Sunday, December 10, 2017

No Carlebach

Cosby, Carlebach, and Diamant
Rabbi David N. Young

Earlier this week, Lifetime television presented what I am calling a micro-series. It was a two-night version of Anita Diamant’s first novel, The Red Tent (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). It was a timely production because just last week we read the biblical account around which this story is formed. I remember reading The Red Tent soon after it came out. I thought it was a fantastic take on the biblical narrative. 

In Genesis 34:2-4, we read: 
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince, saw her; he took her, lay her down, and raped her. He was then captivated by Jacob’s daughter Dinah and, falling in love with the young woman, spoke tenderly to the young woman. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get this girl for me as a wife.”

Jacob agrees to the marriage only if the Hivites would circumcise themselves so they would be worthy of Hebrew daughters. They agreed, and while they writhed in pain from their respective surgeries, Shimon and Levi killed all of the Hivite men, including Shechem and Hamor, and took Dinah back home. In the entire biblical narrative, Dinah never speaks. She does not take part in the drama that unfolds around her and Shechem. Like so many women of the Bible, she is silent. The difference between Dinah and all the other silent women of the Bible is that Dinah is named, which draw attention to her and her plight.

In Judaism we have a rich tradition of creating stories based on the biblical text. We call them midrashim, which really means “explanations,” because they all serve the purpose of answering a question. When Anita Diamant wrote The Red Tent in 1997, the question she wanted to answer was, “What would Dinah have said if she was given a voice in this story?” In a world where women are often silenced, it was a noble attempt to write Dinah’s side of the story. In 1997, we reveled in the creativity of this modern midrash. We marveled at the powerful storytelling of this author who had previously written only Jewish handbooks on Jewish life and baby namings. 

Today, however, the story is tainted by the shadow that lies on our news cycle. And frankly, it is tainted further by the horrible production that Lifetime put together.

I want to take a moment to look at some of the differences between the book and the movie. Now, it has been a long time since I read the book, but I seem to remember that the copy I read had two different fonts. The normal font for normal storytelling, and either bold or italicized for the actual biblical text. This does two important things for a reader. First, it serves as a constant reminder that most of what is in the novel is midrash—an add-on to the biblical narrative. Diamant very skillfully weaves between the text of Genesis and her own creation. This is a very important skill as a writer of modern midrash, because that is exactly what the homiletic midrashists have been doing for centuries. They weave their tales so skillfully into the Torah, the line between original text and midrash can become blurred.

I would often ask my 6th grade Bible students in Miami to find the story about Abraham smashing the idols in the Torah. I would tell them, “Abraham is born at the end of Genesis 11, and told to leave his father in Genesis 12, so please look for the famous story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.” They would look and look, turning back and forth between the two chapters, sometimes flipping ahead and hoping for some sort of flashback. But it was a trick question, intended to teach them the difference between the biblical canon and the midrashim. Some of them become so engrained in our teachings that we do not always realize that they are midrashim, like the story of Abraham and the idols.

The rabbis who have been telling these stories to one another for centuries did not have this problem. Midrashim were written specifically for an audience who knew the text backwards and forwards. They never wondered which parts of the homilies were added and which came from the text. It would be like someone writing a whole new Star Wars story about Luke’s journey in between episodes 5 and 6. Many of us would know that it is not from the great and holy Lucas story, but who knows? It might be a very entertaining story that explains something the readers have always wondered.

And that is the second thing the different fonts do for the readers of The Red Tent. It helps the uninformed reader make the distinction. It prevents the problem of “I don’t remember that from the Bible,” and gives us a visual clue as to what she is creating and what is sacred text. That is also the first problem with the movie. 

The movie version of the book could have been terrific if there was some sort of explanation about the concept of midrashim and the role it plays in Jewish teachings. There was no such explanation. Only a tag line that said, “My voice will finally be heard.” It makes people who saw the movie come to me all week saying things like, “I didn’t remember all of that from the Bible. I’m going to have to read it again.” 

Now, that statement is a double-edged sword. Of course, I want you to read the Bible. I want you to be as familiar with the text as the ancient rabbis, and as familiar as Anita Diamant surely is with it. The other side of that is, in the words of my father, “You need to know the rules before you can break them.” In other words, reading midrash is a skill that comes from an intimate familiarity with the text. Understanding the intent of the authors of these stories is meant to be done in study, with groups of people, explaining and debating. When The Red Tent came out, guides were published for book clubs and classes that were reading the novel. 

The micro series that aired this week provided no guidance. Viewers sat at home alone or with family, watching the story come to life on the screen. And most Americans are ignorant. Most people watching this movie were Christians with no concept of midrash, and no reason why they should have such a concept. Among the Jews who watched this film, many of them have no concept of midrash. The movie presents as an authoritative view of the Bible, when it has no authority except that of the author.

Now add the horrifying news we have recently learned about Bill Cosby. At this point, 19 women have come forward to say that he took advantage of them sexually. We don’t need to go over the details, but suffice it to say that over the last 20 or more years, Bill Cosby has forced women to do things they did not want to do, either by using drugs or by convincing them because, after all, he’s Bill Cosby. He has made settlements with some of them, and some have simply been silent for years. Sadly, there is a statute of limitations on any crimes he could be accused of, which has run out at this point in time. So there is nothing to be done legally if he were proven to be a criminal abuser. Nevertheless, the victims deserve to be heard.

In an article written this week called Carlebach, Cosby, and Separating Art from the Artist, Asher Levy eloquently describes the struggle between remembering The Cosby Show and the hours upon hours of laughter provided to him as a young man and the horrific actions of this man he once thought was so funny. He describes the Shabbat celebration of Shlomo Carlebach’s music, while, “A battle was raging in my head: How can you sit there and listen to this when you know what he really was, and what he did to those women?”   

You see, after Shlomo Carlebach died, allegations emerged that he was abusive to women he knew. He was seen occasionally fondling inappropriately, and it was brushed off as being swept up in the holiness of the moment and not being aware of his actions. But there were things he did behind closed doors that were worse. Women who came to him in his private study, seeking guidance and support from this holy man, were instead treated with “sexual therapy” under the guise of something kabbalistic. Wielding his holy power over these helpless women so that he could satisfy his own base urges.

I have heard the claim that some of the women who have come forward are “jumping on the bandwagon” to try and get something from Mr. Cosby or Rabbi Carlebach. Of course it is possible that one or some of these women is not being entirely truthful. If even one of these women is telling the truth, that is too many. And frankly, that’s not the point.

The point is that all too often, men of power get their way with women who have less power. Whether that power is physical or financial, based on fame or the ability to be spiritual guides, it is abuse. 

In Levy’s article he says that these men got away with what they did for so long precisely because the fans allowed it. We say all too often, “But he created so much laughter,” or “But he moved so many people with his music and spirituality.” Whenever we say that, we continue to silence the women they abused. Whenever we watch a rerun on Nick at Nite or play a familiar melody on the bimah or go see a Broadway show based on their life, we perpetuate the power over women that these men had. Levy quotes blogger Elan Morgan, who writes, “We cannot separate the men from their art when they used their status from that art both to commit and conceal their violent behavior. To continue to share their art is to continue to share one of the weapons they used to commit their crimes.”

How many of us have stopped watching Mel Gibson movies because of the deplorable things he has said about Jews? We have so little tolerance when it comes to anti-Semitism, and we are in the right! So why is it that we cannot offer that same venom to those who are anti-women?

Going back to the biblical text, there is the possibility of ambiguity with the Hebrew word innah, which is translated as “raped” in the Dinah story. It could mean “violated,” which could be construed as “took her virginity.” The problem for me is not the one word, it is the context. If we read the string of verbs here we can replace it with something euphemistic or innocuous and still get the same result. Shechem saw her, took her, lay with her, vay’anehah—and had her. Then, after the deed is consummated—after his animal impulses are satiated—only then does he notice her and ask his father to make her a bride.

Friends, this reads to me like a classic case of “I did it because I loved her.” Dinah never gets to speak in the Torah. She is tossed around like property, and largely forgotten. It is up to the midrashists to give her a voice. It is up to the educated to say, “No! Shechem should not have used his royalty as power over a young shepherdess!” It is up to us to support the silenced and stop making excuses for the Shechems and the Carlebachs and the Cosbys in this world.

It is unacceptable to keep letting men of power write the narrative of the women they abuse. It is time to listen to their true voice. It is time to say that we have had enough. It does not matter who the prince is. He must treat her like royalty. It does not matter how the music has moved us. This is not harmony. It does not matter how much we have laughed. This is not funny.

It is time for us to stop taking other people’s word for it, and listen to the real stories.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Witnessing A Crash Landing

I love watching people on airplanes. All kinds of different people, with different stories, converging on a moment in time, in the air, headed to a destination where their stories will diverge again.

Today on the first leg of my trip to Boston for the URJ 2017 Biennial, a man in the center seat in front of me looked totally out of place. He was very large, heavily tattooed, and it seemed as if he had never been on an airplane before. I saw him struggle to get in and out of his seat, I watched him try to figure out the different plugs and buttons on the seat and monitor, and I noticed that he was extremely friendly and kind to those around him. He texted his mother a picture of himself before take off with, “Of course my big @$$ got the middle seat,” which struck me as coming from a person with a sense of humor, and with a connection to his mother.

When we landed in Chicago, like everyone, he turned on his phone and saw a message, checked it, and seemed stunned. He called someone, saying, “Where’s Mama? Let me talk to Mama,” and listened silently until he said, “What do you mean he’s dead?”

After hanging up he said, to no one in particular, “My dad just died....”

My heart fell. While passengers filed off the plane, a few people turned to him and offered condolences. I chased him off the plane. He froze once he was clear of the gate, and I put my arm around his shoulder.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I heard what happened, and I want you to know that I’m a rabbi, and I might not be able to help you religiously, but I also lost my father suddenly. What do you need right now?”

He looked stunned. “I don’t know, I have to get out of here.”

At that point, another man walked up, who was sitting next to him on the flight. I asked if he had a connection, and he shook his head as he picked up his phone to call a friend. I started walking him out toward the exit, and asked if he had any luggage. He shook his head again. When he got off the phone, he said he couldn’t believe what was happening. I told him I know his world was crumbling in on him right now, but if he holds on, we’ll see that he gets to his friend. The other guy nodded.

I asked when he last spoke to his father. “Just this morning!” He answered, tears forming in his eyes, “We were laughing and everything!”

I don’t usually go theological on the mourning, but I took a risk. “Thank God you got a chance to say goodbye on a happy note. He knows you love him, and you know he loved you.” 

“Yeah, I even told him I loved him.”

At that moment, we passed my gate, and I asked the other man if he could take care of our friend from here. He said yes, and I gave the big man a hug, and turned and let them walk on.

Then I sat down and cried.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778: Mishkan Hanefesh

Rabbi Akiva said: How greatly God must have loved us to create us in the image of God; yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we are created in the divine image. 

Do not think you are obliged to repent only for transgressions involving acts, such as stealing, robbing, and sexual immorality. Just as we must repent such acts, so must we examine our evil feelings and repent our anger, our jealousy, our mocking thoughts, our excessive ambition and greed. We must repent all these. Therefore it is written: “Let the wicked forsake their ways, the unrighteous their thoughts (Isaiah 55:7).”
(Maimonides, 12th Century)

Ethical life has entered into religious life, and cannot be extracted from it. There is no responsibility unless there is One to whom one is responsible, for there is no response where there is no address….
(Martin Buber)

As a child, every year around this time I would be sent to the bookshelf in our living room to fetch our family’s High Holy Day prayer books. I would find them stuffed in a corner behind Passover Haggadot, with a sheen of dust from not being touched in a year. I would bring them to the kitchen to await transport to Temple, one of last year’s tickets falling out en route. Once we got to services, the book sat on my lap, where sometimes I would follow along, trying to figure out the Hebrew or reading with the English. My favorite part was the pages in the front of the book, full of readings before the service sections begin. Little bits of High Holy Day wisdom that I would peruse if I got bored waiting for things to start or even during services, just never during the sermons, because those were always riveting. The three quotes I just recited all come from that section of Gates of Repentance.

Gates of Repentance is the Reform Machzor, or High Holy Day prayerbook. For the rest of the year, the prayerbook is referred to as a siddur, which comes from the root seder, meaning order. It comes from the idea that the prayers are said in a particular order, and the book helps keep us on track.

Machzor comes from the Hebrew root chazar, which means “return.” The machzor should move us to return to our best self, which often tends to get away from us from one year to the next. That’s the whole reason we’re here, right? To get back to where we want to be in our lives. To shake off the bad habits we have developed. To atone for the mistakes we have made. The machzor is designed to guide us back, to return us to who we want to be.

The machzor that we have tonight has been a part of our High Holy Day experience for almost 40 years. There are some good things about it and some things that could be improved. Since it has been used by the Reform movement for as long as I can remember, it is the only machzor I have ever used. I’m used to it, and coming in to the High Holy Days every year with that familiar burgundy book gives me comfort. There are plenty of parts that I am not crazy about in it. There are long stretches of readings where we only hear the service leader’s voice for quite a long time. There are readings that do not necessarily speak to what repentance means to us today. There are no transliterations. Its readings no longer always reflect the High Holy Day prayer experience that the Reform Jewish community desires in the 21st Century.

Gates of Repentance first came out in 1978, in an attempt to make a machzor that fit the worship experience of the day. It was innovative and exciting for its time. Since then three different versions have come out with linguistic changes to reflect our understanding of God and egalitarianism. But sometimes small changes in language are not enough.

In 2015 the CCAR Press produced Mishkan Hanefesh, a new machzor for our movement. As Rabbi Edwin Goldberg describes it, “Through updated translations, readings, and poetry…Mishkan Hanefesh breathes new life into High Holy Day services.” So I want to share with you a few of these differences to prepare us for the upcoming changes in our machzor.

The first blessing I want to point out is Hineini, the first prayer in our services tonight. Hineini is the prayer of the prayer leader, not meant to be a prayer for the congregation to participate in, but more to eavesdrop on. The service leader asks that their prayers merit the acceptance of the prayers for those they lead. You can find it on page 19 of Gates of Repentance to read along if you want:
Behold me of little merit, trembling and afraid, as I stand before You to plead for Your people. O gracious God, the One enthroned by Israel’s praises, compassionate and loving, accept my petition and that of my people….
In Hebrew, the next part invokes the names of our ancestors, and then implies the thirteen attributes of God—Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun… But those are simply left out of the translation in Gates of Repentance. 

The translation in Mishkan Hanefesh is more literal, and keeps closer to the Hebrew. If you’re following along, the Hebrew is on page 18:
Here I am. So poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You to whom Israel sings praise. Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek favor for Your people Israel, for they have entrusted me with this task. Therefore—God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah…Adonai, Adonai—merciful, gracious God…
Something I am particularly happy about is the direct translation of the second paragraph, which Gates of Repentance renders, “O God Supreme…” To be honest, that phrase always sounded like I was not praying so much as ordering a pizza.

If you were looking at the Hebrew while I read from Mishkan Hanefesh, you may have noticed that this is closer to literal. The editors call it an “idea for idea” translation rather than “word for word.” The goal, according to the introduction to Mishkan Hanefesh, is “to convey the intention of the Hebrew prayer and its impact, though a given English word may not match a dictionary gloss of the corresponding Hebrew word.” The translation team considered their work a sacred challenge, and they hope to have created a “prayerful, meaningful experience in English that is equivalent to the experience of praying in Hebrew.” After spending much time with these machzorim, I believe they have successfully done so.

There are a few parts of the service that have additions in Mishkan Hanefesh that are not in Gates of Repentance. The ones that will stand out the most are the extra shofar blasts. Right after the candles are lit for Erev Rosh Hashanah, we find one extra T’kiah. Situated at the very beginning of our Rosh Hashanah celebration, this shofar call is a way to herald the holiday as a community. The shofar is used every day throughout the month of Elul to let the Jewish community know that Rosh Hashanah approaches. On S’lichot the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, we end services with a T’kiah Gedolah, the longest of the shofar notes, that rings in our ears all the way home. Perhaps we have missed some of these, and are longing to hear the shofar’s sound. Perhaps we are so focused on wondering when we will hear the shofar, we struggle to focus on other blessings. Hearing the shofar at the very beginning of our prayer service allows us to wake up to the sound of the shofar, relax knowing that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, and focus on the task of T’shuvah that lies ahead.

There is perhaps nothing that cries Rosh Hashanah quite like the sound of the shofar. In Gates of Repentance, the three sections of the shofar service are placed at the end of the Torah service. After we read haftarah but before we put the Torah in the ark, we hear the calls of the shofar. The three sections signify God’s sovereignty, our communal memory, and the significance of the shofar. They are called Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Mishkan Hanefesh moves the Malchuyot section from the Torah service to the Amidah.

Right after Kedushat Hayom, the blessing that praises God for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah, we find the Malchuyot section of the shofar service, and then we continue with our prayer for thanksgiving. It doesn’t belong here! It’s weird, and may rattle us out of our comfort zone. But that is exactly what the shofar is supposed to do. We are supposed to be stirred by it, moved by it, and what better time to feel uprooted by shofar than right before we thank God. If we can be thankful when we are uncomfortable, imagine how thankful we can be for the rest of the year.

Finally, I want to show you a little bit about the structure of Mishkan Hanefesh. It is very similar to the set up of Mishkan T’filah, with the Hebrew on the upper right of most two page spreads, the “idea for idea” translation below that, and some alternative readings or meditations on the left side. The difference is in the editors’ intent of use of these blessings. In Mishkan Hanefesh, the distinction is also in the background color.

Most of the book is black letters on a white background. Nothing to throw us off here. Some sections have a grey or a blue background. The grey background designates an alternative reading to the blessing on the right side of the page. Poems and readings that we might choose as prayer leaders to offer instead of the traditional prayer on the white background. Some of these are new and were written specifically for Mishkan Hanefesh. Others are the “old favorites” from Gates of Repentance that the editors just couldn’t put in the geniza. From talking with people who have used Gates of Repentance for almost four decades, they were able to discern which readings the people would miss, and they made sure to keep them there.

In addition to readings on a grey background, there are some readings that appear on a blue background. These are meant to be meditations or study texts. Like the readings from the beginning of the Gates of Repentance services, these are meant to distract us in a positive way if we do not feel like following along in the service itself at that particular moment. The grey and blue sections allow us to be elsewhere in our minds, but still on the same page with our community. As an added bonus, the grey sections have no border, but the blue sections do, so if you are using a black and white reproduction or if you have difficulties visually distinguishing between grey and blue, you are not left behind from understanding intent behind the text.

The attributes of the new machzor that I have mentioned tonight only scratch the surface of the innovations of Mishkan Hanefesh, which is why Mishkan Hanefesh will be our study theme for 5778. Throughout the year we will meet to explore our new machzor, in preparation for using it when we are ready as a congregation, hopefully as early as next year. We will study individually and as a community, in our homes and here at CBT, with me or with lay leaders. Questions will be answered in classes and in Weekly Emails.  On Yom Kippur Day this year, our annual “Ask Rabbi Young” study session will be machzor-focused, so come with questions about the new machzor, or about High Holy Day prayers in general.

But please, and this request is a little strange: DON’T BUY A COPY OF MISHKAN HANEFESH. We are looking into a way to get it for the entire congregation, so there should be no need to make anyone spend the money on their own copy. There will be opportunities for dedicating copies in honor of simchas and in memory of loved ones, but there should be no need to buy your own, unless you want one.

So as we begin 5778, may we be blessed with our openness to change. May we enjoy our time in study and in preparation, and may we all find that our prayers this year and always are lifted, and may the machzorim we use help us make that return to the best version of ourselves.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tishrei 1/September 21: Rosh Hashanah 5778!

On behalf of all of the participants in this year’s Elul Thoughts, we want to wish you and yours a very happy new year. May this Rosh Hashanah bring you joy and fulfillment, peace and strength. May it be a blessed and very sweet 5778!

Shanah Tovah!
April Akiva R.J.E, Director of Religious School Education, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA
Rabbi Heidi Cohen, Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana, CA
Rabbi Sarah DePaolo, Shir HaMa’alot, Irvine, CA
Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, Founding Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA
Rabbi Rachel Kort, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Aliso Viejo, CA
Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Temple Sinai, Atlanta, GA
Rabbi Eric Linder, Congregation Children of Israel, Athens, GA
Rabbi Alan E. Litwak, Temple Sinai, North Miami Beach, FL
Cantor David Reinwald, Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana, CA
Cantorial Soloist Jenna Sagan, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA
Rabbi Nico Socolovsky, Temple Beth Tikvah, Fullerton, CA
Rabbi Richard Steinberg, Shir Hama’alot, Irvine, CA
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Congregation Beth Israel, Colleyville, TX
Rabbi Kvod Wieder, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Aliso Viejo, CA
Rabbi David N. Young, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA

Rabbi Gersh Zylberman, Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach, CA

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Elul 29/September 20

In early June, my wife Natalie went to a four-day conference, and as much as I miss Natalie when she is away, there was a part of me that was excited. I was imagining myself watching all the shows I have wanted to watch but haven’t because her tastes are different, and we like to watch TV together. I was picturing a Game of Thrones/Legends of Tomorrow/Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. marathon from the time the kids went to bed until 2 in the morning.
It didn’t happen exactly the way I had planned.
I woke up that first morning alone with my iPad on my chest and papers strewn across the bed, because instead of taking time to relax the previous evening, I thought I would get just one more thing finished for work. Just one more thing led to another and another, and the next thing I knew, it was morning and I hadn’t even turned on the TV!
Perhaps many of us have been there: making choices that favor our professional life rather than taking time for ourselves. The High Holy Days are our chance to look back at the choices we have made and decide how we want to do better the next time we are confronted with the same decision. Are we going to choose job over self or family? Or will we consider what is really important in our lives as we strive to make 5778 our best, most balanced year ever.
As Elul draws to a close and Rosh Hashanah begins, may we all find balance and inner peace, so that our spiritual journey through the High Holy Days is a meaningful one.

(Rabbi David N. Young)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Elul 28/September 19

For those of us who have experienced a significant loss in our lives, we have come to expect that feelings of loss will be more palpable at certain times of the year: a yartzeit, a birthday, certain holidays. Our tradition recognizes that the High Holy Days are a time we remember our loved ones. Another name for Rosh HaShannah is Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. As God remembers us and we remember the lives we lived this past year, we cannot help but remember our loved ones whom we have lost.

Rituals during our High Holy Days provide tools to help us remember and honor our loved ones' memories. Yizkor, Memorial Services, are included in our Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret worship. It is a tradition to light memorials candles as well. In addition, some have a tradition of making cemetery visits during this time of year.

As we take time during this month of Elul to prepare ourselves spiritually for the High Holy Days, let us take the time to prepare ourselves for the sacred obligation of remembering our loved ones. On a practical note, just as we prepare our menus for holiday meals, this Elul message is a reminder to plan cemetery visits and to acquire memorial candles. On a spiritual note, this Elul message is a reminder to begin to prepare emotionally for the intensity of this season which will include feelings of grief and loss.

Who are the significant individuals in your life whom you have lost? How do they continue to shape and influence your life?

(Rabbi Rachel Kort)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Elul 27/September 18

In the Torah portion, Behar-Behukotai, we read the Hebrew word "Yimachu". There are several translations for this particular word. One commentator translates it as "heartsick", another states "rot away", and yet another teaches that it is "melt away".

The context of the use of this word is found in a discussion about how the people will feel when they do not follow God's commandments. The text suggests that such pain will then transform into repentance and bring the people towards God.

When we are honest with ourselves to recognize that we have done wrong, feelings of emptiness, heartsickness and shame pervade the soul as if we were melting or rotting away from our best selves. In the course of the human experiences, these feelings ought to serve a purpose. When feeling Yimachu, a natural response to the failure of integrity, we would do well to let those feelings be a trigger towards repentance and seeking forgiveness. Too often, we sweep our feelings under the rug and pretend that our failures never happened. Such denial burns deep within the soul and most likely hurts others as well.

Let our heartsickness inspire us to be remorseful and then to lift ourselves up and become exemplary in our own eyes, in the eyes of others and mostly, in the eyes of God.

(Rabbi Richard Steinberg)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Elul 26/September 17

When I work with wedding couples, I employ a pre-marital counselling tool known as Prepare. During my sessions with each couple, we explore multiple dimensions of their relationship; we identify strengths and weaknesses, discuss personality traits, family dynamics, expectations, hopes and dreams; we practice healthy communication and conflict resolution skills. In these sessions we get ready, “Prepare”, not for the wedding itself, but for the day after the wedding, and every day after that. We prepare for their marriage which, we pray, will last for the rest of their lives. During the month of Elul, like a wedding couple nearing their wedding day, as individuals, couples and families, we have the chance to prepare for the Days of Awe that are rapidly approaching. We are called upon to look into the mirror, to identify our strengths and weaknesses, consider our personality traits, family interactions, our expectations, hopes and dreams. While it is true that during the month of Elul we prepare for the High Holy Days, in truth we are really preparing for the day after and every day after that. In truth, we are preparing for the rest of our lives. Are you prepared?
(Rabbi Gersh Zylberman)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Elul 24-25/September 15-16

In respect for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, we will not be sending you an Elul thought tomorrow so that you can be at rest from your email and other social media. So please enjoy both of these thoughts today!

Shabbat Shalom!

Elul 24/September 15
Today’s Elul Thought, our last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, is a meditation to help you get ready for Shabbat and the High Holy Days, thanks to Cantor David Reinwald! Just click the link below, press play on the screen that pops up, and enjoy the 6 ½ minutes of relaxation and inspiration!

Elul 25/September 16
Tonight, we will recite Selichot, the series of penitential prayers.  The Selichot service is traditionally held late in the evening, when our resistance to change is low and our sense of vulnerability is high.  It is done on the Saturday night immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah (unless that Saturday is less than three days prior).  Selichot serves as the final push as we approach the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe.  If we have not started thinking about the work that we have to do during these days, now is the time.  A thought as we enter Selichot . . .
So often, when speaking about forgiveness, the focus is on the person who has offended you.
It is as if to forgive is to somehow accept his/her behavior, to move on, and forget
What if the offender does not change?
What if the offender has died and reconciliation is not possible?
What if the other is no longer a part of your life, yet what remains from your encounter with that person still lingers on your soul?
If our focus is on the other, then our chance to forgive is potentially compromised
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Tonight, try not to focus on “the other.”
Rather, focus on yourself.
Forgiveness does not spontaneously bubble to the top, covering up or erasing all wounds
It involves intention, purpose, vision, and work.
It has to be discovered; an expectation of another side to the pain and sense of personal diminishment.

(Rabbi Alan Litwak)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Elul 23/September 14

The Olympics are coming to LA in 2028!  This is big news for our region.  I remember the 1984 Olympics.  I was so fortunate that I was serving as a Camp Rabbi that summer at Camp Hess Kramer, and the entire camp was privileged  to  attend an Olympics soccer match, held at the Rose Bowl.  Truly, it was an unforgettable experience.

One of the things that makes the Olympics so special is the they occur only once every four years.  (Since the Summer and Winter Olympics alternate, we actually have Olympics excitement every other year.)

Athletes around the world prepare literally for years in order to earn a spot on an Olympics team.  No one achieves the level of excellence required without intensive preparation.

In a way, for Jews, the High Holy Days are our Spiritual Olympics. It always surprises me, therefore,  when our people expect something “big” to happen on these special holidays if they haven’t adequately prepared for them.  In fact, this is what the month of Elul is all about.  It is prep time for our Jewish Olympics.

How can we prepare?  Here are a couple of  ways that Jews have prepared for the High Holy Days for several centuries: One tradition is to sound the Shofar each morning.  Now, there is something that will get you right into the Holy Day spirit! Another custom is to read Psalm 27.  You may find this meditation will help you get focused.

For some of us, pulling out recipes for our favorite Rosh Hashanah foods is a must.  For others, a trip to the cleaners with our Talit is de rigueur.  Still others are making sure they have yahrzeit candles in stock for remembering loved ones on Yom Kippur.  And, of course, attendance at S’lichot services will surely get us to the right place.

These days, many people will take the opportunity to read an Elul gem sent via email from their synagogue—a short thought that moves us along the path of teshuvah/return.  

I know one person who can’t conceive of Rosh Hashanah arriving without first completing a trip to Sephora…and that’s ok, too.

(Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein)