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The High Holidays
hiking in the holiness
As we move towards the intensive experience that we call the High Holy, I want to suggest that hiking is a great metaphor and access point into the season. It is how we might prepare ourselves a little differently for the New Year’s arrival. Perhaps thinking of these season as a BackRoads Itinerary can offer alternative images that are easier to use for personal meaning than the classical images of entering the court to prepare to meet a King.
What happens on a hike? We pack a map, sturdy boots, a compass, sunglasses, rain gear, a flashlight, first-aid supplies and snacks and head off on a trail, often with a child, or friend at our side. We might talk for a long time; we may walk in silence with the vistas of great natural beauty keeping us going. Often climbing up is easier than climbing down. We might notice changes in our bodies as we age, stopping for breath more often, or feeling unsteady on the descent. But usually the effort brings us into places (Makom) of inspiration and wonder, where our smallness and limited natures are located within the vast and majestic and eternal.
So it was for our ancestors who hiked the hikes which we read about on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. There are actually 6 spiritual hikes mentioned during these days, but I will only discuss one of the two hikes of the Haftarot, one of Jeremiah (31:1-19) and of Isaiah (57:14-58:14) where God offers to meet all weary hikers on the road back, even to pave a way ( Solu, Solu in Isaiah) to make the return journey more accessible:
Watch me bring them from a northern land; I shall gather them from the ends of the earth. Blind and limping, pregnant women all together, birthing mothers, a great flock of people will come back here, in tears they will come and in mercy I will lead them, to rivers of water along an open road. They will not stumble…
We are always on the hike of life , which is why we need to prepare, pack supplies, and then open ourselves to what might happen. In this season we can transform our journey into ever-deepened awareness. The map of the trail is the Mahzor prayer book, the compass is the Torah and the stories of our ancestors, the sunglasses to give our eyes clear vision. the boots, our supports, the rain gear a handkerchief for the tears which may flow, the flashlight, perhaps a yahrzeit candle and first-aid supplies, what we find we will need to heal the sensitive and hurting heart.
by Jane Shapiro on approaching the High Holy Days 5780
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: A word of Torah
בַּיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י עֲצֶ֖רֶת תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם
On the eighth day shall be a solemn gathering for you ~ Numbers 29:35
My family is blessed to be a part of a small, independent lay-led prayer community, and this time of year is always a period of intense communal assembly. We spend hours together in a small basement room, praying, talking, sharing warm wishes for the holidays, breaking bread together. The arc upon which we travel - from Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah - is emotionally and spiritually potent each year. You can feel, in an embodied sense, the way in which our lives are interwoven one with the others.
Usually, at the end of Yom Kippur, at the close of the Neilah service, there is a growing palpable joy that spreads throughout the group, a sense that we have dug down, stripped back and dipped into our collective hearts and souls together, and we have emerged on the other end, together. Usually, we break into singing and dancing at the end, releasing that communal happiness as one. The other day, while walking home from a friend’s sukkah, a friend shared that she felt a lack of that expected joy this year, that instead there was a diffuse sense of heaviness that still hung in the air at the close of the holiday. That the feeling felt more somber than usual. I agreed. I felt it too. Why was that the case this year?
As our community sits and prays together over hours and days, our spirits are knit together, and when one is experiencing pain or struggle - even if it is unspoken - that heaviness is held by us all. This year, that held pain - experiences with loss, health challenges, psychological and spiritual struggles - sat between us more than it has in the past. It had a place in the room and just as happens with joy, it asked the community to carry it.
We are coming now to the end of this rich, holy time of year, preparing to mark Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (days which are celebrated as one in Israel, but as two separate holidays in the Diaspora). After the opening of the gates on Rosh Hashanah and the stripping bare of the soul on Yom Kippur, on the 7-day holiday of Sukkot, we step back into life - into building, harvesting, gathering, creating - but we step out into a life that is different from our lives of the other 51 weeks of the year. This past week has been about stepping outside the doors of our comfortable homes and into fragility and vulnerability. We step out into communion with our ancestors and loved ones from time past, and with loved ones who people our lives in the present. In this small open-to-the air shelter that we build, we sit beneath a roof that leads our eyes upwards and beyond - up to the brilliant stars of our cosmos and the cold rain leaking down on us and the bees buzzing around our food. We are asked to sit amidst it all. We let our fragility sit on our skin as we do the rain drops that often fall down through the beams and branches above our heads. And sitting there, we try to knit it all together into a covering of joy. For these past 7 days, this has been our experiential work.
When we sit there in the middle of our fragility and impermanence, we look at the walls surrounding us and envision them to be חסד ה׳ החופף עלינו - the lovingkindness of the Divine hovering over us, in the words of the Hasidic sage, the Sefat Emet. And when we are facing our fragility up close, we need to feel held by that chesed Hashem - that soft love that envelops us if we let it in.
Beginning on Sunday evening, we will move into Shemini Atzeret, a day which means either “the eighth day of gathering” or “the eighth day of stopping”. Or, perhaps, it means both. After 7 days of encountering ourselves and each other and our memories and the grandness of our universe, we take one day to stop, to pause, to sit and gather. Gather ourselves internally. Gather with those we love and have loved. Gather the experience of Sukkot into our deepest heart.
And only then do we become “whole enough vessels that will contain God’s blessing” (Sefat Emet). We have readied ourselves, alone and in community, to be vessels for the illumination of Torah that we celebrate on Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, we move towards a vision of Torah - expansive Torah - that permeates everyone and everything. This concept of Torah has its seeds planted in every creature, every person, every object, and on Simchat Torah we ask to be able to perceive the illuminating sparks in all their vibrancy. And to carry that capacity of perception into this new year ahead of us.
And, we also acknowledge our role in supporting the work of ‘holy gathering’.
What does it mean to live in community with one another?
When we actually see the Divine spark of Torah dwelling in each person, we feel חסד ה׳ החופף עלינו - the lovingkindness of the Divine hovering over us in a real and embodied way. In the food we make for one another for nourishment. In the hugs we offer each other. In the calls and texts we send and receive that give our spirits a lift. In the names we recite during the Misheberach prayer. These are the acts that actualize chesed Hashem in the communal lives we share. When we stop and gather and show up for one another, God is there. Holiness rises. And the light of Torah grows in our world.
By Rebecca Minkus Lieberman
Breathe in and Be Reborn - Parshat Haazinu
The contours and texture of Jewish sacred time foster deep attention to new ways of being so that we might have greater access to them during the mundane course of daily living. If we practice inhabiting Shabbat deeply, we are better able to settle into a Shabbat mind, heart, body, and breath on Monday morning; if during Passover we truly taste freedom, we become more skillful at finding our way back to it during moments of constriction during the rest of the year.
The arc of hallowed moments that carries us from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and on to Sukkot is no different. It is a deep meditation on birth, death, and finding a true refuge in the face of uncertainty, providing us with a lens for relating to the daily reality of impermanence with greater wisdom and compassion.
“The High Holidays are...a bridge, a compressed journey--k’fitzat haderech--the voyage from birth to death in ten days’ time. Rosh Hashanah is all about birth, and Yom Kippur is about death. Rosh Hashanah is...the Day the World Is Born, and Yom Kippur is the day we rehearse for our own death by wearing a shroud and by abstaining from life-affirming activities, like eating and sexuality”
(Alan Lew, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared).
Yet birth and death are not one-time events. The Chassidic tradition calls our attention to the fact that they are happening in every moment:
“And Moshe and the Priests and Levites spoke...today (i.e. the day the Torah was inscribed) you have become a nation” (Deuteronomy 27:9). RaSHI interpreted: Every day [words of Torah] should be like new to you. But how? By believing that with each and every breath you are receiving new chayut (vital life force). If so, you are a new creation”
(Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Kedushas Levi, Ki Tavo).
Reb Levi Yitzchak reminds us that with each in-breath we are involuntarily reborn, breathed into a new moment of life; as the in-breath gives way to the out-breath, we are reminded to let go, make space, surrender into a miniature death. The cycle repeats. We are reborn again. We die again. We are reborn again. This is the way things are. How wondrous! And how destabilizing!
In an effort to get some solid ground under our feet, we clutch at anything that holds even the flimsiest promise of stability, losing ourselves in sense pleasures, the to-do list, consumerism, and entertainment so we won’t have to attend to what we know to be true, that our sense of self is a conditioned mental construct superimposed upon the ever-unfolding and totally unpredictable flux of energy, life-force, breath, and being. In so doing we cling to obsolete, self-limiting mental caricatures and beliefs about who we were, are, or could be; or we reify others into objects of desire and aversion because we can only seem to pin down who we are in light of our mental projections and judgments about others. In so doing, we keep ourselves and others from riding the waves of birth, death, and rebirth into the ever-unfolding now and the limitless possibility, vitality, and freedom it holds. And the saddest truth is that none of our coping mechanisms actually work. Instead they drain our energy, and keep us clutching at an isolated and narrow sense of self that is anxious, fearful, reactive, and cut off from its innate freedom and ease.
But this season calls us back to another way of being--the path of teshuvah:
“Every day a bat kol (divine voice) issues forth from Mount Horev (i.e. Sinai), ‘Return, you wayward children’ (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 15, Zohar 126b quoting Jeremiah 3:14, 22)...And it is from this voice that an awakening to teshuvah comes to every Jew each day” (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Kedushas Levi, Ki Tavo).
This season offers us a condensed opportunity to attend to how we walk the uncertain, ever-unfolding journey from birth to death to rebirth, reminding us that embittered resistance and denial will only add hurt and limit possibility. Instead, we might use this season to train in balanced acceptance by turning and returning to a deep practice of attunement and at-one-ment with an inner Voice that calls us home to our true refuge, our inner sukkah. Rather than focusing our energies on self-preservation, we are invited to train in letting go and relaxing into the possibility of self-transcendence, allowing ourselves to return to Sinai every day and “sit flush with the world, [with the understanding that] any moment of our life fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy”
(Alan Lew, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared).
May we use this season as an opportunity to train deeply in relaxing into the freshness of the present moment. As we do so, may we discover a loving Presence, an inner refuge that shatters all concepts and self-limiting beliefs, and opens our hearts to compassion, joy, trust, courage, resiliency, and a sincere desire to serve and walk a wholesome path of non-harming and world-repair.
By Sam Feinsmith
To Listen Deeply Shabbat Shuvah
We often pay attention to the Biblical heroes of the Torah readings in these days. Abraham looms large and Hagar and Hannah match him in their existential angst and ability to reach out to God from the most vulnerable of places. And on this Shabbat we will begin to hear the final words of our Moses.
We may not notice, however, that we are also surrounded by prophets calling to us from the Haftarah readings.
Isaiah 61 on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah:
I greatly rejoice in the Lord. My whole being exults in God
For God has clothed me with garments of triumph
Wrapped me in a robe of victory
Like a bridegroom adorned in a turban
Like a bride bedecked in her finery.
On Rosh Hashanah day two we read from Jeremiah 31:
Sing out with happiness of Jacob…Watch me bring them from a northern land. I shall gather them in from the ends of the earth, Blind and limping men, pregnant women, all together, birthing mothers and a great flock of people will come and in mercy will I lead them to rivers of water, along an open road, they will not stumble for I have been a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is my First Born.
And on this coming Shabbat we might hear the voices of three prophets.
I will be to Israel like dew
He will blossom like the lily
He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree
His boughs shall spread out far
His beauty shall be like the olive tree
Fear not, soil of the land, rejoice and be glad
For the Lord has wrought great deeds
Fear not beast of the field
For the pastures in the wilderness
Are clothed with grass
The trees have borne their fruit
Fig tree and vine
Have yielded their strength
Children of Zion be glad
God will take us back in love
Cover up our iniquities
You hurl our sins
into the depths of the sea
You will be faithful to Jacob
Loyal to Abraham
As you promised on oath to our fathers
in days gone by.
These fellows, of course, are an interesting contrast to Jonah whose uncertainty and ambivalence cause him to flee and show a harsh lack of empathy for the people of Nineveh. With the name Yonah ben Amitai, we might want to think of him as the “Dove who seeks to fly away from the ship of humanity and who has an unbending sense of truth (Emet) that overpowers his compassion,” The open-ended and ironic question that ends this book leaves us with many questions ourselves to ponder on Yom Kippur afternoon. Where do we stand on a continuum between Harsh Truths and Realities and Loving Compassion for ourselves and others?
If all we were to read was the prophet Jonah we would be left with a challenge. But Jonah is surrounded by these other voices, poets, actually, who call us with confidence about God’s unending love for us. In reading these, I think about what the philosopher Walter Benjamin called Denkbilds, thought-images, “philosophical miniatures” in the words of the painter Gerhard Richter. If you map all the imagery of these prophets, of nature, of masses of refugees on a road home, babies, dew, soil, animals, trees of all sort, pastures of grass, you can begin to perceive what is so hard to perceive. That we must do the hard work of Kappara in these days, to face the hardships we have caused ourselves and others, but that Teshuva is possible, even a natural and organic part of our world. How can we not hear its call?
These are the days to do hard work. Listed below are the steps that psychologist Erich Fromm suggests are the key to listening deeply to another person. Is there someone whom you need to reach out to and listen to, in order to set in motion a return to your better self? But do not be afraid of this deep work because on the other side is the possibility of entering a twenty-five hour immersion in the beautiful space we call Yom Kippur.
By Jane Shapiro
Six guidelines for mastering the art of unselfish understanding ~ Erich Fromm
The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.
A Kavannah for Tisha B’Av
אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים Eleh Ha’dvarim - Devarim / Tisha B’Av - 5779
These are the words.
The words that brought us here.
The words that shaped this hard place
We have come to know and yet, in this place
words escape us.
Thumbtacks on the map.
Moments of sojourning.
Encounters with struggle
Where are we standing?
Where have we traveled?
Where are we heading?
And what will carry us there?
We step into the places of destruction
Search for shafts
Of light and
Return to the words.
For words shake and sculpt the world
We dare to build.
May we return to the primal power of the devarim - the words - that can birth worlds and kill them, and may we renew our dogged dedication to use them as holy instruments of giving life.
By Rebecca Minkus Lieberman