High Holiday Reflections- 5776
Erev Rosh HaShanah-
The story of the Jewish people begins with God saying to Abraham, “Lech Lecha – Go forth.” Abraham and Sarah pack up their life and their family and go, having no idea where their journey will lead them.
Beginnings are exciting and frightening, especially when we don’t know where we’re headed. And the truth is, we rarely know exactly where we are headed.
Abraham knew that there would be blessings along the way and that was enough to convince him to start walking. His travels turned out to be spectacular and even today, we are living testimony to his lasting impact.
A new year begins tonight. May this journey be blessed with joy and fullness. May it be a year of growth, compassion and awe. May our hearts know healing and our communities know love.
To inspire us on getting started, A New Beginning by John O’Donahue:
In out-of-the-way places of the heart, Where your thoughts never think to wander, This beginning has been quietly forming, Waiting until you were ready to emerge. For a long time it has watched your desire, Feeling the emptiness growing inside you, Noticing how you willed yourself on, Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. It watched you play with the seduction of safety And the gray promises that sameness whispered, Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent, Wondered would you always live like this. Then the delight, when your courage kindled, And out you stepped onto new ground, Your eyes young again with energy and dream, A path of plenitude opening before you. Though your destination is not yet clear You can trust the promise of this opening; Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning That is at one with your life’s desire. Awaken your spirit to adventure; Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; Soon you will be home in a new rhythm, For your soul senses the world that awaits you
Rabbi Mari Chernow
Rosh HaShanah- Day One
Do you have unique and complex passwords for every email account? Every website? Every vendor? Perhaps you rotate between a couple of options and hope for the best? Security experts constantly remind us to protect our passwords, to change them frequently, to include all those combinations of capital and lower case letters, symbols and numbers. And, for most of us, when we hear the message, “You must change” we rebel and run screaming! Despite being keenly aware of the risks, we dig in our heels- “Don’t make me change!”
We respond the same way to the message of these High Holidays. “I don’t want to do the hard work of change. I just want everything to be the same, to move blithely forward unconscious of the passage of time.” Even though we know the risks of not looking within, of not moving forward, of remaining static, we just don’t want to change.
Consider this- Mauricio Estrella wrote this year on the theme of “How a Password Changed My Life.” He received that dread message, “Your password has expired,” while in the midst of a divorce. Already in an angry place, now his anger escalated. And then- the revelation! Here was a phrase he was going to be called upon to type many times throughout the day for the next month. His password became- Forgive@hr. Forgive her. And, amazingly, typing those words over and over again impacted his feelings towards his ex wife. At the end of the month, his anger began to heal.
Other passwords followed- Quit@smoking4ever
Now, he concludes, “I still wait anxiously each month so I can change my password into something that I need to get done.”
Dr. Punam A. Keller has a parallel suggestion though a slightly different approach in his article, “How to Get People to Change Their Passwords” with this recommendation- “iLove25leep247! . . . pick something that makes you happy, because bundling something positive with something negative is the best way to make the negative less negative.”
We resist change, yet, these Yamim Noraim, these Awesome Days, remind us that continuing to develop our own character is the holy task of living. We grow through change. What will be your new password this week?
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Rosh HaShanah Day Two-
I attended cantorial school at Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music for five years. I was exposed to a mountain of Jewish music (come see my bookshelves if you want proof) and there is just too much to fit into the services we lead. My teacher, Cantor Faith Steinsnyder, shared this wisdom, “When you cannot sing something you truly love, do yourself a favor and carve out some time the day before Rosh Hashanah. Lock yourself in your office and sing it out at the top of your lungs. Do not let your ego get in the way. If the music is truly great, you will find a way to sing it for the congregation be it in a class, a concert, or perhaps during a life cycle event.” Cantor Steinsnyder’s words can apply in many other areas of our lives. Sometimes life just is not fair. We need to swallow our pride, get past the hurt, look beyond ourselves and find strength. If you look in the right place, however, you may find a way to get past the ego and ‘sing it out’ to relieve the stress. The Talmud states: When you humble yourself, God exalts you. When you pursue greatness, greatness flies away. When you fly from greatness, greatness seeks you out. When you force the moment, the moment drives you back. When you give way, the moment is yours.
Cantor Ross Wolman
The Big Picture
Especially on the days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our tradition calls on us to think big. We are called upon to consider how we are bigger than we are—i.e. there is more to us than what there has been—more to us than what we have up till now managed to do and say and think. We are encouraged to open our hearts to the painful reality that in addition to hurting those around us we have also let God down. We have the power to become vessels of godliness and so often we fall short. To really grasp this picture we need to think big. We come from a long line of people who managed, at crucial moments, to think large.
Joseph managed to think big when he told his brothers that the story they were wrapped up in (throwing him in a pit and selling him as a slave) was much more than they realized. God meant it for the good—Joseph had a chance to save life and he didn’t have time to get stuck in anger or bitterness.
Jacob managed to think big when he realized he didn’t have to be Yaakov (the one who has to be #1) but could be Yisrael (God-wrestler).
Moses [and God] managed to think big when Moses asks what God’s name is. God answers and says His name is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh”=I will become what I will become.
Yochanan ben Zakai managed to think big when the Temple was destroyed. He said that actually the Temple was already burnt (burned out?) when the Romans burnt it down—don’t give the Romans too much credit. He also told Rabbi Joshua ben Chananyah that he didn’t have to mourn the loss of the sacrificial system—“…we have another way of atonement that is equivalent to it—gemilut chasadim=deeds of loving kindness.”
Crushed by his great sin—the greatest mistake of his life—King David felt totally cut off from God. He was down and out. His bones were trembling with his guilt. Somehow he was able to grasp that it was still not too late for him. Says King David in Psalm 51:
כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד…לב טהור ברא לי אלהים ורוח נכון חדש בקרבי…אל תשליכני מלפניך ורוח קדשך אל תקח ממני…אדני שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך.
I acknowledge my sin and just can’t get away from it…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Don’t cast me away from Your presence and don’t take your holy spirit from me…O God, open up my lips that my mouth can declare Your praise.
David is not great in our tradition because he was a king. He is great in our tradition because he was larger than life in the most important area of all—he knew there could be more to him and more to life and that he wasn’t ultimately trapped. He didn’t have to be cut off from God and from the deepest goodness inside his soul. Every High Holidays we say some of these words from Psalm 51. In fact there’s a Hasadic tradition to recite Psalm 51 every day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact with every single Amidah we begin in silence with his plea–oh God, open me up that prayer could come out of me—don’t shut me off. Whatever it is that makes us feel small—there’s a way out, a way to see a bigger picture, to become more than who we are.
Rabbi Bill Berk
During these Days of Awe, Yehuda Amichai reminds us that we experience awe in a great many places. May this year be filled with boys and girls holding smaller children who, in turn, hold cute little dolls. Miracles, indeed.
From a distance everything looks like a miracle
מֵרָחוֹק כָּל דָּבָר נִרְאֶה נֵס
but up close even a miracle doesn’t appear so.
. אֲבָל מִקָּרוֹב גַּם נֵס לאֹ נִרְאָה כַּ
Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split
אפֲִילוּ מִי שֶׁעבָרַ בְּיםַ-סוּף בִּבְקִיעתַ הַיּםָ
only saw the sweaty back
רָאָה רַק אֶת הַגּבַ הַמֵּזיִ ע of the one in front of him
לְפָנָיו שֶׁל הַהוֹלֵ
and the motion of his big legs,
וְאֶת נוֹעַ יְרֵכָיו הַגְּדוֹלוֹת,
and at most, a hurried glance to the side,
וּלְכָל הַיּוֹתֵר בְּמַבַּט חָטוּף לַצַּד,
fish of many colors in a wall of water,
חוֹמַת הַמַּיִם, דַּגִים בִּשְׁלַל צְבָעִים בְּתוֹ
like in a marine observatory behind walls of glass.
כְּמוֹ בְּמִצְפֶּה יַמִּי מֵאֲחוֹרֵי קִירוֹת זְכוּכִית.
The real miracles happen at the next table
הַנִּסִּים הָאֲמִתִּיִם קוֹרִים בַּשֻּׁלְחָן הַסָּמוּ
in a restaurant in Albuquerque:
שׁלֶ מִסְעדָהָ בּאְַלבְּוּקֶרְקֶה:
Two women were sitting there, one with a zipper
שְׁתֵּי נָשִׁים יָשְׁבוּ שָׁם, הָאַחַת עִם רוֹכְסָן
on a diagonal, so pretty,
יפָָה, בַּאֲלַכְסוֹן, כָּל כַּ
the other said, “I held my own
הָאַחֶרֶת אָמְרָה, “הֶחזֱקְַתִּי מַעמֲָד
and I didn’t cry.”
And afterwards in the reddish corridors
בּמִַּסְדְרוֹנוֹת האָדֲמִֻּים וְאַחַר כַּ
of a strange hotel I saw
שֶׁל הַמָּלוֹן הַזּרָ רָאִתִי
boys and girls holding in their arms
יְלָדִים וִיְלָדוֹת שֶׁהֶחֱזִיקוּ בִּזְרוֹעוֹתֵיהֶם
even smaller children, their own,
ילְדִָים קְטַנטְַנּיִם, שֶׁהֵם עצְַמָם ילְָדוּ,
who also held
שֶׁגּםַ הֵם הֶחזֱיִקוּ
cute little dolls.
בֻּבּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת וּמְתוּקוֹת.
Translated by Rabbi Steven Sager
Rabbi Mari Chernow
5 Tishri- Erev Shabbat
As we prepare for Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to consciously turn, to think of where we are and where we are going, what our Jewish journey means to us, and how we will approach the work of teshuvah, or return. This might seem like an overwhelming process, and yet, the Torah states that “this commandment is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach… the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deut. 30:11, 14)
The chance to restore balance and wholeness this time of year is very close to us, as close as our breath and our presence. We can reach it through a calm and focused awareness of feelings, sensations, tensions, and hopes. We can activate the process by setting aside a short time at home for contemplation or focusing on deepening our prayer practice at Holy Day services. We do not have to concern ourselves with the language or the movements within the prayers. We can just open our heart to God, listening to the wisdom of the body, cultivating gratitude, and focusing on awe.
The process of mindful meditation, the practice of bringing attention to our breath, and its gentle inhale and exhalation, can be the centering technique that brings us to the intention of the holy days. As we bring the very moment into focus, and the next, and the next, we can increase our awareness that change is possible, and that forgiveness and renewal are within our reach.
6 Tishri- Shabbat Shuvah
We have reached that holiest of Shabbatot, Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, this special Shabbat that falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We translate teshuvah as “repentance,” yet, really, it is more about returning, returning to the essence of who we are and who we want to be. Our tradition tells us that the person who has sinned and then done teshuvah, the person who has “returned,” stands in a higher place than even the most righteous. (Rabbi Abbahu said, “In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand,”- Berachot 34b)
How can this be? First, through our process of introspection, we add depth and meaning to our lives. The process of reflection becomes a habit in all areas of our lives. Second- Honestly acknowledging our wrongdoing and repairing our relationships leads to a sense of compassion. We are less quick to judge others when we have fearlessly judged ourselves. Finally, when we are able to make meaningful changes in our behavior, we have a deep sense of gratitude and humility, qualities that are the foundations of our spiritual being.
Listen to the words of Rabbi David Zaslow- “Teshuvah is a transformative process leading to the feeling of regeneration, renewal, and spiritual rebirth. The word teshuvah has two meanings: “return” and “answer.” Teshuvah comprises a “return” to who we really are, and to what we really are at our godly essence. But teshuvah is also is our “answer” to God’s call for each of us to come home to the land of the soul.”
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
I have always reflected privately during the High Holy Days. It was all about me. How did I miss the mark? How will I make the world a better place for myself and others? This year, my children have reached an age where I need to begin including and encouraging them during this time to reflect on their actions as individuals and contributors to our community. I don’t want them to think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time to sit through a long service, recite some prayers and fast for a day. Yes, we do all of this, but I am not sure my children are aware of why we do this and what the High Holy Days means for us in our Jewish lives as the Passell family. There is an important, mindful, spiritual component that I feel during this time and I am going to share it with my children. This year, I will ask them questions that encourage them to look within to find answers and concrete examples as to how to live in this world as a Jew and represent our culture with a sense of compassion; to examine their own actions and articulate what choices they have made that worked well or not so well. I don’t want them to feel guilt or shame for making mistakes, but rather to use them as opportunities for growth and learning.
Each year I challenge religious school children to ask for forgiveness from one person. Not a half-hearted apology but a humble request. I will never collect this homework or ask for details for it is up to each student to understand their relationship with the Divine. Atonement leads to the creation of a better self; a being with eyes cast forward, releasing regret.
The act of asking for forgiveness is actually quite simple. Be sure to do this in person. If that is not possible then over the phone. Texting your request is not advisable. Formula: I am sorry for what I did. I did X and it made you feel Y. I was ADJECTIVE and it caused you NOUN – (hurt, shame, embarrassment etc). What I did was wrong and I hope you will forgive me.
Regardless of the severity of the hurt, we have an obligation to seek out those whom we have harmed. You may be surprised with the feeling of elation that comes with this act. It is quite cathartic and helps bring us all back together.
Mere sorrow, which weeps and sits still, is not repentance. Repentance is sorrow converted into action; into the moment toward a new and better life. ~unknown
Cantor Ross Wolman
The opening prayer for Yom Kippur is Kol Nidre, “All of Our Vows”. On behalf of the entire People of Israel, the service leader asks God to nullify all vows from the previous year and forgive all transgressions. “Let our vows not be considered vows; let our prohibitions not be considered prohibitions; and let our oaths not be considered oaths.”
And God responds favorably. “I have pardoned in accordance with your words.” It’s as simple as that. We ask and God does. It’s as simple as that.
And…it’s never as simple as that.
The service leader actually repeats the prayer 3 times. The melody intensifies with each repetition. It is one of yearning and pleading. It almost sounds as if the service leader is crying, begging God. The service leader is the bridge between the people and God. The fate of the entire People of Israel lies in the hands, actually the voice of one person. One person, one voice stands between blame and forgiveness, life and death. The service leader is working hard for all of us.
So what do we need to do prior to the recitation of the prayer? What should we do for the service leader? What can we do for God?
What if we turn the words of the prayer onto ourselves? What if instead of asking God, each of us makes the same request of our own self? What if each of us forgives our own self?
As we make our way to “Kol Nidre”, entrusting our fate to our service leader, let each of us take an honest accounting of our vows and our transgressions. Let each of us honor the neshama/the soul, that is restored to us every morning. Let each of us demonstrate self compassion and grant ourselves forgiveness. God forgives us when we forgive ourselves. Our actions directly impact God’s.
May the coming year be filled with kindness and meaning.
Rabbi Laurie Phillips
Kol Nidrei is a not technically a prayer. It is a legal formulation through which we annul vows and oaths that we will make in the coming year. Much has been written to help us make sense of this seemingly immoral liturgical moment. Why begin Yom Kippur, this solemn day of reflection and repentance, by letting ourselves off the hook?
When we hold ourselves (and others) accountable, it is difficult to balance justice and mercy. On this day, when God holds us accountable, we pray that the impulse toward mercy outweighs the need for justice. Kol Nidre reminds us that even as we demand rigorous scrutiny and thorough teshuva, we will at some point have to make room for compassion
Marcia Falk recasts Kol Nidrei so that it puts us back on the hook. It makes us accountable to morality that is fluid rather than unbending and absolute. It allows for decisions to change as time moves on. It honors truth as it unfolds. She writes:
All promises and pledges –
That we have made to ourselves
And that no long serve
For the good –
May their grip be loosened
That we be present of mind and heart
To the urgency of the hour.
Our vows are powerful and important. May we make every effort to uphold them. So too, may we have the courage to change our minds when the urgency of the hour demands it. Should doing so hurt others along the way, may we be genuine in seeking forgiveness. And may forgiveness be granted.
Rabbi Mari Chernow