Each of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, has a nickname describing a key feature of the holiday. Pesaḥ is Z'man Ḥeruteinu, the time of our freedom. Shavuot is Z'man Matan Torateinu , the time of the giving of our Torah. Sukkot is Z'man Simḥateinu, the time of our joy.
Now, I absolutely love Sukkot - if I had to pick a favorite holiday, it would be Sukkot hands down. I love the smells, from the bright fragrance of the etrog, to the distinctive aroma of freshly cut pine branches (my shul growing up used pine as skhakh and that scent always transports me), to the slightly sweet odor of a lulav past its prime. I love the feeling in the air as the season changes firmly to fall. I enjoy being outdoors, eating long, aimless meals in the sukkah with friends. Sukkot calls up for me so many special memories, memories I savor coming back to year after year, even as I make new ones to accompany them.
But getting to Sukkot....that part's not so easy, not something I savor. Making it through the High Holidays is a huge amount of work (rewarding and meaningful, but emotionally and physically taxing nonetheless). And just when I'm ready to take a few days of rest to regain my energy, there it is. After a paltry four days, it's time for another holiday. And a holiday with a massive amount of preparation and physical labor involved. It's a little bit dizzying. Where's the joy?
Certainly, given what I just said about how much I love the holiday itself, there's joy in celebrating the holiday once it has arrived, at least for me and I hope for you. This year, however, I've been challenging myself to find joy in the preparations as well, in these four jam-packed and slightly stressful days.
I'm writing this message on Wednesday night, after having spent the evening building two different sukkot - our Chevrei Tzedek sukkah and my own sukkah at home (tremendous gratitude to Jeanne and Mali for jumping in and helping me get my sukkah up!). Working to get those sukkot built was absolutely where I found my joy today. The joy of being together with members of our community to help get our shul ready to celebrate. The joy of witnessing folks reminiscing about Sukkot celebrations past and previous sukkah-building experiences. The joy of listening to good music to make the work more pleasant. The joy of seeing a sukkah (2 sukkot!) go from being a pile of poles on the ground to being a dwelling place for us and for God's presence.
And while I still don't know when I'm going to get the grocery shopping done or the food cooked, I do know that the joy I found this evening will help keep me afloat until I figure the rest of it out.
Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ!
I overheard a snippet of a conversation today, a teenage child telling his mother about the use of the phrase "sorry, not sorry." I only overheard a tiny bit of their conversation, as I was just passing by, but just that little bit intrigued me. Certainly, at this time of year, we in the Jewish community are preoccupied with apologizing. So I was delighted to hear a teenager engaging with his parent about the lack of sincere apology implicit in this popular phrase and the problematic nature of that.
The truth is, this phrase is everywhere - and it seems that few people are concerned about its lack of sincere apology. Full disclosure: I've heard the phrase a lot and even used it a few times in the past.
There's a great song by Demi Lovato, called "Sorry Not Sorry," which was really popular when it came out, that is about the singer's refusal to be apologetic in the face of harsh criticism. It's a power anthem of self-validation. Hard to criticize that drive to stay strong and true to oneself when confronted with mean-spirited words of critique.
But the more common use of the phrase is just what it sounds like - someone couching their refusal to apologize for something in words that, at least at first, sound like an apology. And when I say common, I mean extremely common. A quick search on Facebook for #sorrynotsorry yielded 8.5 million posts. A search for the phrase without the hashtag led to listings for more groups than I could count with some version of "Sorry Not Sorry" in their group name.
Much ink has been spilled, especially in feminist spaces, about the phenomenon of over-apologizing, of robbing ourselves of our strength and confidence when interacting with others. There's even an extension for the Google Chrome browser called Just Not Sorry, which "warns you when you write emails using words which undermine your message."
But with the case of "sorry, not sorry" the issue is under-apologizing, or stridently refusing to apologize for something that may actually be worthy of our contrition. Yes, it's important not to diminish our own voices and to be aware of the potentially damaging power dynamics that over-apologizing reinforces. Full stop.
And also, it is crucially important to cultivate the skills necessary to apologize with sincerity when it is called for - not only so that we can seek repair with those we've harmed, but also so that we can develop our awareness of our own faults and mistakes. When we never truly apologize, we continuously confirm our own rightness. This deadens our sensitivity to the impact of our actions on others and keeps us in what may be a hurtful holding pattern.
The phenomenon of "sorry, not sorry" reminds me of a passage from the Mishnah about the work of Teshuvah that's required for Yom Kippur. Mishnah Yoma 8:9 teaches: With regard to one who says: I will sin and then I will repent, I will sin and I will repent, Heaven does not provide him the opportunity to repent, and he will remain a sinner all his days. With regard to one who says: I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for my sins, Yom Kippur does not atone for his sins.
This same mishnah reminds us that the rituals of Yom Kippur help us atone for sins between ourselves and God, areas of our religious or ritual life where we have not lived up to expectations. In order to effect atonement for offenses against other people, we must apologize. With our religious misdeeds, repenting with the intention of sinning again is not true repentance. The same holds with our relationships with other people. "Sorry, not sorry" just doesn't cut it. Difficult though it sometimes is to find the right words and offer those we've hurt a sincere apology, that is exactly what we must do - for Yom Kippur and year-round.
I wish you all a k'tivah vahatimah tovah - may we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!
On Rosh Hashanah, we have a strong tradition to embrace and celebrate newness. In my own home, the rush to get new clothes and haircuts has been a focus of this past week, along with all of the other things you might imagine a rabbi doing to get ready for the High Holidays. Around our holiday tables, many of us will eat a new fruit - adding a new experience to mark the new year.
These new things we do in honor of Rosh Hashanah are a special part of our celebrations. And even though they are incredibly embodied and evocative experiences, they are in some ways also external to our deepest selves. A new outfit or new food can give expression to or even spark a real change in who we are, but they are more likely to be things we simply do for this occasion and this occasion only. The novelty wears off. The new outfit winds up in the hamper, the haircut grows out, the new fruit becomes a part of the regular menu rotation.
In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, we strive to find a different kind of newness - not newness in what we wear or eat, but newness in who we are. We aim to try out new and different ways to be with each other, and with ourselves. We work to improve, to grow, to deepen our relationships.
This process is one best done together. While each of us must do our own individual work to find the newness within ourselves, the power of doing so in community with each other keeps us accountable and brings us inspiration.
With that in mind, I have a crowdsourcing request:
Please share with me the ways you're working to find new dimensions of yourselves this coming year. Are there new experiences you're looking forward to? New skills you're planning to develop? New challenges to contend with? New relationships to nurture? New areas of growth you're tending to?
On erev Yom Kippur, I hope to share some thoughts about where we - as a collective and as individuals - are heading this coming year, and I would love to be able to build upon your wisdom and insight as we envision the beautiful possibilities of the new year together.
Please send me a message between now and next Friday (9/22), letting me know what new things and opportunities you're pursuing this coming year. Please also let me know if it's okay to share your words with our community (no names will be shared). I look forward to hearing from you and to celebrating all of the newness in this coming year.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Our double reading this week of Parashiyot Nitzavim and Vayelekh is full of phrases and verses that we tend to recognize more from their uses in other contexts than from their original places in the Torah. Gems from this week's reading appear in often-quoted midrashim, stories from the Talmud, and are all over the siddur and mahzor.
As the parashah reminds us several times of the importance of following God's Torah - practically begging the people to follow the right path - it offers what seems like an appeal to logic. After all, לא בשמים היא, the Torah does not reside in Heaven. (Deut. 30:12) It's within reach. No one needs to ascend to Heaven to retrieve it so that we can learn it and follow it. It's right here for us, in our mouths and in our hearts.
Famously, this verse is read quite against its original context in a powerful story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b). The short version:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua are arguing about a particular issue of Jewish law. Rabbi Yehoshua represents the majority and yet, Rabbi Eliezer refuses to concede his point. He even calls upon Heaven to justify his side of things, which it does. Eventually, Rabbi Yehoshua declares victory, citing this verse, which is used as a prooftext for majority rule. Now that the Torah is not in Heaven, i.e. has been given to us, the only opinion that matters on how to follow it is a human opinion. Rabbi Yehoshua tells Heaven to stay in its lane.
As an aside in the story, Elijah the Prophet appears, recalling that in that moment, when Rabbi Yehoshua told God to butt out, God laughed in delight.
This point is often where people stop in their retelling of this Talmudic story. But no good Talmudic story has such a happy ending. The story continues that Rabbi Eliezer's colleagues destroy his reputation and excommunicate him for his refusal to concede the rule of the majority. In his despair and anger, he prays for the death of the head of the community, Rabban Gamliel. And Rabban Gamliel, in fact, dies. The lesson the Talmud draws from this tragic end is about the power of our words to do harm and the compassion with which God sees people who have been wronged in this way.
Over the High Holidays, which will begin next Friday night, you'll hear me talk a lot about חשבון הנפש, Heshbon Hanefesh, the personal account we're each meant to take of ourselves in preparation for beginning a new year.
I can't read our Parashah without thinking about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua. Reading it this week, it has me considering the importance of the words we use with each other. When have my words caused someone else harm? When have they been used to lift others up? How will God look at me for the way I've used my words?
I invite you to ask yourselves the same kinds of questions as we take an account of ourselves and prepare to enter a new year. Choosing our words intentionally, doing the work it takes to use words that convey care and kindness, as our Parashah says, is not in Heaven. It's in our mouths and our hearts to make a reality.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Marci Jacobs
This week, along with students and teachers from across the area, I went back to school. My summer was wonderful - exciting and eventful - but not so restful. I've been left feeling like I needed a little more summer in my summer. So it was with slightly mixed emotions that I dropped my kids off the other morning and headed upstairs to my own classroom.
One of the special things we do in the middle school at Krieger Schechter to mark the start of the year is to have an all-middle-school minyan on the first day. Far more meaningful than an opening assembly, our minyan is an opportunity for students to reconnect with each other; to get used to their new place in the school, as each grade has a traditional makom kavua, or assigned place; to re-engage with tefillah as we do it here at school; to find some kavanah and joy on what for some is a difficult transition back to school life. (And by the way, it also fills a similar set of roles for the teachers.)
Our first day minyan did not disappoint. Collaborating with my colleagues on coordinating and guiding the service, I felt myself sliding back into the familiarity and synergy of those relationships, getting my groove back. The students, a little hesitant at first, soon brought their wonderful energy. All together, we created and experienced a service with soul, a service that I would want to go to again.
The beginning of the school year also coincides with the beginning of the shul year, with the new year and the High Holidays rapidly approaching. Many of our amazing, dedicated community members and volunteers are working busily behind the scenes to prepare for our services and experiences at Chevrei Tzedek - planning for how we'll be using the building, organizing leaders and greeters, preparing words of Torah and small-group discussions, crafting opportunities for our youth. There's a lot to plan for, and I know our High Holidays at Chevrei will be filled with soulful davening, thoughtful learning, and opportunities for both contemplation and connection with each other.
The High Holidays, much like the beginning of the school year, are a time when everybody comes back to shul. With your help, we, as a community and as individuals, will find great meaning in that experience. I look forward to seeing you at shul, to being together during this pivotal time of the year, to building on the relationship we've begun to forge with each other.
And then, I encourage you to come *back* to shul, to reconnect, re-engage, and continue the spirit of the new year well into 5784 and beyond.
Wishing us all a Shanah Tovah and a Shabbat Shalom,
Are you Jewish? Have you had an abortion in the U.S. since 1973? If so, and you are over the age of 18, you are invited to participate in an online survey about your experiences. This research is documenting the stories and experiences of Jews who have had abortions by collecting the largest data set to-date of Jewish people who have had abortions. By surveying and interviewing people who identify as Jewish from around the United States, this study will demonstrate how these individuals interpret their own pregnancy terminations within their religious identity and commitments. This study will explore what role religion played in their decision to terminate a pregnancy, how their religious commitments have been affected by their decision to terminate, and whether they have experienced any stigma surrounding their decision to terminate.
Drs. Michal Raucher, Rachel Fryman, and Leora Scheinerman of Rutgers University are conducting this research study titled “Jews Who Have Had Abortions.” Participation entails completing an online survey that will take approximately 30 minutes. During the survey you will have the opportunity to express interest in a 45-minute phone interview as part of the research; if you express interest, you will be contacted by a member of the research team to schedule the interview. All your answers to this survey will be kept anonymous, and this link is anonymous. It cannot be tracked, and it cannot be used to identify respondents.
You can find the survey here: https://rutgers.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3PkXiMlAfQlBGpo
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The other day, I took my kids to a birthday party. We didn't really know the newly 3 year old birthday girl - she is the daughter of my brother's next door neighbor, a young, single mother, without a lot of friends or much of a local support system. The mother planned a big party for her daughter, but learned rather late in the game that only one person from her original invite list was planning to come. So she called my brother and sister-in-law, who have a large family, and my sister-in-law called me. Somehow, we were able to scare up a couple of handfuls of kids and helped this family have a fun, freilikh party, hopefully lifting a few spirits along the way. (The birthday girl certainly enjoyed double-fisting cupcakes after we sang to her!)
As we were driving home, I asked my kids what they thought about the party - did they have a good time? After they both said that they did, I agreed and added in, "Plus, it was a mitzvah." The kids knew how we came to be invited to the party, so they understood that I meant that we had done something kind for another person.
Shmuel, my always-insightful 9 year old, thought about it for a second, then said: "It was a MITZvah, but not a meetzVAH. We did a good deed, but it wasn't a rule from the Torah."
So we talked about it for bit and decided that it was actually both - going to the party was a kind thing to do and also was a way to fulfill וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18) Sometimes a MITZvah can also be a meetzVAH.
This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Teitzei, which has the distinction of being the parashah with the most mitzvot - depending on whose count you go by, either 72 or 74. Many of those mitzvot seem to fall into the same category as our going to the birthday party. In addition to being explicitly instructed in the Torah, they're also good, kind things to do. Things like striving to return lost property, not ignoring injured animals you come across, building a parapet around your roof - these are mitzvot that speak to our obligation to act with kindness and accountability toward each other.
And many of the mitzvot in our parashah challenge us, coming from a worldview that seems xenophobic, misogynist, and prone to violence. These mitzvot, I imagine, are not ones we aim to fulfill in our interactions with others. And yet, they are still part of our Torah, a part of our inherited tradition.
Confronting troubling texts is something that I, as a woman and a rabbi, have had to do for as long as I have been a serious student of Torah. Excising these texts from the tradition, as tempting as that is, is not the right choice in most cases. Rather, I believe they provide us with the opportunity to look at them unflinchingly and examine how they may still - despite our vocal opposition - be operating in our lives or in our world today. When we see these parts of the Torah for what they are, we can both more fully understand how they continue to impact our world and find meaning in working to make them a record of our past, instead of instructions for our present.
This Shabbat in my d'var Torah, I'm planning to address some of these issues from our parashah. Again, over the High Holidays, you'll hear more from me in this vein. I hope you'll join us as we engage in learning together.
Reading parashat hashavua has felt particularly difficult this week. Too close to things happening in our country, in Israel, and in the world as a whole. Rules about corrupt leadership, reminders of how to behave in war time, how to set up a just society in the absence of justice, how to contend with murder. Sometimes Parashat Shoftim feels like a call to pursue justice - and that it definitely is. But for me, as we enter the month of Elul, it feels more like a call to examine those parts of ourselves and our world that are falling short of that goal.
So where do we start? How do we go about looking closely at ourselves and finding those places that need improvement?
We get a hint in the section of the parashah about arei miklat, cities of refuge. If someone kills another accidentally, without intent, they can flee to one of these cities and escape the vengeance of the surviving relatives of the person they unwittingly killed. Unintentional manslaughter is not the same as murder and the Torah demands that the accidental killer be protected. However, the Torah warns about these cities being abused by those who killed not by accident, but with malice aforethought.
וְכִי־יִהְיֶה אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ וְאָרַב לוֹ וְקָם עָלָיו וְהִכָּהוּ נֶפֶשׁ וָמֵת וְנָס אֶל־אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל׃ וְשָׁלְחוּ זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְלָקְחוּ אֹתוֹ מִשָּׁם...
If, however, a man who is the enemy of another lies in wait and sets upon [the victim] and strikes a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, the elders of his town shall have him brought back from there...(Deuteronomy 19:11-12)
The Midrash (Sifrei Devarim 186-187) picks up on the wording in the Torah's description of the type of killer who cannot seek refuge: "A man who is the enemy of another" - in the Hebrew אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ (ish soneh l're-eihu). These words recall another, more famous, verse, the instruction from Vayikra of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (v'ahavta l'reiakha kamokha), to love our fellows as ourselves. In the explanation of the Midrash, someone who does not attend to loving his fellow person, a seemingly less difficult mitzvah, will eventually come to disregard them and foster hatred for them, making it a short journey to being able to kill them, transgressing a far more serious command.
The Midrash teaches that neglecting smaller obligations opens the door to trampling on larger ones. In these first few days of Elul, I see in it an answer to the question I posed above - how do we begin to look within and take note of where we need to recalibrate ourselves?
Start by noticing the small stuff - the corners we cut, especially in our relationships with each other, the tiny insensitivities, the minor failings we let slip by because they're not so big of a deal. As the Midrash sees it, these "not so big of a deal" actions desensitize us to the point where we can do grave harm to another person.
This process can also work in the opposite direction. If we resensitize ourselves to those small transgressions and do the work to repair them, we will be led not toward callousness and disregard, but toward love and connection. May we experience an abundance of both in the coming new year.
Hello again, friends, from (this time rainy) Camp Ramah in the Poconos! This week, I'm thinking a lot about the relationship between the individual and the community. Much of the educational program at camp, whether through the explicit learning experiences or the less overtly 'educational' parts, focuses on the development of an interdependent community. Campers and staff must work together to foster positive tzrif (bunk) cultures, meaningful pe'ulot (activities), and healthy relationships. At the same time, it's the contributions of many individuals that make these endeavors successful.
This past week, I explored this idea with my Halutzim students (entering 7th grade) in our study of Pirkei Avot. Before even getting to the text, I gave them a challenge. Showing them a beautiful and detailed illustration from a storybook here in our sifriya (library), I gave them one minute to look at it carefully, then asked them, as individuals, to do their best to draw what they saw, closing the book so that they could no longer see the illustration. They worked hard on their drawings and were proud to point out what they had captured from the original when we came back together after a few minutes. We then did the exercise again, looking at the illustration and preparing to draw it. This time, however, they would work in small groups to create a drawing together.
After finishing the activity, we unpacked the experience, with the campers reflecting on how powerful it was for them to rely on themselves when working independently and also how working with other people provided opportunities for collaboration and increased creativity.
We then tied this experience to Avot 1:14, Hillel's famous teaching of "If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" The campers were easily able to see how reading the first two questions together allowed us to glean an important lesson: in order to join together in community with others, we must strive to be whole in ourselves. And if we are whole in ourselves, we can best express our individual potential in community with others.
This same synergy between the individual and the community is present in our Torah reading this week. Parashat Re'eh opens with the words, "רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה׃" - "See [singular], I set before you [plural] blessing and curse." (Deuteronomy 11:26) Many commentators note the grammatical inconsistency in the verse here, drawing meaning from the use of both the singular and the plural in one place. Particularly on the heels of the learning I shared above, the explanation that feels most resonant for me this week is this: Each of us has a personal responsibility - and the individual opportunity - to decide how we respond to the blessings or curses laid before us in our lives. And at the same time, our individual choices don't exist in a vacuum. We exist in community with others and the blessings we bring into our lives will, God willing, benefit those around us, helping each of us to take part in creating our sacred community.
Especially as we draw closer to the month of Elul and our annual period of introspection, my wish for us this week is that we each take the time we need to see what lies ahead of us for this coming year, that we invite blessing into our lives, and that we do all of this supported by, and in support of, each other.
Rabbi Marci Jacobs
Hello again, dear Chevrei friends, from sunny Lakewood, PA!
First, I want to thank those of you who reached out to share your personal stories in response to my email last week! It has been a true joy to read your reflections and continue the conversation through email. Please feel free to keep writing! It might take me a little longer than normal to respond from here at camp, but I do love hearing from you, and will do my best to respond to every message I receive.
Just a few hours after sending that message, I experienced my first Shabbat here at camp. Every camp has their own culture, and Ramah in the Poconos is especially proud of their ruah, their spirit and liveliness, especially when it comes to singing on Shabbat.
In our parashah this week, Eikev, we begin with a rather long description of the blessings that will come to the people when they settle in the Land of Israel. As this section nears its conclusion, we read: וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה׳ אֱ׳לֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃ - "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land given to you." (Deuteronomy 8:10)
This verse is the source for the mitzvah of reciting Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals. In fact, the second blessing of the 4 that comprise Birkat Hamazon quotes this verse in its entirety, making the explicit point that giving thanks to God for the good land given to us (and the food produced by that land) is accomplished by saying this set of blessings and connected additional prayers.
Birkat Hamazon can be said in a number of ways. We can say it individually, communally, to ourselves, sing it all out loud, some combination of the above, or in a number of different ways. And then there's the way we say it at camp on Shabbat.
It's noteworthy that Birkat Hamazon is led by campers - these children somehow manage to capture the attention of several hundred of their peers to lead them in reciting the ancient words. As soon as the leaders begin, the hadar okhel (dining hall) erupts with sound. Hands keeping the beat on tabletops, feet tapping on the floors underneath, tables of campers competing with each other to see who can sing the loudest; the room vibrates with the energy everyone brings to the experience. The ruah is amazing, with special melodies, hand motions, and flourishes added in to make it even more fun.
After Birkat Hamazon, everyone sticks around to sing zemirot (Shabbat table songs), also led by campers. One of the treasured traditions here is that each Edah (unit of campers) learns and leads their own verse to the Shabbat song Mipi El. What a wonderful way to build familiarity with Shabbat zemirot and to honor each camper's contribution to the community. The song travels around the room, with each Edah taking the lead for their verse, and the whole camp chiming in for the response lines.
Gavi was ready for bed shortly after the singing began, so we made our way back to our cabin with the beautiful ruah of the rest of the camp accompanying us on our walk home. I'm hoping we'll make it through more of the singing this week - it's one of the things that makes Shabbat here at camp so special. While we can't quite achieve the same kind of ruah in our home and shul lives (unless you regularly have 300+ very excited young people at your table each week!), we can be inspired to infuse our blessing and our singing with joy, excitement, and gratitude.
Rabbi Marci Jacobs