Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah from Home

This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other. The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary. And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes.

If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am. Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm. We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm. Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.

Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary. In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it. Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again. This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.

Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary. Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience. Discuss this with your children. Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there. If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so. If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.

Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services. Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will help you make this into a meaningful and uplifting experience. If you usually wear a kippah and tallis in synagogue then put them on. If you like to dress up for services, then do so. I know no one will see how stunning you look, but it might help to get you into the right frame of mind. But certainly, don't make outfits a fight with your kids. Let them enjoy the service and take in the music of our prayers however they are comfortable.

If you like to follow along in the prayerbook then have your prayerbook open or download the Kindle or free Flip versions.  Some of the prayers will be shown on the screen. Sing along, and sing really loudly, when you see those words. Listening to our cantor will help to lift your spirits. But singing along with her will add to your experience.

God hears all prayers wherever they might be offered—and however they might sound. When it comes to prayers it's first and foremost about the words and the intentions.

When we light the Rosh Hashanah candles on the bima, you can light your candles. When we drink the kiddush wine, you can drink some wine. Of course, you can start earlier with the wine if you like. And by all means have a plate of apples and honey, and maybe even a round hallah, waiting to enjoy for what will be your own private oneg.

If you are watching these services by yourself, and you're missing the opportunity of seeing your fellow congregants, then call them or FaceTime them before or after services. And if you know congregants who are watching services by themselves then call them before or after services. Or even call them during services. If kibbitzing with friends during services is part of what makes Rosh Hashanah enjoyable then do it.

The only rule for this year is that we need to grab as many opportunities as possible to lift our spirits.

May these services help to strengthen our spirits. May this Rosh Hashanah help to carry us toward a year of health.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Kindness

This week was a good week.

I discovered a poem.

It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev. It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.

I learned more about the inspiration for the poem. While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed. A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen. Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess, she met a stranger who listened to her tale, despite her broken Spanish, and offered sympathy and compassion in return.

The poem emerged. It was if it scribbled its own words in her journal.

I started wondering.

Is every revelation born of serendipity? Is compassion best felt from those we least expect? Can kindness only be learned through pain?

The Torah declares: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31)

Is the Torah’s journey of pain intended to teach kindness and compassion?

I recognize. This is not the poem the Torah intended. And yet I remain thankful for the teaching.

I remain grateful for small discoveries—and poems that uplift a week and offer reminders that kindness can transform us, and even something so seemingly small as listening to another’s pain can redeem our burdens.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Say Your Blessings Slowly

This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.— And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.— And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)

It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)

The theology is crystal clear. Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses. It is not a very comforting thought. The graphic curses are in fact frightening. They make one recoil. Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology. I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good.

The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma. When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner. To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology. It would be to affirm something we experience to be false. Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings. And so, what do we do? We recite these words in hushed tones.

It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.

The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more. He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command. He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

Perhaps the rebbe is correct. And all we require is the ability of the Hasidic masters to rejoice with even the most meager of blessings. They teach. All it takes is the posture of joy and gladness.

And I am beginning to detect how to begin and how to reorient this cursed year. Quickly, and softly, detail the curses. Slowly, and loudly, enumerate our blessings.

And then let joy and gladness fill your hearts.