Shanah Tovah!

September 18, 2020 / 29 Elul 5780

Dear friends,

Shalom, shalom larachok v’lakarov amar Adonai. 

Shalom: shalom to those who are far off, shalom to those who are near, says Adonai.

(Isaiah 57:19)

These words of welcome, included at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah evening service in the mahzor our community uses, feel particularly bittersweet this year. While we may always be mindful of the people who are not with us on the holidays, this year we are especially aware of the people who are far away, who we long to have near to us. We are unable to gather close together as a community in the way that we might like. Our celebration of the holidays will look very different this year. 

A socially-distant Rosh Hashanah may not be what any of us would have chosen, but our situation has been an impetus for creativity. Though physically far apart, we are finding new ways to connect and to join together in a community. Through our virtual experience, we are able to connect with friends and neighbors who may be joining us for the first time. I wish we could offer you a warm, in-person welcome, but we extend you a hearty virtual bruchim haba’im (welcome!) and hope we will have the chance to connect in person soon.

I have attached a digital copy of the Guide to the High Holy Days at Home that was distributed with the physical copies of the mahzor. We will be using study texts found in the packet on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, so please have them handy if you are planning to join us for the service. If you would like to be sure to have a physical copy available, please feel free to print before the holiday. 

The packet also includes resources to support your celebration of the holidays at home. You will find a guide to holiday rituals and traditions, suggestions for prayer at home, and additional readings that we will use on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I hope you will find them useful and meaningful. And look out for a surprise at the end of the packet to keep things interesting!

On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all find meaning, connection, and renewal for the year ahead. 

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. 

Roadmap to Teshuva #4: Finding our way

22 Elul, 5780 / September 11, 2020

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans [19th cent.] told a parable: 

A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked the man, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.”

The other said to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.”  [Adapted from “Days of Awe,” ed. S.Y. Agnon]

The parable beautifully expresses the condition of loneliness that often accompanies the process of teshuva and how easily the experience of the High Holy Days can overwhelm us. Many of us may feel “lost in the woods,” as we muddle through, trying to make sense of things. There are so many words, so many memories, so many hopes and fears that come alive for us at this time. 

The experience of teshuva that we undergo in Elul and the holidays is at once deeply personal and interconnected with those around us. During Elul, we may be more focused on the internal work we need to do, trying to find our own paths through the forest. Those paths cross when we join together as a community – virtually or in person – on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

As Rabbi Hayyim’s parable illustrates, the encounter with one another aids our process of discovery in two ways. First, we communicate with each other and can share the wisdom of our experiences. And secondly, we can partner to find our way through together. With our shared strength, kindness, and compassion, we are capable of getting farther than we would alone. 

Rosh Hashanah is a week away. We are walking in the forest, and our paths are drawing nearer. I can’t wait until they cross, and we’ll find our way together. 

Roadmap to Teshuva #3: Sleeping through the storm

15 Elul, 5780/ September 4, 2020

During the month of Elul, Sephardi Jewish communities have the practice of waking early to recite selichot, penitential prayers, before the morning service. The Sephardi cycle of selichot opens with words of poetry:

בֶּן אָדָם, מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם, קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים.

שְׁפךְ שִׂיחָה, דְּרשׁ סְלִיחָה, מֵאֲדון הָאֲדונִים.

Ben Adam, mah lecha nirdam? Kum, k’ra betachanunim!

Sh’foch sicha, d’rosh slicha, me-adon ha’adonim. 

Human being, why are you asleep? Rise up and cry out in supplication!

Pour out your words, seek forgiveness from the Master of All. 

The first line comes from the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. A reluctant prophet, Jonah attempts to flee from his mission on a ship. Caught in the midst of a violent storm, the ship’s captain shakes Jonah awake: “How can you be asleep?! Get up and and call to your God! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish” (Jonah 1:6). 

The piyyut draws the comparison between us and the prophet Jonah, sleeping soundly through the storm and in need of being shaken awake. Like Jonah, who runs away from what he must do, we might also find it difficult to engage with the process of teshuva. The poem exhorts us to shake off our complacency, or even willful avoidance, to confront the task that is set before us at this moment. We are invited to see the process of teshuva as spiritually urgent – just as undeniable as the storm and requiring us to take action. 

Questions for reflection: 

  • What are the storms you need to confront during this High Holy Day season?
  • Is there anything that you feel that you’ve been “sleeping through” recently? 
  • What do you need to do to be fully awake and present during this period of teshuva?

You can read find the full text of this and other piyyutim from throughout the Jewish year here.

Watch and listen to a musical arrangement of the piyyut: 

May we all enjoy a peaceful and restorative Shabbat, that will help us awaken more fully to our needs in this season of reflection and repair.

Roadmap to Teshuva #2:

8 Elul, 5780/August 28, 2020

Beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul, and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (the 7th day of Sukkot), we include Psalm 27 in every morning service. As in many communities, our practice at KH is to sing aloud the following lines: 

“Achat Shaalti me-eit Adonai, otah avakesh

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mai chayai

Lachazot b’noam Adonai ul’vaker b’heichalo.”

“I have just one request of Adonai –

for this I yearn—

Let me dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life,

let me gaze on the loveliness of Adonai, in God’s sanctuary.”

You can listen and practice singing along with this video:

The words of the psalm reflect the changing emotions and spiritual trajectory that we may experience during this season of seeking repair and forgiveness, or during times of personal distress. 

Click here or see the attached PDF file for the full text of this psalm with guiding thoughts and questions for reflection or discussion. 

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom in the anticipated storm!

Roadmap to Teshuva #1

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Traditionally, this is a month of introspection and reflection as we prepare ourselves for the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe, as the High Holy Days are often called in Hebrew.

As we will not be able to gather in the way we are accustomed to for the holidays this year, it may be particularly helpful for us to see the Yamim Noraim as part of a larger arc. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are important moments, but they are part of a longer process of teshuva that begins with Rosh Chodesh Elul and concludes with Simchat Torah.

In the weeks ahead, I will be offering readings, reflections, and guiding questions to consider throughout these days of returning – a roadmap to teshuva.

The period from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur is said to be a time of divine favor – when the gates of teshuva are open to us more than they might be at other times of year and when our earnest requests for forgiveness are most likely to be granted.

There is a tradition that the name of the month Elul  is an acronym, with the four letters of the Hebrew word אֱלוּל standing in for the verse from Shir HaShirim:

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li  – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.

The time of Elul can thus be understood as a time of divine love, as we and God draw closer to one another. God offers offers love and compassion, and we seek to repair our loving relationship with God through the process of teshuva.

Let us begin this journey together with an awareness and appreciation for the love and compassion we receive, and extend that same love to others in turn.

Chodesh tov and Shabbat Shalom.

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Taste of Torah: Re’eh 5780

Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 (Triennial: 11:26-12:28)

Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

Moses begins his address in this week’s parasha with what appears to be a clear choice: 

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: (27) the blessing, if you shall heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day; (28) and the curse, if you shall not heed the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). 

We see this language echoed toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, in parashat Nitzavim, when Moses lays out the blessings and curses in greater detail:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil. (Deut. 30:15)

The Kli Yakar, a prominent rabbi who lived in Eastern Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, notes that Moses’s language switches from singular (re’eh – see) to the plural (lifneichem – before you).  Rather than seeing this as a grammatical deviation, the Kli Yakar finds meaning in this shift. He says that a person should view the world as exactly half good and half wicked, and that each person should see in him or herself the possibility of tipping the entire world toward the side of good by performing a single mitzvah. That is why, Kli Yakar explains, Moses first speaks in the singular – so that each individual will see that the choice, and potential to influence the world, lies within them.

Rather than seeing the world in black and white terms, the Kli Yakar acknowledges the messiness of our reality. The fate of each individual, and of the entire world, is a result of the cumulative of our choices. This is an empowering message for our time, when it is easy to look around at the world and slip into despair, or when we wonder if anything we do now can repair past wrongs. The Kli Yakar suggests that each of our actions, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can transform the world for good. 

Shabbat Shalom umvorakh,

Wishing you a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Parashat Eikev 5780

Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

In the opening of this week’s parasha, Moses offers the following promise to the Israelites:

“And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the LORD your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: He will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore to your fathers to assign to you. You shall be blessed above all other peoples: there shall be no sterile male or female among you or among your livestock. The LORD will ward off from you all sickness; He will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies.”

At face value, this seems to be saying: if you live in accordance with the commandments, God will protect you. The inverse of this is, at best, that God won’t extend this protection and at worst, that God may actually punish you. We know that this isn’t always how things work out. Good people experience hardship and suffering, while those who seem to disregard every code of ethical behavior often flourish. 

Perhaps another way to think about this passage is when we live our lives with a strong commitment to our values and with faith in something greater than ourselves, we are better able to cope with the inevitable challenges of life. 

Our rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wealthy? One who finds happiness in his or her portion in life.”

We should not live a life in relationship to Torah and mitzvot because we expect to receive a reward for doing so. Rather, we can approach Jewish living as a spiritual practice that can guide us toward finding meaning, satisfaction, and gratitude with what we do have. And that is a true blessing.

Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov! Parashat Va’etchanan

Shabbat Nachamu

Parashat Vaetchanan Deut. 3:23-7:11 (Triennial: Deut. 3:23-5:18)

Haftarah Isaiah 40:1-26

***To view sources referred to below, click here.

Siman tov u’mazal tov!

We offer these words of good wishes at every bar or bat mitzvah, wedding, and other happy occasions, but we probably don’t give much thought to what this actually means.The literal translation of these words is “a good sign and a good star,” suggesting a connection between good fortune and the positioning of the stars and planets. What are the origins of this idea?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, Moses prepares the people to enter the Land of Israel, by offering this warning: “And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.” (Source 1).  Moses will reiterate the prohibition for the Israelites of engaging in any kind of magic or fortune telling in Deuteronomy Ch. 18 (Source 2).  The most straightforward reading of the texts here is that Jews are prohibited to worship anything but God and to engage in practices that attempt to know the future. However, these texts raise a few questions.

First, is Moses saying in Deuteronomy Ch. 4 that worshipping the sun, moon and stars might be fine for other peoples, just not Israelites? 

And secondly, given the strong prohibition against anything that smacks of idol worship, magic, or fortune telling, how do we make sense of remnants of these practices throughout Jewish history? 

The rabbis in the Talmud express a variety of opinions about astrology and its relationship to Jews. In one passage from Tractate Sukkot (source 3), several rabbis discuss eclipses and their indication of bad omens for Jews and other nations. Although it is a topic of debate, this discussion seems to affirm the idea that what appears in the heavens can be interpreted as signs for the future. In Tractate Shabbat (source 4), the rabbis disagree about whether the Jewish people are influenced by the stars or not. However, no doubt is expressed about the impact of stars on other nations.

Jewish sources throughout the Medieval period overwhelmingly indicate that astrology was not only practiced, but was permitted and believed to be effective. Nachmanides, a well-known rabbi in 13th century Spain, practiced astrology and validated its use in his halakhic writing (source 5). Even the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative code of law written in the 16th century, indicates that people still had the practice of avoiding starting new endeavors or marrying on days that were seen as under a bad sign or star (source 8).

Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, seems to be the lone exception and in his typical style rejects astrology both as forbidden by the Torah and as nonsense that only foolish people would rely on (Sources 6 and 7). As we already saw, his view was not widely accepted and Jewish authorities considered astrology to be valid for hundreds of years afterward.

Somewhere along the way though, Maimonides’ rational perspective seems to have won out for the most part, even while we still wish each other “mazal tov” on happy occasions.

An examination of the Jewish practice of astrology highlights an ongoing question for us as Jews, which is:  how do we respond and adapt to the practices of the other people among whom we live? 

The Torah seems to draw a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior for Jews. According to the Torah, we are supposed to avoid magic and divination precisely because they are practices of other nations. On the other hand, all the subsequent evidence points to Jewish practices of astrology that probably reflected the cultural norms and understandings of the societies in which they lived. Jews practiced astrology along with everyone else, and even offered their services as astrologers in the courts of non-Jewish rulers. Jews only left astrology and other “superstitious” practices behind as Europe and the west embraced the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

To be sure, Jewish communities have always been distinctive in many ways, but Judaism and Jewish belief and practice has always evolved in relationship with the surrounding culture.  Whether it is Chasidic Jews adopting the garb of 18th century Polish nobility, Italian Jewish composers writing synagogue music in high Renaissance style, or Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes of felafel and hummus becoming synonymous with Israeli Jewish cuisine,

Jewish life has never existed in a vacuum. It is up to every generation – including our own – to determine the direction that Judaism will take and to define what it means to be Jewish in our day.

Tastes of Torah: Devarim 5780

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 (Triennial: 1:1-2:1)

Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1 – 1:27

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, Devarim or Deuteronomy. The book consists of Moses’s final address to the people, after leading them through the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, and forty years of wandering through the desert. Now, as they stand on the banks of the Jordan river preparing to enter the Land of Israel, Moses offers his final words to the people.

In the opening of his speech, he begins with a retelling of some of the events that have occurred up to this point.

Unlike the other books of the Torah, Devarim is written entirely in Moses’s own voice. Although it repeats many of the same events and laws described in other books, Moses’s telling of the story often departs from the earlier versions. Devarim not only differs from other books of the Torah on important details, but in fact represents an interpretation of this other material. Every act of storytelling is an act of interpretation. As the storyteller, Moses chooses what to highlight and what to leave out, shaping a narrative out of a series of events. It is up to the storyteller to make meaning, and the process of storytelling itself can be transformative.

When we become aware that we are the authors of our own narratives, we might regain a sense of control. The events that happen to us and around us may not be within our control, but the story we tell about those events and the meaning we ascribe to them is up to us.

As we read sefer Devarim over the coming weeks, we might ask ourselves: what does this act of storytelling accomplish for Moses? How is he different at the end of the process than he was at the beginning? And how can we harness the power of storytelling to make the needed transformations in our own lives?


Tisha B’Av Reflections 5780

As I reflect on the meaning of Tisha B’Av this year, I have felt myself pulled in two different directions.  

On the one hand, it feels difficult to turn away from the overwhelming brokenness of our world to  focus on the specificity of the tragedies marked by Tisha B’av. 

But from another perspective, Tisha B’Av may speak particularly well to the moment we find ourselves in. With so much of our world in upheaval today, we may find it easier to relate to the experiences of our ancestors whose lives were upended by the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. 

The words from the book of Eicha, or Lamentations, that we read on Tisha B’Av are the words of people who have had their lives and homes destroyed and are struggling to make sense of the chaos.  The unspeakable horror of the descriptions in the book of Eicha is chilling to read. While many of us are fortunate to be safe and healthy today, some of the images may strike us as eerily familiar: the empty streets of a great city. The feelings of isolation and loneliness. Yearning for comfort that we cannot find. 

The speaker in Eicha mourns what was lost, but we also hear uncertainty about the future. Where will we go? Will what was lost ever be rebuilt? What will the new normal be like? Reading Eicha this year, when our own feelings of fear and uncertainty about the future are heightened, we may be better able to understand just how devastating the destruction of the Temple was for our ancestors.

But more than this, I think reading Eicha teaches us that it is ok to mourn. That there are times when it is appropriate to cry, to lament, to express our sorrow without trying to solve or fix anything. Tisha B’Av serves that purpose in the Jewish calendar. It is a day set aside for the full expression of our grief, to allow ourselves to feel the things we might normally suppress. The plans to rebuild can wait until tomorrow. 

Wishing everyone a meaningful Tisha B’Av and an easy fast.

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