“This is the fast I desire…”

Image: Sunrise over earth, in space. (kimono/pixabay)

The story that follows is an amalgam of several stories I could tell. All the names have been changed, and the setting obscured. If you are an old friend and wondering if this is your congregation, the answer is maybe and probably not.

Once upon a time, there was a student rabbi leading Yom Kippur services. As the day went on, a little drama developed.

First, seventy year old Dora fainted. She had been fasting from food and water, and it got the best of her. Her daughter called 911, because it seemed Dora had both heart trouble and diabetes. After the EMT’s took Dora to the hospital, the student rabbi ditched the topic she’d planned for the afternoon colloquy and instead started a conversation about fasting.

She began with the teaching that pregnant women and sick people are exempt from the fast. There’s a commandment called lishmor haguf, “protecting the body,” and it commands us not to endanger our bodies. Some people cannot safely fast. Then she opened it up for questions and discussion.

It turns out that Dora was not alone in her determination to fast whether it was good for her or not. Person after person stood up, paid a bit of lip service to the idea of not fasting, and then proceeded to tell about the worst Yom Kippur fast they ever survived – and soon the student rabbi realized to her horror that it had become a contest. Each person who stood up tried to top the story before, until ninety-something Mike talked about how he fought in a WWII battle on a Pacific island all day and all night – and since it was Yom Kippur, he took not a single sip of water.

The student watched the faces of those she knew were not fasting, and they would not meet her eyes. They felt shamed by the stories of Yom-Kippur-valor, shamed and set apart. Later private conversations confirmed it: more than one used the word “wimp” to describe themselves.

Folks, the original point of fasting was to atone for our sins, to mortify our bodies – to remind us that someday we will die. The sages did not teach this to us so that we could show off, or display our piety, or for a contest about who’s the toughest or who’s the most fragile.

If fasting is going to hurt you, don’t fast. And perhaps – just perhaps – there is something you can do that’s better than forgoing food and drink. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, and make your plans for this Yom Kippur:

Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek Me daily, Eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, That has not abandoned the laws of its God, They ask Me for the right way, They are eager for the nearness of God:

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such As to make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn And your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech,

And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.

— Isaiah 58: 1-10

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What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

Shanah Tovah uMetukah!

Image: Symbols of the New Year: pomegranate, apple, honey, and grapes. (Ajale / Pixabay)

I wish each of my readers a good and a sweet year in 5780, the year that begins at sundown tonight (Sunday.)

This is one of those Jewish holidays that commands us to step back from the world to whatever degree we can, to take stock, to regroup, to enjoy what we can and to make amends for anything we’ve done.

I know that for many of you, a day completely off is not possible. Maybe you are in a job you’ll lose if you miss, or maybe you are a new parent who hasn’t slept for a week and has to keep up with the needs of an infant. Maybe you are on disability, but you still have the tough job of being a mensch when life is really quite difficult. For all of you, I wish a bit of rest and a bit of peace.

For clergy friends who are in the midst of the annual marathon of services, I wish you health and strength to keep up with it all. I also hope that the people who like your sermons and the congregants who appreciate you are at least as vocal as the ones who don’t.

May 5780 be a good year for all of us, for the Jews and for the world.

Why is the Jewish Year 5780?

Image: A child carries a shofar. (With parents’ permission, all rights reserved.)

The short answer: tradition!

The longer, more complete answer: A long time ago, before we had scientific method to explore the “how” of the world, a Jewish scholar used the text of the Bible to count back to the date of creation. Then the Jewish community chose to number the years according to “the number of years since creation.”

By that accounting, the birthday of the world is Rosh Hashanah. If we baked a cake for the world, it would have 5780 candles. (And we would have a fire on our hands, I imagine!)

Today we have science to explain phenomena in the world, and Jews do not rely on the Biblical text for scientific knowledge. Instead, we go to the texts for questions of meaning: questions science cannot ask or answer. We explore the text to ask questions like, “What does it mean to live a good life?” or “What should we do about suffering?” Those are questions science cannot address.

So why continue counting the years from a date we are absolutely sure wasn’t the date of creation? The answer is simple: it’s our tradition!

Online Rosh Hashanah Services!

Image: Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA

Not everyone can get to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah services. Because of my health issues, I will be able to attend in the daytime, but the evening services (in a hall where the chairs hurt my back) are impossible.

However, my synagogue streams services, and I invite you to join me for the evening service Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sunday night, Sept 29!

Services will stream at the Temple Sinai Community Facebook Page beginning at 7:30pm, Sunday, September 29, Pacific Time. I will be watching from home as well, so we can wish each other a “Shanah Tova!” before services begin.

The next morning, Rosh Hashanah services will stream at the same Internet address (see link above) at 8:30am and 11:30am Pacific Time. My wife and I will attend the 11:30 service in person, so I will not be watching the service from home.

Watching long distance is not ideal, but a whole lot better than nothing! I hope that some of you will join me in watching and participating from home on Sunday evening.

Al Cheyt, Regarding Ivanka

Image: Ivanka Trump at the Holocaust Memorial. (Public Domain)

I just saw some chatter on Jewish Twitter about Ivanka Trump. Doesn’t matter who was writing, or what they said; it was the same stuff as usual, and I started to do what I’ve been doing for years and let it pass. Then I realized that I need to make teshuvah, because my silence has been a sin.

So I confess it, Al cheyt, Concerning the sin of listening in silence to lashon hara (literally “evil tongue,” spreading lies) I am guilty. I have let people say cruel and untrue things about Ivanka Trump and I have said not a word.

Ivanka Trump is giyoret, a convert to Judaism like myself. She converted to a different branch of Judaism, and she has made a lot of choices that I don’t like, but that doesn’t change the fact that her conversion was legitimate. Like it or not, she’s one of us.

It has become fashionable in some circles to speak ill of her Jewish practice, to cast aspersions on her legitimacy as a Jew, and to use the word shiksa (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman, but literally “filth”) to refer to her. I’ve listened to people say such things, and I was silent.

Her conversion is legitimate. Her observance may not be perfect, but whose is?

She is a public figure, involved in the U.S. government. It’s fair game to disagree with her politics and her fitness for her job. It’s fair game to question her business practices. I don’t even have to like her.

It is not OK, it is downright wrong, for me to stand by while people throw words like shiksa at a convert. And from now on, I shall behave differently: I will change the subject, I will send the conversation elsewhere, or I will confront the person saying these things privately.

For the sin of evil speech, spoken or accepted, which we have committed before you, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

– Adapted from Al Cheyt prayer in the Yom Kippur service

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to my Christian Friends

Image: Apples, Honey, and Pomegranates are among the traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Lakovleva Daria / Shutterstock/ all rights reserved)

Dear Friends,

You’ve likely noticed words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” are coming up in the calendar. You may or may not know that those are Jewish holidays. You also may have noticed Jewish friends or co-workers maneuvering to take time off for those days. Here are some things to know if you want to be a good friend and a supportive ally:

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t like secular New Year’s Eve. We spend part of it in synagogue and often the rest of it at a holiday gathering with relatives. For many of us, synagogue is not optional on that day, nor is the time with family: we really have to be there. It is both a joyful and a solemn day.

Yes, this applies even to the Jews you don’t think of as “religious” Jews. Rather than make a joke about how you wish you had holidays that “gave” you time off (which you do, it’s called Christmas) why not give a friend a break and help them take the time?

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” is OK but please don’t wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and we spend it fasting and praying for 24 hours. For many of us, that fast includes water. It’s not a fun day, nor is it intended to be, and we may not feel great the next day, either.

If you are curious about the High Holy Days, here are some articles that may help you understand what we’re up to:

18 Facts about Rosh Hashanah

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

May the year 5780 be a good year and a year of peace for all the world!