From the Rabbi
Welcome to Congregation Beth Israel's "From the Rabbi" blog. 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 that 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!
-- Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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Category Archives: guest posts
To further the work with Mussar that was begun on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Pamela Wax will be offering a Torah study class focused on Mussar. These sessions will be offered following the services she leads on the following upcoming Shabbatot: Saturdays, October 12, November 23, and December 28. They are open to all. Please join us for services at 9:30 AM and then for Torah study at approximately 11:15 or 11:30.
Mussar is a spiritual practice meant to elevate our character by a focus on our behavior, our motivations, and the cultivation of soul-traits/middot. Through an exploration of the behaviors and intentions of our patriarchs and matriarchs in the book of Genesis and Exodus, we will consider how best to model “walking in God’s ways.”
This update also appears in the Fall 2013 CBI Newsletter.
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.
You are cordially invited to a DOG SLED / SABBATH retreat March 14 – 17.
As Theodore Herzl said, “if you will it, it is no dream”.
The trip takes place in western Maine. It begins Thursday evening with meeting our mushing guides, Kevin and Polly from Mahoosuc Guide Service, an orientation and then settling into a log cabin for the night. Friday morning after breakfast we meet the dogs and head into the bush. We mush and ski into our winter camp, replete with cozy and toasty warm wall tents, in plenty of time to prepare for Shabbat. The next day we enjoy incredible peacefulness, a bit of Torah study and more mushing. Later in the day under a canopy of more stars than you can imagine we say good bye to Shabbat with Havdalah. Sunday we break camp and head back to the trailhead.
The cost of the trip which includes meals Friday through Sunday and all technical gear is 650.00. There is a small additional fee for the B & B Thursday night.
For more information contact us at BurningBushAdventures@gmail.com or visit us at www.burningbushadventures.com.
I promise it will be an experience (in the positive sense) of a life time. I’ve led these trips for 20 years and every trip is always GREAT!
Burning Bush Adventures is the rabbinate of Rabbi Howard A Cohen. Howard has been guiding Jewishly informed wilderness for over twenty years. He is one of the regular shlichei tzibbur (prayer leaders) at CBI.
Blessings for 2013!
Chaim and I left on Wednesday night for our trip to Israel. We have rented an apartment in Jerusalem for 3-1/2 weeks. Chaim hasn’t been in over 20 years, having left Kfar Chabad as a teen and then living there again for a year in the 80’s. My last two trips in the past 12 years have been for work and certainly weren’t as leisurely as this one will be.
In any case, I have decided to blog while in Jerusalem. If you are interested in following my posts go to www.paminjerusalem.com anytime you want to catch up on our doings, or sign up on the homepage to get the email delivered directly to your inbox whenever I post something new. The title of the blog is Pam In Jerusalem: Riffs, Reflections, and Rantings, and I imagine that is just what it will be. Read the “About” section for background info about my decision to do this blog.
I hope this finds you all well.
Here’s the sermon which cantorial soloist David Curiel delivered today. Enjoy!
I’m just getting over a cold. It’s okay, I’m fine: it was a warning sign. Beyond the epidemiology of the thing, it was a way for my body to tell me, in no uncertain terms what I already knew, but was denying myself: Starting the school year at two separate Hebrew Schools, starting two new classes as a student AND preparing for my first ever High Holiday pulpit was a lot to take on in the last couple of weeks. OK, I got it!
We are all repositories of deep inner wisdom, sometimes manifested in really obvious ways, but more often much more subtly. In a short while, we’ll encounter the Unetanah Tokef—the centerpiece of Rosh Hashana liturgy—and sing about the “still small voice.” While we might argue with the prayer’s theological implications—is there REALLY a Shepherd On High writing “who by fire, who by water?”—the imagery and poetry, even in translation, are both powerful and beautiful, reaching their crescendo in that “still small voice.”
This still small voice, our deep inner wisdom, is nothing less than the part of God that is within us. This isn’t to say that we’re God, God forbid! But rather, that we are a channel for God to act through us. But that still small voice gets drowned out and the channel gets clogged. You only need to turn on the TV during primetime or try driving through Boston at about 5:30pm any weekday to experience that.
But even if we avoid the obvious pitfalls—limiting our media intake, turning off our mobile devices—it’s easy to get distracted by the vagaries of the mind—re-arguing old arguments or pre-arguing potential new ones, because maybe this time, it’ll come out right.
Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of being human: we have the faculties to act out God’s will in the world, but by that same token of free will and conscious thought we distract ourselves from the things that are truly important.
And yet, our tradition equips us with a roadmap: the cycle of the Jewish year. This map signals rhythmic inflection points for great joy, disconsolate sorrow, self-examination, contrition and renewal. It is rich with traditions, food, music and all the commentary you care to discuss. But it is only a map, and as we know, there’s a world of difference between the maps we use and the world they represent. More than most, the cycle of the Yamim Noraim—the Days of Awe—draws us into that place of contact between map and reality.
For many years, I taught Introduction to Judaism classes in New York City. These were generally 20 or 30 week classes that covered the gamut of Jewish holidays, theology, history, and lifecycle events. Undoubtedly, I found that the classes on Shabbat and on Death were the topics that I most loved to teach and that I believed had the most potential to intrigue, excite and enlighten non-Jews and religiously uneducated Jews about the uniqueness of Judaism.
It is obvious that Shabbat has made a comeback in the last few years, even in the secular world. The idea of “unplugging” for one day a week is conversation du jour in our increasingly electronic world, and the recognition of a day of rest from the rat-race has been advocated and championed beyond religious communities. In a world that once- upon-a-time had no “days off,” Judaism created one. Thank God!
Likewise, we should thank God for the beautiful traditions we have for honoring our beloved dead. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “if death has no meaning, then life is absurd.” I believe that we can keep life meaningful by revisiting our dead on the sacred occasions that our tradition has outlined for us to come together as community to do so. Yizkor, the memorial service, (meaning “Remember!” in a command form) is a foundational Jewish ritual that connects us to our ancestors, to community, and to our Jewish faith. Four times a year as the Jewish calendar revolves from season to season, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon those who gave us life, both physically and spiritually. And each holiday imparts a slightly different nuance to that commemoration.
At Yom Kippur, we stand naked before God. Yizkor at that holiday may seem the most powerful both because of the awesome nature of the day as well as because of the numbers of people who surround us, sharing in that sense of universal loss, longing and grief for those who no longer live and breathe among us. As it is the day when we ask forgiveness from God, it is appropriate that this yizkor is the day we also ask forgiveness of our beloved dead or offer it to them. An appropriate meditation for this Yom Kippur yizkor meditation would be to consider what we need to forgive our beloved dead for, or what we need to ask forgiveness for.
Only days later, however, we have another yizkor service, this time on Shemini Atzeret, at the conclusion of the Sukkot holiday. Sukkot is z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy and gratitude for the blessings in our life, so I have the sense that our communing with our dead on this holiday is about sharing joy, letting them know how it is that we are reaping joy in our own lives.
An appropriate meditation for this Shemini Atzeret yizkor service could be: I want to tell you about the blessings in my life right now, and the simchas that you have missed. I wish you were here to share them.
At the conclusion of Passover, we have yet another yizkor service, this one colored by “the empty seat at the seder table,” where we may have made Mom’s or Grandma’s matzo kugel or used her silverware, or told Uncle Joe’s joke, even though they were only with us through this spiritual legacy. So on this Passover commemoration of yizkor, I
have the sense that we commune with our dead through the legacy of traditions that our beloved dead passed down to us, the stories (haggadah means story) they told, the ways we still keep them close through memory and tradition.
An appropriate meditation for this Passover yizkor service might be: What traditions did you bring to your Passover seder this year that were inspired by your beloved dead? How did you invoke them on this holiday? In your mind’s eye, thank them for the memories and traditions that that they have inspired in your own Passover practice.
Only seven weeks later, we have a fourth yizkor service of the year at Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday of the giving of Torah, the giving of the values and commandments by which we Jews are meant to live our lives. On this yizkor commemoration, I have the sense that we are revisiting the values that were passed down to us generation to generation – the “how we are to live” message that was bequeathed to us by our ancestors, the messages that were both explicit and implicit in how they lived their lives.
An appropriate meditation for this Shavuot yizkor service could be: What “commandments”/values did your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles pass on to you that make you who you are today? In your mind’s eye, thank them for these gifts.
I am concerned that our connection to memory as a unique feature of Judaism has been eroding. Except for Yom Kippur, Jews, especially younger Jews, don’t seem to have that sense of commitment to honoring their beloved dead through the tradition of yizkor. Part of this is connected to our lack of familiarity with the flow of the Jewish calendar and the nuanced blessings that come with each of them. I believe that yizkor at each holiday time should share the flavor and message of that particular holiday, and I am grateful to Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan for modeling this kind of yizkor experience. He would offer the quiet time and reflective space during yizkor for us to actually speak to our dead in our mind’s eye, making it a very powerful and personal experience each and every time.
I think there is further work to be done to revitalize yizkor and holiday services at CBI. I will be leading the Shemini Atzeret and yizkor service at Congregation Beth Israel on Monday, October 8 at 9:00 AM. Please join us.
— Rabbi Pam Wax