Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shabbat Shuvah

Shabbat Shuvah

Words by Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l):

“For ten days the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we an imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless filed upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea.”

The Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is simply not like every other Shabbat. Known traditionally as Shabbat Shuvah it falls in the middle of the 10 days of Teshuvah which Rabbi Lew references above. It is a chance, a moment in time, the liminal space between moments when we first celebrate the birth of the world (Rosh Hashanah) and second where we enter a period self reflection and personal introspection (Yom Kippur). It is the turning in between, the transition from celebration and renewal to deep inner reflection. This transformation is complex – it does not happen once and then we move on – it is a constant process. It does not have a beginning, middle and end – it should always be going on. However, for most of us this time is the moment – the opportunity, the chance to work on transforming ourselves. We should be striving to turn, for that is the root of this time period and this day. The name of the Shabbat is the Hebrew shin vav vet – to turn towards – turning towards home, to turn towards the person we want to become, toward our ultimate potential. Remember as you do the work, to start small to pick one element of yourself, your life and imagine a dial – the knob skewed, turned to a spot that is not where you want it to be and think about how you shift the dial turning it toward the aligned spot, the spot which centers you, places you along the part of the path that reflects your true potential. Like the words of the opening and closing of Haftorah we call to ourselves “Return, O Israel to the Lord your God…” and then to God “You will keep faith with Jacob, loyalty to Abraham as you promised an oath to our fathers”. May we have the courage to return to God and be granted through our efforts the oath and loyalty God promised our ancestors – speedily in our lifetime.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah –May we all be sealed for goodness in the book of Life, Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dwelling in God's House-Psalm 27

I have made a pledge to a friend this year. I promised that in lieu of money this year I would, to street people begging, only offer food or clothing or something of that sort. The exercise has been rather interesting for someone who in the past handed out money pretty indiscriminately. In fact, I was/am one of those people who essentially thinks if someone is in a place to beg, who am I to judge. My job is not to tell someone what to do with or how to use my gift but simply to try and help with a bit of extra cash.

We all know the arguments against this - they will use it for drugs,for alcohol etc etc. I find this a rather disturbing claim simply because adult people, with da'at (consciousness, awareness) make choices and who am I to tell them what to do with the money I just gave them. Alas, the argument my friend made was a bit more convincing - food and clothes much more helpful for someone in need. So I agreed at least for the past year to try it and so I have. The journey has been illuminating and mostly I like it for selfish reasons because I get more from my giving than ever before. I am not in a rush, if I have to buy someone food instead of handing them a bill, or reach into my glove compartment for the snacks I now store there or wait with them to purchase something at Starbucks I am simply much more conscious of my efforts - I pause, the experience has that built in inherently and I am forced to think. Think about society, about life, about what I have (instead of my usual what I don't) and of course about the person next to me and my discomfort - at their smell or how they look or how dirty they are.

During the Season of the High Holydays we recite Psalm 27 every day for approximately 6 weeks. There is a famous line in the Psalm:

One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to gave on the beauty of the Lord and worship in God's Temple.

I always wondered about this beautiful line - knowing the Psalmist's intention was to refer to life after death, that when we die we would be "with God" - in Judaism' version of Heaven. The problem with this of course is during this season life is on the brain we are thinking, hoping for life so I really wanted to know how we might understand this line a little differently. And then I went on errand just before Shabbat this past week. As I emerged from checking my mail and began my walk to Starbucks a man, clearly homeless or at least in need, disheveled and dirty, called out "Mam, Mam". Taken aback I turned around toward him, he continued "can you spare a dollar or would you be willing to buy me a sandwich?" Now as I wrote above, I wasn't giving money this year so I quickly replied "happy to buy you a sandwich". I told him I needed to return to my car (I had only enough cash for a Starbucks not a Subway sandwich) to get my debit card. He asked if he could get in line, he did and when I walked into Subway it was his turn to make a selection. I encouraged a generous option, (telling him to go footlong instead of 6inch figuring he could get two meals out of me) after selecting a cookie and asking if he might also get a drink - I handed him his food, he offered some kind words and I in return asked him to stay safe. As the employee ran my card - he looked at me with a dead serious look and said "you shouldn't buy him anything, he isn't really homeless, I have seen him in a car". I paused and smiled, thinking about the man's dirty clothes, fingernails and stench and wondered to myself who knows, who ever really knows? The Subway sandwich maker asked me why I was smiling I said to him "if someone asks for food I provide it because I can, no matter whether his story is true or not. If he is so desperate to ask, then I am more than happy to swipe my card and have $10.00 less in my bank account." He looked back at me, unconvinced and said "I've called the police on him before," knowing he wasn't going to be convinced I said "you can do whatever you feel is right, but if I have to live in a world with people who beg I am going to respond no matter the real tale behind their request." I smiled, told him to have a nice weekend and signed my receipt walking out the door with this drash in hand.

I don't know what the Psalmist really meant by that line but God's House, dwelling in the Lord's house in my life is the ability to respond to the call of the imperfect world. God's creation humanity is imperfect our world is filled with flaws, disasters, loss, devastation and to be able to respond to one of those needs, to answer someone's crying out is to dwell in God's house. God's house in this world is the one that answers skepticism with compassion and destruction with construction. So I respond to the call with a small token, some food, a smile or clean pair of socks. And when I daven that line, when I really say it what I am asking God for during this season is the opportunity to do these acts because they grace me with the ability to dwell with God and to act in God's ways.

The message seemed particularly appropriate on the day we mark the tragedy that is 9/11 when people used violence to destroy God's house. However, the memories I take with me in addition to those lives lost are those people who went back into the buildings risking their own lives- firemen, police officers and ordinary folk who went into destruction in order to exhibit acts of unparalleled compassion and love. I remember those clergy people and others who went down to the site of the towers to offer comfort, support and a shoulder. In those moments, in those terrible moments - those people they were exhibiting what it means to dwell in God's house - so the one thing I ask of God this year is the opportunity to respond to the imperfect world with acts of loving kindness and compassion - moments, actions which remind me that I do dwell in the House of the Lord and will continue to do should I choose to continue to respond to that call.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Carrie Bradshaw Meets Elianna Yolkut: What to Wear to Shul

A LETTER WRITTEN TO THE ZEIGLER SCHOOL OF RABBINIC STUDIES STUDENTS IN RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS OF WOMEN AND RITUAL GARMENTS DESIGNED FOR AND BY MEN

Dear Zeigler Community,

I have seen only some of the postings regarding the issues that might arise for women in the rabbinate or women who choose to wear a kittel as part of their garb for the Yomim Noraim. I wanted to briefly address this question as a woman in the field who spends a significant amount of time on the pulpit and thinks regularly about clothing, the rabbinate, issues of tzniut and body image.

It is nearly impossible (this may be true for male rabbis as well but I speak from my own experience here) as a female rabbi to not become constantly engaged in thought about what you wear on the bimah, in front of classrooms and in your work generally. Whether, fair or not, there is in our culture a particular focus on women who are leaders and what they wear, from jewelry to make-up to shoes, I rarely (and by this I mean almost never) go through a Shabbat without a comment, question, or discussion about what I am wearing or how I look. From the top of my head to my toes – people have a lot to say to me about my clothes, hairstyle, nails, shoes etc. This holds true from my congregants of an older generation as well as those of the younger generation.

In turn I have come to spend a lot of time thinking about what I wear: how it looks, what kinds of comments it might elicit and whether or not I feel comfortable wearing “it” whatever the “it” is. In some ways this is a very good thing – it reminds me that how I dress impacts how I am perceived as a klei kodesh and whether this is a fair measure of judgment. Still, it is a reality and we, each of us in our way must deal with these questions. It helps me to think about what modesty in Judaism demands of us in dress and behavior. On the flip side of the positives is, in my opinion, a very heavily weighted negative. I spend much more time than I would like fielding these comments, questions and thinking about my clothes, my ritual garb (which ones I wear), my make-up, or my shoes. I would much prefer to spend time focused on other things – that at least for me feel more important.

Now I come to the point at hand – the Kittel for women during this season. I have come as a rabbi to love Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur... and not just because I do lots of talking J. I have come to appreciate what it affords me as a female rabbi because I avoid the comments altogether about my dress, which the rest of the year plague my Kiddush conversations and post Shabbat emails.

I wear a plain white “men’s” kittel, underneath of which is some sort of skirt and top – the thing is, these are the only days my dress doesn’t matter. I have never received a single comment about my physical appearance when I wear the kittel.The kittel affords me a wonderful opportunity to focus on the “rabbi-ing” part of being a rabbi – teaching Torah, and engaging my community in a deep and meaningful prayer experience. In fact for me this happens at the Shelosh Regalim as well because my community has the custom of having its Klei Kodesh wear our kittels during all of these festivals. I think less about what I wear, and in turn find myself more focused and dedicated to elevating the holidays to their true meaning. As such I am so grateful for this plain white garment – it probably doesn’t look good--but isn’t that the point? We all look simple and plain – standing before our Creator and community on an even playing field – fanciness seems to matter so much less. I sort of wish everyone in my community would wear kittels. In fact, no one says a thing. Not one single comment has been made to me about my kittel or my shoes or make-up on those days. I simply stand on the bimah looking a bit like a simple rabbi teaching a little Torah. In fact, in my understanding of the minhagim surrounding the Kittel, this is the point – to elevate us to a place where we are nothing more than a corporeal being, a person trying to live even as we face our ultimate limited potential on this universe. Whether we are rehearsing our deaths with the kittel or celebrating our angelic whiteness, those plain old “men’s” kittels feel like a gift to me– one that I wouldn’t trade for any other garment. This keeps my life simple – teach Torah and let your community focus on your Torah and not on how you look... at least for a few days of the year.

Torah Take Away - Nitzavim/Vayelech

Nitzavim-Vayelech

As we approach the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, we also face the prospect of the last few parshiyot (Torah portions) of the Torah, getting prepared to closes the book of Deuteronomy. As the people Israel step closer to the land of Israel we are told Moses too approaches a transition – coming close to the end of his time as leader of the people Israel and the end of his life. Moses writes the Torah gives it to the priests with the instruction to teach it to the people.
Afterwards, God instructs Moses to write a song that will be sung to the people and specifically notes the song should be heard by the children who did not live in the desert, “who have not known”. The song will speak about God and teach the people to listen so that they fear God and observe the words of this law. Moses then teaches it to the people.
Some food for thought:

Why do you think Moses is told to give his final teaching in a song?

Why would a song be preferred over a traditional speech?

Why does God emphasize the song be taught to the children? How does that relate to the discussion you have/had with your children around your Shabbat table or about Judaism?

At the end of your life – what “words” will you leave your loved ones with? How would you end your time as a leader of a community of people?


A clear message does emerge when you think of Moses in the fullness of his life. Moses completes his time as the leader of the Jewish people with all of this talking, all of these words – as the book of Deuteronomy opens we read “these are the words which Moses spoke…” and now he finishes his last moments with the people with words. Remember this was the man who begin his time as a leader in the Book of Exodus saying to God why do you want me – “I am not a man of words...” – Moses a man with a speech impediment, uncertain of himself at the beginning of his journey ends his time as the leader of the Israelites speaking words of wisdom, insight and song. The message is relatively simple and clear but rather important – we must constantly be striving as Moses did to transform ourselves, turn our weaknesses into strength – a perfect message for the High Holiday season. What challenge – of words or deed- do you face and how do you turn it into a triumph this coming year?

Kavannot Edition 1 High Holidays 5770

As we sit together during this High Holiday season so many words, thoughts and ideas will pass through our hearts and brains. We are often overwhelmed and unable to take it all in, to find meaning in any of it. So here is a chance to pause for a moment, take the time to linger on some of the words of our rabbis related to the season so you might find a brief kavannah – idea that helps intend your heart, incline it towards forgiveness, introspection and renewal. Shanah Tovah U’metukah!

- One must ask oneself: “What have I done?” (Jer. 8:6) What have I become? (Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, Gates of Repentance, First Principle)

- Who has achieved complete t’shuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he [or she] sinned and abstains, although that person has the potential to commit the sin again. -- (Moses Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:1)

- [Torah] is like a rope which the great and gracious God has thrown to us as we drown in the stormy sea of life, that we may seize hold of it and be saved. (The Memoirs of Gl√ľkel of Hameln, Trans. Marvin Lowethal)

- When all we see and feel is negativity, we must search within ourselves for an aspect of goodness, what he called a white dot within the black, and then find another and another until these dots form musical notes. Our task it to find enough white notes to form a melody – a melody that will define our core and affirm our fundamental goodness. (Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov

- Accustom yourself to say again and again, ‘create for me God, a pure heart and renew within me an upright heart. – (Rabbi David Lida, Spanish Kabbalist)

- Prayer will not come about by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion. This is particularly true in an age when overwhelming forces seem to conspire at destroying our ability to pray. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

- Teshuvah essentially represents a lifelong journey back to unflagging soul-searching. It is a response to a spiritual disquiet that gives us the urge for Teshuvah. Indeed, we fell we are no longer the right person in the right place we are becoming outsides in a world which escapes us. The main thrust of this season is indeed to show the definite intention of changing the scheme of things. Someone who does Teshuvah feels the need not only to redeem but to rebuild this or her past. (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

- I lost my way I forgot to call your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were for my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting and the heart is a rage of direction but your name unifies the heart and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveler’s heart for his turning. – Leonard Cohen