Staying in Shul for Yizkor

September 30, 2009

Over the last couple of years, I have been urging everyone in shul to remain inside the sanctuary for Yizkor – even those who, thank God, have both parents alive. I have made this request in the name of simple courtesy and love toward those who are reciting Yizkor, and whose ability to immerse themselves in memory and prayer is severely compromised by the racket that typically invades the sanctuary from the lobby outside. It has been a semi-successful campaign on my part, and I of course knew going in that there would be some non-Yizkor-sayers who just wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to stay inside.

But what happened in shul on Yom Kippur two days ago has made me realize that I’ve been missing the boat by appealing on the grounds of courtesy and decorum alone. Lots and lots of us begin to cry quiet tears as Yizkor begins. But when it’s someone’s very first Yizkor, or the first one that they are reciting for a family member who has just recently died, they quite understandably begin to cry aloud. We had several people in this situation this Yom Kippur. And each one had friends who put their arms around them and held them as they cried – friends who had remained inside shul even though they were not themselves reciting Yizkor. And if I had to guess, I would imagine that their parents were very proud of them.

Why do we run out of shul when our friends need us most? Try staying inside. You’ll be glad you did.

Oheiv Yisrael…and then some.

September 29, 2009

Recently I have been studying the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s forbearers. His namesake, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, was known as the Oheiv Yisrael – The Lover of Israel. He was one of the main spokesman for Chassidut after the death of the Baal Shem Tov.

 Although he was the Rebee of other towns after Apt (Opatów), we was so enamored by the people of that town and they by him that he promised to always be known by the name of their town, hence he is known as the Apter Rav.

  He is known as the Oheiv Yisrael because he would teach that one who loves all Jews will be glorified before the heavenly court. In fact, before he died he instructed his children to have only one phrase written on his tombstone – “Oheiv Yisrael”

 The book that contains the bulk of his teaching is also called Oheiv Yisrael.

 The Apter Rebbe was well known for giving others the benefit of the doubt, this was one of the ways he practiced loving all Jews. This is a difficult task as the courtrooms of our mind often are quick to find fault with others.

 I often wonder if Rabbi Heschel’s love of humankind was in some kindled by the Oheiv Yisrael’s love of Israel. Maybe Rabbi Heschel just took it one step further. Rabbi Heshcel could be called the Oheiv Olam – The Lover of the World.

The following advice on how to judge others favorably is from Orchot Tzadikim , written in the 15 century. The author is unknown.

Sounds like good advice to me.

 The humble person judges everyone favorably.

As an example:

When they asked one of the pious, “How is it that you deserved to

become a master among your contemporaries?”

He responded, “Because everyone whom I saw I assumed him to be

better than I.

“If he was wiser than I, I said:

He is also more reverent of God than I because of his great wisdom.

“And if he was lesser in wisdom than I, I said:

He [sins] unknowingly, but I [sin] knowingly.

“And if he was more advanced in years than I, I said:

His merits exceed my merits.

“And if I was older than he, I said:

His transgressions are fewer than my transgressions.

“And if he was my equal in wisdom and years, I said:

His conscience is clearer before God [“his heart is better to God”] than

my conscience, since I know the sins I have done, but I do not know the

sins he has done.

“And if he was richer than I, I said that he does more charitable deeds

than I do.

“And if he was poorer than I, I said that he is more contrite and more

subdued in spirit than I and he is better than I.

“And through this thinking I would honor all people and I would defer to


But WHY is it important?

September 27, 2009

As did Rabbis around the world, I spent some time on Rosh HaShana discussing the importance of our being politically active on behalf of Israel, as she faces the dire threat coming from Iran. The topic came back up over Yom Tov lunch, with each of our wonderful guests reflecting on how vital Israel’s survival is, and how committed American Jews need to be to Israel’s security. Israel’s survival, it was correctly pointed out, is likely synonymous with Jewish survival.  As tea and dessert were being enjoyed,  in the spirit of reflection of this time of year I posed a question that I hoped would bring the table conversation to a different, deeper, and more “ultimate” place. “In the end, why is important that Israel, and the Jewish people, survive?” I asked.

 After half a minute or so of thoughtful silence, everyone began to articulate responses, albeit not in fully-developed form. The phrases “Jewish mission”, “light for the nations”, and “model society” started to bounce around the table, though not necessarily in full sentences just yet.  I think that at that moment we were all struck by the contrast between the confidence and  eloquence with which we each spoke about the fact that it is vitally important that Israel survive, and the initial struggle we had in clearly expressing why Israel’s and the Jewish people’s survival  ultimately mattered.

 Once we had all regained our bearings, very significant thoughts emerged. About our continuing historical role of living the Torah, and advancing the vision of righteousness and justice that God communicated therein. And about the significance of being a democratic and human-rights- respecting country in the nasty Middle East. And about the remarkable and disproportionate ways in which Israel has already contributed to the advancement of human knowledge, and has built an inspiring record of offering its expertise in responding to natural and other disasters to others around the globe. 

 Of course there are cogent and satisfying answers to the question, “Why is important that Israel and the Jewish people survive?” But it seems clear to me that we don’t consider or discuss the question nearly as often as we need to.  Which probably means that we are already making important Jewish decisions – about how to run our local Jewish institutions, or about how we select our Israel-based charities – without the big-picture view that these decisions deserve.   And the longer we go without directly discussing the question, without introducing it into our schools, shuls, and around our Shabbat tables, the more likely it will become that we will raise a generation that wouldn’t understand the question to begin with, much less know how to answer it. This would bode ominously for us, for Israel, and for the world.

 So here’s praying for a year of peace and security for Medinat Yisrael, and a year of deep reflection and thoughtfulness for Jews everywhere.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 27, 2009

I know this is not my regular posting day but I wanted to make some Kavanot 0 prayer enhancers available before Yom Kippur.

Gmar Tov,




Kavvanot (Points to Consider) For A Meaningful Yom Kippur Prayer

The Yom Kippur davening is challenging in that it is very busy ,full of choreography and very long.

Some find it difficult to focus and create moments of quiet introspection.

Do not feel rushed to keep up. It is more important to internalize the prayers.

The Yom Kippur Mussaf is an amalgam of prayers with High Holiday themes as well as recreations of the Temple service, mourning dirges and the account of the Ten Martyrs.

Use this guide during the silent Mussaf Amidah or the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah to help you focus on the prayer themes.  Various sections of Mussaf will be briefly described followed by some questions to help us focus on each theme.

Instead of talking to your neighbor when the service starts to feel too heavy, use this sheet to redirect your thoughts.


Did you ever wonder why we are obligated to fast on Yom Kippur? How can fasting help us return to God? The Torah considers the Yom Kippur fast an act of affliction. One the one fasting makes perfect sense. A day on which we are judged is hardly a day on which to be concerned with food.

Perhaps we can consider the idea of self denial a positive spiritual practice. On Yom Kippur fasting reminds us that it is very often the material aspects of our lives and the need to supply them (like food and shelter) that take us away from spiritual pursuits. On Yom Kippur we are told not to worry about food and we find outselves under the protection of the synagogues. With our basic needs either cared for or removed we can focus on spirituality.

Fasting may also remind us that we have the capacity to survive with far less than we usually have.


Ask yourself:

  • How does fasting help me attain a deeper spirituality on Yom Kippur?
  • Would Yom Kippur “work” the same if we were allowed to eat? If not, what added benefit does fasting bring?


Mussaf Amidah


Seder Ha-Avodah (Description of the Temple Service)

We recite or even re-enact the temple service that cannot be performed today because of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. It is not really a prayer, but rather a detailed description, in poetic terms  of what used to happen in the Temple.


What purpose does the Seder Ha-Avodah serve?

  • To keep alive the ancient tradition in a vivid way
  • To reassure us that even in the absence of the Temple service we can achieve forgiveness and closeness to God
  • Create a longing for the Beit HaMikdash.

The seder ha-avodah is introduced with a magnificent prologue  – essentially a brief summary of Jewish History from creation to the Temple service.

There is heavy concentration on God’s interaction with and direction of the world in the prologue. Perhaps this is to indicate the cosmic importance of the Avodah.  Consider the “path” of the prologue: descent to sin thought Adam and Chavah, Cain and the generation of the flood and the subsequent ascent from Noach to Avraham to Yaakov and his sons – from whom came Levi, eventually entrusted with the service of the Beit Hamikdash.


Ask Yourself:

  • Has the progress of the spirituality  expressed in the prologue continued? Do we live in an age where people feel connected to God? Do I feel connected to God? If not, why not?


Rabbi Solovetichik defined spirituality as: “the descent of divinity into the midst of the concrete world.” Perhaps the recitation of the Temple service is supposed to give us a chance to relive the divine descent as the Yom Kippur service represented the pinnacle of divine revelation as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies.


Ask Yourself:

  • How can I experience the Divine descent?
    • Choose one area in life that you will work on this year in order to be more God aware.

The section of the Temple service ends on a celebratory note when we say: “True – how majestic was the Kohen Gadol as he left the Holy of Holies in peace, without injury. “

“Why The Happiness in reciting  the end of the Temple service? Why was it sung with such a happy tune? The answer is that the Kohen Gadol reflected the radiance of God. Throught witnessing the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol, there could be no doubt of God’s acceptance of the prayers of the children of Israel” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik).


Ask yourself:

  • Who in my life helps me feel like I am in the presence of God? What experiences have I had where I truly felt like I was in God’s presence? How can I recreate those moments?


The Ten Martyrs

Immediately after the joy of reciting the Avodah, we recite mourning dirges. “Suddenly Yom Kippur is transformed in to the Ninth of Av, the morning reaching its most intense point when we read of the ten martyrs.


What role do these dirges play on Yom Kippur?

  • Perhaps we are pleading to God: “We have suffered enough. Put an end to our torments and tormentors. Show mercy not only by forgiving us but by bring complete redemption.
  • We remind ourselves of a sin not listed in the long list of “al chet” – the admission that our sins have extended the state of the destruction and delayed redemption.


Ask Yourself

  • How does the contrast of the joy and the mourning enhance our prayer experience? What does it take to fully appreciate what we had and what we lost? How can I be more appreciative this year of the people and blessings in my life?

“The startling contrast of the joy of the avodah recitation and the pain evoked by reciting the mourning dirges immediately following serve a basic cognitive purpose. In order to truly feel a loss, a person must internalize two key points:  1) how wonderful life was before the loss and 2) hoe terrible life is after the loss. In the words of Jeremiah: “Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old” (Eicha 1:7). (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik)

Ten Martyrs: What Are You Willing To Die For?

The inclusion of the Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kipur prayers is noteworthy. Why is it included and whay it is supposed to add to our prayer experience? Perhaps the inclusion of the Ten Martyrs is supposed to help us focus on what is really important in life by compelling us to ask ourselves: asking: What are we willing to die for? These sages were willing to give their lives for Torah and Jewish life. What are our ultimate values?

Perhaps we are asked to judge what is really important in life by the answer to the question of what are we willing to die for.

Is there anyone who would willingly sacrifice his life for wealth? Or honor? For a high position? On the contrary: We would readily give up all this in order to buy health… On the other hand, are there not mothers who would sacrifice even their own lives for the life of their children? Aren’t there many who would die for freedom and peace?

Ask yourself:

What are my ultimate values? How are they similar or different to those of the ten martyrs?

Why are we so childish when it comes to Yom Kippur?

September 25, 2009

Yom Kippur will arrive this week and thousands of Jews will attend synagogues.  Why is it that so many attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, but not the rest of the year?  What is it about Yom Kippur that draws us?  No doubt because it is a holy day, we want to be present.  But many of us are just hedging our bets.  If we have a bad year we don’t want to have to kick ourselves for not participating in Yom Kippur as we should have.  If we go on Yom Kippur and pray with sincerity at least we will not have ourselves to blame for whatever bad happens.   We will have done what we could.

For many of us even quite religious Jews who go to synagogue every day or every Sabbath, this kind of thinking is still part and parcel of our Yom Kippur.  Some of the liturgy in fact serves to reinforce it, such as the Unisaneh Tokef –which hinges on,“Who live and who will die?”  But such an approach is a very selfish take on the holiest day of the year.  If I am going to pray on Yom Kippur just so that I can have a good year it’s really just about me and my physical welfare, its really just selfishness.

As Morethodox Jews I think we need to turn to the Chassidic commentaries to reclaim the true nature of Yom Kippur.   Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger in his book the Sefat Eemet says that the phrase, which we repeat many times in this season, “Remember us for life God who wants life, and write us in the book of life for your sake, living God” means that we are asking not for lengthened physical life, but rather for the life of the spirit.

Rabbi Levy Yizchak of Bardichev, in his book the Kedushat Levi, asks why we beseech God to write us in the book of life and to remember us, is God is a person who remembers and writes?  God is God, and furthermore no evil can come from God, only goodness.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak answers by way of a mashal, a metaphor.  He says it is akin to putting a piece of cloth in the sun.  If it is a white cloth it will reflect the light, if it is a black cloth it will absorb the light, if it is a red cloth it will reflect the red color of the light, if blue the blue waves of the light.  The sunlight does not change, only the cloths are different.

So too there is a flow coming from the Eternal One all the time.  It is a flow of goodness and it is our job on Yom Kippur to become people who can absorb the light for goodness.  We are not trying to change God’s mind, God is infinite.  We are not pulling the wool over God’s eyes trying to convince him that we are more religious than we are by coming to shul on yom Kippur, or hoping that somehow that our prayer will magically help us to have a good year.  No, Yom Kippur is the process of changing ourselves, changing our own colors so that we can receive the Divine light that is always flowing for goodness.  God does not change.  Only we change.  May we all change for the better this Yom Kippur.

Counteracting Boredom

September 24, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

The Jewish holidays evoke in many a fear of sitting in shul. Again and again. Hours on end.  I have been trying to craft a spiritually uplifting and meaningful prayer experience at my shul,. As I do so, I have been acutely sensitive to the fact that people want that spiritually uplifting and meaningful experience in less than 2 hours.  Balancing the beauty of the High Holiday liturgy, with a need to get through them quickly is a humbling experience.

And yet, perhaps, the driving foundational issue, that keeps people from being glued to their seats is a sense of boredom with Judaism and religious ideals in general.  A few weeks ago, Erica Brown, the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington wrote an article in the Jewish Week, “Boredom Is So Interesting.”

In it, she proposes that the problem with Judaism is not the rituals, the culture, or history. Judaism remains a rich tradition.  Rather, it is us, the individual who is to blame. She quotes the poet Dylan Thomas, “Something is boring me. I think it’s me.”  When boredom strikes, she says, “it’s time to look in the mirror.”

On Yom Kippur, we will read the story of Jonah and how God called out to him.  But Jonah ran away, trying desperately to escape God’s call by hiding in the deepest recesses of a ship, and then falling into a deep slumber.  Jonah attempted to escape God’s presence. Shun God’s calling. 

Many of us, if we would just open ourselves to the possibility, have a keen spiritual sense; we can sense the presence of God.  The question is, what do we do with that calling. Do we try to run away, unshackle ourselves from the weight and responsibility of a religious call?  Or, do we move towards the calling—like Moses, who beseeched God,  “Show me your glory” (Shemot 33:18), right before God’s presence passed before his face.  

Perhaps we should each challenge ourselves, this Yom Kippur, to think about the reasons that we are drawn to Jewish community, and then think of the reasons that we want to stay away. Is it because we are spiritually numb? Alienated? Feel out of place? Or experience a disconnect with synagogue ritual and liturgy? 

Then consider figuring out how to re-engage.  How each of us can re-invigorate our Judaism to make it both more intellectually and spiritually stimulating.

Out Of Control – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 22, 2009

This past year has been a very frustrating, scary one for many people. The economic crisis has left many people feeling helpless and out of control. Not only in the realm of the economic crisis, but in many other areas of life, we may feel that we are not in control. 

There are some who have put much effort in to raising their children to follow a certain path, yet they choose a different, often a heartbreaking path. As a result, we feel helpless, out of control.In our relationships, especially our marriages, many feel that there is no time to work on a marriage under stress and that our marriages are just sort of limping along. Read the rest of this entry »