Category Archives: Uncategorized

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat services led by Rabbi Pam Wax.  This week we’re reading from parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

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:

We are now in the fourth week of the Omer, the week of netzach (endurance) Here are 49 poems for the Omer. 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. I hope you’ll join us at our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat on May 18-20 at the end of the Omer count — read all about it and register now!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

Advertisements

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Shemini 2!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat services led by Rabbi Lori Shaller. This week we’re reading the second part of parashat Shemini.

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

(Those are the same links I sent out last week, because following Reform custom, we’re splitting Shemini into two weeks — this is because we observe 7 days of Pesach rather than 8, so we need to stretch this parasha for two Shabbatot in order to stay in synch with our Conservative and Orthodox cousins.)

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

This is the second week of the Omer, the week of gevurah (boundaries and strength.) Here are 49 poems for the Omer. 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. I hope you’ll join us at our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat on May 18-20 at the end of the Omer count — read all about it and register now!

Blessings to all —

Rabbi Rachel

Hametz, fire, and miracles: a d’var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol

Bread-fireIt’s Shabbat HaGadol: “The Great Shabbat,” the Shabbat before Pesach. The Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, d. 1275) explains, “on the Shabbat before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon… in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven…”

Everybody ready to listen to instructions for kashering your kitchens?

Just kidding. Though I am going to talk about hametz, and this week’s Torah portion, and teshuvah, and miracles.

The word חמץ / hametz comes from lichmotz, to sour or ferment. Hametz is grain that has fermented. When we left Egypt, we didn’t have time for natural sourdough to leaven our bread, so we baked flat crackers and left in haste. Torah offers us two instructions 1) eat matzah as we re-live the Exodus, and 2) get rid of leaven. The matzah part, we’ll do during Pesach. The getting-rid-of-leaven part, we have to do in advance.

Today is Shabbes, our foretaste of the world to come. Today we do no work. We rest and are ensouled, as was God on the first Shabbat. But tomorrow, and in the weekdays to come, many of us may be doing some spring cleaning as we prepare to rid our homes of leaven for a week. Of course, getting rid of leaven doesn’t “just” mean getting rid of leaven. It can also mean a kind of spiritual housecleaning.

Hametz can represent ego, what puffs us up internally. The therapists among us might note that ego is important: indeed it is. Without a healthy ego, you’d be in trouble. But if one’s ego gets too big, that’s a problem too. The internal search for hametz is an invitation to examine ego and to discern what work we need. Some need to discard the hametz of needing to be the center of attention. Others need to discard the hametz of not wanting to take up the space we deserve.

Another interpretation: hametz is that within us which has become sour. Old stories, old narratives, old scripts. Old ideas about “us” and “them,” old angers, old hurts. Look inside: are you carrying the memory of someone who made you angry? Are you holding on to old grievances? Search your heart: what’s the old stuff you need to scrape up and throw away?

That’s where this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, comes in. This is the ritual of the burnt offering, says God. Keep the fire burning all night until morning. And every morning, take the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place. Notice that removing the ashes is mentioned right up there with burning the offering. Because if the ashes are allowed to accumulate, they’ll choke the fire.

The spiritual work of keeping our fires burning belongs to all of us. It’s our job to feed the fires of hope, the fires of justice, the fires of our own spiritual lives that fuel our work toward a world redeemed. Keep the fire burning all night: even in our “dark” times, when we feel trapped, even crushed, by life’s narrow places.

The thing is, over the course of a year our fires get choked with ash. Disappointments and cynicism and overwork and burnout keep our fires from burning as bright as they could be. This week’s Torah portion reminds us to clean out our ashes. (It’s no coincidence that Tzav comes right before Pesach.)

Pesach offers us spiritual renewal. Pesach invites us to live in the as-if — as if we were redeemed; as if we were free; as if all of this world’s broken places and ugly “isms” were healed. But in order for our spiritual fires to be renewed, we have to clean out the ashes. We have to get rid of the hametz, the schmutz, the ashes and crumbs and remnants of the old year that have become sour and dusty, in order to become ready to be free.

Ridding ourselves of the old year’s mistakes and mis-steps in order to begin again: is this making you think of any other time of year? If this inner work sounds like the work we do before Rosh Hashanah, that’s because it is.

I learned from my teacher and friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz that we work on our imperfections both during Nissan (now) and Tishri (the High Holidays), and we can dedicate one to working on our “external” stuff and the other to what’s hidden or internal. The Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, d. 1633) wrote that these two months of Nissan and Tishri correspond to each other, because during each of these seasons we’re called to seek out and destroy hametz in body and soul.

Another link between Passover preparation and the teshuvah work of the new year: this season, too, is called a new year. Talmud teaches that we have four “New Years”es. The new moon of Tishri is the new year for years. The new year for trees, Tu BiShvat, is in deep winter. The new year for animals is on 1 Elul. And then there’s the new moon of Nisan, ushering in the month containing Pesach… and this entire month has the holiness of a Rosh Chodesh, a New Moon. This whole month is our springtime new year.

Right now the moon is waxing. The light of the moon can represent God’s presence — sometimes visible, and sometimes not, but always with us. Right now there’s more moonlight every night, and we’re invited to experience more connection with holiness with each passing day. Our work now is to clean house, spiritually, by the light of this waxing moon — in order to be internally ready to choose freedom.

When you think of a miracle, what do you think of? Maybe the parting of the Sea of Reeds: that’s a big, shiny, visible miracle from the Passover story. But hope growing in tight places is also a miracle. The fact that we can make teshuvah is a miracle. The fact that we can grow and change is a miracle. The fact that we can do our inner work and emerge transformed is a miracle. This is a month of miracles — as evidenced by its name: the name Nissan comes from נס / nes, “miracle.”

On Thursday night, some of us will hide crusts of bread around our homes. We’ll search for them by the light of a candle. And then on the morning of the day that will become Pesach we’ll burn them, destroying the old year’s hametz. Whether or not you engage literally in that ancient custom of bedikat hametz (searching for / destroying leaven), you can do that work spiritually. (And we’ll begin some of it together during our contemplative mincha service this afternoon.)

What is the old stuff you need to root out and discard in order to walk unencumbered into freedom?

How can you “carry out the ashes” so the altar of your heart can become clean and clear, ready to burn with the fire of hope, the fire of justice, the fire of new beginnings?

 

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this Shabbat (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Shavua tov! Looking forward to our pre-Pesach Shabbaton!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30amWe’ll be reading from the Torah portion known as Tzav.  And stay with us all day for our Shabbat HaGadol Shabbaton with visiting rabbi and scholar Rabbi David Markus as we prepare our hearts and souls for liberation!

Shabbat HaGadol (1)

If you’re joining us on Saturday, please let us know what you’re bringing for the Shabbat lunch potluck (vegetarian / dairy dishes, please) — you can RSVP to the office (cbinadams@gmail.com).

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

Here are a few commentaries from Rabbi David:

And here are commentaries from the Union for Reform Judaism: Tzav.

Hope to see y’all at CBI this coming Shabbat!

Wishing you blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

On “keeping the Pesach,” and gradations of practice

Xmatzah1_0.jpg qitok=9eX4cdDO.pagespeed.ic.SlytqcygAaPesach begins three weeks from tomorrow, and maybe some of you are considering “keeping the Pesach” this year. Maybe you have some anxiety about what exactly that means, or how to do it, or whether you’re going to “do it wrong.” What is keeping the Pesach?

In Exodus 12:15 we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.

At its simplest, “keeping the Pesach” means 1) eating matzah and 2) removing leaven. In some Jewish contexts there are clear guidelines for how to remove leaven from one’s home, and you either follow them or you don’t. But here at CBI there are many gradations of practice. I don’t see “keeping the Pesach” as a binary. I see it as a spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, you go to a seder or two, but otherwise your dietary practices are unchanged that week.

At the other end of the spectrum, you remove all leaven (and items made from the five leaven-able grains) from your home, and eat only natural foods (fruits and vegetables don’t need a hechsher, a kosher certification marking) or foods certified as “Kosher For Passover” by a trusted rabbinic authority, and you eat on special plates that you reserve only for this week of the year, plates that have never touched a leavened grain.

There’s a lot in between those choices. For instance:

1) You might choose to avoid bread for a week. Just leavened bread. If you would look at it and say, “Yep, that’s bread,” then don’t eat it. In that case, you might still eat pasta (after all, spaghetti isn’t bread). You might still eat breakfast cereals made from grain (they, too, are not bread.) But your diet would shift enough that you would notice, all week long, that this is a special time.

2) You might choose to also avoid not only actual bread but also bread-like things, from bagels to English muffins. Even sweet muffins, like blueberry or pumpkin muffins, are leavened — so you’d avoid them too. You might choose to avoid beverages that have fermented, like beer or kombucha. In this case too, the pastas and the cereals might still feel okay to you, but the class of foods you’re avoiding would be a larger one.

3) You might choose to remove from your home all things made from the five grains that our tradition considers “leaven-able.” (That’s wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye.) If water spilled into a container of flour and you left it there, the flour would eventually grow its own sourdough starter, which means that flour is “leaven-able” — it is capable of becoming leavened under the right circumstances. Anything made from leavenable grains, you would remove from your home for a week.

4) You might choose to eat special “kosher for Pesach” pasta… or you might avoid it because it looks like and acts like “regular” pasta, and you want your diet this week to feel different.

5) No matter what your dietary practices are, you might choose to get a set of special Pesach dishes, to use during that week only, and to remind you that this is a special time, a week that is set-apart from ordinary life.

6) You might choose to eschew kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, and peas — which have long been part of Sephardic Pesach dietary practice, but used to be forbidden in Ashkenazic practice, though today they are accepted in Reform and Conservative communities)… or you might embrace them wholeheartedly.

All of these are legitimate Jewish ways of experiencing Pesach. (My own family of origin spans that spectrum from one end to the other.) My invitation to you is to choose consciously what you want your Pesach practice to be this year… and to pay attention not only to the contents of your pantry, but also to your heart and soul. Whatever practices you take on should (ideally) serve the purpose of awakening you to the festival and its meaning (at least some of the time.)

The Jewish renewal practice of hashpa’ah (spiritual direction) invites us to ask: where is God for you in this? (If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: meaning, or holiness, or love.) How does this experience connect you with something greater than yourself? How will this practice renew your heart and soul — how will it align you with holiness — how will it open you up to transformation?

The haggadah teaches that it’s incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been freed from slavery. Pesach comes to teach us that we can experience liberation from our narrow places, from life’s constraints and constrictions. Pesach is about leaving slavery and taking the first steps toward covenant. It’s about taking risks, leaping when the time is right, venturing into the unknown even though it’s unknown. It’s about crossing the Sea and finding ourselves in an unfamiliar wilderness on the other side. It’s about new beginnings, and spring, and trust, and hope.

The word chametz (leaven) comes from the Hebrew l’chimutz, “to sour or ferment.” In one Hasidic understanding, chametz represents the internal puffery of ego. Chametz can mean all of our old narratives, our baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. Chametz can mean our own sour places, the old psychological and spiritual and emotional “stuff” that we need to clean out and throw away in order to be ready to experience freedom. Whatever you’re doing with the literal chametz in your pantry, ask yourself: what is the internal chametz I need to throw away before Pesach begins?

Whatever your Pesach dietary choices are this year, may they bring you more fully into awareness of the holiday and its meanings, and may they open you more fully to transformation.

 

Related:

 

Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.

Choose life: what Ki Tisa teaches us about Shabbat

32195101210_e641d2e4fa_zThe Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed [or: was ensouled].

That’s in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Many of us know these words because they have become a part of our Shabbat liturgy, as the prayer we call by its first word, V’shamru. We sing these words on Friday nights and on Saturday mornings before kiddush.

Immediately before these familiar verses, there is another instruction to keep Shabbat as a sign between us and God. But this one contains some more challenging language:

You shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a shabbat of complete rest, holy to God; whoever does work on Shabbat shall be put to death.

Oof.

The medieval commentator Rashi (d. 1105) clarifies that the death sentence only applies if the person does work on Shabbat in the presence of witnesses, AND if the person was warned, immediately before doing the work, what the penalty would be. This is a pretty common rabbinic move: taking something in Torah that startles us with its harshness, and adding qualifying stipulations that make it much harder for the harsh law to be applied.

The Sforno (d. 1550) is less apologetic about the starkness of this command. He writes that anyone who deliberately desecrates Shabbat thereby denies God Who created all things including rest. Someone who performs secular tasks on Shabbat has clearly lost consciousness of what Shabbat means, and therefore deserves execution. You make your choices, you live with the consequences.

I agree with the Sforno that our choices have consequences, but I read these verses a little bit differently. I see them not as prescriptive, but descriptive.

Another way to translate “מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת,” usually rendered as “will be put to death,” is “he will surely die.” This passage comes to teach us that one who doesn’t honor Shabbat, who doesn’t honor the holiness of resting from workday acts and workday consciousness, will bring themselves closer to death. One who works constantly, and lives in a state of workday consciousness 24/7, will be deadened thereby.

Every week when Friday night and Saturday roll around, we make choices. Will we disengage from work, and from our worries, and from 24/7 cable news, and from all the things that make us feel trapped like rats in a maze? Will we set aside our burdens and welcome the presence of that extra Shabbat soul enlivening us and enabling us to take a full, deep breath? Will we affirm that connecting with our deepest selves and with our Source matters more than our to-do lists and our deadlines?

That’s the choice. We can let Shabbat transform us, or we can stick with the rat race. And if we choose the endless rat race, we’re going to wind up feeling dead inside.

Choose rest. Choose Shabbes. Choose life.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered this morning at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

 

 

Bayit: Your Jewish Home and CBI

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share with you some news about a new endeavor in which I am involved that I think will be terrific for CBI!

bayit-logo-small

Bayit: Your Jewish Home is a nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with several colleagues — including CBI’s own Steven Green! The word Bayit is Hebrew for “house” (hence the tagline “Your Jewish Home”), and we want to help people feel “at home” in their Judaism in renewed and renewing ways. Our goal is to give people the tools they need to build the Jewish future, and to empower everyone to take their Judaism into their own hands. I’m deeply excited about Bayit, and about bringing the tools that Bayit creates “home” with me to CBI.

Bayit’s initial keystone projects include a few things that I think will directly benefit CBI. We are diving into the world of Jewish publishing, collaborating with Ben Yehuda Press to release a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. That volume contains materials for before death, for the time between death and burial, for shiva (the first week) and shloshim (the first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance), and more. I’m looking forward to using that book in our community as we accompany and comfort those who mourn.

Bayit is also launching an Innovation Pilot Program that will entrain 10-20 congregations across the continent and across the denominational spectrum. We’ll create innovative community experiences, and seek responses from participants to discern “what works.” Assuming that the Board approves, CBI will be one of the participating communities. Bayit’s offerings will be keyed to the Jewish festival calendar, and participating communities will get to offer feedback to help improve these rituals, practices, and experiences — participating in meaningful spiritual R&D.

There are other projects on Bayit’s to-do list, among them a website of curated resources for lifecycle transitions, a website of curated resources for spiritual seekers (think The Jewish Catalog, updated for the 58th / 21st century), and more. And: we want to know what you most need. What tools would best help you feel like you have ownership of Jewish tradition and practice? What resources do you most need in your Jewish life? What can we build together with you that would help you feel more “at home” in Judaism and in your spiritual life?

I think the work I’m doing with Bayit will facilitate a variety of ways for me to better serve you as your rabbi. I’m looking forward to seeing what unfolds.

Bayit doesn’t yet have an email list, but we have a website, and we’re on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to follow us in any of those places. And tell us what you want to see us build! (Our doors are always open, and given that two out of the seven Founding Builders of Bayit are CBI members, y’all have a particular “in” — nu, reach out anytime.) I look forward to bringing Bayit’s resources and programs here to CBI to enrich and enliven our practice, and to helping all of us at CBI feel “at home” in our Jewish lives and in the life of the spirit, now and always.

Blessings —

Rabbi Rachel

Reprinted from the March CBI Newsletter.