Yom Rivii, 29 Elul 5777

A Poem for Tashlich: “Stale Bread and Old Sins”

Tashlich, which means “to cast,” is a ritual practice of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that customarily takes place on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah. Gathered along the shores of a natural body of water such as a stream, river, lake, or ocean, Jews cast small pieces of bread (or more environmentally sound objects) into the water, symbolizing their sins of the past year.

The liturgy for Tashlich varies from community to community, but generally includes these verses from Micah, which relate the themes of the High Holidays to the ritual itself:

Who is a God like You,
Forgiving iniquity
And remitting transgression;
Who has not maintained God’s wrath forever
Against the remnant of God’s own people,
Because God loves graciousness!
The Eternal will take us back in love;
Adonai will cover up our iniquities,
You will hurl all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
You will keep faith with Jacob,
Loyalty to Abraham,
As You promised on oath to our fathers
In days gone by.
-- Micah (7:18-19)

In 2012, Stacey Zisook Robinson wrote this poem, "Stale Bread and Old Sins," about the ritual of Tashlich:

The ducks grow fat on my sins.
The ravens, too.
I saw a flock of them--
A murderous gaggle,
as they swooped down in tight formation,
fat black missiles,
just after we stood on the bridge over the creek
emptying our pockets and plastic bags
overflowing with
stale bread and old sins.

Of course, not all the bread was stale
nor all the sins old.
I'm sure I collected a few
as I drove to our afternoon gathering
at the creek.
And, possibly,
if I'm being quite honest
(and now, I'm guessing, would be the time for honesty)
I believe there is the possibility
that I racked up several more
while wandering the wooded path
that led to the creek.

While wandering back and forth along the wooded path.
Several times--

-- assuming sarcasm is a sin.

But for a moment,
as my bread arced through leafy boughs
and landed in clear and cluttered water
that moved in a stately rhythm
toward some other stream
that leads to some other lake
that leads to oceans and streams and rivers and lakes
from here to the ancient shores of Phoenicia
to rain-laden clouds, pregnant and billowing.--

-- unless imagination is a sin.

But for a moment.
in that delicate and wobbly arc
of bread and sin combined,
there is a moment of
Of Emptiness
that stretches from my fingertips
to stale bread
and old sins
to that small point of infinite
that pinprick of forever,
carried away on sweetly rushing water
that fills me with light.
And breath.
And God.

Shanah tovah u'metukah!

The ritual of Tashlich on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah offers us another opportunity during the High Holiday season to take stock of ourselves and our behaviors. By “casting away” the negative deeds and missteps of the past year, we can focus instead on ways to improve ourselves in the year ahead. Will you attend Tashlich this year?

Want to learn more? Watch this video about the ritual of Tashlich and find a Reform congregation so you can participate in all the rituals of this High Holiday season.

Jane E. Herman , a.k.a. JanetheWriter, is the senior writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and holds a master's degree in public administration from the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. She grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, and now belongs to Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. A proud New Yorker, she loves books, fountain pens, social media, Words with Friends, mah jongg, and all things Jewish. She blogs at JanetheWriter Writes.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. She blogs at Stumbling Towards Meaning.


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In the Wake of Irma: Starting With Silence to Rebuild

“For You, O God, silence is praise!” (Psalm 65:1)

In the face of Hurricane Irma, which disrupted and devastated the lives of many, silence is appropriate.

There are no words to convey our feelings. There are no words to express our relief that we are still here. Though our property may have suffered damage, we are still here.

In my own congregation, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, FL, where I am just beginning my tenure, we are taking things day-to-day. Depending on how quickly the return to normal, including the restoration of water, electricity, and other services, unfolds, I am hopeful that we will be in our regular worship space in the Fellowship Hall of the Sanibel Congregational United of Christ for the High Holidays. Our observance of the season will begin this Saturday evening at what I am told will be the community’s first-ever Selichot worship service. If our worship space is untenable, we will hold Selichot in a private home or, if necessary, a local hotel.

This season is one of renewal and atonement. Rosh HaShanah celebrates the creation of the world. More specifically it celebrates the values of the Genesis creation story.

For me, the “truth” of that story is that our lives have purpose and meaning. God, having created human beings in God’s image and given us “sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth,” tells me that we humans – not the alligator or the shark – are responsible for the quality of life on this earth (Genesis 1:26). God’s hope, I believe, is that we will use our individual talents to forge a just, caring, and compassionate society on this planet.

A natural disaster challenges those ideals, but also has the potential to strengthen them. We must find the strength to recreate our world. Silence and reflection help us find that strength. One of my favorite prayers serves as an appropriate reflection: “Help us O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain.”

Our house, our car, our boat, our furniture, all mean a lot to us. They represent years of work, and pride in what we have achieved. But all these things are “fleeting and vain.”

How we live and how we use opportunities and talents to help one another – these are the real and enduring foundations on which we can build a meaningful future.

Perhaps silence is the place to start.

Confronted by the disastrous sudden death of his two sons, Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

Thankfully, Irma’s impact on most of us has been less devastating, but silence is still an apt response. Our neighbors in the Caribbean and the Keys have suffered far more profound damage then have we. Our hearts and our hands and our financial support must go out to them. Their trauma is profound. Their fate might have been ours. As God's partners on earth, we must validate and respond with caring love to their pain. We can give them the gift of silence, listening with empathy as they describe their losses. We can give ourselves the same gift, silently contemplating how we can provide the most meaningful help to those in need.

But then we must move forward and act.

We cannot undo Irma’s destruction, but the future is ours to shape. As we come together as a community – no matter where we live – my prayer is that we will face that future with hope and courage.


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On Yom Kippur, Hearing Isaiah’s Prophetic Voice at the Kotel

Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people! (Isaiah 57:14)

On Yom Kippur, when haftarah readers all over the world will raise their voices in chant – so-lu so-lu… build up build up a highway – the symbolic image of Isaiah’s highway translates in my mind to the major roadways crisscrossing Israel today. Road-building and highway expansions in Israel are a good sign for the country’s overall economic health. I’m especially excited about the new high-speed rail between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This concretization of symbol doesn’t solely stem from my imagination – the revitalization of Hebrew in the early 20th century as a modern functional language is filled with examples of biblical poetic symbols literally hitting the pavement.  By the way, mesilah – a train track – is another modern Hebrew word taken from Isaiah (see Isaiah 62:10). 

But momentary flashes of real Israeli highways slip away as the power of Isaiah’s prophetic metaphors call us to reflect upon the moral and spiritual shortcomings, the obstacles standing in the way of the Jewish people’s progress. As the haftarah for Yom Kippur, this message is intensified by the prophet’s words later in this section:

Is this the fast I desire? A day for people to starve their bodies? … No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…to share the bread with the hungry.… (Isaiah 58:5-7)  

So, when I imagine myself sitting in synagogue this Yom Kippur and listening to Isaiah rail against the religious hypocrisy of not turning the experience of fasting into acts of justice, of helping the oppressed, my head again fills with current images of metaphoric and real construction both demonstrating obstacles to realizing Isaiah’s call to justice. One example in Israel is particularly striking to me.

During the early summer uproar over the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall), when liberal Jewish activists criticized the leaders of major Jewish organizations about why they were uniting vociferously only about the injustice of not having an egalitarian prayer space, which they see as a personal freedom issue, and not over major injustices that place hardships on oppressed and impoverished populations daily, I thought ahead to this passage from Isaiah and to a similar idea in the prophet Micah. Many of these young activists, alumni of our best Jewish educational experiences, felt justified in reminding Jewish leaders of what we taught them about the prophets:

With what shall I approach the Lord…shall I approach him with burnt offerings...?   He has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:6,8)

Personally, I see the opening of such honest conversation as constructive. American and Israeli Reform leaders responded to the critical questions raised about the energy being poured into the Kotel controversy by expressing the Movement’s longstanding social justice commitments more clearly and loudly. For the leaders of liberal Jewish movements, this pluralistic prayer area represents a space for religiously liberal Jews to bring the fullness of their progressive commitments to democracy and human rights. And, I think it is clear that this is part of what scares the haredi opposition. 

Toward the end of the Yom Kippur haftarah, Isaiah says:

“People from your midst shall rebuild the ancient ruins, You shall restore foundations laid long ago, and you shall be called ‘Repairer of fallen walls, restorer of lanes for in-dwelling” (Isaiah 58:12).

I see these words describing the day when liberal Jews will enter the Kotel plaza, congregating in prayer with all their values. I know the progressive siddurim (prayer books) they will daven (pray) from will give voice to social justice ideals that Isaiah and Micah teach us. Inclusion and egalitarianism will be celebrated as minyanim (prayer groups of at least 10 people) are formed.  I hope, too, that the symbols and architecture of the space will give expression to the values encompassed by peace and a respect for all humanity. 

Sadly, we don’t know how close we are to realizing even the preliminary vision of this section of the Kotel. Beyond its potential to give voice to liberal Jewish prayer, I’d like to see it go beyond what Isaiah envisioned as repairing walls and restoring lanes for in-dwelling. Is it not too daring to think that this new area in Jerusalem’s Old City might also become a connector to Muslim and Christians praying nearby in the spirit of co-existence?


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Why I’ve Decided to Join a Synagogue

When I was 9 years old, I watched several large sections of my synagogue burn to the ground. It was 1999, and Sacramento, California, was in the midst of a spree of white supremacist violence that would claim the lives of two gay men, and see fires set to several synagogues and a local abortion clinic. I can still smell the smoke.

In times such as these, it is not just buildings that are damaged. Acts of hate damage our minds and our bodies, our individual and collective sense of security, our identity, and our place in the world. Back then, the entire congregation, as well as large swaths of the greater community, came together to rebuild. Events were held to reject discrimination; a hate crimes task force was launched; a library was remade. In many ways, Sacramento became a better place to live than it was before. In the aftermath of destruction, came collaboration and solidarity and hope.

I have carried this lesson with me for 18 years.

I remembered it in May 2015, when a rash of random stabbings occurred in Jerusalem. At the time, I was in graduate school in London, feeling especially far from home. The attacks made me sad and scared and vulnerable. My heart ached for friends in Israel, and for Jews everywhere who are made to feel afraid or alone because of what they believe.

For the first time in my adult life, I felt the stark absence of Jewish space. I wanted to say the Kaddish and the Mi’sheberach, but I did not want to say them alone.  

I did some research and called the West London Synagogue with a request to attend Shabbat services that week. They said yes, if I was willing to send a copy of my passport in advance. “For security,” they said.

That Friday, I was nervous as I prepared for synagogue. For all my years in Reform Judaism – in NFTY, at camp, preparing for my bat mitzvah, and more – I had never walked into a synagogue for the first time all alone. Looking back, I couldn’t be more glad I did.

The West London Synagogue community welcomed me with open arms. I was invited to dinner with other young adults after services, and, a few weeks later, marched with the congregation in the London Pride Parade. I remained a regular attendee throughout my year in England. My only regret is that I didn’t think to begin building those relationships earlier in the year.

Conventional wisdom would suggest I am not within the traditional demographic group that joins a synagogue. I’m 27 years old, I’m not married, and I don’t have any children. I can’t even say I’ll live in this city in five years. But, life has taught me that the time to build a community is before you need one. Perhaps if I had done so in London, I would never have felt alone at all. 

At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where I work, we often speak about congregations as the central driving force of social justice within the Reform Jewish community. I spend a considerable amount of time working on the Brit Olam and the Urgency of Now Initiative, a project that seeks to organize synagogues to bolster the rights and inclusion of immigrants, transgender and gender non-conforming youth, and those facing the massive inequity of the criminal justice system.

But who am I to ask synagogues to do this work if I am not part of one? Who am I to ask them to stand with me if I do not stand with them?

Twice in my life, a synagogue made the difference between despair and hope. Twice in my life, a synagogue gave me a place to belong. For this reason, and for so many others, I have decided to join a synagogue in Washington, D.C., and I look forward to being part of the community I know I will find there.

Photo: Ellen Fox-Snider, Congregation Kol Tkvah, Parkland, FL


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Please Join Us, But Not Just on the Days of Awe

Last year at this time, there was much discussion in my Facebook feed about whether people should attend High Holiday services; critics argued that the High Holidays are not a full picture of what makes Judaism and a Jewish community special. (Yes, this is what Jewish educators talk about on social media.)

People across the spectrum of Jewish practice devote a significant amount of time to thinking about, planning for, and deciding what to do about the High Holidays. And judging by the angst my colleagues and I feel at this time of year, I think it’s safe to say we expect for many of you to show up – and, yes, for some of you not to return until next Rosh HaShanah.

High Holidays with children can often feel particularly stressful and overwhelming, mainly because of the sheer number of people and the potential unfamiliarity of it all. I feel a sense of responsibility to those families who come through our doors each year, especially those who are trying to decide if dipping their toe into the world of the synagogue and Jewish life is worth it. I want it to be a wonderful experience for you and for your family, and I hope it will be. I hope you will feel the joy and sweetness of Rosh HaShanah, the incredible gift of a moment to slow down and hug your child and hear the solemn and awesome sound of the shofar.

But I also know that many of you will either leave your children at home or spend time chasing them around the room, trying to get them to participate, maybe feeling embarrassed when they don’t. Please don’t feel that way. You are welcome here – no matter how your kids behave, even on the High Holidays, which feel like they have higher stakes. I know, too, that High Holiday tot services can be chaotic, especially if there are hungry or tired toddlers in the room.

Like judging a book by its cover, judging a synagogue by what you see on the High Holidays will tell you something about the community, and maybe offer something exciting that draws you in. But to truly experience the depth, the feeling, and the meaning inherent in the congregation, you have to delve deeper.

The High Holidays are filled with wonderful, meaningful moments, but indeed, they do not tell a community’s whole story. To really experience its awesome power, you should see what comes after the Days of Awe.

We want you to come to High Holiday service and events. They are full of meaning and beauty – and the shofar and the apples and honey are great, too! But please don’t judge a congregation only by what happens in a Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur tot service. Come back when things are less crowded (and less hectic), when we can welcome you properly and show you what we’re all about. Come back for the sights and sounds and tastes of Shabbat (or Sukkot, perhaps the most underrated Jewish holiday ever). Come back – with or without your child – for a class, a movie, a social event, or something else that speaks to you.

Our synagogues are so much more than what you see during just two days a year. On all other days, too, we want to welcome you in.

Find a Reform congregation near you and inquire about their High Holiday services.


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Returning to the People – and the Parents – We Want to Be

We live on the third floor, and have a little balcony. When Yonatan, my oldest, was 4, he took to throwing things – toys, pillows, books – off the balcony. It really wasn’t OK, and he knew it. He also knew that if he threw toys, he wouldn’t see them again for a while, and that there was likely to be some other consequence, to boot. But a 4-year-old’s impulse control is not so hot and he was testing boundaries.

One morning, I asked him to share the toy he was holding with his little brother, so he ran halfway across the apartment to throw it off the balcony. It was a clear eff-you: If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. It was the last straw of a frustrating morning, and I shouted at him, really screamed, as I put him in a time out.

There are a lot of reasons I don’t want to raise my children in a home with yelling. I have a pretty firm commitment to raising them to feel loved, safe, and unafraid in their own home, and a screaming adult is terrifying to a small person. So, to have slipped in a way that’s human and understandable but still, well, really not great – it’s a terrible feeling. That was one morning (not the first, not the last) when I failed my son and I failed myself.

Every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis start talking about the work of the season, t’shuvah. T’shuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but it literally means “return.” It’s about coming back to where you need to be – emotionally, spiritually, ethically, interpersonally – and repairing any damage you’ve done in your relationships with others, and perhaps with God, when your actions strayed from your ideals. There are several steps to making t’shuvah. You have to acknowledge what you did wrong (whether or not it was intentional). You have to take actions to correct the mistake, if that’s possible. If it was an interpersonal hurt, you have to apologize to the wronged person – up to three times, if they refuse you at first. You have to make amends, if that’s possible. And you have to invest some time working out how things can be different next time. After all that, then you can work on making things square between you and the Divine.       

The classical literature on t’shuvah talks about cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul that happens as part of this process. That is, you should spend some uncomfortable time figuring out exactly how and when you failed to be the person you want to be. Essentially, you can’t return – make t’shuvah – until you have some real understanding about where you’ve gone; you can’t make amends until you’re clear about how you’ve messed up.

Lucky for us parents, we are offered ample opportunities to see our failings. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to how we are with our children for a couple of hours – a week max – and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? When are we pretending to be engaged but are checked out (or checking our phones)? When are we manipulative or deceitful with our kids, even with little things that ostensibly “don’t matter?” When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect about who we are and how we behave is necessarily comfortable or fun to see.

The good news is that if we can untangle the places where we’re stuck and broken as parents, it can impact our entire lives in a powerful way. Our relationships with our kids offer an easy-access on-ramp to all our laziness, pettiness, and unresolved stuff, if we’re willing to look.

The medieval sage Maimonides defines perfect t’shuvah as that moment when you come to a situation in which you had previously acted badly and, this time, do it right. The second (or fifth, or 20th) time around, when you finally behave concordantly with your values and ideals? That’s t’shuvah. But a person might reasonably ask: How could it be that you might be back in the exact same situation as the one in which you had previously screwed up? Who gets an instant replay like that?

The truth is, if you haven’t faced down your problematic traits and unhealed wounds, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in some variation of the same situation over and over. It’s only when you do the work necessary to become a different person that you, naturally and organically, make a different choice.

Fortunately, kids continue – over and over and over – to offer us the chance to try again, to do better. The intensity of these bonds is indeed an enclosed spiritual space in which to do the work we need to do. It’s tricky, sometimes, and inelegant, but if we choose to face who we are with intention and humility, there’s the possibility for us to grow into the people that our children so desperately need us to be.

For more about Jewish parenting, visit this page.


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5 Books to Help You Prepare for the High Holiday Season

As a rabbi, I find myself busily preparing for the High Holidays. Planning services, writing sermons, and organizing programming will fill the hours of the coming weeks to ensure that my congregants experience a meaningful and fulfilling High Holiday season.

What I had forgotten, though, is that the real preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe is the hard work I need to put into myself. In order for me to be the best model for my congregants, now and at any season, I must literally practice what I preach. I, too, am obligated to reflect and to consider, to examine the deeds of the past year and strive to do and be better.

I am often asked what resources I turn to during this season – which reflective tools are on my desk for my sake and not for others. Admittedly, those resources tend to sit on my desk in a corner, calling my name and asking to be used. This year, however, I have committed myself to doing better at finding time for me so that I can truly be my best self.

What is on my desk, you might ask? The following are a list of resources that I am using this year, and I hope that they might help you as well.

  1. This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day

By Alden Solovy (CCAR Press, New York, New York: 2017)

Liturgist Alden Solovy continues to expand his reach to the masses with his most frequent work. His collection of prayers and poetry serve as wonderful reminders of the blessings we frequently overlook in our lives, and offers beautiful imagery that lifts up themes of sacred time, sacred space, and sacred moments within Judaism. In particular, his section connected with the High Holidays offers modern meaning to the ancient prayers.

  1. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation

By Alan Lew (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, MA: 2003)

Much like other works written by Lew, he takes the reader through a journey of self-reflection, introspection, and awareness that is inspired by the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Jewish mysticism, and even Buddhism. His own reflections and stories have challenged me to examine my own life’s purpose and think about who I am and what I stand for.

  1. Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation and Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, and Contemplation

By Dov Peretz Elkins (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, VT: 2010)

Organized by the themes and content connected with the High Holidays, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins provides an anthology of readings, prayers, explanations, and commentary for both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This year, I am particularly drawn to his selections for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur morning. This season, in part, serves a reminder of God’s providence and authority. While this can prove to be theologically challenging for many, Elkins’ texts help nicely frame ways in which one can engage in theological dialogue.

  1. The Jewish Prophet: Visionary Words from Moses to Miriam to Henrietta Szold and A.J. Heschel

By Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Shire (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, VT: 2001)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that we live in an extremely divisive society that threatens the fair and equal treatment of all persons and all Americans. In The Jewish Prophet, Rabbi Shire provides numerous vignettes about individuals throughout Jewish history whom best has exemplified a key trait of a prophet: an individual who stood up for the lowly and advocated for the betterment of all peoples during times of oppression. Rabbi Shire’s book serves as a reminder that there are those who came before us, those today, and those who will come in the years ahead, who can bring us together rather than drive us apart. For me, it raises the question, “Where can we discover the prophet in ourselves?”

  1. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

By Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 1998)

Parker, a well-known educator, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, and devoted member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) reminds that those who become teachers are at their best when they give their hearts to their students. He asserts that vulnerability and transparency allows teachers to make meaningful connections with their students, and gives them the courage to share their selves with others. Even though this book is geared for teachers and educators, his message can be applied to all of us. What makes us human is perhaps the best part of who we are. By giving our hearts, souls, and minds to what we do and whom we interact with, we are able to discover our inner beauty and strength and help others find their own inner beauty and strength.

May this be a season that reveals the best in all of us, brings us together as one, and helps us walk on the journey of transformation.


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Listening as a Way to Refine and Renew our Soul Power

We are living through a time of great anxiety. We face destabilizing fears about what is going to happen next and about the nature of our society and humanity itself. Daily events are not only disheartening, but soul numbing as well. With each new horror, we find our souls more immune; events that not so long ago would have brought us to tears now pass by barely noticed. Facing such a soul crisis, I look for more direct pathways to my emotions, to my spirit.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev knew about this kind of numb soul, and made an essential distinction between atzvut (pervasive sadness) and lev nishbar (broken-heartedness). Atzvut – the numbing of the soul – gets you nowhere, while lev nishbar is precious to God and central to our very humanity. Atzvut results from endlessly scrolling through Facebook posts and obsessively reading news articles with no time for feeling. According to Nachman, lev nishbar needs to be nurtured. A person should, daily, set aside time to feel – to engage emotionally – because only through the conscious creation of “feeling time” can the difficulties of the world be soul-refining rather than soul-numbing.

When I need to feel – to close off my rational thinking and pull out an emotional reaction – I listen to music that evokes the feelings I’m seeking. For this moment in history, I am drawn to two pieces, written by the most famous Jewish composers of the 20th century, that reflect their responses to a time of great anxiety and broken-heartedness.

The first, Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah Symphony” (1944), depicts the struggles of the prophet Jeremiah. Set in three movements, this piece for orchestra and soprano soloist evokes intense anxiety and grief. Jeremiah prophesied during the destruction of the first Temple and then, as the mythic author of the book of Lamentations, he captured the grief of its aftermath. The first movement, Prophesy, creates an ominous atmosphere. With sudden bursts of brass, cascading waves of pain from the strings, and a constant feeling of rhythmic instability, the music reflects the kind of anxiety I feel when my phone vibrates with another notification from The New York Times. The second movement, Profanation, uses the motifs of Haftarah trope as the voice of the prophet trying to break through the chaos. The themes are taken up by all the sections of the orchestra, sometimes proclaiming their strength, and sometimes mocking their inability to improve the human situation. The third movement, Lamentation, brings in the soloist, singing words from the Book of Lamentations, with music that echoes the unique trope of that scroll. At times raw and dramatic, and at other times sad and introspective, this movement never fails to touch me emotionally – cultivating and deepening Reb Nachman’s lev nishbar, and, conversely, keeping me away from atzvut.

Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning” (1947), a setting of Genesis 1:1-2:7 for acapella choir and soprano, is a powerful statement about the goodness of God’s creation, the dangers of man’s dominion, and the victory of humanity’s soul power. Each day of creation is set with lyricism and creativity, with musical gestures that paint the images of the text, crafting a magical sense of the perfection of the world. With the creation of humanity and the text’s description of our dominion over all other creatures, the music changes, becoming angular and angry. One can only assume that a Jewish composer in 1947 would be all too aware of the destructive potential of man’s dominion. But the piece does not end there; it continues on to the second creation of humanity, in which we are animated not only by God’s word, but by God’s very breath – “God blew into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7). Copland’s setting of this verse is triumphant in its optimism. It is my reminder that through all the horrors I read about and experience, my vision of the essential goodness of humanity cannot be diminished.

Each of us must do our own work to prevent the kind of soul-numbing that sends us deeper and deeper into atzvut, the kind of self-defeating sadness that tells us that there is no way forward, and that the easiest thing is to stop feeling at all. Take your time to feel. Find, and cultivate that lev nishbar that is so precious to God – precisely because it is motivating and ultimately hopeful even in its sadness. To face tomorrow and whatever it brings, we will need every ounce of soul force available to us.


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A Satisfaction Survey for the Jewish New Year

I’m waiting for it – the next inevitable satisfaction survey from a company or business that asks: How are we doing? What do you like about us? How have we changed your life?

Just last week, I received surveys from my children’s dentist, my son’s summer camp, a national department store chain, and a dermatologist I never even saw. After I placed a take-out order at a neighborhood pizzeria and while we still were wiping the grease from our hands, the pizzeria called our home: How did you enjoy your meal? Do you have any suggestions for us? Hmm… How about this: I love the slight hint of basil in the sauce, but it sure would be nice not to be interrupted during dinner!

Likewise, after a recent hotel stay, I received the company’s how-did-we-do e-mail. In my reply, I mentioned the slight daily annoyance caused when the housekeeping staff unplugged the bedside clock when cleaning the room. Perhaps, I thought, my comment would save some future guest the hassle of plugging it back in – or worse, oversleeping on the morning of an important meeting or interview.

Even if these businesses aren’t completely altruistic in their motives to improve customer service and satisfaction, there is something empowering about being asked for my opinion. There’s something Jewish about it, too. In Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah that overflows with Jewish wisdom, Rabbi Zoma teaches that the wise person is one who learns from everyone.

As we turn to the start of a new Jewish year, perhaps we can be inspired by the many surveys in our inboxes – and reflect upon and evaluate something important and timely: our spiritual lives. The Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes Tishrei, the month overflowing with Jewish holidays, including Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, encourages us to make time for daily moments of reflection in preparation for the non-stop flurry of festive and solemn days.

In some communities, the shofar is blown each day to awaken our spirits and help us work to become the highest possible versions of ourselves. What kind of people have we been during the last year? How generous were we with our time, our kindness, and our charitable contributions? Have we been emotionally sleepwalking, merely trying to get through each day intact, or have we squeezed in bits of growth and learning despite our endless to-do lists? If we lecture our children about the importance of leaving a room in better condition than when they found it, are we honoring that goal by leaving the places we visit enriched and enhanced by our having been there? In the coming year, how can we do better for our world, our communities, our families, our friends, and all those we love?

Before completing another satisfaction survey for that rental car or the microwave repair job, think about diverting some of your energy and judgment into evaluating your own “company.” By taking a personal inventory of our satisfaction with ourselves and our actions, there’s a chance that collectively we might all do better. According to legend God takes a survey of our good and negative attributes at this very season. If we conduct our own year-end review and make plans to improve, perhaps the next survey of our own actions, integrity, and goodness will include not only higher ratings, but also deeper satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment.


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Turning to My Favorite Book Again as the High Holidays Approach

As the High Holidays draw near I am reading, as I have for each of the past 45 years, Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days, by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

As much as the book means to me, the person who gave it to me means more. It was a gift from my father’s first cousin, Dr. Judith Kaplan, whom I first met in Israel when I went as a rabbinical student in July 1970.

Another of my father’s cousins was to meet me at the airport, but there was a mix-up, and she was not there. I shall never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the crowded reception hall at Lod airport slowly emptied out leaving me just about the only one there. This was, of course, long before computers and cell phones revolutionized the way we communicate. I never felt more alone.

All I could think of was what my father had told me, “Judith is an angel.”

I found her number and figured out how to use the strange Israeli public phones. My heart pounded as the phone rang. How would this angel would react to a cousin she had never seen waking her at three o’clock in the morning?

“Judith,” I began when she picked up the phone. “My name is Stephen. I am Leo’s son from America. I am here to study in Israel. His cousin Hedwig was supposed to be at the airport, but no one was here.”

Judith said, “Come immediately.”

Those were the most comforting words I could imagine. I got into a taxi, gave the driver the address in Tel Aviv, and before long, I was at her door. She and her husband Lazer greeted me with hugs, kisses, and genuine joy.

Lazer owned a thriving hardware store in the heart of Tel Aviv. Judith was a successful and busy dermatologist, but above all, she was a Jewish mother. Her first thought after greeting me was, “You must be hungry; you have to eat.”

Judith was excited I was going to be a rabbi, although she herself was a secular Jew. Yet, I had heard and could now see that she infused her life with the Jewish values of care and compassion. And, she lived in the Jewish homeland.

The next day, Judith and Lazer sent me on my way to Jerusalem. I visited often, and I loved her tremendously.

A few months later, my father died, and I, heartbroken, went home for the funeral. I stayed home to be with my family for a month. When I returned to Israel, Judith’s house once again was my first stop.

She was there with love and comfort, and took a full day out of her busy schedule to be with me. She had been close to my father when they were children in Germany, and told me wonderful stories about him as we walked along the beach in Tel Aviv.

The months passed, and when it was time for me to return to my studies in the United States, Judith gave me Days of Awe by S. Y. Agnon. It was a paperback with a cover price of $2.95 back in the 1970s. Because I read and re-read its rich text each year, the binding broke and the book nearly fell apart. The money I paid to have it custom rebound with my name embossed on the cover is among the most meaningful gifts I ever gave myself.

Judith has been gone for several years, but every time I pick up Days of Awe at this season, I remember her. I think of her love, her dedication, and, most of all, how she was there for me – not once, but twice – when I truly needed her. I think of her smile, and I pray that my efforts, especially as I prepare to lead Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, FL, for the first time during the High Holidays and the winter season will be worthy of her blessing.


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