By Rabbi Schwab
Over Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the tragedy of the domestic terrorist attack one year ago on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven Jews were murdered during Shabbat services. During that sermon (which you can read by clicking here) I called upon each of us to do our part in fighting anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry wherever they are found. One of the main ways I proposed to do this was to claim and re-claim the joy of positive participation in Jewish life.
In that spirit I share that on the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh attack, The American Jewish Committee has called on all people of good conscience to #ShowUpForShabbat on October 26th. Beth El is honored to participate this year. Please join us and come together to honor the 11 victims and raise our collective voice for a world free of anti-Semitism, hate, and bigotry. We must all be united in combating anti-Semitism in our country and around the world. And, as Jews, let us re-affirm our love for our heritage and strengthen ourselves as a people. I will be “Showing Up for Shabbat” in New York at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah and I urge you to join Rabbi Freedman and Hazzan Tisser here at Beth El!
Am Yisrael Chai!
By Rabbi Freedman
The most important day for New Year’s resolutions is January 2nd. Not January 1st.
On January 1st – New Year’s Day – we may have resolved to do something better, like going to the gym more. We may have even exercised because work and school were canceled. But what happens on January 2nd? When work and school resume and you have to squeeze the workout into your busy day? To create the habit, you have to make it happen, not wait for it to happen. What happens on January 2nd is a better indicator of the year ahead than January 1st.
Why does Sukkot, which concludes with Simchat Torah, occur now? Haven’t we been in shul enough over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Why not celebrate Sukkot in another month without any holidays?
I believe the answer is because Sukkot is like January 2nd. Together, the High Holidays mark not only the beginning of the year but a clean wiping of the slate. Sukkot offers the opportunity to start the year on the right foot and create the right habits: with Mitzvot, with joining as community in shul, with joining friends and family for quality time in the Sukkah. It’s the logical follow up to the High Holidays because Sukkot emphasizes what we think about on the High Holidays: relationships, community, and G-d. Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to begin building the Sukkah – even in a token way – the night of Yom Kippur break-fast.
I wish you a joyful Sukkot!
by Hazzan Tisser
In his Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Rabbi Schwab referenced a book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, entitled Antisemitism: Here and Now; specifically, the final chapter, “From Oy to Joy.” As I sit at my computer just hours before we will gather for the opening service of Yom Kippur, I cannot think of a more appropriate title for the period of the next five days.
Over the course of the next 25 or so hours, we will once again bring ourselves as close as we can to experiencing our own deaths. We will dress in white, without adornments of jewels and perfume; we will not eat nor drink; we will not bathe in luxurious fashion; and we will literally fall on our faces, begging for God’s kindness, until the shofar sounds at Neilah and we know we can then continue on with the work of a new year.
Immediately after we get home (well, after pausing for a bagel, kugel, other varieties of sweet carbohydrates, and some coffee…), we begin preparations for the next holiday — Sukkot. We all know that Sukkot is the fall harvest festival…a time to connect with nature, to be with family, to eat in the sukkah, and with the seemingly strange custom of shaking some plants and a particular citrus in circles while reciting a b’racha… But Sukkot is so much more than that! Just as Yom Kippur has become, for many of us, the most sacred day of the year, Sukkot is, in the Rabbinic mind, “THE festival” (heh-chag), “THE time of joy!” (z’man simchateinu).
So how are we supposed to switch gears so quickly? How do we confront our own mortality, our misdeeds, our least proud acts? How do we come before the Sovereign of Sovereigns, bowing down to the floor, begging for another chance to do better? How do we do this with our full beings, and then in almost an instant re-approach God with hearts full of joy, in beautifully decorated sukkot, and become our most joyous and festive selves?
I want to propose that there are a number of ideas in each of these two seemingly disparate holy days which connect them very deeply. As I mentioned above, each one of these holidays demands that we experience one extreme or the other of the emotional spectrum — awesome fear on Yom Kippur (mixed, of course, with the joy of knowing at Neilah that we are forgiven), and extreme celebration on Sukkot. We start off the year by exposing ourselves to the highs and lows we will ultimately experience over the course of the year, all the while connecting ourselves more deeply to God, to community and to our families. There is something very poignant about this—it’s almost as if to remind us that to be successful in the work we set out to do over the course of the year, we must not keep to ourselves; we must keep close to God, and we must know that we have supportive and loving community and family to aid us on our journey…and that we must be present for them as well.
Then there is an element of fragility which exists in both holidays as well. On Yom Kippur we examine the frailty of our lives. From our petitions to God to the Yizkor prayers, we cannot help but realize the limits of our own mortality. On Sukkot, of course, we are commanded to spend our meal times, and by some interpretations, even sleep, in the sukkah—a temporary structure which is completely vulnerable to nature, and which could theoretically collapse at any moment. I think that through these two expressions of fragility we can and should be reminded to enjoy and to maximize all of the wonderful things and opportunities which make our lives so rich.
There are a number of other connective themes between these two days, and I would encourage you to think about the holidays themselves and then invite you to share—with each other, and with me—the connections you have been able to draw to create even deeper meaning and celebration over the next couple of weeks.
In the meanwhile, it is my hope that over Yom Kippur you were able to experience moments of personal reflection, that perhaps you left the sanctuary changed or moved, even just a little bit, from how you felt when you entered. It is my prayer that all of your prayers be answered, and that all of our worthy deeds over the course of this year be blessed by the Holy One. May we ultimately find next week that just as we pray for God’s protection on Yom Kippur, we find that protection inside the Sukkat Shalom, the sukkah of peace, and that in that protection we find many things to be joyful about and to celebrate.
From my family to yours, Hag Sukkot Same’ach
My Rosh HaShanah sermon centered around the ideal of Jewish learning, broadly defined. Take five minutes each day to learn more about what interests you personally about the Jewish experience.
I am here to help you find something that excites you. Feel free to contact me – email@example.com.
Here is my guide to help you find Jewish content that interests you:
5 in Five (video) – I explain the Parsha in five minutes. Check your Beth El weekly email.
Covenant and Conversation (email) – Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interprets the weekly Parsha. Subscribe at http://rabbisacks.org/
#Parsha (book) – Israeli journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir comments on each Parsha.
Koren Talmud (book) – This new edition has an easy-to-follow English translation complete with pictures and graphics.
Mishna Yomit (web) – This introduction to Mishna is translated by the Conservative Yeshiva’s Dr. Josh Kulp. http://learn.conservativeyeshiva.org/mishnah/
Halacha/Jewish Law –
Responsa Radio (podcast) – Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Avi Killip from Hadar offer their answers to real-life issues today.
Responsa from Committee of Jewish Law and Standards (web) – This is the official database of Jewish legal positions from the Conservative Movement. https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards
Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn (book) – Daniel Gordis writes an introduction to Israel’s history that reads like a story.
Times of Israel (website) – This site covers Israel in all its arenas, not just politics.
Modern Hebrew –
Ulpan Or (web) – While I haven’t used this program, I know people who rave about its Skype-like option for one-on-one tutoring.
If you’re not sure where to begin –
Beth El’s Continuing Education classes (in-person classes) – A wide range of options. Click here to see current online brochure. Adult Education Fall Classes 5780
The Maxwell Abbell Library at Beth El (books) – Lots of choices here at home.
Myjewishlearning.com (web) – This site is a clearinghouse for everything Jewish and is easy to navigate.
Jewish Literacy (book) – Joseph Telushkin writes a wide-ranging introduction to Jewish knowledge.
Keep in mind that there are plenty of other excellent choices out there. It doesn’t matter exactly where you begin so long as you jump in somewhere.
I’d love to hear about your Jewish learning explorations.
While five minutes one day is nothing, five minutes every day adds up to something significant and meaningful.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah!
Click here to read my Rosh Hashanah sermon.
By Hazzan Ben Tisser
As I sit in my living room with my Mahzor open, knowing that Rosh Hashanah is but a few days away, I am looking at the text of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. This, of course, being the prayer in which we are reminded that during these days our acts are recalled and our fates decided. Each time I look at these pages in the prayer book, no matter how many times I’ve looked at them before, I am compelled to stop and to reflect on the year that is coming to an end.
In many ways, 5779 has been a remarkable year. As a community, we have seen phenomenal change. We have enjoyed many new programs and initiatives; we have reinvigorated our Friday night davening through Rinat Shabbat; we have welcomed Hazzan Barbara Barnett as our new Ritual Director; we have celebrated (and will continue to do so throughout the year) Rabbi Schwab’s ascent to the position of our Senior Rabbi; and of course, we are delighted to hear how Rabbi Kurtz and Bryna are so enjoying their time in Jerusalem. Personally, I have enjoyed watching the fruits of my labors at the synagogue—the success of programs, and the joy of watching our b’nai mitzvah share their milestones from the bimah. I have also particularly enjoyed singing in communities across the country, and even in the synagogue in Dresden, Germany, where my late grandfather became a bar mitzvah some 85 years ago. And, as many of you know, I became engaged to an incredible woman.
Even with all of the success and celebration, this year has also had its difficult moments. As a community, there have been illnesses and deaths, and we have held each other up through those challenging and sad moments. I have shared with you my sadness as I lost my beloved grandmother just after last Sukkot, and as well we mourned the tragic loss of my fiancé’s teenage son, as well as her grandmother, in January. There are no words to describe the holes in our hearts, and yet even through these sad and difficult moments we have the opportunity to reflect in ways that will allow us to live a more full and meaningful 5780.
I want to share with you a poem, which you’ll find below this message. It is often read at funerals, but it is an important reminder as we come before Avinu Malkeinu, asking for another year of goodness, of health, and of life.
I want to close first by asking for your individual and collective forgiveness for my misdeeds and shortcomings over the course of the past year. If I was late to an appointment, or if I said or did something hurtful, I am most deeply sorry, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss it privately and to do proper teshuvah.
Robyn, Talia, and Ethan join me in wishing you and yours a most happy, healthy, successful and fulfilling 5780. May we only meet for s’machot, for happy occasions, this year.
See you in shul,
the poem by Linda Ellis
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.
To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?
By Linda Ellis, Copyright © Inspire Kindness, 1996, thedashpoem.com
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
If you did not have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and wish to do so, Beth El wants you to join other adults on this meaningful Jewish journey.
Here are the details of this new initiative:
The cost will be $180 per student, which covers the adult education fee and a Kiddush contribution.
While students will bring varying levels of Hebrew abilities, we require that students minimally be able to decode Hebrew (by January). This ensures that the skills class will be teaching the actual trope. For those students whose Hebrew is not quite there, please contact Hazzan Tisser for options as to how to take the next step in Hebrew.
I personally find it very moving when adults freely demonstrate their own religious commitments. It is our very own Jewish Tradition that celebrates that the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiva was 40 years old when he learned the Aleph Bet!
These adult Bnai Mitzvah participants will be an inspiring model to their families, their community, and their clergy.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab
We are currently in the midst of the Hebrew month of Elul – the month before the High Holidays. Spurred by the blowing of the shofar each morning, our tradition reminds us to engage in the process of teshuvah, of repentance, now – not to wait until the Day of Judgment itself to take up this sacred task. For most of us this means embarking on a journey of self-reflection, identifying wrongs we have committed and doing our best to right these wrongs, which usually minimally includes saying we are sorry and asking for forgiveness.
Yet, there is another side to the process of teshuvah – preparing ourselves to forgive others. While there may be exceptions (which we will talk about in my post-Kiddush discussion this Shabbat), Jewish Law requires us to forgive someone who sincerely apologizes and wants to right a wrong they committed. In fact, in some books of Jewish Law the language is indeed very strong, claiming that not forgiving a sincere penitent is a sin in and of itself.
Forgiving someone who has wronged you is not a simple thing to do. That is why we must also use our time in Ellul to prepare ourselves to forgive so that when we are asked to do so, we are ready. Strategies to aid us include:
1) Placing ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagining how much we would want to be forgiven if we had made a mistake and harmed someone.
2) Reflecting on the toll the psychological and emotional pain has taken on us when we hold onto anger and grudges.
3) Imagining the feelings we have about the strength of character we show when we are able to be in a position to offer forgiveness.
4) Bearing in mind that the ability to forgive helps the larger community and society.
5) Knowing that the wisdom of our tradition requests we do so. And I know there are many more.
My prayer for all of us in the season of repentance is that we both have the strength and wisdom to seek forgiveness, as well as to forgive those who seek forgiveness from us.
By Hazzan Tisser
Our lives run on cycles–cycles of all sorts. Some sacred, and some mundane. There are the cyclical ups and downs of life…there are periods of peak and of lesser intensity at work…there are cycles in the development of our children…there are the cycles of nature which we acknowledge at every Ma’ariv service…there are the monthly cycles of the sun and moon, which we celebrate each Rosh Hodesh…there are the cycles of our daily routines…and there are others as well.
I completed a cycle this past Monday evening. In fact, several cycles collided in one evening. Monday afternoon was the last time I recited Kaddish for my grandmother after eleven months of daily recitation. What made the moment especially meaningful is that when I recited the last Kaddish, I was in the home of a bereft family who lost a similarly strong woman—a true matriarch, just like my grandmother—helping them enter shiva just hours after the funeral. My last Kaddish was their first since leaving the cemetery earlier that day. We shared that experience, standing together in sacred time and space. We shared laughter and tears; we shared poems and prayers. We held on to each other for strength, for encouragement, and for the knowledge that we would all be ok.
The beginning of their sh’loshim (the thirty-day period of mourning) will end on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as the community disperses from shul to a yontev lunch at home. This will not be easy for them. But they have a period of thirty days to prepare themselves for the reality that there will be an empty seat at the Holy Day table this year (a reality which my family will also adjusting to).
Personally, the end of Kaddish for my grandmother begins a period of sh’loshim for me as well – thirty days of reflection and of remembering, which culminates as well on the second day of Rosh Hashanah with the yahrzeit of my grandfather, whom I loved very much. This period will be one, for me, of deep introspection—of recalling lessons learned and memories shared, and of thinking about how I can use these to better myself.
We often speak of the ten days starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur as the key period for reflection and calls to action. I would like to propose, however, that just a few days ago we all began a period of sh’loshim—the thirty days leading from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time that the shofar calls to us each morning to pause and reflect. It is during this period that we recite Psalm 27 twice daily, reminding us that we have the potential to grow and to improve, and that God is with us as we do so because God wants us to succeed. And it is the time during which, starting in just two weeks, we will recite daily the selichot—the penitential prayers—which both force us to reflect deeply on our deeds, and which recount daily the Thirteen Attributes of God, which we, as creatures made in the Divine image, must emulate (more on that during Selichot).
My prayer for us all this Elul is that we take opportunities to pause and to reflect, to remember and to look ahead. I pray that we may all complete this period of sh’loshim a little more whole, and a whole lot better; and that we will reflect together in just a few more weeks when we gather for the High Holy Day services. May we all be blessed with good health and length of days, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year—another cycle.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab
In the category of “Mom Always Knows Best” I vividly recall a scene from my childhood when my mother inquired if I had a test coming up. She followed with “Did you start studying yet?” The answer was usually “no” and the result, if I didn’t course-correct quickly, was predictable. For my mother knew that if there was something important on the horizon, the wisest course of action was to prepare for whatever that something was.
Big presentation at work? Important conversation with your child? Torah reading for the Bat Mitzvah celebration? Public speaking engagement? Big project due? Passover Seder to host? Every one of these requires preparation to have them turn out well — or at least to make the very most out of the opportunity.
This Shabbat ushers in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe) or what we often call, the High Holidays. During the High Holidays we reflect on our year and on ourselves. We identify those mistakes we have made and faults we possess. We make an effort to apologize to those we have wronged and to construct a plan to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. To say that this is both a large and important project would be an understatement.
Thus, the Rabbis designated this month as a month to prepare for this monumental task. We blow the shofar every morning of Elul to stir us into action and to remind us to begin our introspection and repentance now! Admitting a mistake and finding the strength to actually apologize takes time and energy. It is almost impossible to do on one day, or even over the ten days inclusive of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So remember that both Mom and the Rabbis usually know best: when something important is on the horizon, it is always best to prepare.
I hope that this month of Elul paves the way for a meaningful start to the New Year as we each learn to grow from our mistakes and consequently make the world better!
Rabbi Alex Freedman
Ah, it’s that time of year again. Time to buy the kids new folders; time to buy them new shoes; time to unearth that backpack you buried somewhere last June.
In equal measure for kids and parents, the beginning of the school year is an annual rite of passage. Yet there’s at least one crucial difference between them.
For the students, each year brings a tangible sense of advancement. “No longer am I in Grade X,” they tell themselves with good reason. “I’ve moved up to Grade Y.”
Not so for the parents. It’s possible, even easy, for these school years to feel the same to parents. One year may feel identical to the next. Or if not exactly so, the transition might be gradual instead of as sudden as a first day of school.
As a parent, I envy the ease with which students feel themselves advancing and growing in knowledge. I wish each year brought me a similar emotion.
Having no appetite for late-night homework, final exams, or loads of student debt, I will not be returning to the classroom as a student. Neither will most parents. But you and I can return to shul this week or this year with renewed focus and purpose. And a sense of growth.
I want to share an insight I hope will elevate our understanding of Shabbat. I think many of us intuit Shabbat being the week’s finish line. A day of rest, good food, and time with people we love recharges us for the next week. We believe this because Saturday falls on the “weekend.”
But there’s another way to see it. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in his book Laws of Shabbat shares an amazing Gemara: from the viewpoint of the world, the creation of the six weekdays came before Shabbat. But from the perspective of humankind, who was created on the sixth day, Shabbat came before the six weekdays (B. Talmud Shabbat 69b).
This means that the world knew the six days of the week before Shabbat. But Adam, who was created on Day Six, the first day was Shabbat. The weekdays followed.
Rabbi Melamed writes, “Shabbat is also the anchor and beginning of the next week. From Shabbat we draw spiritual strength for the upcoming week so that we are able to realize, through our activities, the spiritual values that we absorb on Shabbat (7).”
Rabbi Melamed means that Shabbat is also the first day of the week. The day should set the tone for the next six. The values that animate Shabbat – quality time with loved ones, community, prayer, an emphasis on the spiritual – should be activated all week long in some ways.
I love that he teaches me something new about something that I’ve been doing for so long in the same way.
As we have only weeks to go before Rosh HaShanah, I hope we can begin to discover a new area of growth so that when the Shofar rings, we feel we are ahead.