Before Kol Nidre

October 3, 2014

The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.

I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?

The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.

As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.

So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.

My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.

 


Yom Kippur: The Rehearsal

September 30, 2014
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

What sort of crazy people rehearse their own deaths?

Jews, that’s who.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.

One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.

I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.

What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen? 

 


Shana Tovah! and Happy Tishri!

September 29, 2014

shofar sound

In all the excitement of the New Year it is easy to lose track of the fact that it’s also a new month. Rosh HaShanah is also Rosh Chodesh Tishri, the first of the month of Tishri.

The main thing to know about Tishri is that it’s a month with many holy days: Rosh HaShanah, the Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur, followed by the week-long Feast of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. (Click the links for more info on those holidays.)

There is also a minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, which memorializes the death of a righteous governor of Judea in the years after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Read 2 Kings 25: 24-25 or Jeremiah 41 for the story.

It’s a busy month!


High Holy Day Tickets: Why Pay to Pray?

September 22, 2014

TicketsSometimes people are a little shocked at the idea of tickets for the High Holy Days. Sometimes they are shocked at the price. Often the next question is, “Why do I have to pay to pray? What’s wrong with you people?”

The rest of the year, there is no charge for attending regular services. So why on the HHDs?

  • Jews who never attend synagogue otherwise attend HHD services. This is true not only of unaffiliated Jews, but also of temple members. Most synagogues are jammed on those days, with a corresponding rise in the cost of operating: extra chairs, special sound equipment so everyone can hear, and an extra load on the physical plant. Members pay for this via their dues, but the visitors don’t, unless there are tickets.
  • These are often very special services, with choirs or (in liberal synagogues) with musicians. Unless the shul is fortunate to have members who are gifted musicians, these people may have to be hired for the occasion.
  • With the heavy demand, there needs to be some mechanism for limiting the seating without excluding members. If Temple Shalom knows that it has 250 members to seat, and it has seating for 275, there are only 25 extra seats.

    So what is a person to do, if they can’t afford the tickets?

  • Most communities have a venue where tickets for services are low-cost or free. You can find it by calling the Jewish Federation, JCC or other Jewish institution.
  • If there’s only one synagogue, explain that you can’t afford these tickets and tell them nicely what you can afford. (The same is true for membership dues. If they don’t fit your budget, tell the person at the synagogue in charge of membership. Often they can make you a deal.) If they truly have only a few seats, though, they may simply be unable to help you.
  • Generally, the only services with tickets are Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah Day One, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur morning. You can often attend Selichot, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and the afternoon services on Yom Kippur for free. Again, just ask.

And if you can afford the tickets, but are put off by the idea of “paying to pray,” understand that if you want a free prayer experience, you are free to organize one. Organize some friends at your home or at the park, buy a couple of machzors (HHD prayer books) and go for it. It may turn out to be a wonderful experience and an annual event!

Remember: every other Shabbat of the year, all you have to do is walk in, and a seat is yours. Why wait for the High Holy Days to attend a service?


Suffering is Not a Show

September 19, 2014
Puna district, Lava Flow

Map Showing Lava Flow and Population in Lower Puna District (Dr. Mark Kimura)

Dr. Mark Kimura of the University of Hawaii is on a mission. He wants (1) to empower the people of the Puna District of Hawaii by giving them information, and he wants (2) people “on the mainland” – that is, not living in Hawaii – to understand what is happening in the rural communities of the southeast corner of the Big Island. Kilauea volcano is erupting, creating new land and destroying everything in its path, and human beings are already suffering uncertainty and loss.

The trouble is that usually we folks on the mainland are not interested in such things until they become a show. In 1990, I remember watching the network news and seeing the homes of Kalapana burning up as lava from Kilauea volcano oozed through the town. The human beings who had only hours or days before evacuated those homes were not in the picture. They were not as photogenic as molten lava flow, glowing in the dark, setting houses on fire.

Twenty years after, I and a group of other tourists picked our way across the lava, on our way to see the steam and fire where the burning rock was now entering the sea. Someone casually asked our guide where he grew up, and he pointed across the lava field. “In Kalapana, about there,” he said. “But we had to leave in 1990.” Suddenly I realized that what I had seen on TV was someone’s home. I was ashamed that I had not understood that before.

This past June 27, the volcano began erupting in a new direction, towards the subdivisions around the town of Pahoa. The area around Pahoa is dotted with small farms and homes in subdivisions. It is a world away from the big resorts on the Kona Coast. Right now, the lava is flowing, and no one is sure exactly where it will go, only that sooner or later it could destroy homes and businesses, and sooner or later it could cut the highway that provides land access to the world outside. “Sooner” could be next week. “Later” could be anytime after that.

Sooner or later the photographs of burning houses and flowing lava could be on the news here on the mainland. Sooner or later those photos or photos of another spectacular disaster will be part of the flow of info into our TV’s, our computers, our smartphones. I ask that we all take a moment, when we see those photos, to remember that real people live there, that real people are losing their homes, that someday someone will point across a lava field and say, “My home was about there. It’s under the rock now.”

I will finish with Dr. Kimura’s words from the Facebook page he set up to inform others about the situation:

I wanted two things when I started this FB page: (1) people in lower Puna feel empowered (at least a little) by understanding the possible ramifications of the lava flow reaching the ocean; and (2) the rest of the world learns how serious the situation is and responds accordingly. This one is for the latter.

I don’t want people outside of Hawaii to just come here right before the lava hits a residential area (if it does) and simply enjoy the “show”. I want them to care. They need to know real people exist, not just the hot lava burning down the trees.

At the moment, the only place I can suggest to send funds to help is the Hawaii Chapter of the Red Cross. If I learn of other options, I will post them here.


What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

September 13, 2014

  1. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
  2. Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
  3. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
  4. The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
  5. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
  6. Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
  7. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices:  We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
  8. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
  9. On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
  10. The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
  11. Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
  12. In 2014, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 3.

What is the Book of Life?

September 11, 2014
Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote that “our days are scrolls, and we write upon them the Torah of our lives.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?

 


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