Vayeilech: Be strong and open your heart

open-heartIn this week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech, Moshe gives instructions to the children of Israel and to Joshua who will lead them into the land of promise. This year as I read this Torah portion, I was struck by a repeated phrase. חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute,” Moshe says to them. And in the next verse, he speaks directly to Joshua and says the same thing in the singular to him: חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒.

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ, “Y’all be strong and resolute.” The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra writes that we become able to follow this instruction when we know that God is walking with us in all of the places where our path takes us. No matter where life takes us, when we know that we are not alone, then we can be strong and resolute. Or, as Reb Zalman z”l translates those words, that’s when we can be sturdy and make strong our hearts.

We find that phrasing in his translation of psalm 27, the psalm we’ve been davening since the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe. Over Rosh Hashanah (and again this morning) we sang a beautiful setting of one verse from that psalm:

קַוֵּה אֶל-ה׳:
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ
וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-ה׳

Keep hope, keep hope — keep hoping in the One.
Be strong and open your heart wide,
and keep hope in the One.

There’s a kind of echo effect for me between the verses from Torah, with their repeated refrain of “be strong and resolute,” and this verse from the psalm we’ve been singing. Torah tells us to be strong, whereas the psalm invites us to strengthen our hearts. How do we do that? Our singable translation offers an answer: by opening them, and by cultivating hope.

We strengthen our hearts when we work to keep them open. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to each other, maybe especially at this time of year as we immerse ourselves in the work of teshuvah, repentance and returning to our truest selves. Psalm 27 calls us to open our hearts to the unknown future, and to cultivate hope.

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

For Rabbi Sacks, hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward — and, importantly, to act toward — a world that is better than the one we know now.

Hope is built into the structure of Jewish time. Jewishly speaking, a day begins with sundown and moves toward morning. ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר — “and there was evening and there was morning.” Why does a Jewish day begin in darkness? So that the natural trajectory of the day moves from darkness to light. Night represents fear and exile — which makes perfect sense to any child who has ever been afraid of the dark — and the coming of day represents the rebirth of hope. Or as the author Anne Lamott teaches (in her book Bird by Bird), “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

The actor Christopher Reeve, of blessed memory, used to say that “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” He knew something about situations that look hopeless: he said this about hope after he had the riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. What I find interesting about the quote is that he used the word choose. It takes some work. It’s a turn, like teshuvah.

The existential turn of teshuvah is always open to us. The existential turn of choosing hope is always open to us. No matter what cards you’ve been dealt, you can choose to open your heart wide and keep hoping in the One.

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

As Yom Kippur approaches…

Yom Kippur begins this year on Tuesday, October 11, at sundown. I’m writing today to share with you explanations of a few of the customs of Yom Kippur — adapted from and expanding on teachings from Rabbi Marcia Prager. 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 Tuesday 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.

Rabbi Rachel

The beginning of change: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

changeRosh Hashanah is often translated as “head of the year.” That translation isn’t incorrect. Of course rosh means head, and shanah means year. The headwaters of a river are where the river begins, and the head of the year is where the year begins. But Hebrew is a deep language. Words that share roots are variations on a theme. And because of that, “Rosh Hashanah” also has a deeper meaning.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program, wrote a book called The Path of Blessing. (That book is in our congregational library.) In The Path of Blessing, she dedicates a whole chapter to each of six Hebrew words: ברוך אתה ה׳ אלוהינו מלך העולם / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam.

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here’s a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

How could one possibly have that much to say about each of those little words? Because of how Hebrew works, each word is a linguistic hyperlink to a whole cluster of other words in ways that radically deepen our sense of what a word means. Here’s a tiny taste. How would you translate baruch?

Maybe you’re thinking “blessed.” As in, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God…” But baruch also relates to berech, knee. That means baruch can suggest a posture of willingness to be humble before the person to whom I am speaking. Baruch also relates to breicha, a flowing fountain. So baruch can suggest both the cosmic flow of abundance, and the flow of spiritual life. This is why Reb Marcia often translates “Baruch atah” as “A Fountain of Blessings are You…”

Just as baruch holds hints of berech and breicha, hints of bending the knee in grateful humility and drinking from the fountain of divine abundance, shanah holds hints of another word in its word-root family tree: shinui, which means change.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of change.

I’ve known this linguistic teaching for years. But it speaks to me in a new way this year, my first Rosh Hashanah as someone whose marriage has ended. That’s a pretty profound change.

Here are some things I have learned about change since the last time I stood before y’all to offer a high holiday sermon.

Continue reading

An invitation to reflect as the Ten Days of Teshuvah approach


Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

For the last several years I’ve participated at this season in an online project called 10Q.

10Q stands for “ten questions.” During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, those who sign up receive ten meaningful questions via e-mail. Questions like, “Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?”

Or “Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you’re especially proud of from this past year?”

Each day, participants are invited to go to the 10Q website and log in and share answers to these questions — which can be marked as “public” (in which case they’ll be visible to the outside world) or “private” (in which case no one can see them but you.)

After Yom Kippur, answers go “into the vault,” which means they get locked down and no one can see them — not even the people who wrote them. Next year, a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, the answers are emailed back out to us — so I just got an email from 10Q with the answers I wrote to these questions last year, a kind of time capsule reflecting where I was as Rosh Hashanah approached in 2015.

I find it incredibly meaningful: both taking part during the Ten Days of Teshuvah (the ten days of repentance / return in between the two high holidays), and also rereading my responses a year later. If this sounds meaningful to you too, I hope you’ll give it a try.

I look forward to seeing y’all at CBI during the Days of Awe. (You can find our high holiday schedule in our October 2016 newsletter.)

Wishing you blessings as this final Shabbat of 5776 approaches —

Rabbi Rachel

October 2016 / Tishri 5777 CBI Newsletter

The October 2016 / Tishri 5777 CBI Newsletter is now online!

In this month’s newsletter you’ll find Notes from the Rabbi, service times for Shabbat and the Days of Awe, advance notice of a new Introduction to Judaism class coming this fall, an invitation to our contemplative Second Day of Rosh Hashanah and explanation of Yom Kippur customs, and much more.


An Unetaneh Tokef for Teens of Today

written by the b’nei mitzvah class at Congregation Beth Israel

Today is the day of judgment
when we all come before You to be judged.

We all pass before You
like artisans whose work needs to be inspected.

Just as we all have to go to the doctor
for regular check-ups to make sure we’re okay,

so we all have to be checked-out by You
to make sure that our actions and our behaviors meet Your standards.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

Who will get good grades, and who will flunk out and stay back;
Who wil get the things they want, and who won’t;

Who will be rewarded, and who will be punished;
Who will be healed, and who will be sick;

Who will get the LEGO sets they want, and who will be thwarted;
Whose team will win, and whose team will lose;

Who will be happy with the election results, and who won’t;
Who will have a good year in school, and who will not;

Who will score a goal, and whose shots will go wide of the net;
Whose electronics will work well, and whose will stop working;

Who will be popular, and who will be misunderstood;
Who will have friends, and who will be lonely.

But teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah
temper the harshness of the decree.


For reference: about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer; see also Everyday I Write the Book.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Nitzavim… and Rosh Hashanah!

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to all! Join us this coming Saturday morning for Shabbat morning services where we’ll read from parashat Nitzavim

And join us this coming Sunday evening, October 2 for Rosh Hashanah evening services. Here’s our high holiday schedule for 5777 [pdf]. (Join us too on Monday October 3 for Rosh Hashanah morning services, and on Tuesday October 4 for a contemplative second day Rosh Hashanah morning service.)


return-to-shabbatIf you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, some links follow:

And here’s the URJ’s compilation of commentaries on this week’s Torah portion: Nitzavim at the URJ.

During the month of Elul it’s customary to pray psalm 27 every day. We’ll be singing different excerpts from the psalm over the course of this month and the Days of Awe — the song “Achat Sha’alti,” which we’ve sung here for many years at this season (and here’s a beautiful instrumental version), and also the verse “Lach Amar Libi” to a melody from Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal congregation of Jerusalem, which we introduced last year:

Here’s an embedded mp3 of that melody so you can listen to it at home:

And here’s sheet music, for those who find sheet music useful: Psalm 27,Lakh Amar Libi notes [pdf] The words translate to “You [God] called to my heart, saying ‘seek My face;’ Your face, Source of All, is what I seek!”

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.