6 Elul: Know & Console

Studying about the 6th day of Elul in 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson, I am struck, once again, at the brilliance of the structure of Jewish time.

Jacobson reminds me that this first week of Elul is the fourth week in the Seven Weeks of Consolation that began after Tisha B’Av. Jacobson teaches the midrashic explanation of the progression of these seven weeks as a dialogue between us and God.

Week One: God sends the prophets to console the people after the destruction of the temple. (“‘Be conforted, be comforted, my people,’ says your God” – Isaiah 40:1)

Week Two: The people ask why God is sending comfort through the prophets instead of comforting them directly. (“And Zion said: God has forsaken me; my God has forgotten me” – Isaiah 49:14)

Week Three: The prophets tell God that the people are not comforted. (“O afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one…” – Isaiah 54:11)

Week Four: (this first week of Elul) God begins comforting the people directly. (“It is I, I am The One Who comforts you…” – Isaiah 51:12)

Week Five: God’s consolation intensifies (“Sing out, O barren one, who has not given birth, break out into glad song and be jubilant…” – Isaiah 54:1)

Week Six: God’s consolation becomes more powerful and profound. (“Arise! Shine! For your light has arrived and the glory of God has shined upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1)

Week Seven: The people rejoice in God’s consolation (“I will rejoice intensely with God, my soul shall exult with my God…” – Isaiah 61:10)

Jacobson teaches that the reason God does not console the people from the beginning is to remind us that we have the power to console one another. “One vulnerable person can console another,” Jacobson writes, “It is a great gift that one person can give to antoher.”

And once we are consoled, we are then ready for the renewal and rebirth that comes with the New Year.

Jewish time, the wisdom of the rabbis in structuring it in such a way and framed by such texts – it is nothing short of brilliant.

Most people are not easily comforted. Most painful situations are ones that require comfort over time. Someone who tells you they’re sorry for what you’re going through but does not check in to see how you are doing a week or a month later has probably failed to comfort you. I know that I have a hard time accepting comfort and that I am not always as generous as I could be in seeking out opportunities to offer comfort to others. It is on my list of things to work on in the coming year.

At the same time, I am immensely grateful for those who know how to comfort me, those who remember to check in on me, and those who allow me to comfort them in their times of suffering. Jacobson is so right, it is a gift we give each other. I will endeavor to remember that. I will continue to teach it in his name.

Pulling ourselves out of grief takes time. The period of mourning that preceded Tisha B’Av, where we allow ourselves to descend into sorrow – that’s only a few weeks. It takes longer to come through to the other side; to comfort and be comforted. Seven weeks, with the hope of renewal at the end of it – a light shining, beckoning us to work through the pain and believe in our ability to work for a better next time around.

I’ll be honest. Today I had a hard time feeling optimistic about the future. Luckily, it’s only Week Four. I have a few more weeks to get my head in the game; to find strength in the comfort of friends, family and community, and to find strength in my ability to comfort others in turn.

It is Week Four.
Jacobson says that I can expect God to begin comforting me directly.
It is Shabbat.
If I can open myself to experiencing God’s comfort, what better day to start?

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5 Elul: Accept

that this year probably won’t go as expected;
that your family won’t suddenly be less disfunctional;
that true change –
requires hard work and not just best intentions.

that you cannot go back;
that you don’t get a re-do;
that you can only move forward and
that you might do better next time a similar set of circumstances
present themselves.

that not everyone who hurt you will appologize;
that not everyone you’ve hurt has told you that you hurt them;
that some of them will appologize and then hurt you again
and that you will likely do the same.

Accept your humanity
and theirs.

that this year may be your last;
that you need to treat it as if it were;
with humility and courage and realistic expectations.
that this year may not be your last;
that you won’t get it right either way;
that you will make some old mistakes and some new ones.

Accept who you are.
Then keep bettering yourself.
And then
that you will still be you
and still need more bettering

We Can Be The Holiness

A funny thing happened this past Friday night when I was praying in front of the Ark.

It was during the Barchu, which is the first time in the service when I face the Ark, or the Aron HaKodesh. As we were singing the yai lai’s, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed so dark. Did we forget to turn on the lights above the Ark? I looked up. No, they were on, as was the Neir Tamid, the Eternal (except when the bulb is out) Light.

And then I realized that the High Holiday parochet (curtain) had been taken down and replaced with the regular one. The High Holiday parochet is white and translucent. The light in the Ark shines through it and the Torahs can be seen. The regular parochet is also beautiful but is heavy and opaque. After a month of standing in front of the High Holiday parochet, the darkness I was feeling was a result of no longer bathing in the light of the Ark and the Torahs while I prayed.

As soon as I realized that, I felt a sense of loss. I felt shut out from that special and holy place. And I found myself thinking about the Cohein Gadol, the High Priest in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, who was only allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctum of the Temple – once a year on Yom Kippur. This is how the Cohein Gadol must have felt after Yom Kippur, I thought. After being allowed into sacred space, there is a sense of sorrow in having to be distanced from it again. The Cohein Gadol would have had to wait a whole year before feeling connected to that most sacred of spaces again, just as I will have to wait a whole year before I can pray in the light of the Ark again, and be able to see the Torah scrolls without pulling back the parochet. On the High Holidays, it feels like I, too, am able to enter the Holy of Holies – that the whole community is able to, in a sense, since all of us can see into the Ark in a way we normally cannot.

As I swayed to the rhythm of the Bar’chu – the Call to Worship – and thought about all of this, I wondered: How can we keep that special feeling of holiness with us throughout the yearIf we can’t be inside the Holy of Holies, how can we keep the feeling of that sacred place inside of ourselves?

The cycle of the year takes us away from the sanctity of the High Holidays and then brings us back again, but each day should have elements of holiness, even if they are not “Holy Days”. Each moment our lives should be infused with holiness. We need to be able to carry sacredness in our own inner sanctums, and not wait for Yom Kippur to return to us again before feeling connected to God and to one another.

As my lips spoke the ancient words of prayer I was reminded that I was speaking holy words, enacting holy choreography, singing holy music, and leading a sacred community through sacred rituals. Every time we pray, every time we stand together before the Ark, we are engaging in holiness. We don’t have to be inside the inner sanctum to know it is there. We don’t have to wait for the lights to shine through.

We can shine our own lights out for others. We can be the holiness we need.

A Life of Passion; A Life of Truth (A Kol Nidrei Sermon)

I have a confession to make.

Sometimes I act like the rabbi I think I should be instead of the rabbi I really am.
We often put on professional masks or professional airs, perhaps. We dress and act differently in our places of work than we do in our homes. We withhold parts of ourselves when engaged with our business partners or our clients.

In many professions this makes sense. We don’t want our doctors and lawyers to show up in yoga pants; We need our professionals to act…well…professional, so that we can have confidence in their abilities. We’re not usually interested in their private lives. We just want to know that they can do the job we are paying them for.

But for rabbis it’s a little different. Rabbis are in the business of truth. Rabbis have to be professional of course, but rabbis also have to be real. We are in the business of religious truths and the truth of life’s experiences, but we need to be truthful about ourselves as well.

And sometimes I get so wrapped up in being professional that I sweep some of my personal truths under the rug. While I definitely shouldn’t show up here in yoga pants, I also shouldn’t be someone who pretends that she wouldn’t much rather be in them most of the time.

Yom Kippur is a day when we bare our souls. We traditionally strip ourselves of vanities – makeup, jewelry, expensive clothing. We wear white to remind ourselves that at the end of our lives it is only the white-shroud we will take with us to our graves. None of the surface things really matter. None of the material wealth. None of the professional masks and airs.

I am not a rabbi on Yom Kippur. I am a person, standing before her God, baring her soul, and hoping to escape judgement. Not your judgement, but God’s.

And really, Yom Kippur shouldn’t be the only day where I prioritize truth over professionalism. I need to be more honest with all of you more of the time. I need to lead from a place of passion – my passions, not the ones I think I am expected to have.

So I wanted to share with you, on this Day of Judgement, on this Day of Truths, what I am most passionate about and why. But when I sat down to write this sermon, I discovered that sharing my passions with you is easier said than done. In generating a list of passions I might speak about, I ended up with a list of interests that left me wondering if it was list of what I really wanted to share, or a list of what I thought I should be sharing – which is case in point.

To talk about shopping and TV, both of which I love, but neither of which are true passions, would be relatable, but could also seem shallow. Talking about God, Torah and Israel would be meaningful but predictable.

So what’s a rabbi to do?

When I started my blog last year, I did so as part of this same struggle. The blog is called Pitbulls, Pearls & Pontification: (un)expected musings from one rabbinic gal. The “un” in “unexpected” is in brackets – a hint of the paradox – how to blog in a way that is both expected and unexpected; that is rabbinically meaningful and appropriate but also authentically me?

The first post on my blog was a poem. In the poem, I describe myself as someone who wears pearls as an outward expression of my rabbinic self and also as a way to hide some of the parts of me that I’m not confident about or that don’t feel “rabbinic” enough to share.

Too often, we suppress our true selves instead of revealing them. The motives to do so are endless: money, professionalism, peer-pressure, even a desire to please our families or be who they think we are.

My brother and I are in the stage of life right now where we sometimes have difficulty seeing each other as adults. I imagine this is something lots of siblings go through. We grow up together and witness every moment of each other’s childhood development and teen angst, but then we go off to our separate colleges and careers and we miss out on much of our siblings’ most critical growth and development. I sometimes suspect that my brother still looks at me and sees the 19 year old that I was when we last lived under the same roof. To be fair, I probably do the same. And of course, when we treat each other as teenagers, we end up acting like teenagers, reinforcing what the other imposes on us and brings out in us.

Rabbis fall prey to this dynamic with those outside their families as well. We sometimes feel an expectation to know everything so we make up great answers, and call them midrash, because we are afraid to admit that we might not know.

Speaking of Midrash! There’s a midrashic tale about a guy named Zusya, who spends his whole life trying to be a great tzadik, a great righteous person. He worries that when he arrives at the Gates of Heaven they will ask him, “Zusya! Why were you not more like Moses?” But when he gets there, that’s not what they ask him. Instead, they proclaim, “Why were you not more like Zusya?!?”

Midrash actually is one of my passions: The idea that Torah leaves space for us to insert our own ideas and interpretations; The idea that even Torah doesn’t have all the answers; that some ideas are yet to be revealed; that some thoughts are yet to be “thunk”. The idea that ancient texts and new interpretations can live side by side and bring meaning to one another. Amazing.

But Midrash didn’t make it onto my original list of passions to share with you. I was worried it might sound too ‘rabbinic’. I was worried I might end up with a list of passions that were inseparable from Judaism. Except that that’s who I am. There isn’t much that I love that I don’t view through a Jewish lens. And the fact that I can view everything that I love through a Jewish lens is part of what makes Judaism one of my passions in and of itself.

I do love to shop and I do love to watch TV but my real passions come out when I start to talk about being an ethical consumer – about infusing my day-to-day life with my Jewish values. Shopping and TV are actually the things that I hate to love. They can bring out both the best and worst in us. They make us care more than we should about what others think of us, and about what society tells us we need to wear and own. But they also challenge us to be our best selves; to balance pleasure and indulgence with  fiscal responsibility;to make choices about what and where we buy that are in line with the values we espouse.

Being an ethical consumer means trying to balance commerce and conscience; entertainment and ethics. It means choosing products that aren’t harmful to the environment, and programs that aren’t overly voyeuristic, and that don’t promote or exploit the worst of humanity and human relationships.

It’s hard for me to separate my passion for ethical consumerism and for other kinds of social justice from my passion for Judaism and Jewish teachings. You could definitely say that I have an overdeveloped sense of justice though.
I find unfairness to be really intolerable, I think inequality of any kind is outdated, I get angry when people don’t follow the rules, and when I experience rudeness, it makes me cry.

This makes me terribly ill-suited to drive in Massachusetts, but it does make me pretty well-suited for the rabbinate.

And I don’t know whether I am inherently concerned about others, and about the planet, and about justice and equality, or if I internalized those values because I grew up in a Jewish home and community that promoted them. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, and I don’t know that it matters. Either way, my passion for social justice has become deeply rooted in my Jewishness, in the values of Torah, and in the fierce rhetoric of the movement of Reform Judaism.

In an age of diminishing denominational affiliation within the Jewish world, it is becoming more and more rare to hear people express a passion for the Jewish denomination to which they belong. In fact, many Reform Jews, I suspect, don’t really know why they are Reform Jews, or what distinguishes Reform Judaism from other movements. Sadly, for many members of Reform Judaism, it was simply the easiest choice, or, even sadder, the one that required the least of them.

But being a Reform Jew was once something to be incredibly proud of, and I’d argue that it still is, when practiced with knowledge, commitment and intent. I, certainly, am very proud to be a Reform Jew because the Reform Movement has kept Judaism alive, vibrant, and relevant throughout the ages of modernism and post-modernity by enabling the Jewish people to introduce innovation while still preserving our traditions, to embrace diversity while still asserting commonality, and to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt. Reform Judaism balances faith and scholarship, encourages choice-through-knowledge, and prioritizes social justice and meaningful living above just about everything else.

The Reform Movement has played a critical role in American history and continues to be a key-player in any fight for human or civil rights in this country. In the Jewish world, we were the first to promote gender equality in Judaism; the first to allow women to read from the Torah, wear a Tallis, and become rabbis; the first to welcome and ordain members of the LGBTQ community; and to create welcoming environments and meaningful roles for members of our communities who are not Jewish but who are a part of Jewish families.

If it weren’t for Reform Judaism, I wouldn’t be able to be a rabbi; I wouldn’t have been able to question God when I needed to; and I wouldn’t be able to explore both religious and scientific explanations for why things are the way they are.

This is another place where my interests and my Judaism overlap – in the intersection of Judaism and science; spirituality and metaphysics. I delight in the spaces where tradition and academia come together; I love learning about what they have to say to one another and to see how they have informed one another throughout the ages. Judaism has been radically influenced by philosophy, reason, science, archeology, literary scholarship, musicology, technology, and just about any other human studies you can think of. I love to trace that evolution and to teach about it. And I love to wonder about how Judaism will be changed by what we discover and create in the future.

I am a big believer in the power of energy and I believe that our energy lives on after our physical bodies die (we call this energy our soul). I also believe that our soul-energy can be felt and experienced by those still living in the physical world.
I believe that we stay connected to the people we care about even after we die, and I believe that we are reunited with the soul-energy of people we love when our soul-energy is all that is left of us.

I believe there is a lot we don’t yet understand about energy, from a scientific standpoint, but religions, including Judaism, have had a lot to say about energy for millennia, and I am excited to see whether science will catch up to religion or whether religion will have to adapt to or incorporate whatever science ultimately reveals. I am excited when I think about learning and teaching these things as they unfold; about being a rabbi in an age where timeless questions might conceivably find new or clearer answers, and where timeless answers might find new or clearer support.

My beliefs about energy and soul, and my questions about the metaphysical world, are rooted not just in thought but also in experience. Both the questions and the beliefs are deeply comforting to me. And they make me even more passionate about being a member of a faith tradition that allows for such questioning and beliefs.

And whether I became passionate about energy because my Jewish interests led me to explore ideas of the afterlife, or whether I fell deeper in love with Judaism because it enabled me to explore energy and the afterlife within the context and textual history of the religion I was already committed to, matters far less than what I plan to do with that passion now that I have it.

And what I plan to do, is to share it. More often than I’ve been doing. More openly than I’ve been doing. More fearlessly than I’ve been doing.

I’m excited about that. I hope you’re excited about it too.

I also want to get better at sharing my passions for music, God, and prayer. I could speak about each of these individually, but for me they are very much inseparable. I couldn’t say exactly which of them first led me to the others but I love God best through prayer and I pray best through music.

Prayer connects us to community, and connects our energy to the energy of others and the energy that connects us all. It connects us to those that came before us. Prayer can be the gateway to exploring Jewish Thought, the Hebrew language, and our sacred texts.

I believe there is power in prayer. I believe that by allowing us to express our hopes and fears, and to ask the hard questions of God and of ourselves, prayer enables us to find the answers we are seeking, and empowers us to take up the actions we are awaiting. And I also believe that the energy we put into prayer makes a difference in ways we don’t yet understand,

Different people pray best in different ways. Some pray best with others, and some on their own; some pray best in the woods, by the sea, under the stars, or in the desert. I can pray just about anywhere, but I love prayer best when I’m singing and when I’m moving – when every muscle and breath is engaged; when the harmonies that surround me and the swaying of my own body carry me away so that I am momentarily outside of myself and connected to something much bigger.

Prayer can transport us, transform us and inspire us. So can music, which is probably why I often see them as one and the same, and why I am so passionate about both.

But these are just some of my passions. I am also fiercely passionate about family,  friends, animals, Canada,  Israel… I hope to share more about all of these passions with you in the coming years – not because I love talking about myself, but because I am hoping to stir your passions as well.

There is a famous, and somewhat awkward story from Talmud, in which Rav Kahana hides under his teacher’s bed and listens as Rav Shemaya, his teacher, talks to his wife and is intimate with her. When the teacher discovers Rav Kahana’s presence, he is understandably angry, and demands that Rav Kahana leave. Rav Kahana refuses, and declares that “this too is Torah”.

There are parts of my life that would not be appropriate to share with you; doing so would be unprofessional. But Rav Kahana’s point is that we learn from how our teachers live their lives, just as we learn from the texts with which they present us. Just as in the Yiddish song where when the Rebbe dances, the Chassidim dance, and when the Rebbe drinks, the Chassidim drink, and when the Rebbe laughs, the Chassidim laugh – I hope that by sharing my passions with you I have inspired you to reconnect with the things you are passionate about, and encouraged you to bring your passions out into the open, if you’re not already doing so, for others to see and be inspired by. And I hope you will share them with me as well.

This is the Day of Judgement, the Day of Truth. We cannot be truthful with God if we are not truthful with ourselves; if we do not know what things drive us and motivate us; if we do not act on our passions and share them with others in ways that elevate our relationships and help us to really know, authentically, one another.

As we pass through the Gates of Judgement this day, may we do so with a renewed commitment to live a life of passion; a life of meaning; and a life of truth.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.