In the Scale of Merit

I was sitting in my car, minding my own business, chatting on the phone, waiting for the light to change, when, all of a sudden, from behind the car- boom! The car behind me failed to stop and my rear bumper went crunch. The other driver and I dutifully pulled off into a parking lot and waited for the police. They took the report, we called our insurance companies, and life went on.
A minor inconvenience, a bang on the head, nothing to be upset over. What WAS upsetting, however, was hearing from the insurance agent several weeks later that the driver of the other car was denying that she hit me and, in fact, suggested that I had backed up into her vehicle! Fortunately, I was exonerated by the police report and the matter was quickly resolved, but her unwillingness to take responsibility made me angry!
There is nothing quite so disarming as a heartfelt apology. Hearing the words, “I’m so sorry, I was wrong, I should have done better and WILL do better next time, please forgive me”- these words take the wind right out of our sails when we feel righteously indignant.
During these final weeks of the year, our spiritual task is to do an honest accounting of our actions, take responsibility, and seek reconciliation in our relationships. Our hope is that if we acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, if we admit our flaws, if we take responsibility and apologize and ask God- “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement,” that we can move God from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy, that we can take the metaphoric wind out of God’s metaphoric sails through our process of teshuva, repentance and return.
A Yiddish proverb suggests that it is harder to stay on people’s good side than God’s. Yom Kippur is Yom ha-Din, the day of judgment. For too many of us, every day is judgment day. We are all too ready to believe the worst about each other.. On Yom Kippur we stand in judgment before God. On the other 364 days of the year, all too often we stand in judgment of others.
I received an email recently from a member of my congregation whose feelings I had inadvertently hurt many years ago. In her note, she acknowledged that, when I called to ask if I had offended her in some way, she said no. Now, years later, she was writing to apologize to me for not having answered me honestly at that time.
It was both powerful and healing to me to read her message. I simply replied- “Thank you so much for letting me know. It is my goal to be responsive and supportive to members of the congregation in times of need, and I am sorry I was not the presence that you needed at a difficult time. I appreciate your letting me know now and hope that you can forgive me. “
As the High Holidays approach, we reflect on how quick we are to judge others, to impute the worst possible motives to each other Pirke Avot 1:16 tells us that we must “Judge in the scale of merit,” that is, give each other the benefit of the doubt. We feel the pain of the intense sense of self-judgment when we examine our own failings. Let us resolve, in the year ahead, to be kinder and gentler with each other, not rushing to judgment, seeking to understand and impute the highest possible motives to our friends and loved ones, mindful of the wisdom of our tradition, that as we forgive others, so will we be forgiven.

Elul

Forty days and forty nights of rain. Forty years of wandering. Forty is a meaningful number in our tradition. This Shabbas is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the final month of the year, marking forty days until Yom Kippur. If we have not yet begun the process of teshuvah, repentance and return; if we have not yet begun to our cheshbon hanefesh, our spiritual accounting; if we have not yet reached out to others to repair and renew our relationships- now is the time! Our parsha- re’eh- reinforces this message. “Look here!”- the Torah calls out to us- life is full of choices, and those choices are in your hands- blessing or curse, which will it be? Seeing is believing, or so it has been said. Beginning with the month of Elul, we add Psalm 27 to our daily practice- “lulei heemanti lirot b’tuv Adonai”- if ONLY I believed! In the words of Reb Nachman, “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can repair.” This Shabbas is our reminder that we have forty days to see and decide.

The Higgs Boson and Kabbalah

The High School that I went to in Brooklyn, New York, was named for John Dewey, and it was founded on his educational philosophy of allowing for independent study and non-competitiveness. So, we didn’t get traditional grades in our classes- we received an “M” for Mastery, or and “R” for Retained for Reinforcement. There was an intermediate grade of MC- Mastery with Condition- which meant that you had to make something up before the grade went onto that dreaded permanent record as an “M.” The last science class that I completed in my academic career was HS Chemistry, and I received an “M” in that course after the following conversation with Mr. Winters- “I will pass you in this class if you promise me that you will NEVER take Chemistry again!” I am here to tell you that I have honored that commitment to this day!

So, I am here to admit that, while it was a good week for God’s PR, as the discovery of the Higgs boson particle dominated the news, I can’t pretend to understand the profundity of its implications. I gather that it is a very big deal. I read, or tried to read, the article about it on Wikipedia, and what I learned is that Higgs himself is an atheist and not at all pleased that his discovery is popularly referred to as the “God particle.”

What I DO understand is this: centuries ago, Kabbalists spoke of the shattering of the vessels at the time of creation, whereby sparks of Divine energy were scattered throughout the universe. They postulated that these Divine sparks could be found within each human being and redeemed through a process of tikkun olam, repair of the world. These sparks of God within each of us represent our potential for holiness. It is our task to fan the sparks within ourselves and within our world into flames. The Higgs boson may explain some deep secrets of matter to particle physicists, but it doesn’t explain our purpose in the world, nor does it inspire us to act on behalf of redemption. For that we need the real God particle, the spark of God within each of our souls.

Moses As Strategic Leader

Friends- Welcome and thank you so much for being here. I especially want to thank my fellow chaplains for allowing me the privilege of addressing you this morning. When the email went out to the chaplains in our class, I jumped at the opportunity to be the speaker for this event. Now, given the quantity of verbiage we have each produced this year, you might wonder why someone would volunteer to write what amounts to yet another paper?
The answer is that I anticipate this will be my one and only opportunity in my Army War College experience to use the word “I” in a paper, with impunity, and with no hint of repercussions. I intend to use the passive voice, to go off on tangents and, potentially, never come back. I may or may not have a thesis, and I may or may not tell you what it is! My thoughts may be unanalyzed and unsupported, I am not counting the words, and I hope to end at least one paragraph with a quotation.
We have spent this year immersed in a study of strategic leadership, and I invite you to consider six lessons learned from the Biblical example of Moses. There he was, living an idyllic life in Midian with his wife and children, minding his own business, working in his father-in-law’s shepherding conglomerate, when Moses answered the call to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Good thing he hadn’t read that quote from George Copley in DDE 2301, Foundations of Strategic Leadership, or he might have been discouraged?- “Great strategic leadership involves more than the innate talent and vision of the individual who is offered up to shepherd a society to safety or Victory.” Shepherd a society to safety? Moses was all over it!
Moses encountered a burning bush in the wilderness, got the Commander’s guidance, and developed his op-plan. Jewish commentators suggest that that bush had been on fire without being consumed for quite some time. Moses’ unique leadership capability lay in the fact that he was the first one to notice this phenomenon. Leadership lesson number one is- pay attention!
With support from his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, he endured the ire of the Israelite community and risked his life to plead before the Pharaoh. Lesson number two- our leadership may not always be received with enthusiastic appreciation.
Back to Egypt and talk about your VUCA environment- blood and frogs, lice and hail! Following the 10 plagues, the Israelites escaped into the wilderness, where they continued to try Moses’ patience for the next 40 years.
Moses successfully completed the mission. However, he was an imperfect leader- just like the rest of us. As the community settles into their journey, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. Chapter 18 of the Book of Exodus describes the warm embrace as the two men reunite. Jethro has with him Moses’ wife and two children. Oops! Guess Moses was leaving town without his family. Too often our families DO get left behind. They are the ones who pay the price for our service. As we read this story, let us take note of leadership lesson number three- if we are blessed to have families who support us, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude . We give lip service to their priority in our lives; let’s remember to demonstrate that commitment by our behavior.
Jethro sticks around long enough to observe Moses wearing himself out with the demands of his role, sitting to judge the people from morning until evening. It is Jethro who suggests to Moses that he cannot function as “an army of one,” that not even the greatest leader can do it all. And neither can we.
Jethro tells Moses to look for leaders who have specific strategic leader competencies- who have natural ability, who are in awe of the Divine, people of truth who are impervious to bribery and influence. Learning to delegate is the fourth important take-away from this story. And, leaders must express a commitment to values in word and in deed.
Fifth lesson- leadership requires much patience, and here, again, we can learn from Moses what NOT to do. Like Soldiers too long in the field, the Israelites have ongoing complaints about the chow. When they press him for water, Moses turns in anger to his people and denounces them as “rebels.” “Leadership,” we read, in DDE 2301, “is a relationship, a unique and special trust between the leader and followers.” Once that trust is broken, it becomes impossible to lead.
In that moment of anger, leadership shifts to Joshua. We cannot lead without a sense of caring for those in our charge. If we lose that, it is time to step aside. Guess our man Moses needed to spend a little more time with that Strategic Leadership Primer!
Despite these few flaws, however, Moses has one overriding quality that we intensely need to emulate- one final lesson for us. The book of Numbers, 12:3, describes Moses as incredibly humble. Now this is counter-intuitive. One might think that he would be justifiably proud of his accomplishment in leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, shepherding them for 40 years in the wilderness, and bringing them to the Promised Land. Arrogance is so tempting, especially for successful leaders, yet Moses is “the most humble man who ever lived.”
Humility requires the capability of admitting our mistakes and acknowledging when we are wrong or when we simply don’t know. In Jewish tradition, acknowledging our sins is built into the calendar onthe Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We all need to be aware of our human imperfection.
The Talmud notes that if one person calls you an ass, you may ignore them. If two people call you an ass, you ought to seriously ponder the possibility. If you hear it from a third source, buy a saddle! Rabbi Harold Kushner expresses it thus- the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong,” and it behooves us to practice saying them.
The story is told of a Rabbi who stood before the congregation, beating his chest as he recited the confessional prayer, “I am so humble before you, Holy God.” The Cantor chimed in, “I, too, confess my unworthiness.” From the rear of the sanctuary comes the voice of the shammes, the guy who hands out the books and picks up the bulletins, “I, too, am nothing in Your presence.” The Rabbi turns to the Cantor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Each of us here in this First Year Residence Course can be justifiably proud of our accomplishment. This is an elite group, and there is a great temptation to be arrogant about our selection for the honor of being students in this great institution. The lesson of Moses reminds us of the need for humility.
A rabbinic sage once suggested that we should each have in our pockets two slips of paper. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other- “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret to wisdom, then, is knowing when we need to read each message. Sometimes we need to have utmost confidence in our own abilities. Sometimes we need to consider that we don’t have all the answers.
As we meditate on the leadership example of Moses, we appreciate the support of our families, we remember the need to develop leadership in others, a leadership that is founded on a deep commitment to values and caring, and we reflect on the need to maintain perspective on our own strengths and weaknesses.
What a gift to study with this amazing group of students and teachers. May we all be blessed in the year ahead with health, with strength, with wisdom and gratitude. Thank you so much for the humbling privilege of speaking to you this morning.

US Army War College
Fellowship Breakfast
20 June 2012
CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell

Passover, Plagues, and the Contemporary Water Crisis

Drought leads to famine, which leads to migration, which leads to civil unrest and political upheaval, which leads to violence, water pollution, disease and death. As I was studying these issues in my M.A. program at the Army War College, focusing on regional issues with global impact, a light bulb went off – all of these issues that plague us in the contemporary strategic environment sound an awful lot like the plagues of the Exodus.

The strategic importance of water cannot be underestimated. “Water has meant the difference between life and death, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, environmental sustainability and degradation, progress and decay, stability and insecurity,” write Erik Peterson and Rachel Posner in “The World’s Water Challenge,” an article published in Current History (February 2010).

All of these themes are evidenced in the Exodus story, where water plays a prominent role and undergirds the narrative. The story begins with drought that leads to famine, motivating the Israelites to migrate to Egypt in search of food. We see the same pattern repeated in the contemporary world. A 2009 Global Strategic Assessment reports, for example: “Water shortages are causing rising food prices and forcing migration in some areas of China.” The Israelites, displaced by the famine, are new immigrants to Egypt, where their explosive growth in population is threatening to the native Egyptians.

As an adult, Moses is forced to flee Egypt, and at the well of Midian, he meets his future wife, Tzipporah. Even today, the well is the central gathering place for many communities, and finding and providing drinking water absorbs many hours of many people’s lives. “An obscenely large portion of the world’s population,” report Peterson and Posner, “lacks regular access to fresh drinking water or adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases are a major burden in countries across the world. Water consumption patterns in many regions are no longer sustainable.”

When Moses returns to Egypt seeking freedom for his people, Pharaoh is unmoved by the signs and wonders he performs. God instructs Moses and Aaron to meet him at the edge of the water, and it is there that Aaron brings the first plague – turning the water into blood. This initial plague leads to a series of natural disasters, culminating in the death of the firstborn.

The relationship between war and water continues to this day: “Drought, desertification and food shortage are among the factors that foment conflict within states by tipping some areas, at least, into social collapse,” as noted in “Streams of Blood or Streams of Peace: Rivers and Conflict” (Economist, May 3, 2008).

Even after the Israelites escape, water is a prominent theme. Our ancestors are not safe until the waters of the sea part. Throughout the time of wandering in the desert, the search for water remains a priority. The Midrash suggests that as long as Miriam was alive, there was always a well available to the Israelites. Today, we commemorate Miriam’s well with a special blessing at our Passover seder.

Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, offers this dire warning: “Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.” The United States, in collaboration with the international community, must address the critical need for more effective management of this critical resource. At our present rate of consumption, over-pumping of the world’s aquifers inevitably will lead to food shortages, a phenomenon that will be frighteningly destabilizing and will negatively affect the potential for conflict.

In her book of the same name, journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for a “Blue Revolution,” focusing on a new “water ethic” that seeks to overcome what she describes as the “spectacular squander” of water use in America today: “We must change not only the wasteful ways we consume water in our homes, businesses, farms and energy plants, but also the inefficient ways we move water to and away from them.”

As we bless Miriam’s cup at the seder this year, let us take to heart this important lesson of the Exodus story: Water is our lifeblood, and as we as a culture focus on becoming more green, even more so do we need to focus on becoming blue.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is command chaplain of the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) and a spiritual leader at Temple Chai.

Memorial Day: Freedom is Not a Gift From Heaven

The scene: Kandahar Airfield Chapel. The occasion, a memorial ceremony for Private Jason Hasenauer. The voice of the First Sergeant from the rear of the sanctuary- “Sergeant X”. The hearty reply- “Here, First Sergeant.” The First Sergeant calls out for “Captain X”. Again, a robust, “Here, First Sergeant.” “Private Hasanauer”… silence. A bit louder: “Private Jason Hasanauer.” Silence. A third time: “Private Jason Daniel Hasanauer.” A gut-wrenching echo.

They call it “The Last Roll Call,” and if you are not moved to tears, then you have lost your soul. The plaintive sound of Taps, and soldiers openly weep. The line moves slowly to render a final salute to the display which includes his boots, his helmet, his dog tags, and his weapon. The weapon stands up in the boots, the dog tags suspended from the rifle, and the helmet resting on the top. Another Soldier killed in service to our great nation. This is the price of freedom. This is the sacrifice we honor on Memorial Day.

I have had the incredible privilege to serve as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve for 34 years. The chaplain corps has three  fundamental roles – to nurture the living, to care for the wounded, and to honor the dead. I have stood at the grave of bereaved families more times than I can count, as the flag was folded and presented to the survivors, “with gratitude from a grateful nation.”

We who have been raised in freedom must never, ever take that freedom for granted. As American Jews, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the land of the free and the home of the brave, the place where, outside of our own homeland, we have enjoyed the greatest freedom of religious expression in Jewish history. We join with our fellow citizens on Memorial Day in paying tribute to those who have fallen in defense of these United States, mindful of the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote that, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven, we must fight for it every day.”

Our democratic way of life carries with it an awesome sense of responsibility. On Memorial Day we pray that our country may continue to be a beacon around the world to all those who yearn for “freedom and justice for all.” We pray that the souls of those who made the ultimate sacrifice find rest and repose, that their loved ones take comfort in the good name they leave behind, and that our own readiness to defend never diminishes our commitment to the cause of peace. We pray that government of the people, by the people and for the people never cease from this earth.

Jewish tradition envisions a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Until that blessed time arrives, we pause on Memorial Day to give thanks for the devotion to duty, the loyalty, the courage, the sacrifice of those who have served. We do not mourn, we stand in awe of those who have given their lives for our great country.

 

Published at RJ.org on 24 May 2012.

Fervor of Maccabees Defeated Mighty Army

The holiday of Hanukkah invites reflection on themes of war and peace.

Changes in the nature of warfare can be quantitative and/or qualitative. There is no neat evolution from primitive hand-to-hand combat, culminating in star wars.

The wars of the Maccabees were fought against combatants on elephants – the tanks of their day. From elephants to tanks does not represent a new strategy, just an alternate means of accomplishing a similar end.

Truly new technology radically affects the conduct of a military campaign. For example, the initial impact of a strategic air campaign was unimaginable in previous centuries. In the 21st century, we can expect new threats in space and cyberspace.

The chances of an old-fashioned, land-based, tank-and-infantry war are receding. We’ve gotten so good at conventional warfare as to render it virtually obsolete.

Some things don’t change, though. Contemporary strategic thinker Colin S. Gray notes, “Belligerents who find themselves materially challenged will seek strategic compensation primarily by means of adopting asymmetric … strategies that might offset their disadvantages.”

Thus, today’s opponents rely on insurgency and asymmetric threats, threats that the mighty U.S. military cannot seem to root out, even with the most advanced technology in the history of warfare.

Which brings us to the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean warriors. Outnumbered and out-armed, our ancestors undertook a guerrilla campaign in their fight for freedom. The book of II Maccabees depicts the Maccabees “living like wild animals in the mountains and caves.” Ultimately, the forces of Antiochus learned the same lesson that we are relearning now: War is not an arithmetic equation in which the larger and better-equipped force always wins. Ultimately, the Maccabees and their followers prevailed.

Antiochus gave himself the name Epiphanes, meaning “God incarnate.” Beware the leader who thinks he is God. The unwillingness to question one’s own strategic thinking and adjust accordingly has been the downfall of military leaders throughout the centuries. “An army of one” is never a good plan.

Victories in small skirmishes led to the capture of weapons and an increased willingness of volunteers to support the Maccabean insurrection. It is important to note that the Maccabees did not target civilians: The distinction between combatants and noncombatants was an accepted standard “bayamim ha-hem/in those days.”

As the Jewish fighters gained confidence and skill, Antiochus realized that victory was not forthcoming, his treasury was being rapidly depleted, and a negotiated resolution was preferable to an endless and expensive campaign.

B.D. Liddell Hart, in his classic work on strategy, refers to this as self-exhaustion. Hart reminds us that “a good cause is a sword as well as armor.” The Maccabees were sustained by their devotion to a good cause: their right to freedom of religious expression. They were fighting for their own spiritual survival, and, were it not for their bravery, Judaism could easily have disappeared.

Not surprisingly, there was no unanimity regarding the Maccabean perspective among the Jews of their day. Not every Jew supported the resistance; there were those who were ready to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life.

Sadly, the nature of power is corrosive, and corruption ultimately beset the Maccabean reign.

The rabbinic tradition, uncomfortable with the glorification of military prowess that is at the heart of our celebration of Hanukkah, shifted the emphasis to the miracle of the oil and the message of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit, says God.” Or, as Hart puts it, “The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting.”

“Swords into plowshares” – such is the vision of the messianic age of peace for which we hope and pray and work. Until that longed-for time arrives, we celebrate Hanukkah, honoring the bravery of those who risk and, indeed, too often, sacrifice their lives, in support of our freedom, then and now.

Avinu Malkenu / Chaplain (Colonel)

Avinu/Malkenu- Our Parent, Our Ruler- We approach God, first and foremost, as a loving parent, hoping for indulgence, mercy, forgiveness.  Parents offer us guidance, but the context of the relationship, ideally, is one of unconditional love.  No wonder we open our plea to God through the channel of “Avinu.”

However, the primary metaphor of the High Holiday season is “Malkenu,”, God in the aspect of power, of justice, of judgment.  I think that it is harder for us to appreciate the positive benefits of a powerful God.

I reflected on this distinction as it relates to my work in the Army.  Not to compare myself to God, l’havdil, but I carry two titles- Chaplain/Colonel, that each express some of these same qualities. Regardless of rank, Chaplains are always addressed as “Chaplain.” From Second Lieutenant to Major General, you are and remain “Chaplain.”  The idea is to remove any barriers to connection, to create an environment where it is safe to open our hearts and to know that we will be heard in our essential human-ness.  The title “Chaplain”, like that of Avinu, is meant to offer comfort.  As a chaplain, I strive to be understanding of the personal needs of my Soldiers and respond with kindness to their personal struggles.

I know that they appreciate that pastoral touch.  But that does not mean that there is no value to the aspect of being a Colonel! There are times when we need to fight for the resources we need or defend our position, and, at such times, my staff relies on the power that I wield as a Colonel to support their interests.  This is the energy we long to tap into when we address God as “Malkenu,”- the God who has the power to influence change.  A God who was all Avinu and no Malkenu, who operated only on the principle of mercy with no focus on justice, would be uninspiring.  We pray, “v’yakhed l’vavenu l’ahava u’l’yirah- unite our hearts to love and to be in awe.”  We need this sense of balance, we need the Avinu and we need the Malkenu,  in our relationship to God.

That said, we hope that our prayers on Yom Kippur will move the Holy One from the throne of judgment to the throne of compassion.  We need a God who is powerful; we long for a God whose love overcomes that sense of power.  The Rabbis depict God as praying, “May it be My will that My mercy will suppress My anger.”  On this day, we pray that God’s prayer will be answered! The ancient philosopher Thucydides wrote that,  “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses. . .most.”

We pray for the ability to restrain ourselves from doing wrong, and we pray this day that God’s power will be exercised through restraint from punishment.

Listen Up!

What does a good conversation feel like? Your partner is looking right at you, giving you undivided attention. They paraphrase what you are saying so that you know you have been heard and understood. They listen without judgment and without rushing to solution. They evidence patience and compassion. Their cell phone is nowhere to be seen!

Sometimes, just being heard in this deep way is enough.  We don’t even need to solve problems or reach agreement.   We all long for this human connection and to know that someone cares about what is important to us.

I am privileged to teach techniques of communication to US Army Reserve couples, with my colleague Chaplain (LTC) Val Sutter.  The crescendo of our training is when he looks out over these beautiful faces and asks,

“Would you like to learn some magic?”

Of course, the participants are on the edge of their seats!  So, what are the magic words?“

 

“I hear you, and I understand.”

The desire to be heard and understood is so powerful.  When we achieve that goal, when we have someone’s full attention and we know that they are REALLY listening, we experience a visceral, physical relaxation response.  It feels SO good!  We know that we are not alone, that someone else cares and stands with us in our pain.  Just being heard diminishes our hurt.  We know that we are not alone.

As our year draws to our close, we read the parsha of “Haazinu”.  The word Haazinu comes from the root ozen, ear.  We might translate it as “listen up”, or, “give ear.”  Our tradition consistently reinforces the fundamental value of listening- from the classic words of the Shema– Hear O Israel, to the guidance of ibn Gabirol that in seeking wisdom there are 5 steps- the first is silence, the second is listening.

When we give others the gift of listening, we affirm the divine image within them and their ultimate worth as individuals.  Rabbi Elie Spitz quotes Martin Buber as recognizing that “we find the divine not in the moment of the ecstatic experience alone but in the simple, daily task of being fully present with others and thereby with God.”  In other words, listening to each other can be a religious experience!

What does poor listening look like?  In our PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) we focus on four communication danger signs- withdrawl, invalidation, negative interpretation, and escalation.  When we find ourselves moving in these directions, it is best to take a timeout and regroup before we say things that may cause irrevocable damage in our precious connections.

As we turn our attention to our hopes and dreams for 5772, as we seek to repair our damaged relationships and build foundations of kindness and love with our families, friends, and colleagues, there is nothing more vital than a renewed commitment to enhancing our communication skills.  So many of the sins we mention in the Al Cheyt prayer draw attention to the myriad of ways we hurt each other with words.  We have the power to bring healing through deep listening.

Here’s how Rabbi Spitz expresses it in his book Healing From Despair-

“To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening.  And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world. Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”

 

Jewish Holidays

 

 

The cycle of the Jewish holidays follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunisolar based, with an extra month added every few years to accommodate the difference between the number of days in the lunar vs. the solar year.  (354/365).  The date of the Jewish holiday never changes, but if may vary as to when it falls on the Gregorian calendar by up to a month.  Thus, we may speak of the holidays being “early” one year and “late” the next, though the reality is that the date does not change.  In many instances, the holidays are connected with the cycle of the seasons, so celebrations often take place at the new moon or the full moon.  For an urban dwelling community, the Jewish calendar is a constant reminder of our agricultural origins as a people.

In the book of Genesis, in the story of creation, we read, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”, etc.  The Jewish day begins at sundown, so many holidays, including the Sabbath, will begin with candle-lighting on the night before the day on which the holiday appears on the calendar.

SHABBAT

Ahad Ha-Am wrote that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Observance of Shabbat is the focal point of community and family life, a weekly opportunity for physical and spiritual nourishment. The Torah offers two reasons for Shabbat:  we rest as a reminder that God rested on the 7th day of creation.  We who are formed in the image of God also step back from our frenetic pace of work.  Additionally, we recall the Exodus from Egypt, the formative focal point of the Biblical narrative.  The essence of slavery is lack of control of one’s own time.  By celebrating Shabbat, we express our dominion over our own activities, and actively demonstrate that we are not slaves to our work.  For one day a week, we consciously withdraw from the cycle of creation and destruction, allowing the natural world to be at rest.

Shabbat begins in the home with a special meal.  This is the ideal time to invite family and friends and to disconnect from the media, which are so much a part of our lives.  Many people have the custom of giving tzedaka (setting aside money as a charitable donation) just prior to the onset of the Sabbath. Candles are lit with a traditional blessing, and, if children are present, they are blessed with the words of the priestly blessing.  Orthodox practice calls for the husband to read Proverbs 31 in praise of his wife; contemporary Jews may choose to offer thanks for loving partners and all that they do to enhance the quality of home life.

We continue with Kiddush, a prayer over wine, the ritual washing of hands and then blessing the bread. (HaMotzi).  Often a special loaf of egg bread, challah, is used for Shabbat.  The table atmosphere should be relaxed, and might include singing of traditional songs, study of the weekly Torah portion or other texts, and the offering of thanks for the meal through the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal.  We greet each other with the words, “Shabbat Shalom”, expressing our hope for a day of peace.

Shabbat is concluded on Saturday evening when there are 3 stars present in the sky with the Havdalah ceremony.  The word “Havdalah” means “to make a distinction”, and it is the moment of transition from the peaceful rest of Shabbat back into the hustle and bustle of weekday life.  We light a candle with multiple wicks, smell fragrant spices and drink from the Kiddush cup.  At the time of Havdalah, we invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, expressing our hope that the messianic age might be ushered in at that sacred moment.

Following are three prayers for Shabbat, in both Hebrew (transliterated) and English.

On Lighting Shabbat Candles

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, you make us holy with your mitzvot (commandments) and have given us the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.

Kiddush (Blessing Over the Wine)

The complete Shabbat Kiddush includes a paragraph describing both the completion of creation and a recounting of the Exodus:

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, boray p’ri hagafen.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Hamotzi (Blessing over the Challah)

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

ROSH HASHANA

Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year.  It takes place in the fall, and is the time when we review the year that is drawing to a close and set our course for the year ahead.  The Hebrew dates of Rosh HaShanah are the 1 and 2 Tishrei, at the time of the new moon. Rosh HaShanah ushers in the “Yamim Noraim- the Days of Awe”, which comprise what is known as the High Holiday season.

In the month prior to the new year, we seek reconciliation with others from whom we may be estranged, hoping to enter the new year with a clean slate.  Our prayers at this season help us to focus on repentance, prayer and righteous giving as the means to seek reconciliation with the Holy One.  We acknowledge that we cannot ask God to forgive us for pain we have caused to others until we have sought forgiveness from those we may have hurt.  The holiday is known as “Yom HaDin”, the Day of Judgment.  We judge ourselves and God judges our actions.

Rosh HaShanah, fundamentally, is a reminder that our actions have consequences.  We imagine God opening the book of our lives and judging our behavior in the year that is drawing to a close.  Rosh HaShanah is also called “Yom HaZikaron”- the Day of Remembrance.   It is a solemn time, and we spend many hours in prayer in the synagogue reflecting on our life and legacy.  The shofar, ram’s horn, is sounded throughout our services, arousing our souls to repentance.

Rosh HaShanah begins, as do so many holidays, with a festive meal at home, including the lighting of candles and a special Kiddush.  Traditional foods such as apples and honey are consumed, expressing our hope for a sweet year.  The braided challah of Shabbat may be replaced with a round challah, as we pray for a year that is “well-rounded.”  On the first day of the holiday (or the 2nd day if the first day is the Sabbath), we enjoy the tashlich service.  The community gathers at a place of flowing water and casts breadcrumbs into the water, symbolizing the casting off of the sins which have accumulated during the year.

On Rosh HaShanah we greet each other with the words, “Shanah Tova- a good year”, or, more expansively, “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu- may you be inscribed for a good year”, continuing the metaphor of the Book of Life.

Following Rosh HaShanah, we enter the “Aseret Y’mei Teshuva”, the “Ten Days of Repentance.”  This is the time when we take the accumulated lessons of our reflections on Rosh HaShanah and demonstrate our commitment to translate them into practice.

 

YOM KIPPUR

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is the culmination of the High Holiday season.  It is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  For those who are physically able to do so, it is customary to fast for the entire day, beginning before sundown and for the duration of the holiday.  We refrain from food and drink and other physical luxuries, expressing our focus on spiritual values on this day.  Together we chant the “Viddui”, the confession of sins, and we specify those sins in the “Al Cheyt” prayer.  Much of Jewish prayer is in the plural, as we support each other in the acknowledgement of our many failings. 

Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei.  We light the holiday candles and share a final meal before the fast begins.  Those who have lost a loved one- parent, child, spouse or sibling, light a memorial candle as well. The synagogue service on Yom Kippur will include special “Yizkor/Memorial” prayers.

 Worship begins with the Kol Nidre service.  The haunting melody of this prayer is one of the most recognizable in all of Jewish liturgy.  The words “Kol Nidrei” are translated as “All Vows.”  Through this prayer, we consider the slate wiped clean of any vows to God we may have made in the previous year. On Yom Kippur day we read the story of Jonah, inspired by the people of Ninveh and their immediate responsiveness to the call to repentance. 

As the sun sets, the pace of our prayers quickens with the “Neilah” service, as the day of Atonement ends.  With one final blast of the shofar, we return to our homes to break the fast, with hearts and spirits renewed and ready to enter the new year.

 

SUKKOT

Four days after Yom Kippur, a day focused essentially on the spiritual, we celebrate the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths”, on 14 Tishrei, the full moon of the fall equinox.  Sukkot is one of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals, the “chagim”, or, holidays on which adult males were expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Each of these holidays has both an agricultural as well as a historical reference.  Sukkot reminds us of the temporary dwellings of our Israelite ancestors as they journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Sukkot is said to be the foundation of the American celebration of Thanksgiving.

Traditional Jews construct a “Sukkah”, a harvest booth at their homes.  Many will sleep in the Sukkah for the 8 days of the holiday; certainly we should strive to eat as many meals as we can in the sukkah. A temporary dwelling, the sukkah is decorated with fruits and vegetables, with posters and lights.  Some people save their Rosh HaShanah cards and use those to adorn the sukkah.

The fragility of the sukkah is a reminder of the fragility of our lives.  We reflect on the transience of our possessions and renew our commitment to enduring values.  As we live for a week in an insecure dwelling, we think of those who do not enjoy the substantial homes with which we are blessed, as we renew our commitment, as well, to work for a time when all will enjoy secure shelter.

As we sit in our sukkah, we invite “Ushpizin” each night, mystical guests, to join the friends and family who share our harvest hut.  It is fun to consider which historical Jewish personalities we would like to include if given the opportunity.  In the synagogue, we read the book of Ecclesiastes at this holiday.

Sukkot is celebrated for 8 days in traditional communities; for 7 days by many in accordance with the practice in the land of Israel.  The first two and last two days are considered full holidays, in which we abstain from work.  These restrictions are relaxed on the middle days, known as “Chol Ha’Moed”.  The Yizkor/Memorial prayers are included on the final day of the holiday, and we recite “Hallel”, a special series of psalms of praise, on each day of Sukkot.

The Torah instructs us to shake the lulav and etrog as part of our Sukkot experience.  Known as the four species, these elements include a palm branch, willow and myrtle fronds, and a citron, or, lemon-like fruit.  There are many beautiful interpretations of the lulav and etrog, which are waved in 6 directions as part of our worship, symbolizing God’s presence which surrounds us always.  The lulav and etrog represent each person in our community:  our community is incomplete without the participation of each Jew.  They remind us to serve God with our entire being.

The following is a description of rules and regulations pertaining to the construction of a sukkah:

1) It must be less than 30 feet high. 2) The walls must be strong enough to withstand ordinary gusts of wind. 3) The shade offered by the roof covering of the sukkah must block the rays of sun, yet the stars must be visible through the roof. 4) There must be at least three walls, made of any material. 5) The sukkah must be a temporary structure, so a screened-in porch or a screened house cannot serve as a sukkah. 6) It is a mitzvah (a commandment) to eat meals in the sukkah during the holiday.

Sukkot is known as “He-Chag”, THE holiday, the time of greatest joy in our calendar.

 

HOSHANA RABBA

“Hoshanah Rabba”- the great “Hoshanah/”Save Us” takes place on the 7th day of Sukkot. Tradition suggests that it is on this date that the High Holiday season truly concludes, as God seals our Book of Life.  We make 7 circuits around the synagogue, each one characterized by a prayer asking for God to save us- hence the name- “The Great Hoshanah.” The lulav and etrog are carried in these processions. In some communities it is customary to hold a tikkun, an all-night study session, in anticipation of Hoshanah Rabbah.

 

SHEMINI ATZERET and SIMCHAT TORAH

“Shemini Atzeret- the 8th Day of Assembly” and “Simchat Torah- rejoicing with the Torah,” are the conclusion of the fall holiday season.  They may be combined as a one-day observance in many non-Orthodox communities.

Shemini Atzeret marks the 8th day of Sukkot.  This season marks the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel, so, on Shemini Atzeret,  we add prayers for rain to our daily liturgy.  On Sukkot we offer prayers for each of the nations of the world.  On Shemini Atzeret, God invites the Jewish people to linger in the holiday spirit, expressing the unique closeness between the Holy One and the people of Israel.

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the completion of our cycle of Torah reading, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and we begin our study for the year ahead.  We demonstrate our devotion to learning as we immediately read the first words of Genesis upon completion of Deuteronomy.  It is a special honor to be called to recite the blessings for either one of these readings.  Simchat Torah is characterized by joyous singing and dancing.  In many congregations, the entire Torah scroll will be unfurled. 


HANUKKAH

Hanukkah is one of the best known of the Jewish holidays, though it is, in reality, a minor festival. “Hanukkah” means “Dedication”- we commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  In the year 168 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes forbade the practice of the Jewish religion.  Led by the Maccabees, the Jews fought for 3 years to reclaim the right of freedom of religious expression.  In the year 165 BCE, they rededicated the Temple.  Legend suggests that they found enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum in the Temple for only one night, and that oil miraculously lasted for 8 days. Thus, Hanukkah is celebrated with the kindling of a 9-branched menorah known as a “Hanukkiah”.  The shamash, or helper candle, is lit each night, and used to light the other candles.  One candle is added each night from right to left; the menorah is lit from left to right, with the newest candle lit first. Hanukkah initially was a belated celebration of Sukkot.

As we recall the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat foods cooked in oil- primarily latkes/fried potato pancakes and sufganiyot/jelly donuts.  The themes of Hanukkah- the victory of the few against the many, light in the face of darkness, martyrdom and miracles, religious freedom- have resonated with Jews throughout the centuries.  Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory. The Rabbis tempered this emphasis by including as the reading from the prophets the text from Zechariah, “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says God.”

Two blessings are said each night. A third, the Shehecheyanu (a blessing recited at joyful occasions throughout the year), is said on the first night only. Following is the transliteration for the Hebrew, with English translation:

Shehecheyanu:

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this holy moment.

The following are said each night:

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy with your mitzvot and has given us the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam she’asah nissim la’avotenu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.

 

TU B’SHEVAT

Tu B’Shevat- the name of this holiday is synonymous with its date- the 15th day of the month of Shevat.  Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  There are many Biblical precepts which require us to know the age of trees.  Tu B’Shevat is their birthday celebration.

With the renewed emphasis in the contemporary world on the importance of protecting the natural world has come a renewed emphasis on this holiday.  Within the Jewish mystical tradition, a custom evolved of a Tu B’Shevat seder, a ritual meal where 15 types of fruits and nuts are consumed, 4 cups of wine or juice are blessed, readings about trees are shared and prayers are said on behalf of our fragile ecology.  Many people donate money to plant trees in Israel at the time of Tu B’Shevat.

 

PURIM

The holiday of Purim, or “Lots”, comes at the time of the last full moon of winter.  Based on the Biblical megilla, or scroll of Esther, we rejoice as, once again, the Jewish people were saved from the forces of destruction.  We read the story of how the wicked Haman conspired with King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews, and how the brave Esther, working with her relative Mordecai, saved the day.  As the megilla is read, graggers/ra-ashanim/noise-makers are used to drown out the name of the villain each time it is mentioned. 

Purim begins with a festive meal at home and many people wear costumes to the reading of the megilla in synagogue.  It is a mitzvah to hear the megillah and to give money to the poor to ensure that they have the means to celebrate (matanot l’evyonim.)  We are also to send gifts of food to at least two other individuals- mishloach manot or shalachmones.  Among the traditional foods are hamantaschen/oznei Haman- 3-cornered cookies which are said to resemble Haman’s hat.  

 

PASSOVER

The holiday of Pesach/Passover is one of the most beloved holidays of the Jewish calendar.  Passover is observed each year on the 14th of Nisan, the full moon of the spring equinox.  It is the 2nd of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals and commemorates the exodus from Egyptian slavery.

The Torah tells us that our ancestors fled from Egypt in haste, with no time for their dough to rise. Therefore, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread, matzah, throughout the 7 or 8 days of our observance.  Traditional Jews will remove all chametz, leavened products, from their possession in the weeks prior to Passover. This culminates in the bedikat chametz, the search for chametz, on the night before the onset of the holiday.  The next morning, any remaining chametz is ritually burned.

Services are held in the synagogue on each day of the holiday, with the first two and last two days having special religious emphasis.  The Hallel service of praise is included each day, though the Hallel is abbreviated after the first two- our rejoicing is diminished as we reflect on the suffering of the Egyptians through the ten plagues which were a necessary part of the process of our liberation.  Yizkor takes place on the final day and we read the Biblical text, Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.

The highlight of Pesach is the seder, a ritual meal in which symbolic foods are used to tell the story of the exodus.  There are hundreds of versions of the Haggadah, the text for the seder meal.  Bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery, charoset suggests the bricks our ancestors built as slaves, parsley dipped in salt water recalls the spring time origin of the holiday and the tears of the captive Israelites.  Four cups of wine are consumed and the youngest child present poses four questions.  The seder is characterized by much singing and leisurely celebration.  Seders are held on each of the first two nights of Pesach.

 

YOM HASHOAH

Yom Hashoah is the day established by the State of Israel in remembrance of the devastation of the Nazi era, the Holocaust.  It is a somber reminder of this darkest moment in our history.  Most communities will hold services and ceremonies to recall the 6 million Jews and 5 million other children of God killed during the Shoah.  We give thanks for the righteous individuals who risked their lives to save our people, and we reflect on the human capacity for evil.  We remind the world that “never again” can genocide be tolerated.

 

YOM HAZIKARON

In Israel, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen and Victims of Terror, takes place on the fourth day of Iyar, the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut. On Yom Hazikaron a siren is sounded twice throughout the country (at 8 p.m. and 11 a.m.) and all traffic and daily activity stops as the entire nation observes two minutes of silence. Outside of Israel, Yom Hazikaron is often commemorated as part of the Yom Ha’atzmaut observance.

 

YOM HA’ATZMAUT

Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, is celebrated on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, the date the nation was founded. While there is no particular liturgy for this day, it is an emerging practice to recite Hallel, psalms of praise, as we give thanks for the establishment of the Jewish state. The words of “HaTikvah- The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, remind us that contemporary Israel is the fulfillment of 2,000 years of the Jewish yearning to return to our homeland.

 

LAG B’OMER

Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer.   Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count each night until the next major festival of Shavuot.  The omer was a measure of grain, and the time of sefirat ha-omer, counting the omer, is a solemn period of 7 weeks as we work for a successful harvest.  This time period was also characterized by Roman oppression   Through this counting, we connect the season of our liberation with the giving of the Torah which provides structure and meaning to that freedom.The Jewish mystical tradition suggests that each day of the counting of the omer expresses a unique combination of Sefirot, aspects of the Divine.  As we count each day, we focus on the attributes of God associated with that day.

On Lag B’Omer, we enjoy a one-day reprieve within this subdued time period.  Lag B’Omer is celebrated with picnics and other outdoor activities. In Israel, picnickers light bonfires. Traditional Jews mark the holiday by giving the first haircut to 3-year-old boys. Lag B’Omer sometimes is known as the “scholars’ holiday,” because of its association with Rabbi Akiva, who died a martyr to freedom, and Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, who taught in a cave when the Romans forbade him to study Torah. When Bar Yochai died, he asked his followers not to mourn but rather to celebrate his death.

In traditional communities, weddings are not held during sefirat ha-Omer.  This prohibition is lifted on the 33rd day, so Lag B’Omer is often a day for weddings and other personal celebrations.

 

YOM YERUSHALAYIM

Yom Yerushalayim, a relatively new holiday, honors the city of Jerusalem. It celebrates the unification of the city after the Six-Day War in June 1967.

 

SHAVUOT

Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is the third of the 3 pilgrimage festivals.  We celebrate God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai; the harvest in Israel; the end of the counting of the omer; and the beginning of a new agricultural season.

Reform Jews usually observe only the first day of the holiday. Traditions of Shavuot include decorating the home and synagogue with green plants and branches to celebrate the season, eating dairy foods because the Torah has been compared to  “milk and honey”, and reading the Book of Ruth.  The story of Ruth is set at the time of the harvest, and her devotion to her mother in law Naomi and dedication to the Jewish way of life inspire us a role model in our own religious lives. 

Legend has it that the Israelites fell asleep while waiting for Moses to return from the mountain.  We demonstrate our commitment to receiving the Torah through a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, an all night study session in anticipation of the morning service.  The synagogue services follow a regular festival liturgy, including Hallel and Yizkor. 

 

TISHA B’AV

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, is the second most significant fast day in the Jewish calendar, second only to Yom Kippur.  We fast from sundown to sundown as we recall the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second (70 CE) Temples in Jerusalem.  Tisha B’Av is also associated with many other tragedies in the Jewish calendar.  We sit on the floor and chant in a mournful key the Biblical text of Eicha/Lamentations, which describes the horrendous history of destruction. 

 

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