What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


Yom Kippur, the Hangover?

September 15, 2013
"The Hangover" (Portrait of Suzanne ...

“The Hangover” (Portrait of Suzanne Valadon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I get some interesting and very thought-provoking responses to this blog over on twitter. (If you want to follow me there, I’m @CoffeeShopRabbi.)

I put up a very serious little post earlier today suggesting that we reflect upon yesterday’s insights.  Almost immediately, I got a response from a follower who reported feeling “lost and empty right now.” I think that’s a not-unusual response to a period of intense reflection when we rummage around in our souls and mess with the routines of our bodies. I’ve always thought if it as liturgical indigestion, but this morning I’m wondering if it isn’t more like a hangover.

There’s tremendous wisdom in the arrangement of the Jewish calendar.  As @travelincatdoc tweeted when I mentioned that I was looking forward to Sukkot: “Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.”

We’ve been in the shul for long enough: go outside and play. Build a sukkah, help someone build a sukkah, or just take a hike. Breathe fresh air. Let all those insights of the last six weeks rest on the back burner of your soul for a while and really live in your body. Judaism teaches us that our bodies are good, and that we should take care of them. Sitting on one’s tuchis for too long is bad for both body and soul.

I’m headed outdoors. Join me?

—–

p.s. If you noticed the difference in spelling Sukkot/Succos and it worries you, read this little article. 


After Yom Kippur… What?

September 15, 2013
Cursive Calendar

Photo credit: Your Secret Admiral

So here I am, the day after Yom Kippur, a little discombobulated and perhaps a little overwhelmed. What now?

BACK TO ROUTINE? Shall I just go back to my routine unchanged? Having made my “Day of Atonement” will I go back to my old ways, my old priorities, or has something shifted within me? There is always that option, but then the cycle of the year will be merely a wheel that goes around, every year the same, the years grinding away until I am gone. I want more than that, don’t I?

WHAT HAS CHANGED? I will stop for a moment today and think about the insights of the Days of Awe. What were the resolutions I made? What mistakes did I correct? Did I make specific plans for change? How shall I implement those plans? Is there anyone or anything I see differently today than I did a month ago?

RELATIONSHIPS What relationships did I mend in the past month or so? Now, going forward, how am I going to nurture those relationships? Did I resolve to spend more time with someone, or to spend less time with something? What’s my plan? Have I put anything on my calendar?

I have the power to make changes in my behavior. Now it is up to me.

What’s my plan?


Yom Kippur 5774

September 13, 2013
Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah


9 Things to Know about Kol Nidre

September 13, 2013

Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.

  • Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
  • Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
  • The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
  • Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
  • Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
  • We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
  • Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.

To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 

 


Torah vs. Magic: the Case of Kapparot

September 12, 2013
Chickens

Photo credit: Allie’s.Dad

Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may see news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. It’s a cruel practice, and distinguished rabbis have spoken out against it for centuries.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it suggests that we can “buy God off” without doing the work of teshuvah.

First, don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this. Most Jews don’t do it.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5774 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!


Yom Kippur and Depression

September 11, 2013

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

It happens that this year the Days of Awe align with Suicide Prevention Week.

Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say that before I learned Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The (non-Jewish) language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, made me truly crazy.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. Obviously I am still here, but it has sometimes been a spiritual battle.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It trumps nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means call someone, call someone. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, whatever, DO IT.

MEDICATION – After a long lifetime of hanging on by my very short fingernails, I finally allowed a kind doctor to write me a prescription for antidepressants.  They do not solve everything, but they have been a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and say a blessing when I do it.

THERAPY – If you can get access to therapy, it can be an enormous blessing. Find a therapist by asking people you trust for a referral. Your rabbi should be able to give you a name of someone who has helped others.  Again, there are no easy fixes, but a good therapist can help you find your way.

PRAYER - This is one of the places where traditional prayers can be powerful. My go-to prayer for navy blue days is the blessing for the soul we say in the morning prayers: Elohai neshama sheh natata bee, tehora hee – “My God, the soul you have put within me is pure.” It reminds me that the core of my soul, the core of every soul, is the Divine spark, pure and good. It reminds me that however I happen to feel, the essence of me is pure Goodness.

Why would a rabbi go online and post that she’s on medication for depression, and expects to be on it for the rest of her life? Because (1) illness, including mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of and (2) because it is the most powerful way I can think of to say it’s OK to take care of yourself and it is OK to ask for help.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings the dead to life.” While I think a future resurrection of the dead is a quaint medieval notion, I do take that prayer literally. Those who feel dead, who are in many ways as good as dead, can come back to life, and whenever that happens, it is a holy miracle.  That’s the blessing I say when I take my meds every morning, and whenever something happens that adds to the spark of the Divine within me.

This Yom Kippur, remember that what we call in English “The Gates of Repentance” are actually the Sha’arei Teshuvah. Teshuvah is much more than “repentance.” Teshuvah means  turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.


If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?

September 10, 2013
Hebrew

(Photo credit: Kashif John)

So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.

Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.

So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:

FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.

ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.

EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.

USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.

USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.

One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.


8 Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur

September 8, 2013

A dinner table with wooden chairs in a living ...

Every year about this time, I update and repost this oldie-but-goodie:

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown on Friday, September 13, 2013. One of the ways Jews observe the day is by fasting.

What exactly does “fast” mean? In common parlance, “fast” can mean just about anything. For observant Jews on Yom Kippur, it means refraining from these five activities for 24 hours:

  1. Eating & Drinking (yes, including water)
  2. Sex
  3. Anointing (using lotions or cosmetics)
  4. Washing
  5. Wearing leather shoes

Do all Jews refrain from all of these things? No. For the majority of American Jews, it means refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The last three items are less common, but are officially commanded for the day. If you are unsure about what goes on in your congregation, check with your rabbi.

Sick people should NOT fast. If you need food to take prescribed medication, or food for any other medical reason, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat as advised by your doctor. Children under 13 do not fast, but might observe the day by eating less or having a day without treats of any kind. Pregnant women do not fast. If you need to eat or drink on Yom Kippur, it is kinder to do it discreetly out of sight of those fasting.

Isn’t it unhealthy to go without food or water for 24 hours? A healthy person should be able to complete the fast. Those who are sick, pregnant, or underage should not fast. It is uncomfortable to fast, but not dangerous unless you have a medical condition that precludes fasting.

Some tips for minimizing discomfort on Yom Kippur:

  • Eat a good meal before the fast, including protein and fat.
  • Do not eat very salty things for 24 hours before the fast.
  • Drink plenty of water before the fast, more than usual. If you are wondering how much water you should drink daily check out the Mayo Clinic recommendations.
  • If you get caffeine headaches, taper off your caffeine use for the month before Yom Kippur. If it’s too late for that, have a little caffeine at the meal before Yom Kippur if it will not interfere with your sleep.
  • Stay away from places with food during the fast. One advantage to spending the day at synagogue is that everyone there is in the same boat.
  • If you get a dry mouth, use this old cantor’s trick: gently bite the inside of your cheek. That will make saliva flow.
  • When the fast ends, hydrate first. Then get something light to eat. “Break-the-fast” should not be “break-the-belt.”
  • Decide ahead of time why you are fasting, and when you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself about it. Because it is commanded? In solidarity with other Jews? As a way of expressing sorrow for misdeeds? Because there are people for whom every day is a hungry day? All are good reasons to participate.

Two things you can wish a Jew who is fasting:

“Tzom KaSHER” - “A kosher fast” – wishing them a fast with no mistakes

“Tzom Kal” – “An easy fast” – wishing them an easy time of it. (Occasionally someone may tell you that it shouldn’t be an easy fast. However, the commandment is to fast, not to suffer. If they feel they get benefit out of the suffering, that’s fine for them. You did not say anything wrong. Next year wish that person a tzom kasher.)


Will God be Mad at Me if I Don’t Fast?

September 7, 2013
English: Lightning 1882

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I was asked if God would be mad if a person didn’t fast on Yom Kippur.

We have a mitzvah (a commandment or sacred duty) to refrain from eating or drinking from the sundown that begins Yom Kippur until the sundown that ends it. It’s a tough mitzvah. Some Jews observe this mitzvah because it is a commandment from God. Some observe it because it is a custom of the Jewish people. Some observe it because it puts them in better touch with what it feels like to be poor and hungry.

There is another mitzvah that sometimes cancels this one out. This is the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies. We have a sacred duty to care for our bodies, and if a pregnant woman, a child or a sick person (say, a diabetic) fasted it could do a lot of damage.  For those people, it is a mitzvah not to fast on Yom Kippur, but to eat exactly as prescribed by their doctor.

Let me repeat: If you are pregnant or sick or a child, it is a mitzvah to eat exactly as your doctor has told you to eat, even on Yom Kippur.

But what about the healthy person who can’t or won’t control herself for the 25 hours of the holiest day in the Jewish Year?

If you truly can’t master your urge to eat, this may be a wake up call that something is going on with the body. Talk with your doctor and get tested.  (I’m assuming here that you have access to medical care. If you don’t have access to medical care and think that something may be wrong, ask for help in finding free or low-cost medical care. It is OK to ask for help. And if you cannot find it, I am truly sorry.)

And if you won’t master your urge to eat – well, I do not think God “gets mad” at  people. I certainly do not think that you will bring down bad luck on yourself by not fasting. I think you are missing an opportunity to experience your bond with the Jewish people all over the world who are fasting, to find out just what goes on with your body when you go past hunger, to cultivate compassion for people who have no choice but to miss meals on a regular basis.

The purpose of mitzvot is to make us holy. That’s what we say in the blessing before we do a mitzvah, “Who makes us holy with mitzvot.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an opportunity to grow in holiness, in connection to the Jewish People, and in understanding of a human situation.

Ready to give it a try in a few days? Check out Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur!


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