High Holy Days for Beginners, 5777

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on October 3, 2016. It will begin the Jewish Year 5777. 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.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Friday September 2, 2016 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. Both are short entries on this blog.

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.”] 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 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.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. 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 holiday (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. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5777!

Learn about Judaism Online!

I teach about Judaism online. Some of it, like this blog, is free to anyone who accesses it. But if you’d like something a bit more organized, especially if you need a formal “Introduction to Judaism” course for conversion or a wedding, I also offer a class through Lehrhaus Judaica of Berkeley, CA.

This year’s “Online Intro” class will begin on October 23, at 3pm Pacific Time.  We use Adobe Connect, a program that will allow most people to access the class if they have an Internet connection and a computer.

If Sunday afternoons (or evenings) don’t work for you, don’t worry. I will email a link to class recordings to everyone who is registered for the class. I am happy to meet with you via Skype or phone to answer questions, and you can participate in class discussions via the class Facebook page.

The class comes in three parts. You can take one of them, or all three, in any order:

Fall: Lifecycle and Holidays – exactly what it sounds like (begins October 23)

Winter: Israel and Texts – a look at Ancient and Modern Israel via traditional texts (begins January 15, 2017)

Spring: Traditions of Judaism – a look at the vast diversity of the Jewish world: Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, American, and other possibilities. (begins March 26, 2017)

For more information, check out the class website.

To register, and for class fees, go to our Lehrhaus online catalog page.

 

A Wish for Tisha B’Av

Image: The open ark at Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX.

Tisha B’Av 2776 (2016) begins at sundown on Saturday, August 13.

I’ve been thinking about what to say about Tisha B’Av this year. Then I read a d’var Torah on Lamentations that stopped me in my tracks, and I can’t think of anything else.

The Times of Israel published an article by Rabbi Joshua Rabin, Institutions Are Not Holy, and I recommend you read it, if not now, then definitely before Saturday evening. It’s an excellent example of topnotch Torah teaching. He showed me something that I’d never noticed before, although I’ve read the Book of Lamentations many times. He takes the item he points out some very interesting places – as I said, read it! – but when I read it, my mind went somewhere else entirely. That’s what really great Torah learning can do.

The insight that derailed me was this: Lamentations begins with a great wail of “HOW?” Indeed that is the Hebrew name of the book: Eicha (AY-khah – AY in this case rhymes with “bay.”) The scenes at the beginning are the scenes of Jerusalem and her Temple in ruins, a scene of unremitting pain and misery.

Rabbi Rabin points out that we expect the book to end with a hopeful vision of the city and the Temple restored. That’s usually the pattern with Hebrew laments: we start in a bad place, and finish with a vision of the future that holds hope. Since the problem at the beginning of the book seems to be a destroyed city and a Temple in ruins, one would think that the hopeful vision would be of the city and Temple rebuilding. But that’s not how it ends:

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old

For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! – Lamentations 5:21-22

The hopeful vision of Lamentations, the antidote to all the misery, is NOT a shiny new Temple. Rather, it is the restoration of the relationship between us and God.

That’s the insight that sent me reeling. Actually it sent me to the book to see if it really said that, I was so startled. And sure enough, that’s what it says.

Now here’s where I leave Rabbi Rabin’s excellent derash and head off into my own thoughts. Those final words of Lamentations may sound familiar to you. That’s because they are enshrined in the Torah service:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

We sing these words as we are closing the ark of the Torah, when the Torah service is ending. There they are an expression of our grief at putting the Torah Scroll away, at the distance between ourselves and the words in the scroll. We are looking forward to future readings, and future study, and perhaps also to study in the world-to-come. We are looking forward to the closeness to the Holy One that we feel when we are studying words of Torah.

The reason people seek out religious experience is that there is a deep loneliness in human experience. We long for a connection with something or someone more lasting than ourselves, because we are mortal beings. Sooner or later in every life there is a moment when we wonder, “What on earth is the point of all this?” and if we can find an answer that satisfies us, that becomes our answer to the meaning of life.

Religion isn’t about being right. It isn’t about beating up on other people, or feeling superior to them. It is an attempt to find an answer to that longing; it is a vehicle for the ongoing search for meaning and truth.

When the Babylonians flattened the Temple and carried away most of the people into servitude, the remaining survivors wandered around the broken city asking themselves, “HOW?”

  • How do we make sense of this?
  • What was the point?
  • What now, that our lives are literally in ruins and all is lost?

These are the same questions we ask when things seem to have fallen apart in our own lives. It is no accident that people tend to join temple after a major life event: a new baby or a death in the family.

Babies are disruptive. It is not uncommon for a new parent to whisper in the dark, “What now, that my life is in ruins?”

Death is terrifying. One moment a person is there, the next they are gone. How do we make sense of this? And worse, what was the point of this life, any life?

These are the questions that invade our lives like the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. This is the point of Tisha B’Av: to spend a day with our hearts pressed against the problems of disaster and mortality, of love and loss. And the answer lies there at the end of the scroll of Lamentations: the answer is in our longing for relationship: relationship with God, relationship with community, relationship with other human beings.

I wish you an insightful Tisha B’Av.

 

Jewish Funeral: Why not send flowers?

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

“Should I send flowers to a Jewish funeral?”

Many readers search that question, or something like it. The simple answer is: NO. Flowers are not part of Jewish funeral traditions.

Instead of flowers, Jews appreciate a memorial donation to a charity or social justice organization. Often the family will name a particular fund or charity for memorial donations. If there is no charity named, then donate to the organization of your choice. The amount of the donation is unimportant; give according to your means.

Most organizations will mail a card to the family letting them know of the memorial gift. Give them a name and address in addition to the name of the deceased.

Why no flowers? 

  • First, it is Jewish tradition, going back millennia.
  • Second, there is a strong feeling in our tradition that in death people should all be treated equally. Having flowers at the funeral or on the grave would mean that wealthier folk would have a bigger “show” and poorer people would be shamed.
  • Third, a donation to a fund that will relieve suffering or make the world better is a more lasting memorial than flowers.

What else can one do to honor the dead?

  • Attend the funeral.
  • Visit the family at shiva. (See 5 Tips for Shiva Visits)
  • Visit the grave and leave a pebble on it as a mark that a visitor was there.
  • Attend any events in honor of the dead.
  • Call or visit the mourners periodically during the first year of mourning.

For more about Jewish funerals, see Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips.

For more about supporting mourners, see Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

 

Fear and the Jewish Way

Image: Piranhas. Image by Reimand Bertrams, via pixabay.com.

It’s beginning to seem like there is always a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. It seems like there is meanness everywhere. CNN reports “BREAKING NEWS” and we brace ourselves for something bad.

Judging from the combo of CNN, NextDoor.com, and Twitter, I should be afraid of:

  • Mentally ill men with guns
  • ISIS inspired terrorists with guns, knives, or trucks
  • Cops
  • Donald Trump
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Antisemites
  • Pit bulls
  • Black Lives Matter activists
  • Mosquitos
  • Global Warming
  • Rapists
  • Robbers
  • and Strange People Driving Around the Neighborhood

All of those are in one of my feeds or another just today.

Jewish tradition offers an alternative. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

“But rabbi!” I can hear some of you saying to the computer screen, “Antisemitism! ISIS! Scary men in cars! SPIDERS!!!” And all I can say to that is, “Yes.”

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

It’s the Jewish way. There will always be a shooting in the news, or a bombing, or some other terrifying event. There will always be someone happy to sell us fear in exchange for advertising revenue or power. It is up to us to choose whom or what we will worship.

Bipolar Meltdown

Image: Cactus. Photo by MikeBirdy at pixabay.com.

I share this extraordinary post with the permission of the writer. He takes the reader inside his experience of a manic episode.

Millions of people worldwide suffer from bipolar disorder. It isn’t a joke and should never be trivialized. I have watched my own son battle with it for the ten years since his diagnosis, and for many years before that, when we knew there was Something but had no name for it.

We are each made in the image of the Holy One. That includes bipolar sufferers. As this writer points out, bipolar is part of who he is. Until we can appreciate that all who suffer with mental illness participate equally as holders of the divine spark, we are probably doomed to mistreat and fear them.

So I invite you to read and get to know this young man. He reminds me a lot of my son.

https://lukeatkins.wordpress.com/2016/06/25/bipolar-meltdown/

Another Eulogy for Miriam

Reblogged on CoffeeShopRabbi.com. Thank you, Rabbi Fuchs, for the insight that the Sages included so many midrashim on Miriam because they recognized that she was shortchanged in the text!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit…

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