Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
During the High Holy Days, one of the words we hear about the most often is “T’shuvah.” This is the time to make t’shuvah. The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah. Often translated as repentance, t’shuvah also means to turn, or to return. But from what are we turning, and to what are we invited to return?
As part of the Saturday morning liturgy, we say, “Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi,” or, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” In contrast to Christian theology, we don’t believe in “original sin.” We are all born with a pure soul, free of sin.
Then, of course, life happens, and we mess up. It is inevitable. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We hurt ourselves and others. We make poor choices. And, too often, we try to deny what we have done. These things may be called sins.
It is important to note, however, that although sins may be deeds, they do not constitute a state of being. Although I sin, that does not render me a bad person. It just makes me human. And, as a human, I have the opportunity at all times, and especially at this time of the year, to reflect on my sins, to turn from them, and to try to be a better person.
And if I am to be a better person, whom should I emulate? Should I try to be more like a famous person from history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Should I try to be more religious, like Moshe Rabbinu? Should I try to be more like my rabbi, Michael Lezak?
There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi named Zusya, who became deathly ill, and then became very frightened. When his students asked him why he was so afraid, he said,
If God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”*
Or, as the aforementioned Rabbi Lezak told us he learned on a recent retreat with the Institue for Jewish Spirituality, “I am not a failed attempt at being you. And you are not a failed attempt at being me.” The person whom we should emulate, then, is not someone outside of ourselves.
Rather, when we contemplate to what are we invited to return at the start of each new year, I would suggest that it is to ourselves we must return. This is the season during which we look back over the past year, and find the forks in the road where we chose to be someone other than our own best self. This is the time to remind ourselves, “I was made in the image of God. God made me with my own uniqueness for a reason,” and to ask ourselves, “What can I do in the coming year to nurture and to set free the pure soul God has given me?”
*Translation from Blog Sameach
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September 19, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
In my blog post on Wednesday last week I proclaimed that I was ready for the High Holy Days. “Been there, done that,” I thought, “I have done my usual activities, I know what to expect, and I am prepared.” Then God laughed.
Late Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from a friend who works at the JCC next to the synagogue. There was a local retirement community looking for someone to come lead High Holy Day services. Would I be able to help?
So, okay. I have led weekday morning services at the synagogue, and I have led shiva (mourning) services. Why not High Holy Day services? How different could it be? I was sure I could borrow prayer books and kippot from the synagogue. I figured I could get by without a shofar. Suddenly, though, I felt anything but prepared.
A friend emailed me a copy of the machzor (holiday prayer book) developed by synagogue members. It turned out the retirement home only wanted a 30 minute service, so I got to work on paring it down to a bare minimum. Would I be able to make it short but still meaningful, without missing any of the parts the participants would be expecting?
Then I showed up to services on Friday night, where I was reminded it was the first night of “Base Camp,” an experiment in trying, twice a month, to make Shabbat services more like summer camp. We had our usual pre-oneg before services, but we tried to keep everyone out of the sanctuary.
When it was almost time to go in, the entire congregation jammed into the foyer, where each family lit a Shabbat candle. It was crowded. It was noisy. It was awkward. Then everyone sang together as the synagogue doors were opened, and everyone streamed inside. It was lovely.
After services, we gathered outside for Israeli dancing, taught by a trio of enthusiastic teens. They tried to teach us too much in too short a time. The music was too fast for people who were just learning the steps. It, too, was awkward. Still, a surprisingly large number of people participated, and had a lot of fun.
The awkwardness continued on Saturday night, at the Civic Center where we hold High Holiday services, since the synagogue isn’t large enough to hold everyone. We had been informed the major construction project that was supposed to be finished by then was still in full swing, so we arrived to find the building’s main entrance blocked, and the parking lot festooned with temporary lights, pylons, and barriers.
We stationed various Board members along the routes people would have to navigate to travel from the parking lot to the side entrance. We also had Board members near the drop-off point for people who need to travel the shortest distance possible from car to door.
The route was a bit awkward, but our congregation took it all in good humor, and once inside, the services proceeded without a hitch.
When Monday morning services rolled around, I was feeling off my game. I didn’t know what to expect at the retirement home that afternoon, and I had a hard time connecting with God and the prayers.
Then, after lunch, I drove to the retirement home. I had been told there might be only two or three people interested in the service, but I brought 10 copies of the prayer book, just to be safe. It turned out I was several prayer books short.
I felt a bit awkward having to ask people to share. The room was too hot. A couple of the people routinely had trouble finding the right page. Some of them mentioned the tunes I was singing weren’t the tunes with which they grew up. Most of them didn’t know the Hebrew, so I had to improvise in places, in order not to subject them to me soloing the whole time. I felt pressured to stay on time, especially since it turned out there was a lecture scheduled for afterward.
Somehow, I got through it, and afterward the participants and the program director thanked me heartily. Apparently, last year some men from an Orthodox outreach group had come, and the result had been a disaster. I think, in the end, it was my effort to pay attention to, and to accommodate, the needs of the group that saved the day.
Still, I have to say, it was a relief on Tuesday morning when I was able to attend second day services in our usual synagogue, with no last-minute preparations, and no construction. Experimentation and improvisation are healthy and good, and I hope we continue to do them. But sometimes, what you want it is the people you know, in the place you know, without any awkwardness.
Now, am I ready for Yom Kippur? God only knows.
September 12, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Some say there are no seasons in California. But for those of us who live by the Jewish calendar, the holidays keep us grounded in the turning of the planet.
It always starts somewhere near the end of summer. Somehow, the approach of the High Holy Days gets mentioned. Sometimes it’s just the beginning of the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes, it’s the holiday videos on Facebook. This year, it was an advertisement inviting congregants to send a jar of honey to friends and family for the holidays. Regardless of how it’s first mentioned, my reaction is, invariably, “But I’m not ready!”
And that is, you see, exactly the point.
In a land where there is no shofar blowing at the appointed times, these signs become my wake-up call: “The High Holy Days are coming, and you are not ready. It is time to prepare.”
But how to prepare?
First, we have S’lichot services, to get us thinking in the right direction.
Next, I find myself copy-editing the synagogue’s memorial roll. It is a list of the congregation’s loved ones, which is passed out at High Holy Days services, and a copy of which is kept in the ark with the Torah scrolls throughout the following year. I check the names carefully, making sure none are missing, none are misspelled, none are out of order. It is a way to care for the dead, as well as the living. It makes me reflect especially on those who stood with us at Rosh Hashanah last year, but will who not be there this year.
I take out my small portion of the list of current congregants, and begin to make my phone calls. “Hello,” I say, “this is Susan Barnes from the synagogue. I’m calling to wish you a Shana Tova.”
If it’s a long-time congregant, they often say something like, “Thanks, you too.”
If it’s a newer member, there’s usually a pregnant pause as, I imagine, they wait for me to ask them for money. “That’s it,” I offer, “That’s all I called to say,” to which the usual response is one of surprise and delight.
The goal is for every congregant to receive two calls like this a year – one before Rosh Hashanah, and one before Passover. Because I receive the households I call at random, it helps me feel connected to people I don’t know. I can still name some of the people who sought me out to introduce themselves in person after the call. It reminds me to be thankful for what an amazing community we have.
This week, I get a surprise in my email box. I receive the list of answers I gave to questions asked by 10Q during the High Holy Days last year, which is the first time I participated in it. They asked one question a day for each of the 10 Days of Awe, which I answered online, privately. The question for day 10 was,” When September 2012 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel?” I responded, “Disappointed.”
I was wrong. Instead, my answers made me think about how far I’ve come in the last year, the many challenges my husband and I faced in the past year, and how well we have gotten through them.
Lastly, I sit down with my husband to go over “The List.” This is a tradition we started before we were married. The first such conversation between us is actually what convinced me to start dating him. Some time in the week before Rosh Hashanah we go over anything that has happened in the past year for which we feel we need to apologize, or for which we feel the other person needs to apologize.
The real beauty of this tradition is that, throughout the year, it reminds us to apologize to each other in the moment, rather than putting it off. “I don’t want this to end up on The List,” one of us will say, as we check to make sure we have successfully made amends.
And then suddenly, almost magically, as the last days before Rosh Hashanah approach, I realize I am ready. I have reviewed the year and my part in it. I have considered what I did well, and what I want to improve. I have reminded myself of many of the things for which I am grateful. And I am ready to stand before God, in the midst of my congregation, and to ask for forgiveness.
September 6, 2012 | 10:47 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was catching up on reading The Forward, when I came across an article called “Shomrim Don’t Want Police to See Security Video.”
If the shomrim (the private, volunteer security force) put up private security cameras on their own dime, I could imagine legitimate reasons why they wouldn’t want the police to view all the footage. It would be a matter of privacy, and they probably wouldn’t want certain embarrassing events ending up on You Tube, such as a person walking into a light pole while concentrating on a cell phone.
Except – wait a minute – these are public cameras being installed with public money. They aren’t private, at all. And they are being installed as security cameras, to reduce crime in the neighborhood. So of course the police should be allowed to view all the footage, right? It’s all public property, put there for the public good.
But the shomrim are against it, and not because they’re afraid of non-crime activity becoming public You-Tube fodder. To the contrary, their stated reason for wanting to keep the tapes from the police is that they want to withhold evidence of crimes.
Now, the shomrim have long been accused of withholding key evidence from police, including lists of suspected child molestors. But, in the past, they have always denied wrongdoing. This is the first time I know of that they have affirmatively stated, in the press, their intention to obstruct justice.
Here is the money quote from the Forward from Jacob Daskal, head of the Boro Park shomrim, “If it’s a public thing it might hurt a person who doesn’t want to arrest her husband for domestic violence.”
I’m surprised this admission of intention to withhold evidence has not made a bigger splash in the Jewish media. Is it because they are “only” talking about withholding evidence of domestic violence? Is this a statement from the Jewish community that we think violence against women is okay, and should go unpunished?
If so, we are not only wrong, we are living in a fantasy world in which we think this is the only type of crime in which the shomrim will (and do) obstruct justice by keeping important evidence from the police. What if they held back a tape regarding a child molestation? A rape? A robbery? A murder?
What would it take, exactly, for the public to rise up and declare, “The shomrim are supposed to protect the public and help to identify and punish crime. Once they start covering it up instead, they are a menace to society.”
Why are they getting a pass on this?
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