Rabbi Lenore Bohm reflects on Yom Kippur

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2

We’ve been thoughtfully preparing for this day.

By RABBI LENORE BOHM
Author of Torah Tutor

On the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, we read the section in the Torah in which Moses prepares to die. In many ways, Yom Kippur prompts us to ask the same questions that we imagine Moses might have asked as his life drew to a close. But in addition to retrospection, we engage in introspection: not only what did we do, but why did we do it? Have our choices served us well? The gift of this moment, this day, this year, this life: Have we served it well?

The questions that permeate end-of-life reflection are rehearsed (pre-hearsed) at the end of each year. The High Holy Days mean so much because they give us time to consider which experiences brought us joy and satisfaction and which found us despairing and sorrowful. Were there transformative moments that left us inspired, or did we become more callous and cynical, quashing others’ gentleness of spirit or our own openness of heart? We assess whether our characters were strengthened this year or our senses dulled. Whom did we embrace?  Whom did we shun?

Regret and remorse may have their place, but they are not the essence of the season. Rather, we strive to look at life with fresh eyes and trust that the new year will grant us opportunity to renew our purpose, hope and belief.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer them.” Yom Kippur is designed to generate questions, and, if providence allows, the year unfolding will reveal some answers.

Yom Kippur Questions for Reflection

During the past year, have my relationships deepened or become more transactional?

When responding to others, has abundance or scarcity been my starting point?

When challenged, have I been reflective or reactive?

Have I trusted myself and invested in my growth?

Have I been careful with the earth’s resources?

Have I spoken out in the face of injustice?

Many of these questions focus on self; some focus on others. This is the season of gauging intentions and assessing obligations. How do I balance my duties to myself and to others? In the rest of the year, I make excuses for my shortcomings. In the rest of the year, I try to save face.

On Yom Kippur, can I be less defensive?

Yom Kippur in Australia?

In the late 1990s, I spent two wonderful years working with Beit Shalom, a small congregation in Adelaide, South Australia. In the southern hemisphere, of course, the High Holy Days occur at the beginning of spring. This seasonal difference allowed me a different experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: lengthening, not diminishing days; warmer, not cooler temperatures; flowering, not withering plants; more, not less physical activity. All these aspects of springtime Holy Days provided me with a less obvious impetus for introspection, but a more visceral connection to themes of renewal and growth.

In the northern hemisphere, the Holy Days coincide with the beginning of the school year and a return to schedules and routines. It always seemed fitting to celebrate the Jewish New Year  when the academic year and other serious undertakings were commencing.  It also made intuitive sense to think “deeper” thoughts in September and October which coincided with more time spent indoors reading and studying, and with the physical and psychological preparation necessary for the more demanding winter months.

I had to completely reorient myself to welcoming the New Year with more sunshine, brighter colors and longer days. I had to make a real effort—a worthwhile effort as it turned out—to think about the year coming to a close, and to reflect on ways to appreciate the holidays in a variant context.

It was not difficult, it was revelatory. I experienced the warming sun as God’s loving embrace of the world and me, imperfect and struggling though we were. I saw the buds expanding as an unlikely act of grace—small and constricted sprouts blooming into colorful and distinctive flowers.

Growth and possibility! Potential and transformation!

The welcoming feel of spring with its youthful ambiance: this is also the message of the Holy Days – to invest in the world’s and one’s own revival; maturation and blossoming despite fear, loss, and disappointment. To feel new and newly minted, to believe that change, new life, beginnings and growth are possible: this is also what the Holy Days are about.

The High Holy Days might best be appreciated in the context of both seasons, spring and fall.

May your Holy Day season, your year and your life be filled with thoughtful reflection and constant renewal.

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For more on Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY her column about Rosh Hashanah this year.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Lenore Bohm helps us make sense of the Jewish New Year

Buckets of red and green apples

Apples dipped in honey are common fare for Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Mike, courtesy of Flickr

By RABBI LENORE BOHM
Author of Torah Tutor

“Rosh” means “head” or “beginning.”
“Shanah” means “year” and is related to the word “change.”
So, “Rosh Hashanah” signifies the beginning of the year and the beginning of change.

So, let’s start with a couple of thoughts pertinent to Rosh Hashanah:

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I knew: first, I must change myself.”
Rabbi Israel Salanter

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Viktor Frankl

Timing of Rosh Hashanah

Autumn is not the obvious season to place the new year, or to celebrate creation. Spring makes much more sense. But Jews have long recognized what the Wall Street Journal only recently deduced: the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall combined with a return to school and business as usual, lends itself to contemplation, evaluation and goal-setting. “September is the new January,” the WSJ announced, “the time when families put routines back in place, clear out clutter and vow to plan and cook healthy meals.”

Even relatively unconnected Jews often feel drawn to attend synagogue or to create a spiritual experience in the High Holy Day season.  For many, these days are welcomed as an annual spiritually therapeutic encounter, offering respite from the distractedness and superficiality prevailing during most of the year.

Because of the complexities of the Jewish calendar, the New Year can occur anytime in September. This year, our New Year will be welcomed on September 25, at sunset. (All Jewish holidays begin in the evening.) About 900 years ago, a group of enterprising rabbis determined that God said, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:1) in the year 3761 BCE, so, according to their calculations, the upcoming New Year is 5783.

Of course, science dates creation to billions of years earlier. To some, it is important to reconcile scientific findings with Jewish tradition. For most of us, this isn’t an issue, and we’ll use the number 5783 only for religious documents.

From A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew by Rabbi Jonathan Sarna

Science, to my mind, primarily seeks to understand when and how the world came about.  Judaism asks us to take stock of the world and of our own place within it.  Science explores the age of the world, Judaism, the state of the world. The two sometimes complement one another, but their questions, methods, and assumptions could not be more different. The fact that Judaism and modern science disagree over the age of the world, therefore, bothers me not in the slightest. Scientifically speaking, science is right.  Jewishly speaking, Judaism is right.

How the Jewish New Year Differs from the Secular New Year

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated very differently from the secular New Year: January 1 is associated with partying, drinking (a way to forget and release inhibitions), purchasing and wearing new (and perhaps suggestive) clothing, spending outrageous amounts of money on food, entertainment, one-of-a-kind experiences, and being raucous with strangers or “friends of the moment.”

In contrast, the Jewish New Year, while joyful, is spiritual, thoughtful, and reflective.  We try to remember, not forget.  We visit the graves of loved ones. We look for opportunities to be especially generous and charitable. We gather with close friends and family for delicious, home-cooked meals.  We express hope that we have grown in the year gone by. There is no expression of regret at growing older; we pray that the New Year finds us wiser and truer.

Though our annual efforts at spiritual growth often meet with limited success, we continue to strive annually for renewal based on honest effort, and we try to gain strength from incremental, albeit undramatic changes.

We embrace the idea of our names being written into a “Book of Life” for the New Year—yes, each of us wants another year of life. But we  focus attention on how to spend (not what to spend on) the year just beginning.

Here, then, is the spiritual agenda of the season: find your center and (re)claim it as central, reject cynicism, embrace hope, give thanks for what is lasting.  In every way possible, commit to making your life a blessing.

Questions of the Season

What do I need to let go of from the year coming to an end?
From whom do I need to ask forgiveness?
Whom do I need to forgive?
How can I be a source of blessing to my family, workplace, community this year?
How can I be a source of blessing to myself?
What or who warrants my particular attention this year?
What or who brings out my pettiness, my pride? Can I separate from negative
people/influences?
How can I bring more wonder and joy into my life in the year ahead?
Can something good come out of my suffering, pain, loneliness?
Are there opportunities for spiritual growth resulting from my losses (aging,
deaths, etc.)?

Rosh Hashanah Teachings

We can (re) create ourselves. We become what we do.

We don’t have total control over anything; nevertheless we can choose our responses to what life sets before us. We live within natural and social boundaries, but our choices do make a difference. We can practice restraint. We can strive to master our impulses.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world, not the creation of Judaism or the Jewish people. It is a Jewish holiday that celebrates all existence, all people, and all possibility.

Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we wish people a good and sweet year.  “Good” speaks to the desired character of our our intentions, attitudes, and aspirations. “Sweet” describes the desired outcome our our efforts.

I wish you a good and sweet year!

Reflecting on our lives as Elul prepares us for New Year 5783

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2

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By RABBI LENORE BOHM
Author of Torah Tutor

EVENING OF FRIDAY, AUGUST 26—My favorite Hebrew month is about to begin. It is  called Elul and it leads up to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

I love Elul because it is all about reflection and discernment: How has the past year impacted me? Is my heart more open or closed? Are my boundaries more elastic or rigid? Have my relationships become more transactional or have they deepened? Have I laughed and embraced more or less frequently this year? Has abundance or scarcity been my starting point in my quest to be a generous person?

The list of questions goes on and I love them all. They release me from the accrued pettiness of the year coming to an end.

Elul reveals not what we want but what we need: spiritual grounding. Elul invites us to take seriously that obscure feeling of something lacking, of something being amiss. Elul suggests we name and place front and center the desire to be at home in our selves and in our lives.  Slow down, Elul begs; what is the goal, the finish line you are striving so hard to reach?

Here is the crux of the matter as articulated in The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), a prolific British writer on mysticism and spiritual growth:

“We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual–even on the religious–plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest … But when we widen our horizon … a new coherence comes into our existence, a new tranquility and release.”

Elul is about widening our horizons and releasing our dis-eases and our mis-takes.

Each morning of Elul, we hear the sound (the cry) of the shofar. It is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to stir us out of our reverie and apathy. How have I grown complacent? What duties have I neglected? Can I reconcile my behavior with my values?

The idea isn’t to feel guilt or shame. It’s to promote self-awareness and renewal. If I want this year to be different, will I choose to be different? Free will is at the heart of the High Holy Day enterprise. I can choose to speak more, to chatter less, to (for)give more, to withhold less, to reveal more than revile, to be less certain, less judgmental, to open more widely my heart, my mind, my hands, my eyes, my doors.

Along with hearing the shofar, another custom of Elul is to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening. Psalm 27 is an interesting choice (made apparently in the 1700s) to accompany Elul.  It is not a paean to God’s forgiving nature or love of humanity.  The psalm does not demonstrate singular and unbending faith on the part of the author. To the contrary: Psalm 27 is full of uncertainty and apprehension. The psalmist hopes God will respond, but there is no conviction.

Why would this psalm be chosen to accompany Elul, a month preoccupied with preparation and self-accounting (called “cheshbon hanefesh”)?

I think this choice speaks to an appreciation of honesty as the linchpin of this month’s self-assessment. Not pretend piety or sanctimony, but truth-telling. Have I or haven’t I? Did I or didn’t I?

I love Elul because pretending makes me uneasy. Not that I don’t to it, but I’m always regretful when I do, and Elul won’t let me get away with it. The early spring holiday of Purim invites us to mask ourselves and to engage in parody. Elul, some six months later, incentivizes unmasking and frank, unpretentious confrontation of self.

Returning to this season is like letting go of a tightly held breath.

I release it and it releases me.

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Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

Rabbi Lenore Bohm began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.

 

 

Tisha B’Av: A day to remember, mourn and ‘restart the journey.’

Excavated stones from the Wall of the 2nd Temple (Jerusalem), knocked onto the street below by Roman battering rams in on the 9th of Av, 70 C.E. This first century street is located at the base of the Temple Mount where the western and southern walls meet. The property may be accessed via the Davidson Archeological Center in Jerusalem. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

DAY BEGINS THE EVENING of SATURDAY AUGUST 6—My introduction to Jon Stewart came on Tisha B’Av about two decades ago.  I happened upon The Daily Show just as Stewart was pointing to a Jewish star decorated with lights.  He said something like, “Today was a Jewish holiday.”  Then the lights on the star went out and he said, “Not that kind of holiday.  It was a sad holiday,” and he made that well-rehearsed doleful face, downward smile, creased forehead, puppy dog eyes.  I became a Daily Show fan that day and never looked back!

Yes, my friends: that’s Tisha B’Av—a holiday with no lights, no upbeat greeting, and no tasty morsels drenched in oil or filled with cheese.  In fact, some people choose to fast for 24 hours, in deference to the somber quality of the day.

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month called Av) memorializes the sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of its central Temple in 586 BCE, and again (having been rebuilt in the interval) in 70 CE, and the exile of the Jewish people from their (home)land twice.  Tradition says these events, along with other Jewish tragedies happened on this very day. The accuracy of this tradition notwithstanding, all devastating events in our people’s history are recalled on Tisha B’Av.  Observant Jews spend the day in prayer, refrain from pleasurable activities, and chant mournfully from the biblical Book of Lamentations.

In Jewish thought and experience, exile is both physical/historical and metaphysical/spiritual. With the  current reality of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland and place of return, some find greater meaning in contemplating the ahistorical themes of Tisha B’Av: what constitutes exile from God, from our truest selves, from each other.  Spending a day mourning what is lost or broken in our lives as individuals and as humanity, might we more successfully find our way back to God or to less fractured lives and relationships with each other and the earth?

It is probably not by accident that Tisha B’Av occurs seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.  Seven is a significant—arguably the most significant—number in Jewish life.  Shabbat is celebrated on the seventh day of the week.  Rosh HaShanah occurs in the seventh month of our calendar.  There are seven  blessings recited at a Jewish wedding.  The initial mourning period for a loved one is seven days: the number seven appears again and again in Jewish ritual and ceremony.

The passage of seven weeks between Tisha B’Av, day of intense reflection, sorrow and contemplation of loss and exile, and Rosh HaShanah, day of new beginnings, celebration and joyful prayer, indicates the life-affirming, stubbornly hopeful stance at the core of Judaism.  It suggests that we not be paralyzed by guilt or sadness or loss, but that we muster our communal and personal resources to assess what was or what is, and progress from there.

Tisha B’Av instructs: Look at the pain of the world (and personal pain) realistically, see its (and our) fractures, face those fractures…..and move forward. In the poignant words of Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, “Claw your way back to a place where we can enter the new year, seek forgiveness and start afresh.”

It is a good thing, in my opinion, to stake out a day devoted to confronting our fractured lives on this fractured planet.

From the Book of Lamentations 1:16 “For these things I weep, my eye sheds tears…” The tears we shed literally or figuratively for people in crisis resulting from war, hunger, disease, abuse, false incarceration, violence.  For children bullied or shamed, for teens rejected for their sexuality, for couples devastated by infertility, for partners undone by broken trust, for dreams dashed by accidents and illnesses, for people who cannot forget, for people who cannot remember, for pain unassuaged. Life’s cruelty abounds.  No one escapes this life unscathed.

And yet we cannot live endlessly in a place of bitterness and despair, or in fear that catastrophe awaits us at any turn.  We are called to remember, recover, reach out and regenerate. Not to live blindly in denial, but never to stop believing that the future can redeem the past. That is the lesson of Rosh HaShanah, an affirmation of creation and possibility, following seven weeks after Tisha B’Av, with its sobering lessons.

It is surprising—one could say astounding—that Jews remain a hopeful people.  For most of our history, we have been subject to prejudice, dispersion and brutality, and  few would question if we had become a dejected, languishing people, a people estranged from laughter and joy.  But in fact, the opposite is true: Many Jews consistently look out for something to laugh about (including ourselves), something to care about (societal ills and people living on the fringe), and ways to be creative and purposeful. When we life our glasses, we toast, “L’Chayim,”  “To Life.”

This is one of the many reasons I love Judaism: it teaches us to acknowledge the pain, and it expects us  not to be overcome by it.  To wrestle a blessing out of a curse.  To believe in, and to work towards, a world of fairness and beauty and possibility.

Tisha B’Av is not a day of dread and it is not a day I dread.  It is a day to contemplate loss and exile.  It is a day to start the journey back home.

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Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.

 

 

Tu BiShvat: Try a Jewish fruit salad?

A fruit market in Barcelona, Spain, shared via Wikimedia Commons by Mike McBey.

BEGINNING on the EVENING of SUNDAY, JANUARY 16: For Tu BiShvat this year, you might try a special kind of Jewish fruit salad. Gather diverse kinds (totaling 15 items) of fruit and display them in three groups.

  1. Fruit with a tough skin but edible inside such as pomegranates, coconuts, pineapples.
  2. Fruit with a soft, edible skin and inedible inner pit/stone: olives, cherries, plums.
  3. Fruit which can be easily eaten in their entirety: figs, grapes, berries.

Why 15? Keep reading!

What have you assembled? The centerpiece of a Tu BiShvat Seder. Many are familiar with the term “Seder” as it pertains to the holiday of Passover.  The word “Seder” refers to an ordered meal. A Tu BiShvat Seder, based on a practice begun by Jewish mystics in the 16th century, has become a welcome addition to Jewish practice for many families or communities. This Seder focuses on fruit, trees and environmental awareness.

At the Seder, include readings and poetry about trees and nature. Talk about how people’s personalities reflect the traits of the fruit groupings:

  1. People hard to get to know, but warm and wonderful when you get past their tough exterior,
  2. People easy to have superficial conversations with, but difficult to pierce their outer layer,
  3. People who share themselves easily and fully, and are transparent in interactions.

Consider: Some people present themselves as one type most of the time. Others move between these types. Invite people  at your Seder to think or talk about themselves or others through this lens. Make and enjoy a fruit salad with selections from each fruit group.

Display four cups of wine or grape juice consisting of four shades of purple/white. One cup contains only white wine/grape juice. This one represents winter. The next one holds 3/4 white wine/juice and ¼ red wine/grape juice. This blush color represents spring. The third cup is entirely red/purple. The deep, rich color represents summer.  The last cup holds ¾ red/purple wine/juice and ¼ white. This represents fall. Look at the subtle progression of color and how it represents one season blending into the next. This is true of the seasons of our lives as well.

Consider: what season of life are you in now? Perhaps your age represents one season but your attitude and openness represents another season. These questions can also form part of the discussion at your Tu B’Shevat Seder.

Along with organizing the food and drink components, you can invite a speaker or discuss among yourselves an article or organize an activity related to composting, solar energy, noise pollution or climate change. Use the Seder as an opportunity to learn about environmental issues in your community. Arrange a tree planting, beach clean-up, or garden tending event on the weekend before or after Tu BiShvat. These activities expand the holiday to broader concerns.

What Is Tu BiShvat?

Spellings vary in English from the Hebrew. Wikipedia editors have standardized their spelling as Tu BiShvat, even though they spell the month referenced: Shevat.

Tu BiShvat is the Jewish New Year of Trees.  In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. When linked, the letters “tet” and “vav”  are pronounced “Tu.” Their numerical value is 15. (Ahh, now you understand the importance of that number!) Therefore Tu B’Shevat refers to the 15th day of the Hebrew month, Shevat. This year, the month is concurrent with parts of January and February.

In Israel, the brief winter months are marked by heavy rains and surging creeks. By late January or early February, most of the rain has ceased and the earliest hints of spring can be discerned. Although several weeks of cooler, shorter days remain, buds appear on some trees. The sap begins to rise in almond trees. The sap can’t be seen, but it is a necessary precursor to the trees’ blossoming.

There are those who would suggest that the time to celebrate the spring or acknowledge our dependence on nature is when everything is in full bloom and the temperatures are mild. But a different perspective is offered by celebrating the rising of the sap and trusting that what needs to grow will grow at the appropriate time.

On Tu BiShvat we honor growth that begins silently, below the surface. Like life beginning in the womb,  and the birth of ideas and realizations originating in the unconscious, much that is creative begins in the  dark. What precedes growth and revelation isn’t seen but it is necessary for fruition to take place.  The darkness of the womb, of the night, of winter, of silence: the darkness and the waiting are powerful and undervalued.

Tu BiShvat provides a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the natural world.  In Judaism we have blessings for smelling fragrant trees, herbs, spices and fruit.  We praise God for seeing wonders of nature, such as oceans, lightning, shooting starts, deserts, mountains, rainbows, and  sunrise. We benefit from reminders that the preservation of the natural world is incumbent upon us.  Tu BiShvat provides a reminder of how dependent and enlivened we are by the physical world.

But Tu BiShvat also offers reflection in spiritual terms. Growth takes time and is rarely linear. What can’t be seen can be vital to full flourishing. Dormancy is not death.

Referencing what it truly means to grow and deepen, Henri Nouwen wrote: “We are called to be fruitful–not successful, not productive and accomplished. Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.”

May our appreciation of nature and human nature be constant, and may it begin now. May we honor the unseen along with the seen, and may we cherish each stage of life for its unique gifts.

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Care to read more? 

Early in 2022, we will publish Torah Tutor by Rabbi Lenore Bohm, who began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Rabbi Jack Riemer—author of Finding God in Unexpected Places—was one of the early reviewers of Bohm’s manuscript. He adds a glowing endorsements:

Rabbi Bohm’s book is indeed a treasure—both for those who think that they know the Torah already and for those who have never studied at a grownup level before. It will open your mind to some of the questions that the Torah asks of us as well as to some of the questions that we should ask when we confront the Bible. I promise you that this is a book that you will find well worth reading—and that you will want to reread many times.