Fasting as a Spiritual Energizer

Fasting as a Spiritual Energizer
Yom Kippur Morning 5780
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Is this the fast I desire?
Starving and bowing and laying down in ashes?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to set the oppressed free.
[Isaiah 58:5-6]

Isaiah railed against our ancestors for coming into the Temple and offering empty sacrifices and fasts and the outward signs of repentance. He said:

I see your hypocrisy - this is not a once a year thing - we must take care of those in need, we must fight injustice every day of the year. There is no making up for a year of ignoring problems with one day of fasting and confessions.

You have all heard this message before. We read it every year on this day. We are all accustomed to being told that we don’t do enough, that we need to step up, and here are the ways that we need to improve.

I call upon all of us - this is not the message. Leave the guilt behind. The guilt is holding us back. What we need from Isaiah and Yom Kippur is the inspiration to enter this New Year refreshed, renewed, and reminded that for this day to work we must return to the everyday of our normal lives transformed with new energy.

Let us take this message about authentic fasting differently. We don’t need to feel bad for not doing enough. We need to figure out how to use our fast days better. We need to find a way to make our fast serve us in the good work that we are doing. We need to hear Isaiah’s words as a cheer for the work we are doing and an opportunity to find the strength to continue it. Let us find new sources of inspiration and energy.

We must regard Yom Kippur as a gift, not an obligation.

This is a time when we can step out of our habits, leave behind the busyness of our lives, and find something else, something deeper or higher, something more meaningful, something holy.

For centuries Jews have relied on our holidays throughout the year to provide us the spiritual nourishment to take on the challenge of transforming ourselves and the world through righteous action. We can do a full accounting of our soul, a cheshbon ha-nefesh, once a year, but our souls need more than that.

We are an essential people - a community who for generations has discussed how to make the ourselves and the world better.

We have been practicing spiritual rest and renewal for longer than those terms have existed.

Our calendar serves as a source of wisdom and innovation that can help us make our way through the year not merely as better agents in the world, but as better spirits in our bodies.

We need more days like Yom Kippur, more fast days for the spirit, for our batteries of righteous energy.

We can’t do this on the efforts of one day a year alone. Yom Kippur is not enough.

Please don’t worry, I am not suggesting a regular repetition of the High Holy Days - once a year is plenty.

Rather, I would like to provide us with some other opportunities for contemplation and rejuvenation.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh - a full summary of our souls - is a once-a-year theme. There is more to our spiritual practice than this single intense day.

The Jewish calendar is filled with days of spiritual reflection and offers us a number of days to communally get our energy back to take on what needs to be done. While one Yom Kippur a year is plenty, one day of spiritual recharge per year has never been enough.

And while this may seem like the stereotypical rabbinic advice: “If only you would come to synagogue more often…” what I’d like to do is offer us some other resources - new opportunities, not old obligations. Days on which we can think a little differently, fast if we think it will help, gather together with our community if the company might inspire us, and remind ourselves that we have a sacred calling all year long, and that we are not alone in pursuing it.

You can do this on your own - there will be resources that I will share in advance. You can organize your own group or do it with me. As we explore this and experiment, whether you do this on your own or with others, I would love to hear about your experiences.

We are going to reinvigorate the very busy Jewish calendar with a number of days dedicated to bringing more justice and peace and working together to the world by reminding ourselves that in us is a spirit that needs attention too. When we attend to the piece of us that inspires us and drives us to do good in the world, then we might be able to persevere and do it better.

In the Jewish calendar there are a lot of Fast Days. There’s an extra one during the High Holy Days named the Fast of Gedalia, there’s the Fast of the Firstborn right before Passover, there’s the Ninth of Av, the worst day on the Jewish calendar in the middle of the summer, just to name a few.

Here is my proposal: quarterly recharges - seasonal and optional.

The Fast of Yom Kippur helps us reorient towards the rest of the year. These other fast days will offer us some seasonal inspirations, injections of energy, readjustments - an oil change for the soul and a tire rotation and realignment for the mind.

The first new opportunity will be the Tenth of Tevet on Tuesday, January 7. The Tenth of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple. In her book, My Jewish Year, Abigail Pogrebin cited Rabbi Yosef Blau’s observation that because this date commemorated the beginning of the Siege, it was “a reminder that we should be sensitive to dangers even early in the game”. Pogrebin called it“heeding the signs”, or looking up to see what’s coming. When Abraham raised up his eyes he saw that a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns and he offered it up in place of Isaac. What might we discover when we lift up our vision out of the everyday and see past what is right in front of us?

On Tuesday evening, January 7, our theme will be “Look Ahead”. Lifting our attention from the everyday, we will look ahead, both within our minds and souls, and in our consciousness of the world, to gather our energies for better efforts to come.

On Sunday, March 8, the day before Purim, we will meet for the Fast of Esther. Esther and the Jewish people in Persia fasted before an ominous event, hoping that the fast would improve their fortunes. Since the king of Persia did grant Esther’s request, and the Jews emerged victorious over the family of Haman, this seems like a good time to think about the positive things that we are planning for the coming season and how we might prepare ourselves for big events. Our theme will be “Think Big” - what prevents us from reaching higher and doing better?

And then just as summer begins, on Thursday, July 9, we will observe the end of the Seventeenth of Tamuz, which commemorates the beginning of the end of the Second Temple, when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Instead of mourning the loss of Jerusalem, we will focus on what barriers within us and around us need to be pierced. “Break Through” will be our theme as we reflect on the many walls and boundaries that protect us and limit us. Which are useful and necessary? Which must be overcome in order for us to make progress?

These informal gatherings will take place in the evenings, not directly on the fast days, so that we can share refreshments, reflections, and ruminations. Each of them will include spiritual practices that originate in the Jewish mystical traditions. There will be contemporary learning as well as texts from every era of Jewish thinking about how to build and maintain inspiration and resilience so that we can be the people we want to be for the world around us. We will use each of our themes, “Look Ahead”, “Think Big”, and “Break Through”, to help us to pause profoundly, and then boldly move forward into the next season of the year.

Today, I want us to find ways to energize our efforts, to gather to recharge our batteries for doing good and to refocus our visions on what to do next. Yom Kippur and these three other fast days are ways of finding the spiritual resources, the God-stuff within us and between us, that allow us to carry on the real work after we are done praying, confessing, atoning, and abstaining.

Where do we find the strength to pursue our values and stay on our many missions to help others and one another? Each of us has our own emotional, mental, and spiritual processes of recharge. We need to use these day to tap into them.

We have spent the last year digging deep, every single day, to make it to the next day, sometimes to make it to the next minute. We have Yom Kippur to connect to that bigger idea that there might be sources of energy, connections to God and to the universe, that we have yet to discover within ourselves and between us and the people around us in our community.

The restrictions that we place on ourselves today - and it is entirely up to us as to which ones we observe - among them are no food, wearing particular clothing or colors, and a lot of time in prayer and learning with our community - all of these are meant to allow us to tap into resources that we don’t normally connect with. A little deprivation and a lot of contemplation help take us out of the everyday and into places that provide us access to the holy, the special, the extraordinary. Unless we devote ourselves more often, we will continue to have too few days set aside for this during the rest of the year. We have so little time for concentrated attempts to recharge the battery that continues to let us reach out and do good.

So as we offer this day for all of these things, as we ask ourselves, “What changes can I make to do better as a person trying to be caring and righteous in this world?”, let us a plan to find these days during the rest of the year too. We need this more than once a year.

I invite you to embark on a Jewish journey through the year that will enliven your spirits so that you can act boldly in a world that needs you now, more than ever.

Truth, God, and Community

Truth, God, and Community
Erev Yom Kippur - Kol Nidrei 5780
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

A dark moonless night near a small, Jewish village, somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime in the 1500’s.

The Jewish villagers were restless and worried. They heard from their cousins nearby that a mob in an anti-Semitic fury had been rampaging through the countryside. They had seen this before and worried that their village would be next.

The rabbi from the village, desperate to protect the people, worked on the banks of the river, in the dark. Fashioning a rough statue of person from the mud, turning it into a clay imitation of a person, the rabbi said a prayer and then a mystical formula. In the dim light of dawn, the rabbi inscribed three Hebrew letters into the forehead of the statue, writing the word “EMeT”, truth. Once completed, the word sunk deeply into the clay and transformed the statue into a Golem, a nearly indestructible magical creation that would defend the Jews of the town. The Golem would fight without tiring and would save our ancestors from the mob, from another pogrom.

The word that animated the Golem is “truth”.

Truth brings life. Truth protects us.

What is truth and what is true?

There is the scientific perspective. Truth is measurable and observable. A thing is or is not, it is this thing or that thing. This is Hydrogen and that is Helium. The temperature can be measured and is described as truly seventy degrees, no matter how it feels. A color can be measured as a wavelength, and is thus one thing or another. A fact, is a thing that is observable and measurable, and used to be something that most of us could agree upon. We used to be able to say: this is true, and that is the truth.

Now we can argue about everything.

Remember way back when, four years ago, when we were arguing over the colors of a washed out photo of a dress on the internet? Was it blue and black or white and gold? Turns out that the actual dress was in fact blue and black in a clearer photo, a surprise to me, I could have sworn it was white and gold, but this accelerated the idea that all truth is debatable.

While we may see colors as different based on our eyes and our brains, there are in fact “true” colors. They are measured in wavelengths. They can be described mathematically. There are objective truths to color that we rely upon, just as there are objective truths to everything around us that we must agree upon in order to do anything.

Truth is taking a beating.

Science is no longer accepted as reliable. Statistics are used merely to make a point and seldom to describe anything in a way that we can all agree about. Everything has become a matter of opinion.

We regularly validate our own perspectives as if they cannot be reconciled with someone else’s. Bias, individual brain chemistry, different ways of seeing blue and black and white and gold - we separate ourselves out from each other the more we think we can’t see eye to eye about anything.

We are in total agreement about a number of things that are only true because we agree about them.

Take time. We accept time as a standard that we create and uphold together. It is an agreed upon “fiction”. There is no objective nine o’clock. There is only the one that we say is nine o’clock, whether it is “Verizon Standard Time” or Jewish Standard Time - we have to agree upon when in order to all be there at the same time. I had a running group in Cleveland that met at 5:50 AM. They would say, “if you’re there, you’re there”. If I was late, I would be running fast to catch up. We set 5:50 AM by Verizon’s time on our phones.

Truth is the source of life.

And truth is dangerous.

After the Golem saved the small town, it eventually got out of control. A nearly indestructible protector become trouble-maker. When the rabbi admitted defeat at trying to make the Golem work after the crisis, the rabbi erased one letter from the Hebrew word for “Truth”. Rubbing out the ‘alef’ the word “truth” is transformed from “EMeT” into “MeiT”, “death”, and the Golem fell to dust.

Like the Golem, there can be too much truth. We can say too much, share too much of our feelings, and destroy the people around us by being overly truthful and lacking in compassion and kindness. Revealing things that need to be kept concealed can harm people, communities, and nations. Concealing too much that needs to be out in the open can do the same. Truth is like fire - the right amount warms, too much burns, and without it we are left in the dark, defenseless.

A seventh grade class once argued that all religion is just an opinion. Since it can be argued it can’t be a fact.

I asked them whether or not laws were facts or opinions?

Is “Thou Shall not Kill” only an opinion?

Eventually they were convinced that when we agree to hold something as truth - like a law, or an ethic, or a teaching, then it becomes truth, that is it is more than just an opinion.

That we can agree to make truth as a community means that we can agree to unmake it too.

Truth is fragile. Erasing only one letter erases it entirely.

When we attack the truth, claiming that there is no truth, we begin to destroy the common area that we hold together as a community. When that place between you and me comes under attack we not only stop sharing truth, we stop sharing common cause. We need that “true” place in the middle. This “truth” is not so simple.

In this shared space, we need to be kind and caring and we need to figure out how to tell the truth and how to preserve a relationship at the same time. No relationship can handle everything that we think, every truth that we observe. We must filter our thoughts and emotions so that we can get along, so that our relationships will survive and thrive.

The great Jewish sages Hillel and Shammai argued about truth. They argued about what we should say to a bride at her wedding.

Shammai was a stickler for the truth and insisted that we should describe her as she is - truth must prevail and anything else would be lying.

Hillel countered, that we must always say that the bride is beautiful.

The rabbis almost always agree with Hillel and remind us that we should always be sympathetic - meaning that we should say that a bride is beautiful.

[Babylonian Talmud, 17a-b, adapted]

Judaism teaches that a bride, and a groom, are beautiful because that is what defines them on that day. To get married is to be beautiful and our sympathy for the couple helps determine our presentation of the truth.

Truth is important and getting along with people is as well. We can even create a truth that we all agree on for the sake of getting along better. And yet we can destroy truth so easily that it will also destroy any sense that we have sympathy, that we are connected at all, with other people. We show our love for one another by calling all babies beautiful - it is absolute truth that there are no ugly babies. Who will argue with that?

And here we stand, on the evening of Yom Kippur, baring our souls before God, stripping away all of the filters all of the trappings so that we can be true to ourselves, true to our Creator, and then, hopefully, true to each other.

We declare truth a vital and central Jewish idea every time we recite Sh’ma and V’ahavta.

Most of you are familiar with these paragraphs that start: “Listen up Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!”

What then follows is the commandment to love God and all the things that will help us behave in ways that show how we love God. We are supposed to make all the teachings of Judaism into everyday parts of our lives, speaking about them in our homes and when we are traveling, teaching them to our children, writing them on the doorposts of our houses. V’ahavta tells us that we do this so that we will always remember the place of God in our lives, to do the things that show that we love God, that elevate our behavior and our thoughts, that remind us that God brought us out of Egypt, and then we conclude with the statement, “Adonai Eloheichem Emet”, three words that we can translate as, “Adonai your God is truth.”

We tie the mandate to behave well with the idea that God and truth are the same. We come together to understand what God asks of us and we come together to declare truth to be a shared idea and value.

Good conduct, ethical behavior, and truth, are linked in our prayers, and linked in reality. We must agree upon truth in order to get along.

When we allow our conversations with each other to devolve into a debate about whether or not something is true we have left behind civil discourse. Without a reasonable agreement to talk about things in an area of agreed upon truth we are competing bullies, yelling at each other because the louder person wins since they must have a stronger feeling about their own sense of truth.

In the heat of the moment, I feel all sorts of things are true. If I give heed to these feelings then I might be both unkind and disrespectful to the shared space in which we decide upon truth together.

I want to be a good person all the time even when I don’t feel that way. I want to be kind and loving even when I am occasionally, admittedly, tired and irritable. So which is true?

I am what I do.

I practice the truth that I want to live.

I try to build habits that create a “me” that is truer to the person I want to be.

This evening, Kol Nidrei, when we disavow the promises that we made to ourselves that we haven’t kept, when we confess our flaws and mistakes out loud, to our selves, to our families, to our community, this is our moment of truth. When we strip away all that we have aimed at over the past year and missed, we find the core of our beings, all those values that we work so hard to uphold, and we return to that place of truth within ourselves. 

In that place of truth we begin again.

From this evening we start again on our true selves.

I must work on my truth, my sense of truth, refine my true self, and try again by putting it out there, better than last year. Both more loyal to the truth and kinder than before.

Remember the truths we share - from time, to wedding couples, to babies. This is easier than we think.

Truth is the source of life for the Golem, and it is the source of life in Jeremiah, who wrote:

Adonai, God is truth, the God of life… [Jeremiah 10:10] 

And truth can burn too brightly, too hot, and destroy as well.

Are we ready for the truth?

We come here tonight to find out.

The true self within each of us longs to evolve, to get better, to be the better person that Judaism and God asks of us, that we ask of ourselves.

Will we hold ourselves to a higher standard, a more truthful and more compassionate standard, a shared standard that lives in the intersection between our inner convictions about right and wrong and the communal lives that we must build together?

Can we set down the burdens of the past year? Can we leave behind the things that we thought were true that turned out not to be? Can we set down our pride in arguments offered in passion, and our self-interest, and admit that there is truth to be found between where we stood then, and where we might go together tomorrow?

The truth is out there and in here, in our hearts and minds and souls, and most importantly in the immense places in between you and me. Between us is something bigger and better than either of us could only do by ourselves. Between us is God who is truth. God who is asking us to love the world by doing with our best selves.

As we do at every Kol Nidrei, we start tonight, united as seekers of what is good and what is kind and what is true, together to uncover truth and build a better tomorrow.

A Psalm of Thanks

[Thank you to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for providing the Psalm writing workshop in which I could write this. Thank you to both Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus for providing me prayer space in which to feel like this last Shabbat.]

What a wonder - brokenness
What a luxury - despair

Most days I don’t have the time
I can’t bother with wallowing
I can’t allow myself to sink
There’s so much else calling

Still, in the deeps
In the fractures
With a little time I find space
And some relief
Some solace in feeling
Anything that is only mine

With a second, when I am not needed
I am be grateful
For hurts and sadness

My breaks are mendable 
My grief is not so great
Facing the world
Listening to my tiny breakings 
I can see them for what they are


Dig Deeper, Find Holiness, Reinvent

Erev Yom Kippur
10 Tishrei 5779
Tuesday, September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This time of year, I find myself sifting through the memories of faces of my family, the smells of my childhood homes or even the ocean, all surrounded by aspects of love and connection, warmth and embraces. Some of these memories are poignant, bittersweet, and some simply evocative of days gone by. These are the sacred landscapes of my life - some of which might even include listening to the beautiful voices of cantors and possibly wise words of rabbis on the High Holy Days and the aroma of old prayer books and the aging wood scent of pews.

We come together tonight at the beginning of Yom Kippur to deeply experience holiness. The sacred in Judaism is much more than just a religious thing - it is specialness that emerges from all our important memories and experiences.

Right here as we are encountering the holiness of our year, the memories of being together on this day, here in this sanctuary and others, with the people around us, everyone present for us even those who’ve passed, and with the meanings that swirl around in the air like eddying currents in a tide pool - we could easily say that this was the point. That this is what we’ve come here for. Yet, in this place and time laden with the past and our experiences, we must go deeper.

Since moving to Buffalo, Ginny and I have marveled at all of the connections we find running through Western New York - friends and acquaintances from other places who turn out to be from here.

Last year a college friend visited us. It turned out that he grew up in North Buffalo. In fact, he grew up on the street where we now live.

Just a month ago I connected with a rabbi who was eager to help me as a Buffalonian since some of his relatives hailed from Eggertsville.

One of our closest friends from when we lived in Northern Nevada grew up in Amherst and graduated from Park School.

We have begun to say that all roads lead through Buffalo.

It is really no surprise then, that a singer-songwriter whom I loved in my twenties, Ani DiFranco, is a Buffalo person too. In one of my favorite of her songs, she sings:

go back…and dig deeper, dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones, beneath the bedrock of the mystery
…beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there's a fire just waiting for fuel.

[Ani DiFranco, Fuel, from, Little Plastic Castle, 1998]

We are here to connect with meaning and go deeply into ourselves - to find out what is really ours and what isn’t. To claim for ourselves the meanings in our memories, to separate out what is ours and what we need to leave behind, and to figure out how to use it better.

We must get past all of the things that distract us, and all that we use as excuses, and uncover ourselves in this moment of truth.

The world offers us many distractions and they are so easy to follow down and away from the work we hope to accomplish. Things get in the way. In the course of explaining ourselves we can so easily shift blame and duck responsibility. Our apologies come with excuses and justifications before we even speak them.

Much in the news today, a term has re-emerged. It is called “whataboutism” and is an old Soviet propaganda technique of deflecting criticism by pointing out faults in critics. The Soviet Union’s spokespeople would dodge questions about how they treated their people by saying, in the 1960’s, “Look at the racism in the United States.”

There is no “whataboutism” on Yom Kippur. When we go beneath the surface to face our selves, our consciences, our senses of the universe, God, we don’t get to deflect the critique - we must face the self-assessment. We call this cheshbon ha-nefesh - an accounting of the soul.

Self-accounting is frightening. One of my teachers, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, said that people don’t fear change, we fear loss. To face ourselves, to get rid of the distractions and the excuses, is to experience a loss of all the band-aids that we use to hold ourselves together. Think about one of the things that the famous comedian George Carlin, may his memory be for a blessing, said, “Try to get through the day without nine good rationalizations.” We have to drop the rationalizations and face ourselves. And we have to do more than draw up a list of self-criticisms. Being honest with ourselves, getting rid of the easy answers to who we are and what we do, also means being generous and merciful to our selves.

And this is difficult too. We are here tonight, beating our chests, literally, confessing our sins. I have a much easier time accepting that I need to be more generous to others. Tonight, we have to be more accepting, more giving, more forgiving, of our own flaws. We are here to do the work together, to support each other as we face the mirror of our souls. We support one another in the work we do on our own. The time and place and the company helps, and so do the words of the service.

We started this evening with Kol Nidrei:

“All vows - 
…that we take upon ourselves…
we regret them and for all of them we repent.
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;
they are not valid and they are not binding.
Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;
and our oaths they shall not be oaths.”

Kol Nidrei - the sound of the words in Aramaic is haunting, the music echoes through the chambers of our hearts and the depths of our souls, and the meaning of the words has made impressions for generations. We declare our oaths to be null and void - we relieve ourselves from the obligations we make. Historically anti-Semites have used this declaration as proof of Jews’ sinister and corrupt nature - that we would declare our business obligations null and void and use this as a religious justification to cheat and steal. Rabbis always clarify that the oaths we declare void are only those that we make with ourselves. We understand that in the year to come, as in the year gone by, we will bind ourselves to things that we cannot complete. We seek to be forgiving to our past, present, and future selves.

The turning of the year, the process of returning to do repentance, to atone, to make ourselves whole enough to go into the next year with holiness, requires us to unbind ourselves from promises that we can’t keep to our selves. We must start fresh and new.

Connect with the power of this day, cut away the things that hold us back, dig deep, so that we confront ourselves with clarity and generosity and compassion - all of this we do in order to begin again, to reinvent ourselves. We are on a journey to create something sacred.

Mark Goldman, a member of our community, said something about this just this past week. On Saturday evening we were celebrating Havdalah, the ritual with the braided candle, spices, and wine, which marks the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week, as well as doing Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of last year’s bad behavior into the water, on the bridge by the Naval Museum at Canalside. We have been making Havdalah in places throughout Buffalo - Delaware Park, at the Black Rock Canal and Broderick Parks - for the sake of “spiritual place-making” - connecting the everyday and wondrous in our city, with the everyday and sacred in Judaism. As we were talking about this, Mark said that “Where memory and meaning connect, the place becomes sacred.”

Listen to Mark again - when memory and meaning connect, we get holiness.

This is profoundly true and wonderfully Jewish.

Our hope with the Havdalah series this summer was to create memories in places with meaningful experiences - to connect the Jewish ideas about holiness with the meaningful places and experiences here in Buffalo - to bring a little bit of holiness into our lives through meaningful memories.

We make places and moments holy by what we do and experience in those times and locations.

The Day of Atonement is the beginning of our journey to create something sacred in the coming year. To turn the memories evoked by this time into a meaningful experience that leads us into holiness as individuals. We need to be better, holier, in the days, weeks, and months to come. We must connect to our past in a powerful way, we must not be dragged down by excuses and other baggage that holds us back, and we must care for ourselves with compassion in this process.

The setting out on this journey is imperative. To do anything less is to allow us to be stuck in the past, and so abandon the future. We must look forward while holding on to what came before, without being held back.

We must reinvent ourselves.

Beneath it all, beneath all of those vows that bind us to our own courses of action, we unknot ourselves, we see what it is like to go into the New Year with fewer fetters tying us down.

So what do we find when we dig deeper in order to reinvent?

We start with the cores of ourselves, the parts that have been put together and crafted and buffeted - the centers that have triumphed and survived. When we unbind and uncover we attempt to honestly face who we are beneath it all - who we are, who we have always been, and who we hope to become.

Underneath all of the surfaces and strata, the layers of obligations and oaths that we have placed upon ourselves in the last year, that we might place upon ourselves in the next year, we clarify what is truly us. What we have built and what we still need to work on. What needs to be preserved, maybe renovated a bit, and what can be jettisoned entirely as a failed experiment.

Yom Kippur must be a day of liberation for our souls as we embrace the New Year as we celebrate our history, our starting point and foundation, and make progress in the sacred places of our own inner geographies, seek and create meaning that moves us forward from the past into a better future, and make new memories that expand upon and celebrate and honor the ones we already have.

We come here today to find greater meaning in the New Year. We start in our hearts, dig deeper, and then, taking what worked best before, we reinvent to find the sacred in what was, what is, and what can be for all of us in a better year to come.

We craft this holiness in ourselves, and we craft it together as a community.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we find a holy link from the past to the future on this day of meaning and memory.

Be vulnerable, be uncomfortable, lead with sympathy

Brene Brown, the noted researcher in the field of vulnerability, says that being imperfect is about being vulnerable, and that the most dangerous myth about vulnerability is that it equals weakness. She says, to the contrary, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.” (From Being a Good Boss in Hard Times)

Enter our vulnerabilities and walk with our discomforts - especially in the reaching out to people with whom we might disagree.

Ahava Raba with Cantor Yanky Lemmer

Still haven't gotten your tickets yet for Ahava Raba this Sunday evening, November 6, 7:00 PM at North Park Theatre?

Let Cantor Penny Myers convince you with her interview with Jay Moran from WBFO - Buffalo's source for NPR.


Sunday, November 6

7:00 PM

North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave., Buffalo NY

Ahava Raba is a richly vibrant musical group from NYC that features Cantor Yaakov ‘Yanky’ Lemmer, trumpeter Frank London and clarinetist Michael Winograd. Ahava Raba has been touring Europe, Israel and performing at various Jewish Culture festivals including the highly proclaimed Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. It is a marriage of Klezmer, Chazzanut, with an old school feel yet a refreshing energy and vibe. 

Tickets: $54 Premium | $36 Deluxe | $18 General Admission 

Tickets can be purchased at North Park Theatre and 

online at

Congregation Beth Abraham, Congregation Shir Shalom, Jewish Discovery Center, 
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Temple Beth Zion, and the Buffalo Jewish Federation. 

Thinking Torah for This Week

July 22-23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776
Parashat Balak
The Book of Numbers Chapter 22, Verse 2 – Chapter 25, Verse 9 

What can we possibly learn from a story about a talking donkey?

I suppose this is really a silly question, considering the huge number of popular books, movies, and television shows that feature speaking animals, many of which are also classic and powerful vehicles for profound instructions (see Aesop’s Fables, Daniel the Tiger, or Zootopia).

In this week’s Torah reading the talking donkey is the only one who sees that an angel with a burning sword is threatening her rider Bilaam.

Sometimes we need the wisdom of simple creatures to remind us to open up our eyes and see what is really going on around us. This story reminds us that insight can be found everywhere, and that listening deeply may allow us to learn from everyone and everything.

Let us all try to breathe, watch, listen, and open our minds to what we can learn. 

Wishing everyone a truly wonderful week filled with blessings of open minds and well-being,

Walk with balance, walk with strength

Yesterday was the Tenth Day of the Omer - tiferet in g'vurah - balanced beauty in strength.

At our Talmud lunch today, we studied the midrash about Abraham breaking idols (Bereishit Rabah 38:13).

The conclusion focuses on the power of Abraham's connection with God - Abraham walks through a fire unscathed on account of his spiritual prowess.

Perhaps the strength that we can find is one that allows us to find the difficult path through hazardous places - both within and without. This is strength that relies on balance - endurance that allows us to choose our steps and paths wisely.

Finding the right footing helps us walk with strength.

Inner balance leads to strong steps in the right direction.

Seek Strength

The Ninth Day of the Omer - strength within strength.

Pursuing strength, hardness, justice, often requires discipline - it is important to push ourselves.

With all our fuzzy language about kindness and love, we still know that at the core of our work we must pursue it with determination and rigor.

We must find that core of discipline, the spark of motivation that helps us push through to our next level, whatever and wherever that might be.

Strength can be a value - rigor can be a priority - finding the sources to persist requires us to dig deep.

Be determined. Persevere.

Strength starts with kindness

[Yesterday's Omer Counting Reflection]

A week devoted to our internal upright nature, the part of us that holds up rigorous standards, and seeks justice.

This is the week of g'vurah - the strong arm of our personalities.

The first day of every week of the Omer starts with chesed - loving-kindness.

When we start with kindness, our justice will be tempered with mercy.

When we start with love, our high standards will be softened with forgiveness.

When we start with compassion, our strict clinging to rules will be infused with a bending that is stronger than any easily snapped brittleness.

Let our strength be guided by love. 

The Practice of Kindness

"The appearance of things changes according to the emotions, and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves."
~ Khalil Gibran

On the Seventh Day of the Omer, doing in the area of loving-kindness, and on each week's seventh day, we work on the connection between theory and practice.

Bringing all our thoughts of loving-kindness into reality, into the world of malchut, the sphere in which all our thoughts get put into practice, requires us to recognize the goodness that we ourselves can author in reality.

We can act of out love , devotion, and kindness, when we connect with the boundless mystery within our hearts and souls that allows us to give and care for ourselves and others.

The Building Blocks of Kindness

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”  ~ C.G. Jung

Today, the Sixth Day of the Omer, is the day focused on yesod, balanced foundation and the interpreter of all those abstract ideas of the more profound mystical spheres into something practical.

How do we bring the idea of universal loving kindness into our minds as a "doing" instead of a "thinking" or "feeling"?

All actions start with a spark within us - even our on the spot reactions are rooted deeply inside. To consciously bring compassion and loving-kindness from our best selves into the world of action requires conscious balancing and internal negotiating - the job of that foundational interpreter, yesod.

A solid foundation takes an uneven footing on the earth to create a level place for a building and yesod helps us build a solid place within our minds to bring constructive and kind actions into the world.

Listen, learn, love

Hod - which is grace and smallness, humility, is our focus in the sphere of love and kindness today (we are leaving behind the fifth day of the Omer and entering the sixth tonight).

Humility can be a source of sympathy: "I can't possibly understand what's going on with someone else. I must silence all my voices to listen and understand who they are, what they feel, and what they need from me."

In order to be loving and compassionate we must meet people where they are, not where we think they are.

Listen and learn so that we can love. 

Loving Starts Within

On the Fourth Day of the Omer, as we think about netzach - the self at the center of things - in chesed - loving-kindness, I remember that I cannot give what I do not have.

Without caring about and for myself, I cannot offer caring to others.

Without loving something about myself, I cannot love others.

We begin with the self, and we must move on to love and care others from a foundation within.

Balanced Caring

The third day of the week focuses on the idea of tiferet - the harmony that comes when all things are balanced. Harmony in the area of loving-kindness - an important and occasionally subtle idea.

Devoting ourselves to caring for one another can drain our resources for self-care. When we work in a caring field - and probably every job today has an aspect of caring for one another - we can over-extend at the expense of other areas as well.

To find harmony as we care and devote ourselves to kindness is to understand that there is such a thing as too much. Giving until it hurts is not a solution.

Give, take stock, and take care, so that we can continue to be kind and loving another day.

Counting and Caring

Today is the First Day of the Omer, a Jewish period of counting and reflecting that connects the liberation of Passover to the receiving of the Covenant at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.

Each of the days of the seven weeks of the Counting have been given a theme by Jewish mystics. The first week and first day are both devoted to the idea of chesed in Hebrew, or loving-kindness, in English.

Just what is loving-kindness?

In the culture of the Jewish Bible, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, pointed out that "love" can be better understood to be devotional loyalty - as in "You must love God" and describing that love by talking about upholding the Covenant between the Universe and the Jewish People.

So we can talk about chesed as noticing what the world and the people around us need most, and offering it with care and devotion, and with no expectation of compensation.

Let us all find a moment to realize the great caring accomplished for our souls, our friends and family, and our larger communities, when we give out of compassion and devotion.

Entering Kabbalah starts again this month!

Seeking shelter during the time of Sukkot also means building it. The Sukkah is a sign of shelter because it requires being a good neighbor and dwelling among good neighbors. We invite in our ancestors in to help us be a person of integrity supported by traditions of good behavior. We open the sides to invite in our physical neighbors too. Finding the inner path that connects our actions, emotions, thoughts, and inspiration so that we are givers and receivers of shelter, that's a path in Jewish mysticism.

Want to learn more?

Check out Entering Kabbalah.

New Ways to Connect

Seeking a new approach to spiritual life and bringing meaning into our lives?

We have two new opportunities - one is a four session class exploring Kabbalah from a useful and scholarly perspective - how can Jewish mysticism affect my life for the better every day?
Find out - details and registration here:
Entering Kabbalah

Here is another new way to connect:
Lunch with Martin Buber
Monday, February 2, Noon - 1:15 PM
Bricktop's Restaurant, 6401 Morrison
"I and Thou" and lunch.
We will begin to read and discuss Martin Buber's majestic and humble approach to finding God in the world.
We will look at at the First Part (pages 53-85 in Walter Kaufman's translation).
Copies provided, no reading ahead required.

In these troubled times...

This quote from Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg's book, The Murmuring Deep, page ix, echoes and resonates:

In any vital encounter, much more is transacted than lies within the field of consciousness. As Hans-Georg Gadder often remarks, we "always already" belong to prejudices, wishes, and interests that close us to certain truths and open us to others. The complex interplay of forgetting and remembering, the traumatic departures from our own experience, all leave traces in our movements of communion with one another.