Shabbat Shuva, The Sacred In-Between

Welcome to the next episode of the JCPodcast with our new co-host, Rabbi Sam! 

This week, Rabbi Sam and Rabbi Deena are talking about Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tune in to hear what inspires them at this sacred time of year! You can listen to the episode here

Shanah Tovah – Wishing you a Sweet New Year…

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you be Sealed in the Book of Life and Blessings…

And Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Sam & Rabbi Deena 

In the Fields

Tonight, as the sun sets, we welcome both Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah, the New Year of 5784. 
As I shared last week, the Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, is a time for spiritual reflection and preparation. The ancient Rabbis loved finding special meaning in biblical words and phrases, and they discovered that a verse in Song of Songs, a biblical book of love poetry, is an acronym for Elul (spelled אלול in Hebrew): 

אני לדודי ודודי לי

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3). 

It’s no accident that the Rabbis highlighted Divine love at the beginning of this sacred season. During the High Holy Days, we focus on our shortcomings and on God’s judgment. So much of our liturgy claims that we have sinned, and that God has noticed. But the Rabbis also wanted us to remember that God is ready and excited to reconnect with us, and ultimately to forgive us, at this time of year. Though the High Holy Days are a time for repentance, they are also a time for renewed affection between God and the Jewish people.

The Alter Rebbe (founder of the Chabad movement, 1745-1812) emphasizes the experience of God’s closeness during the month of Elul. He taught that for the rest of the year, God lives in a palace, high above the earth, accessible to humans only when we go through the appropriate channels. But during Elul, God leaves the palace and greets everyone in the fields. At this time of year, God is more readily available to connect as we embark on our process of teshuva (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous action). 
Tonight, the month of Elul comes to a close. We wrap up our preparation as we greet the new year, ready for renewed connection to our truest selves, to each other, and perhaps even to the Divine. I am excited to begin this journey together.

One Thing I Ask

Welcome back! We have entered a true season of transition: Many of us have already started exchanging sandals for boots, iced coffee for pumpkin spice, beach bags for backpacks. We at JCP have been gearing up for a fantastic year ahead, and we can’t wait to see everyone back in the neighborhood soon. 

Of course, we are also preparing for a meaningful and uplifting High Holy Days season as a community. At this time of year, I always appreciate the beautiful convergence of the Jewish calendar and the secular one. As we come back together after a season apart, we get to celebrate so many new beginnings. 

Just as we work hard to prepare during the months leading up to the school year, the Jewish calendar builds in time for us to prepare for the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei each year. But the High Holy Day season doesn’t start then. The Hebrew month preceding Tishrei, called Elul, is a time dedicated to a process called cheshbon ha’nefesh. This phrase is often translated as “accounting of the soul” (in modern Hebrew, a check in a restaurant is a “cheshbon,” as is a bank account!). If Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to begin a new year with a clean slate, the month of Elul is an opportunity to decide on the changes that we want to make in the year ahead. Making improvements in our lives and in our relationships starts by identifying our goals and reflecting on how we might achieve them. And that process takes time. 

Jewish tradition has tools to help us get into this mindset of spiritual preparation. One of the most powerful ones is the practice of reciting Psalm 27 daily. This psalm was likely chosen because it closes with the word lulei (לולא) which, in Hebrew, is the word Elul (אלול) backwards. 
The psalm reflects the fact that spiritual preparation is not all blissful. We often have to do hard work to make necessary changes in our lives. The psalmist experiences the struggles and doubts that come with loneliness and hardship. But he also experiences the comfort and reassurance of God’s presence. One of the most famous lines of the psalm says:

One thing I ask of the Eternal,

only this do I seek:

to live in the house of the Eternal

all the days of my life,

to gaze upon God’s beauty, 

And to visit God’s temple. 

For the psalmist, this desire to connect with God serves as an anchor amidst the challenges and chaos of life.

Musician Aly Halpert recently composed a stunning musical setting for this psalm, and we are excited to share it with you throughout High Holy Day services. You can listen to the recording here.

As we transition into this sacred season, may we find the strength and courage for cheshbon ha’nefesh to renew our lives in the year ahead.

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 9: Comfort My People

Yesterday, we marked Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish calendar. On this sad day, we remember the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people. 

One of the very first nights of my very first summer at Jewish sleepaway camp fell on Tisha B’Av. I, having never before heard of the holiday, felt the acute sadness of the day as we sat on the ground of the gym with the lights off, using flashlights to illuminate our Bibles as we chanted from the graphically violent Book of Lamentations. In a letter home, I remember writing: “I hope camp gets more fun.” 

But the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort (and by then, camp indeed became more fun).  On this Shabbat, we read from the Book of Isaiah (40:1-2), which states:

Comfort, oh comfort My people,

Says your God. 

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

And declare to her

That her term of service is over,

That her iniquity is expiated;

For she has received at the hand of God 

Double for all her sins.

From Shabbat Nachamu onward, we are led out of the period of sadness and mourning, into a period of redemption, forgiveness, and grace. This period of comfort culminates in the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where we have the opportunity to reflect on our past mistakes and begin anew. 

It is fitting to conclude our exploration of life cycle rituals as we enter Shabbat Nachamu. Rituals around concluding a period of study, recovering from illness, welcoming a new baby, converting to Judaism, coming of age, getting married, and mourning the loss of a loved one all have one thing in common: they are designed to bring us comfort.           

Many life cycle moments are joyful, some are painful. But all involve immense and intense change. Our rituals are designed to hold and guide us through those changes, to comfort us, and to support us as we face new realities

Speaking of the Jewish calendar, the D’var Torah will be on a brief hiatus for the month of August as we prepare for a meaningful and uplifting High Holy Day season at JCP. Be sure to join or renew your membership in order to receive your complimentary tickets! 

May this Shabbat, and all the moments along your own life cycle journey, be filled with the comfort provided by ritual and community. 

Shabbat shalom, 


Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 7: Weddings

Weddings involve an interesting dichotomy: 

On the one hand, a wedding is all about the people who are getting married. Through their love and their commitment, the couple chooses the other as their beloved partner. Jewish tradition claims that the love between spouses is unique, set aside just for them since the days of Creation, in the Garden of Eden. 

On the other hand, a wedding takes place in the context of a larger community. In the secular sphere, a wedding changes the status of a couple in the eyes of the State. Our institutions relate to the couple in a new way, and they can now legally share more aspects of their lives, like a surname. In the Jewish context, the purpose of a wedding is to establish a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael, a faithful household within the community of Israel. As much as the wedding is about the two individuals, it is also about the couple’s role in the story of the Jewish people, who, throughout history, kept our traditions alive in the homes that they built together. 

All Jewish wedding rituals beautifully capture the truth in both of these statements, yet there is no better example than the Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings, that are recited during the ceremony: 

  1. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of Life, who creates the fruit of the vine.
  1. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of Life, whose glory is revealed in all creation.
  1. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of Life, Creator of humanity.
  1. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Source of Life, You formed us in Your image, and placed in us the blessing of life’s ongoing renewal. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of humanity.
  1. Let Zion rejoice at her children’s happy return. Blessed are You, Adonai: You allow those who have sown in tears to reap in joy.
  1. May these loving companions rejoice together with the joy You have set aside for them since the days of Creation. Blessed are You, Adonai, who grants joy to this couple.
  1. We praise You, Eternal our God, Source of Life, Creator of joy and gladness, love and companionship, laughter and song, pleasure and delight, harmony and celebration, peace and friendship. May there forever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: The voices of joy and gladness, the voices of loving companions joined together in marriage, the voices of celebration and song. Blessed are You, Adonai, who causes this loving couple to rejoice together as one.

Each blessing is beautiful on its own. But taken together, they form a stunning progression, at first capturing the expanse of the universe, and then continuously zooming in to focus on the specific couple standing under the wedding canopy: 

  • Blessings 2-4 are very broad. They acknowledge God as the Creator of the world, and then of all humanity, implanting a Divine spark within each human being. 
  • In Blessing 5, we see the first mention of the Jewish people through a reference to Zion. 
  • Finally, blessings 6-7 are reserved for the couple. Blessing 6 acknowledges that this particular match was ordained by the Divine, and blessing 7 shares copious wishes of joy and happiness for the couple. 

During a Jewish wedding ceremony, we acknowledge the unique bond of the couple, and we also honor how their love story fits into the larger narrative of the Jewish people and the world at large. Just as these two individuals are brought together under the chuppah, so too are these two concepts, deepening the joy of this special day. 

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 8: Mourning

This week, we begin reading the last book of the Torah, called Deuteronomy. It is fitting to explore Jewish mourning rituals as we begin Deuteronomy, as it is in this book that Moses shares his final words of advice with the Jewish people before his death, which is described in the very last words of the Torah: 

So Moses the servant of the Eternal died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Eternal. [God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated. And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days. The period of wailing and mourning for Moses came to an end. Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the Israelites heeded him, doing as the Eternal had commanded Moses. Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Eternal singled out, face to face (Deuteronomy: 34:5-10). 

From the description of Moses’ death at the end of the Torah, we have the beginnings of the wise mourning rituals of Jewish tradition. When we face loss, these rituals can serve as helpful anchors. While discussing death is never easy, understanding these traditions can help demystify the topic of loss, a reality that all people face, but one that is often taboo and unapproachable. To further explore the topic, I highly recommend listening to a podcast called Exit Strategy hosted by Stephanie Garry, who is the Executive Vice President at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. On this podcast, “Stephanie and her guests are elevating, normalizing and demystifying end-of-life issues from religious, cultural, societal and other perspectives.” 

In the Torah passage above, we first read about burial. In this instance, it is God who performs this sacred act of burying the dead. Burying the dead is called a chesed shel emet, a “true kindness,” because the deceased can never thank us. Upon burial, we acknowledge that this is one of the most important mitzvot (obligations) of Jewish tradition, yet we also recognize how difficult it is to perform. Tradition teaches that upon burial, the first few shovels of earth on top of the casket are scooped with the convex side of the shovel (the wrong side), which slows down the process and demonstrates how reluctant we are to carry out this task. 

Once the deceased is buried, we turn our attention to comforting the mourners. In the case of Moses, the entire Jewish community bewailed him for thirty days. Because of the enormity of the loss, their society needed to pause for a significant period of time in order to mourn. In Jewish tradition, there is a specific timeline of mourning, which recognizes the time it takes to adjust to the loss of a loved one. It begins with shiva, the seven day period in which loved ones come to the home of the mourner to provide comfort and company, and continues with shloshim, the thirty day period of acute mourning, and shana, the formal period of mourning that lasts for a year. Traditionally, the mourner recites the Mourner’s Kaddish throughout the period of shana, and refrains from attending celebrations. Inherent in this system is an acknowledgment from the community that a person will not be ready to fully join in on a joyful occasion within a year of the death of a loved one, nor should they be forced to. 

Finally, we learn about the power of memory. Just as the Torah recounts Moses’ great deeds after his death, a yahrzeit—the anniversary of the death of a loved one—is an opportunity to share their stories to honor their legacies. We are encouraged to keep their memories alive so that they can continue to shape and inspire us, as well as those who come after us. 

People often ask me how they can support friends and family members who have experienced a loss. It can be hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to be helpful. Inherent within each phase of Jewish mourning rituals is a reminder simply to be present for the mourner. To me, the power of community is most evident when we can embrace and hold each other during times of great sadness, just as we do at times of great joy. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Deena

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 6: Bnai Mitzvah

When people think about Bat, Bar, or B’nai (the plural and gender-neutral term) Mitzvah, they usually think of an event: A service—where the thirteen-year-old reads from the Torah, leads the community in prayer, and gives a speech—and perhaps the celebration afterwards. 

But this is a misconception. B’nai mitzvah is not something a person has; rather, it is something a person becomes. 

In the traditional understanding, when someone becomes a B’nai Mitzvah, it means that they have reached a level of maturity that requires them to observe all aspects of Jewish law. The Talmud identifies this age of maturity as twelve years and one day for girls, and thirteen years and one day for boys (Talmud, Yoma 82a). In more liberal communities, thirteen has become the standard age of B’nai Mitzvah for all children.  

Until modernity, the mindset was this: When a child is young, the parents are responsible for, and bear the consequences of, their behavior. For example, if a kid ate non-kosher food, the parents were blamed, and sometimes punished. It wasn’t considered the child’s fault; after all, someone so young couldn’t know any better. But after the child turned thirteen, they were B’nai Mitzvah, mature enough to be obligated in the observance of Jewish law, and were solely responsible for their own choices and actions. So if the newly-minted thirteen-year-old decided to eat a bacon cheeseburger, their parents were no longer to blame. 

When their child became B’nai Mitzvah, a huge weight was lifted off of the shoulders of parents. No longer were they to blame for the wayward behavior of their children. The relief was so great that a Midrash instructs parents to say a blessing when their child reaches this milestone: Baruch she’patrani me’onesh shel zeh: Blessed are You, who has freed me from the responsibility of this child (Genesis Rabbah, 63:10). 

Today, our mindset is different. First, our understanding of childhood is very different from that of the Middle Ages. Children, even very young children, are not just extensions of their parents. They are unique selves who, at each stage of development, learn to take care of themselves and others, participate in community, and make positive choices. And of course, we also know that a flip doesn’t switch when a child turns thirteen. At this stage in their lives, teens are not yet adults with full decision-making capacities—far from it. At the time of B’nai Mitzvah, true adulthood is a long way off. It would be irresponsible of a parent to turn to their B’nai Mitzvah child and say: “You’re on your own.” 

However, I still appreciate this prayer, and I share it with every JCP family on the day of their child’s B’nai Mitzvah. Because even though a thirteen-year-old is nowhere near adulthood, reaching teenagehood is a significant milestone in their life. The ceremony marks the beginning of a period of growth and change, when the young teen can start to make more significant choices on their own, take on more responsibilities and independence, and start to cultivate their mature identities. At this moment, both parents and teens mark the opening of this next chapter in their lives and in their relationship with each other.

All aspects of the ritual—the prayers, the speech, the Torah chanting, the gathering of loved ones to celebrate—allow a community to honor all that this child has accomplished in the first thirteen years of their life, and to anticipate all that lies ahead. 

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 5: Conversion to Judaism

Almost every time I speak about conversion to Judaism, someone asks me if I’ve seen the famous scene in Sex and the City where Charlotte York begins her conversion process. Determined and excited, Charlotte knocks on the door to the rabbi’s study and declares her intent to join the Jewish faith. The rabbi responds by saying, “We’re not interested,” and subsequently slams the door in her face. Charlotte, confused, knocks again. A different rabbi answers the door, and Charlotte begins explaining what had just happened. But this rabbi, too, slams the door in her face without saying a word. Only after three unanswered phone calls and a trip to the rabbi’s home—where she comes with a gift of kosher wine and insists that she is serious about conversion—does he accept her as a conversion candidate and (begrudgingly) invite her to Shabbat dinner. 

I find this to be a deeply unfortunate portrayal of Judaism and its leaders as unkind and unwelcoming. No matter one’s religious convictions, slamming a door in someone’s face is just rude, and I admire Charlotte for ever returning to a synagogue after that incident. Subsequently, the show portrays a narrow view of Jewish life and a woman’s place within it. However, it is true that conversion to Judaism is not a simple process. It can take up to a year and involves a period of intense study, a discussion with three rabbis who form a rabbinical court (called a beit din) and immersion in a ritual bath (called a mikvah). The path toward choosing Judaism requires time and commitment. 

Throughout history, potential converts were rare and were often treated with some amount of skepticism or suspicion at the beginning of their conversion process. After all, during times of persecution (which, sadly, were quite often), joining the Jewish people was not a common or popular choice. Most people would, very reasonably, not want to endure the suffering and hardship that was inherent to Jewish life. 

The Shulkhan Aruch, a medieval Jewish legal code, states: “When a person comes to convert, say to them, ‘What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people are oppressed…and suffering?’” In other words, these scholars wonder why anyone would voluntarily take on the challenges faced by Jews. The Shulkhan Aruch continues: “If they say, ‘I know this and I am unworthy of this suffering,’ the person is ready to convert.” A conversion candidate needed to be aware of, and to be ready and willing to undertake, the hardship that would come with joining the Jewish people. 

Of course, the conversion process of today is not the same as it was in the Middle Ages. Though we know the deeply troubling fact that antisemitism is on the rise, Jews are facing less persecution today than we have at any point in our history. Thankfully, conversion to Judaism no longer poses the danger to a person’s physical safety that it once did. And yet, all who convert learn about our painful history and still willingly choose to tie their fates to the Jewish people. It is an admirable and inspiring choice.

When the biblical character Ruth—considered the first convert—makes the choice to join the Jewish people, she says the following to her mother-in-law, who has tried multiple times to dissuade her: 

“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Eternal do to me if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17). 

Though they are hopefully not forced to prove themselves like Charlotte, those who convert to Judaism, from the time of Ruth until today, make a deep commitment. Our tradition teaches us that, as children of Abraham and Sarah and members of the ancient covenant between God and the Jewish people, their status as Jews is never to be questioned, and they are to be treated with the utmost dignity, honor, and respect. And all Jewish communities should open the doors wide to embrace them. 

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 4: Welcoming a Baby

So much of our Jewish liturgy looks forward, toward the next generation. There are countless examples of prayers that mention our children: In the V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema, our central prayer of listening, learning, and loving, which is traditionally recited twice a day, we say: “You shall teach [these words of Torah] to your children.” In the Amidah, another core prayer, we say: L’dor va’dor nagid Godlecha — From generation to generation we sing Your praise.” And during our Passover Seders, we learn about four archetypal children, and how we can best teach our sacred stories to all kids while honoring their different perspectives and personalities. 

Unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism does not cultivate new followers by actively seeking converts in the public square through proselytization or missionary work. Instead, Judaism’s new followers are gained more privately, often in homes, Jewish schools, and synagogues—JCP included!—where we recognize that the next generation of children, along with those committed adults who actively seek conversion (we’ll learn about conversion rituals next week!), are the ones who will inherit our sacred teachings and traditions. 

Jewish learning and the shaping of Jewish identity happen immediately when a child is welcomed into a Jewish home. The Torah teaches us about two primary rituals: receiving a Hebrew name and circumcision. Interestingly, we first learn about these rituals not upon the arrival of a new baby, but upon Abraham’s entry into a relationship with God when he is 99 years old:

The Eternal appeared to Abram and said…“this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations…As for you…such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days….And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife, Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah (Genesis 17:1-15)

When Abraham and Sarah (and their offspring) enter into this new relationship with God, the experience is so powerful that their names change. They are so deeply transformed by this covenant with God that they can no longer be known by their previous names. For Abraham, he also experiences a change in his body in addition to a change in his name. Few Jewish rituals involve the human body to the same degree as circumcision, which is why all families need to make the choice that they feel is right for themselves and for their children. 

These traditions of naming and circumcision (called brit milah or a “bris” in the Ashkenazi pronunciation), which are used to welcome new babies into the covenant of the Jewish people, come directly from the Torah, and are probably among the most ancient rituals that we have. 

As we mark this very first milestone moment in someone’s life, their birth, we welcome them into our families, our communities, and our world. But these rituals also welcome the baby into this ancient yet everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham and Sarah all those millenia ago. We anchor ourselves in these stories and customs of the past as we anticipate how this new child will be the next link in our chain of sacred tradition, carrying Judaism forward into the future, and ensuring that this covenant will last for generations to come. 

Summer Series: Cycles of Life, Part 2: Siyyum, Wrapping Up and Beginning Anew

For Jews, often called the “People of the Book,” it’s no surprise that we have many opportunities to celebrate milestones in our learning. The most well-known of these occasions is probably Simchat Torah, a holiday dedicated to celebrating the completion of a year of Torah reading and the beginning of a new one. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and discovered during the previous cycle of Torah reading, and to anticipate all the wisdom that we will receive as we start anew. 

But we also celebrate whenever we conclude major periods of study or landmark moments in our learning, and this type of joyful occasion even has a formal title: Siyyum, which means “completion” in Hebrew. 

I first learned about the concept of a siyyum at Jewish summer camp. There’s a stretch of nine days during the summer during which many Jews don’t eat meat (always considered a luxury) in anticipation of Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish calendar. But during this period, no one at camp—campers and staffers alike—wanted to skip barbeque night! There had to be some way to get around the prohibition against meat…and it turns out that there was. On barbeque night, we made a siyyum. We all gathered in the gym as one of the rabbis gave a shiur (a lesson) on a tractate of Talmud that he had just finished studying. We said the special Kaddish D’Rabbanan (Rabbis’ Kaddish), and the obligation to have a celebratory feast as part of the siyyum overrode the prohibition against eating meat. The burgers were consumed with extra gusto that evening. 

I will admit that I was skeptical at first. The siyyum felt like a loophole, almost like cheating…were we really engaging in Talmud study just so that everyone could eat a hot dog? But as I thought more about it, I realized the wisdom in this practice. The ritual of the siyyum demonstrates the elevated place of learning in Jewish tradition. The joy of learning can override times of sadness, and can help us overcome challenges and obstacles. Reaching a milestone moment in our learning is something to celebrate…so much so that it’s worth breaking a tradition or changing a custom, just a little bit, in order to honor the accomplishment. 

Over these past two weeks, we concluded another incredible school year in both the ECC and HSP. As we wrap up these periods of study, I think about a beautiful prayer that we recite upon completing a tractate of the Talmud. It’s so heartfelt that it might seem like the prayer is addressed to another person, but it is actually addressed to the material of the Talmud itself: Hadran alach, v’hadrach alan, We will return to you, and you will return to us; our mind is on you, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, and you will not forget us – not now and not ever. 

As we make our own siyyum and say farewell to any period of study, Judaism reminds us that the wisdom we gained and the people with whom we shared our learning are always with us. The conclusion of all learning might leave us at the end of a chapter, but also places us at the cusp of new beginnings. And that is something to celebrate indeed.