Here in the valley where the tree roots form a rugged map
of chaos and danger, we step carefully to avoid falling.
Shadows of low branches on old trees play tricks on our resolve.
We walk with fear and worry, bereft of enjoyment
Getting through to get past to be out of this place
Feeling helpless and low in the dusk
Questioning the wisdom of the journey even here at the start.
Ascent is required, of course, and we know its challenges:
The breathless trudging onward, the desire to stop, the seduction
of the backward glance toward the downhill.
But we turn our face toward the summit and climb and we climb.
May we reach the summit together and there find
a well-worn trail along the ridge from which we see the
wide vast world, a perspective that brings sense and understanding.
From here we see that the journey will never be easy and we will
need to hike it again and again. But there will always be
at the close of each day, a belief in the summit and
the joy of that hike along the ridge.
I wrote this poem for Yom Kippur services this year. The metaphor of a chaotic valley, a painful and challenging ascent, and a respite at the summit felt like a much-needed affirmation after the past difficult year. The perspective and ease available from a high point on our journey are gifts of the Jewish New Year.
I share this poem now, even though Yom Kippur is already a memory as we rush forward to Sukkot, because I want to share a very important idea: Many of us never reach the summit on Yom Kippur. Despite our best intentions and honest soul-searching work, many of us do not feel cleansed, affirmed and brand new on the Day of Atonement. For us, Yom Kippur does not feel like a well-worn trail along a ridge. We say we are sorry to those we have hurt. We recite the words of the prayers. We beat our chest as we recite the confessional prayers. With all of our hearts, we believe the metaphor that we must complete the work of teshuvah before the gates slam shut at Neilah (the concluding service of Yom Kippur). We try. But we don’t accomplish what we set out to do. We hear the blasts of the shofar and head out to break our fast feeling uneasy about our lack of connection with God. We still have relationships to repair, promises to fulfill, mistakes we want to correct.
Here is the good news: we have an extension for this work of teshuvah until Hoshannah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. We beat the willows from our lulav and etrog ritual and shake off the remainder of our sins.
And here is even better news: Judaism understands that living a good life, striving to be a contributor to a holy community, and fulfilling the desire to be our best selves are lofty goals that do not come easily to all of us. Yom Kippur is a red-letter date on the calendar each year because we humans tend to require deadlines to get serious about things. Judaism teaches, however, that every day is another opportunity to turn our lives around, to get back on the trail heading upward, and to see the world from a perspective of a well-worn path along a ridge. Teshuvah is available in our daily prayers, in the study of Torah, and in small meaningful acts of kindness. May this year offer you abundant opportunities to become your best self.
G’mar chatimah tovah, May you be sealed for a good new year,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I welcome my younger sister, Randi Galron, as a contributor to this post. Her words will appear italicized in the text.
The first siren introduced herself into my life with no warning. On a quiet and sunny Tel Aviv afternoon in October 1973, as the nine year-old version of me was busy playing a board game with my older sisters, she came through our living room windows, bounced off the walls and took up residence in our floors. The siren grew stronger as she grabbed hold of my feet, causing me to lose my balance. The room had tilted, or so it seemed, as panicked neighbors stopped at our door just long enough to tell us to move down the apartment house stairs to the bomb shelter in the building’s bowels. We sat silently in the dark, dank space for hours until the siren returned to inform us we could emerge, but only to prepare ourselves more adequately for the many times she would return over the next few weeks to send us scurrying back underground.
Every April I steel myself for the visit of the second siren. She comes to visit me in a different way, never catching me off guard. I can anticipate her arrival down to the minute; nevertheless, I am left feeling shaken when she passes. Over the years of my rabbinate, I have busied myself in the month of April with programs, speakers, and songs of Israel. Once the Passover dishes are put back into storage, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and even Lag B’Omer powerfully reconnect me to Israel and to my Israeli family, friends and places that have become such a foundational piece of my Jewish and spiritual identity. Nothing, however, brings me back to Israel more powerfully than the siren sounded on the morning of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). A small piece of me wants to avoid the moment, but the larger piece of me that is insistent upon standing inside it wins out every time.
April 8, 9:09 am, Tel Aviv, Israel
It’s 9:09 am and Craig just texted me. What’s he doing awake at this hour? It’s only 2 am in the States. Riiiiight, he’s the “Keeper of the flame,” a 24 hour vigil that his synagogue observes every Yom Hashoah. I join his “watch” on Zoom and we continue to text. As he writes to me about his reflections, I share my own feelings about what it’s like to have my two sons in the Israeli army at the same time. That both my boys are fighting for and protecting our Jewish homeland is a tremendous legacy to all those who perished. I share with him a picture or two to capture the meaning of this powerful day for me.
April 8, 2:46 am EST, Orangeburg, New York
In a few minutes, the siren will sound in Israel. Most of the country will come to a standstill. Drivers on the highways will pull over to step out of their cars. Merchants will cease their business dealings. The elderly will stand by the young, quietly paying their respects to the fallen.
9:53 am, Tel Aviv
Only 7 minutes to go before the siren. Just a few minutes to quickly finish up what I’m doing to prepare for a moment of reflection and to pay respect to our families and all those who perished in the Holocaust. The time is 9:59 am and from my office on the 48th floor of the midtown office building in Tel Aviv I can already see civilians and soldiers lining the bridge that leads from the Azrieli mall to the Kiryah.
10:00 am, Tel Aviv
The sharp shrill of the siren that pierces the air. The steady siren that symbolizes our mourning and calls us to remember. It’s different from the rise and fall of the air raid “red alert” sirens we hear and heard only a couple of days ago to alert us that our small country is under attack. This siren pierces your heart and stops your breath for an instant. This siren causes the tiny hairs on the back of your neck to stand. This siren calls our entire nation to a halt. An entire nation stopping in its tracks – people, cars, radios, phone calls, the construction site I see down below – all of it. I stand with my head lowered, hands at my sides. I close my eyes. In the background I can hear the faint beating of my heart and I remind myself to take a breath. I try to settle the thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind. I picture the faces of my loved ones, the face of my grandfather who is no longer with us, faces of friends, faces of those whom I don’t even know. But, I remember them. From my office window, I look out at the Ayalon highway. Cars are pulled off to the side, their doors opened, their passengers standing at attention like monuments. I feel a tear on my cheek.
3:00 am, Orangeburg
I stand in our sanctuary before the candles, and I listen to the siren from my sister Randi’s phone. As the alarm pierces the still surroundings, her reverberation connects her listeners one to another, across space and time. Though I stand here seven hours behind, I am transported to that time outside of time, that place outside of space, where the souls of the living and the dead come face-to-face. And even as they are bound up with each other in that moment, the one gazes expectantly, while the other averts its eyes. “Have you learned?” asks the one. The other holds its breath, releases and answers, “I thought I had, but perhaps not.”
While Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut are inextricably linked on the Jewish calendar, separated only by a week, and while it is so often said that the State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust like a phoenix, I do not like to perpetuate the idea that Israel exists today due to the Holocaust. There can be no denying that the Holocaust accelerated the realization of a dream that was centuries old, but that dream had already gained major traction in the years leading up to World War II. Even so, the siren of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that lives in my memory and the siren of our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration remind me that Israel’s security and legitimacy–her rootedness in our Jewish past and her aspirations for a Jewish future–are what ultimately give me the luxury of feeling secure as a Jew in the world today.
Randi, kiss your boys for me, and thank them for standing guard on my behalf.
Shalom al Yisrael,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
As we gathered in person and via Zoom for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two things gave me pause and helped me think about ba-yamim ha-elu baz’man hazeh. (to paraphrase and tweak a blessing:) in these days in this time.
First, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) in our sanctuary was glowing once again. Perhaps you never noticed, but somewhat shockingly, the bulb in our Eternal Light went out midsummer. We made do with Joe’s flashlight because the replacement was on back order for weeks and weeks. (Sorry for this disclosure to those of you who assumed that the Eternal Light in our Sanctuary burns according to the will of God. A part of me has always thought that too. Nonetheless, our beautiful Eternal Light shines because of electricity and a light bulb.) But at last, on the first day of the New Year, for the first time in months, God was most definitely back in our Sanctuary. (Let me be clear, I do not think that God was missing from us; God was probably visiting us via Zoom while we were out of the Sanctuary for months.)
The second thing happened when Rabbi Hersh and a couple of his kids came in to their usual seats just before services began. As he put on his tallit, he spotted something in the book holder. As he pulled up a children’s book, My Purim Parade, he and I shared an over-the-face-mask look of disbelief and acceptance. The last time our community had gathered in the Sanctuary, albeit in limited number, have been for the Megillah reading at Purim.
These two small details have informed my thinking for the last nine days, from Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of Yom Kippur this evening. Time moves forward in a straight line. Lightbulbs go out, Krista orders a replacement, weeks go by, and the lightbulb is replaced. Purim takes place in March, Passover and Shavuot follow, and now we find ourselves in Aseret Y’mei Hateshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). Through these months of pandemic upheaval, time has marched steadily forward.
Jewish time, however, moves in a completely different way, in a circular fashion. While the calendar marches forward, it also goes in a great circle. Our weeks move toward Shabbat and then circle back again to the next Shabbat. In the same spirit of cycles, each month begins and ends with a new moon. Before we know it, Purim will come again and then Passover. We clean up the crumbs from the hamantaschen and take out the Passover dishes every year, year after year.
Our teshuva (repentance) is also circular in its fashion. Every year we rise as the beginning strains of Kol Nidre are chanted. Something moves within us. We have marched forward for an entire year, but somehow, here we are, considering the same mistakes that we make every year.
I will experience linear and circular time simultaneously tonight. I will think: How can I be standing here again, still wondering when I will remember to be patient and stop gossiping and pause before speaking and not judge people? What good does it do if I stand here every year still mired in my same mistakes?
The answer comes if we are able to integrate the Gregorian calendar self together with the Jewish calendar self. My friend Anne envisions the marriage of linear time to circular time as an ever-ascending spiral staircase. We go around but ever higher, always forward. Thinking back over these Covid months, she pointed out to me that when you are ascending a circular staircase, the turning perspectives and the angles of your climb mean that you cannot always see the steps you have taken. All of our positive steps forward might be hidden from view as we look ahead on the climb, hoping to see where we are going. We forget to look back down at the many steps we have taken. We forget that success and failure, triumph and mistakes are all part of this circular, linear path of living.
Since the pandemic began, I have studied Hebrew weekly with a terrific teacher, my son Josh. We have a sichah (conversation) during which he texts me new vocabulary words which we use in conversation the following week. One week when we were scheduling a time for our shiur (lesson), I made a mistake in the conjunction of the verb. Josh corrected me and then I wrote: Kein, todah, ani ta-iti. (Yes, thanks, I made a mistake). Josh wrote back: “To make a mistake is a fabulous thing. It makes learning possible.” And there you have it! Yom Kippur in a WhatsApp message!
I am imperfect, created to be imperfect by a perfect God. Surely God knew what God was doing when creating imperfect me. Yes, I show up year after year, still hoping to refine and renew, still planning to adjust and refocus, still beating my chest about the same faults and habits. But if I stand on the circle of time, at the same geometric point on that circle, back again at Yom Kippur, I can see that I am new, I am different, I have moved forward. I have grown from a year of walking straight along the linear time of 5780. I have also grown in my soul as I circle back once again to the 10th of Tishrei, a split-second jump with full faith from 5780 to 5781.
This tumultuous year is far from over, though so many of us sadly are wishing it away. Hurricane Isaias was just the latest in what feels like a growing list of events that have drawn down our reservoir of resilience. As we find ourselves in the weeks leading to the Jewish community’s season of reflection and joy, it is an appropriate time to look back at 2020 with clearer vision and sharper focus. Seeing these past months through a Jewish perspective on time, specifically in the framework of transitioning from the years 5780 to 5781, might allow us a way to reframe our view of the first 8 months of the calendar year vis a vis the 4 months remaining.
The Jewish process of teshuva—reflection, atonement, return— reminds us that we have a choice. We can allow the challenging moments of our lives to deplete us, to shorten our tempers, to consume our patience, to sap our energy. Or we can recognize these natural consequences of stress and, instead, build on the unexpected yet fortifying outgrowths of our circumstances.
As we prepare for a “hybrid“ approach to our holiday celebrations—combining communal in-person and at-home opportunities to experience the essential and intended messages that present the opportunity for personal transformation—the liturgy of the holidays can offer a useful vehicle for navigating these days with direction and meaning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the pages of the mahzor present a progression of themes that we expand upon in the hours of structured prayer. Whether we are in the sanctuary or in the privacy of our homes, we can rely upon these themes as a personal “seder” (order) that will help us in creating our own unique ritual for this holiday season and provide a much-needed perspective for this unusual time in our world.
For Rosh Hashanah, we may reflect on:
Sovereignty (Malkhuyot) – In the last months, what has ruled my priorities? How has the hierarchy of my priorities changed? In the months to come, will I live my days passively, or will I rule my choices?
Remembrance (Zichronot) – In the last months, what have been my losses? How have I grieved? In the months to come, how will I honor and celebrate the people and events that transform my life?
Wake-up calls (Shofarot) – In the last months, what have I discovered as our “silver linings”? Where have I found meaning and hope? In the months to come, what are the things that will refill my reservoir of resilience?
For Yom Kippur, we may reflect on:
Confession (Teshuva) – In the last months, where have I willingly fallen short of the mark as a friend or family member? How have I unintentionally contributed to another’s suffering? In the months to come, what can I do to relieve my burden and those of others?
Connection (Tefilla) – In the last months, what connections have made me feel relevant? What connections have been my support? In the months to come, what connections will I pursue that I have yet to explore?
Community (Tzedaka) – In the last months, from whose kindnesses have I benefited? Have I given of my blessings to assist others? In the months to come, what will I do to sustain the communities that have been there for me when I have needed them?
Some of us may be wondering and worrying how we will make meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without sitting in synagogue this year. The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 2020 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.
Join your community in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the arrival of 5781 by cultivating a new outlook on the last months of 2020.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
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