November 16, 2018

Awed by Days of Awe? Keep the Holiness Going

The Open Temple, a Jewish community in Venice that blends arts and Judaism, was one of three L.A. nonprofits to win an UpStart Accelerator grant. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lori Shapiro

At Open Temple’s break-the-fast meal in Venice, a young man introduced himself.  

“I’m not Jewish, but I’ve been on a six-day fast and I saw that your Yom Kippur Urban Retreat was happening at the same time,” he said. “I attended your entire observance and want you to know that I feel that this has really deepened my cleanse and what I was hoping to get out of it.  Thank you so much. You inspired me to want to keep it going. Yom Kippur is awesome!”

Indeed, the Days of Awe are exactly that — awesome. We emerge with a sense of wonderment about our bodies, our place in the universe and connection to community. After experiencing this outsider’s expression of his natural Jewish high, I wondered: How can we keep this party going?

In a part of town where every corner along Abbot Kinney Boulevard offers a different cold-pressed juice option to cleanse our bodies, I return to the fundamentals of Jewish ritual life and the way Judaism invites all of us to experience regular cycles of individual and communal catharsis, cleansing and renewal.

This year, Open Temple offers an invitation to all into the “Yom Kippur Katan” observance, an opportunity for us to “turn and return” inward monthly to our Yom Kippur awareness and rededicate our lives and our bodies to their purest forms.  

Yom Kippur Katan, a 16th century innovation, originated in the mystical city of Safed. Rabbi Moses Cordovero (aka the Ramak, an organizer of Kabbalistic thought) is credited with beginning this observance, which is first cited in Isaac Luria’s “Seder ha-Tefillah.”  This observance occurs the day before Rosh Hodesh each month (with the exceptions of Chesvan, Tevet and Iyar because of Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Nissan observances), or the Thursday before, if the day of observance falls on Shabbat.

“Following the custom of the very pious, one must repent and make restitutions both in money and personal acts, in order that one may enter the new month as pure as a newborn infant,” said Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (aka the Shelah haQaddosh).  

Yom Kippur Katan is like an invisible track keeping us steadily moving forward through the spiral journey of the Jewish year.  

Liturgically, we recite Selichot during the afternoon (when tallit and tefillin are also ritually worn). If engaging in communal observance, a reading from Exodus is included. We listen as Moses pleads for God’s compassion: “Why, God, should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand?” (Exodus 32:11). We are asked to role-play as stand-ins for Moses in the modern era — fast and pray, with liturgical recitations from the Viduii and Avinu Malkeinu — and then return to our lives bearing a deepened awareness of our hand in the maelstrom of corruptive destruction and redemptive potential.    

What will the High Holy Days of 5780 look like if we spend a year dedicating ourselves to this observance? How can we transform our communities, our families, ourselves?

While it’s fairly easy to purchase bottles of greens or charcoal water to ingest every two hours, what might it mean to press some deeper meaning into the cocktail?

Los Angeles is filled with “After Burns” — communal post-Burning Man gatherings. Yom Kippur Katan is the yearlong cycle of After Burns for the Jewishly curious.  

A Blessing for 5779:  May we deepen our observance of the revelatory High Holy Days experience with an awe-awareness spanning the next 11 months — and may our skin be all the brighter from it.

Yom Kippur Katan Calendar, 5779
For each Yom Kippur Katan observance, choose whether to engage in communal or private ritual. Choose to fast with no water, with water or with a juice cleanse. Keep a journal to check in each month: set goals, name challenges, monitor personal growth.

Oct. 8: Rosh Hodesh Chesvan (no observance): Schedule an hour to journal and reflect upon the High Holy Days experience.
Nov. 7: Rosh Hodesh Kislev.
Dec. 6: (no observance): Rosh Hodesh Tevet. Light hanukkiah and meditate upon the light.
Jan. 6: Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat.
Feb. 4: Rosh Hodesh Adar I
March 6: Rosh Hodesh Adar II (bonus this year!)
April 4: Rosh Hodesh Nissan
May 2: Rosh Hodesh Iyar (no observance; no fasting in Nissan): Reflect upon freedom and civil liberties in our lives.
June 3: Rosh Hodesh Sivan
July 2:  Rosh Hodesh Tamuz
Aug. 1: Rosh Hodesh Av
Aug. 29: Rosh Hodesh Elul


Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice.

Using the Bully Pulpit on High Holy Days

Editor’s note: Over Rosh Hashanah, local rabbis spoke on a variety of topics, but three in particular took aim at the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica made national and international headlines when he excoriated his former congregant, Stephen Miller, now Trump’s senior adviser. IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous received a thunderous standing ovation after her 30-minute sermon pointing out how unwell our country is but that it’s not too late to build a new America. And Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple spoke about the “daily cocktail of anxiety” we see in the news and how the Unetane Tokef prayer can help guide us in these troubled times. Below are edited excerpts from their Rosh Hashanah sermons.   

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels: An Open Letter to Stephen Miller
I was once your rabbi. When you were about 9 or 10 years old, your family belonged to Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. You attended our religious school.

The actions that you now encourage President Trump to take make it obvious to me that you didn’t get my/our Jewish message. I understand that you were a major contributor to the zero-tolerance policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated to punish and deter desperate families from coming to the United States by separating children from their parents at the border. That notion is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish values.

Mr. Miller, the policy that you helped to conceive and put into practice is cruel. What you would have learned from me is that ours is a spiritual path that is focused on one task: bringing the shattered pieces of the vessel in which the universe was born back together in both a literal and spiritual repair — a healing of transcendent influence and impact. Mr. Miller, Judaism is a way of responding to the mundane and the unexpected, always seeking the response that is at once the most just and the most merciful. We Jews have chosen our history to be our mandate. We choose to recall and emphasize our most ancient ancestor, Abraham, as a “wandering Aramean,” i.e., a refugee, an immigrant. We choose to remember and underscore that the quintessential experience of the Jewish people is both the slavery in and the exodus from ancient Egypt. We are all refugees, Mr. Miller.  

Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border. It’s not that we can’t reverse what you’ve done. We can, we are, and we will. 

We’re not going away, Mr. Miller, and whether you identify now as Jew is not really my concern. What is troublesome is that some of my colleagues and others are concerned about what I might have taught you when you were a member of our community. I can assure you, as I can assure them, that what I taught is a Judaism that cherishes wisdom, values honed over four millennia, wide horizons and an even wider embrace. 

Is there still time, is there still a chance that you might change your attitude? That’s up to you, Mr. Miller. I will never give up hope that you can open your heart.

In the meantime, I will act in accordance with the values that our tradition conveys, values that go beyond the superficial and time-limited expediencies of your allegiance to party and a temporal leader, and I will engage against you in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a struggle for the sake of all that is righteous, not merely what you may deem as right.

Know this: Regardless of whether the Trump administration decides to be accountable, we are choosing to be accountable. We believe, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us so precisely, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Because we want this society to remain free, we will continue to act. Someone needs to clean up this mess and, in concert with many others, it will be your long-suffering, uncomfortable Jewish people.

Do you know the Yiddish word mensch, Mr. Miller? In Yiddish, a mensch is a fully-constituted, human and humane being. In Hebrew it parallels to the word ish. Hillel the Elder taught us: “B’makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil l’hiyot ish”. (Avot 2:5) In other words, “In a place where no one is acting like a mensch, be one!” That’s what we will be doing, Mr. Miller, because that’s who we are. We can only hope you will decide to join us.

Read more of his sermon’s here. 


Rabbi Sharon Brous: Building A New America
We are not well when racist dog whistles today sound more like bullhorns, when Black athletes are scorned and penalized for engaging in nonviolent protests against police violence. When the Justice Department actively works to roll back civil rights achievements of previous administrations

Yes, it’s a victory that only a dozen pathetic Nazis showed up to march in [Washington,] D.C. on the anniversary of Charlottesville, but friends — they’ve moved from the streets to the ballots! There are now several avowed white nationalists, Holocaust deniers and Nazis on the ballot in state and federal races this fall. Organizations that monitor hate groups say it’s clear that white nationalists feel emboldened when the president himself advances their agenda every time he discharges an insult about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans. No, we are not well.

We are not well when there are one or two shooting incidents in American schools every single week. When middle schoolers report being afraid to return to the classroom because they’re scared they might get shot. And when the Secretary of Education toys with the idea of allowing states to siphon federal funding intended for the arts and music, mental health and technology programs instead to the purchase of guns for teachers. We are not well.

“Oh, keep your politics off the pulpit!” they say. 

As if our Torah is not an inherently political document. As if the story of slaves rising up before the most powerful ruler of the ancient world to demand freedom and dignity is not a political message. 

This I know: Our Torah did not survive thousands of years only to be muted precisely the moment its eternal message matters most. We make a mockery of our tradition when we suggest that the way we live in human society, the way we treat one another, the way we care for — or neglect to care for — the least among us is outside the scope of religion.

What we need is not to return to a time of mythical greatness. We need to build America anew, equipped to hold us in all our diversity and complexity. 

Yes, we are unwell, but we can — and we must — build a new America.

And it’s already happening. This year, we witnessed the beginning of a nonviolent revolution, as a million students walked out of their classrooms and took to the streets. This army is led by 16-year-olds who, while hiding under desks and behind file cabinets, saw their friends shot. Who saw the sickening inaction, the hypocrisy and complacency of our elected officials, and stood up to insist that if the grown-ups wouldn’t do it, they would bend the arc of history themselves.

Our children are in the streets shouting, Pasul! Pasul! It’s not kosher! This is old America, the America of greed, corruption and hatred, of systems built to protect and sustain white supremacy, to entrench power in the hands of the few and keep guns in the hands of the many. It is foul and corrupted. And unlike us, the grown-ups, these kids won’t even consider that change is impossible.

It is their passion that will lead the way to a new America. It’s their moral clarity. Their fidelity to the truth. Their chemical allergy to hypocrisy. They are leading, and we need to stand behind them now, with the full force of our political, spiritual, intellectual and material resources. To do anything less would be a gross abdication of moral responsibility.

There may be a time when it really is too late to redeem America. Thank God, we are not there yet. 

The new America won’t come easily; we’re going to have to fight for it. 

We will rebuild this nation with love. There is a new America being born, and it is fierce, gorgeous and fair. It is built on justice and mercy, and it makes room for everyone. 

To usher this new America into the world, we — every one of us — will need to be brave, brave, brave. 

Read, listen or watch the full sermon here.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder: Double Down on Your Relationships
I suffer from anxiety. It is very real and sometimes very frightening. It can ruin parts of days, weeks, months and years. As a rabbi, I see so much dysfunction, so much hurtful gossip, so much cancer and death that it is hard not to feel like I’m next.

And, of course, there is the news. That daily toxic cocktail of mind-boggling instability, criminality and drama in Washington, tweeting and testing the very fabric of democracy itself — wildfires, Putin, Assad, Iran, North Korea, global warming, Mueller, racism, corruption, sex scandals, immigration cruelty, floods, homelessness — over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And tonight we’re supposed to wish each other a shanah tovah? Really? Yes. Really.  

Our ancestors put celebrating on Rosh Hashanah ahead of the past remorse we face on Yom Kippur. First comes hope in the future, then the muck of our past. And believe me, the sages knew a lot more about anxiety than we do. Consider the Unetane Tokef prayer we say on Rosh Hashanah. The one that asks, “Who by water? Who by fire? Who will be troubled? Who will be needy? Who shall live and who shall die?” That prayer was written at least 13 centuries ago.  

Life 13 centuries ago was nothing but anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were regular, daily occurrences. But our ancestors had a different, more powerful prescription for managing their anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day. Remember how that prayer ends; what comes after that long list of terrible things to worry about in the coming year? It ends with three simple things that can get us all through. “But teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (generosity),” says that wise prayer, “Ma-a-virin et roah ha-gezarah (will make whatever comes next year easier to live with and through).” 

This was the ancient rabbis’ simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time, and it can be ours, too. First, teshuvah — repentance. And what is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? Our ancestors lived in small villages, where the key to survival was the quality of relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter?    

So double down, says the Unetane Tokef. When you are in pain, when you are lost, when you are afraid — double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. Whoever you came here with tonight or called to wish a shanah tovah, that person by your side right now, he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. No one endures suffering better alone. Tend to your relationships with teshuvah. Do not let the centrifuge of life’s stresses whirl your family and your friendships apart.

Double down. Make things right with the people you love. For only love can lift us from our suffering and our fear. Click here to read the entire sermon. 

A Prayer for the New Year

I pray that I will find humility
When I’m sure I am right.

I pray that I will find compassion
When my heart feels indifference.

I pray that I will find energy
When my body tires.

I pray that I will find serenity
When my mind races too fast.

I pray that I will find music
When my day has no melody.

I pray that I will find courage
When my conscience is tested.

I pray that I will find the right words
When all I hear are the wrong ones.

I pray that I will find humor
When my spirit is broken.

I pray that I will find holiness
When it is most hidden.

I pray that I will find love
When my heart can barely see it.

I pray that I will find me
When all I can see is you.

The Eating of the Jews – A Poem for Rosh Hashanah by Rick Lupert


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.