“What are you going to do Friday night?”
I just heard it again! At first, I didn’t understand the question. My initial answer was, “What I always do on the first Friday of the month! I’m going to go to our OJC family service and and then home to have Shabbat dinner!” But by the third time I was asked the question over the last two days, I understood. One person went so far as to inquire whether I am among those who would leave a television on somewhere in the house in order to watch the baseball game. While I understand that it is the practice of some Sabbath-observant people to stay within the letter of the law in this fashion, I personally don’t believe that doing so would be in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Before 2004, watching the Red Sox (my favorite baseball team) play would instantly result in my blood pressure elevating to 170/110. Not a healthy experience. Since that miraculous fall of 2004, however, I am much less personally bound up with the Bosox (and the bp is normal). Even so, when it comes to playing the Yankees, old wounds resurface and scars are revealed. Honestly, it’s hard to enjoy the moment, and I often feel relieved just to have it behind me, win or lose (though the satisfaction of the win does linger a bit longer than the pain of defeat). Don’t get me wrong—I love the sport and will watch the Sox any time I am free to do so; I just won’t put them ahead of the other priorities in my life … like Shabbat.
As we begin the Torah again this week, we read that God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it God desisted (“shavat”) from all God’s work. But to what end? For what purpose? Later we are told that we are to “keep” or “guard” the Sabbath as an eternal covenant for all generations, a remembrance that God created the world in six days, and that on the seventh God rested and recharged, or perhaps more literally “re-souled” (vayinafash).
Shabbat is a holy day because God said so, regardless of how we “keep” it. But its potential effect on us is only realized in how we spend it. If it is not qualitatively different than our other days off from work, we have not truly kept it. If “re-souling” is the goal, our time should be spent reflecting on, and deepening our appreciation of, the world we’ve played a role in creating. We should engage with people and matters that uplift us. We should feed our souls the things that nourish us spiritually; we are not meant to fill ourselves with more agitation and anxiety, or even with the short-lived pleasures with which we engage on any other day.
So why would I choose to ruin the most precious hours of my week over a game that has no bearing on my self-worth, but could only serve to further drain my battery and leave me exhausted, amped up and sleepless, win or lose? If the Sox lose, I’m glad I didn’t suffer; if they win, I’ll watch the highlights. And if they win in some miraculous fashion as if God had intervened (as God did, according to some, in 2004), then I’ll record the replay and save it for posterity.
Not that it really means anything to me. And not that God would punish me or my team if I did sneak a peek through the neighbors’ window . . . .
On the other hand, if it were Game 7 of the World Series, I might need to revisit the question . . . .
Oh boy, do I need to talk to my Rabbi. Or my therapist.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.
Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.
At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.
Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
In the year ahead, our community will feature the many and diverse ways in which our households connect to Israel. As we celebrate her achievements, share in her anguish, advocate for her security, and invest our energies in her promise to be a light unto the nations, a spiritual home to all Jews and a voice of moral governance to the world, we welcome you to share your Israel story with our community. As we usher in 5779, we are pleased to share Rachel Sherman’s story. Thank you, Rachel, and g’mar chatimah tovah!
Over the summer, I participated in a month-long program called TALMA: The Israel Program for Excellence in English. The program brings educators from all over the world to teach English to children in low-income communities throughout Israel. Each non-Israeli educator is paired up with an Israeli co-teacher. As a team, the non-Israeli educator and the Israeli educator co-teach a group of around 30 children.
The 300 teachers were placed in 6 different “living locations” around Israel including Mitzpe Ramon, Ben Shemen Youth Village, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Safed, and in the northern region of Mizra. Schools were located in the vicinity of living locations and teachers traveled by bus, carpools, or walking. The first and last weekends of the program were for the entire TALMA program, first in Shafayim near Tel Aviv and the last Shabbat in Jerusalem. The other 2 weekends we were free to travel to different parts of Israel on our own.
I was placed in the northern region of Israel and lived at the Nof Tavor Hotel next to Kibbutz Mizra. I lived there with 14 other teachers from around the US/Canada and with 4 Israeli educators/mentors from the Teach First Israel (TFI) program. The 19 of us taught in four different locations: Menashe, The Jezreel Valley, Nazareth Lllit, and Migdal Haemek.
I taught at a school called Nitznei Reut in Menashe from 8 am to 1 pm Sunday through Thursday. My school was 40 minutes away and 4 of us were in a carpool with our Israeli mentor. With my Israeli co-teacher Sivan, we taught English to 30 third grade students together. Most knew little English so we taught letters with sounds, body parts, colors, and other topics. They learned a lot including vocabulary and phrases. For example, leading up to the “Café Day”, they learned restaurant/food related vocabulary and phrases that they would use at a café. Each child created a menu and decided whether they wanted to be a waiter/waitress or a customer and they role played using English. The students did art projects, STEAM projects, family trees, sang songs, learned chants, danced, and baked challah, chocolate balls, and pizza. My school had a petting zoo and the principal brought in her poodle every day who is a mascot for the school.
Teaching in Israel was a big culture shock for me. For example, there is no such thing as recess duty and teachers did not supervise the children when they were outside. There wasn’t much discipline compared to what I’m used to in NY schools. If students did not want to do the work given, they didn’t have to do it — it was their choice!
After school, we often swam at the Kibbutz Mizra pool, went to a nearby Café Café, or took a bus to different towns nearby such as Afula, Nazareth, and Ramat Yishai.
During my two free weekends, I went to different parts of Israel. During the first weekend, we rented cars and 8 of us went to Safed, Haifa, Akko, and a winery. The other free weekend I went to Jerusalem with friends and then split up to spend Shabbat with relatives and my family’s close friends.
I had a great time and am so appreciative that I was part of the TALMA Teaching Fellowship this summer. I learned from both the Israeli teachers and other teacher friends I met from around the world. Living and teaching in Israel has deepened my connection to Israel in a different way from previous tourist experiences. I encourage other teachers to explore this opportunity!
There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes, or four pairs, to get a new perspective on the things you take for granted.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my Israeli sisters, along with her husband and two sons, for a few days of New York-style fun.
On Tuesday morning, we toured the USS Intrepid Museum. I’d been there just last year, but seeing the exhibits through the eyes of the Israelis, I was struck with a new sense of pride. We marveled at the stories of courage, ingenuity and sacrifices of the many Americans who have served our country in air, at sea, and in space.
From the pier we walked west on Fulton Street. As we headed towards the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 memorial, I couldn’t shake the memories in my head, images of ash-covered people walking the streets like zombies on a Tuesday morning 17 years ago.
The Twin Towers once stood like a gateway to our land, much like the two mountains between which the Israelites marched as they entered the Promised Land, with blessings pronounced to them from one and curses from the other. They too represented an idea; to me, they represented the indomitable spirit of America. That same undying spirit is represented today in the energy of the descending memorial pools and in the tower that now skyrockets to the heavens to accompany the souls of all those lost on that tragic day.
For the past 15 years, I have stood with fellow local clergy and Tappan’s first responders in remembrance on the mornings of 9/11. This year, I pray they will forgive my absence from the public ceremony, and I hope our non-Jewish neighbors will be reminded that the Jewish community means no disrespect by its absence, as it will be busy celebrating its holy day of Rosh Hashanah.
That being said, I hope you will join us this second day of Rosh Hashanah during our service to give honor to the memory of those who died, to pay tribute to those who secure our safety and our freedom, and to express our gratitude for the blessings we share as Jews in America. Sometimes we take for granted the lives we have in this country, as Americans and as Jews. Sometimes, in the thick of the public debates and political rancor, we forget the good that is all around us.
If you plan to be with our community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, please consider arriving early, even if it means you’ll leave earlier than usual. We will be interrupting our regular service to make space for communal and individual remembrance with silence, song and shofar. Be on time (8:30am) to honor the day and to participate in our commemoration and prayer.
May our Rosh Hashanah usher in a year that brings us healing, wholeness, peace, and an appreciation of all our blessings.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Every year, by the time I finish reading the name of the book by Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, I wonder if I actually need to open the cover. The title says it all: This is real and you are completely unprepared. I read Rabbi Lew’s book about the Days of Awe as spiritual transformation every August.
I dedicate myself to preparation for Rosh Hashanah during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the new year. (By preparation, I do not actually mean rabbinic preparation though I must, of course, do that too: writing sermons, finding new inspirations for the service, figuring out how to welcome all the people who come to the doors of the synagogue for services and programs.)
When I write “preparation for the New Year,” I mean Cheshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of my soul.
I take the work seriously every year.
This year, I take it even more seriously.
“In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding… only there that the horn sounds 100 times, that the gate between heaven and earth opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death, that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home…”
How do I prepare? How do I go below the surface of my ordinary life to do the work that Rabbi Lew so eloquently describes? I pray. I make lists of what I am proud of and what I need to improve. I apologize with full heart to anyone I might have harmed.
Most of all, I get very quiet. Only by turning off the noise of the world can I go below the surface.
This year, because of my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy regimen, I have less energy for this work. Yet the work that I am able to do feels more poignant and so much more real.
I am more capable of focusing on what is important. I am kinder to myself, recognizing moments where I push myself beyond reasonable effort and calling a halt to such perfectionism. Because I am tired more often, I am quiet more often. It is amazing what my soul has to say when I stop and listen.
When I greet my community this year at services for Rosh Hashanah, I intend to be shining.
I am so grateful for the strength and health that I do have.
I am blessed by wise and compassionate physicians and nurses.
I am held by family, friends and community.
I have so many plans for the future, and this forward focus fuels my healing. I am filled with creativity and spiritual energy, almost as if God is saying to me, “Have no fear. I have many more plans for you.”
For the first time in my life during the month of Elul, I am indeed not entirely unprepared.
I encourage all of you not to wait for a crisis to find yourself able to truly prepare for a new year. Feel the urgency as this year comes to a close and a bright new year awaits you.
L’Shana Tova Tikateivu. May you be written for a good new year.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Over the past year, our synagogue’s Committee on Jewish Living and Ritual, along with anyone else so motivated, has engaged with me in a monthly study of the traditional Torah reading assigned to the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, and of the approved alternate reading found in many high holiday mahzors. The goal of this process was to arrive at a decision as to whether our community should keep to the traditional reading or adopt the suggested alternative. While it is solely my responsibility as Mara d’Atra (“Teacher of the Place” or Halachic decisor) to make a final determination, I did not want to do so without considering input from those people who were seriously engaged with this question.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask? I realize that most people are not even present to hear the reading that takes place just a couple hours before the blowing of the shofar, when the majority of us are busy passing the last part of the fast day with a nap. The fact is, however, that since the time of the Talmud some 1500 years ago our traditional communities have been reading the same passage, Leviticus 18:1-30, during the Yom Kippur mincha (afternoon service). This reading follows closely on the heels of the passage we read Yom Kippur morning, which details the service of the High Priest and the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement.
The traditional afternoon reading of Leviticus 18 does not, however, contain a readily apparent connection to Yom Kippur. The passage focuses on guarding against the adoption of our neighboring cultures’ illicit and immoral practices. Specifically, the assigned portion details prohibited sexual unions, including the prohibition that a man may not lie with another man in the manner that he lies with a woman. The Torah seems to be giving voice to its revulsion at the erotic components of pagan society centuries ago.
In rationalizing its place in our service, commentators have pointed out that just as we focus on our spiritual purity and renewal of our relationships on this holy day, so must we recommit ourselves to examining our conduct in our most intimate relationships.
There is no doubt that the social and sexual mores of that time certainly influenced the choice of this passage for this particular occasion. Note, the Torah does not dictate the reading for Yom Kippur; it is the Rabbis (men) of the Talmud who did so.
Clearly, we don’t simply skip or excise passages of the Torah that make us uncomfortable. We confront Leviticus 18 as we read the Torah throughout the year, and we wrestle with it to make sense of it in our day and age. Its relation to Yom Kippur, however, has been called into question. And an alternative reading of Leviticus 19 has been included in many mahzors.
Leviticus 19 commences with the command “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The passage contains Judaism’s central ethical teachings, detailing the kinds of behaviors that we should strive to adopt in order to achieve lives of greater holiness, and concluding with the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
The argument has been advanced that, whereas the reading for Yom Kippur morning is about ritual purity, this alternate afternoon reading provides a complement by stressing the importance of ethical purity. For those seriously engaged in self-reflection and atonement, an examination of our personal ethics certainly seems like an important endeavor.
Change should never be made simply for the sake of change or convenience. That being said, we should not avoid all change simply because we fear the slippery slope. Change in custom may be warranted when enforcement of the status quo has the consequence of undermining the purpose of the custom.
As a reader of Torah, I have never been comfortable reading about incest and bestiality on Yom Kippur to a tired and hungry crowd. It does not enhance my experience of the day in any way; and I think my feelings mirror those of the majority of people who attend this particular service. On the other hand, reading about the kinds of behaviors I must cultivate in order to be a more ethical person feels like a far more relevant and inspiring pursuit for this particular day.
At the end of our year of studying the issue, my “advisory board” voted in favor change toward adopting the alternative reading of Leviticus 19. But as I stated above, the decision is mine alone.
There is no doubt that I find the content of the alternative reading more suitable to Yom Kippur contemplation. And there is no doubt that I place value on the process of change itself; it trains us to guard against complacency. But the ultimate reason for my decision to adopt this change is my desire to capitalize on an opportunity. On the one day of the year that finds more of our constituents in synagogue and exposed to Torah, I hope we will be captivated in greater numbers by the beauty and relevance of Torah in our lives. I hope we will be inspired to examine our interactions daily, and recognize the ways in which the ethics of Leviticus 19 inform the most mundane aspects of our lives.
With this in mind, perhaps you’ll join us for mincha on Yom Kippur at 5:15pm for a short Torah study and the reading we are implementing. And perhaps you’ll consider picking up a Bible and studying the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19 in anticipation of the holy day. And perhaps, in so doing, you’ll make my decision the right one for you.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I like schedules. I like lists. A lot. I like to fill my oversized Daytimer with schedules and lists, checking the items off as I complete them. I keep track of my phone calls, visits, classes, meetings and sermon preparation. At the end of each day, I look with satisfaction at my to-do list to measure all that I have done. I feel gratified as each day comes to a close and I imagine accomplishing, in incremental steps, my mission – the building up and support of my OJC community in the context of the Jewish world and the world-at-large.
A life of doing is a Jewish way. Just consider what the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers: “The day is short, the task is great…and the Master insistent!” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)
A life of doing is my way of living.
And so it was, until it wasn’t.
These months of illness have catapulted me right out of the life of doing. My calendar is empty except for doctor appointments and treatments. My to-do list includes taking a walk and making a phone call, on a good day.
What I have learned is the benefit of a life of being.
I do not mean being sick in my bed.
I mean those days when I am well enough to go out and walk in God‘s world or re-enter my OJC world filled with gratitude.
Only in a state of being can I truly appreciate the wonders of God’s world and the preciousness of our community.
One month ago, our butterfly bush was cut down to its very roots to allow for new growth. If I were busy doing rather than being, I would have missed the first visit of a butterfly, way ahead of schedule.
My favorite tree at the end of our driveway lights up to an incandescent red at just the right moment of sunset. I would never notice if I were busy doing rather than being.
We all notice the deer in our yards, with different responses ranging from annoyance to tenderness. This spring and summer, I have gotten to know the families of deer who congregate in my yard, watching the baby fawns grow up and naming a few of them. I would never have time for deer-watching if I were busy doing rather than being.
The OJC has been a powerful partner in my treatment. When I am in the synagogue, I have no to-do list. I am simply being with people who are seeking to connect to something bigger than we are. These times lift my soul. It is such a different way to be a rabbi. It is a way of being.
Doing is most definitely a Jewish way. But being is also a Jewish way.
In a state of being, we notice enough to experience gratitude and see that our world is filled with blessings. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.”
I do not want to be in a state of being only. I yearn for a return to my state of doing, a natural rhythm that suits me best. But I will carry this very important lesson with me into my healthy future. Some days, I will leave my Daytimer blank. I will spend the day just being, filling myself with spiritual amazement, ready to return to my to-do list and my schedules… another day.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill