Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.


“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

The Interfaith Family Blues

Image: The six members of Poor Man’s Whiskey and the band logo. My son is the fellow with the big beard. They and their fans are one congregation in the Church of Making Music.

I love my interfaith family. Linda and I are Jews. Our sons, Aaron and Jim identify mostly as “None of the Above.” Our daughter-in-law and her family are Catholic, my cousins are Presbyterians and Catholics, and Linda’s family identify as Christian.

We get along very amicably most of the time. Our big family holidays are Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and birthdays. On Christian holidays, family scatter to the Christian households. On Jewish holidays, Linda and I celebrate at home and with my students and Jewish friends. And that’s all good.

The place where it gets tricky are the conflicts. The secular world is very helpful about most of the big Christian holidays and secular holidays. The tricky bit are the Jewish holidays and Shabbat: sometimes it’s hard to draw boundaries around them that work for all of us, and this year I’ve felt it particularly strongly.

Jim’s a musician (see more about him at and his busy times for work are weekends and holidays. That’s just a reality for musicians. You might say that he belongs to the Church of Making Music. Linda and I love going to listen to him, when he’s in an accessible location, but when those concerts fall on Shabbat, we have to make decisions. This year, when a particularly big one fell on Rosh Hashanah, it was tough. He had one of his last appearances with Poor Man’s Whiskey, at one of the few accessible venues around. I had to draw a line: I may sometimes go hear him on Shabbat but Rosh Hashanah was just too big a holiday to miss. Jim understands why we weren’t there, and he’s gracious about it.

I’m “all in” as a parent, and “all in” as a Jew, and when those conflict, it bothers me. I make my choices on a case-by-case basis, and they are never simple. Shabbat is important. Holy days are important. Family is important, too.

So when someone talks to me about how their household is “both” and assures me that it is “not a problem,” forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical. Being Jewish takes time, effort, and boundaries. Being Christian (or a musician) takes time and effort, even if the boundary issues are less onerous. When there are conflicts, something has to take second place.

My own experience is an interfaith family requires sacrifices. I didn’t go to the PMW concert because Rosh Hashanah comes once a year. I felt sad that I couldn’t do “both.” Jim’s church is the Church of Music and the conflicts are always going to be there. I don’t pretend that it is “no big deal” when I miss shul for his music, or miss his music to be at shul. Both are a very big deal, but I’m a grown woman and I can take responsibility for my choices.

If you are in an interfaith family (of whatever configuration) I’d be very interested in hearing, in comments, about how your family makes choices and sets priorities. When there’s a conflict, how do you choose? When one kind of observance conflicts with another kind of observance, what are your priorities? What sacrifices have members of the family made to make this work?

Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

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!