Thanksgiving Message from Rabbi

In Judaism, thanksgiving is not relegated to one day of the year. We are taught to cultivate a daily gratitude practice, and express that gratitude as our first act of the day. The ancient rabbis tell us, “Let your first words be an expression of gratitude and job.” When we wake up – even before our first cup of coffee! – we are supposed to recite the prayer Modeh/Modah Ani. With these words, we thank God for the gift of life. From this we learn that Judaism considers the expression of gratitude as essential and powerful.

In anticipation of November, I signed up for a daily Gratitude Art Journaling Class. Online, of course, and pre-recorded. Which is a good thing since I only have time to view one video per week instead of per day.

The class combines gratitude prompts with new art journaling techniques. Early on, I found the gratitude prompts to be not only meaningful, but also thoughtful and deep, and even more rewarding than the art projects . One prompt in particular was especially uplifting. I still smile when I think about it.

The prompt began with a couple of questions: Whose wise advice do you still follow?  What lesson did you learn from a friend, parent, mentor that proved to be quite valuable? Once we identified the lesson or advice, we were instructed to do two things: first, create a page in a our journal based on the quote or lesson or advice that we still follow; second – and most important – contact the person who taught us the lesson and thank them for their wisdom.

Although I haven’t finished the artistic expression around the advice I still follow (I’m taking my time and enjoying the journey), the second was much easier. I emailed my mentor, told him about the class, and shared with him my immense gratitude for all that he had taught me. I probably would not have thought to contact him to thank him in this general and yet very important way. I had thanked him many times in the moments when he helped me. To go back in reflection and offer my thanks to him had a significant and long-lasting impact on both of us.

And, once I finish the page in my journal, I will always be able to look back at that page and remember: remember the good advice, my relationship with my mentor, and the effect of a few simple words.

I invite you to ask yourselves the same question, reflect on which lesson or advice you still follow, and thank the person who shared their wisdom with you.

Happy Thanksgiving: may we all find happiness in giving thanks, tomorrow and every day.

…oseh maaseih v’reishit.

On Monday night, I sat with a friend on a balcony overlooking the ocean. It was one of those scenes that should begin with “It was a dark and stormy night…” So dark that we couldn’t see the moon or the clouds or even the ocean. 

We could see the lights. Not just the flashing, rotating light of the nearby lighthouse; we sat back in our chairs and were the audience to the greatest light show of all: a lightning storm. 

The flashes behind the clouds lit up the sky and the water, coming from various directions and with unpredictable timing. But it was the jagged lines of white light that really caught our attention. Every time we were getting ready to go back inside, my friend would say, “Hey God, how about one more?” Invariably, God would scribble a signature across the sky, or spread vein-like tendrils -about 10 of them – in the right corner of our view. 

Finally, we went inside. I looked up the prayer for lightning and we said it together, twice: 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, oseh maaseih v’reishit.

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Source of creation and its wonders. 

Every gasp had been a prayer. Every “wow” had been a prayer. Every time we looked at each other in wonderment, that was a prayer too. Combined with the traditional blessing for lightning and our gratitude for the awesomeness of the moment felt complete. 

Amen. 

Different Perspectives – the ram as hero

If you take an abstract painting and turn it 90 degrees, the picture can look completely different. Or, if you place a small frame over just a section of the canvas, you’ll have something else entirely. A piece you dislike could instantly turn into something you love. Perspective matters, and looking at art, a situation, a conflict, or even a person in a different way can really open our eyes.

Our Torah portion this week, Vayera, is most known for the story of the Akeda, the “binding of Isaac,” also described as the almost sacrifice of Isaac. We have many interpretations and commentaries on this passage, teaching us theological and practical lessons. Most focus on Abraham and God’s actions, some focus on Isaac, and a very few speak about the two “boys” who came along on the journey. But we have at least one more character: the ram. What about the ram? Here is a different perspective on the ram, which also teaches us important lessons.

“The Real Hero.”

 from Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell 

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,

who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.

As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.

I want to sing a song in his memory—

about his curly wool and his human eyes,

about the horns that were silent on his living head,

and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered

to sound their battle cries

or to blare out their obscene joy.

I want to remember the last frame

like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:

the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit

and beside him the angel, dressed for a party

in a long silk gown,

both of them empty-eyed, looking

at two empty places,

and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,

caught in the thicket before the slaughter.

The thicket was his last friend.

The angel went home.

Isaac went home.

Abraham and God had gone long before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story

was the ram.

Worship Innovation

When I first came to Temple Emanuel Sinai over seven years ago (yes, it’s been that long!), one of my long-term goals was related to worship. As a new congregation, I felt we needed to evaluate our current style of worship which was created through a combination of the integration committees, clergy influence, and habit; and then create a process that would lead us to a meaningful worship experience for Temple Emanuel Sinai.

This process would include conversations with each of you to discover when you are moved by prayer or worship services; what you find meaningful; how you relate to different styles of music, traditional liturgy, modern poetry, English, Hebrew, our space, tradition vs innovation, and so much more. Our process would also include opportunities for learning, since most of us don’t know a lot about Jewish prayer. And outreach to those who don’t attend worship to find out why not and whether they still have a personal prayer practice of some kind. With a dedicated group of volunteers, this could be an invigorating and impactful exercise, for us as individuals and of course for the congregation as a whole.

So, every year, I would write it on my list of priorities. And every year – as you might recall or can imagine – some other priority would force its way on the list, shoving worship down to the bottom or off completely. These were action items that could not be put off, and as a young congregation, we had many urgent priorities that landed at our doorstep, uninvited.

One of the goals of my Sabbatical was to experience other congregations and institutions in order to see what they were doing with worship. What I learned was so inspiring, and I was ready to bring back this new knowledge and creativity to our congregation. I returned on March 2, 2020. Needless to say, a process of worship investigation once again moved down the priority list. The situation demanded immediate changes in our worship, but there wasn’t time or processes in place to solicit input from a diverse cross-section of our congregation.

Almost two years later, we’re ready. We have a group of volunteers dedicated to our congregation’s worship experience. Thank you especially to Karen Kagan, who agreed to lead us in this process. We have a variety of musicians joining us to co-lead services and help us understand what Jewish liturgical music can look like today.

It’s an exciting time for Temple Emanuel Sinai, as we search for meaning, connection, and inspiration. I hope, through this process, we create many opportunities for comfort, growth, and awe.

B’nai Mitzvah Oct 2021 and Community

“Do not separate yourself from the community.” Hillel

Considering how essential community is to Judaism and the Jewish people, it has always surprised me that the ancient rabbis didn’t speak directly about its importance. This quote from Hillel is one of the only quotes I have found that directly acknowledges our responsibility to the community. Our responsibility to community is more indirectly acknowledged in our Jewish rituals – for instance, in the mitzvah (commandment) requiring 10 people in order to say Kaddish with a mourner; or in the concept that Shechina, God’s presence, dwells with people who study together. 

In any case, there is no question that Judaism puts great value on supporting others, being present for people in times of joy and sadness, cultivating new relationships and nurturing long-term ones. Hillel’s words warn us about being alone and separate, both for our sake and for the sake of the community at large.

Sometimes it has been a struggle to feel a sense of community during this pandemic. Online services, phone calls and zoom chats can’t replace in-person contact, and masks literally mask those facial expressions that reflect and inspire emotional responses. Other times, often when in great need, we have felt our community as a tangible presence even from a distance.

Now, it feels like we exist in some interim existence, a middle place that is both online and in person and yet not really either, a twilight kind of Jewish expression. We know that our situation could change in an instant. Still, if we follow Hillel’s advice and the guidance implicit in our rituals, our responsibility is clear: to remain active within our community.

We have many options to remain active within our community in very concrete ways. For the next three Shabbatot in a row, we have three young people becoming B’nai Mitzvah. Every few years, I write an article about how all congregants should be present at these services, showing our young people and their family that we value their growth and recognize their new place in our community. This is that article, and being present for these families at Shabbat services – in person and online – is a concrete way for all of us to remain part of our community.

On Friday nights, our B’nai Mitzvah students will be leading more of the service than ever before. The temple and sanctuary is open so you can choose to attend in person to celebrate and worship with them and their families. 

On Saturday mornings, the congregation is invited on Zoom to celebrate with the families as their children become B’nai Mitzvah: they will lead us in worship, read from Torah and Haftarah, and teach a lesson from their portion.

Join us – Fridays in person or live-streamed and Saturdays on Zoom – and be connected with the community. 

Oct 8/9 with Jayden Seifer

Oct 15/16 with Jacob Horne

Oct 22/23 with Lilli Treitman

Both the families and our congregation deserve a Mazel Tov for guiding these young people to the next stage in their Jewish Journey.

Simchat Torah – Beginnings and Endings

On Monday night, our High Holy Day season ends with Simchat Torah, when we read the last few lines of Deuteronomy and the first few lines of Genesis. It is both an ending and a beginning at the same time, and yet neither. Judaism understandings the reading of Torah as an ongoing cycle that never stops and never begins, and yet clearly we have “books” or scrolls really that both stop and begin. So, instead of denying the dichotomy, we combine two opposite experiences into one: a true reflection of life.

Simultaneous beginnings and endings happen all of the time: a graduation leading to starting a new school; an end of one job leading to the start of a new job; leaving a home you’ve lived in for years to move into a new home; having a baby – the newest experience of all! – which means the end of many things you may be used to.

But more than just beginnings and endings, we feel multiple emotions simultaneously, emotions that don’t seem like they should mix. How many of us have felt  joy and sorrow at the same time? We are confronted with conflicting emotions that overlap, and we want to give each their proper attention but without letting one overwhelm the other. We celebrate with bride and groom while simultaneously acknowledge the loved ones missing from the circle. We express anger to a partner for one thing while feeling appreciation for something else they did.

Simchat Torah is a metaphor that life is simultaneous, meaning perfectly normal.

One of my favorite readings is based on a famous line from the book of Ecclesiastes, which is the scroll that is assigned to Sukkot, the holiday we’re still celebrating today. It expresses this sentiment beautifully.

The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “There is a time for mourning and a time for dancing.” But mourning and dancing are never fully separated. Their ‘times’ do not necessarily follow each other; and in fact, their ‘times’ may become one ‘time’. Mourning may turn into dancing and dancing into mourning without showing a clear point where one ends and the other begins. Our grief allows us to choreograph our dance while our dance creates the space for our grief… Mourning and dancing, grief and laughter, sadness and gladness – they belong together just as the sad-faced clown and the happy-faced clown,  who make us both cry and laugh. Let us trust that the beauty of our lives becomes visible where mourning and dancing touch each other.

May we embrace each experience and emotion as they come to us, knowing that they are all part of our human experience.

High Holidays Music

High Holidays music is particularly important in creating the appropriate emotional environment to achieve a meaningful synagogue experience, be it in presence or online.

Much of the music we will listen to at TES these High Holidays is based on the classic Reform Repertoire, a perfect blend between traditional melodies and modern arrangements. The result is a very elegant and dynamic music that has its roots in the ancient sacred melodies of Israel. The piano arrangements give them a touch of the typical art song style we can find in Chamber Music.

We will also listen to many famous and moving modern Jewish choral works, including Heal Us Now (L. Sher), B’Rosh Hashanah (M. Finkelstein) and of course Avinu Malkeinu (M. Janowski). All the works will be performed in their original version.

On the other side, we will listen to contemporary popular works such as Elohai Neshama and Mi Shebeirach (D. Friedman), Shehecheyanu (T. Pik) and Hashiveinu (J. Klepper). I also feel honored to share with you my own setting for Ufros Aleinu.

About the performance itself, we will have different ensembles. While in the Family, Healing and Tashlich service I’ll be singing with my guitar, in the rest of the services you will listen to our gifted accompanist Brett Maguire playing our beautiful piano. Adding to that, on Rosh Hashanah Evening and Main Service and on Yom Kippur Kol Nidre, Main, Yizkor and Neilah Service we will listen to our professional quartet, which will take the musical experience to a whole different level.

The quality of the streaming will make this High Holidays a beautiful and meaningful experience, and I’m sure that be in your laptop, your TV or even your cell phone, the TES family will share this unique time or return to God, to our tradition and to ourselves.

Shanah Tovah

In the Month of Elul and Looking to 5782

I always swore I would never write a blog. Who wanted the responsibility of providing content every week? Because once you start, you can’t go back. Well, here I am – what is this weekly eNews message, if not a blog? (This is why Kol Nidre warns us about taking oaths… making promises you can’t keep is NOT a good idea!) 18 months ago, I felt compelled to share messages of support and show how our text and tradition could provide comfort in such uncertain times. A lot has changed in 18 months, but that impetus for writing a message in the eNews still compels me. Although I often get stressed about what I should write, I find that the actual writing forces me to reflect.

Reflection is one of the main themes and goals of the High Holy Days. I was talking with a friend just recently, and I mentioned how it didn’t even feel like the month of Elul. We have spent so much time on edge about how we were going to deliver services, that I forgot to be in the moment of preparation – especially my personal spiritual preparation. I may have lost track of the day, the week, the time… but time still moves forward, with or without my consent. 

In rabbinic legend, Elul is the month in which the world was created. The Torah, and thus the story of creation, begins with the Hebrew letter “beit”. The midrash Genesis Rabbah asks why, and the answer brings insight for this time. 

Why was the world created with the letter beit (for bereishit, “in the beginning”)? Just as the beit is closed on all its sides but open at its front, so you have no permission to ask what is above and below, what is before or what is after, except from the day of Creation forward… Another answer: Why with a beit? Because beit begins bracha, the word for blessing. (Genesis Rabbah 1:10)

This is the month of Elul, and it is time to both be present in this moment and prepare to move forward. Although our spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days includes looking back at the year and our deeds, it is done for the purpose of achieving a better future. Just as the Hebrew letter beit is open in the front of the letter, we can be open to the future, to possibility, to change. Being both present in the now and able to look forward allows us to experience the beit of bracha, the beit of blessing. 

We are experiencing Elul, and we are blessed to be on our way to a New Year.

 

A Bright Future for Worcester and Temple Emanuel Sinai

I have always considered myself a realistic optimist, a person who sees the world in abundance rather than scarcity. Although the pandemic has caused a small dent in my outlook, something usually happens to bring me back.

This week, that something is Worcester. Exciting news from the recent census shows that in the past 10 years, Worcester’s population has grown from 180,000 to 206,000, which is over 14%! Worcester is one of the fastest growing cities in New England and has grown twice the average rate in the country. As the 2nd largest city in New England, we’ve left both Providence and Springfield far behind us.

Why is this important? It is a sign that people want to come to Worcester. We have a good quality of life with a decent cost of living – certainly much better than anywhere close to Boston. And there is much to attract people: beautiful geography and recreation; great restaurants; an impressive arts community; sports; colleges and universities; a medical school and great medical care; diversity and culture; innovation in biotech and other industries; an extensive non-profit community; and so much more.

When I first interviewed at Temple Emanuel Sinai, I did my research on Worcester. From what I read, Worcester was at a tipping point. With just the right push, Worcester could be propelled to greatness… or just tumble back to the past. I was convinced of the former. And we’re seeing it happen. Even with the pandemic, our city and its surrounding towns continue to grow and flourish. People are moving here. The Worcester “Renaissance” may have experienced a slight pause, but it is still moving forward.

Temple Emanuel Sinai is benefitting from that growth. For the past few years, we’ve had young families and young adults circling the periphery of our community: attending Pray and Play or Purim Carnival; commenting on our Facebook page about our diversity work; and asking me to officiate at weddings and baby namings.

Here is the most significant evidence of our growth: for the first time since Temple Emanuel Sinai began, our Religious School has more new students registered than those who graduated – almost twice the number! This is certainly something to celebrate as we look toward the New Year. In this way and many more, the future is indeed bright.

Kedusha in Unpleasant Times

So much of Judaism is centered around finding kedusha-holiness in the everyday. This is why the Havdalah service is not so simple for me: the separation between Shabbat and the other days of the week cannot represent a separation between the holy and the everyday. I don’t find them to be so separate. There is holiness in the everyday and every-day-ness in the holy.

Sometimes our “everyday” is not so pleasant or routine or mundane or anything except wildly disturbing. Even then, we are called to find the holiness in our experience. In other words, Judaism encourages us to find meaning in all aspects of our lives – the good, bad, and ugly.

The concept of kedusha-holiness surfaced for me as I contemplated our High Holy Days schedule. The schedule that has not yet gone out because it keeps changing. (It will go out soon, I promise, with the caveat that unfortunately, it could still change.) Just as we thought we were getting somewhere with this crazy virus, we get pushed back again. I wasn’t thinking about kedusha in terms of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or planning for transformational services… kedusha came to me because I realized that we – I need to find holiness in wearing a mask, or adapting my routine again, or managing being in-person and online at the same time… or peering into a future that may include all of these things for a very long time.

I know it’s there, the kedusha is in this mess somewhere. And when I receive whispers of the holy, or glimpse holiness in people and their actions, or hear holy words being spoken, I feel full, the shalom that is more about being whole than just at peace.

This afternoon, while meeting with someone in my office, I caught sight of a bobcat running in front of the temple with a squirrel captured in its jaws. “A successful bobcat,” I was told by the other person in my office. What an awesome sight of life and death and nature at work. A moment of kedusha.

May we all find kedusha-holiness in all of our varied life experiences, in both the pleasant and not so pleasant moments.