Seth Kopald’s Simchat Torah Shabbat D’var Torah

Rabbi Ora asked me these questions: “What is a metaphor/image that speaks to your experience of simcha (joy), and why? And what, if anything, is Jewish/spiritual about simcha for you?” 

From my personal experience, and based on the work I do with people everyday, Joy seems to emerge when we return to our natural, birthright qualities of our true Selves. I believe our natural qualities include curiosity, compassion, creativity, playfulness, and the capacity to feel joy. I believe we are all born with a light inside, connected to G-d, the universe, to life itself. That light carries and supports our freedom to express who we are. A light that allows joy to flourish, if it is allowed to shine unencumbered. 

Yet life seems to carry hurtful experiences that appear to dim or almost extinguish our light, sometimes beginning in the womb. On the other hand, when children receive unconditional love, when people around them value what they bring, their uniqueness of expression and thought, children don’t need to take on beliefs like feeling they are too much or not enough. They can shine their light with joy and perhaps carry that into adulthood. Simultaneously, our culture and even our religion can impose burdens on us as well. Of course, Judaism carries many gifts, rich in tradition: learning, sacred rituals, and resilience. For me, I realize that I have taken on intergenerational burdens tied to my understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I have always felt like I have to look over my shoulder for my own safety, and perhaps I need to hide, like our ancestors did in caves. 

A week or so ago, I looked inside myself and asked my system if I carried such legacy burdens. I saw myself sitting at the Passover table as a young child. I heard a voice in me say, “we must suffer” and when I asked why, it said, “in order to survive.” I looked around the 1970s table. I was with my family, no joy and little unconditional love, but there was more heaviness. The story of Passover. The gift of freedom came with a cost – the suffering we endured – slavery, witnessing plagues, death of sons, seas swallowing people, angels shushed for cheering, and we decided to never go into the promised land. To this day, my system has never allowed me to go to Israel, as if I still carry the burden of slavery in Egypt. This young part of me showed me the burdens that cover my joy during Passover, burdens I still carry today. 

This inner experience happened the same day I saw Rabbi Ora’s email inviting me to give this dvar torah. The depth of the timing felt sublime. I asked myself: Where is the joy? Where is the joy of the Jewish people? Is it in Israel, where people feel they have a homeland? I cannot say. Is it in the siddur? The one I was forced to get through in Hebrew school? No. As I explored this topic more deeply within myself, I saw the contrasting Jewish experiences I have had in my life.

You see, Joy was in the siddur at Summer camp. There was a loving Jewish community in which I lived for four weeks at a time. I went to both sessions, so eight weeks of Joy. We prayed every morning in a circle, swaying together, our voices filling the Beit Am. The dancing, the discussions, the ease of being together. Joyfully singing the birkat hamazon after every meal. The machine of Society gone, our burden of suffering paused. The sadness carried in the songs we sang felt more like a beautiful sadness, one that tied us all together. Then it was time to go home again, back to Hebrew school where I wanted to say to the Rabbi, “This isn’t being Jewish! This is a fashion show. We are running through the motions. No kavanah. It’s not from the heart.” Ironically, when I studied for my bar mitzvah, which was shared by another boy, an old school rabbi showed up for me and helped me learn my torah portion. He literally slammed his fist on the desk and shouted with passion, “You have to sing loud, and slow, From Your Heart!” One of the best moments of my Jewish life – sitting across the table from this mysterious rabbi. He felt like a wizard to me. And there we were on my bar mitzvah day, the other boy racing through, I drummed up my courage and sang from my heart. 

At camp, on kabbalat shabbat, we heard a story of a young boy who lived in an orthodox village. He walked into the synagogue one day, the old men davening in a murmur. The boy, not knowing the prayers, started singing what he knew, the Hebrew alphabet. He sang the alphabet with joy, no words, a nigun from the heart — and he was hushed by the men, shaming his natural love for G-d. The Rabbi stopped the service and shared what he saw: the boy was the only one truly praying. 

In our Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, I see heart connection often. Rabbi Ora is a model for us. She allows her natural light to shine. Her words take us to deep understanding and compassion and she shares her heartfelt niguns with us all. One of our congregants led us in a nigun over the high holidays, her heart open and her voice connected deeply. She let her light shine. 

On this day we celebrate Simchat Torah with our new friends at Congregation Agudas Achim. 

The torah itself seems to hold the light that we all share inside, I feel its resonance. It’s not the words or the stories inside the torah scrolls, it’s the gestalt of it all that resonates with me. And today we roll it back to the beginning, B’reshit, when G-d sparked the first light of creation, the light that is within all of us. “G-d saw the light that it was good.” Yes, when I feel my light and the light of others, it does feel good. 

Our light may be covered, like the clouds cover the sun, but it is there nonetheless. Perhaps today as we roll back to the story of creation, the beginning of what we see as life itself, we can begin to unload the burdens we gathered along the way and those given to us by our lineage. Let the clouds part even briefly, so we can go back to our natural state and feel our light and the innate birthright qualities of that light. To me this is Joy, the return to ourSelves, and that is what I wish for all of you today. 

The Jews of old had light, and happiness and joy — may it be so for us! Esther 8:16

Inspired by my ancestors and the work of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model and all the wonderful IFS leaders.

One Farmer’s COVID Holiday Thoughts, October 2020

By Carole Caplan

This year—in this unusual and uncertain year—unable to gather in community, I chose instead to pray outside.

The words and songs of the service streamed out of my phone which sat neatly tucked into my tool belt

I had been weeding as I prayed along, enjoying the morning sunshine and the cool fall air.

I think it was out somewhere between the rows of fading sunflowers and the newly planted kale that I surprisingly ran into God…or perhaps it was that God, equally as surprised, ran into me.

The familiar tunes had tugged at my heart, and suddenly—without thinking—I had sprung up and began to dance, twirling to the music with the sun on my face and laughing like a little girl.

As the laughter turned to tears—you know, as it often does when we allow ourselves to open past the veneer of the everyday—I had an undeniable sense of being connected to these growing and dying things around me, to the cycles of the seasons they follow—and to the rhythms they look to teach me about year after year. 

Similarly, I felt connected to a growing and dying peoplehood, a Jewish project spanning space and centuries that was reaching out to me there in the field that very day.

For a moment I felt completely a part of, not apart from, and I felt it deep inside my bones.

As a farmer, the agricultural content of our Jewish teachings and rituals are not lost on me as I steward this small piece of land.

On Sukkot we are told to build huts to dwell in—structures consciously designed to be unstable—a roof which lets the rain in, and walls fragile enough to be blown over with the next big wind. We wave water-dependent species in all directions, and as Sukkot closes, we beat water-loving willows on the ground as we pray for rain—rain that might come at just the right time and in just the right amounts. At the same time, as farmers we are gathering in the harvest, the tactile abundance of the year which might nourish us through the cold months ahead. We buy seed and we plan for a harvest we can only trust will one day come to be.

As Jews, I think we are called to live precariously amidst the plenty precisely to remind us that despite our efforts for control, the future remains unknown. And even given that unknown, we are called to remember that this is not to be the time of our worry, but rather it is called the time of our rejoicing. The teachings seem eager to imply that joy is the fertile ground in which we can plan and plant for happiness. Happiness that might come from choices well made, and from a life well lived, but one that nonetheless, is not guaranteed.

The teachings seem eager to imply that joy is the fertile ground in which we can plan and plant for happiness.

In the bounty of the winter squash piled high in the barn awaiting market, gratitude comes easily for me and helps me access that type of joy. And with that joy, there inevitably comes hope. Farmers are incredibly hopeful people, you know. We have to be. The odds of seeds growing and plants reaching maturity against the realities of droughts, of floods, of untimely frosts and heat spells, of pests and disease…well, it’s all a practice of patiently tending what is in front of you today, despite the knowledge that disappointments and failures abound. Yet what remains certain to the farmer is that growth is possible, and that alone seems to provide the energy for one to endure, to remain adaptable, and to do the hard work that needs to be done.

If hope holds space for possibility and roots itself in joy, then perhaps joy is a fertile and abundant attitude waiting for us right outside the doors and walls we build as we attempt to keep ourselves safe. So, I invite you to join me outside. Come out to the farm sometime. Put your hands in the dirt. Soften. Connect. Find yourself to be a part of life. And listen. Joy dwells here, I am sure, and is calling out to each of us echoing our ancient texts: May we be grateful, may we be blessed, and may we merit to live many days upon the soil.

Photo: Pezibear

Shabbat Shuvah Sermon: The Importance of Reset Buttons in a Year of Upheaval and a Time of Tshuvah

Deborah Kraus

Shabbat Shuvah is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the name implies, it continues the holiday themes of t’shuvah, repentance and return.

Before I begin, I want to say something because as I struggled to write this drash, I couldn’t quite rid myself of the thought, “people don’t want to hear about this.  They want something really political that speaks to the moment.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted, and wrote this anyway.  Primarily because it’s what I agreed to write, but also because of my strong belief that if we don’t figure out how to help ourselves in times like this, we can’t have the energy to help others or the world.

In this week’s Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us (which I highly recommend) she refers to an article by Adrian Farrow, entitled “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted; it’s Why You Feel Awful.”  It’s about how we cope (or don’t) when an acute situation, like the pandemic, becomes a chronic one.  It includes the term “resilience bank account,” which for most of us was depleted a long time ago and discusses how to get it back, most notably “to step into a more spacious mental space that allows you to do things that are constructive instead of being mired in a state of psychological self torment.”

And with that intro, here goes. 

Like many of us, I think of High Holidays as being the great time of resetting.  If we only do it once a year, this feels like the right time.  

How have we gone off our course?  

How might we even want to redefine our course?  

Is our course even possible any more?

Of course, this has been a particularly challenging year, even for those of us privileged enough to not have the rug pulled out from under us on a regular basis (I count myself among you if that is not yet clear)!  Think back to March and the frantic search for disinfectant wipes and toilet paper, when we were first confronted with the question of what is truly necessary to sustain us through what we thought was just going to be the next few days, maybe weeks.

And as days and weeks turned into months, and plans changed and were canceled, when we all started to ache for our connections and began to feel trapped in our homes, when those in our midst began to really annoy us—we did another reckoning of what was truly necessary, this time to sustain us through the few next months.

And, need I remind any of us that the problems of the world didn’t stop.  There were more black people killed with the subsequent long awaited beginning of a racial reckoning, there have been wildfires and disastrous hurricanes, there’s a recession, and of course there’s the almost complete erosion of democracy and the culture of caring in our country.  Topped off by the passing last Friday night of our hero and icon, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

While “reset button” is not the word most people think of first in referring to 2020, (I believe that word would be…never mind; you fill in the blank), this whole year has been one long series of reset buttons as COVID has magnified every single crack in ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.

We have proven to ourselves both how adaptable we can be, as well as how inflexible we can seem when there’s even just a little extra stress, a little unexpected anything.  At some point in the last 6½ months, we have all been at our breaking points a few times.

In fact, rather than being THE resetting time, the High Holidays this year feels like a time to look around us and inside ourselves and all breathe a sigh of relief for having gotten though to this occasion.  Shehechiyanu!

Nonetheless, when Rabbi Ora asked what I’d like to do a reflection on for High Holidays this year, I suggested this concept of reset buttons.   I think of bowling alleys from my youth, impatiently pushing the button when the pins got stuck or my preferred bowling ball did not immediately return.  Or we could think about the restart mechanism on our laptops and phones: we’ve learned that the first thing to try when something freezes or malfunctions is to restart it.

For some of us this reset has meant taking inventory.  

What is truly essential to live a contented life?  

Who is essential, both to society and to us?  

and

How are we adjusting? 

What have we learned from this experience?  

And I figured since I posed the questions and have another couple of minutes, I should answer them!

First, I have a renewed sense of my privilege.  I am lucky enough to be able to work from home and that I have a home that I love.  Much as I miss my daughter, I am glad she is launched, because anyone who is in transition has had such a harder time.  I have enough money to see me through. I live, as most of us do, in a bubble that has kept us safe because others take their health seriously and have the resources to do so. And most of us have skin color deemed not threatening.  I’m absolutely not trying to minimize what this pandemic has been like for anyone with a less full backpack of privilege.  

Next, I have become even clearer on what I need to be psychologically OK and that is connections.  At least once a day, I need a quality connection, outside of my work (which is full of them; I am a psychologist and connecting is my job).  And connections have abounded.  My close friends have become closer, generally through our weekly walks, usually, but not always, on the phone.  In fact, one of my closest friends moved to NJ during this time and I venture to say that in terms of our connection, I barely noticed.

Third, there’s been a renewed commitment to my health.  Being of the age bracket deemed vulnerable, and having had some health concerns that make me more so, I doubled down.  Walking at least my 10K steps and logging my food every day has turned into a discipline that reminds me to “change the things I can” when there’s so much of this world that I need to “accept that I cannot change.”

Fourth, I have learned I can do with less.  Life is simpler.  And I’ve been relieved to have more time to myself.  There has been less FOMO; I mean we’re all missing out!  The great equalizer!

But the next one is in direct contradiction to this last one.  While I can do with less, and my history is to “adapt, adapt, adapt,” my newest realization is that I some areas, pushing for more is a radical act.  None of us know how much time we have left in the world, and as Nadine Stair’s poem says, 

“If I had my life to live over, I’d dare to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.

So instead of saying an automatic “no” to my wants, I’m figuring out what parts of my wants can be possible.   Which is why I’m coming to you tonight from Glen Arbor, aka “my happy place,” where I have been since second day Rosh and will be till next Wednesday.  Yup, I’m spending Yom Kippur contemplating at the lake.

This great idea wasn’t mine.  But I’m glad someone asked me why, if I hadn’t gotten enough lake on my vacation, why I couldn’t go back up, since work is portable right now.  That’s the thing: despite my persona, I just don’t think outside the box enough. 

I imagine that’s what Nadine was thinking when she wrote that poem.

Because if not now, when?

In summary, I’ve stopped saying, “I can’t wait till things get back to normal,” 

because no one knows if that will ever happen, or what the new normal will look like,

because I believe that the real test of this reset button and this time of reflection is in what we will automatically go back to by next year,

And lastly,

because I believe that if we have learned nothing in this time– if we reset automatically to how things were– that  will have been the true missed opportunity.

Questions for Discussion:

What are the things you have learned through this pandemic and which of these lessons do you want to keep or expand upon as we think about post-pandemic?

Despite all the death, financial problems and governmental heartlessness, are there ways that the pandemic has been good for the world?

Does this concept of extended time of reset resonate for you, and if so, has it changed your high holiday experience?  If so, how?