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

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A teaching from Torah on grief and on joy

Coin-300x225In this week’s Torah portion (at least according to the Reform lectionary), Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring “strange fire” before God and are consumed by divine fire. In the haftarah assigned to this week’s Torah portion, from II Samuel, a man named Uzziel places his hands on the Ark of the Covenant and God becomes incensed and strikes him down on the spot. Two deeply disturbing stories of people who apparently sought to serve God, “did it wrong,” and were instantly killed.

The haftarah tells us that when Uzziel is killed, David becomes distressed and feels fear, and changes his plan for the Ark of the Covenant to come to Jerusalem. Instead he diverts it elsewhere. Only three months later does he bring the ark to the City of David with rejoicing, and music, and leaping and whirling before God. Meanwhile, in the Torah reading, Aaron’s reaction to the death of his sons is existential silence. He says nothing. Maybe in the face of such a loss there’s nothing one can say.

I don’t have a good answer to the question of why God would behave this way. I read these passages instead as acknowledgments of a painful truth of human life: sometimes tragedy strikes and we can’t understand why. These passages remind me that sometimes when we meet unexpected loss we have to withdraw, or change our plans, because the thing we thought we were going to do no longer feels plausible. And sometimes loss is a sucker punch, and words are inadequate to the reality at hand.

Yesterday was the seventh day of Pesach — according to tradition, the anniversary of the day when our ancestors crossed the Sea into freedom. Midrash holds that when the sea split, everyone present had a direct and miraculous experience of God. The Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate Shira, Parasha 3) teaches that in that moment, everyone encountered God, “even the merest handmaiden.” Another source (Tosefta Sotah) holds that even toddlers and babies witnessed Shechinah, the divine Presence.

Yesterday we re-experienced the crossing of the Sea, when we were redeemed into freedom and encountered God wholly. We sang and danced on the shores of the Sea, celebrating redemption and transformation, filled with hope. Today’s Torah portion crashes us back into reality. How can we integrate the sweetness of Pesach, the miraculousness of the Song at the Sea, with this?

For me the answer lies exactly in the gear-grinding juxtaposition. Torah reflects human life and human realities. This is human life: wondrous and fearful, painful and glorious. It would be nice to have a waiting period between joy and grief, a chance to adjust to the psycho-spiritual and emotional shift between one and the other, but we don’t necessarily get that luxury. Authentic spiritual life asks us to feel both of these wholly: our shattering, and our exultation.

Maybe those who constructed our calendar wanted to remind us that rejoicing and grief can fall of two sides of a single coin — and that both can open us to encountering the Holy. The Kotzker rebbe points out that “there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Sometimes we find wholeness not despite our brokenness, but in it. And when we feel broken, we can seek comfort in our tradition’s ancient hope for redemption: whether we frame it in messianic language, or simply in the hope that life can be better than it is right now.

So here’s my prayer for us today, arising out of these texts. When grief and loss intrude into our times of joy and celebration, may we have the wisdom of Aaron, to know when we need to fall silent because no words can convey the shattering of our hearts. And may we also have the wisdom of King David, to know when we need to shift our plans and give ourselves time to heal… so that when we are ready we can turn our mourning into dancing, and our silence into song. Kein yehi ratzon / may it be so.

 

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

Shavua tov, chag sameach, and looking forward to Shabbat Shemini (1)!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you. And chag sameach, happy festival of Passover to all! I hope that everyone’s sedarim were high and sweet.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat services. Following Reform custom, as a community we observe seven days of Pesach (see Is Passover Seven or Eight Days? on the URJ website), so the coming Shabbat will be the first day after Pesach for us — therefore we will read from the first part of the Torah portion known as Shemini. (The following week we will read from the second part of Shemini, and then we’ll be in synch with our Conservative and Orthodox cousins who observe 8 days of Pesach.)

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:

This is the first week of the Omer, the week of chesed (lovingkindness.) Here are 49 poems for the Omer. There are a bunch of good Omer-counting apps to help us remember to count and to reflect on the qualities we’re invited to cultivate each day; I recommend MyOmerCounter and the Omer app from NeoHasid. 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

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat and to Pesach!

Shavua tov — a good new week to you.

Join us on Shabbat morning at 9:30am for Shabbat and festival services led by board member Steven Green. Please note that services will be in the classroom this week, as the sanctuary is already set up for our second-night seder.

During Pesach we take a break from the regular round of Torah readings, and instead read special Torah readings assigned to the festival. Here’s a short d’var Torah on the special reading for Shabbat Pesach:

And join us on Saturday evening at 6pm for our second night community seder! Hopefully you’ve already RSVP’d so we know you are coming.

May this week leading up to Pesach bring you blessings, and as Shabbat and Pesach arrive may you find yourself ready for transformation.

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.)

Don’t Miss Our Hudson Valley Shavuot Retreat

 

RB NEWCome join us on retreat for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai as well as the first fruits of the growing season.

CBI is partnering with Beacon Hebrew Alliance (Beacon, NY), Temple Beth El of City Island (City Island, NY) and Shtiebel (Rivertowns, NY) on an immersive Shavuot retreat weekend in the Hudson Valley May 18-20. We’ll meet at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Springwhere we’ll gather with other seekers for an incredible opportunity to connect with powerful teachings, beautiful music, stupendous natural surroundings and each other.

We’re also particularly excited to welcome scholars-in-residence, Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-founders of The Gefilteria, a new kind of food venture launched in 2012 with the mission of reimagining eastern European Jewish cuisine and adapting classic dishes to the values and tastes of a new generation.

What revelation awaits you this year? What are the emotional, intellectual and spiritual “first fruits” that you want to uplift and be thankful for? Join us, and open yourself to transformation!

Highlights include:

  • Incredible teachers (see below!)

  • Daily opportunities for spiritual practice

  • Robust Children’s Program

  • Amazing hiking and more

Financial aid is available, to apply please email BHA Administrator, Faith Adams at faith@beaconhebrewalliance.org.

Here’s the event page describing the retreat (contains the same information that you see here).

To register, click on the “Register Now” button at the top or bottom of that page, or click here!

Our Faculty

Liz Alpern & Jeffrey Yoskowitz are the co-founders of The Gefilteria and co-authors of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods, a National Jewish Book Award finalist in 2016. Both Liz and Jeffrey are leaders in the Jewish Food Renaissance and have been featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for food and wine and named to the Forward 50. Liz’s career in food is driven by her passion for bringing people together. Based in Brooklyn, Liz travels around the globe as a cook, recipe tester, educator and entrepreneur. Alpern holds an MBA from Baruch College and is a faculty member in the Culinary Entrepreneurship Program at the International Culinary Center in NYC. Jeffrey fell in love with the art of lacto-fermentation while training as a farmer and a pickler at Adamah farm. He has since worked in the food world as an entrepreneur, consultant, cook, educator and writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Tablet, among other publications.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblata Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home and a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, was named in 2016 by the Forward as one of America’s Most Inspiring RabbisShe holds dual ordination from ALEPH as rabbi and mashpi’ah (spiritual director). Since 2011 Rachel has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel(North Adams, MA). She also served as past co-chair of ALEPH and interim Jewish chaplain to Williams College.  She holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is author of five volumes of poetry, among them 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda Press, 2016) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda 2018). Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbiand in 2008 TIME named her blog one of the top 25 sites on the internet. She has taught at the Academy for Spiritual Formationthe National Havurah Institute, the ALEPH Kallah, many congregations around New York and New England, and Beyond Wallsa writing program for clergy of many faiths at the Kenyon Institute. Her downloadable Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach has been used around the world.

Rabbi David Markus, a Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home and fellow of Rabbis Without Borders, is co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY).  He is immediate Past Chair of ALEPH, and continues to serves as ALEPH permanent faculty in spiritual direction and adjunct faculty in rabbinics.  Rabbi David has taught for Yeshivat Maharat (Orthodox) and the National Havurah Committee (trans-denominational), and congregations throughout North America. He is a syndicated blogger for My Jewish LearningThe Wisdom Daily and The Jewish Studio; his works on Jewish spirituality have appeared in numerous academic and liturgical books. By day, he serves as judicial referee in New York Supreme Court, Ninth Judicial District, which makes Rabbi David the only North American pulpit rabbi also to hold a full-time oath of office.  He earned double ordination as rabbi and mashpia (spiritual director) from ALEPH; a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School; a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned the global “innovator in public service” designation and the Wilmers Fellowship for State and Local Government; and a B.A. from Williams College.  He lives in Westchester County, NY.

Rabbi Ben Newman is the founder and spiritual leader of ShtiebelHe served for 7 years as the rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom in Fort Collins, CO, along with his wife Rabbi Shoshana Leis. Rabbi Ben received a B.A. from Skidmore College in Religion and Culture, an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. He previously served as the Associate Rabbi for JRF Congregation M’vakshe Derekh in Scarsdale, New York. Rabbi Ben is the author of a series of children’s’ books called The Enchanted Sukkah about a time travelling sukkah. In addition to being a writer and a rabbi, Ben is a singer-songwriter who delights in chanting, playing guitar, and using an Indian instrument called a shruti box. He also enjoys reading Jewish literature of all types, as well as science fiction (his favorite author is Philip K Dick), philosophy and beat poetry. Rabbi Ben lives by the shores of the Hudson River in Dobbs Ferry, NY and his greatest joy is being father to his daughter and his son.

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen serves as the executive director of Surprise Lake Camp based in Cold Spring, New York. Surprise Lake is one of the oldest Jewish residential camps and is known for its breathtaking grounds as well as its strong sense of community and inclusiveness. Prior to joining the SLC team, Bradley served as the director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism and served as the director of Brandeis University’s Office of High School Programs. Rabbi Solmsen was ordained at The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bradley has held fellowships from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Brandeis University and currently is a Schusterman Senior Fellow. He has extensive experience working with youth, training staff and overseeing camp, travel and residential programs in Israel and North America. Bradley is married to Aliza Kline and is the proud abba of Ela, Gila and Nomi.

Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, Hudson Valley Magazine as a Person to Watch and by Newsweek as “a rabbi to watch.” He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation.  Before coming to Beacon Hebrew Alliance, he served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York.  Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. A selection of Brent’s teachings are available here.  He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.

Again, here’s the event page describing the retreat (contains the same information that you see here).

To register, click on the “Register Now” button at the top or bottom of that page, or click here!

 

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