What Does it Mean To Be Welcoming: Appropriate Touch and Consent

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

As a people, Jews are pretty hands-on—literally. Some of us greet each other with kisses; some hug to offer condolences or support; many of us gesticulate when we talk. The hands-on approach extends to our sacred objects, such as touching the Torah’s mantle on Shabbat or kissing our fingers after touching a mezuzah.

In our congregation, touch is woven into the fabric of our community. On Friday nights we invite everyone to “touch the challah or touch someone who’s touching the challah.” At the conclusion of Friday night services, we put our arms around one another and bless our family and friends. During Havdalah, we sway together in a circle. Even in passing, some of us hug hello and goodbye.

Touch has the power to nourish and comfort, to stabilize, and to share strength. We know that touch is vital to our emotional and even physical wellbeing. Yet it is equally important to acknowledge that touch is not always welcomed, even in congregations that experience connection and holiness in embodied ways. 

The value of being welcoming is at the core of our congregation. So how do we make sure that everyone feels safe when we reach out (literally and metaphorically) to one another? 

This can look like asking, “Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” and then acting on the reply. But it’s not just that: it won’t work unless we can hear a “no” without experiencing it as judgment or rejection. It also requires us to name our boundaries. We need to get comfortable saying things like, “Thank you for asking; I’d rather not be touched,” or “I’m not comfortable with your hand on my waist; please touch my shoulder instead.”

This is challenging work. Reacting to a “no” with grace and acceptance requires both gentleness and a leaning into our Chesed side. Saying “no” requires a lot of Gevurah, as well as trust that we’ll be heard. It’s challenging, but it’s vital for creating holy community together.

In thinking about values around welcoming and welcomed touch, I was inspired by an unlikely source: the ultra-Orthodox custom of shomer negiah. This phrase literally translates as “being watchful” (shomer) in matters of touch (negiah), but the phrase has come to refer to the custom of avoiding direct physical contact with members of the opposite sex. 

I feel some discomfort with Orthodoxy’s ideology and praxis of shomer negiah, not least because it tends to turn women into objects of desire and reinforces a binaried view of gender. But there is also something beautiful in the root concept of shomer negiah: taking a moment to think about the person we’re about to reach out to.

A commitment to shomer negiah Recon-style would mean a commitment to forethought, imagination, honesty, and respect. In taking care with our touch, we are better able to take care of ourselves and each other. 

Moving forward, I want to commit to asking you before I hug you or touch your shoulder. If I forget, or I touch you in a way that causes unease, I hope you will feel comfortable reminding me. 

This is the opening of a discussion, rather than the definitive word. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be transparent and caring as we navigate being embodied and in community together. May we be blessed to continue cocreating trust, affection, and welcoming for all.

Rabbi Ora on Elul

Written by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

This year, the Hebrew month of Elul begins September 1 — a nice coinciding of the secular and Jewish calendars. I think of Elul as a kind of pumping-the-brakes on the freewheeling expansiveness of summer; even though it’s usually still warm outside, Elul is a whispered reminder: Fall is coming. Slow down. Get a little quieter. And begin turning inwards. 

Why? Because there is work to be done.

It’s tradition to dedicate the 29 days of Elul to reflection, study, and preparation for the coming Days of Awe. Elul challenges us to use each day to re-connect with our values and attune to the yearning of our souls.

Conceptually, the idea is noble, but acting on it is a bit more challenging. Here are a few resources to help you get started: 

  • Learn more about Elul from Rabbi Yael Ridberg at Reconstructing Judaism.
  • Psalm 27 (“Achat Sha’alti”) is traditionally recited every morning in Elul. Here’s Rabbi Brant Rosen’s interpretation of Psalm 27 .
  • Listen to a special episode from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Unbounding Elul.
  • Here’s a simple calendar that helps you set a single intention for Elul and track it throughout the month.
  • Thinking ahead? Sign up now to receive a daily email prompt for reflection during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
  • Is your favorite part of the High Holy Days the music? Here are 2 new niggunim we’ll be using this year – you can get a head start on learning them by clicking the links below:

A Note From Rabbi Ora Before Her Vacation

On July 19th, I’ll be packing my tent and hiking boots into my Subaru and driving west. First to Chicago, where I’ll be officiating the baby naming of Rabbi Shelley Goldman and Kieran Kiley’s newest family addition. Then on to Montana, to meet up with my friend Steve and spend two weeks exploring the mountains of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

Thinking about my upcoming trip from a Jewish perspective, I started to notice just how many references to mountains appear in our liturgy. 

On Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat, we sometimes sing from Psalm 98, which speaks of how “the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing in joy.” On Shabbat morning, we often sing Esah einai el he’harim from Psalm 121: “I turn my eyes to the mountain; from where will my help come?” During the Hallel portion of the Passover seder, we sing Psalm 114, that depicts a world in which nature becomes topsy-turvy as “mountains skip like rams and hills like sheep.” And many Psalms begin with the opening Shir ha’maalot, indicating that the forthcoming psalm is a “song of ascents,” literally a “song of going-up.”

In the Psalms, mountains are a place to aspire to; mountains are a place to get lost in and to look for help from; and mountains are part of the magnificent natural landscape that dwarfs in comparison to God’s power, even as we feel tiny relative to the colossal peaks. But in our tradition, mountains also indicate the human capacity for transformation.

According to the Torah, we became the nation of Israel at the base of a mountain, and committed to an ongoing relationship with God there. To reconstruct that tradition, then, every mountain might be a site of potential revelation! At the very least, mountains are a reminder of the importance of stretching beyond ourselves

For me, the beauty of mountains is their steadiness and how they’re blanketed in beauty; mountains are a reminder of what John O’Donohue calls the importance of “slow time.”

What about for you? What do you see as the Jewish connection to mountains? Have you had a profound/spiritual experience on a mountain? Please feel free to share below.

What is Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

The evening of Shavuot finds Jews around the world gathering in synagogues and learning through the night, often fueled by coffee and cheesecake.

This practice of all-night Torah study is known as ‘tikkun leil Shavuot.’ The tradition dates back to 16th century Tzfat; it’s said that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (more commonly known as the Ari) instituted the practice as a ‘tikkun’ – correction or repair – for an ancient error.

‘Tikkun’ is a familiar first half of the modern phrase ‘tikkun olam’ – that is, healing or repairing the world through acts of social, political, and climate justice. But what breach are we repairing on the night (‘leil’) of Shavuot?

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites following 49 days of rigorous spiritual preparation (the Omer). According to one midrash, the night before the giving of the Torah, the Israelites did what anyone tries to do before an important event – they turned in early for a good night’s sleep. This seemingly innocent decision, however, led to embarrassing consequences. The next morning, when it came time for the Torah to be given, the base of Mount Sinai was empty. The entire Jewish people had slept in. The midrash even recounts that Moses had to wake the Israelites with a shofar, causing G-d to lament, “Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:12b)

In order to rectify this ancient mistake, the Ari instituted a custom of all-night learning: we remain awake to show that, unlike our heavy-lidded ancestors at Sinai, we are ready to receive Torah and God.

This midrash may not sit comfortably with all of us. Maybe we don’t like the idea of being burdened by our ancestor’s errors, or maybe we simply want to be motivated to learn by something other than correction.

It’s customary to learn from the Oral Torah (Mishnah and Talmud) on Shavuot, rather than from the Torah itself. I think there’s a lesson here: in coming together to learn on Shavuot, we’re doing more than simply correcting an ancient mistake; we are adding our voices to a millenia-old tradition of oral learning, interpretation, and argumentation. On Shavuot, we add to our tradition by offering each other new pathways to accessing wisdom. In this sense, every Shavuot we who learn are contributing to ‘tikkun olam’ – to repairing the frayed threads of our world.

What is AARC up to for Shavuot?

Tikkun Leil Shavuot Special: Kehillat Israel Comes to Ann Arbor!

Saturday, June 8

This year we will enjoy a special celebration for Shavuot in collaboration with members of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Lansing.

Kehillat Israel members will spend the afternoon exploring Ann Arbor, and have invited us to join them! If you’d like to participate in an ecological study walk in the Arb led by Rabbi Michael Zimmerman (4-5 pm) and an early dinner at Zingermans (5:15-6:15 pm), sign up here.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot (6:30-9:30 pm at the JCC) will have multiple learning opportunities for adults and teens-and-tweens (Grade 5 and up).

The schedule for adults is:     

 6:15 pm – Gather at the JCC

6:30-7:30 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

7:30-8:00 pm – Cheesecake and schmoozing    

8:00-9:00 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

9:00-9:30 pm – Jewish summer camp-style Havdalah (led by our teens)

Tentative list of adult ed sessions:    

Ken Harrow – The Events at Sinai    

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman – The Torah of the Green New Deal    

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner – Abortion and Judaism   

Clare Kinberg – Jewish Time

The schedule for teens:

Games, food, fun and a play! Concurrent to the adult study session on Shavuot, we will have two sessions for young people, ages ~ 9- 16. Our Beit Sefer G’dolim class created two pin ball games that are ready to roll! There is a puzzle board game special for Shavuot, a skit and planning for an end of the evening Havdalah. Beit Sefer G’dolim teacher Aaron Jackson will be leading the youth along with teachers from KI in Lansing. Bring the kids for a fun evening, with some learning, too!

If you plan on attending the Shavuot program, please sign up here. If your tween/teen plans on attending, please sign them up here.

How We Are Celebrating Mimouna This Year

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Mimouna is a community celebration that can be traced back to medieval Morocco. Leading up to Passover, Moroccan Jews would turn over their flour, yeast and grain to their Muslim neighbors. On the afternoon of the last day of Passover, these neighbors would show up with gifts of flour, honey, milk, butter, and green beans to be used to prepare post-Passover chametz dishes. That evening, Jews would host a Mimouna meal, sharing cakes, candies, and sweetmeats with their Muslim neighbors.

Last year, AARC held a Mimouna seder, during which we asked ourselves what relationships we already have with our local Muslim communities, and what relationships we want to cultivate.

The massacre at Tree of Life last fall, the massacre in Christchurch weeks ago, and most recently the Easter massacre in Sri Lanka remind us that (to paraphrase the seder’s Vehi She’Amda prayer) in every generation extremists will attempt to sow terror into the heart of religious communities.

The antidote to terror is togetherness. On Saturday night, we’ll have a guided conversation about growing allyship and friendship with our Muslim neighbors. Come with your ideas and questions! Sign up here to attend.

Passover and Counting the Omer

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Beginning the second night of Passover, Jews around the world will begin counting the omer. The omer is counted every day for 7 weeks, ending with the holiday of Shavuot.

The 49 day-period between Passover and Shavuot marks two kinds of movement through time: the period of time between the first barley offering and the first wheat offering during the Temple era, and the transition from slavery to spiritual liberation.

During the Passover seder we recall the moment when our ancestors took their freedom. Although the Exodus happened in a matter of hours (hence the under-cooked matzah), Jewish tradition teaches that it took considerably longer for the Israelites to truly feel free; only once they received the Torah on Shavuot were the Israelites able to conceive of their role in redemption.

In Michigan, we’re far away from the wheat and barley harvests of Israel, as well as far from the experience of being enslaved. But as spring unfolds for us, counting the omer can help us shake off the stiffness of winter and recommit to the work of tikkun hanefesh (healing the soul) and tikkun olam (healing the world).

Some resources for counting the omer this year:

A brief meditation and exercise for each day from Rabbi Simon Jacobson

Daily themes from a variety of writers on RitualWell

More apps, books, and websites to help you count the omer

What To Call Your Rabbi?

Written By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

When I first came to be the rabbi of this holy community 17 months ago, a number of you asked what you should call me: Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner? Rabbi Ora? Reb Ora? Just ‘Rabbi’? Just ‘Ora’? It was my first congregational role post-ordination, and I was still adapting to my new title. I also wanted to be open to what each of you was most comfortable calling me. And so I likely said to you, “please call me whatever you feel most comfortable with,” with a default suggestion of ‘Rabbi Ora.’

17 months in, and several of you have continued to check in about how to address me. With a firmer sense now of my preference and its roots, I’m sharing this learning with you today:

In the near-2,000-year history of the role of rabbi, women have officially occupied this role for less than a century. The first modern woman rabbi that we know of, R. Regina Jonas, was ordained by Germany’s Reform movement in 1935. The next time Reform Judaism ordained a woman rabbi was in the United States in 1972, with R. Sally Priesand. Our Reconstructionist movement ordained its first woman rabbi, R. Sandy Eisenberg-Sasso, in 1974; then the Conservative movement with R. Amy Eilberg in 1985; and in 2009, Sara Hurwitz became the first Orthodox woman given the title of ‘maharat.’

One could argue that 5 decades of women rabbis in North America has given our Jewish communities sufficient time to get comfortable relating to rabbis who are not cisgender men. But the reality is that systemic misogyny (both in historical Judaism and in the non-Jewish world) continues to inform how women rabbis are regarded; women rabbis are consistently afforded less respect and confidence than our male counterparts.

In December 2017, Rabbi Jordie Gerson published an article in the Forward entitled “I Am the Rabbi, Not His Assistant: We Must Fight the Erasure of Female Clergy.” R. Gerson shares example after example of women and men, Jews and non-Jews, clergy and laypeople assuming she could not possibly be ‘the’ solo rabbi or speak from a position of grounded, educated Jewish authority.

R. Gerson writes: “This is demoralizing and exhausting. And it erases slow and painful advances it’s taken millennia to overcome – in a tradition whose right wing still scoffs at women rabbis.”

R. Gerson goes on to assure the reader that female clergy across faith lines share these experiences, including consistently being called by only their first names in situations where male clergy are called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Reverend’ or ‘Imam’ [Last-name].

On the heels of R. Gerson’s article, Rabbi Dr. Kari Hofmaister Tuling published an article in the Forward entitled, “Want to Help Women Rabbis Get the Respect They Deserve? Here’s a List.” The very first point on the list: “Refer to every colleague as ‘Rabbi’ [Last-Name] regardless of how cute or young or approachable or bubbly or fun she is.”

R. Dr. Hofmaister Tuling’s suggestion is an invitation and a challenge to all of us to invest in progress and claim respect for women clergy everywhere.

And, it’s also important to recognize that every community is different and has unique values and needs.

In Reconstructionist Judaism, and particularly in our community, we pride ourselves on being warm, welcoming, and somewhat informal. Given that, I suspect it would be overly distancing and stiff to be called ‘Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner’ by our members. So how do we balance a commitment to warmth with a commitment to allyship; how do we balance the value of closeness with a sense of confidence in the rabbi’s role?

There is power in naming and in being named. In light of what I’ve shared with you, I invite you to continue empowering me to be your rabbi, in the fullness of what that looks like within our community and beyond. And to answer the title’s question? Please, call me ‘Rabbi Ora.’

Our mishkanic congregation: Rabbi Ora’s dvar at her Installation

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Shabbat Shalom.

Those of you who were at the membership meeting two weeks ago may remember that Greg, in his role as outgoing treasurer, shared his opinion that our congregation is better off financially for not having our own building, and that we should never actually build our own synagogue.

The saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. That’s certainly true in our community, and of course we could debate the merits of us having or not having our own building. But I don’t bring this up to open up that conversation today, or to challenge Greg’s opinion. I bring it up because Greg’s remarks, to me, were an invitation to consider what it means to be a congregation – literally, a place where people congregate – without a synagogue?

What is a congregation without a permanent physical home?

As I reflected, I realized that this question – sparked by one member of this community – had already been answered by another member. Two months ago, when we gathered in October to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, Marcy called our congregation ‘mishkanic’ – that is, modeled on the mishkan, the biblical portable resting-place for God.

And that’s what I wanted to explore with you today. Beyond simply being without a physical home, what might that mean, to be a mishkanic congregation?

First,we should go back to the source. What was the mishkan?

The mishkan was a portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert for 40 years. Practically speaking, the mishkan was a large tent. It was made from gold-plated acacia wood and various curtains and tapestries. The mishkan housed a menorah, an altar for sacrifices, and, inside the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, an ark containing the two sets of tablets of the ten commandments, both the broken and the intact, and a space between two golden cherubim where the spirit of God would rest.

The mishkan was built to travel. There were six special wagons used to transport it. Each time the Israelites moved en masse, the ark would be carefully dismantled, and then reassembled at each new camp site. And you thought camping on Memorial Day weekend was logistically challenging.

So the mishkan is a portable sanctuary, a place for holiness to travel alongside our ancestors. How did it come to exist?

In Exodus Chapter 25, parshat Terumah, God lays out the plan for constructing the mishkan. God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me an offering; of every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” The Israelites are invited to contribute previous metals, fine cloths, and furs to construct the walls of the mishkan. Not only are these donations not compulsory, but they are acceptable to and accepted by God only when the donation is rooted in a generosity of heart.

The mishkan was built purely through volunteer effort. It was constructed out of love, of materials freely and willingly given.

And our mishkanic congregation? It also came together out of volunteer energy. AARC began as a havurah, a group of dear ones who came together to pray and learn and celebrate holy moments. And as this community has transitioned from a havurah to a congregation, we still rely on, we’re still rooted, in a generosity of heart that means ongoing investment of time and energy and care from members. And, like with the mishkan, our many sacred objects came from the hands of our incredible artists and artisans. Our Torah table, aron, ner tamid, Torah cover, decorative tapestries, yad – these are all objects of beauty that exemplify Hiddur Mitzvah, commandment to further beautify the sacred.

The mishkan was a sacred space that housed beautiful objects. And the mishkan was made to be portable. And anyone who’s ever helped with set up for services – anyone who’s wheeled the siddur cart from our storage closet, or helped transport our sacred objects to the Unitarian Universalist Church for High Holy Days – can attest to our portability, and the effort that comes with being portable. But being portable also means being able to be flexible to meet the needs of an evolving community. Being portable means lighting Chanukah candles in different members’ homes every night of the holiday; celebrating Passover seders in each other’s homes; building and sleeping in a sukkah on a member’s farm.

And being portable means not just that our things can be moved, but that we, too, are open to movement, to change. Throughout the life of this congregation thus far, there have been new worship spaces, new forms of leadership, both rabbinic and lay, a new name, new members, new collaborators within the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community. As a mishkanic congregation we don’t have to be rigid; we can be not just open to growth, but to hold it as a Jewish and a Reconstructionist value.

When God first spoke to Moses about the construction of the miskhan, God said: ‘Va’asuli mikdash veshachanti betocham.’ ‘Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.’ When I’ve spoken about this verse in the past, I’ve pointed out how ‘betocham’ is grammatically odd here. It’s commonly translated as the singular, sanctuary, but actually is plural. If we look at the text, we see that God isn’t saying, ‘Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in that sanctuary.’ God says, ‘Make me a sanctuary – and through your actions, by building this portable holy place, out of love, with a commitment to beauty and growth, I will come to dwell among you, within each of you.’

The physical mishkan takes a back seat to the act of building it. It’s the action undertaken, the creation itself that opens up the hearts of the Israelites to be a dwelling place for God.

This pasuk/verse is revolutionary. It takes holiness out of the context of space and even time and locates it in relationship. Holiness – the indwelling of God – becomes the outcome of a commitment to growth, to openness, and to being in relationship with one another.

If we are, as Marcy suggested, and I agree, mishkanic, then as a community we are the place where holiness resides. We, coming together, figuring out how to be a large, messy, loving family, create a space for God to come in.

I want to acknowledge what a blessing it’s been for me to enter into and be a part of this holy community this past year and a half – a community that is committed to growth, to openness, to flexibility, to relationships, to justice, to learning, and to beauty. I feel lucky to have been so joyfully and completely welcomed throughout the past 1.5 years and today. And thank you for embarking on this relationship of trust with me. Thank you for you trusting me to be your rabbi.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge that the Torah that I referenced this morning is not from Vayigash, from this week’s Torah portion – it’s not even from the book that we’re currently in! The building of the mishkan takes place in Exodus, rather than towards the end of Genesis. But, because everything in the Torah is connected: In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Jacob traveling down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph and to settle there. And in a midrash on this parsha, from Midrash Tanchuma, we learn that Jacob, as he prepared for his journey, collected seeds of the acacia tree in Canaan. And when he arrived in Egypt, he planted them there, and told his children and grandchildren that hundreds of years in the future, after their descendants had been enslaved and liberated, they would need the wood from these acacia trees to construct a mishkan in the desert.

So my simple blessing for this community, at this moment in our congregation’s history, looking to the past, dwelling in the present, and looking towards the future: May we remember and celebrate the many moments of holy community that have led to the present. May we continue to create a resting place for each other and for holiness to enter. And, like our forefather Jacob, may we be visionaries of the future: may our actions, our learning, and our commitment to community plant seeds of holiness for generations to come.

Amen.

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Yom Kippur 5779 Sermon
by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Some of you know that before I moved to Ann Arbor to serve as rabbi of this holy community, I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in New Orleans. I was assigned to the oncology ward, so my weekdays, 8 to 5, were spent with cancer patients and their families. But at least once a week I would also work an overnight shift, which meant covering any death that happened in the hospital over a 24-hour period.

I ended up witnessing a lot of deaths – sometimes one per shift, occasionally as many as three. I rarely had time in the immediate aftermath of each death to grieve or process. But it was my job to show up, fully present, each time I walked into a hospital room. So I developed a ritual for myself: After each death, once the family had left the room and the body was taken away, I would take a few moments, alone, to wash my hands twice; first with soap and water, and then again, just water. It felt like this small ritual helped wash away some of the emotional residue that clung to me, so that I could show up for the next patient and family, with an open heart.

One patient who I remember vividly, in life and in death, was a man called Mikal (pseudonym)  in his early 60s. He was the proud patriarch of a large, loud, Armenian Orthodox family. He’d emigrated to New Orleans in the 1970s, raised a son and daughter there, and established a successful jewelry business.

During the two months Mikal spent coming in and out of the hospital for treatment, I could always tell when he’d been admitted because there would a stream of visitors – family, friends, customers – spilling out of his hospital room into the hallway, laughing and talking animatedly and bothering the nurses for more fridge space in the lounge to store dishes of homemade food they’d brought.

Mikal had an aggressive form of cancer, but he was a dedicated optimist. He never admitted, at least to me, that he was dying. But he passed quickly, within a few months of his diagnosis.

The morning that Mikal passed away, I’d just started my shift when I got a call from the head nurse telling me that Mikal had just died, surrounded by his family. When I walked into the hospital room, I saw Mikal’s 32-year-old daughter Tamar lying in bed next to her father’s body. Her right arm spanned her father’s chest, and she was kissing his cheek again and again and crying.

One thing I discovered in my work as a chaplain is that the length of time family will stay with the body of a loved one varies tremendously from family to family and culture to culture.

Most families will leave within an hour of their loved one being pronounced dead.  Tamar stayed with her father’s body, cradling him and crying, for more than four hours.

And I stayed with them in that room the whole time, because that was my job, to be there, to witness, to comfort. But I was uncomfortable. Because as a Jew, that kind of clinging to a dead body felt foreign and unsettling to me.

The Torah cautions us repeatedly not to touch a dead body, because it makes the living ritually impure. Many passages in Leviticus and Numbers warn against any contact with a corpse, and then outline how to cleanse oneself if contact does accidentally happen. But beyond these biblical, archaic prohibitions, even contemporary Jewish practices around death seem to communicate a hands-off feeling.

When someone dies, we bury their body as quickly as possible. After a funeral, all those who’ve attended are supposed to wash their hands as they leave the cemetery. And when Jews walk through a cemetery, we’re supposed to take care not to walk across any graves. So it seems like as Jews, we’re supposed to avoid contact with the dead.

But: this attitude doesn’t reflect the fullness of our traditions around death and mourning. Judaism also has a number of rituals that demonstrate deep tenderness towards the dead – rituals that seem to encourage care and physical closeness. I want to highlight four of these.

The first is the custom of the shomer – guard, watchman. After a Jewish person dies, their body is taken to a funeral home, where a relative, or a volunteer, or an employee of the funeral home sits with the body overnight and reads poetry out loud to it – usually Psalms. This ancient tradition came about because of the belief that a soul could become lost and confused right after death, and hover around the body until it was buried. The presence of the shomer was meant to be a comfort to the soul. And there is always a shomer until the funeral – the body is never left alone.

The second custom also takes place before burial, and involves a group called the chevrah kedisha, a community of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial. The preparation, known as tahara, is fixed, slow, and careful. First the body is ritually washed. As it’s washed, care is taken to preserve its modesty; only one small section of the body is uncovered at any given time. Then the body is dressed in white garments, wrapped in a tallit, and laid in a casket. At the conclusion of the tahara, the members of chevrah kedisha silently ask forgiveness from the soul for any indignity the body may have suffered during the ritual. They then ask God to gently receive the soul of the body they’ve just washed and dressed and tucked in.

The third custom I want to highlight is a more public-facing one: how relatives recite Mourner’s Kaddish for a year after a loved one’s death. This tradition dates back almost 2,000 years. The early rabbis believed that when a person died, their soul would go down to Gehinnom, a temporary purgatory. There, the soul would review their life’s actions and do teshuva. The more sins a person had accumulated in life, the longer their soul would stay in Gehinnom, with the maximum time being 12 months before the soul could finally ascend to heaven.

It was believed that having living relatives recite Kaddish could help speed up the soul’s process of teshuva. Some rabbis recommended that relatives stop reciting Kaddish after 11 months – to assume that their loved one had already ascended to heaven, and had not been so sinful as to have needed the full 12 months.

The final custom I want to share with you is that of visiting the graves of loved ones on yahrzeits and before holidays. Many Jewish families will take a yearly trip to the cemetery before Rosh HaShana and spend some time at each family member’s grave. At the end of the visit they’ll place a small rock on each gravestone, a way of marking ‘I was here’.

All of these rituals fall under the umbrella term ‘chesed shel emet.’ Chesed – meaning lovingkindess. And Shel Emet – meaning truth. Our tradition teaches us, with this name, that these acts of loving care for the dead are the truest form of compassion. Why? It’s simple: The dead will never be able to do the same for us in return. Chesed shel emet is considered true altruism.

What does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? Well, last night and this morning, we’ve been repeating the Vidui and Al Chet, doing teshuvah for this past year. And, as Dave said so eloquently last night, even as we reflect on the past, we’re also meant to be thinking about the future.

Audre Lorde once wrote: ‘We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes habit.’ I’m wondering what it would be like, in the coming year, for us to reach for the delicacy and tenderness of chesed shel emet. Not, God forbid, treating the living as though they’re dead. But seeing if we can be so tender with one another, and without waiting for our gentleness to be returned.

So what would our day-to-day look like, guided by the tenderness of the rituals I just described?

Well: The shomer serves a comforting presence to a soul that may be lost, disoriented, or afraid. And of course being a shomer isn’t easy, or joyful; sitting up at night, alone with a dead body is hard. But what if, similar to a shomer, we challenge ourselves to radical accompaniment: to sitting with friends and strangers and family, even when their vulnerability or their need makes us uncomfortable. Can we show up and stay there in the messiness, even if it makes us afraid? Can we show up knowing we might not be thanked or appreciated?

And the chevra kedisha, performing tahara, the ritual of cleansing the body, with so much gentleness and respect. We could treat each other with the most delicate of touches, knowing how easy it is to cause shame or embarrassment. Knowing that sometimes we’ll still need to apologize even when we’ve done our best.

And, guided by Mourner’s Kaddish? We would assume positive intent in others. We’d believe that if a person hurt us, that they’d been doing the best they could at that moment. We’d limit how long we held grudges, held onto hurt. And we’d try to believe that even if the apology never came, that the person who hurt us was, on some level, sorry.

And finally, graveyard visits: Literally, visiting people where they’re at. What if we showed up, from time to time, uninvited, on each other’s doorsteps, bringing a gift, leaving a note, reminding someone we care about: Hey. I’ve been thinking about you.

It’s so freeing to act out of love without needing it to be returned. This kind of chesed, tender loving kindness, can transform the person who loves and the person who is loved.

This new year, 5779, can we love like this? Can we take up Audre Lorde’s challenge to reach for tenderness until it becomes habit?

On Erev Rosh HaShana, I said to you: ‘If we choose life then we are obligated to remember that although daily acts of love do not win headlines love has always existed, it does exist, and it will continue to exist. Love is an endlessly renewing resource.’

And, this afternoon, I want to add: More than just a resource like water, more than that which flows from us and to us and through us, love – chesed – is the foundation of this world. Love is the ground that we build and rebuild with each gesture, with every small act.

One of my favourite Hebrew songs is called Olam Chesed Yibaneh. The lyrics are just these three words, repeated. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. Meaning: we will build this world from love.

Let’s hold onto this possibility for ourselves, and for one another. Olam chesed yibaneh – we can build this world out of love.

Join me.

Rabbi Ora on Elul and Elul Playlist

This year, the Hebrew month of Elul begins September 1 — a nice coinciding of the secular and Jewish calendars. I think of Elul as a kind of pumping-the-brakes on the freewheeling expansiveness of summer; even though it’s usually still warm outside, Elul is a whispered reminder: Fall is coming. Slow down. Get a little quieter. And begin turning inwards. 

Why? Because there is work to be done.

It’s tradition to dedicate the 29 days of Elul to reflection, study, and preparation for the coming Days of Awe. Elul challenges us to use each day to re-connect with our values and attune to the yearning of our souls.

Conceptually, the idea is noble, but acting on it is a bit more challenging. Here are a few resources to help you get started: 

Learn more about Elul from Rabbi Yael Ridberg at Reconstructing Judaism

Psalm 27 (“Achat Sha’alti”) is traditionally recited every morning in Elul. Here’s Rabbi Brant Rosen’s interpretation of Psalm 27 

Listen to a special episode from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Unbounding Elul

Here’s a simple calendar that helps you set a single intention for Elul and track it throughout the month

Thinking ahead? Sign up now to receive a daily email prompt for reflection during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

Is your favorite part of the High Holy Days the music? Here are 2 new niggunim we’ll be using this year – you can get a head start on learning them by clicking the links below:

Micah Shapiro’s Hashiveini

The Klezmatic’s interpretation of Shnirele Perele