Category Archives: Yom Kippur

Who by Fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, “Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There’s a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?”

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that’s a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by “God” and what you mean by “control.”

And she said, “But doesn’t Jewish tradition say that’s exactly how it works?” Well: yes — and no. “Jewish tradition” says a lot of things that don’t necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It’s a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water…” That’s a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I’m a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don’t want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

“But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree.”

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as “repentance.” I prefer “return.” It comes from the root meaning “to turn,” and that’s the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, and we turn ourselves around. We look at who we’ve been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we’re doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l’hitpallel means “to discern oneself.” That’s what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world.

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means “charity.” But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition’s tools for fixing what’s broken in our world.


And so much is broken. In recent weeks alone we’ve seen hurricanes, wildfires, and Nazis marching. Since I began working on this sermon, there have been more earthquakes in Mexico, more hurricanes in the Caribbean, unthinkable devastation in Puerto Rico. How can we maintain hope? How can we keep putting one foot in front of the other?

First we have to face in the right direction. Jewish tradition says we should orient ourselves toward God. If that word isn’t comfortable for you, try: we should orient ourselves toward justice and righteousness, toward kindness and compassion, toward hope and love.

We have to be willing to do the inner work of discerning our own patterns and how they feed into the brokenness of the world around us. We have to resist “checking out” and assuming that someone else will solve the world’s problems. Our spiritual practices can be critical tools in this work. Prayer and meditation and spiritual direction can help us to be authentic and whole as we do the work the world demands. They keep us honest. They keep us real.

And we have to pursue justice in all its forms. We have to work toward a world of righteousness. Feed the hungry. Rebuild what’s broken. Protect the vulnerable. Dedicate our hands, and our pocketbooks, to helping others. Even if you can only give a few dollars, or a few hours of your time, what matters is that you give.

These things are how we sweeten the harshness of living in this world where there are fires, and floods, and losses.  Notice that even in this ancient prayer, it doesn’t say that God will soften the decree. It says that we will — if we choose to.

Last night we sang Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s poem “Unending love:”

We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves. We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing. We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear. We are loved by unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us even in the midst of a fall. We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting. We are loved by unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled, ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices; ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are loved by unending love.

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices. Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles. We are the hands of God in the world. Whether our hands build or destroy is up to us.

It’s easy to get hung up on whether or not we “believe” our high holiday liturgy: is God really judging us? (What do you mean by “God?” What do you mean by “judge”? For that matter, who’s the “us”?) I invite you to try setting aside the question of belief, and ask yourself instead: how does today’s liturgy make me feel, and what does today’s liturgy ask me to do?

How it makes you feel is a question I cannot answer — though I’d be delighted to sit down with you to hear about that anytime. But I can tell you what I think today’s liturgy asks us to do. Today’s liturgy asks us to take responsibility. It asks us to take our choices seriously. It asks us to resist despair, and instead to recommit ourselves to working toward a world that is more compassionate and more righteous than the one we inhabit now.

The question that sparked this sermon was rooted in flood and fire and devastation. The destruction we’ve seen in recent weeks is horrendous. I do not believe that God caused the hurricanes, or the wildfires, or the earthquakes.

I do believe that their damage was worsened because of human choices. Sometimes individual human choices, and often aggregate human choices. For instance, generations of lawmakers and businesspeople, in south Texas where I grew up, chose to pave the wetlands and marshes and prairies that used to act as natural flood absorbers. And because those wetlands and marshes and prairies are now covered with asphalt, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, there was nowhere for the floodwaters to go.

Our choices impact the world. That’s the bad news. It’s also the good news, because we can choose differently.

We can’t keep hurricanes from happening. But we can elect government officials who take science seriously. We can pressure our government to enact laws that will change the system in which paving over a wetland for somebody’s profit is considered a good idea. We can build a society in which no one lives in poverty anymore, and no one lives in places that are polluted or unsafe. We can collectively make different choices about how we care for each other and for the planet that we share.

Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, we can see in the world an infinitely complex chain of causality, and laws of nature, and human choices. The laws of nature aren’t up to us. But our choices are.

To say that our choices matter is frightening because it means we’re responsible. And it’s exhilarating because it means we can make the world better, if we choose to.

One of the most radical Jewish teachings I know is that our actions impact God. I want to say that again, because it’s so surprising. Every little thing we do or don’t do has an impact on God, the Source of All! According to the Jewish mystical tradition, when we do mitzvot with intention — whether lighting Shabbat candles, or fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry — we impact God’s own self. When we do mitzvot with mindfulness, we heal a brokenness within God.

Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that when creation came into being, God withdrew God’s-self — God created a space that was not God — in order to make room for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to heal. Our mystical tradition teaches that when we act here “below,” our actions are mirrored “on high.” When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within God too.

That idea may or may not work for you. Maybe you don’t believe in a God Who needs our help in order to heal. But there are human beings who need our help.I n south Texas, in Florida, in Mexico City, in Puerto Rico. And even if we aren’t acting for God’s sake, we must take action for theirs.

As we face a world that may feel increasingly apocalyptic, Jewish tradition offers us valuable tools for staying focused and creating change. We need teshuvah, turning ourselves and our communities and our world in the right direction. We need tefilah, the inner work of spiritual practice to keep us spiritually honest. And we need tzedakah, creating justice with our choices, and our hands, and our hearts.

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us. This is the work to which authentic spiritual life calls us. May we emerge from this Yom Kippur with our hands and hearts strengthened, ready to direct our teshuvah, and our tefilah, and our tzedakah, toward fixing what’s broken. As we sang last night, and we’ll sing again now: may we bring all of our love, and our compassion, and our kindness, to the work of building a world of healing, a world of safety, a world of shalom.

Ahavah V’Rachamim

Ahavah

V’rachamim

Chesed

V’shalom.

אַהֲבָה

וְרַחֲמִים

חֶֽסֶד

וְשָׁלוֹם.

Love, compassion, lovingkindness, and peace.

 

(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Opportunities for tzedakah / righteous giving:

Advertisements

A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Before he died, Reb Zalman — the teacher of my teachers — made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community’s tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of “dress rehearsal” for your own death?

I’ve got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your own death. Does that sound strange? It’s a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it’s not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we’re “doing it wrong.”) Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying. Continue reading

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.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Yom Kippur!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

This Friday evening we’ll ring in not only Shabbat but also Yom Kippur, sometimes called “Shabbat Shabbatot” (“The Shabbat of Shabbats”). Here’s our  schedule for the Days of Awe, which contains a listing for all of the services of Yom Kippur; the services are also listed at the end of this note.

If you’d like to do some Yom Kippur reading in advance of the holiday, here are a couple of links to things I’ve said from the bimah in years past:

This year, weather permitting, we’ll have a meditation labyrinth behind the synagogue on Yom Kippur (printed on canvas and rolled out on the lawn.)  Feel free to hang out after morning services, walk the labyrinth and contemplate life’s twists and turns, and spend as much of the day at shul as you wish.

I’m also enclosing below some information about Yom Kippur that I send out every year; I hope it’s helpful to you.

I can’t wait to be with you to experience this very special day together.

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

 

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.

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 may 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

Our observance at CBI will begin at 5:30pm on Friday evening with beautiful music to stir the soul, followed by Kol Nidre at 6pm.

On Yom Kippur morning we’ll gather to daven (pray) the morning service at 9:30am. Yizkor (the memorial service) will take place at the end of morning services. Then we’ll regroup at 3pm for an introduction to Jewish contemplative practice (no experience required), 4pm for Avodah and Mincha services, and 6pm for Ne’ilah (the closing service of the day), with our Break-the-Fast scheduled for 7pm.

Join us in wearing white; join us in song and prayer; join us in whatever ways will most speak to your heart and soul this year as Yom Kippur unfolds.

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

 

The gates are closing – short words for Ne’ilah

Neilah-art-wohlThe gates of this awesome day are closing.

For twenty-four hours we have gathered together in song, in prayer, in contemplation. We have knocked on our hearts, imploring them to open. We have admitted to ourselves and to God where we habitually fall short. We have tried with all our might to forgive ourselves our mis-steps, our missed marks.

And now the gates are closing.

If there is something for which you still don’t feel forgiven; if there is a hurt, whether one you inflicted or one you received, still heavy on your heart; the penance I prescribe is this: work it off with the labors of your heart and hands.

 

As Yom Kippur ends, the first thing we do is light a candle.

Then we feed each other at the break-the-fast.

And then we put the first nail in the sukkah, connecting Yom Kippur with Sukkot which will begin in four short days.

Light. Sustenance. Shelter. These are our calling in the year to come.

 

Bring more light to the world: combat ignorance, homophobia and transphobia, fear and mistrust of Muslims and of immigrants, small-mindedness of every kind.

Bring more sustenance to the world: feed the hungry in our community and everywhere.

Bring shelter to those in need: welcome Syrian and Iraqi refugees to Berkshire county. CBI’s tikkun olam committee will be working with me in the new year to discern how we can best extend ourselves to support refugees. I hope that everyone in our community will take part.

The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in more recent memory than the Exodus, many of us have parents or grandparents who fled war or persecution. It’s incumbent on us to act to care for those in need.

This morning we heard the searing words of Isaiah:

“Do you think that this is this the kind of fast that I want? A day for people to starve their bodies? Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds, to mortify your bodies with coarse cloth and ashes? You call that a fast, a day when Adonai will look upon you with favor?”

“No! This is the fast I want: unlock the chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go free, their bonds broken. Share your bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless into your home.”

This is the work to which Yom Kippur calls us.

 

The gates are closing. This is the moment when we make the turn — teshuvah, turning our lives around, re/turning to our highest selves and to our Source — to build a world redeemed.

More light. More sustenance. More shelter.

For those in need. For refugees. For everyone.

 

[Image source.] Also posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

18609711e28ea2e68700d6fde8c79c46I don’t know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings — yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven’t seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That’s the floor where I spend the most time.

I’ve said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it’s because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn’t help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as “repentance” though it actually means “return.” The work to which we dedicate ourselves today. Continue reading

Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre

Let-goWe’re not here in this life to be small. Our souls yearn to expand, to live into the fullness of all of who we can become. Yom Kippur is here to help set us free.

Tonight we let go of broken promises. “כָּל נִדְרֵי  / Kol nidrei…” All the promises, and the vows, and the oaths. The promises we made that we failed to live up to. The promises we made that it turns out we couldn’t keep.

Unkept promises, both those we make and those made to us, become a weight holding us down. What would it feel like to let that weight go?

My teacher Reb Zalman — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory — wrote a script for releasing ourselves from our promises. The petitioner says:

“In the last year I have from time to time made vows, sometimes speaking them out loud, or had an intention, a resolution to change something in my actions, behavior and attitude in my mind. Some of these are in relation to myself, my body, my mind, and my soul. Some of these deal with the way in which I conduct myself in relation to other people. And most of all, there are those that deal with my relation to God…”

You might imagine that he wrote these words for Yom Kippur. Actually, he wrote them to recite before Rosh Hashanah. There’s a custom called התרת נדרים / hatarat nedarim, “untangling of vows.” Here’s how you do it. You assemble a beit din, a rabbinic court of three. And then each person takes a turn being the person requesting release, while the others serve as judges empowered to grant release.

The ritual acknowledges that resolutions are a kind of vow, and that when we fail to live up to our intentions, we need a mechanism for forgiveness. What moves me is the response from the court of friends: “hearing your regret, we release you.”

To release ourselves from the promises we couldn’t keep, the first step is to name them, with genuine regret. We speak our mis-steps to someone we trust, and that someone whom we trust says “it’s okay, you can let it go.” Then? We have to believe them. That last step may be the hardest part.

That ritual is a kind of practice run for the work we’re here to do over the next 24 hours, together.

Continue reading