This article appeared in the July 2022 Washtenaw Jewish News.
Those of you who have recently attended High Holidays services at AARC know that one of the highlights are Rabbi Ora’s sermons. Each year, Rabbi Ora conjures up mind-blowing topics that gives everyone food for thought for the year to come. As a teaser for this year, I thought I’d collect some sermon highlights to look back at some of the incredible teachings of the last few years. Whether you will be at our services this year in person or online, you’re guaranteed richly meaningful learning. Just make sure you register to attend as soon as possible!
- 5779 Kol Nidre Sermon: Making a Habit of Tenderness
- 5780 Kol Nidre Sermon: Erring on the Side of Love
- 5780 Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Remembering For Life, Being Remembered for Life
- 5781 Kol Nidrei Sermon: The Whole World is a Brief Bridge
- 5781 Rosh HaShanah Sermon: Breaking and Birthing
We look forward to seeing everyone over the chagim. As always, please let us know if you have any questions.
By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
This article was written for the May 2021 edition of the Washtenaw Jewish News
On May 16th, Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates our receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Why did I write ‘our,’ rather than ‘their’? Because tradition teaches (Shevuot 39a) that when the Torah was given, every Jew was standing at Sinai, including the souls of all Jews (and converts to Judaism) who would ever be born.
The idea that every soul was present at Sinai means that each one of us has a natural connection to God, Torah, and every other Jew that ever lived. This is a powerful birthright. But it might also be felt as a burden.
A burden in what way? Well, I’ve had countless conversations with Jews across the denominational spectrum who insist that they’re ‘not a good Jew,’ meaning not knowledgeable enough, or not committed enough, or not connected enough. Weighted down with overblown expectations of what it looks like to be ‘a good Jew’ and shame for not meeting those expectations, it’s no surprise that for many, Judaism can feel like an albatross.
And ours isn’t the first generation to feel this way. According to one midrash (Shabbat 88a), during revelation, God held a mountain over the Israelites’ heads and threatened: “Either accept the Torah or this shall be your burial place!” From the very beginning, we have some interpreting our religion as coercive and burdensome. But that’s not the only way.
In Reconstructionist Judaism, we understand that wrestling with God and our received tradition is part and parcel of being Jewish. It can be generative and joyful, especially when done in the company of fellow seekers. Reconstructionist Judaism also teaches that the past has a vote but not a veto. As the living embodiment of Judaism, we get to discern which aspects of Judaism support our moral vision for ourselves and for the world. We get to choose what kind of relationship to have to commandments, culture, history, and communities.
This perspective is also rooted in our tradition. Even as one midrash imagines God holding the mountain over our heads as a threat, another describes the mountain as a magnificent chuppah for the wedding between Israel and God (Mechilta Bachodesh 3).
This is the story I prefer: That being Jewish is a choice we make to be in relationship. It’s a choice that we get to affirm daily, weekly, monthly. It’s a choice that makes room for joy. And we are encouraged to come to the relationship with the fullness of who we are and who we are striving to become.
May is Open House Month at the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. We welcome all visitors to our Zoom Shabbat services and programs, including Wednesday May 12th’s “What IS Reconstructionist Judaism: A Discussion with Rabbi Ora,” at 7:30 pm. To register, email email@example.com; learn more at www.aarecon.org.
Perhaps even more than the Torah, the Talmud can be thought of as the quintessential Jewish text. Why? Because it’s full of everything that makes Jews Jewish: love of debate, intellectual curiosity, storytelling, humor, and the search for new meaning in inherited text and tradition.
The complete Talmud (in Aramaic) comprises over 2,700 pages of conversation, law, legend, and history. If you’ve never studied directly from a page of Talmud before, it can seem daunting. But AARC’s upcoming course ‘A Taste of Talmud: When Life Meets Prayer’ is here to help you get curious and comfortable through a 5-week immersion in Talmud text.
We’ll be study directly from the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Berachot, a rich conversation on the power of prayer, how and why we pray, and what happens when life meets prayer.
This course will take place on Sundays, 1:00-2:30 pm, beginning February 9, 2020.
** Please note: The first session is an introduction and will be held in the Temple Beth Emeth library. The remaining 4 sessions will be at the Ann Arbor JCC.
Course Schedule: Sundays, 1-2:30 pm
February 9: The ABCs of Talmud Study: By the end of this introductory session, you can expect to be able to define and identify terms like Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, aggadah, masechet, sugya, daf, and gemara, as well as know how to navigate a page of Talmud. (TBE library)
Note: No meeting on February 16
February 23: Berachot Chapter 5: Who should be our model for prayer? Should we follow the model of a heartbroken wife? A repentant philanderer? Who is the ideal pray-er? And how does emotion influence prayer? (JCC)
March 1: Berachot Chapter 5 continued: How should we pray? Should we use our bodies in prayer? What if our bodies are praying ‘right’ but our minds are distracted? (JCC)
March 8: Berachot Chapter 9: What can we pray for? Can you ask God for something frivolous? Can you pray to avert harm? Do you have to pray even if you’re angry at God or frustrated at life?
March 15: Berachot Chapter 9 continued: Who do we pray for? Do we pray for ourselves? For our loved ones? For strangers? Can prayer ever be selfish or unwelcome?
Q: Do I need to know Hebrew or Aramaic to participate?
A: No! We’ll be using the Steinsaltz English translation of the original Aramaic.
Q: What if I can’t make every session?
A: The learning will be cumulative, so while the ideal would be to attend every session, drop-ins are welcome.
Q: Do I need to bring any texts to class?
A: Just a notebook in case you want to write anything down. All texts will be provided.
Kol Nidrei 5780 Sermon
By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Toronto, 1990. I’m seven, in grade 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School. My favourite class at school is art. Outside of school, I do gymnastics, which I mostly don’t like because I’m not good at it, and pottery, which I do like, because I am.
I’m not very outdoorsy but I like playing in our neighbourhood park. At the park I make a new friend, a Jewish girl my age, and we play together every few days.
One day I get to the park expecting to play and my new friend says to me: ‘Tatte says I can’t play with you anymore.’ Tatte is Yiddish for father – my friend is Orthodox and speaks Yiddish at home. She says: ‘I can’t play with you anymore because Tatte says you’re not Jewish.’
Not Jewish. My seven-year-old self found this so confusing. Didn’t my family go to shul every Shabbes? Didn’t we keep kosher? Didn’t we put our menorah in the front window on Chanukah, just like every other Jewish family on our street?
I felt Jewish. And yet according to my friend’s father, I was not.
That was the first time in my life I was told I wasn’t Jewish. But it wasn’t the last. Over the years other people said similar things to me — neighbors in Toronto, shopkeepers in New York, rabbis in Jerusalem.
Thus far, in my life it’s been mostly Orthodox Jews who have questioned my Jewishness. But the Orthodox are certainly not the only Jews who invest energy in deciding who does and does not belong in Jewish community.
Over the years I’ve heard many stories from friends, colleagues, congregants who have been told in ways subtle and unsubtle that they are not Jewish, or not Jewish enough, or are Jewishly suspect. My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Emily Cohen, who was raised in a committed Jewish household by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, was told by more traditional rabbinical schools that she’d have to convert before applying. My colleague Rabbi Shais Rishon, a black Orthodox Jew in New York, has been asked in Jewish spaces ‘how are you Jewish?’ so many times that he’s developed the response, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you, Jewish?” I’ve talked to converts whose decision to convert was met by suspicion and a profound lack of welcome. I’ve talked to off-the-derech Jews whose community cut them off after they stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle. I’ve talked to engaged couples – straight interfaith couples and queer Jewish couples – who had other rabbis tell them they were making a mistake in their choice of partner, and refused to marry them.
If you’ve ever experienced this kind of scrutiny or rejection, you know how deeply wounding it is.
Even if it’s not done out of malice, it hurts. It hurts to have someone deny that you belong. It hurts to be told you’re not welcome in a place that should feel like home. It can make it so that afterwards, even when you walk into a welcoming space, part of you is always expecting to be told: ‘You shouldn’t really be here.’ And maybe most damaging of all, this kind of scrutiny and rejection can plant seeds of doubt. It can make a person say to themselves: ‘Maybe I’m not really who I think I am. Maybe my home isn’t here.’
Unfortunately, this kind of boundary-policing has been going on in Jewish communities for millennia.
In part, it’s because Judaism began as a religion of otherness. Abraham, the first Jew, had a radical idea – that God was one, not many. It took Abraham smashing his father’s idols to get the point across: I’m different. I believe in a different God than you do.
Mitzvot – commandedness – helped ensure a connection to this different God. Mitzvot also ensured that Jews would behave like one another and unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. And to further assist in this project of radical religious otherness, Judaism’s religious leaders did their best to ensure that Jews would have limited contact with the non-Jewish world.
The Torah largely forbade intermarriage with non-Israelite nations. Kashrut limited our dining options, and certain Talmudic rabbis forbade Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews entirely. Medieval rabbis prohibited their community members from even entering non-Jewish houses of worship. And even into the 20th century, speaking primarily in Yiddish, Ladino, or Hebrew prevented Jews from developing close personal or business ties with their non-Jewish neighbors.
As Jews, we have a long tradition of being different and keeping ourselves separate. This has required a strict policing of boundaries, done in the name of God and community. For those in the in-group who’ve refused to toe the party line – for those who have acted not-properly-Jewish – there’s a long tradition of excommunication, known as ‘karet’ – exiling transgressive Jews from their communities.
We can’t deny that one of the reasons Judaism has lasted so long is because historically, it has strongly policed the in-group’s borders.
But this policing is always in service to the collective. In focusing on the whole, rather than its parts, Judaism hasn’t always taken as seriously the individual’s need for exploration, self-expression, or curiosity within a given religious community.
Prioritizing the needs of the individual can mean making existing members temporarily uncomfortable, or even eventually shifting the group’s core identity. This can be expansive – it can have the effect of bringing in fresh, enlivening perspectives and shifting stagnant values or beliefs. But it’s also challenging to do and do well.
So how does any Jewish community make these key decisions around belonging? In the tension between maintaining strict borders and being radically expansive; in the tension between keeping our identity intact and minimizing the individual wounds of scrutiny and rejection, what values might serve as our guide?
In considering this question, I thought about various theories of group dynamics and social identity. But ultimately, I found inspiration in the centuries-old mystical tradition known as Kabbalah.
Kabalah promotes the idea of ten sefirot, ten divine traits that manifest in different ways in God and our world.
Gevurah, one of these ten sefirot, is the emanation associated with judgment and limitation, law and strict justice. Gevurah in divine form appears many times in the bible – a God filled with anger, a God quick to punish. In individuals, gevurah is associated with the power to restrain one’s innate urge to bestow goodness on others when the recipient is judged to be unworthy of it. Naturally, communities that strongly self-police rely heavily on gevurah. And you may be unsurprised to hear that the emotional state that corresponds with gevurah is yirah, or fear.
The sefira of gevurah exists opposite the sefira of chesed. In people, chesed is associated with unconditional love and a willingness to stretch to accommodate the needs of the other. Chesed is what undergirded Abraham’s practice of welcoming strangers into his tent. Like Abraham reaching out, chesed is thought to be proactive – an expansive force that impels the soul to connect with what it outside itself. In cosmological terms, chesed is associated with the very first day of creation – with God’s need to create a world, filled with light.
The emotional state that corresponds with chesed is ahavah, love.
In classical Kabbalah, gevurah and chesed are meant to balance each other out in equal measure. And that makes sense to me. Our world needs love to temper justice, and boundaries to offer a container for love.
But later Kabbalists came to believe that too much gevurah was actually the source of the world’s evil. They taught that the Sitra Achra, the evil inclination, is actually based in gevurah. That too much judgment is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man.
So they proposed that we always aim for more chesed than gevurah. That we should err on the side of abundant love, rather than on the side of limits.
As modern-day professionals, parents, colleagues, friends, we know the value of setting limits. But I want you to consider with me, this evening, the value of community erring on the side of love.
But why this evening? Why am I choosing Kol Nidrei to talk about this?
Because at no other time is the Jewish belief in the value of love more obvious than during these High Holy Days.
Nine days ago we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. Anticipating Yom Kippur, also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we called out ‘Adonai Adonai el rachum vechanun erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet’ – we called out to a God of compassion, a God slow to anger, a God full of abundant love. We asked the most loving version of God we know to welcome us back and to remember us for good. We sang ‘aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshiaynu’ — treat us with generosity and love, and save us.
And then we blew the shofar. Why? According to one midrash, on Rosh Hashanah, God sits upon kisei hadin, a throne of strict judgment. But when we blow the shofar, God gets up from this throne of judgment and moves to the kisei rachamim, the seat of compassion. And that is the place from which God welcomes us on Yom Kippur – from a place of love. (Lev Rabbah 29:3)
During these High Holy Days, we call on God to move towards love because we are absolutely clear that love is what will save us.
We are clear on that. So why not model our community on that same call? Why not make love the grounding principle of our tradition, opening our metaphorical tents on all sides? And not just during the Yamim Noraim, but throughout the year. Because let’s be real. We’re not only being saved or saving one another on Yom Kippur. It happens in ways large and small in how we reach out to one another or turn away from one another throughout the year.
Many of you have heard by now that this year, our congregation has undertaken to remodel itself in accordance with the values of radical welcoming. This community’s leadership has asked itself, what would it take to ensure that every person feels welcome in this community? Because we’re a community made of human beings, we’ve already missed the mark a couple times. But we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep learning and trying.
And we need your help. If we’re going to create a community based on chesed, we need to hear from you: What would it take to make you feel welcomed? What would it take to help you feel like you fully belonged?
If there are ways that this particular community can grow to serve you better – please let us know. Or if there are ways I can help you strategize about how to make your other Jewish communities more welcoming – come talk to me. And if there are parts of you that are unsure whether you belong here – please let us know how we can build trust with you. So that you feel that you belong, and you know that you are beloved.
I began this sermon talking about my experience of being told as a young person: You’re not Jewish. You don’t belong.
And now – I’m a rabbi. And rabbis have a long tradition of serving as gatekeepers of Jewish communities.
And so I want to take the opportunity, this evening, with so many of you gathered here, to make myself clear: As a rabbi and as a human being I place more value on chesed than gevurah. It is more important to me to open the gates wide, to be asked to stretch, to be invited to do better, and to commit to figuring it out, than to tell someone they don’t belong.
Because I want every person here to feel beloved by their community.
I want you to see yourself as not at the margins, but at the center.
And I want you to know that this messy enterprise of life is made richer and more complex and more beautiful because of how you choose to engage with your Jewish community.
If you come here this evening bearing an old wound of being told that you didn’t belong in one Jewish community or another: because one or both of your parents weren’t Jewish; because of who you loved or married; because of your family; because you are single; because of your body’s abilities; because of the colour of your skin; because of your gender, because of your age; because of your finances, because of where you were born; because of your politics; because of your views on Israel and Palestine; because of your level of observance or knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish prayer; because of whether or how you believe in God; because of any variety of your uniqueness:
To each of you here ever turned away from Jewish community – that community sinned against you. You deserved better. You deserved a Judaism that centered you and a Jewish community where you felt like you belonged. A community that knew intuitively and immediately how much a part of it you were. And I’m sorry if you were ever made to believe otherwise.
Even on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we know implicitly that more love, more acceptance, more gentleness is what will get us closer to God and to one another. So my blessing for us this Yom Kippur and the year to come: may we be an inspiration to one another and even to the Holy One above by erring on the side of loving and being loved. Ken yehi ratzon.
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Why are we here?
I don’t mean that in the sense of why do we exist – although, of all the times to ask that question, Rosh HaShanah would be a reasonable one. But you can relax. I’m not thinking quite that meta.
I mean, why are we here, in this building, this evening? Where does Rosh HaShanah come from?
In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, we find God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’” Essentially, God is saying: “Here’s the Jewish calendar.” The first holiday listed is Passover, then Shavuot, then Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. And each of these sacred occasions is accompanied by a verse or two on how to observe it.
For Rosh HaShanah, it is written: “On the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).
So we know when Rosh HaShanah is supposed to take place – the first of the month of Tishrei. And we know it’s meant to be a holy day, which means, no work. And we know it’s meant to be a day of remembering – a “zichron” – announced by a shofar.
What are we supposed to remember?
The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re supposed to remember the past year. Rosh HaShanah opens up the ten Days of Awe, during which we recall, reflect, and repent, so that we don’t repeat our missed marks from the past year.
But we’re not the only ones remembering on this holiday. God is also remembering.
During services tomorrow, we’ll sing: “Zokhrenu l’hayyim” – God, remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. And we’ll add, “Zocher yetsurav…” – God of Mercy, remember all your creations with compassion.
Based on how many times in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we ask God to remember our deeds and judge us for good, it seems like we’re not convinced it’s a sure thing. So as an added strategy, we also ask God to remember that we have a relationship that goes way back.
We begin the Rosh HaShanah Amidah with, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu ve’Elohai avoteinu ve’imoteinu…” – “Blessed are You, Holy One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.” And then throughout the Amidah we repeatedly refer to God as “Elohainu v’Elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu” – Our God and God of our ancestors – and ask God to go easy on us based on the merit of their good deeds.
On the surface, this strategy seems not unreasonable. To be a little glib, you could call it cosmic nepotism. We’re saying to God, “Hey, you knew my great great great etc. grandfather… he was a good guy. So I’m probably a good guy, too, no?”
But thinking about it more deeply, this a strategy based on a flawed premise. Because if you’ve ever read more than one or two chapters of Genesis alone, you’ve realized that our biblical ancestors had profoundly messy and morally complicated lives.
On Rosh HaShanah alone, we read plenty of examples of our ancestors’ misdeeds.
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah is the story of how Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham is troubled, but he listens to Sarah. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert with just a little bread and water. They survive only because God intervenes to save them.
And the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh HaShanah? That’s the story of Akedat Yitzchak, of the near-murder of Isaac. Abraham listens to what he believes is the voice of God, telling him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s child. Abraham and Isaac journey to Mount Moriah, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on an altar and is about to cut Isaac’s throat, and then an angel intervenes to save them.
In both of these stories as they appear in our Torah, there’s no acknowledgement of misdeed. There’s no apology. And there’s no recompense.
And Abraham and Sarah were just the first of our complicated ancestors. Their children, and their children’s children, and on and on through the generations, morally missed the mark again and again. Our biblical ancestor fought amongst themselves. They stole land and birthrights. They lied, and cheated, and sold siblings into slavery.
So why do we remind God of our connection to these ancestors when we pray on Rosh HaShanah? Couldn’t this actually backfire?
Here’s the thing: We don’t know the impact of reminding God of our ancestors, because we don’t know God – God is inherently unknowable. We have no idea what it means for God to remember us, or our ancestors.
What we do know, though, is our own experience of remembering.
We know how it feels to remember our flawed ancestors. And it can be hard to be reminded of this complicated legacy and the fact that it’s a part of our cannon.
So what we do with this flawed family tree? How do we sit with these difficult ancestors?
Well, Jews throughout history have been trying to figure this out. I would say these efforts typically fall into one of the 3 categories.
The first category is a kind of apologetics, reframing our ancestor’s actions as unequivocally positive. This is something the rabbis of the Talmud did often. To them, Abraham wasn’t a man who almost murdered his son; Abraham was a God-fearing person who somehow knew all along that he’d never actually be allowed to go through with it. And Sarah, abusive towards Hagar? According to the rabbis, Sarah was morally unblemished (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). She only wanted what was best for her son.
This drive to reframe, to say that what seems bad is actually morally unobjectionable, is older than the Torah itself. It goes back to earliest human history, and is rooted in the youngest, most tender places of our collective and individual psyches. In psychological terms, we could say that this drive comes from the child self, who needs the parent, on whom they’re reliant, to be completely good and blameless. Rather than finding our ancestors at fault, we twist the stories and ourselves into knots in order to see them as only good.
The second tendency is to look at the stories of our ancestors and focus only on their sins. Many Jews throughout history have done just that – have said “look at these flawed characters” or “look at this abusive God.” And based on the painful moral ambiguity of our inherited stories, some have said: “I want none of this.” And have walked away from God, or from Jewish practice, or from Jewish community.
You could say that this second tendency is rooted in the collective teenage psyche. It’s the need to push away from home. It’s the need to individuate, find independence, and critique the status quo so that we can emerge into a fuller perspective on the world and our place within it.
So. The first option aligns with the needs of the child-self: My people are actually good. The second option aligns with the teenage self: My people are actually bad.
And the third option? The third comes from the integrated or adult psyche. From that vantage point, we look back at our ancestors and their misdeeds. At the teshuvah they did manage. And at what they left undone. We notice how flawed they were. And also, how hard they were trying. And finally, we notice that there is much for us learn: from their values, from their mistakes, from their stories.
You may have gathered, by now, that this doesn’t only apply to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This isn’t just about our distant ancestors. It also applies to our own more recent ancestors. Even the ones still with us – the family we called earlier today to wish a Shanah Tova to, or the ones we visited this past summer, or last year.
For me, this time of year – this time of remembering ancestors – brings back memories of my own grandfather, the way he shuffled down the synagogue aisle on Rosh HaShanah, the way his hand, shaking with Parkinsons, felt in mine as I helped him to his seat. I remember his sweet smile, his playful personality.
I remember my grandmother making kugel for us for the holiday meal, a sweet noodle kugel with raisins, and my grandfather sprinkling extra sugar on top, the shaking of his hands helping to spread the sugar evenly.
I remember standing next to my father in shul on Yom Kippur, and how he draped his tallit over my sister and I during the priestly blessing, and how protected and safe I felt.
And, in my remembering, I also remember how my father, who didn’t like his rabbi, would sit in the front row during Rosh HaShanah services and blatantly read a book during the rabbi’s sermon. And I remember how my grandmother would greet us with suffocating hugs when we came over for dinner, her anxious love permeating everything.
On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. Our distant ancestors, and the ones closer.
And as we remember, we also choose. Do we recall only the good, and cover over the bad? Do we remember only the bad, and forget the good? Or can we remember with compassion and moral clarity, with a gentle eye on the course of history and how it shaped our ancestors and us?
In our liturgy, we sing again and again, “Zochreinu lechayyim” – remember us for life. How can we remember in a way that enlivens us? How can we remember the ways our ancestors missed the mark, but still know that we have arrows to string and release in the direction of love? How can we remember so that the memories are more lesson than burden? How can we remember, for life?
This whole sermon, I’ve been talking about remembering the past. But the reality is that one day, we, too, will become ancestors. At some point, we will no longer be doing the remembering. We will be the ones remembered, by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, colleagues, students, all whose lives we’ve touched.
What might we do with the knowledge that we will one day be remembered?
I want to close by sharing with you the inspiration for this evening’s sermon. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with Sam Ball, a young congregant whose bar mitzvah is coming up in November. We were reading Sam’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha recounts how a pregnant Hagar ran away from home because of how badly Sarah treated her.
As we read through the story of Sarah and Abraham and their mistreatment of Hagar, Sam said to me: “Abraham and Sarah really should’ve thought about what their descendants would think of them.”
On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. To reshape and reframe the old stories so that they enliven us. And, Sam reminded me and us that we are at our best when we also remember that we are accountable to the future, when we live holding the question, “Who do my descendants need me to become?”
We too will become ancestors one day. And the way we live our lives will be a lesson for generations to come.
My simple blessing for us, as we enter this holiday of remembering: May we remember, for life. May we act this coming year in such a way as to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. And when the time comes, may we be remembered, for life. And let us say, Amen.
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:
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.
My dear community,
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the devastating news of the Islamophobic terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.
This morning, I sat down with community rabbis to write the following letter, which we sent to Imam Abdullah Al-Mahmudi of the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor:
“Our hearts are breaking. When we woke this morning to the news of the terror attacks against Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, the first thing we thought of was the Ann Arbor Muslim Community. White supremacy, whether in Christchurch, Ann Arbor, or anywhere else in this world is a threat to us all. The murder of innocents, especially in prayer, is a terrible affront to humanity.
“As a Jewish community, we express our grief and moral outrage over this Islamophobic act of terror in New Zealand—the murder of 49 innocents in prayer.
“Both the Muslim and Jewish traditions believe that whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed the entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world. (Surah 5:32, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
“We recognize that last night, whole worlds were lost. We hold you in our hearts, and grieve alongside you.”
In response to the news of the shootings, a colleague of mine, Rafael Shimunov, wrote: ‘When you kill someone praying, you are killing them at the moment they closed their eyes, turned their back to the door, tuned out every sound and decided that this will be the moment they will trust the rest of humanity the most.’
This afternoon, I will be standing outside the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor as our Muslim brothers and sisters attend Jumu’ah, Friday prayer, along with Rabbi Josh Whinston, Rav Nadav Caine, Reb Elliot Ginsburg, and members of their communities. Please: if you’re able, join us, to remind those grieving that they can continue to trust the rest of humanity.
Holding you, and holding onto hope for a Shabbat of shalom,
The AARC Book group invites you to join our upcoming discussion of a part of the book Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition, by Arthur Green, on Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 9:45am, at the home of Greg Saltzman and Audrey Newell. You can read the portion we will be discussing in this PDF file. It’s the preface, intro, and first chapter of the book.
Full details, including exact location, are found here. All are welcome. Please RSVP to Greg Saltzman at firstname.lastname@example.org if you plan to attend.
Rabbi Ora will be leading our discussion of Radical Judaiasm. This is the second year in a row that Rabbi Ora has agreed to join the book group to lead a discussion on a text of her choosing.
We asked Rabbi Ora to provide background on the Arthur Green book. Below are her thoughts.
I first met Rabbi Art Green in February 2010 – after I’d decided to attend rabbinical school, but before I’d chosen RRC and was still considering Hebrew College as an option. At the time and now, ‘Art,’ as he’s often called, was the dean of Hebrew College. I don’t recall many details from the few hours I spent there in his presence – just an overall sense of warmth, joyfulness, and curiosity coming from him. Over the past 9 years, though, I’ve had the chance to study a number of his books, including Radical Judaism, of course, but also his Guide to the Zohar and his beautiful translation of R. Yehuda Leib Alter’s writings, Language of Truth: the Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet.
I wanted our book group to get a taste of Radical Judaism because Art Green so artfully weaves together the theological with the personal. In the Introduction, he shares how he struggled with what some might call a ‘loss of faith,’ but what he calls ‘the pillars of naïve faith [giving] way’ as he came to reject a personal God in favor of a more pantheistic sense of holiness and unity in the world. Green describes how, as a teenager, he could ‘affirm neither particular providence nor a God who governed history,’ and writes: ‘…I am not a ‘believer’ in the conventional Jewish or Western sense. I simply do not encounter God as ‘He’ is usually described in the Western religious context, a Supreme Being or Creator who exists outside or beyond the universe, who created this world as an act of personal will, and who guides and protects it.’
Art Green’s process feels very Reconstructionist to me – both the God-wrestling, and the image of God that he ultimately settles on. Many of us raised in the Jewish tradition go through, at one time or another, a similar kind of wrestling. And that’s precisely what Reconstructionism invites us to do – to not just sit (comfortably or uncomfortably) with the beliefs that have been passed down to us, but to work towards a faith tradition that feels honest, spiritually nourishing, and even transcendent.
Art Green also has a powerful vision for the role that religion can play in shaping what he calls ‘this moment of transition in planetary and human history’ – a moment in which ‘unless we take drastic steps to change our way of living, our patterns of consumption, and our most essential understanding of our relationship to the world in which we exist, we are at great risk of destroying our earthly home and rendering it a wasteland.’ Art Green sees Judaism’s deep truths as tools to help us rise to these challenges.
We look forward to seeing you on Sunday, February 24. Be sure to RSVP to Greg at the email above. Happy reading!