Rosh Hashanah is Almost Here: Year in Review

It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a year with a lot of changes and with more to come.

Highlights of the changes a year has wrought:

  • 2015-09-09-selfieI’m now working as rabbi at a Jewish nursing home and assisted living facility. After years of working mainly as a freelance rabbi (with occasional forays into congregational work, academia, etc.), working within a single organization has a lot to recommend it. I’m enjoying creating longer-term relationships in my rabbinate. It is meaningful work that I find fulfilling.
  • Eva and I are in the process of adopting a child. After years of not being ready/not being sure we’d ever want or be ready to raise a child, we’ve taken the plunge and are now in the process of waiting. Which means that day to day life goes on pretty much as normal, with this great big possibility of monumental life change possible at any point from pretty much instantly to more than a year from now.

This leaves me in a somewhat odd frame of mind. For many years now (like five), there haven’t been a huge number of changes from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. It’s nice to have some really big changes (dare I say, even progress). At the same time, I’m very aware of the ways in which I’m still in a waiting position to see what comes next.

Each year is different. Each year brings newness. At the same time, the year is a cycle, ever repeating.

Working with the elderly, it becomes obvious the ways in which each life is unique. People make different choices, and even more, get dealt different cards in the game of life (yes, I know that one isn’t dealt cards in the board game). And, at the same point, certain themes come up over and over again, regardless of the experiences of a life.

Each year is also unique, but the more some things change, the more obvious it becomes that in some ways things remain the same. The details of the challenges change, but sometimes, it feels like the new challenges aren’t as new as I might like.

As we come to the new year–5776–I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope it brings a child to Eva and myself. I hope for continued satisfaction with work. I hope for a year of blessing and tranquility (okay, I recognize the contradiction between hoping for a baby and hoping for tranquility).

May the new year be a good year for all of us.

Elul: A Time of Preparation

Elul, the month before Rosh Hashahnah, is a time of preparation in the Jewish year. Unlike Passover, for which we prepare by cleaning, and engaging in physical change of our environment, Elul is about spiritual preparation. It is a time of spiritual/life  inventory.

As the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) approach, we take stock of our lives. We look back at where we were at the beginning of this Jewish year, and where we are now, at the end. We take note of the habits that make up our lives, and we judge them, and ourselves.

Much like making resolutions before New Years, Elul is the time when we look forward to who we want to be. It is a time of reflection and potential. Change is hard and frightening, yet having a time for change built into the year forces us to confront ourselves with the need for change. There is the story of Zusya:

Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.

“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”

Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied: “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked his, how shall I respond?”

During Elul, we seek not to become the perfect person, but to be the person we are meant to be.

Stubborn Sermons

I’m working on my Yom Kippur sermons. Or rather, I’m trying to work on my Yom Kippur sermons. But they’re refusing to be worked upon.

They are steadfastly refusing to write themselves. Which frankly, just seems churlish of them.

To make matters worse, they won’t even tell me what they’re about. Is one of them about the Isaiah quote, “Is this the fast I desire?” Good sermon topic, and not one I’ve written previously, but I keep hearing that line in my head as spoken by a John Wayne impersonator, which I’m pretty sure is my brain adapting some stand-up comics bit about John Wayne playing Hamlet, and saying, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” None of which is helping me out at all, because I’m pretty clear that John Wayne and Isaiah have radically different voices.

I could talk about God. I like talking about God. Of course, I started off doing that for Rosh Hashanah, and wound up writing a different sermon entirely, because the God sermon was way too dry.

Prayer is a good subject. But, the problem with talking about prayer in a sermon is that the sermon comes a the end of the service–after the prayers have all been said. Which means it often feels like I’m explaining how to do what we just did. Feels a bit backwards.

The flip side of this is that some of my best sermons have been completely off the cuff. The flip-flip side, is that some of my worst sermons have been completely off the cuff. When I go in trusting that I’ll have something coherent and meaningful to say, 80% of the time, I do. It may not be quite as polished as I’d like, but it tends to be pretty good. About 10% of the time, I have something meaningful to say, but it doesn’t come out coherently, and meanders a little. It’s the last 10% of the time that I try to avoid: I start to speak and realize the sermon isn’t going where I wanted it to, and start rewriting an extemporaneous sermon in my head while I’m speaking. Those sermons tend not to work out so well.

So I’ll push through, and try to a least get some drafts out that I can react to: ideas that I can either develop or reject. And sometimes, in the process of putting down an idea, a sermon pops out, pretty much finished.

Rosh Hashanah Arrives, I Review My Year

It’s been a bit of a year.

Over the course of this year, I looked for rabbinic work, with no success (no one can remember quite so dead a rabbinic job market as this year). That being said, I hit the summer, and decided it was time to make something happen, and founded a congregation here in Southeast Portland. And while that’s dominated my thinking for the last few months, it wasn’t really what the year was about.

The spring was entirely about death. Over spring and early summer, three people in my life died. I spent all Spring in Boston with my grandfather, accompanying him on his final journey. I wrote about that here and here. In the midst of which my friend Paul Bingman died.

When thinking about this year, that’s what really stands out for me: the spring.

Yet there were other parts of the year as well: I started out the secular year by heading to Spokane to speak at a Unitarian Universalist Church, and meet up with a college classmate I hadn’t seen since college. During June, just after my grandfather’s death, I returned to Portland in time for the college’s Centennial Reunion, with a chance to get to see lots of faces I hadn’t seen since, and meet people’s children and spouses (those few who didn’t marry other classmates). It was a chance to look back over the longer-term, and see who we are now, and how that related to who we were then, in the first blush of adulthood.

It was a year I spent quality time in the garden.

It was a year our car got totalled.

It was a year. And perhaps I was less productive than I would have liked, but I think it was a year of growth for me. A year of figuring out some pieces. And I’m looking forward to the coming year, and to seeing what it brings.

Fear and Trembling

In the Jewish tradition we are taught to face the High Holidays, the Yamim Nora’im, with fear and trembling as we evaluate our actions and failings. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah is a time of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays.

For rabbis, Elul is also a time of preparation, both spiritual and logistical. It is our busy season, during which we are preparing what expected to be our four (or five) best sermons of the year, at least five distinct services, not to mention the logistics associated with that (facility setup, making sure the various committees are ready to do their thing, etc.).

For me, this year, I’m also organizing a new congregation, which means figuring out things like opening up a bank account, initial meetings with potential members, finding insurance, creating marketing materials, borrowing machzors, and desperately wondering what else I’ve forgotten. All in all, it’s a somewhat daunting prospect.

Which brings me back to fear and trembling. This year, I’m awfully close to outright panic.

Yom Kippur Draws Near

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins at sundown this evening. It is a somewhat stressful time for most of us, as it is a day of fasting–no food, no water–with a focus on what we’ve done wrong. It brings with it intimations and reminders of our own death. It involves a lot of hours in synagogue, praying (or listening to Torah readings, or trying to ignore that fact that you haven’t had any water in 20 hours and your mouth is really dry). It is a time of deep introspection. I kind of love Yom Kippur, actually. It’s Judaism at its darkest: focusing on the places we fear to go, forcing us out of our comfort zones, asking us to confront the uncomfortable.

Over the course of years, I, as so many of us do, have drifted into patterns in my life that I disapprove of. Maybe I gain a pound or two a year. As was pointed out to me recently, over the course or twenty years or so, that begins to add up. Maybe I give myself I pass on reaching out to people from time to time. Over time, that leads to a more insular life.

During Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to face ourselves (and God?) naked of the filters we normally bring. We have the opportunity to put aside our pride, our false bravado, our false humility, and find true humility. It is an opportunity to try to see ourselves as we are in the universe.

May this Yom Kippur be a meaningful one for all who celebrate it, and may we all be sealed for a good year. Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

It’s Been a Tough Year: Welcoming 5771

All in all, the past year, ending tonight with the start of Rosh Hashanah, has been a tough year. I’ve been mainly unemployed with little bits of work here and there. My grandmother died. It just hasn’t been a fun year.

So, hitting the end of the year provides the opportunity to look forward to change. It’s arbitrary, but saying, “last year may have been bad, but maybe the new year will be good” feels more valid than saying, “well I’ve had a bad stretch, but I think this next bit of time might be better.” No inherent reason to it, but we all invest the new year with hopes and dreams.

And so, as we sit on the precipice of a new year, I put out my hope and prayer: May the new year be a good year, for all of us.

Shanah Tovah Umtukah (A good and sweet year).

May 5771 be a wonderful year. A year of prosperity and blessing. A year of satisfaction and joy. A year of love and happiness.

Shofarot: Hearing God, Being Heard by God

The third special section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah is Shofarot (see the previous two entries for the two earlier sections, Machuyot and Zichronot). Shofarot, means, literally, Shofars, or rams horn trumpets. On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar as part of the service, the blasts sounding through the synagogue, wailing to the soul.

This section of the Amidah quotes two types of texts:

  • Accounts of shofar-like sounds accompanying divine revelation
  • Accounts of humanity using a shofar to call out to God.

What I love about this is that it is setting up the call of the shofar as the baby-talk between God and humanity. When we speak to babies, we coo at them with the same nonsense syllables they use to coo at us. It becomes a back and forth conversation, filled with nonsense syllables, which have no semantic significance, but have great meaning to both parties involved. Both the adult and the baby feel they are carrying on a conversation, though no intelligible words are spoken. The call of the shofar is the same.

The shofar calls back and forth, between humanity and God, speaking sounds but not words to one another, communicating without the constraints of language, transcending the limitations of different modes of being. We hear God’s shofar in thunder. God hears ours in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. We coo to God, and God coos to us.

Zichronot: Remembering Good and Bad

After Malchuyot, the Rosh Hashanah Amidah continues with Zichronot (remembrance). It describes a God who remembers all that we have done, and judges.

Despite this, it is not the harsh “fire and brimstone” section you might expect, but rather, a balanced section. It notes that God remembers all of our misdeeds, but that God also remembers all of the good deeds, both our own and those of our ancestors. We are judged not just for our faults, but also for what we have done well. Perhaps even what our ancestors have done well.

While I am uncomfortable with any idea of God weighing our missteps and our good deeds, I am comfortable with the idea that we do this often. There are the sins in all of our pasts which we wonder whether we can make up for. And while I do not count on the deeds of my ancestors to make up for my mistakes, the idea of a God who remembers what we have forgotten, who remembers the good I have done which I have long ago forgotten, if I ever noticed to begin with, is comforting. It reminds me that I am too quick to discount the good I have done, while I am slow to forgive myself the wrongs I have committed.

I cannot judge myself fairly, nor would such a judgment matter. What matters is that I try to do good, and hope that good is propagated into the universe, so that it’s echoes continue, and are remembered by a God who remembers all.

Malchuyot: Celebrating Divine Sovereignty

During Rosh Hashanah, there are three major themes that make up the extra amidah, or the Mussaf amidah. These are:

  • Machuyot (Sovereignty)
  • Zichronot (Remembrance)
  • Shofarot (Trumpeting)

Each year, as I approach these, I find myself trying to figure out how to relate to them. They are the high point of the prayer service, in which we sound the shofar, but the prayers themselves don’t necessarily speak to me. Instead, I tend to focus more on the general themes. In this blog post, I’ll focus on Malchuyot (a bit more seriously than I did a few years back).

God as king is a troubling metaphor for us in the contemporary world. To begin with, it is no longer a particularly useful metaphor, in that we no longer have kings, in the sense of an absolute ruler with absolute authority over us and our lives, and who is also responsible for our welfare. Metaphors work because they relate something unfamiliar to something familiar. In this case, both halves of the metaphor are unfamiliar. So we need to work a little harder at understanding the concepts behind it.

The king is remote, not approachable, but makes decisions which impact our lives. Just as the universe, or luck, or fate, works in ways we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and find ourselves reacting to, so too do we envision God (not necessarily as separate from the Universe, Luck or Fate). When we pray regarding the King, we are often praying for individual attention or notice, although it seems unlikely to us that we may receive it.

But the King is more than just ancient ruler. The King also stands for the ordering principles of the universe. The King is God of nature, gravity, and all the physical laws that make the universe and life possible. The King is the force that makes for a natural world.

The King is also the force we cry out to for mercy. The one who can grant pardon, no matter what we may have done. The King is the one who can forgive that which we, ourselves cannot forgive.

I pray to the King when I am at the end of my rope, and need strength and hope. I pray to the King when I wonder at the sunset, or the fact that gravity works, despite it’s seeming impossibility. I pray to the King when I need a structure beyond science for the universe and my life.

The King is both remote and immediate. The King is, perhaps, the most traditional understanding of God. And the King listens always, but doesn’t always respond.