Category Archives: days of awe

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

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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Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Ha’Azinu — and to Yom Kippur!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Here is a Prayer Before Yom Kippur by Rabbi Burt Jacobson. I read it each year before the holiday begins and I always find meaning in it.  hope you will too.

Please join us on Tuesday at 6pm for classical music and 6:30pm for Kol Nidre services, and on Wednesday morning starting at 9:30am for Yom Kippur morning. For a full schedule of Yom Kippur experiences, as well as an explanation of some of the holiday’s customs, read more at Preparing for Yom Kippur.

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield. This week we’re reading from parashat Ha’azinu.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

G’mar chatimah tovah: may we all be sealed for goodness, and may our Yom Kippur be meaningful and deep —

Rabbi Rachel

Preparing for Yom Kippur

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I hope that your Rosh Hashanah was meaningful and sweet.

I’m writing today to share with you explanations of a few of the customs of Yom Kippur. A schedule of our Yom Kippur observances can be found at the end of this note. Please note the addition to that schedule, on Yom Kippur afternoon, of a teaching by Hazzan Randall focusing on his recent travels in Eastern Europe. (Read to the end to learn more.)

vivie_white-tallit_closeWhy do we wear white on Yom Kippur?

Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) 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 and our equality in the eyes of God. On Yom Kippur, wearing white garments which remind us of the garments we will wear when we die can serve as a reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.

Others teach that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. White is a color of holiness and celebration — that’s why we only have white kippot / yarmulkes available during the holiday season.

shoes_for_yom_kippur_largeWhy do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?

There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes.

Another interpretation is that we substitute soft shoes for leather on this day because we want to remove what protects us. The physical act of wearing soft shoes evokes the emotional / spiritual act of removing the covering from our hearts, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable on this day.

And, of course, you will also see others for whom these interpretations are not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation includes people with many different relationships to halakha (the “way of walking” sometimes translated as “Jewish law”) and to minhag (custom) — and we bring with us many different minhagim (customs) from our communities of origin, too.

tallisWhy do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.

There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun”) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.

For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are sometimes buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.

Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.

A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to create a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.

Yom Kippur at CBI this year:

Kol Nidre (with childcare) Tues. Sept. 18, 6:30pm (arrive at 6:00 for music to open the heart)

Yom Kippur Morning service, Weds. September 19, 9:30am-12:30pm

Children’s service, 10am (childcare all morning)

Yizkor /Memorial Service will take place at the end of the morning service

Feel free to stay through the afternoon, walk our meditation labyrinth, read a seasonally-appropriate book, relax on the grounds, etc.

Contemplative Practice with Steven Green and Rose Ellis, 3-4pm

Yom Kippur Afternoon service, 4pm

New: The afternoon service this year will include a teaching by Hazzan Randall about his recent travels in Eastern Europe, as a way of engaging with the “Martyrology,” the traditional liturgy that remembers Jews across the generations who have died for being Jews.

Yom Kippur Ne’ilah service, 6:30pm (sundown: 6:47pm)

       Yom Kippur Break-The-Fast: after servicesPlease RSVP by Sept. 7. ($20; kids $7)

Wishing everyone a g’mar chatimah tovah — may we be sealed for goodness in the year to come.

Blessings to all,
Rabbi Rachel

A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning

BetterThere’s a meme going around the internet — maybe you’ve seen it — that says, “if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it now.”

I’m too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south.

But in the last few months we’ve seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There’s a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There’s mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We’ve seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I’m doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is “nothing” — I’m overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it’s overwhelming.

So much is broken. It’s overwhelming. There’s no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It’s so easy to shrug and say, that’s the new normal. And it’s easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z”l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.” If the overwhelm of today’s news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm? Continue reading