Friday, September 25, 2009

7 Tishrei. Have a little faith - returning again to the writing of Mitch Albom

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are,
born and reborn again.
(Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach)

Mitch Albom speaks to me.  Not directly - we've never met.  But he speaks to me, and to many, many others too.  He is a talented writer, and I have found his books to make some of the deepest experiences and questions about the meaning of life accessible in a way that helps me figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it.  This year, my Yom Kippur sermon  (which will be posted at our congregational website next week) is framed by excerpts from his new book, 'Have a Little Faith.'  The book is actually on shelves on Tuesday, the day after Yom Kippur, but I received a pre-publication copy and, once again, Mitch Albom has written a book that deeply to speaks to me and, I'm sure, will speak to millions of others.

Nine years ago I read 'Tuesdays with Morrie.'  As I looked through my High Holyday files, I found a creative service that I had compiled for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, weaving excerpts from that book with the prayers of the morning liturgy.  One excerpt jumped off the page again; the words of Morrie Schwartz, z'l, as a meditation on the 10 days of return:
"The truth is, Mitch," he said, "once you learn how to die, you learn how live." ... Did you think much about death before you got sick, I asked.  "No."  Morrie smiled.  "I was like everyone else.  I once told a friend of mine, in a moment of exuberance, 'I'm gonna be the healthiest old man you ever met!'" ... Like I said, no one really believes they're going to die."  But everyone knows someone who has died, I said.  Why is it so hard to think about dying?  "Because," Morrie continued, "most of us all walk around as if we're sleepwalking.  We really don't experience the world fully, because we're half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do."

On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar sounded: Wake up, you sleepers!  Are we living each day, awake to the realization that the blessing of this moment might not be tomorrow?  Are we driving along the highway of our lives in automatic, or are we noticing the scenery, the people we encounter along the way, taking time to explore the side streets and the neighborhoods as we journey on?  Have we returned, and tuned in to our innermost essence, who we really are?

"Be compassionate," Morrie whispered.  "And take responsibility for each other.  If we only learned those lessons, this world would be so much better a place."  He took a breath, then added his mantra: "Love each other or die."

Shabbat Shalom, v'gmar tov - a good fast
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, September 21, 2009

3 Tishrei. More than Matzo Balls

This is a cross-posting of an article sent out to our congregation via email.  A wonderful interview with congregant, Adele Josovitz about Break Fast at the end of Yom Kippur.  Future editions of this series will also be cross-posted here on the blog for all to enjoy.

Today we’re introducing a new, periodic column to share with the Congregation B’nai Israel community. It will discuss something we all enjoy….food! It will feature interviews with different B’nai Israel members conducted by a congregant who prefers to be called Aunt Blanche. If enough people want it to continue, the column will appear periodically around Jewish holidays. Please send us an email and tell us what you think and what you’re interested in reading about. Our first column features an interview with longtime temple member Adele Josovitz of Fairfield.

Aunt Blanche: Your break fast meals at the end of Yom Kippur are legendary. I hear you have more than 40 people to your house. What’s your first memory of breaking the Yom Kippur fast?

Adele: Well, I don’t have any early memories of breaking fast but my younger sister is quite adamant that our mom fasted. Our dad didn’t fast because he had to work 24/7 since we lived on a chicken farm in New Jersey. Chickens don’t know the difference between one day and the next.

For me, however, the most important thing about holidays was being with our family. It was eating together and being together: aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. I do remember walking with my family to a=2 0very small Orthodox shul – The First Hebrew Farmers Association of Perrineville. This was where all of the Jewish chicken farmers in the area went to pray

Aunt Blanche: So Adele, you mean you have never fasted at Yom Kippur? I’m shocked.

Adele: I actually don’t remember whether or not I fasted before I went to college, though my sister insists that we did fast. However, I absolutely remember fasting while I was in college. I definitely didn’t fast when I was pregnant. That was a bonus of being pregnant!

Aunt Blanche: Does fasting serve a purpose?

Adele: It makes me remember and think about our Jewish heritage. It also reminds me of the pai n and suffering of our ancestors. Do I have to fast to think about these things? No. But I do it because it’s Yom Kippur and that’s what Jews do.

Aunt Blanche: What do you really think about when you fast?

Adele: I think about many things, including the meal I’m preparing for our family and friends who will be descending upon our house!

Aunt Blanche: Most people have a few people over to their home, maybe six or 10 people. You have 40 or 50 and you do it every year. That’s crazy.

Adele: I just invited 10 more people yesterday. Shhh, don’t tell my husband, he doesn’t know yet. However, he won’t be surprised, becau se this is what always happens. We invite the stragglers – the people who have no place to go. Our children invite people and our friends invite people, so I never know who will be coming. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see who will be arriving at our doorstep. It’s very important that everyone has somewhere to go during the holidays.

Aunt Blanche: So Adele.. What are you serving this year at your break fast?

Adele: Well, there are two halves. There’s the dairy half and the meat half. People can pick what they want to eat. Since I’m not kosher, I have the flexibility to do the meal my way.

Aunt Blanche: Tell me more.

Adele: We’ll put out my Aunt Sylvia=E 2s Chicken Fricassee, Matzo Ball Soup, Vegetable Soup, Bagels, lox, white fish, cream cheese, two kinds of noodle pudding (one without dairy for the “lactose people” as we call them! ) herring, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes. Kapelstash (fried cabbage and noodle.) Then there’s tongue, pastrami, corned beef, turkey, salads, pickles and olives, roasted vegetables, tomatoes with basil and mozzarella. We have lots of desserts…pies, cookies, cupcakes, fruit salad and my other Aunt Sylvia’s Mandel bread. I had two Aunt Sylvias. Now, that’s a name that doesn’t come up too often in baby announcements!

Of course, people do bring food, even though I tell them not to. I do understand that it’s hard to come to a house empty-handed. So there is always an amazing assortment of food other than what I’ve made.

Aunt Blanche: But that’s insane. That’s like a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a bat mitzvah combined.

Adele: I know, I know. I’m trying to recreate my childhood memories of holidays I shared with my extended family eating together at a very long table in our playroom. So, I am creating memories for my children, just like our parents did for us. Actually, it doesn’t really matter what is served, it’s always people coming together and celebrating.

Aunt Blanche: So what should people serve?

Adele: You don’t have to serve a big meal. You could serve scrambled eggs, bagels, lox and cream cheese. The important thing is to share food with people.

Aunt Blanche: Where do you shop?

Adele: Well, we don’t have any more Jewish delis around here. I go to Stop and Shop and Trader Joe’s. I have a friend who stops at Rhein’s Deli in Vernon and brings me the kosher cold cuts. My son is a baker at Billy’s Bakery and we get all our baked goods there.

Aunt Blanche: How important is food to being Jewish?

Adele: Gosh. You can never have too much food! You always have to send people home with food, don’t you? Food is very important but it is the sharing that is more important. Come into somebody’s house and everyone moves to the kitchen. The kitchen is the heart of the home.

Below is the Recipe for Adele’s Aunt Sylvia’s Mandel Bread
Aunt Sylvia Robbins Mandelbrot – also known as Mandel bread
Oven Temperature: 350 °


3 large eggs
3 cups flour
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup oil
2 tsp. &n bsp;baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ¼ cup chopped almonds/walnuts

½ cup sugar
1 TBS. Cinnamon

Mix together

Mixing Directions:
Beat eggs.
Add sugar – mix thoroughly
Add oil – mix thoroughly
Add vanilla
Mix flour and baking powder together
Fold in flour/baking powder
Add nuts
Divide the dough into 3 balls
Refrigerate for 1 hour

Baking Directions:

Lightly oil baking sheet
Take each ball and shape into a flat, rectangular loaf –
approximately 1 inch high and 2 inches wide
Bake 350 ° - 20 minutes

Take each “loaf” out of the oven and cut into slices – this will determine the thickness of the mandel bread.
Put each slice on its side on the cookie sheet
Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar
Bake 400 ° - 8 – 10 minutes

Cool on a cooling rack and ENJOY!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Elul 29. Reflections on a month of soul-preparation

Tonight is the last night of the blog before Erev Rosh Hashanah.  For those who have written, read or contributed, I hope that it has provided an opportunity for daily pause and reflection and that this year's Rosh Hashanah, 10 days of repentance, and Yom Kippur, we are able entered more mindfully and more centered as a result of these daily moments of reflection.  

Last Saturday night, when our local communities joined together for a staged reading of Merle Feld's 'The Gates are Closing', we learnt about 10 individuals and the pains, losses, guilt, silences, and fractures that each character carried from the lives they had lived up to this moment.  From the perspective of the audience it was so powerfully evident that no-one who begins to reflect on the parts of their lives that need healing and the places where teshuvah can help them reconnect, re-center, and drawer closer to a God-presence in their lives when they enter a synagogue sanctuary on Yom Kippur, can possibly hope to complete the process in a 25 hour period. We need time to contemplate, to speak healing, forgiving, or confessional words to others, to God, and to re-commit ourselves to aiming toward new patterns of behavior in the coming years.  The month of Elul provides us with the gift of this time, if we choose to accept it.

But while these days are Judaism's annual invitation to return, the possibility is always there.  If we are open to God's comforting Presence, accompanying us and holding us as we find the courage to do the difficult work of teshuvah and growth, we will find that the gates never truly close.

Over this past month Sh'ma Koleinu - Hear Our Voices, has received more than 500 visitors.  The blog will be continuing into the New Year, not on a daily basis (although a kabbalistic reflection series is in the works when we arrive at the Counting of the Omer, after Pesach), but there will be more coming between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a weekly reflection just before Shabbat, and festival reflections throughout the year.  An invitation to share teachings, practices, and reflections remains open - we continue to strive to expand the number of voices represented on these pages, so please do send in pieces that you'd like to contribute.

Wishing everyone a Shanah Tovah u'm'tukah - a very Happy & Sweet New Year,
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Elul 28. Making it a Sweet New Year

Around this time of year, many Jewish magazines and newspapers will feature honey cake recipes, articles about the challenges of not producing a dry, unexciting honey cake, and whether or not most of us actually like honey cake. So much angst about honey cakes! I grew up very blessed in this department. While I have tasted my fair share of dry, unexciting honey cakes in other places, my mother always makes a wonderfully moist, totally delicious version. She tells me that she works off a hand-written recipe that she got from our neighbor, probably close to 30 years ago. So I don't know the true origin of this recipe, but I know it works. The trick is to not overcook it, and to make it at least two-three days before you intend to serve it, wrapping it in foil until that time - it allows for the moist, sticky honey to really work its way through the cake.

So no more angst! Here's a recipe that has given the Gurevitz family pleasure for many years:

A really good honey cake recipe

1lb Self Raising Flour
1lb Clear Honey
Half honey jar of sunflower oil
Three quarters honey jar of tepid water
Half honey jar castor sugar
2 teaspoons mixed spice
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs

Mix together ingredients adding eggs last. Beat for about three minutes
until smooth batter. Use paper cake case or silicone paper in tin for ease
of removing. If you wish sprinkle with almond flakes.

Oven temp. 350/180. If fan oven 330/160. Start checking if ready after
40/45 minutes but can take up to 60 mins depending on oven. To check put
knife into middle of cake. If it comes out clean it will be ready.

This amount makes two 8 inch round cakes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Elul 27. The Gates are Opening

At the end of Yom Kippur, the images are of gates closing.  But now, as we enter the last few days of Elul and arrive at the New Year, the emotional and spiritual place we have entered since S'lichot is one where the gates are beginning to open - gates of the soul, gates of heaven, entrances to holiness, full of possibility.  A link from a friend on facebook today pointed to a powerful soul-reflection of a song recorded by Nina Simone - a spiritual called 'Nobody's fault but mine', with a fascinating history.

Music is one of the keys that open the gates to the soul.  Earlier this month, our Cantor, Sheri Blum, reflected on the power of Avinu Malkeynu as a soul-opening and transformational piece of music and liturgy.  Listen to one of the most powerful recordings of the Janowski setting, by Barbra Streisand.

May our gates be opened, may our hearts be moved, and may our soul-work this season bring us closer to our Source.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Elul 26. Sorry, Again

Today's blog entry is a cross-post from Tablet Magazine.  Marjorie Ingall writes a wonderful piece, subtitled, 'There’s no sure way to raise kids who apologize and accept apologies'.  How do parents help their children to say 'sorry', and learn forgiveness of others?  The link below will you take you straight to the article.

Sorry, Again

Elul 25. A night of S'lichot to Remember

Last night our S'lichot program and service, held jointly with Beth El of Fairfield and B'nai Torah of Trumbull, proved to be a very powerful experience for all involved.  The first part of the evening consisted of a staged reading of Merle Feld's play 'The Gates Are Closing'.  More on that later in the week - it is such a rich and powerful piece that it needs its own blog entry.  The depth of reflection and sharing from members of our joint community following the reading was as much a part of the experience as the play itself.  As one of our colleagues, Rabbi Dan Satlow reflected that, while he may tell his community during the High Holydays that others at nearby synagogues are reciting the same prayers as they are, by coming together and sharing these reflections, and praying together, we felt the reality of that commonality and the partnership of Jewish community extended beyond congregational boundaries as experienced rather than abstract.

The service itself was also a reflection of multiple voices and styles, seamlessly woven together from the contributions of 4 rabbis, 2 cantors and 1 rabbinical student.  It was remarkable because there was almost no advance planning involved in this part, yet the earlier evening program had really opened up the energy and spirit of S'lichot such that each leader could tap into that Source, and the whole that emerged felt like some of the most powerful praying we had all experienced in a while.

Beyond the specifics of the prayers, the melodies, the play, the discussion, bringing three communities together, blending our approaches and contributions, felt in and of itself like the holiest of vehicles on which we could be carried from S'lichot into this week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Elul 24. Psalm 32 - A guide to teshuvah

Over the past three weeks, our Shabbat morning Torah study group has been studying psalms that reflect on themes of forgiveness. The first of the three we studied, psalm 32, has a particularly contemporary resonance to it, offering what today we might label a psycho-spiritual teaching on forgiveness that offers much food for thought. Here is the text of the psalm:

Psalm 32. Of David. Maschil.

  1. Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over.

  2. Happy is the man whom the Eternal does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

  3. When I kept silence, my limbs wasted away away through my groaning all the day long.

  4. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my sap was turned as in the droughts of summer. Selah

  5. Then I acknowledged my sin to You, I did not cover up my guilt; 
I said: 'I will make confession concerning my transgressions to the Eternal'-- 
and You, You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

  6. For this let every one that is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; 
so when the great waters overflow, they will not reach him.

  7. You are my shelter; You will preserve me from distress; with songs of deliverance You will surround me. Selah

  8. I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you shall go; I will give counsel, my eye being upon you.

  9. Be not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding; whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, that they come not near to you.

  10. Many are the torments of the wicked; but he that trusts in the Eternal, mercy encompasses him.

  11. Be glad in the Eternal, and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart.

Some of the observations and points of discussion in our study group were:

  • What is the meaning of ‘happy’ in the opening line? When we have a committed a wrong, does confession to God and true teshuvah lead to happiness? Some thought that ‘relieved’ might be more appropriate; but others recognized more of a joie de vivre – a spiritually-ground joy in living that can emerge from true teshuvah as we allow ourselves to recommit to positive living rather than forever being trapped in the depths of our own remorse.
  • In verse 3 we see what, at face value, seems to be a contradiction; when I kept silence my limbs wasted away from all my groaning… But when we are aware that we have done wrong but hold back from speaking with those we have wronged, or even offering up our feelings of deep remorse in prayer to God, our guilt can have a real psychological and physical impact on our body and soul it can literally 'eat us up.'
  • The psalm enjoins us to do teshuvah and experience God’s mercy and presence as we work through our guilt and inner torments. The horse, who is guided by our lead via the bit and bridle, is contrasted with the free will of humanity, containing both the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara – the inclination to good and to evil. What is the source of our internal steering mechanism? When we stray from our path, acts of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah (in the words of the High Holyday prayer, unetaneh tokef), can help us find our way back into God’s embrace. There is surely a deep, spiritual joy that can emanate from finding our way back home again.
  • Several times we see the word 'Selah' after a line.  Difficult to translate literally, it is perhaps best interpreted as 'Pause and consider'.  Psalm 32 offers a contemplative text that we can use as a gateway to our own teshuvah process as we move ever-closer to the New Year.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elul 22. Petition (a prayer for selichot)

This is a cross-posting from the blog of The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat.  I'm a fan of her blog, and you'll also find a link to the front page of the blog under our 'Blogs that Inspire' list.  For those who are local to Congregation B'nai Israel, we invite you to join us at a S'lichot program and service that is being jointly hosted by us and two of our local Conservative congregations, Beth El of Fairfield and B'nai Torah of Trumbull.  We will be gathering at 8.30 p.m. this Saturday, September 12, for a reading of the play 'The Gates are Closing' written by the wonderful poet and playwright, Merle Feld.  Following the play, there will be discussion and dessert, and then a short S'lichot service to close the night.  Our joint program is being held at B'nai Torah, in Trumbull.

This coming Saturday, when Shabbat has come to an end, it will be time in my community for selichot, a service of prayers which we recite to prepare ourselves for the coming Days of Awe. (You can learn more about selichot here at; there are study resources at this S'lichot-URJ page, and for something completely different -- from a Reform resource to an Orthodox one! -- you might try this essay at Aish called Slichot and the 13 Attributes.)
A while back, my friend Jan (not this Jan, but this Jan) asked whether I'd written any prayers for selichot. I hadn't, but made a note to try to write one during Elul this year. I humbly offer that prayer here. Feel free to use it, share it, daven it, and respond to it in whatever ways you feel moved.


Compassionate One, remember
we are your children
help us to know again
that we are cradled
during these awesome days
of changing light
we want to return
to your lap, to your arms
remind us how to believe
that we are loved
not for our achievements
but because we are yours
as the moon of Elul wanes
and the new year rushes in
hear us with compassion
enfold us, don't let us go

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Elul 21. A Break-fast that sustains body and soul

Preparing myself for the Days of starts today with the ingredients sitting on my kitchen counter, ingredients waiting to be made into kugels, souffles, casseroles and quiches.  Into the freezer they'll then go, and on September 28 out on the break-fast table they'll be.  For the past 25 years, hosting break-fast has been our family tradition.  We are usually 30 - 40 strong, even after 24 hours of fasting.  We come together hungry, reflective, sometimes plainly satisfied, sometimes observedly solemn.  With open anticipation, we all crowd into the dining room.  

Our break-fast begins with our own family ritual, an assertive blast of the shofar.  The defining moment is when I raise my bagel for Hamotzi and look around at all the faces, the familiar faces of friends and family who are with us year after year, the faces of new lives and new friends, the missing faces.  It is at that moment that I realize, measure and find myself in awe of all that is the same and all that has changed.  It is at that moment that I take stock of the year that has passed and catch a glimpse of the year to come.  
L'Shanah Tovah, 
Elaine Chetrit

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Elul 20. One small step toward forgiveness

Last night I began watching a documentary, The Power of Forgiveness.  It is both powerful and challenging, as it introduces us to individuals who have experienced some of the worst horrors and have been exposed to a culture of hatred.  Included are interviews with Elie Wiesel, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, those impacted by the events of 9/11 in the USA, buddhist teacher and author, Thich Nhat Hanh, and members of the Amish community.  I recommend the documentary as thought-provoking viewing, particularly during this month of Elul.

One moment, early in the documentary, that particularly moved me, was watching teachers in Nothern Ireland work with young children.  These children are part of families who have lived for decades - multiple generations - in a culture of hate and violence.  While peace has come to Northern Ireland, there are still many years of work ahead to rebuild trust, and authentic community connections across the Catholic/Protestant divide.  A curriculum has been created, and schools engage in activities to teach a culture of forgiveness among the youth - trying to lay the foundations for a brighter future.  As the curriculum designers state in the documentary, the goal is not to turn a blind eye to wrongs or ignore injustices where action must be taken.  But when a wrong is magnified in a way that vilifies an individual or an entire community, it becomes the excuse for replenishing a well of anger and nurturing a culture of hate.  How to break the cycle?

We start with the individual self.  How do we respond when provoked?  How do we prevent a particular experience from becoming the sole lens through which we experience the 'other' or experience the rest of our lives?  One young child in the documentary tells her teacher about her sister who had been nasty to her and hit her.  She expresses the hurt of that moment.  Then the teacher hands her a pair of shaded plastic spectacles.  She puts them on and is asked, if she looks at her sister through this other lens, can she find something about her sister that is positive.  'She is always there for me', the little girl says.

In the documentary it is a moment that lasts a few seconds, but it is moving.
When someone hurts us, or we experience suffering through circumstances that have befallen us, might we find the first steps toward forgiveness and the ability to move on in our lives if only we could take a look through another set of lenses?
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, September 7, 2009

19 Elul. Contemplating life and loss

I was recently in conversation with a friend about the experience of being a rabbi and officiating at many funerals.  I was asked if and how I was affected by encountering so much loss and death.  While there is a great deal that could be said, and I'm sure many clergy would answer the question differently, the experience of officiating at funerals always leaves me contemplative, returning to some of life's biggest questions.

When I speak to friends and family of the deceased, in order to gather impressions and stories for a eulogy, or when I listen to the eulogies of others delivered at the funeral, particularly when I did not personally know the deceased or did not know them well, I am often left with the feeling that I missed out by not having had the opportunity to experience this individual in my life.  It is a very powerful experience to hear how they were present in the lives of others, leaving one feeling a sense of their absence very strongly.  The message - every life is unique and every person is special and has contributed something to the life of others.

I am also drawn to spend some time recognizing the preciousness of people in my life and sometimes find myself stepping into the time when they will not be with me in this world.  I feel the potential of loss acutely, and my love for friends and family feels intensified in that moment.

I also find myself reflecting on my own life.  Am I living it the way I would want it to be remembered?  What is the source of my life's meaning?

We must not wait for the funerals of our lives to contemplate these questions to find meaning in all the connections we have and the communities we are part of.  We must not wait until the end to tell others how much we truly loved them and cherished them in our lives, or how much we learnt from them.  On Yom Kippur in the medieval poem unetaneh tokef we are asked to contemplate who shall live and who shall die.  I don't believe in a God who is willfully making those decisions about each of us.  But I do believe that every human being is unique and every life is special, and we are called upon at the New Year to return to who we truly are, recommit to connect more passionately and more deeply with each other.  Because this is the only life that we have, and this is where we will find ultimate meaning and, ultimately, find God.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, September 6, 2009

18 Elul. Teshuvah Walks

By Rabbi Goldie Milgram

During each of the "Days of Awe" between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur 2000 I planned to take a teshuvah walk.

What is a teshuvah walk? Some years ago while on a retreat with Rabbi Shefa Gold and Sylvia Boorstein, we were doing Buddhist meditation walks. This is done so slowly that one becomes aware of how conscious it is possible to be with each centimeter of one's foot when stepping down and lifting up. Time slows down, the present becomes everything, the step gone by is not important compared to the one in which one is engaged.

An active quick mind is not always advantageous, this can lead one to leap over the opportunity to hear the ideas, needs and feelings of others. Such leaps can have adverse consequences. So it occurred to me a few years ago, that when one is going to meet another person as part of a process of doing teshuvah (the returning of healthy energy to a relationship) that a meditation walk might be a good form of preparation.

My method is to study a great work on teshuvah each day. Then to head to the neighborhood where the teshuvah encounter is to take place, though not to the precise location. Next I take a sacred phrase and chant it softly while walking ever so slowly. My hope is to prepare myself so as to arrive as carefully prepared as a vessel that has been made ready for use on the altar in the temple of old.

The text I chose for Day One is by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: "Time flows in one direction; it is impossible to undo or even to alter an action after it has occurred and become an 'event', an objective fact. However, even though the past is 'fixed', repentance allows one to rise above it, to change its significance for the present and the future ... It is the potential for something else. "

Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism as a Spiritual Practice: Holy Days and Shabbat,
Jewish Lights, 2004; more information available at Used with permission of the author.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

17 Elul. Gratitude for Daily Miracles

Inspired by last week's posting about a local Happiness Club, and ways to re-center our lives each and every day by beginning with an attitude of gratitude, congregant Beth Lazar wrote this poem - a contemporary interpretation of the traditional birkat hashachar - the morning blessings.

Thank-you God for awakening me to the new day
to You & only You I pray
Thank-you for enabling me to speak
Please accept these words of praise from your servant so meek -
Your Holy blessing I do seek.
Thank-you God 
for my eyes and the ability to see
the forces of loving friends and family
and the beauty of your creativity.
Thank-you God 
for my ears and the ability to hear
birds chirping, the wind & music
Words of wisdom & words of good cheer.
Thank-you God
for my strong arms & legs
that enable me to work & play
and get me where I want to go
and enable me to reap & sow.
Thank-you God
for the clothing on my back
healthy food, shelter, clothing
There is nothing that I lack.
Thank-you God
for these miracles You perform each day
to You & only You I pray.
Please accept these words of thanks
from Your servant so meek
Your Holy acceptance I do seek.
Have a daily affirmation that helps to orientate you for the day?  Please share it by leaving a comment.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

15 Elul. Beginner’s Mind – Renewing our days as of old

There is a line of prayer that we recite many times over during the High Holydays. We also sing these words every Shabbat when we return the Torah to the Ark. And the original source of the words are from the end of the book of Lamentations (5:21). These are the words:

Hashivenu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva
Chadeish yameinu k-kedem

Take us back, O God, to Yourself, and let us come back
Renew our days as of old
(translation by Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi).
Reb Zalman, in a booklet published by Aleph on Teshuvah, teaches a way to understand those last few words, ‘… as of old.’ So often, when we know we have done something wrong, one emotion connected to our desire to do teshuvah is to wish we could return to the moment right before the deed. Like a child who breaks a vase in the house, who tries to reassure their father, ‘I’m going to be ok, I’m going to be good now, daddy’. Some of the prayers of the high holydays, when read at face value, can feel a bit like this. We feel the shame of the acts, and the remorse, but the High Holydays offer the potential for something much more. In fact, many Jews think of these days as being all about guilt – understandable given the tone of much of ancient liturgy, but unfortunate because a different approach could leave us feeling truly joyous.

A higher spiritual level of doing teshuvah requires us to address the motivation that led to the act in the first place. Rather than focusing only on the deeds, we are called to look deeper at our patterns and intentions. When we come to know ourselves in this way, and re-enter a scenario with the awareness and intention to act in a way that is more God-centered, we open ourselves to what Zen practice calls Shoshin -  ‘beginner’s mind.’ To do so requires an awareness that the way we responded to a situation before, based on our own histories, experiences, assumptions, etc. is not a given. If this was the only way we could experience and understand our world, how would it be possible to change the outcome were we to return to a similar situation in the future? But by knowing our habitual tendencies, understanding when they do not serve us or serve God, we can truly begin the year anew, with new possibilities opened to us.

Experiencing the world with ‘beginner’s mind’ – returning to a place before our past behaviors interrupted our ability to ‘tune in’ to the spiritual homing signal that our soul emits – this is a truly freeing, joyous experience. Much better than brooding on all that guilt!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

14 Elul. A Unique Response to the Call of the Shofar

As we are almost half-way through the month of Elul, I thought it was time for a little light relief. A congregant pointed me to this wonderful youtube video – a truly unique response to the call of the Shofar.

Of course, we can find some of the deepest truths embedded in humor. And this little video clip is no exception. The sound of the shofar, wailing and soulful, is a powerful sound that resonates deeply within when we hear it. The question for us is what will our response be? For some it may be contemplation of life’s choices; for some it might be tears caused by life’s losses; for some it might be remembrance of Jewish holidays with family in years past, perhaps accompanied by a yearning to find some of that yiddishkeit in their own lives once more; for some it might be a call to action – to recommit to make a difference in this world.

I am a trumpet player and so, over the years, I have blown shofar in different settings – brass players find it relatively easy to sound the shofar. There is one big difference for me between playing the trumpet and blowing the shofar. When I play the trumpet I feel as though I am sending vibrations through the instrument, trying to do so in a way that makes its sound ring vibrantly, soar and shine as best as I can. When I blow shofar, I feel it sending its vibrations through me, shaking me out of my slumber, calling upon me to soar and shine as best as I can.

When you hear the call of the shofar this year, listen carefully; listen differently. Let the vibrations from those wailing calls penetrate deeply, opening heart and soul, demanding a response.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

13 Elul. Mourning and Spiritual Messages Derived from this Holiday: the Power of Choosing Life:

Photo by Frank Dobrushken
The Days of Awe invite us to see where we missed the mark in our past year of life and to realign.
During these days we look upon life and upon death and are urged to return to life giving ways of living.
For some 'choosing life' when mourning means reaching out for needed support. For some choosing life means shifting the way we look at the world, consciously choosing to look at the world and life in ways that bring peace, quietude, gratitude and joy in the midst of grief.

For some choosing life means evaluating if we have fully given ourselves to the mourning process. Whether we've tried to leave prematurely, not having allowed ourselves the time and space we need to mourn.

Choosing life when mourning also means being aware if this place of grief has become overly comfortable.

We're not shaped to stay in intense grief all our lives.

Your grief will not utterly disappear. Your bond, your connection, will remain within you for rest of your life.

People we are linked with and love who have died are part of our body, a part of who we are, and a part of our life story. By allowing ourselves to deeply mourn, the intensity of grief begins to shift and change.

One caveat, for those who have experienced the death of a child:
The loss of a child remains keenly within throughout one's life.
One learns how to survive, how to live with that loss inside oneself.
The grief of the loss of a child at any age, from a young child to an adult child, can surface quickly and sharply, with intensity throughout life.One need repeatedly, at junctures, determinedly, choose to live. Our child would demand that of us.

We need choose to connect with life.
We need to work to be connected with others and to engage in activities that bring joy and meaning.
There comes a pivatol time when you profoundly know that only you can change your life.
That no one else can do this for you.
And this turning point, this knowing, this acting, this choosing, is a path of deep spirit.

Choosing life calls us to affirm the good that exists in this world as well as that which is random, to see that which is mysterious, incomprehensible, as well that which is evil. It calls us to see the beauty that is there as well and consciously to savor it.

Choosing life calls us to claim life, to join in life, as the different people we are, in our now different circumstances.
Rabbi Vicki Hollander.
For more inspirational and supportive guidance from Rabbi Hollander, visit her website.