Chag urim sameach – joyous festival of lights!

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Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Tomorrow evening after we make havdalah to end Shabbat, we’ll light the first candle of Chanukah. Chanukah reminds us that we can kindle light even in the darkest of times — indeed, the darkest of times is precisely when we must encourage the  lights of our hearts and souls to shine.

In anticipation of Chanukah, here is some wisdom from some of my teachers:

Rabbi Shohama Wiener writes: “Concentrating on watching the Chanukah candle lights shimmer is a way to take in light in a time of darkness, and a reminder that always we must take in spiritual light in order to give light—that is, to transmit light through us from its truest source. If we do this spiritual practice and fill with light, then naturally we will transmit that light to others.” Read the whole post: The Lights of Chanukah – Receiving in Order to Give.

Rabbi Marcia Prager writes: “Stories of the origin of the dreidl suggest that the toy and its “gambling” game were used by Chanukah celebrants living under the Roman occupation to circumvent Roman edits forbidding group gatherings, and thereby plan acts of resistance… The great Rebbes of Eastern Europe elaborated on these themes, using the lessons to offer guidance on the inner work we must undertake when we wish to grow spiritually. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the great grandson of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, offers this unusual teaching on the dreidl: The dreidl,  he says, is a symbol Creation itself. Why? Because all existence is like a rotating wheel.” Read the whole post: The Dreidl: A Simple Toy – Or Is It?

And Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: “Chanukah celebrates the re-dedication of the ancient Holy Temple, the place where the infinite meets the finite, where the spark of God bursts into flame within us. Each year we recall the “great miracle that happened there.”  And that same miracle is happening inside as we heal the desecrations we have suffered and re-dedicate our lives to Holiness.” Read the whole post: The Inner Practice of Chanukah.

On a more practical note, here’s a page of Hanukkah Resources from the URJ, including how to light the chanukiyyah, blessings and songs, and more.

May you be filled with light as this holiday unfolds. Shabbat shalom and chag urim sameach — wishing you a joyous festival of lights!

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Vayeshev and to Chanukah!

return-to-shabbat Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Jarah Greenfield.

This week we’re reading parashat Vayeshev. 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: Vayeshev at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

This coming weekend, when we make havdalah to bring Shabbat to its close we will usher in the first candle of Chanukah! If you’d like some explanatory or inspirational reading for the Chanukah season, here are a few pieces:

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Vayishlach

return-to-shabbat Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax, where we will mark Human Rights Shabbat.

This week we’re reading parashat Vayishlach. 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: Vayishlach at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

In this place – a d’var Torah for parashat Vayetzei

c4f767653e18511c3a2ad131b105f7d3In this week’s Torah portion, our forebear Jacob is on the run from his twin brother Esau. He lies down with his head on a stone, and he has a dream, or a vision, of a ladder rooted in the earth with its top penetrating the very heavens. On that ladder he sees angels moving up and down continuously, traveling between earth and heaven and earth again. When he wakes, he exclaims “God was in this place, and I — I did not know!”

I can’t think of a more appropriate Torah portion for our New Member Shabbat. As I look around the room at all of your faces, I know that God is in this place for sure.

Finding God in this place is what we’re all about. Not only “this place” in the sense of the synagogue building, though we are blessed with a beautiful building and it is easy to feel the presence of the Holy when we gaze through these enormous windows at the willow tree and the mountains.

Some of us find God in this place via davenen, which is to say, prayer. Davenen is a Yiddish word. But the Hebrew word for prayer is להתפלל, which means to judge oneself. Some of us find God here by entering into prayer, and in so doing, coming to know ourselves more deeply. What arises in me as I bless the creator of light this morning? And what will arise in me as I bless the creator of light tomorrow morning, or next Shabbat, or the Shabbat after that? As we pray together, we witness our own subtle movements of soul. As we say and sing these familiar words we connect ourselves with the community and with our tradition, and maybe we find God in that connection.

Some of us find God in this place via service — not the “service of the heart” that we know as prayer, but service of others. Those who gather here each month to cook meals for homebound seniors as part of our Take and Eat crew find God in dedicating their hands and hearts to feeding the hungry. Those who bring childrens’ pajamas to our collection box, so that those who can’t afford warm winter sleepwear for their children can rest easy knowing that their kids are safe and warm on the coldest nights… those who bring toys to our gift collection box, so that those who can’t afford gifts for their kids this winter can rest easy knowing that there is something for them to give… in serving others here we make this place holy, and maybe we find God in that.

Some of us find God in this place through Torah study. Whether that means sitting here in the sanctuary discussing the weekly Torah portion, or studying a text during the kiddush after services, or participating in our book group, or taking part in our Introduction to Judaism class — all of these are forms of Torah study, and all of these are doorways to noticing the presence of God.

Look around the room and recognize that God is in this place. God is in this place because we make this place holy with our choices, with our study, with our service, with our prayer.

One of our tradition’s names for God is המקום –– “The Place.” God is in every place where people truly meet one another. God is in every place where people pray, and in every place where Torah is learned. We read in the Mishna (Avot 3) that wherever two people gather and study Torah together, the Shekhinah is with them. Shekhinah is one of our tradition’s names for the immanent, indwelling Presence of God. Sometimes we experience God as transcendent — up there, out there, far away, too vast to imagine. And sometimes we experience God as immanent — right here, with us, even within us. In Torah (Exodus 25) we read ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם — “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Or maybe it means “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell within them.”

We have made a sanctuary here in northern Berkshire. May it be a place where God dwells with us and within us. May we always wake to the presence of God in this place, in this moment, in this interaction, in this breath. May each of us be a blessing to this congregation, and may this community be a blessing for each of us, now and always.

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered on Shabbat morning. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi. Image by Albert Houthouesen.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Vayetzei.

return-to-shabbat Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. Join us also at 11am for our annual New Member Brunch to welcome new and prospective members to our community — please RSVP to the office if you haven’t already!

This week we’re reading parashat Vayetzei. If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

Here’s a lovely short d’var Torah from my colleague Rabbi David Evan Markus: Every Rock: The Art of Awe.

And here are commentaries from the URJ: Vayetzei at the URJ.

Many thanks to our shamashim, the members who host our Shabbat services each week. If you would like to join that group, please contact the office.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

A Blessing for Becoming (like Esau)

maxresdefaultReading this week’s Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau.

His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father’s innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac’s knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” asks Esau.

And Isaac replies, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”

Esau says to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!” and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau’s words: “can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?”

Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. “By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother,” Isaac continues, “but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau.

Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God — the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it’s like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau’s place, rather than Jacob’s, how does Isaac’s blessing make us feel?

It’s easy to see Isaac’s blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. “You’ll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him.” But I think we can find more in it if we try.

The first part of Isaac’s blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone’s birthright even when we’re in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac’s blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts.

The next part of Isaac’s blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau’s. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us — whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere — we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.

And finally, Isaac’s blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac’s blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing that things will get better. Isaac’s blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.

We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it’s like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.

But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, can serve us well when times are hard — and even more so when times are sweet.

My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don’t come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.

And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.

May Isaac’s blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.

These is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at the December 2 Kabbalat Shabbat service (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Deepening our connections with Williams

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I’m writing to share with you some happy news: this spring, in addition to serving CBI as your rabbi, I will also be serving the Williams College community as interim Jewish chaplain to the College.

The position at the College (which officially begins in February) is halftime, as is my position at CBI. I know that there will be challenges in dovetailing these two positions, but I am confident that it can be done — and I hope that CBI will reap benefits from this opportunity to more closely connect our shul with the Jewish community and the multi-faith community at the College.

The students have already expressed to me an interest in figuring out how to be more connected with CBI. I’m hoping we can sponsor at least one celebration or program together during the spring semester, so stay tuned for more on that.

I will still be at CBI two days a week. I will still lead davenen (prayer) at CBI two Shabbatot a month. I will still teach my five b’nei mitzvah students. I will still teach the Introduction to Judaism class at CBI. I will still lead our meditation minyan on Friday mornings. I will still provide pastoral care and counseling. And I will still preside over lifecycle events at CBI from babynamings to funerals and everything in between.

I anticipate that there will be times when I have to say “no” to an obligation at the College because I am already committed to something at CBI, and times when I will have to say “no” to something at CBI because I am needed at the College. I know that won’t be easy for anyone (least of all for me!) and I ask all of you to please bear with me as I figure out how to walk this path.

I recognize that this news may evoke anxiety for some of you. You may be wondering whether I will still be able to provide sufficient service and care to the CBI community. I am happy to sit down with anyone who wants to talk about this and what it brings up for you. I promise you that I will do everything within my power to continue to serve CBI with whole heart, even as I also move into serving in this other way to which I am called.

With loving blessings,

Rabbi Rachel