It came in a long blue velvet bag, with my Hebrew name in gold lettering. I still remember how, a few weeks short of my thirteenth birthday, I was so excited that my sisters had cared enough to buy me a present. Not a ram’s horn, it was the horn of a Greater Kudu. I loved the shape, the color, the size of the mouthpiece and the sound that emerged as I blew it like my trumpet. I couldn’t wait for Sunday morning minyan; maybe Rabbi Sosland would permit me to sound the shofar at the end of the service: tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah.
Thirty seven years later, almost to the day, I unzip the blue velvet bag and slide the twisting shofar from the sack. I blow into the mouthpiece a steady stream of air, just to remove the imaginary cobwebs and to clear the pathway that the sound will eventually travel. Now I purse my lips and press them against the round mouthpiece, not too tightly, and push the air out. The sound emerges always as a surprise, a cross between a trumpet’s call and a cry for help. Thirty seven years later, I continue to discover new meanings in the craggy screech, the staccato siren, the triumphant call. If I close my eyes tightly enough, I can feel the many yearnings of my heart emerge from the end of the horn. I am simultaneously saddened and gladdened, remorseful and hopeful, broken and resolute.
Thirty seven years ago, my rabbi, teacher and mentor wasn’t so thrilled about a twelve year old boy blowing a shofar that was almost as big as he was. Rabbi Sosland took great care to teach me the proper method for the ritual and the appropriate length for each of the sounds. He asked me to sound the shofar facing the ark; he asked me not to hold the final blast so long. He even asked if I would consider blowing a smaller horn. My teacher taught me that those hearing the sound should not be distracted by what they might see: the red face, the puffed cheeks, the winding horn. The only thing that matters in hearing the shofar is the ability to hear with the proper intention. Any visual or aural distraction only serves to diminish that intention and the potential impact of the ritual. In those days leading up to my thirteenth birthday and Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Sosland was trying to teach me humility.
Close your eyes and let the primal cries enter your ears. If we experience the sounds as entertainment, we are not allowing the reverberations to reach our hearts. But if we listen to the sound of the shofar the way it was meant to be heard, we will learn to hear its call every day: in the still, small voice of God within.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
A Chance to Start Anew
Soon, we will check the calendar, gather our tickets, put on something new and come to synagogue for Rosh Hashana. Many of us arrive with optimism, a hope that we’ll feel something magical, a believe that we can be moved spiritually. Many of us are disappointed by our experience of the New Year. Year after year. The purpose of Rosh Hashana is to start anew, but somehow, it just feels like the same old thing. What are we doing wrong?
Perhaps we are beginning too late. Without realizing it, we are putting off the work that needs to be done before the High Holy Days arrive. Showing up to Rosh Hashana services unprepared is like showing up for a job interview without first doing some research about the company. Would we show up for an interview without a resume?
This Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday marks Rosh Hodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. During the month of Elul, tradition offers us an opportunity to draw close to God, and in so doing, to draw close to our best selves. This drawing close requires introspection and honest self-assessment. Such interior work is uncomfortable and many of us put it off until we forget about it altogether. If we make use of this coming month before the New Year, however, we will have a better chance of finding something lasting and holy in our synagogue experience.
Tradition tells us that in the month of Elul, God is out in the field, travelling back to God’s palace. There are no guards, no entourage, no barrier between us and God. We can simply fall into step, walk alongside God, and introduce ourselves. By the time we reach the High Holy Days, God is back in the palace. We can still approach, but it is much harder work. The month of Elul is the easiest time to make God’s acquaintance.
Many guides can help us make use of each day of Elul to prepare for the new year. One of the finest books of preparation is Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.
The following books are daily journals that provide readings, reflections and challenges for each day as we approach the evening of September 24:
Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Forty Days of Transformation
Simon Jacobson, 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays
If you are more of a self starter, attend Shabbat services each week leading up to the High Holy Days so that you are not a stranger at God’s door when the day arrives. If you are a member of the OJC, consider coming on Shabbat morning promptly at 9:00 to participate in the contemplative preparatory service. Join me on Monday evening September 15 at 7:30 pm or Tuesday morning September 16 at 10:00 am for Heshbon haNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul. Join with the OJC community (or your own community) on Saturday night, September 20 at 10:00 pm for our Selichot program followed by midnight services.
Choose the path that is right for you. But if you wait until Wednesday, September 24 at 6:30 pm to begin the work of transformation, you might be disappointed once again.
May the month of Elul hold for you the promise of a return to your own soul, to the best that you are meant to be!
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
God of men and mountains,
Master of people and planets,
Creator of the universe: I am afraid.
I am afraid of the angels
Thou hast sent to wrestle with me:
The angel of success
who carries a two-edged sword
The angels of darkness
Whose names I do not know,
The angel of death
For whom I have no answer.
I am afraid of the touch
Of Thy great hand on my feeble heart.
Yet must I turn to Thee and praise Thee
Awful and great though Thou art,
For there is none else.
There is no strength nor courage
But in Thee.
There is no life, no light, no joy,
But in Thee.
— Ruth Brin
We have not been placed on this earth to answer the question “why” God takes a beautiful child from her parents and family so suddenly at such a young age. Nor are we here to assert that she is in a better place. The arms of her loving parents are the very best place for a daughter to be. We are here to embrace a soul: to keep her in our hearts, our thoughts and, most importantly, our deeds.
Emily Sarah Levine
May 27, 2001 – August 12, 2014
In memory of a beautiful child who cherished her Jewish identity, please consider supporting a Jewish camping experience or educational opportunity for another child who may grow to be the proud Jew and fine human being that Emily became in her short 13 years.
May Emily’s family, friends and community find comfort, and may her memory always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Boundaries around Grief
Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples of the ancient Jewish people, is the longest, slowest fast of all. Twenty-five hours of mourning practices, restrictions on joy (even a prohibition to greet people), and the most gruesome, tragic liturgy in our canon are legislated in the halacha of the day that just ended a few hours ago.
Over the years, I have struggled to assign meaning to the day as I sat on the floor to chant Eicha (Lamentations), refrained from tallit and tefillin at morning services, and of course, did not eat or drink through a hot summer workday.
I have tried focusing on the Jewish command to hear text and experience it as if we were there. I have studied history on Tisha B’Av to realize that Jews are not the ever-dying people but rather the never-dying people. I have used the intention that just as in the days of the Temple, we Jews have repair work to do with regard to sinat chinam, senseless hatred, and lashon hara, evil speech.
When Tisha B’Av began last night, the congregations of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis came together as we have done for the past three years. We met last night at Montebello Jewish Center where it felt like a gift to be together with so many fellow Jews. This year, like many of you, I was exhausted with grief before the sun even set to begin my fast. I was saddened by stories of families in the south of Israel whose lives have been traumatically interrupted for weeks and weeks by Red Alert sirens. I had been crying every time I read another eulogy for another soldier written by his mother. (How do Israeli mothers manage to do that?) I was exhausted by the biased angle of so many news articles and reports. I was distraught by the clear evidence of a terrorist organization that inhumanely proved its truest colors by devaluing the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. I was appalled by the sheer evil of building terrorist tunnels instead of hospitals and schools. I was frightened by the ongoing news of rampant anti-Semitism in Europe and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from there.
Before I even began, I didn’t have the energy to make any sense of the mourning of Tisha B’Av.
And then Rabbi Adam Baldachin of Montebello Jewish Center opened the services for Tisha B’Av by saying that this day is different from every other day on the calendar. “We always take action,” he said. “But on this day, we just allow ourselves to feel grief.” His explanation gave me permission to do exactly what I needed to do this year on Tisha B’Av: nothing. No meaning-making. No action plan. I just grieved.
Now the fast is over. Blintzes and bialys have been enjoyed. As the day ended, so did my feelings of intense grief. Not so much has changed in the world since one day ago. But I feel a sense of relief after having submitted to the emotion of grief.
Judaism, in its wisdom, carves out moments of time for us to be in the throes of the difficult emotions we need to feel. And then the day ends. Judaism puts boundaries around our grief. We are safe to enter in and then leave the construct.
Praying for the peace of Israel,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
The quest for balance, interrupted
At 2:00am New York time, I wrote these words:
Cease fire. Who knows whether it will hold, and who knows whether or to whom it will be of benefit. Israel has committed itself to the task of destroying an infrastructure of tunnels that pose a terrifying threat to her citizens. Hopefully, whatever agreement is ultimately reached will include the completion of that task to the mutual benefit of Israelis and Palestinians. Hopefully, this time will empower voices of wisdom and moderation to prevail against the grip of terror and extremism. Hopefully, those who advocate for economic prosperity, mutual recognition and responsible governance will seize this moment to paint a picture of the possible. In the interim, I catch my breath and consider where I am on the Jewish calendar, only to be reminded once again of the dangers all types of extremism represent.
This coming Monday night and Tuesday, we commemorate Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, as we recall the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and several other tragic events of our past. We actually begin a period of mourning three weeks before the date (no weddings, among other things), and intensify our mourning in the last nine days. Our sages teach us that the Holy Temple fell due to the baseless hatred Jews harbored against one another. In the face of an oppressive Roman presence, the Jewish community of two thousand years ago fell in on itself. Political alliances, religious sectarian infighting and power-hungry leaders rendered the Jewish community fractured and vulnerable. The Temple was destroyed, and in the wake of the unthinkable disaster, Judaism had to recreate itself.
When we teach the lessons of Tisha B’Av today, we focus on the values of respecting one another despite our differences, hearing each other’s opinions, and searching for roads to peace between us. The recreated Judaism of the rabbis taught us that we learn best when paired with others, especially with whom we disagree. In so doing, we allow our basic assumptions to be challenged, we learn to refine our own positions and to make room for the opinions of others. We discover a greater sense of compassion and we give ourselves the possibility of growth.
Some day, God willing soon, it will be time for us to consider how we move forward from this conflict as a Jewish community. We need to express our anger, frustrations and fears, but doing so at the expense of our ability to learn from one another leads only to baseless hatred and destruction.
This was my prayer before sleep last night:
This Tisha B’Av, I pray that we find and hold our center; that we rediscover the language of respect; that we embrace and learn from our plurality and dissonance of opinions; that we combat our own tendencies toward extremism; and that our neighbors have the strength and courage to do the same.
But the light of day brings news of a suicide bomber’s attack, the fear of an IDF soldier’s kidnapping, and a fiercely desperate Israeli response with more civilian casualties. And I am knocked off balance again. And the only voices I can hear are the cries of a kidnapped soldier’s parents. And on this morning, I must tell you, compassion for anyone else is so much harder to feel.
Dear God, in this time of mourning, restore the balance to my humanity. Assuage my wrath. Set me on a course of faith and hope. Help me forge a path to peace. And let me be a source of comfort and compassion to others.
Rabbi Craig Scheff