Thursday, September 18, 2014

#BlogElul 23: You turn my mourning into dancing

Today's blog is dedicated to the memory of Mordecai Levow
my father-in-law

Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not about human frailty or the futility of human endeavors. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is about the power of others to affect us, about our power to affect others, about the power of the dead and the living to continue to affect each other. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not simply about remembering the dead, by about attempting to effect change in our relationships with the dead and thus to effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.
(Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in the CCAR Draft machzor, forthcoming 2015, Mishkan haNefesh, Yizkor service)

I've missed a number of days of Elul to blog because my father-in-law died last Wednesday. After his funeral in Florida on Friday morning, my wife and her sister returned to sit shiva at our home in Massachusetts. What happened over those days was a reflection of how love, healing, and change are truly what the rituals of remembrance are about, and enable us to do.  For those who joined us for multiple nights of shiva, the change that occurred over those days as memories and reflections were shared was quite evident, and powerful for many.

Without sharing the specifics here, the journey we took was one that first confronted the past, and acknowledged the challenge of engaging with memory in the face of difficult relationships. Yet, with the honesty of needing to acknowledge the challenges, the blessings that emerged from those life experiences were also evident.  On the following night, more family members gathered and a broader range of perspectives and memories were shared. There were many moments of laughter. There was a release - the laughter not only lifted the weight of some of the challenging memories, but also opened up the banks of memories that were positive and powerful. And so, by the third night, new stories had been laid bare and had risen to the surface. There were words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  By the fourth night, in a beautiful, spontaneous sharing and connecting of memories and reflections connected to the words of specific prayers as we davenned (prayed) the ma'ariv (evening) service, there was a sense of completeness. We were speaking of a life lived, and memories that we carry with us, but embedded into the heart of the tefilot that were so much a part of Mordecai's being that, when advanced dementia had taken almost all else from him, davenning was the only activity that he could still do, in short bouts.

In the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we find a version of precisely how we did our remembrances on the last night of shiva.  We are offered 7 paths, where readings, psalms and reflective texts are woven around the 7 thematic blessings of the Tefilah, or Amidah prayer, the central prayer of our Shabbat and Festival liturgy.  There is an abundance of material - many, many years worth of exploration and contemplation. There is a clear recognition that everyone remembers differently. There are ways to remember children who died too young. There is a prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. There are words to remember one who died violently. There are words to remember dearly beloved ones. And so many more.

As we return to Yizkor, year after year, we do not necessarily have to engage in the memories in the same way. With the passage of time, and the ways we remember may we, as invited by Rabbi Wenig in the reflection above, find the possibility to change our relationships with the dead, and thus effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#BlogElul 13: Buying forgiveness on credit

Avinu Malkeinu - one of the central prayers associated with the High Holy Days. I remember a congregant in my last community commenting on how uncomfortable she felt reciting the long list of 'asks' that this prayer contains:
Avinu Malkeinu - listen to our voice!
Avinu Malkeinu - let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
Avinu Malkeinu - do not turn us away from You with nothing.
Avinu Malkeinu- listen to our voice; treat us with tender compassion.

On and on it goes - these are just a sampling of the lines. My congregant asked, 'Isn't this the ultimate act of chutzpah? What right do we have to make these demands of God?'


She had a good point. And it reminded me of a story that I once heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z'l tell. He describes a time when you would go to the General Store and you'd ask the shopkeeper behind the counter, 'Can I have a ball of string?' and the shopkeeper would go to the shelves behind the counter and bring down a ball of string. 'Can I have a yard of cloth?' 'Can I have a dozen cans of this' and 'half a dozen boxes of that'.  So it would continue, and the shopkeeper would pull down all the items on your order list and pile them on the counter. At the end he would calculate the total bill. And, embarrassed but hopeful the man would respond, 'I don't have any money to pay you, but may I take these items that I need nevertheless?!'

You can imagine how that would go in real life. But at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, we acknowledge as much in the closing line:
Avinu Malkeinu, chonainu vaaneinu, ki ein banu maasim - aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed, v'hoshieinu.
Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful - answer us with grace, for our deeds our wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love. 
(translation from the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh)

We ask for the response to our pleas to come as an act of grace. That's not language that we are used to associating with Judaism, but it is, in fact, very present in our liturgy and many of our teachings. Ki ein banu maasim - because there isn't anything in our deeds.  We showed up the store without any money to pay for our requests.

Here is how I translate these words into more contemporary concepts that speak to our inner lives. When I really engage in the work of the High Holy Days and look deeply at myself, there is plenty to cause me disappointment. We are often pretty harsh judges of ourselves. And here we are, in an act of chutzpah, hoping that life will be good anyway. That we will be forgiven for our failings. Can we give to others what we ask for ourselves? Can we respond to others from a place of grace? We go to the store without credit, but one of the ways we can acquire credit is by paying it forward.

Living more of life with that awareness we understand that only through acts of tzedakah and chesed can we change the meaning of our lives. Its not about what we have or haven't got. A lot of life 'just happens'; we like to think we are in control, but that's seldom the reality. So we're never going to be able to 'pay' for our fate through our deeds. Because it doesn't really work that way. Acting morally doesn't buy us more life, but it does enable us to practice and to receive forgiveness. Because it gives us the tools we need to be authentically remorseful and try to make amends when we mess up. And that is the answer, from a place of grace, that we seek.  Remind us, as we pray, that we can change the quality of our existence, and the existence of others, through our acts. This is how salvation comes to this life and this world. 
Avinu Malkeinu - our deeds are wanting; help us to do a little bit more in the year to come.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#BlogElul 7: To be - I am alive again

When the new edition of a Reform Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals, Mishkan Tefilah, was published a few years ago, some of the changes and some of the choices embedded in the liturgy necessitated conversations in congregations about how we would pray some of the prayers.

One example was the second paragraph of the Amidah, often referred to as the ‘Gevurot’ (strength/power), for it begins with the phrase, ata gibor l’olam Adonai – Your power is eternal, Adonai. In earlier generations of Reform prayer books a change had been made to the language of this prayer as you would find it in a Conservative or Orthodox prayer book. In three instances the traditional prayer referred to God as m’chayey hameitim, literally ‘who brings the dead back to life’. For decades in Reform congregations we recited this prayer with a change in the wording, declaring m’chayey hakol – who gives life to all things. Conceptually, this didn’t rule out the idea, discussed in early rabbinic sources, that one day the dead would come back to life. But neither did it assert this doctrinal belief in the way that the traditional phrase seemed to do so definitively.

So why, when a new edition of a Siddur was created, do we now find the words ‘hameitim’ offered in brackets as an alternative choice to ‘hakol’? There were those who argued that there were allegorical ways of understanding ‘who brings the dead back to life’ and that we could use the more ancient liturgical language without having to accept a messianic doctrine of the revival of the dead. We all have times when we feel like we’ve hit a dead end. Maybe we are stuck trying to solve a problem at work, deal with a difficult family member, or so lost in grief that we cannot imagine ever experiencing the joy and blessing of life again. And yet… somehow we do. We go home and we start the next day anew, and maybe we see a solution to our problem that was beyond our grasp the day before. Perhaps we try to reach out to that family member in a different way, or perhaps something changes in their life and we unexpectedly get a message from them to indicate a desire for reconciliation. And while we have good days and bad days, perhaps a grandchild comes to visit and brings us joy in the midst of our grief, or a walk in the fields on a particularly beautiful day brings us some awareness of beauty. Each of these are experiences of m’chayey hameitim – we have had a powerful experience of a revival of life. Our ‘being’ is not only in the past tense; now we feel some hope in the potential of our future ‘being’ too.

In Mishkan haNefesh, the draft Rosh Hashanah morning liturgy presents us with a poem by the Israeli poet, Zelda, as a contemporary text facing the Gevurot passage. In this poem Zelda, in the midst of grief, reflects on how the smallest things around her can suddenly bring her back to life:

In the morning I said to myself:
Life’s magic will never come back.
It won’t come back.

All at once the sunshine in my house
is alive for me
and the table with its bread
is gold
and the cups on the table and the flower –
all gold.
And what of the sorrow?
Even in the sorrow, radiance.

The closing phrase of the blessing (chatimah, or ‘seal’) is translated: You are the Source of all blessing, the life force surging within all things.

Bringing our awareness to all that surges with that life force can open up the possibility of feeling the presence of blessing in our lives once more. It is an invitation to return to life.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#BlogElul 4: Will you hear my cry? Will you accept me?


One of the most emotionally heart-tugging prayers and melodies of the High Holy Days is a petition called Sh’ma Koleinu. In a beautiful new translation in the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh, we pray:

Hear our call, Adonai our God. Show us compassion
Accept our prayer with love and goodwill.
Take us back, Adonai; let us come back to You; renew our days as in the past.
Hear our words, Adonai; understand our unspoken thoughts.
May the speech of our mouth and our heart’s quiet prayer
Be acceptable to You, Adonai, our rock and our redeemer.
Do not cast us away from Your presence, or cut us off from Your holy spirit.
Do not cast us away when we are old; as our strength diminishes,
Do not forsake us.
Do not forsake us, Adonai; be not far from us, our God.
With hope, Adonai we await You;
Surely, You, Adonai our God – You will answer.
(CCAR, 2014, All rights reserved).

Take a listen to this recording, with a melody by Levandowski, that I grew up hearing throughout my youth in the UK. (click on the 2nd sound link when the new page opens up)

Put aside theology for a moment. If you are not sure what God-idea you believe in, you could get stuck on the literal words here. But look instead at the human emotion being poured out. It is a heart crying out for relationship. To be received. To be held. To be seen. To not feel alone and abandoned, uncertain of what lies ahead. Uncomfortable when we sit quietly long enough to notice what thoughts, anxieties, doubts, self-disgust, arises within us. We want to be accepted. We want to be received. We need relationship despite our flaws and imperfections.

To me, this gets to the heart of the human condition. It is a crying out that has been distilled into a few sentences that captures so much of what many of us feel in the dark, when no-one is watching.

As with so many of the core prayers of our High Holy Day liturgy, the new CCAR machzor also offers us an alternative text drawn from a more contemporary source. On Kol Nidre, the text that is offered is a poem by Rachel, an Israeli poet. It’s opening verses, like the prayer they face, express an outpouring of emotion:
Will you hear my voice, you who are far from me?
Will you hear my voice, wherever you are;
A voice calling aloud, a voice silently weeping,
Endlessly demanding a blessing.

This busy world is vast, its ways are many;
Paths meet for a moment, then part forever;
A man goes on searching, but his feet stumble,
He cannot find that which he has lost…

Listen to the video below of the popular Israeli performer, Rita, sing these words that were set to a melody that has been sung for decades in Israel. Feel the same pulling of the heart strings.

Hear me! Help me find meaning in all of this vastness! Help me live in relationship and connection to others. Accept me, and help me learn to accept myself.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#BlogElul Day 2: Blessings are expressions of gratitude


One of my favorite parts of any Jewish worship service is the section sometimes labeled 'Nisim she'b'chol Yom' - everyday miracles. We are presented with a series of 1-line sentences that all begin by blessing God as we take a moment to contemplate every little moment that has already passed since the moment we became aware that we were awake that morning, right up to the present. Blessings for the ability to stretch, to open our eyes, to place our feet on the ground, for the clothes we are wearing, and so on.  I often introduce this section of the liturgy at a Bar or Bat mitzvah service because I think its something that everyone in the room can relate to and appreciate. Sometimes I see nods of recognition and see a spark as some in the room realize the power in our fixed liturgy to make us more mindful and appreciative of the ordinary - the things that we take for granted until we no longer have them.  Sometimes I feel some sadness as I watch rows of young teens who are unfamiliar with communal prayer, looking uncomfortable and self-conscious, unable to accept the invitation to verbalize out loud an appreciation for something as simple as waking up.  They will often smile in recognition when I admit that there are many mornings when my first thought, rather than being an expression of blessing, is more like 'Urgghh... do I have to get up?!' But that's when I realize that the power of a repetitive ritual that calls on me to recognize ordinary blessings out loud is the power to shift my whole orientation to the day ahead.  Now that is miraculous!

In our new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we are offered the traditional blessings - a list that we can find in the Babylonian Talmud, indicating that they are over 1500 years old. We are also offered other, relatively more recent texts, that express the same sentiment. On Rosh Hashanah morning, one of these options is 'Miracles' by Walt Whitman. In this poem, Whitman invites us to experience the everyday through the lens of wonder and amazement:

Why! Who makes mach of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love -
or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of an August forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds - or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down - or of stars shining so quiet and bring,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new-moon in May...
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles...
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle...
Every spear of grass - the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,
and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

These blessings are not prayers that ask anything of God. They are simply expressions of Gratitude. A way of growing this character trait of beauty within each one of us. If we want to approach the New Year with an intention to change and repair, this simple practice of morning affirmations can be quite transformative if we choose to make them into a regular habit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

#BlogElul 1: What are we doing here?

You are probably aware, if you've sat through High Holy Day services in years past, that these worship services run longer than most other days of the year. If you have not really studied or examined the words on the pages closely before, you may not be aware of all the 'extras' that are part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Of course, the Shofar service is one of the most immediately recognizable additions. And the singing of Avinu Malkeinu. And you may have spent many a year struggling with the medieval piyyut (poem) U'netaneh Tokef (that's the one that contains those uncomfortable lines, 'who will live and who will die'). We'll get to that one in a future posting.

But perhaps you don't remember a series of paragraphs that are inserted into the Amidah that extend the section known in Hebrew as k'dushat Hashem - the Sanctification of the Name. That is the section where we repeat 3 times, kadosh kadosh kadosh... holy holy holy is the Eternal God of Hosts.

The reason why this section of prayer is extended with some additional paragraphs is because the 'sanctification of God's name' was, historically, a big theme of the Jewish New Year. In ancient times there would be an official day of the year to celebrate and honor each year of a king's reign. Think of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. There was a lot of fuss and fanfare as her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated back in 2012.  Something of this ancient ritual was borrowed in Jewish ritual - one day a year we recognize and honor the coronation of the King of Kings.  In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy we do this when we 'sanctify God's name.' But what does that mean exactly?

The three additional passages that become part of the sanctification prayer over the High Holy Days each begin with the word u'v'chen, meaning 'therefore.' What follows in the 3 passages are an ancient liturgists idea of what the world would look like if we all acted in ways that demonstrated our attempt to bring a sense of God's holiness into our world. First, all of creation would feel a sense of awe and reverence for God. Second, the Jewish people would no longer struggle because they would receive honor and respect and, third, we'd all be acting righteously and we would no longer be witness to evil.

Now, putting the history lesson and the ancient language of kings aside for a moment, what we have here, right in the center of one of the central prayers of our liturgy, are words that remind us that we've really failed to do much of meaning if we dutifully sit in synagogue and mindlessly recite words, unless the time we spend in reflection and connection remind and inspire us that, when we get up, we make meaning by doing.

That's why I love some of the alternative, contemporary readings that our upcoming new machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, has placed across from the three traditional u'v'chen passages emphasize the centrality of our actions if we really want to do honor to God's name and bring holiness into our world.  My favorite of the passages is one that I intend to make the focus of this section of our worship this year - it is an adaptation of a prayer first written by Rabbi Jack Reimer and published in New Prayers for the High Holy Days in 1971. It begins:
We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world with paths to peace
if only we would take them.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease
for we might see the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them...

And, following additional passages in a similar mode, it concludes:
Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to gaze
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.
So that our world may be safe,
and our lives may be blessed.

I know how easy it is to feel frustrated in the ritual of sitting and praying over the High Holy Days. I know how easy it is to look around a room and wonder how many of the people we see will leave the sanctuary after a couple of hours of reciting righteous words and exert themselves to live according to those words. I know how it feels because I have had those thoughts and feelings, sitting as a congregant in years past. But I have come to appreciate that with all things in life, I most often act and do with greater care and greater impact when I have first taken sufficient time to contemplate and consider all aspects of the task that lies before me - not only what needs to be done, but who needs to be included, what challenges face us, and how we can achieve something collaboratively.

So it is with the High Holy Days. There are a great many words on the pages that lie before us. But they are there not to numb us into mindless recitation, but to prod and cajole us into action. Action that, when we rededicate ourselves to our purpose each New Year, might be that much more energized, thoughtful, and effective, because we took the reflective time that the High Holy Days gift to us to do better.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Returning - Renewing my blog for #BlogElul

I've been away from my personal blog for some time. For those who were following my posts, I've been blogging as part of a team for the folk at My Jewish Learning on the 'Rabbis Without Borders Blog.' We've recently expanded the team, so my posts there will now be monthly instead of twice a month. I share the page with a wonderful set of colleagues who offer a diverse range of voices. I'm hoping that the space created will help me keep my own, personal blog a little more current. Beginning this week, I'll be starting the seasonal postings that I offer more intensively each year in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah.

The Hebrew month of Elul arrives tomorrow evening. The month that will bring us to the Jewish New Year of 5775. As in past years, it is my intention to participate in #BlogElul and share reflections, if not daily, then at least several times a week. I hope that these reflections will offer some spiritual nourishment and food for thought as we prepare for this deeply introspective time of the year.

As in past years, I will try to align my postings with the daily themes offered by my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who has enabled a broad collection of bloggers to share many unique perspectives on these shared themes, simply by creating the list and enabling us to find others’ postings on twitter and other social media by searching under the tag #BlogElul.

In addition to following these themes, I have another theme internal to my own blog that I wish to explore this year. If you’ve ever struggled with some of the words that are recited in prayer during the High Holy Days, or felt distanced by the images and concepts that they seem to convey, I hope these posts will speak to you. Inspired by new translations and alternative texts and readings that are being compiled in the upcoming (2015) new machzor for the Reform movement, Mishkan haNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul), I’ll be exploring different ways into this dense and sometimes off-putting High Holy Day liturgy.  My congregation, B’nai Shalom, in Westborough MA, participated in several months of piloting services with these new materials earlier in the year and voted to adopt the new prayer books that we hope to have in our hands in time for next year. We’ll be using a supplement of material from the new book during our High Holy Day services and, in fact, during our Friday night Shabbat services throughout the month of Elul and Tishrei.


I look forward to traveling with you, and encourage you to leave your own reflections, interpretations, and responses in the comments of these postings.