What is Sacred Space?

Image: The ark with the Torah Scrolls at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX.

One of my favorite blogs is The Cricket Pages by Rachel Mankowitz. If you are a dog lover, it’s a must. She writes beautifully about many different topics, running all of it through the prism of her little dogs’ lives; there’s nothing else on the web quite like it. She posts about once a week, and I look forward to it as much as my Gabi and Jojo look forward to dog treats.

This week Rachel wrote about Sacred Space, and I loved her take on it. First she wrote about a class she’s attending at her synagogue, and then looked at the different ways her dogs make sacred space for themselves. Truly, read it, it’s a treat!

Sacred space has long been a topic that piqued my curiosity. As a child, I noticed that different churches affected me differently: in one, I always felt like I was surely doomed, but in another I thought I could feel the love of God. Some other worship spaces didn’t feel holy at all. The most holy place I knew growing up was inside a mountain laurel grove on a hill on the farm. I loved to sit in there on a mossy log and look at the sky and listen for God.

My early graduate studies were all about sacred space; my first master’s thesis was an analysis of a baptistery in Ravenna, Italy.  I was curious about the fact that people seemed to find certain places holy and other places not. I never really puzzled it all out, but I learned a lot of interesting things in the process.

As an adult, I find that I am harder to awe with architecture. There are certainly many beautiful synagogues and other places of worship, but real awe, Yirat Hashem, the Awe of God, is both easier and harder to find. I have found it at the bedside in an intensive care unit. I’ve felt it looking at the night sky.  Buildings rarely do it for me, but viewing the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls left me in tears. Reading from a Torah Scroll, hearing the shofar blast, praying the words of the service, I am transported out of myself.

Places become holy for me from the things that happen there: the Abramov Library at HUC Jerusalem will always be sacred space, because I studied there with Rabbi André Zaoui z”l, (about whom I really should write sometime.) Another sacred space: the chapel at the Los Angeles Jewish Home where a little minyan of Holocaust survivors lovingly taught me how to lead services the way they liked from an Orthodox prayer book. My teacher and friend Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler’s kitchen table is sacred space to me: she taught me Torah there and comforted me when I was distraught.

I strive to make my home a sacred space; that’s an ongoing project.

Are there places that are truly sacred space to you? I hope that some of you will share in the comments where those places are, and if you have an idea why, that you’ll share that, too.


An Unusual New Year

Image: Waveform of a heartbeat, artwork by geralt via pixabay.com.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…

– The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, read on Rosh Hashanah

I’ve been distracted for the past several days. My brother Albert lies in the hospital after a very bad accident. He has not regained consciousness yet, but I am happy to say that we have gotten good reports from the doctors.

Obviously, the circumstances are extremely stressful. The family has gathered at the hospital, waiting for news and wishing we could do more. It’s a time of spiritual yearning. As most of you know, I converted to Judaism as an adult, so I don’t have any Jewish connections in this town. While I know rabbis in many cities, Nashville isn’t one of them. I arrived on Shabbat and Sunday evening would be Rosh Hashanah.

I staggered back into my hotel room after the first day and left a message for my rabbinic colleagues about the situation, including the fact that I needed somewhere to pray on Rosh Hashanah. One of my rabbis back home, Rabbi Yoni Regev, was ahead of me – in a few minutes I had phone calls from two rabbis at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple in Nashville. Rabbi Mark Shiftan invited me to services and Rabbi Shana Mackler made sure I had everything I needed. Both were very comforting; I was barely coherent when we first spoke.

(For my non-Jewish readers: We Jews are a communal bunch. There is comfort and strength and better prayers when a group of us are gathered together. While I have wonderful family here, for prayer I really needed a minyan. It is hard to put into words, but for an observant Jew, there is nothing quite like praying in the midst of ten or more other Jews.)

Because I am a teacher, of course, this is also a lesson:

  1. Every Jew needs a rabbi, and the usual way to have a rabbi is to join a congregation. My rabbi at home used his network to make sure that I had somewhere to go for Rosh Hashanah and pastoral care nearby. When I was too upset and scrambled to take care of myself, he made sure I had support. Without my congregation, I’d have been lost.
  2. It is OK to ask for help – it is imperative that we ask for help when we need it. Had I not put the word out that I was in distress, no one would have known I was hurting. It’s my responsibility to reach out when I have tsuris [trouble.] Privacy is fine, but secrecy festers.

My brother isn’t out of the woods, but the signs are good. I feel better about him, knowing that he has excellent care. Praying for him at services was a great comfort, too. If you would like to pray for him, your prayers are welcome; his name is Albert. He’s a big, sweet, strong man and God willing, he is on a path toward healing.

Wow, what a beginning to the new year! I wish each of you a Shanah Tovah, a good year, a year of blessing and peace, kindness and wisdom!

Albert Menefee




What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!

Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.

The Hardest Prayer in the Book

Image: A car accident with the caption, “Who will live and who will die?” 

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

The Unetaneh Tokef [“Let Us Tell the Power”] is probably the scariest prayer in the entire liturgy. It begins with a preamble to set the tone, reminding us that even the angels are terrified of the Day of Judgement, which is right now. Judgement Day is not some faraway time, not some mythical other universe, but right here and right now.

Then, before we have a chance to really digest that startling idea, it states an obvious fact that none of us want to think about: we have absolutely no idea who will live to see next year. So that we cannot dodge the thought, it spells it out with the catalogue above in a relentless cadence whether you read it in Hebrew or English: there are many unpleasant ways to die, and we are vulnerable to all of them.

We. Personally. Individually. Are. Going. To. Die.

None of us want to think about it. Ask any attorney who assists people in writing a will. Clients know they are supposed to have one and they don’t want to think about it. They cancel the appointment (“Whoops! I forgot about the dentist appointment!”) they forget the appointment (“Where is my brain???”) they show up to the appointment without important documents, they stall on reviewing it once written, and they don’t like paying the bill for the whole thing either. We human beings resist thinking about our own mortality.

So once a year, the liturgy gets directly in our faces and forces us to think about it. This prayer is a wake-up call.

If I knew for a fact that my life would be over next week:

  • What words do I want to say, and to whom, today?
  • What messes do I want to clean up, and not leave behind me?
  • What will I choose to do with my time in the next week?
  • How do I want to be remembered, by family, by friends, by my opponents?
  • What is too important to leave undone?

These are the questions of the High Holy Days. Unpleasant as it is, the Unetaneh Tokef grabs us by our lapels and shakes us, reminding us of the obvious: time may be short. 

All that said, there are those for whom the words of the prayer dredge up the horror of recent trauma. A Jewish blogger named Deborah who lost her father to suicide describes her decision about this year’s prayer in Why I Will Leave the Room when the Unetaneh Tokef is Recited on the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I endorse her way of dealing with the prayer in her situation.

I myself nearly died last Yom Kippur. Blood clots in my lungs robbed me of breath and came close to robbing me of life. I don’t know how I will experience the Unetaneh Tokef this year, but my plan is to take lots of Kleenex and hang tough. If I learned anything last year, it was that we must periodically stop and say, “Really, what if I die tomorrow?” because that is reality. So I plan to do it, this year and every year.

You have to decide what’s right for you.

The High Holy Day services are laden with rich experiences: sounds, sights, words, ideas. To whatever degree we can be fully present to them, they will make us more fully present to the rich potential in our lives.

The Blessing for Earthquakes

Image: Kenemetrics Seismograph recording a quake. Photo by Yamaguchi, some rights reserved.

At 12:50 last night a small earthquake shook my neighborhood. Given that I live not far from the Hayward Fault in California, it was not a huge surprise except that it woke me up. I fumbled for my cell phone, to check the time and to check Twitter to see if it was an #earthquake or merely a dream. Nope, #earthquake.

Then I tried to remember the blessing for earthquakes. That one wasn’t so easy – I remembered seeing it in Tractate Berakhot [Blessings] of the Talmud but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it. Finally I had to get up and look it up:

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shekokho oogevurato malei olam.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, whose strength and might fill the world. – Tractate Berakhot 54a

Whew! Having settled that, I could go back to sleep!


A Prayer for Love

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34


This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6