High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020

Image: Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel of Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA blows the shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Sobel.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 18, 2020. It will begin the Jewish Year 5781. 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 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!”] The proper reply is also “Shanah Tovah.” For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Aug 20 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

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 accidentally, 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.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

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 God. We atone for sins against other human beings 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.

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 put into 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 look for classes and services online.

This High Holy Day cycle of 2020 will be like no other. Synagogues are streaming services, and most services will be streamlined a bit. If you want to attend, check the synagogue website for information.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5780!Advertisements

Online Class: Learn About Jewish History and Texts!

Image: A group of people studying together. (Pixabay.com)

Have you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?  Ever hoped to go to a Torah or other text study class with confidence? Here’s your chance.

Starting on Sunday, October 18, 2020 and running through Dec 13, I will teach a class on the history and texts of Judaism. No Hebrew is required; this class is geared for beginners to Jewish study. Classes will meet from 3:30 – 5pm Pacific Time via Zoom.

Class Sessions:

Oct 18 — Welcome and Shabbat Texts

Oct 25 — What is the history of Ancient Israel?

Nov 1 — What are Torah, Tanakh & Midrash?

Nov 8 — What are Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism and how are they different?

Nov 15 — What are Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud?

Nov 22 — What are Codes, Responsa, and Jewish Law?

Dec 6 — What is Antisemitism?

Dec 13 — History of Zionism & Modern Israel

Besides lecture on the history and concepts, we will also engage in Jewish text study, encountering these texts first-hand.

This class is part of a series, Intro to the Jewish Experience, but students are welcome to take the class as a standalone class.

For more information and to register, check out the class page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and financial aid is available.

HaMaqom creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. We have deep roots in the Bay Area. We have been the leading provider of transformative adult Jewish learning experiences since 1974. We offer courses and programs from leading Bay Area Jewish educators and take seriously our responsibility to serve the most diverse Jewish community in the world. We welcome all who wish to learn with us and do not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, sexual identity, or national or ethnic origin. HaMaqom was previously known as Lehrhaus Judaica.

Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5780

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows a shofar. The shofar is blown each day during Elul to waken our souls.

Tonight is the start of the month of Elul, the time of year when Jews take stock of our lives and work to mend relationships. This Elul, like everything else this year, will be different: we in the U.S. are living in the midst of a pandemic. We are living on a planet suffering climate change. We are living through a political crisis unique in our history.

The central theme of Elul remains: what is out of whack in my life, and how can I improve? What if I died tomorrow: what unfinished business, what unsaid words would I leave behind? What is the state of my relationships? What, in short, is the state of my soul?

It’s a tall order for one short month. No time to waste! May this Elul be fruitful for you, a month of insight, healing, and blessing.

For Abuse Survivors: The Most Comforting Verse in the Bible

Periodically I post resources for incest and abuse survivors. This is part of that series. If such content is triggering to you, please just click on by.

כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

When my father and mother abandoned me, YHVH gathered me in.

— Psalm 27: 10

If there is a single verse of the Jewish Bible that speaks most directly and compassionately towards survivors of incest and domestic violence, it is this verse in Psalm 27. I remember the first time I read it, I read one of the conventional English translations, which softens the first clause into a conditional: “Though my father and mother abandon me, YHVH will take me in.” (JPS translation) Even in that weakened state, the verse jumped out at me: I felt seen by the psalmist.

When I learned how to translate Hebrew for myself, I learned that the translator had chickened out, softening the verse. As the scholar Robert Alter has written in his commentary on Psalms, this is perhaps the most shocking line in Psalms, and maybe in Tanakh. Parents abandon a child? Unthinkable!

The hard truth is that sometimes parents fail their children in disastrous ways. The infant-parent bond fails, or a parent is deeply troubled by abuse in their past, and acts it out upon their own child. These things do happen, and apparently the psalmist knew of such families. Maybe he or she had been such a child – we will never know.

I find this verse comforting to say aloud. I can say it in English or in Hebrew. If you would like to say it in Hebrew, here is a transliteration:

Ki avEE v’eeMEE azaVOOni va’AdoNAI ya’as-FAH-nee.

When my father and mother abandoned me, the Holy One took me in.

To me, there is no more comforting line in all of Scripture. Is there another verse that speaks particularly to you?

How Can We Avert this Evil Decree?

Image: A family huddles together wearing surgical masks, while the coronavirus hovers in the background. (Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay)

What? Are we still slogging through this pandemic? Surely it was going to be over by now!

The bad news about Covid-19 is becoming clearer to more and more of us here in the USA. Yes, we are still slogging through it. And no, it isn’t going to be “over” anytime soon or maybe at all. No amount of wishing or happy talk will change that fact.

What CAN change the evil decree, as it says in the High Holy Days liturgy we’ll be reading (over Zoom, or facebook, or in our homes) in September?

The liturgy tells us that “prayer, repentance, and charity” are the recipe for changing the evil decree. But how can that be so? What about science?

Science has its place. Science can give us the information we need to choose our actions. Science can develop treatments and vaccines. But science alone cannot change our behavior, and science alone will not defeat the coronavirus.

Prayer – The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually translates in English as “to judge oneself.” If we want to “defeat Covid,” we each need to have some serious conversations with ourselves and with God about our behavior. Am I truly doing all I can to avoid spreading Covid-19 by wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from anyone who isn’t in my immediate household? Or is life one little exception after another? Is there more I could do? Am I pressuring anyone to “loosen up” a bit because I want something?

This may seem to you to be an odd definition of prayer, but many of our understandings from English words are heavily colored by Christian understandings of the words. In the Jewish understanding, prayer can be talking to God, but one does not need to be “religious” or even “spiritual” to pray. Praying can be putting into words what we need and what we feel, or saying words from the tradition and having our own reactions to them. Either way, we pray best when we are totally honest. That’s when prayer can work on our souls and our lives and produce real change.

Repentance – The Hebrew for repentance is teshuvah. It’s more than being sorry. It’s more than a promise to change. I like to say that teshuvah is the Jewish Cure for Guilt, because it is a very specific process for change, or as the root of the word implies, turning things around. We need to make teshuvah about individual behaviors (see “Prayer” above) and we need to make teshuvah as a country. Covid-19 has laid bare so many of the systemic problems in our society: health care based on employment, racial and economic inequities, the undervaluation of essential workers, and the evils of food and housing insecurity, to name but a few. If we hope to “defeat Covid,” we have to address those issues, make changes, and see the process through. Wishing and polite conversation will not do the job. And no, it will not be cheap — this is going to cost tax dollars. The alternative is to have this monster virus circulating indefinitely, fed by reservoirs of infection in the poorest parts of our society.

Systemic change of this sort has to begin with individuals, but it ultimately must involve speaking truth to power. We need political engagement while insisting that our leaders do what is good for ALL of us, not just for their wealthier constituents. And yes, some of us will feel that as loss: losses in tax bills, losses in power, losses in prestige. It will mean seeing gains for some whom we might judge undeserving, but remember: the virus doesn’t care whether someone is deserving or undeserving. It just sees a vulnerable target and reproduces itself.

Charity – If we are speaking Jewish, that’s tzedakah, which is like the other two a very specific concept, not the English “charity.” It is linked to tzedek, justice. To get through the immediate crisis, we have to be willing, individually, to open our purses and give to the institutions that support the vulnerable. We may need to take care of vulnerable relatives with a check or with housing. We may need to ask for help, either for ourselves or for someone else. None of those things are cheap, but then, neither is human life.

And as I said in the section on repentance, as a society we have to begin caring about justice. Justice is not revenge. We need to care about what’s fair, and “I keep all the marbles, they are mine Mine MINE” is not fair or just. We need to stop teaching the idea that “the one who dies with the most toys, wins.” We need to lose “greed is good.” We need to think more creatively than “lock them up.”

Covid-19 is offering us a lesson: each of us is linked to the other. My fate is inextricably linked to that of every other person on the planet. We breathe the same air, we exchange the same micro-organisms, we drink the same water, and no resource is truly unlimited. Whether I like it or not, we are linked. I can choose to see you with compassion, or I can hate your guts, but the virus does not care. It will make its home in any of us, and some of us will suffer horribly for it — and there’s no real test for who is who. A healthy young Broadway actor died after weeks in the hospital. An elderly person with risk factors survived. So let’s not kid ourselves.

Tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change the evil decree. It isn’t the easy path. But as far as I see, it is the only path that goes where we want to go.

A Meditation on Poop

Image: Woman meditates alone on a mountaintop. (Bhikku Amitha / Pixabay)

The image at the top of this article is from the free stock photo site Pixabay. I typed “spirituality” into the search box, and I got a bunch of beautiful images like this. Pixabay is not alone in classifying this photo as spiritual; I imagine it is the sort of image people think of when they hear the word.

My life is consumed with activity at the moment. I get up shortly after 6, and I’m busy until I fall into bed at eleven or later. I spend much of that time engaged with poop.

Yes, you read that right: I spend most of my time busy with poop. My life revolves around several activities: I teach two classes, work privately with some students, I team-babysit our grandson with my wife for about 40 hours a week, and I have a sick dog recovering from surgery on her behind. The latter two activities mean that I spend a lot of time cleaning up poop, examining poop, reporting on poop to my daughter-in-law or the veterinarian, and cleaning the poop off of me so that I will not get poop on anyone else.

It’s easy to explain how learning and teaching Torah are holy activities. They fit the stereotypes, like the picture above. I sit at my table, preparing classes, translating ancient texts, and then I transmit what I’ve learned to others. I am surrounded by piles of holy books, the voices of the ancestors transmitting their understanding of the Holy. This learning has a frantic quality, though, because in a few hours or days I need to transmit what I have learned, and I have no time to waste. I have to get back to dealing with poop.

Caring for a helpless infant or dog is a different, and I would argue higher form of holy activity. When I’m learning or teaching, I’m largely in control of the situation. To deal with my grandson or the dog, I have to surrender to their rhythms and needs: naps, meals, play and diapers for Oliver and naps, meals, meds, compresses and messes for Gabi. As the philosopher Emanuel Levinas would say, I am commanded by the urgent need of The Other.

Of course, I love my grandson (what an understatement!) and I love my little dog. I am happy to expend effort on either of them, and I do not begrudge it. But no matter how much you love someone, poop is poop. It’s stinky, and requires effort to clean it up. Very few people, when they hear the word spirituality, think “poop” except perhaps for the smug sort of atheist, and then they are not thinking of poop as a road to enlightenment; they are thinking of spirituality itself as poop.

I have nothing against meditation or mountaintops. Right now I do most of my meditating lying down while my grandson naps (with my disabilities, the rule “rest when they nap” has an urgency it didn’t have when I was in my 20’s.) Usually I just fall asleep for a few minutes, after breathing a prayer of thanks for naptime. A mountaintop sounds picturesque, but I think I’d rather have a longer nap and save the travel time.

This is, no kidding, the most intensely spiritual time in my life. I spend most of my waking time being as fully present as I can be to someone or something: students, study, the baby, his parents, the dog, my wife.

My wife! The other very spiritual thing going on is while there is no time “to spend on our relationship” we are connected at the hip, a team. She is caring for a different sick dog, plus the baby, plus the things I can’t do very well (laundry and the trash are two of the biggies.) I am acutely aware, in my peripheral vision, of the miracles she works, and several times a day I shout out “I love you!” because I do, I do.

There are also the friends upon whom I rely, all long-distance: some via Twitter, some via other electronic venues, and all in short bursts. They cheer for me; I cheer for them. We muddle through our days with too much poop, both literal and figurative, and I treasure those voices echoing through the expanse.

God is very much present in my world right now. I perceive God in the steadfast love of Linda and my friends, in their voices and in the million practical things Linda does. I see God in the baby’s smile, and hear God in his fussing. I feel God in the softness of Gabi’s fur, and in her patience as I wash her behind in the sink yet again.

I hear God’s cry out to me when Oliver wails in discomfort. I see God in the way that baby and his mama look at each other. I am aware of God, as I watch Gabi’s incision slowly heal.

And through it all, there is poop, lots and lots of poop.

The lesson I study these days has to do with the grubbier aspects of this adventure. I want to find God in the poop, and in the aching of my joints, in the knee that won’t heal, in the shoulder that’s gone wacky, and in the fatigue that I just can’t shake. It is the limitations of my own body and its need to say “No” sometimes that are hardest for me to accept, but I’m working on them.

Where is the spiritual growth happening in your life right now? I invite you to tell us about it in the Comments.

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior. Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of […]

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Tisha B’Av 5780 / 2020

This week we observe the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av. It is the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.

Without the Temple, Biblical Judaism was impossible. The sacrificial cult was an essential element of Biblical Judaism, and without the Temple standing on that particular bit of real estate, the sacrifices are not valid.

Each destruction remade the Jewish world. After the return from Babylon, Judaism changed: we had a big scroll we called the Torah for public readings, which we had not had before. We had a large body of prophetic writings. Most importantly we knew that though we had a covenant with the God of Israel, it was not a guarantee of safety. We had been beaten, badly. To survive as a people, we developed additional institutions (Torah, synagogue) to maintain our identity even when we did not have access to the Temple.

We needed those institutions, because in 70 CE it happened again: the Romans punished us for insurrection and tore the Temple stone from stone, forbidding us to rebuild. A few years later, after another revolt, they scattered us to the four winds. We remained in exile, in Galut, for almost 2000 years.

In the face of the destruction of our old way of life we used imagination and ingenuity to remake Biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism. The new Judaism was still linked to the Land of Israel, but it could survive anywhere, and survive we did.

We are living today in a time of destruction. The institutions of democracy, which have been mostly very good for the Jewish people are now under attack, not only in the US but in much of the world. A pandemic of Covid-19, a deadly and poorly-understood disease is sweeping the world, killing hundreds of thousands. Some old institutions are dying as well, and the world economies are straining. Climate change is reshaping the planet under our feet.

People are frightened, for good reason. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways, and the “normal” we remember from December is not likely to return. Frightened people are irrational people, and we see evidence of that in public tantrums, irrational decisions by leaders, and in the general level of anxiety in our culture. We are living in a time of cataclysmic change.

This Tisha B’Av I will listen to Lamentations, and I will think about the fact that the Jews of 586 BCE and 70 CE were able to mourn their losses and find enough strength in their hearts to let go of the past (eventually) and move on into the future. They were willing to do what they had to do to keep Judaism alive. I will pray for their strength, for their stubbornness, and for their creative will. I will pray for young leaders with good ideas, and for the humility to accept their leadership.

We are only beginning to deal with the changes ahead of us. I have no idea where we will wind up. I only know that the Jewish people have endured and I am committed to my own small part in our survival.

What to do? I shall keep on living a life of Torah. I will keep what mitzvot I can, and I will teach mitzvot to others. I will keep learning and studying and teaching. That’s what our ancestors before us did, the reason there are still Jews today.

May the day of sad memories stiffen our spines while our hearts stay supple. May the map of Torah bring us safely home.