Counting Blessings, Elul Style

exercise equipment

“I’m not in the business of making people skinny, I am in the business of making people strong.” – Brittany Shaddle

Elul is a time for taking stock of one’s life, and part of that is counting blessings. In May of 2010 I made an appointment that I wasn’t sure I wanted to make: I called a personal trainer.

I thought only movie stars and billionaires worked with trainers, but I had a problem: I had a long history of getting hurt while exercising. I’d start with great intentions, and then in a week or two I’d be in the doctor’s office getting a review of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for a dinged-up body part. I figured it was time to get some supervision.

This is how I wound up calling Brittany. She had a Yelp.com review from a man in his 70’s in which he talked about how much she helped him. Her credentials were impressive: a degree in Kinesiology and certification as a trainer. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t be mean to me.

That was five years ago, and now I count Brittany among my blessings. She’s kept me moving from 55 to 60, and taught me that whatever the diagnosis for my pain problems, the best medicine is movement. A sciatica flare-up last weekend was limited largely because she had taught me how to move through it. As for the expense, her fee for an hour was less than I had expected, and it’s worth it.

Brittany is a good woman: she and her husband Mike are two of the best and kindest people I know. She’s younger than my kids, but she’s one of my best teachers, and not just about exercise. Her positive attitude about every challenge inspires me.

Who is a blessing in your life? Be sure to take some time this Elul and let them know what they have done for you. As the liturgy will remind us, we don’t know what the future will bring. Let’s not leave the good words unsaid.

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776

Shofar

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 13, 2015. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5776!

Seven Shofar Facts

Rabbi Michal Loving blowing Shofar
  1. The only clear mention of Rosh HaShanah in the Torah – and then not by name! – is the Zichron Truah [Memorial Horn-Sounding] of Leviticus 23:24 and the Yom Teruah [Day of Horn-Sounding] of Numbers 29:1. The sound of the shofar and our obligation to hear it is right at the heart of Rosh HaShanah, the mitzvah [commandment] for the day.
  2. The shofar itself is a very plain object: the horn of a kosher animal, hollowed out so that it can work like a bugle. The halakhah [Jewish law] is clear on this: it has to be animal horn and it cannot be fitted with a metal mouthpiece or other fancy fittings.
  3. The person who blows the shofar is called the ba’al or ba’alat tekiah [master or mistress of the blast.] It is an honor to sound the shofar for the congregation.
  4. Sometimes you may see a shofar that has been plated with gold or silver, but those shofarot are decorative objects. The kosher shofar is a simple animal horn.  Under no circumstances should it have a metal mouthpiece.
  5. According to tradition, the shofar should be a ram’s horn, or that of a greater kudu (used by Yemenite Jews) both of which are curved. Occasionally you may see the horn of an ibex or a gemsbok (oryx), but they are relatively rare and quite expensive.
  6. The curved horn is required because the text for Rosh HaShanah is the story of the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. Near the end of the story, Abraham lifts his eyes and seems a ram caught in the bushes by his curved horns, a substitute for the human sacrifice.  When we see the curved shofar, we are reminded of the story and the mercy of God.
  7. Someone asked recently how a Deaf person can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. At Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, they have come up with an ingenious way to allow even those with no hearing at all hear the shofar. Before the service, congregants inflate plenty of balloons. Then, when it comes time for the sound of the shofar, all who need help hearing the sound hold a balloon in their hands. The vibrations of the shofar cause the balloons to vibrate (just as it makes the eardrums of a hearing person vibrate) and so the Deaf congregants can hear it with their hands.

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers. The shofar pictured is in the Yemenite style, made from a kudu horn.

Update on the Online Torah Study

Shutterstock/IvelinRadkov

I’ve heard from 15 of you that you are interested in studying together. The tricky bit is that we’re scattered all over the earth.

I have sent emails with possible class times to all those who replied. Check your email box – and if you left me a comment but haven’t got anything, please check your spam folder!

Pick the times that might work for you, and hit “reply” to let me know. Please don’t “reply to all” – I don’t want us to be a nuisance in each other’s in-boxes!

Shavua tov – have a good week!

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas

Judaisms Ten Ideas front cover.indd

I have a new favorite “First Book about Judaism.” I like it so much, I’m going to add it to the required reading for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience students this fall.

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, by Rabbi Arthur Green, is a wonderful guide to the most important aspects of Judaism. All else: the holidays, the mitzvot, the life cycle events, the institutions – all of that! is a vehicle for learning and living these essentials. And frankly, without these ten, the rest of it is theater. Living Judaism may take many different forms, but it always begins and ends with these ten ideas.

What are they? I can give you Rabbi Green’s chapter titles, although the book will flesh it out for you:

  1. Simchah – Joy
  2. Tzelem Elohim – Creation in God’s Image
  3. Halakhah – Walking the Path
  4. Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World
  5. Shabbat – Getting off the Treadmill
  6. Teshuvah – Returning
  7. Torah – The People and the Book
  8. Talmud Torah – “Teach Them to Your Children”
  9. L’Hayyim – To Life!
  10. Echad – Hear, O Israel!

Lay hands on a copy if you can. Split the cost with a friend if need be (at less than $10, it’s a bargain.) Read it and find someone to chat with about it. It will stir up your heart and your mind and you will know where you want to go next: learning, doing, action, something.

Enjoy.

Elul Moon

It’s 15 Elul. We are halfway through the month of preparation for the High Holy Days.

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What is not yet done?
Who has not yet been called?
What have I not yet admitted to myself?

It’s not too late. 15 days remain.

Photo of tonight’s moon by Richard Ewanick of Henderson, NV. I use it with his permission. He retains all rights.

A Note to Readers

I am down with one of my periodic bouts of sciatica. Sometimes it gets out of control. During those times, the worst thing I can do is sit at my computer.

I have a number of things I want to do and cannot right now. The first is to get back to you about the class I proposed. Another is to answer some questions too involved for me to address via my phone from an exercise mat on the floor. The last is new posts.

I am catching up on my reading, and if I find goodies to share I will do so.

I hope to be back after Shabbat. Don’t worry about me; this is a nuisance, not a tragedy.

I wish you all Shabbat Shalom!

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