This year I updated my usual re-post about Moshe and Yeshayahu, your "two personal spiritual assistants", and published it at the Times of Israel:
This is almost too good to be true: the beginning of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar this year coincided with opening day for Major League Baseball.
Usually around this time of year I show you this T-shirt based on an observation by Rabbi Morris Allen at my parents’ shul about the absolute parallels between the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar.
In all other years, pitchers and catchers report to training camps around Tu Bishevat, and spring training games begin around Purim. Which is for us the start of a warmup period too, with planning and preparation for Pesach, which generally coincides with baseball’s Opening Day!
On the T-shirt this part of a typical year is what here is called the “dog days of summer”, and it lines up with Tisha B’Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the Batei Mikdash (the two Temples). In baseball this kicks off a hot and hard period of time leading to the pennant races for spots in the playoffs and the World Series. The climactic moments of the season in September and October coincide with the month of Tishrei and the High Holy Days. (Well, they did before the expanded playoffs!)
This year, time and the seasons have been disrupted, and summer isn’t what summer usually is for many of us. Even baseball has this compressed season -- the whole cycle from Opening Day through the champshiop will take place in three months from now to the end of October. And for us, our season of teshuvah, of reflection and renewal, begins now with the week of Tisha B’Av and this Shabbat called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision.
This week and this Shabbat kick off two months of reflection that lead toward the big games, so to speak, the High Holy Days, when we judge how the past year went and think about our destiny in the new year. We think about being in exile and coming home. We spend a month, well into October, with the holy days through Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Like in baseball, there’s a lot this year packed into three months. But baseball’s new Opening Day, just invented out of whole cloth, can remind us that time in a ritual sense is something we construct as communities, to help us do what would otherwise seem infinite and overwhelming. Without the calendar rhythms and rituals, it would be harder to stop and take note of our blessings. Without them we couldn’t step out of everything that’s driving us, to tell stories of our past, stories of challenges and resilience, stories of difficulty and hope.
Without the calendar in particular, we could easily be overwhelmed by the demands of staying alive and getting by, in a world that is enormous and throws so much at us.
My teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman and Rabbi Joe Lukinsky, taught us what calendars and rituals do for human communities. They are how we fight for some order out of chaos, and how we build actual power to push some of the chaos away. Think about how many of our rituals take place at the moments when darkness begins. Our candles on Friday night and Saturday night, when we fight off the darkness where danger might lurk -- we refuse to retreat, we insist on saying I am standing, we are standing. In Jewish ritual, we choose those night times for our most messianic dreams -- when we step into Shabbat, the Taste of the World to come; when we step out of Shabbat in the first darkness of the week and summon Eliyahu, the prophet who tells us when redemption will arrive for the whole world.
Think about how many of our rituals are sitting in circles, or nowadays rectangular circles around tables, singing -- creating strength, covalent bonds between us, a binding chemistry that draws out the power in each other that is more than the sum of all our parts.
Our genius as human beings is ritual and calendar. These allow us to pull blessing and strength and resilience and connection out of the chaos that could be the world. otherwise Rituals are supposed to help us face what we are afraid of and make it safer to be afraid and handle fears, together with each other, together with the wisdom of our ancestors. Rituals let us tell stories not just about the past but about the future, the crazy audacious stories of a world so much more perfect thatn our own.
Rituals aren’t life, and they aren’t the only thing religion is supposed to be. They are where we find the energy pods, the wisdom pods, and the connecting bonds that we need to go out and live. Rituals and holy days are not for themselves -- they are for life,as a whole and we need them so we can live in this challenging time.
This year, we especially need those rituals. We will use them and wring us much as we can out of them in this particular season of this particular year. We need to consciously bring more of the rituals and more of the calendar rhythm, from this Opening Day of the beginning of Av all through the whole holy day season, Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah. We need to use all of it, because there is so much chaos and so much overwhelm in our worlds. As individuals, as households, as parents and schoolchildren, as citizens.
I want to help us this year make use of all the time of these three months coming, especially starting with Elul at the next new moon. And I want to help us make use of rituals that we sometimes just do superficially.
The four weeks of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah should include four deliberate check-ins. Maybe you’ll set aside four times for yourself to sit and reflect. Or meet four times with a group of people online or in a yard, twice to look back and twice to talk about hopes for the new year. Or maybe you commit to just getting to know a group better within the congregation, or learning something that might be valuable for your new year from a Jewish source.
We will have the sweet apples and honey, so we can think about what is still sweet in our lives, what is fruitful, what has been generative this year that we forgot to notice. We can look at the seeds and think of what we planted, or who planted something inside us that has grown beautiful and nourishing to others. We can think about what might grow and what will be sweet even in this unique new year.
We have the shofar, blown every day of Elul and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will think about the shevarim blasts, the brokenness of our world and the things that broke apart for us in our lives, and how we want to see them put together again. We will think about the t’ruah blasts, the scattered details of our lives as we have learned how to do each little thing again in a new way. We will think about the t’kiah gedolah, the clear calls we still believe in and still want to hear, the ways we are whole, the summons to where we want to be going.
We will have lakes and streams and oceans we can stand by, where we can toss away the things we badly want gone from our old year.
We will have the sukkah, the simple structure that challenges us to think about what protection is, what we really need in our material lives. By the time of Sukkot, we can hopefully think of ourselves as active builders of the new year.
All of these times and rituals will help us think about uncertainty and fears, and give us time to reflect and redirect -- and help us find the powers we still have, the wisdom we still have, the power and wisdom we can share with each other, all that power over the chaos of 2020 and 5780. Our rituals and our calendar will not be another demand added to an overwhelming list. They will make our lives easier, and help us turn our cries into songs.
We will have this new season through these months, from the new Opening Day we declare this week to the World Series of our holy days. One way or another -- together, online -- we will stand in circles as the sky becomes purple, and light our candles, and sing together, so we can live well in a new year.
It is not easy to take a day off of school or work for the High Holy Days. As school pressures have become more demanding, even at younger ages, the decision about bringing children to services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on a school day might be more difficult for a parent than ever before. In places like New Hampshire -- any place where there are few Jewish families in any school -- there can be a lot to navigate in terms of homework, tests, and after-school activities.
So here are five reasons to take your child out of school and bring them to services anyway!
1. It's amazing to see so many people taking time all at once to make ourselves and the world better.
This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It's one thing to say that each of us should always be trying to be a better person. It's another to see hundreds of people focused on that all at once.
We can show our children: Look how many people are working on bringing out the good in themselves and each other. It matters so much to them that a lot of them are taking off from work, and from school.
This is what being Jewish is all about.
2. So many Jews!
Especially outside of, say, Israel and New York, when do you see the Jewish community so big?
If you are a child in a place where your family is the only Jewish family around, or one of the only ones, you may not feel like you are part of something big and important. Being a minority can feel special. But seeing you're part of something bigger when you're Jewish is also special, and can make it easier all the times when being a minority is hard.
3. Shofar is really cool.
During Rosh Hashanah daytime services, and at the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded. On Rosh Hashanah, there is a specific order of blasts, long and short and very short and very long. It's really like nothing else we ever do in a service.
It's ancient and primal. The shofar itself is pretty exotic. In our synagogue, there are different looking shofars that our blowers use.
Plus, in a lot of synagogues, the kids are invited to come up really close even in a service where there are hundreds of people. You get the best seat.
Also, not to be sneezed at -- the Torah scroll. Not everyone gets to see it up close when it's open. But we have been copying it word for word for more than two thousand years, onto parchment scrolls.
4. Learning to be different
Coming out on a weekday to a religious service, and especially a Jewish one -- that's pretty countercultural. It's good to fly in the face of the culture of conformity and achievement, at least here and there.
It's good for our kids to learn that standing proud in your identity is important and not easy, but worthwhile if the cause matters. It can even feel good. Especially when you can tell your friends later about the shofar, or a Hebrew word.
Being different takes effort. You have to explain things about yourself and your culture, you have to know about your heritage. A lot of the work belongs to parents -- to be the ones to explain and advocate toward teachers and coaches. By the way, I (or whoever are the rabbi or Jewish leaders where you are) am right behind you, to equip you or to make calls on your behalf.
5. Hanging out
There's the service, and then there's not being in the service. Kids get to see other kids who are Jewish too and more or less their own age. But it's not Hebrew School, so they get to hang out and catch up and even connect with new kids.
There's always a couch or a room or some corner in the synagogue to find and claim. Kids get to make the place their own.
Behind almost any adult synagogue regular, or or almost any rabbi, there are stories and memories of what we did on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we weren't in the service.
All that -- and you and your child or children will hopefully find services meaningful too -- words, teachings, songs and melodies.
So even if it's hard, and even if you yourself the parent have a lot of questions about what's going on and what it all means, think about coming to services on the High Holy Days and sharing this experience with your family.
Got any thoughts or reasons of your own? Leave them in the comments!
If you are in our area and don't already have a synagogue for the High Holy Days, we would love to have you at Beth Abraham. Click here to learn more or get in touch.
This Shabbat is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new moon marking one month before Rosh Hashanah. I want to invite all of you into a challenge with me: the Elul Love Your Neighbor Study Challenge.
Part of the process of teshuvah (returning, redirecting ourselves) is studying what the Torah says about relationships between people and our responsibilities in the world. One of the unique ways the Jewish community can reshape the world in the new year is by bringing into action our teachings about compassion and justice.
What better way to start doing both of those things than to study this month a verse that is at the literal center of the Torah: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ V’ahavta l’ray’acha kamocha “Love your neighbor as yourself”
The tradition of Jewish commentary on this phrase, each word within it, and its context in the Torah make clear that this is not some vague and gooey teaching. Rather, it opens up a set of challenges and questions that we have to figure out how to apply in our personal lives and as citizens.
I would like to study this verse during the month of Elul, between now and Rosh Hashanah, with at least 75 people. I hope many will be people who don’t already usually study Torah.
When and How:
If you are interested in hosting a study salon at your home, or setting up some study time with me for yourself or a small group at the synagogue or another place, contact me as soon as possible! Or, come to one of these ready-made opportunities:
Love Your Neighbor Café (coffee, tea, etc are on me!)
Thursday, Aug. 16 10:00-11:00 a.m. A&E Coffee Roasters, 135 Rte 101A, Amherst
Friday, Aug. 17 10:30-11:30 a.m. Buckley’s Bakery and Café, 436 Daniel Webster Hwy, Merrimack
Wednesday, Aug. 22 1:00-2:00 p.m. The Village Bean, 33 Indian Rock Rd (Rte 111), Windham
Tuesday, Aug. 28 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Riverwalk Café, 35 Railroad Square, Nashua
Lunch Hour Torah – call in or participate by video through the web
12:00-1:00 p.m. Aug. 14, 22, or 30
Just click https://zoom.us/j/5530075723 or call (929) 436-2866 or (669) 900 6833, use meeting ID 553 007 5723
Beit Midrash In-Depth Study Session – 2 Hours of Torah (With Snacks)
6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, August 16 and Tuesday, August 28
at Temple Beth Abraham (20 minute interlude for minyan at 7:30 p.m.)
I hope this sparks many conversations. I know I will learn a lot through this learning together, about ethics and relationships and even politics, and we will figure out ways to share what we learn. I'll post updates on how far we are toward the surface goal of the challenge, and include a small taste of the topic in my regular Elul e-blasts.
May this be a step toward a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet New Year!
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good new month,
These are fairly unprocessed reflections, on a day when I went up to the Federal office building in Manchester, NH, to be part of an interfaith prayer vigil. Today, as on many days, people are being summoned to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to show they have plane tickets to leave the country, or they will be detained. My understanding is that the first family we saw this morning got a reprieve until March. Otherwise today, the parents would have had to leave and their children would have been taken home by someone else. They were in tears when they came out of the building, after a harrowing experience no doubt.
The Torah portion opens: Ki tetze lamilchama al oy'vecha... "When you go out to war on your enemies." Today it strikes me why the Torah uses wording that seems extraneous. Who else would you war against, if not your enemies? What else should you do against your enemies, but go to war? The Torah says -- war and fighting is for enemies, and enemies alone.
But in fact, today we get confused about who our enemies are. Immigration politics for over a century has been about turning groups of people into enemies. That happened to Jews, as in the 1940s during and after World War II, when the arrival of Eastern European Jews was resisted because we were accused of being not refugees but Nazi (!?) or communist infiltrators.
But when people in any group actually adapt to America, contribute not just economically but by becoming part of the community, become grateful patriots of this country -- those people are not our enemies. One person drove by our vigil and a car, a young man in his late 20s, and asked us why we want to commit suicide by bringing in people who want to destroy our faith. He doesn't know that the family in the Federal office building is not our enemy. There is a real issue of law, and people are working to reform our laws and figure out how to enforce existing laws. But we have to distinguish between who is our enemy and who is not.
This week I have been reading a book that I have mentioned almost annually on the High Holy Days the past few years, called Countrymen, by Bo Lidegaard. The book is about the safe escape of the Jews of Denmark during World War II after the Nazi authorities called for their deportations to camp. I'm only about a third of the way through. The part of the story that current grabs me is the specific day when Danes generally and Danish Jews particularly began to process the Nazi charge that Jews were enemies and not Danes.
For both Jews and non-Jewish Danes, there had been through the 1930s and early 1940s no language to even talk about "the Jewish problem", no language of separation even though Jews were Jews and other Danes weren't. It's heartbreaking to see Jews facing this question about themselves, and wondering about what other Danes would think and do under pressure. It's also illuminating, and inspiring, to see how many Danes rose to the occasion, and not just the infrequent "righteous gentile." Something was going on that enabled a whole society to refuse to see Jews as the enemy, despite being told so by propaganda backed by force.
This same society was clear about the difference between citizens and war refugees, or between patriotic citizens and totalitarians, whether Nazi or communist. It's possible to define your enemies, and fight specifically against them.
I know the language of enemies is harsh, but the Torah uses it. It's not a language of hate. Most of what we did this morning was a "Jericho Walk" around the block of the Norris Cotton Federal Building, seven times around the block in silence. This gave me the chance to take in everything -- the families we were there for, the flags of the USA and the state of New Hampshire and what they stand for, the fire station nearby, the ICE agents trying to do their jobs and enforce the law. The people who talked to us with encouragement, or honked horns. The people who laughed and jeered at us casually, who aren't neo-Nazi activists. There is nothing to hate here. There are some battles to fight, and some specific enemies.
May we have the wisdom to know the difference between enemies and not. May we have the courage to fight the right wars.
"Tech Tashlich" is an annual practice of taking one day in the month before Rosh Hashanah to focus specifically on technology in our lives. What things do we do with phones, computers, tablets, etc that we need to throw away, for the good of our relationships?
Why today? It is the 16th of Elul. 16 represents 4 "bits" -- the basis of early microprocessors, which are the foundation of today's consumer devices, from personal computers to smartphones and tablets. So it's an appropriate day in the month before Rosh Hashanah to reflect and commit.
Do you stop in the middle of a conversation with someone to answer a call or text? When you're out socially with family or friends, do you check your e-mail? Does the time you spend monitoring social media prevent you from relaxing at the end of the day?
Take some time today to think and work on this. If it helps, you can use your machine very briefly by posting thoughts or commitments in the comments to this post. Or at the Tech Tashlich Facebook page, where there are some further ideas and links to interesting reflections.
Some food for thought:
This was my D'var Torah in services on Sept. 10, 2016, Parashat Shoftim.
On my first Rosh Hashanah here, I recounted a small vignette that happened to me, that happened in me, when we were living in an apartment in Queens more than ten years ago. I was walking out the basement exit, near the laundry room, and I bumped into a friend. Not a close friend, but part of a couple I really found interesting. The two of them were creative people, a playwright/director and a dancer. I officiated at their wedding, and we had had many many long and deep conversations about life.
Anyway, I bumped into the playwright outside the building, and he was smoking a cigarette. It was a good place to smoke for an apartment dweller. I didn't realize he ever smoked – and I was kind of flustered, and said hi quickly, and walked along fast. And as soon as I was out of sight, these thoughts went running through my head: I can't believe this; he has a new baby and doesn't he know it's not good for the baby and he should really take care of himself; I thought I knew him and he was a smart guy; and he's younger than me and maybe not as mature and wise as I thought he was....
And then I stopped myself and thought: Wow, am I judgmental!
Today we read from the Torah Parashat Shoftim – shoftim means judges. And these are the weeks leading us to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that is also known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. So I want to help us get oriented to this theme of judgment.
There is a dominating image from the liturgy of the High Holy Days about the Day of Judgment. God is depicted sitting like a judge on a high seat, reading a book that contains all of our actions from the whole year – written in our own handwriting and witnessed by the Divine, God's-self. And on the basis of that record our fate for the coming year is decided – “who shall live and who shall die, who shall be tranquil and who shall be tormented.”
Now first of all, for the record I want to say that I don't believe that's how God works or how our destiny is worked out. I don't believe we are judged that way, and I don't believe in a God like that (which is a whole other topic).
But I do very much want to hold onto some of the imagery. The prayer itself is called Unetaneh Tokef, which means “we acknowledge the power” – the power of the day of judging. I love the idea that all our actions, good and bad, no matter how big or small, are significant. I believe that the decisions we make can affect life and death – whether it's how we drive or how we vote. And I believe our actions affect how we and others experience life – whether someone is more tranquil or more troubled because of me, because of us. I love the idea that we need to get focused on all this – that we need times of judgment.
Now, “judgmental” is a bad word. We often say that we're supposed to be nonjudgmental and accepting, so we don't drive people in our lives away. We shouldn't impose our own outlook on someone else. Look at the example of myself that I described: the torrent of negative judgments, just pouring out, almost out of my control. And there are a lot of places where judging goes wrong. It's really hard to do a good workplace performance assessment, or to get grades that really describe what kind of student you've been in a class. It's almost like we are programmed for negative judgments, and for inaccurate judgments. So we should just stop being so judgmental, no?
But we have this Yom Hadin, this Day of Judgment, and I don't want to let go of the possibility of judging – even judging each other and inviting judgment toward ourselves. The first line of the Torah reading today points us toward a couple of guidelines, when it says that we are to appoint judges lishvatecha – “for our tribes”, v'shaftu et ha-am mishpat tzedek -- “they should judge the people with just judgment.”
Judging is the most stinging when it's in our tribes – in our families, in our small social groups. That's the stuff that really eats at us. And it's also where it feels the best when we're judged to be good, from people who are close enough to see. We forget that we need that. When someone describes some way we are good, worth praising, it's easy to shrug it off, but it means something when it comes from inside our tribe. From the same people who are also critical and judgmental.
The second point is in the last words of the verse – “just judgment.” There is bad judging and good judging, and we want to get just the good judging.
The natural thing is that it's all mixed up together; careful judgment and being judgmental in a bad way. Thinking about myself outside the laundry room that day, there was this cascade of negative judgments about my friend the secret smoker. And, all of that was battling against my very good and positive judgments of this person, built up over a period of time. And there was a real issue in there and some concern for him and his family – I was thinking about a possibly unhealthy behavior in someone I cared about. So, bad judgmental and good judgmental, all in a bundle.
Can we get ourselves to extract from this kind of mixture the good judgmental, the mishpat tzedek?
We need a practice for this, to start working on for this time of year. The Baal Shem Tov suggests one: that every time we are judging another person, we should stop and imagine that we are judging ourselves. We should look to find the same flaw or the same habit in ourselves. If we can understand it, we will have more compassion for the other person. If we deny it, or we can't understand it – well, then we'll also have more compassion for the other person, who maybe can't understand it or is in denial. If it's something we can fix it in ourselves, we can figure out if it's something we can help the other person fix. Or maybe it was so hard for me to fix that I realize I can't really help the other person, and it's time to stop being so judgmental and upset.
Well, I have never been a smoker. But I can tell you that during the time when I discovered my friend outside smoking, I with my own small children was having an extra ice cream soda late at night while I was washing the dishes. It took me a long time to work on that.
And the Baal Shem Tov says that God never declares a judgment against us until we have made the judgment first. There is really no harsher judge than ourselves. We shouldn't be worrying about God's judgment, and we don't have to worry even about the judging eyes of others. They only matter when we realize we are judging ourselves.
The Baal Shem Tov is really reminding us that judging is dynamic. It's looking at good things and bad, it's looking at other people and ourselves. It's overshooting and then noticing that. It's thinking about our standards and what in our makeup and habits contribute to our better and our worse. For some small number of people in our lives, we can be really good judges. We should want those kinds of judges to judge us.
And when I'm the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, this is how I plan to use the image of God judging us on Yom Hadin. For each thing written down in the book of a person's life that's not great, I will think of God asking – why did he do this, is this within her power to learn, what can I as God do to teach her or teach him. How might this one help another one be more alive next year, more tranquil and less troubled. And what should I, God, be less judgmental about in human beings... because even God hasn't figured out how to get everything right in the world.
Over the weekend in the world of celebrity, actor and writer Lena Dunham generated a stir over an interview in which she commented on being seated at an event next to athlete Odell Beckham Jr. Ms. Dunham noticed Mr. Beckham on his cellphone, and she said that she imagined he was avoiding her because of her looks and body type. (See the full interview here.)
After much reaction, Ms. Dunham quickly issued the following apology through social media:
I owe Odell Beckham Jr an apology. Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don't rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it's hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he'd rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. I feel terrible about it. Because after listening to lots of valid criticism, I see how unfair it is to ascribe misogynistic thoughts to someone I don't know AT ALL. Like, we have never met, I have no idea the kind of day he's having or what his truth is. But most importantly, I would never intentionally contribute to a long and often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies- as well as false accusations by white women towards black men. I'm so sorry, particularly to OBJ, who has every right to be on his cell phone. The fact is I don't know about his state of mind (I don't know a lot of things) and I shouldn't have acted like I did. Much love and thanks, Lena
What do you like about this as an apology? Feel free to post a comment.