Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Before You Begin Again: Thoughts on Simchat Torah

Many years ago, after finishing the Book of Genesis over a three-year period, I ceremonialized this feat with several women in a siyum. The word, meaning end in Hebrew, marks the completion of a reading of a book of Torah.

We gathered in the sanctuary where we read and chanted Hebrew prayers.

After the service, we met in the library for tuna fish salad and bagels and lively conversation. It had taken us three years to read Genesis and you betcha, it was a celebration!

But the service and luncheon weren’t the only pieces that satisfied. It wasn’t the act of reading that we were acknowledging. Heck, we were grownups and had been reading most of our lives. It was certainly about having read and studied Genesis, but it was less about the reading and more about having finished. It was about completion.

The siyum inspired me to start my own at-home ritual as it related to personal reading: I began a practice of handwriting the title and author of each book that I read into a hard bound notebook that I kept on my bedside table. To stop and savor the finishing for a moment. (I’ve often considered building on this ritual, perhaps entering the titles with an ink pen in calligraphy. Or sit down with the book at my side, with a cup of tea. Someday perhaps…)

Today is Simchat Torah, signifying the end of our readings of the Torah readings for the year. Certainly something for us to celebrate! Sure, we complete innumerable tasks during the course of a year. Think what we do in just one day: a signature on a contract, the final stitch of surgery to wiping down our kitchen counters. We complete it and then we do it again. Almost immediately.

But what if we stopped for just a moment just to acknowledge that the job was done? And that it was good?

Prompt: Describe what you are likely to do after finishing a long project. Next, allow yourself to imagine what you would LIKE to do. How different are these?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thoughts on Temporary Shelter/Sukkot 2010

A friend of mine recently sold her childhood home, the one her father, an architect, built with his own hands. It’s a spectacular one-story house positioned to catch the morning and setting suns through tall pines, a trickling stream and frequent visits by graceful deer.

She and her husband lived and raised their daughter there until last spring, when the combination of her parents’ deaths, her husband’s job loss and rising maintenance costs forced them to put it up for sale.

It was an excruciating experience for her, like letting go of a piece of her heart.

But an extraordinary thing happened to my friend and her husband, also an architect, since the sale of the house -- these friends for whom houses mean more than just a roof over one’s head.

A housesitting arrangement materialized for the summer, providing a short term living arrangement for them until the cottage they would rent in the fall would become available.

With each passing week after the sale, with this new homelessness, untetheredness – this wandering - mysteriously brought a lightness to her step and melody in her voice.

Last week, she and her family moved into the tiny rental cottage they will live in for the next year, about 20 minutes from their former neighborhood.

Though she may need to move once again next year around this time, my dear friend could not be happier. This temporary shelter -- like the sukkahs that many of us will eat, drink, study and possibly sleep in for the next week – offers safety and space without asking for very much in return. Unlike her childhood home, with its vibrant memories clinging to walls and floorboards, this impermanent home where she will eat and sleep and read gives her a chance to leave some parts of herself behind and discover new ones, providing her with a place just to be.

Prompt #1: Describe a place, be it indoors or out, with people or without, that altered your perspective, even if in just the tiniest way.

Prompt #2: Why do you think it was so important that Jews wanted to be reminded of ancestral wandering, back when they lived in temporary dwellings? What it is about traveling to another place, pilgrimmaging, that merits remembering?

Monday, September 13, 2010

And what did you do on the second day of Rosh Hashanah?

A recent JTA article raised the question, and responded with anecdotal information about people who do and people who don’t observe two days, regardless of the position of the stream with which they identify. The article discusses why the second day was added, how it has been justified, and how the second day of Rosh Hashanah is different from the Yom Tov Sheni, second holy day, of the three festivals. (For a more sophisticated discussion, see Mah Rabu

I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah, largely because I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah. During one phase of my early adult life, my “observance” was pretty much limited to not going to work (either day), and then, when I finally joined a congregation, it was a Reform temple, with a one-day observance. The second day felt empty to me, though, and I was able to cadge a ticket to attend the second day at the Conservative synagogue up the street.

When Gates of Repentance was published, it contained two different Rosh Hashanah services, with the suggestion that the second one could be used for variety, or for a shorter service, or for congregations that observed two days – a new idea to me as a Reform concept, but one that alerted me to a trend in some sectors of the movement, to observe the second day. My suggestion that we introduce second day services at my congregation was heard with interest by the associate rabbi, but was set aside after the idea was broached to the senior rabbi. So I continued to go to the Conservative synagogue, and then after a few years, to Beth Emet’s second-day observance.

Flash forward a number of years. At the temple board meeting of my previous congregation immediately after the High Holy Days, the president of the congregation began the proceedings by asking the board for guidance on an issue, after the fact, but as a determinant for next year. The executive director had suggested closing the temple office on the second day, because so many members of the office staff observed both days. The president had agreed, stipulating that this was not to be taken as a precedent for the future.

In the board’s discussion, I commented that the temple served me well 364 days a year, and that I had made arrangements to fill my needs on the 365th, so it was immaterial to me personally whether or not we held second day services. If we do, I said, then it’s a holy day, and obviously the temple office should be closed. If we don’t, though, we’re saying it’s not a holy day, and therefore the office should be open, while allowing those who observe two days to take a personal day. The board agreed with the principle I had articulated, and voted to keep the office open in the future, although eventually, with new clergy, the congregation adopted the second day.

A quickie survey of the second-day scene among Reform congregations in the Chicago area indicates that this year about half the Reform congregations are observing two days. I just heard about one Conservative congregation that rents a high school auditorium to accommodate its first day crowd, while on the second day, it uses the sanctuary, larger than its own, of a hospitable one-day Reform synagogue. (That’s the paradox facing Conservative synagogues, whose members don’t practice what they expect their rabbis to preach. But that’s a subject for another day.)

Here at Beth Emet, the second day services are very different in look and feel from first day – smaller, no choir, a highly participatory Torah discussion instead of a sermon. I enjoy the intimacy, even as I miss the majesty that accrues when a thousand people pray together.

The JTA article I referenced at the outset said that, among congregations of all streams that observe a two-day Rosh Hashanah, the attendance fall-off the second day is 75%. And this year, with the holiday on Thursday and Friday, we went directly into Shabbat Shuvah. Somewhat to my surprise, attendance at both Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services was pretty close to normal Shabbat attendance. Apparently we have a cadre of daveners who don’t “burn out.”

I write this with Yom Kippur looming, and we will again have a crowded expanded sanctuary. The more people, the harder it is to see anybody, much less everybody. So if I didn’t get a chance to extend wishes for a good and sweet year at last weekend’s four day marathon, let me do so now. Gmar chatimah tovah.

Here's to You, Mrs. Rosensweig

In the spirit of telling stories that help us understand our own Jewish journeys, I’d like to share one of mine:

It was 1965 and I was in Mrs. Rosensweig’s first grade class at Charles W. Henry School in Philadelphia. I was six and a half.

Mrs. Rosensweig was standing at the blackboard with her pointer when out of the blue, the classmate seated next to me whispered in my ear, "Ellen, do you believe in God?"

It was a question that could throw you – especially at six - but around that time I had been asking my parents about God. We were not a religious family, nor did we hang out in organized religious circles. Ours was a mostly secular life punctuated with some Jewish holiday observances (Passover) and some non-Jewish ones (we had a Christmas tree each year as well as Easter egg hunts.) Ideas about God were most likely to come from my parents. But when it didn’t, I was moved to ask them, "Do we believe in God?”

My dad told me to ask my mom. My mom said that she just wasn’t sure.

And so, having done the research, I felt justified in responding to this classmate by answering truthfully, "I’m not sure, but I don’t think so." She took my answer and turned it into a game of Telephone, whispering to the girl next to her, "Ellen doesn’t believe in God, pass it on."

All the excitement brought Mrs. Rosensweig to my desk. She demanded to know what was being said and would I share it with the rest of the class. And that’s when the little interviewer beside me blurted out, "It’s Ellen, Mrs. Rosensweig. She says she doesn’t believe in God."

Remember, this was the early 1960s. Mrs. Rosensweig had a number of choices that day and unfortunately for me, she leaned in closer, and using her pointer for emphasis, said in front of the entire first grade class, "Ellen, if you don’t believe in God, how then do you explain how you got here this morning? How do you explain how the trains and cars go? How do you explain how the universe was created?"

I’ll never forget the sensation of every first graders’ eyes boring through me as Mrs. Rosensweig made an example of me that day, railing on and on, making my confusion about God only more so and not allowing me the chance to speak or have my questions answered. She gave me the impression, at a very impressionable age, that if you were honest about how you felt about God, or questioned God’s existence at all, you would probably get a public tongue lashing.

I believe that that very day, I laid my muddled feelings about God to rest. It wasn’t worth it, I thought.

Twenty-five years later, it was my daughters’ questions about God, the afterlife and the soul that rustled up those deeply buried memories of a young girl who never got her questions answered. I knew one thing - my children were going to have their questions explored.

And explore we did. When my daughters were the age to begin religious school, we joined Beth Emet. After a few months and too many questions from the girls that I simply couldn’t answer, I felt a tug to venture into the building and take some adult education classes for myself.

Back then, in the mid 1990s, Rabbi Eleanor Smith was teaching a workshop on God. There in the Weiner Room, I discovered that I was not the only one who had ever questioned God’s existence. Moses had too. As had others in the room. I was reminded that history is full of people who argued with God and no one was ever struck down dead from their questions. The questioning and disagreement often led to enrichment.

The gate to the subject of God finally opened, now longer guarded by well-meaning, but misguided teacher with a pointer.

I was a woman on fire, burning through books and study, hungry for more. And so began a rich spiritual journey, among which led to an adult bat mitzvah and teaching religious school, that I like to think motherhood set me on.

Or was it Mrs. Rosensweig?

Prompt #1: What turned you to or away from God or Judaism?

Prompt #2: What brought you to the doors of Beth Emet?

A version of this piece was originally published in “Views from the Home Office Window,” by Ellen Blum Barish (Adams Street Publishing, 2007).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In God's Name

In her wonderful children’s book, “In God’s Name,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso writes that after every living thing was named by God, all of the people said, “God must have a single name that is greater and more wonderful than all other names.” The farmer called God Source of Life. The man who tended sheep called God, Shepherd. The soldier, Maker of Peace. The caregiver, Healer. The slave, Redeemer. And on it goes. (There were 10 names, all together.)

When they all called out their own name for God at the same time, Sasso writes, “The people knew that all the names for God were good, and no name was better than another.” Then they came together and called God, One.

It’s a beautiful book, illustrated by Phoebe Stone (see book cover image at the left), that prompts one to ask “What are the qualities of God that resonate most for me?”

An essential part of the Selichot service is the repeated recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes of God," a list of God’s characteristics revealed to Moses after the Golden Calf Incident.

It reads:

Adonai, Adonai (1,2), God (3), merciful (4) and gracious (5), long-suffering (6), and abundant in goodness (7) and truth (8); keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation (9), forgiving iniquity (10) and transgression (11) and sin (12); and that will by no means clear (cleanse, 13) the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.

(Exodus 34:6-7)

Prompt #1: Some of the words in the Exodus passage will move you more than others. Which ones do? Which ones don’t and why?

Prompt #2: Is there a logical sequence to these words? Why is Adonai repeated? And why are ten of these words qualities?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Movement into Resolution

In the language of music, resolution is defined as the sound passing from a dissonant to a consonant tone or the progression of a chord from dissonance to consonance. The idea is there is movement from dissonant (inharmonious, jarring, harsh) to consonant (harmonious, pleasing, stable).

Movement isn’t possible without resolution, without a back and forth between the cacophonous to the melodious. And resolution is necessary to finalize the four steps of teshuvah, before we reach the Holy Days.

The moon has just passed its fullness, reminding us that the month of Elul is drawing to a close. Will you have come to some resolution in this final week of Elul?

Maimonides asks, “Who achieves a “complete teshuvah”? His answer, “The one who confronts the same situation in which one sinned and instead, abstains.” We resolve not to repeat our behavior even though we are fully aware that it is possible to do so.

Turning a new leaf when the leaves are beginning to fall and pile up around us isn’t easy. It takes an act of will. A break with old habits. Admitting we’ve done wrong. Starting over again.

Teshuvah means saying we are sorry and recognizing we have the ability to change. And in the process, we are blessed with a great gift – healing.

Thank you, Alden Solovy, for sending along the link to your exquisite prayer on the season we are about to enter. Your words so beautifully capture the possibility of the season. I am taking the liberty of sharing it here because it is so very on point. If you would like to read more of Alden's prayers - and hear him reading as well - go to

The Season of Healing

by Alden Solovy

This is the season of healing:

Of healing our hearts and minds,

Of healing the moments we share with each other

And the moments we share with ourselves.

This is the season of memory:

Of remembering our parents and grandparents,

The love of generations,

The holiness of our ancestors.

This is the season of stillness,

The season of silence and quiet:

Of deep breaths,

Of open eyes,

Of compassion and consolation.

This is the season of healing:

The season of grief turning to wonder,

Of loss turning toward hope,

The season that binds this year to the next,

The season that frees this year from the next,

The season that heralds the redemption of spirit

And our return to G-d’s Holy Word.

© 2010 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.