its shade on hot summer afternoons, but not the worry of large falling branches during winter storms.
It was poignant, as Dafna & I watched, first from the porch, then from the front window, when the noise got too loud, that this was happening on the very last day of the year. That this tree, unlike the one next to it, or indeed all of us, did not make it to the new year. As Ecclesiastes, or the Birds, said, “for everything, turn turn turn, there is a season, turn turn turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”
This is the season of reckoning with our past and bringing a new, better version of ourselves into the future. How blessed we are to be on that journey together here today.
The Torah readings this year are particularly poignant for me and my family. Yesterday, we read about Sarah’s joy and relief at being granted a child in her old age. Itzchak, meaning “he shall laugh,” a reflection, surely, of the laughter a child brings to a home, especially one long-distressed by infertility.
Today, we read the story of the Akedah–Abraham’s reenactment of what we can reasonably guess was a cultural norm of child sacrifice, abruptly stopped when he hears the voice of YHVH for the first time, saying, “you don’t have to do this–you can break the cycle and do something new.”
We can imagine the fear Abraham had been holding in: stoically marching his son up the mountain, not saying much, so as not to panic the little one.
And we can also imagine him, poised tensely over his son, hearing that voice that must have brought a quivering flood of tears of relief, the collected, unexpressed, intensity of that moment draining from his body as he collapsed momentarily over his son in a bear hug before going to collect the ram stuck in the thicket.
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
This year we are once again offering a luncheon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after morning services and after Tashlich. All who wish to extend the morning’s energy of celebration and joy are welcome to join us for the short walk to the river where we will metaphorically cast our misdeeds upon the waters, and upon returning to the synagogue, to caravan together to the Water Street Grill where a celebratory lunch will be provided.
We’ll make sure that the restaurant provides bread, juice/wine, and apples to bless. (The purchase of each individual lunch is up to the participants. If you would like to participate but the cost of lunch is prohibitive, let me know and we’ll work something out.) Please reserve a place so that we know how many people are coming; you can RSVP directly to Joanne Ranzer at email@example.com or 413-441-6900.
Joanne needs to give the restaurant a final count by midday today, so please, if you are coming, let her know promptly. Thank you!
L’shanah tovah — to a good and sweet new year. See y’all tonight!
It’s hard to believe, but Days of Awe are right around the corner – Rosh Hashanah begins on Wednesday night! I wanted to share a few things — one big-picture, and a few logistical details — with all of the parents in our community.
First, the big-picture piece:
Think about why you come to CBI to celebrate the New Year. Is it because it’s part of your culture and heritage as a Jewish family? Is it to try to connect to the Source of Life? Is it to have a place to ask the big questions of life? Is it to celebrate? There’s an infinite range of answers to this question, but there’s no reason to start with the old parental fall-back, “Because we have to.”
You don’t have to – there are always other things you and your family could choose to do with your time. (You could be watching tv, climbing a mountain, folding laundry — and this year, since Rosh Hashanah falls on weekdays, during the days you could be at work and your kids could be in school.)
If you choose to come to shul for the Days of Awe — and I really hope that you will! — let it be because you want to. I hope that your kids will want to as well. If you want to explore for yourself what the holidays could mean, one of my favorite books for this purpose is Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, which you can nab for your Kindle or order now for holiday reading — or you can borrow from the CBI library anytime. Or of course, feel free to call or visit me, and I’m happy to natter about the holidays and why they matter, anytime.
Now on to some logistical details:
We’re going to have family programming on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (Thursday, September 5) and on Yom Kippur morning (Saturday, September 14.) On both of those days we will have childcare in the classrooms from 9:30am until around noon (services should end around noonish.) We’ll also offer childcare in the classrooms during Kol Nidre services, which begin at 6pm on Friday September 13 (with cello music beforehand at 5:30.)
This year we will also have wonderful childrens’ services at 10am on each of those days (Rosh Hashanah first day, and Yom Kippur) led by Jane Shiyah. She will be leading the children through a service which will feature short prayers, songs, a lot of wonderful storytelling, and even an opportunity to learn to blow shofar (and an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, too!) These services will be geared toward the students who are there. Our beautiful new childrens’ machzorim (high holiday prayerbooks) were written for kids in first through sixth grade, but Jane is comfortable adapting the written service to suit the needs of whoever is present on those mornings.
Please also know that your children are welcome in the big sanctuary anytime you want to have them there. I will announce, at the start of every service, that the voices of children are always welcome in our house of worship. (And they are!) Your kids are always welcome. And it’s wonderful for them to have the experience of being part of our community as we enter into prayer, self-reflection, and celebration together.
I especially invite you to try to ensure that your kids are present when we blow shofar. That will happen during the shofar service (late on Rosh Hashanah morning) and at the very end of Ne’ilah (the service closing Yom Kippur.) The shofar is a dramatic, powerful, primal sound, and if your kids hear it blown in context, they will begin associating its sound with this special time of year.
Thanks for being part of CBI. Your families are a big part of the joy of serving this community, for me, and I’m always grateful to know you and your children.
L’shanah tovah / here’s to a good and sweet new year –
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
The Days of Awe are almost upon us!
If you would like to get “in the holiday mood” by listening to some of the beautiful music we’ll be singing together during this season, you can hear 19 different songs on the From the Rabbi blog at Music for the Days of Awe.
And, don’t forget to join us tomorrow night for 8pm Selichot services — prayers, songs, poems, and a creative exercise designed to help us begin to let go of the old year’s misdeeds — followed by a potluck dessert reception!
All of us here at CBI wish you a sweet Shabbat (the last Shabbat of the old year!) and hope to see you tomorrow morning for services led by Rabbi Pam, tomorrow evening for havdalah and Selichot led by Rabbi Rachel, and for our many wonderful offerings during this sweet season.
May this be a season of transformation, growth, and joy.
Rabbi Rachel and the whole CBI high holiday prep team
It’s Rosh Chodesh Elul — happy new month to everyone! This is the final month before the Days of Awe. To aid you in your spiritual preparations for the holidays, and in getting into the “holiday mood,” here is some of the music we’ll be singing this year during the holiday season. (Many of these are melodies we’ve used in years past; the new ones are at the end of the list.)
Please feel free to bookmark this post and listen to these melodies on your computer, or to download these files to your computer, tablet, ipad, or other listening device.
During this month of Elul, may we open our hearts to the Presence within us and around us!
Rabbi Rachel & rabbinic student / cantorial soloist David Curiel
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Believe it or not, the Days of Awe are only a few short months away. Because we haven’t had a leap year in a while, the holidays are very early this year. We’ll begin with Selichot services on August 31, and Rosh Hashanah will follow a few short days later. (A full schedule of High Holiday activities will be in the next edition of the CBI NEWSletter.)
One of the things I’m working on, therefore, is the task we call “assigning honors.” A few people asked me last year how we choose the people who participate in our services, so I’m writing to share some information about how this works at CBI.
During the year at CBI, we don’t typically assign any honors. But because our High Holiday services draw a bigger crowd and tend to be more formal than our Shabbat worship, we do assign parts in the services beforehand. We assign people the tasks of opening and closing the ark, or reading a prayer in English or Hebrew, or lighting festival candles. We call these “honors,” because being part of co-creating our community’s High Holiday worship is meant to be an honor rather than an onerous obligation.
Here at CBI, we most often invite people who have been active volunteers in the community to be honored in this way. Sometimes these honors are given to board or committee members who’ve worked hard during the year now ending. Sometimes honors are given to new members, as a way of welcoming them into our community; or to people who have experienced a personal loss or a major simcha (joyous occasion) during the year now ending, as a kind of chatimah or seal on the year and its emotional and spiritual impact.
Please know that we don’t offer honors based on fiscal contribution, and that we do our best not to offer them to the same few people year after year! Please know also that I welcome your suggestions for who we should honor through high holiday worship participation — including you, yourself.
If you would like to participate in our High Holiday services in some way, please reach out to me and I will gladly find a place for you. You can let me know whether you’d prefer a non-speaking part (opening the ark?) or a speaking part (reading a prayer?) — and whether you’d prefer to volunteer for one particular service over another. Either I, or a member of the religious practices committee, will get back to you as soon as possible.
I hope this has made our process slightly less opaque. I look forward to seeing you all summer long as the Days of Awe draw nearer!
Welcome to Congregation Beth Israel's "From the Rabbi" blog, redesigned for the coming Jewish new year. Here you'll find communications from Rabbi Rachel (and also sometimes guest posts from our other shlichei tzibbur / prayer leaders); updates about programs from classes to meditation minyanim to Jewish movies at CBI; divrei Torah and sermons; musings on where we are in the wheel of the Jewish year; and more!
Basically: if you've ever thought, "I wish I could find that email Reb Rachel sent out the other day," you're in luck: everything I send out is archived here, and categorized for easy retrieval. Thanks for dropping by!