Holidays and Celebrations


The New Year is upon us.  The Jewish tradition offers us a great toolbox for a real opportunity to set out on a meaningful new course for the journey of 5772.  Teshuvah, repentance, means a “turning” from one direction to another. For most of us it is subtle course-correction, returning to our core values and life goals. For others of us, major changes may lie ahead, resulting from new life conditions or a new life-stage, or a significant insight about our lives that propels us forward.

What have we learned or experienced in the past year that may help to direct our teshuvah in this New Year?

This past summer I rather spontaneously agreed to do something I had never before done – and likely would have avoided in the past. When my three kids, who love to travel together and enjoy camping, invited me to join them on a hiking/backpacking trip in Vermont, I simply said “yes!”  Not being a hearty outdoors-person, this was to be a major new experience. As the time for the trip grew near, I imagined how I’d fare spending four days in the wilderness.  My anxiety for unknown and frightening situations was abated by the trust I had in my three kids. They had done this before, acquiring knowledge and responsibility in the process.

It turned out that the four days of mountain hiking in Vermont was about a whole lot more than spending time with my kids – though of course it was that first and foremost. I learned a lot about each of them, about myself, and about us as a family team. I was reinforced in perceiving much about what is truly most important. The values of caring, courage, perseverance, sharing, curiosity, openness, flexibility, gratitude, appreciation, love, family and personal reflection were all reinforced in many ways in that brief trip.

Now, as I approach the beginning of a New Year, I realize that my choice to accept the challenge of the hike in order to be with my kids was my soul’s way of opening to a whole new set of opportunities. I can do more than I thought I could do; I can be more than I was a year ago. Now I have the opportunity to consciously build on that knowledge and to expand my soul’s connection to nature’s beauty and the glory of shared experiences and accomplishments with my emerging adult children.  All of this is a gift from the Divine source of life, human potential and love.

When I injured my leg on the hike because it was far more physically challenging than I had imagined, I also learned about my limitations. My kids were like mountain goats scurrying up the rugged trail, even in fierce rain. But reality hit me hard — I am not so young anymore, no matter how fit I thought I was. As they compassionately told me to lead so I could set a pace that I could keep, I thought deeply about how life-stage perspective is so important. The next time I sign up for a 22 mile mountain hike with a 30 pound pack on my back, I’ll be sure to prepare more than my bags of trail mix.

Isn’t so much of life like this? We enter new life stages, whether by choice or fate, and we have to learn how to do our teshuvah, our turning, in a way that is conscious and intentional. When our kavannah, our spiritual intention, is directed towards opening our souls to the spiritual messages and religious values along the way, our lives will be sustained in powerful ways. Then we will have truly used the tools of our faith to live purposefully.

This moment of teshuvah is such a blessing – for whatever our lives have brought us in the past year, whether good or bad, we can now direct the course for 5772 to integrate the past year into the selves we will become in the coming year.

The provocative Unetaneh Tokef prayer of the High Holy days proclaims that “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will avert the evil decree.” Repentance, prayer and generous giving will sustain our lives and determine the quality of our living.

What have we experienced in this past year? And what have we learned? How will it help direct our path in the coming year?

May we have meaningful journeys of teshuvah and renewed spiritual living in 5772.

Warm wishes for a sweet, happy and healthy New Year. Leshanah Tovah Tikateivu v’teichateimu. May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for Good.

 

 

 

 

 

Do you remember the day of September 10, 2001?   I recall that day in utterly clear focus, as though it was a lead-up to the traumatic events about to unfold the next day.  I was at home on the morning of 9/11 when the world was shattered. We all remember that terrible morning of 9/11.  But can we also recall, in our minds and our hearts, what it was like for us before that day?

It’s cliché to say that everything changed on 9/11, but the day before, even the moment before the first plane hit, we didn’t realize that we were in suspended animation before the fall. We fell from our sense of certainty, possibility, comfort and safety.  Everything we had worried about, stressed over, worked on, planned for, even dreamed of, was suddenly recast.  Many things that mattered a lot suddenly didn’t matter any more. Our priorities were shifted, our emotional realities recalibrated.

We are still living in that shadow. I had been in Israel in August 2001, in the throes of the second intifada, and just after the infamous bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in downtown  Jerusalem.  It sadly had become common for  Israelis to navigate their everyday lives with fear as a constant presence in the back of everyone’s minds. With heavy security guarding public places, it was understood that this was necessary, but emotionally, this situation takes its toll over time. So when, after 9/11, NY Penn station started to feel like Jerusalem, with a strong military presence,  I recognized this reality and knew about the stress it generated.

We became jumpier, more ready to assume something dreadful had happened with any loud booming noise, any accident that caused damage to public places. We went about our lives in accustomed ways, but got testy with each other from time to time as a kind of collective post traumatic stress had gripped our communities and towns and even our country.

In the ensuing years, three wars later, our nation has managed fear by attacking perceived enemies. So many lives have been lost or damaged or traumatized in the process. Yet we still fear the next terrorist around the corner.

We have demonized the “other,” Muslims in particular, and have devolved into a society of blame, criticism and “us” against “them” politics that disregards the common good. Painfully, it’s all about fear — fear of loss, fear of change, fear of hurt, and fear of life itself.

Our economic woes are not disconnected from this either. We salved our fears by spending beyond our means, often with our very homes on the line. And when the market tanked in 2008, we had to face new fears for our economic futures. Will there be money for retirement, for staying in our homes? Will there be jobs for us and for our children? These are frightening questions and challenges.

In these difficult 10 years we have still pursued life. We have brought babies into the world, celebrated weddings, b’nai mitzvah, graduations, and other joys families and friends share. We have enjoyed holidays and community celebrations that have shaped our lives.

In many recent conversations I have been hearing a lot of fear — fear about our futures, personally and collectively.  Each of these encounters leaves me yearning for Rosh Hashanah, for a time for reflection, renewal, and reorienting our lives. We have the great gift of a spiritual tradition that helps us to focus on the blessings of our lives and the blessing of life itself. Our ancestor Jacob/Yisrael was plagued by his fears in his journeys, yet he dreamed of angels, awakening to exclaim “How awesome is this place!” He crossed the threshold from fear to faith. We can too.

This September 11 we will mourn the 10 year anniversary of that terrible day and honor the memory of those we lost that day. Now, ten  years later, we seek to understand our lives in its wake. 9/11 occurs during the final Jewish month of Elul, as we prepare for the teshuvah/turning of Rosh Hashanah. In honor of all those who lost their lives to the violence of 9/11 and the years since then, we have an opportunity to affirm life with gratitude and hope. It is from this place of hope that we can find healing from fear, and faith in our future that will direct who we are and who we shall become.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is it — it is Elul. It is the time of year when we are given the gift of an entire month to reflect on our lives in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. It’s like a good warm-up before a workout — when we have prepared ourselves during the month of Elul, we are ready to use our teshuvah (repentance/spiritual turning) muscles well on the New Year.

My kids have often reminded me of the need for good stretching before and after exercise. I’m not good at this — I am impatient to get to the bike or the treadmill and get my heart rate up. To be honest I have to admit that I am lazy about stretching before my workout. And I pay the price: my muscles complain and sometimes ache, and it’s all my own fault.

My kids and I recently took a four-day hiking trip on a beautiful mountain trail. It was steep and rugged. They are a lot younger than I am and amazingly agile. I thought I was in good shape — until I began this hike. But I was intent upon keeping up with them and not holding our journey back. In pushing forward, we all forgot about the necessity of stretching — that is, until I was limping from injury.

Now nursing my sore tendon, I am reminded once again of the value of warming up — getting ready, being prepared.

So here we are — we can enter the New Year unprepared and risk that the journey of teshuvah, repentance and renewal, might not work. It could even leave us bruised and alienated.  All those words…all those prayers — they are for us, that we might emerge into the New Year feeling a sense of possibility, hope and optimism — a renewal of spirit.

The month of Elul is a gift. On this, its first day, let’s unwrap its potential to help us heal our wounds, repair ourselves and be closer in the New Year to our very best selves.

An Elul journey can include prayers, meditations, journal-writing, etc.  Our spiritual practice belongs to us — the challenge today is to decide what it will be, and to try our best.

I wish you a Hodesh Tov, happy New Month. This auspicious month of Elul is the beginning of our journey.

It’s mid-July as I write from Jerusalem. In this city that evokes so much passion, the dusty summer air is filled with an indescribable mix of loveliness, holiness and some craziness. For many secular Israelis who live beyond this city’s hills, Jerusalem is symbolic of conflict – between secular and religious Jews, and between Israelis and Arabs. But I love walking Jerusalem’s streets and breathing its impassioned air.  It is especially sweet on Shabbat, when quiet descends on the city once the shops and restaurants close early on Friday afternoon. The peacefulness is prayerful.

I find that coming in and out of Jerusalem sharpens my perspective on Jewish religious experience.  In Diaspora synagogues like ours, we pray eastward, toward Jerusalem, historically to face the Temple Mount — now as an expression of the solidarity of Jewish peoplehood.  By contrast, the secular Israeli community Beit Tefila Yisraeli, which meets for prayer in the summer at the Tel Aviv port (the capital of secular Israeli culture), faces the Mediterranean as the sun sets on Friday night, greeting Shabbat symbolically away from Jerusalem. God does not “reside” on the Temple Mount any more or less than God “resides” in the sunset over the sea; our spiritual compass has multiple directions. Prayer at the walls around the Temple Mount has a unique, symbolic power, but the Negev desert and the lush hills of the Galilee breathe their own holiness with their beauty and rich Jewish history.

I take spiritual nourishment from the ancient hills on which our ancestors forged a sacred path.  Jewish prayer started here, traveling through our Diaspora as we learned to seek God wherever we are. Along the way we brought the experience of the mountains, the ocean, the forest and the field, with collective memories of ancient Temple worship. The words and choreography of Jewish prayer draws on these experiences, leading us on a spiritual journey to sustain and guide us as a holy people.

A prayerful heart can be evoked in nature’s beauty, through music, or in the quiet in which we can hear “the still small voice.”  Jewish prayer is a complex tapestry of experiences.  Our prayers are transformative if we have been moved to peel away the layers of everyday distraction to open our hearts.

It is from this place that our Congregation BEth Hatikvah’s High Holy Day services are being re-imagined. We are seeking to capture more of prayer’s essence—a soul-journey of multi-layered experiences inspired by our ancestors, and reflecting contemporary culture.

During my July studies I have reflected a great deal about these ideas with my colleagues at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  As a group of us sang Kabbalat Shabbat with Beit Tefila Yisraeli at the Tel Aviv port, I marveled at the power and beauty of the experience.  The Mediterranean sunset and crowds of families enjoying a secular Tel Aviv Shabbat could not have been more different from the religious atmosphere prevailing over Jerusalem. I hold them both in my heart.

It is that multi-faceted, heart-touching experience that we are seeking to evoke for the upcoming High Holy Days.  The coming weeks will allow us to share kavannot (spiritual intentions) in preparation.

An opening kavannah, a poem from the great Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher, Judah Halevi, (11th century Spain):

Where Shall I Find You? 

(edited, AJS)

God, where shall I find You?

Your place is lofty and concealed.

And where shall I not find You?

The whole earth is full of Your Glory!

You are praised by Your hosts

But all praises You surpass.

 

The sphere of heaven cannot contain You,

Temple chambers, how much less.

 

Your Presence I have sought,

Calling out from the depths of the heart.

When after You, I went forth resolutely

There I found You, on Your way to me.

Can the Infinite One dwell within finite creation?

 

What can human minds conceive, creatures of humble station?

Yet You, Holy One, make Your home amidst their adoration.

 

Even when You rise above Your hosts on a throne, high and exalted,

You are nearer to them than their own bodies and souls.

Their mouths attest that they have no Maker except You.

Who shall not fear You? All bear the yoke of Your kingdom.

And who shall not call to You? It is You who give them their food.

I have sought to come near You, I have called to You with all my heart; and
when I went out towards You, I found You coming towards me.

I look upon Your wondrous power and awe.

Who can say that he has not seen You?

The heavens and their legions proclaim Your awesome presence — without a sound.

 

(These poetic metaphors are symbolic of our spiritual journey.)

 

As I listened today to the stories on WNYC (New York Public Radio) reporting on the memorials at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, NY, on the “yahrzeit” for John Lennon, I wished I had been there. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since John Lennon was taken from us by a deranged assassin. And it’s painful to realize how we have made so little progress toward realizing his dream for a peaceful world. Had I had a chance to go to Central Park tonight, I would have lit a chanukiyah, a Chanukah menorah, in celebration the festival and of Lennon’s message and music.

While Chanukah commemorates the Jewish people’s victory in armed struggle, routing the Syrian Greek army and reclaiming our homeland and our holy Temple, our sages sought to downplay to military victory in favor of highlighting the miraculous. Yes, I know the tale of the oil intended for one day that miraculously lasted for eight. But that legendary story told us more about the values of our sages than it does about what actually happened at the eight day celebration of Dedication/Chanukah. Having missed the celebration of Sukkot (an eight day festival), the band of victorious fighters known as the Maccabees chose to inaugurate an eight day festival in honor of the rededication of the Temple. After all, the Temple was originally dedicated during Sukkot by King Solomon in days of old. And that was 8 days of celebration.

So why the legend of the miracle of the oil? There are several reasons, one being a discomfort with war. To highlight this, the rabbis chose the reading from the prophet Zechariah for the Shabbat Chanukah reading from Prophets, the Haftarah. It concludes with the famous quote, “Not by might but by My spirit, says the Lord.”

This is a future vision of a world filled with the profound lessons of faith that can be so elusive: kindness, compassion, mercy, justice, hope, forgiveness, love and peace. We imagine that someday we will transform the world into a universally shared community of faith. Infused with the spirit of the Divine, the world will be whole.

“Imagine all the people living for today…” What if we imagine a world so filled with the holiness of the Divine presence that no hatred or animosity remains? If we invest ourselves in Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, we are partners with God in bringing about the redemption of the world. No more pain, no more anger, no more violence, no more war. This hopeful belief in the future, this faith in the possibilities, this spiritual intuition for God’s purpose, infuses Judaism.

“Imagine all the people living life in peace…” It’s all about suppressing our selfish instincts, living with a higher purpose. We can do it, our sages taught. This is the purpose of the spiritual life, truly living as a Jew. We are reaching toward and working for a future we can barely even imagine.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.” John Lennon, of blessed memory, understood the power of poetic imagery to capture and express a profound spiritual ideal. His words echo the prophet Zechariah and speak in the idiom of our generation.

Lennon may have been railing against organized religion – but his critique of the use of religion to divide and harm each other came from the heart that imagined unity and peace. What an inspiring voice for a generation that so sorely needs it.

With blessings of hope – for dreams, for imagining a world whole and at peace,

A final “hag urim sameah” for 5771/2010. May this festival of lights bring you joy.

Imagine by John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I had the pleasure to spend time today with three (of the five) people who are currently studying with me for conversion to Judaism. Their joy in Jewish learning is so inspiring. One theme that was repeated in each conversation was a feeling that each of them expressed – if only they had more time to read more Jewish books, learn more, understand more.  They are awed and also a bit overwhelmed by the scope of possible Jewish subjects that they have just begun to study in these few years of study.

I assured them that their enthusiasm, commitment and introductory learning was quite sufficient for them to come before the bet din to complete their conversion.  And as they each broke into smiles, they talked about spending a lifetime engaged in Jewish learning. I had such joy and satisfaction, knowing that we are welcoming five new members into the Jewish people who will enrich us greatly.

Chanukah, the festival of Dedication, is a time to reflect on what we appreciate most about being Jews. It is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to sacred purpose to live Jewish lives that enrich ourselves, our families, our community, our people and our world.

We are most fully engaged as Jews when we are occupied with Torah study – that is, all of the riches of Jewish learning.  We are most fully nourished by our Jewish heritage when we take advantage of the pleasure of Jewish learning.

I hope we can all have moments like the members of my conversion class, with our thirst for knowledge unquenchable, our enthusiasm for Jewish learning unbounded, and our dedication to being a strong link in the chain of Jewish tradition renewed.

Hag Urim Sameah,

May this Chanukah bring inspiration, joy and light!

 

This Chanukah was tinged with great sadness because of the tragedy of Israel’s terrible fire in the Carmel forest. With 42 people dead, and so much destruction in the wake of the swiftly moving flames, Chanukah has been marked by worry and mourning. Our hearts go out to those who have lost family members and friends. Our hearts go out to Israel in this time of sadness.

Israel is a tiny country whose people often describe it as a “small town” kind of country, where everyone “knows everyone,” somehow. Of course, that is not literally the case, but it is surely true that everyone feels impacted by tragic events such as this loss, and it feels very close to home. Only Israelis know how it feels. Yet, we their friends all over the world, are holding them close in our hearts, as we have on so many somber days before this.

One clear distinction exists between this disaster and so many that have previously befallen our Israeli brothers and sisters – this time parts of the Arab world, Turkey, the Palestinian authority, and European countries gave assistance in fighting the fire. Israel’s crisis became an international concern.

Who is a friend and who is an adversary? Sometimes the line is blurry; sometimes it is unnecessary. We are all human beings and we all experience pain and loss, sorrow and joy. Empathy for the other goes a long way toward peaceful coexistence.

The story of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE is a great source of Jewish pride. Chanukah is all about rededicating our selves to our Jewish lives – to the Jewish people and to the heritage of Jewish living. It is the quintessentially particularlist holiday.

Yet, today’s world is more complicated than that of our ancestors in ancient Israel. Today, mutual friendship and empathy must be an essential way of being if we want to live in peace with our neighbors.

I, for one, am very grateful to know that those who are most often viewed as our adversaries or enemies extended friendship to Israel in a time of great need. I hope this signals new beginnings — that we can all learn to live in peace with each other.

It’s like the prophet Zechariah said, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”

Hag Urim Sameah,
May your Chanukah be filled with light and joy.

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