October 14, 2019

Thoughts on the Days of Awe – Live the Light, Be Strong

Thoughts on the Days of Awe

Live the Light, and Be Strong

Nixon was a Capricorn. And so was Jesus.

I vaguely remember the day, I must have been around nine or so, when I found out I was a Capricorn. Someone in my family was reading the Astrology section in the newspaper, and I was curious. In the ensuing conversation I found out what I was. Of course, I read up on myself every day for a while. Then I read up on other people in the Astrology section. Hmm. Some days, apparently, I was someone else. Then I read an article about famous Capricorns, Richard Nixon being one of them. In my home, that was slightly worse than Satan being a Capricorn. “Not good,” I thought. Then I heard that Jesus was a Capricorn.

I became skeptical about the determinative power of morally indifferent constellations in the sky when I was born. By the time I was in high school, when people asked me what my sign was, I would say something like “Falling Rocks Ahead.”

I did not realize that my juvenile skepticism about this deeply held belief of others matched a struggle in Jewish thought. On one hand there is great animosity against fatalism in general and Astrology in particular in Jewish thought. Commenting on Genesis 15:5, where God “takes Abraham outside”, the Midrash says (Genesis Rabbah 44:12) that God took Abraham out of the world, above the stars, and had him look down, to see the starts from above. God says to Abraham: “You are a prophet, not an astrologer.” In essence, the Midrash there teaches that the constellations don’t rule the lives of the people of Israel. Maimonides, our greatest jurist, philosopher and mystic, reviled Astrology. On the other hand, there are many, many sources that teach about great scholars and mystics who were Astrologers. Honestly, I don’t get it.

As some of you might remember, I was a committed Existentialist by the time I was in 9th grade (too much Camus and Sartre, way too young). I was familiar with the idea of “bad faith”, disowning our freedom. According to Existentialism, we human beings take on faith systems that tell us that everything is ordained, everything is planned, foretold, God’s will, whatever, because the idea that that we are free, and therefore accountable, is too much to behold. We would rather consult the stars or blame something else for why we are the way we are, than face our terrible freedom.

Why are you as you are? Not the stars. Some mixture of four things: your genes (your personality), your childhood before language, everything that has happened since (from the family on out), and your history of decisions, conscious and unconscious. And especially this decision: what you decide you will become, starting tomorrow (I say this so can sleep on it). You won’t change by tomorrow. But you can start.

You become free when you take ownership of your decisions, when, as much as possible, you bring to light the world of unconscious habits, unconscious decisions, and own them. You are who you are because of the patterns within, not the patterns in the night time sky.

Deliberate, reflect, evaluate, and decide. Is some decision good for righteousness and inner well-being – yes or no? Confused? Decide to figure it out. The process of regaining freedom is slow and it is painful, but it is the path to authenticity.

Does God or fate play a role in any of this? Maybe, but only clearly in the rear-view mirror. People tell me that something was fated, or God’s will. “How do you know?” I ask. “Because it happened”, I am solemnly informed. “So, everything that happens is God’s will?” I ask. You can imagine how and where the conversation goes from there. Evil is the least of it.

Freedom is the most of it. Yes, sometimes, I do detect the light of God shining on a path before me, but I have to decide to take that path. And I might be wrong.

We would not have Days of Awe committed to Teshuvah, the path out of regret and remorse toward repair and righteousness, if we human beings always took the lighted path before us, or if everything were pre-ordained.

The High Holy Days, our Days of Awe, are rooted in the idea of radical freedom. On one hand, we are taught that there is a Book of Life in which our fate is inscribed, but then we are taught that “Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah” can alter the severe decree. There are many things outside of our control, but what remains, for most us, determines our quality of life. Your life is fated until you do something about it.

The Midrash teaches that we live above the stars. The light that shines into us is directly from the Divine. Live that light – be strong – and use these days to recover our freedom, into lives of righteousness and well-being.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley

The Hope and Repentance of the Days of Awe

We are entering an incredibly emotionally charged time as this past year has touched all of us personally, nationally and globally. During the month of Elul, we began our preparation, taking account of where we fell short while knowing that God awaits with open arms to receive even the most shattered among us. Song of Songs reminds us “I let my devotion sleep,” but Shema, listening attentively, “my heart hears the voice of my beloved (the Divine) knocking, whispering, Open to me.” 

Sunday evening, Sept. 29, is Rosh Hashanah, offering a new beginning. It celebrates the birthday of the world, which began on Wednesday, the 25th of Elul, as well as the birthday of the human being, six days later, the first of Tishrei. Like life itself, it is an expression of both light and dark, the sweet and the bitter. We celebrate both the joy of new possibilities represented by eating apples with honey for the promise of a sweet year while acknowledging the heaviness of year’s end, reviewing our failures, omissions and sinful behavior toward others.

Unlike Jan. 1, when we often make resolutions, empty promises often unfulfilled, this is a time for preparing and understanding where we missed the mark and dedicating ourselves to taking action, bringing more wholeness to our lives. We open ourselves to the grandeur and awesomeness of this great day and all that it can bring. 

This holiday means to return, Teshuvah, to our authentic self, the soul we often abandon. We are called to surrender to the brokenness, the pain or the unrequited love we so deeply want to repair within the tender parts of our being as well as the relationships often worn away by lack of attention or hurtful words and actions, often unaware of the unintended impact of mistaken choices. This time reverberates with possibility but demands our attention and commitment not only to celebrate but also do the work, which extends through the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Return, culminating with Yom Kippur. Just as Passover leads to Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah takes us to the cleansing day, 10 days later, of Yom Kippur.

The name itself hints at a much deeper understanding. The word rosh means head and shanah means “to repeat, change or year.” Literally it means the “head of change or repetition,” depending on what we decide to do.

Will this New Year maintain the status quo for us or will it be an opportunity to mend, heal and even elevate our lives in new or risky ways? The kabbalists teach that the “head” is the place of spirituality — keter (crown) at the top and right and left brain, chochma (wisdom) and beena (understanding), the center of consciousness. Rosh Hashanah is literally where we begin to assess, consider and decide how we will move forward — resisting or surrendering to who we can become.

This Holy Day also has three other names reflecting its purpose and themes — Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment; Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance; and Yom T’ruah, the Day of Blowing the Shofar. These themes represent the past, present and future. Yom Ha-Zikaron is when God remembers all that we have done over the past year; Yom Ha-Din is God, King/Queen and Judge, the ultimate ruler and decider of what our fate might be; and Yom T’ruah, the mighty sound of the shofar as it reflects our anguish, our call, and our desire for wholeness this coming year.

The language of our prayer book can feel foreign and hard to relate to, having originated hundreds of years ago. But we need to suspend our disbelief and modern sensibilities. We need to be willing to capture the spirit of their message, which  teaches us our place in the universe with its grander scheme that rules the how and why of Creation. Our tradition teaches it is HaShem, the Divine Creator of all.

Will this New Year maintain the status quo for us or will it be an opportunity to mend, heal and even elevate our lives in new or risky ways? 

We stand with our fellow congregants, friends and family, mere mortals, praying, singing and meditating to the Holy One, Blessed Be S/He — the Judge, the King/Queen, and most importantly the parent, the Great Father/Mother, who loves us unconditionally, waiting with open arms to forgive when we are willing to be humble and contrite.

The Talmud teaches there are three books opened now, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for those of us between, benoni, mortals who in our humanity make mistakes. These coming days give us the opportunity to amend what’s recorded by turning toward blessing and goodness, as the liturgy says, “Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah,” repentance, prayer/spiritual work and charity modify the Judgment. For 10 days, we have the opportunity to take even baby steps, to shift our behavior — making reconciliation where necessary, praying/meditating for clarity and support, and bring lovingkindness to others through words or deeds. Moses reminded the people, when they were ready to go into the land, “Take care lest you forget HaShem … you become satisfied, build good houses, increase cattle, silver, and gold and your heart becomes haughty.”

It is so easy in our comfort to forget the source of our good fortune and worship the idols of materialism, ego and outer trappings. Each year we are gifted with an opportunity to transform the past, reinvigorate the present and awaken hope and confidence for the future.

The glorious sounds and profound words we hear during these coming days can move us and release the tears of pain and joy that well up within. Like a mikveh, ritual bath, we can be cleansed and transformed, shedding the unwanted layers of guilt and shame that hold us back. 

This is a time of rebirth and renewal. May it be a sweet year that brings less division and greater peace, less hate and more love, less anxiety and more serenity, and greater opportunity for each person to express their purest soul.

Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery, Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.” 

A Coalition for the Days of Awe

From left: Benny Gantz; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photos by Amir Cohen/Reuters

It shouldn’t be too controversial that the best thing for Israel in the wake of these latest elections would be a grand coalition between Likud and Blue and White. After the April elections, in a short online post that never made it into print, I urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do just that. I still think it’s a good idea.

For the benefit of our print readers, here is what I wrote back in April:

“If there’s one thing that has done significant damage to Israel, it is a parliamentary system that gives inordinate power to small, extremist parties which don’t represent the Israeli mainstream. Because the electorate has been so fragmented, larger parties have been forced to hook up with smaller parties who wouldn’t mind, for example, turning Israel into a theocracy or annexing the West Bank tomorrow.

“In return for their valuable seats, these parties extract concessions that lead to divisive policies which alienate much of the Diaspora, not to mention many Israelis.

“The good news is that with the results of the April 9 elections, these extremist parties can go where they belong — out of power.

“For one of the rare times in Israel’s recent history, two parties — Likud and Blue and White — have garnered a significant majority of 70 seats, with each party gaining 35 seats.

“For the good of Israel, these two parties must unite.

“Extremist parties are always on edge, fighting to push their dogma. They’re not built to compromise, and politics is all about compromise.

“While there are members of Likud that many would consider extremist, they’re still better than the alternatives. Moreover, in a coalition with a centrist party like Blue and White that would garner the support of the majority of Israelis, extremist impulses are more likely to be tempered.

“Under the right-wing-religious coalitions of recent years, the opposite has happened. Instead of tempering their extremist impulses, the smaller parties have flaunted them. They’ve had so much power for so long they now expect to get their way.

“Having these kinds of coalitions which reject so much of the Israeli mainstream is corrosive to democracy. The Israelis who voted for two parties and 70 Knesset seats are the new Israeli mainstream, and their collective voice must be heard.

“Over the next few weeks, as the traditional coalition horse trading will dominate the news, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz have an opportunity to do something extraordinary — they can unite and take their country in a healthier direction. They can put the interest of Israel first.

“Yes, it will take an enormous effort to swallow egos, bury hatchets and negotiate compromises. The looming indictment of Netanyahu further complicates the picture.  But if a center-right coalition that has the support of most Israelis and can lead to more reasonable policies is not worth the effort, nothing is.”

Well, they never put that coalition together, and here we are five months later, and how much has really changed? Israel still needs a broad unity coalition.

In a sharp commentary in JPost last week, Amotz Asa-El laid out three major initiatives that such a unity coalition could undertake. 

The first is the long-overdue constitutional reform to safeguard against abuse of the system, such as “special legislation that would grant immunity to a prime minister suspected of felonies,” which Asa-El calls “a disgrace to the Jewish state’s moral pretensions.”  

Israel needs a constitutional convention, he writes, that would comprise “a broad forum of lawmakers, jurists, intellectuals and also rabbis that will redefine the High Court’s authority and rewrite the rules of constitutional legislation.”

“In a sense, I’m glad I still don’t know the winners. This has forced me to pull back and think of the big picture — what’s best for Israel.”

The second crucial initiative would be a mass transit master plan. “Without such a plan and the transparency it would spawn,” he writes, “Israel’s mass transit will remain Third Worldly; with it, we can catch up with the advanced nations within a decade.”

Finally, a broad coalition free of extremist parties could make fundamental changes in religion-state relations.

“No, this should not mean public transportation on Shabbat or forced conscription of yeshiva boys,” he writes. “It should, however, mean civil marriages and eased conversions for partially Jewish immigrants.”

There’s also an emotional, calming effect to having a unity coalition. Extremist parties are always on edge, fighting to push their dogma. They’re not built to compromise, and politics is all about compromise. Without it, there is no dignity. Israeli politics have been mired in dogmatic mudslinging for too long.

By the time you read this, you will have a better idea of the election results. In a sense, I’m glad I still don’t know the winners. This has forced me to pull back and think of the big picture — what’s best for Israel.

A unity coalition is best for Israel, no matter what time of year, and especially before the Days of Awe.

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.

As most shuls opt for coins, Kapparot Still Observed in Woodland Hills

Hebrew Discovery Center is one of the remaining synagogues in Los Angeles County to observe kapparot, the ritual killing of chickens performed during the Days of Awe. On Wednesday and Thursday evening, September 27 and 28, the Center continued the ancient tradition, yet again- to the dismay of protesters who picketed, holding up signs, many of them written in Hebrew and Farsi.

“This is a holdout,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Faith Action for Animals. “This ritual has always been a questionable ritual within the Jewish community…there’s no shortcut to expiation of sin.”

Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud. Nobody knows for sure when kapparot started being practiced, but it’s first mentioned in the 9th century by Babylonian scholar Rav Amram Gaon, who said that kapparot is an old tradition. Yet, many rabbinic authorities have since denounced the ritual, including Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rabbi Joseph Karo, who banned the practice in his Jewish Code of Laws, the Shulchan Aruch.

Today some Orthodox circles still observe the custom…of course, not without backlash.

For Rabbi Netanel Louie of Hebrew Discovery Center, the controversy surrounding kapparot ignites his will to observe the ritual. To him, kapparot is a transference of sins. It cleanses the soul like ginger cleanses the palette.

“If they don’t like chickens being killed, they should protest a KFC,” said a 20-year-old who just observed kapparot with her friend at the Center. (Ironically, there’s an El Pollo Loco directly across the street.) This was her first time doing the ritual. Her friend, however, (donning a tichel, head wrap) said she’d been observing the custom her whole life. To her, kapparot means tradition.

The person observing kapparot will swing the fowl overhead three times while reciting a prayer before a shochet, ritual slaughterer, cuts the chicken’s neck with a ritual knife, a shechita. The blood is drained; the deed is done. 

According to Louie, there is a hierarchy of existence. There is man and, then, there is chicken.

Many local synagogues have given up the ritual in lieu of a sin-absolving alternative: coins are wrapped in cloth and swung over the head three times; the coins are then donated to charity. Down the block, Klein made sure to mention, Sephardic synagogue Haichal Moshe, gave up the practice and opted for using coins instead of chickens. “What kind of Jew chooses killing chickens over using coins?” one protester wrote on a sign.

Last year, everyone got a little too excited. There were some vandalisms. I think there’s a case that’s still going. Two people got convicted, it’s unfortunate,” said Lieutenant Warner Castillo, who was at the scene “to keep the peace.” Ten LAPD officers and three supervisors were also on-duty. Castillo said that The Animal Cruelty Task Force inspected the kapparot site earlier that day, “and they deemed it lawful and it is what it is.”

Kapparot takes place in the alley behind the Center. Israeli techno pounds through speakers as people filter in and out, taking turns observing the custom. The Center built a temporary structure to perform the ritual, which looks like a sukkah, a plywood edifice draped in blue tarp. Hours before the ritual took place, the chickens were fenced off in a coop, supplied with food and water.

About 30 protesters showed up Wednesday evening, one of whom was Israeli-born animal rights activist Ady Gil. “When you’re just stubborn and you just want to do it, of course it affects the neighborhood and it affects the people,” he said. Gil owns an animal conservation down the block. “It’s not even done correctly according to Jewish law because if you do it, you have to actually give the dead chicken to tzedakah, which is charity for food.”

Following Jewish tradition, the chickens, after kapparot is performed, are supposed to be donated to the needy. But since the slaughter conditions aren’t FDA approved, after the ritual is done, the city picks them up in sanitation trucks. Louie isn’t sure what happens after that, but he heard they become fish feed; he won’t disclose how they get their chickens, but he reasons that they slaughter chickens that no longer lay eggs- so they would’ve been killed anyway. To those protesters, that’s besides the point.

A Jewish doctor, a Muslim patient, a love story

“Doctor Emrani,” yelled the nurse, excited to see me in the Emergency Room. “This woman is about to die and she is refusing care.”

I met Zahra for the first time as part of a code. Code Blue is dire, announcing impending death. 

She spoke only Farsi, and I happened to be nearby admitting another patient. I tiptoed to her, so as not to frighten an injured bird. I asked everyone to leave the room, took off my white coat to let her know I was safe, pulled up a chair and sat next to her. I reached for her hand with mine.

“Mother,” I whispered. “You are having a heart attack and a stroke at the same time. It’s your body. I’m not going to force you to do anything that you don’t want to.”

With her short, silky, silver hair and blue-gray eyes, she pleaded “nothing invasive.” Through her pending stroke, she was having trouble pronouncing words. She spoke with her eyes more than with her mouth. I nodded.

A clot had formed in the artery that supplies oxygen to the front of her heart, causing a heart attack, paralyzing the pump. As a result, a second clot had formed inside her heart and was now going to her brain, causing a stroke. 

I spoke her language. Sinking in an ocean of “foreign” speakers, I was her Farsi buoy. She relaxed. I joked. She let me give her a thrombolytic — an intravenous infusion of a clot-busting drug. It was a gamble. She could have bled inside her brain. But it was all she would allow me to do. I always respect patients’ wishes.

Three days later, she walked out of the hospital intact. No neurological deficits. Her initial stutter turned into fluent speech.

That was 16 years ago, just before Yom Kippur, in the Days of Awe. 

That year, I heard the shofar with a heightened appreciation for life, each broken note resonating with the sounds of the bells and whistles in the Intensive Care Unit. Just as alarms awaken us from sleepwalking, so, too, the shofar reminded me of life’s fragility.

In temple, I pleaded with God to make me lucky with the care of patients like Zahra. I felt her hand in mine. It took me back to my childhood in the streets of Tehran, when, on Fridays, I would wake up to the sound of the azan over the local PA system. I imagined Zahra as a young woman kneeling, praying to Allah, being moved by the azan at a time when I, as a child, had goose bumps on hearing the sounds of the shofar. Once, I heard President Barack Obama quoted as saying that “the sweetest sound I know is the Muslim call to prayer,” and I knew what he had meant.

The beauty of medicine is that it strips us of our superficial labels. The X-ray of a man, a woman, white or Black, gay, straight or divorced, Muslim or Jew — they all look the same. Beneath our skins, under our cloaks, our hearts are identical, and they all break in the same way, vulnerable to the same insults. In these times, when the daily bombardment of news divides us, builds walls between us, medicine reminds me to remain humble, to care for each patient equally.

In the movie “Sully,” airline captain C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger, who executes an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, makes a profound statement: “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years, but in the end I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds.” Back when my family escaped Iran, I found myself thinking about this same notion many times over. Cyrus the Great was good to the Jews. Persia was vastly good to the Jews. I did not want to judge Iran and Persian Muslims for the last few years by the actions of the mullahs.

To this day, Zahra calls me her “son.” She prays for me, asking Prophet Muhammad to bless me. She is a poor woman of little means who holds a special place in my heart. When her daughter died a few weeks ago, she called me before she told her family. After we talked for a while, she confided in me that I was the only person who had ever truly loved her. Others had pretended to love her, but I had always acted lovingly toward her. Then, sobbing, she said to me, “We’re all brothers and sisters — Jews, Christians and Muslims — but sometimes we don’t know it until we lose a child and realize how much time we wasted hating in a short life that should be spent loving.”

The great poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing / and rightdoing there is a field. / I’ll meet you there. / When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about.” 

This week, Zahra dropped off a Quran for me, not in an attempt to convert me, but out of respect, and because it is the most valuable item she has in her household. The holy book is over 100 years old, making it an antique. I will donate it to a mosque in her daughter’s memory.

DR. AFSHINE EMRANI is a cardiologist in Tarzana. Read his blog,


Poem: Days of Awe

September. The moon’s gone empty

as though it too seeks a place inside itself.

The pool equipment stowed, the mowers

returned to the shed. A quiet ascends

like the silence after bells. Soon

the night birds will call other night birds.

Each call a small pledge.

It is difficult to ask forgiveness.

Easier to accept I suppose. I will ask

my mother, who can no longer remember,

if she’s eaten today, if she’s seen my dead father

or the way the earth evolves

beneath the unrelenting moon —

the way what disappears still remains.

Prayer is as much defiance as it is agreement.

Yes, she’ll answer, Sure. Then, 

I’m fine. Like those night birds, I will listen hard.

Joy Gaines-Friedler is the author of two full-length collections of poetry. She teaches poetry and creative writing for nonprofits in the Detroit area, including to young adults at risk and parents of murdered children.

The High of the Holy Days

So what is the “high” of the High Holy Days, exactly?

With the Hebrew month of Tishrei nearly upon us, replete with prayer services and celebrations, it’s a time to be mindful of what the inner dimensions of these special days actually are. Every holiday in the Jewish calendar has layers of spiritual, mystical and practical relevance to our lives. Here’s a very condensed crash course.

Yamim Noraim, literally meaning “Days of Awe”as this season is called — examines our relationship with God and the quality of our lives as we begin a new year. 

The goal is to take the message of each of the highs with us into the months ahead, maximizing our ability to live mindfully and meaningfully.

Rosh Hashanah, literally meaning “head of the year,” is just that: the Jewish New Year. 

The ongoing theme in the prayers and traditions is recognizing God as our King, as in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer (literally, “our Father, our King”).

A new year becomes hollow and meaningless if it’s only about resolutions involving the self (think articles on “top resolutions for this new year”— joining a gym, starting a diet, saving money).

A new year becomes full and meaningful when it’s about first acknowledging the centrality of God in our lives and the importance of inviting him in. 

Against that backdrop of existential reflection and gratitude, our resolutions will naturally reflect our desire to strengthen our relationship with God and increase the meaning and purpose in our lives. Certainly these should involve self-care, because we need a strong body and sense of well-being to have the strength to do for others. But they should also include committing to certain acts: calling my grandmother once a week (it’s easy to talk about social justice but it’s truly actualized when we remember our own family members, including the ones who are hard to talk to); giving tzedakah regularly (this can mean having a charity box on our kitchen window sill and dropping in a few coins before dinner, remembering those who have less) and attending a Torah class (we can’t care about something we don’t know).

Some questions for reflection:

What was my perception of God in my childhood, and has this perception changed?

What steps can I take to reinforce my relationship with God this year?

Yom Kippur, literally meaning “Day of Atonement,” is a day of making amends and of forgiveness.

Now that we understand clearly from Rosh Hashanah our dependence on God, how can we grow closer to him? In our recommitment to God’s wants and others’ needs, there is one more step we must take before we can celebrate the relationship: making amends with him. But before we can do that, God asks us first to make amends with our family and friends.

When God sees that we are “loving whom your Beloved loves,” he is especially open to our prayers and requests.

After we have asked forgiveness from the people in our lives, we turn to God and acknowledge where we have fallen short this past year, expressing our pain and regret, and committing to doing better in the year ahead.

It is in this spirit of honesty and vulnerability that we can culminate Yom Kippur day with the holiest moments of the entire year, in an intense, intimate oneness with God in the Neilah prayer.

We end this service with singing and dancing, confident that God loves us unconditionally and has surely forgiven us. 

Some questions for reflection:

Which friends and family members do I need to make amends to?

What of my shortcomings do I need to talk to God about?

How might reflecting on God as a being who loves me unconditionally influence my relationship with him?

Sukkot, literally meaning “booths” or “temporary shelters,” is the holiday during which we eat in a sukkah and further reflect on our relationship with God.

It is on the foundation of honesty and intimacy we built during Yom Kippur that we now celebrate our relationship with God.

In our Yom Kippur conversation, we left off acknowledging that we are one with God, and that we have an unbreakable bond and dependence on him — both individually and collectively as the Jewish people.

We now continue that conversation as we eat and discuss in a sukkah, commemorating God’s clouds that protected the Jews from the various dangers like snakes, scorpions and enemies in the Sinai desert. 

We affirm that, then and now, our security comes from more than stocks and bonds and solid roofs over our heads — it comes from God’s will and his goodness.

Is it disconcerting and anxiety-provoking to face the fact that there are no guarantees in life, especially in our uncertain world today? Of course!

But that’s why we rejoice in our relationship with God — we acknowledge that ultimately there is no reason to be afraid, because he is our ultimate provider, protector and constant presence.

How can we remember and affirm this to ourselves throughout the upcoming year? By reading this truth over and over again each week in the Torah readings.

And because we have this gift of true security — knowing that God looks out for us and gives us the Torah, which gives us the tools to constantly affirm this reality — it is indeed reason to rejoice!

On Simchat Torah (the day immediately following Sukkot), we dance with the Torah.

But we dance with it closed.

If we opened it up, some might feel inadequate or intimidated by others who are more familiar with the text.

The learning and doing can, and must, come later.

But on this day, we all just rejoice that this gift of truth belongs to everyone. It’s not simply the rabbi’s, or the rebbetzin’s, or the learned scholar’s. It belongs equally to every Jew.

Some questions for reflection:

How have I made ideas, material things or acquisitions my sense of true (or only) security?

How can I make rejoicing in God’s protection and presence a daily act of affirmation and gratefulness?

What mitzvah can I commit to that connects me to my inner essence, the people around me and to God himself? 

A lasting high doesn’t come from a promotion, social media, a new car or a glass of wine. Although these are certainly wonderful things to savor in the moment (and become meaningful when used in meaningful ways, such as with family or for God), in and of themselves, they don’t spiritually sustain us. 

This season is called the High Holy Days because of the truly elevated, lasting purpose it gives us.

They don’t promise adrenaline rushes or everlasting bliss. But they give us something better and deeper: They give us precious reminders of God’s presence in our life, his unconditional love for us, his forgiveness, his protection, his guidance, and our ability to act with courage and kindness, tapping into our higher self.

In a world that is fraught with uncertainties and disappointments, these highs can serve as the foundation of faith and quiet security to have a deeply meaningful year.

Rebbetzin Shula Bryski is co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks and the founder of rentaspeech.com.

Art, man and God

I wonder what our prayers sound like to God during these Days of Awe. As the earth spins on its axis and Jews across the globe gather together to worship, I imagine that God hears our longings as a symphony – each soul a note, singular, exceptional, and essential to the whole. Our hearts, the instruments; our words, music to God’s ears.
When the shofar sounds and our voices float heavenward, we give great reflection to, among other things, the power of something uniquely human: the power of speech. We ask for forgiveness for mistakes that originate as often from our lips as from our deeds. We repent for words that are negative, meaningless, traitorous, foolish, vulgar, and deceitful, for we understand the eternal truth in King Solomon’s observation, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]
The very idea of prayer, however, recognizes the power of speech not just to harm, but to uplift and transform. We uplift and transform ourselves with prayer, each other with kind words, and the world through art.
Art, the universal language, touches us all; atheist and Orthodox, Christian, Muslim, and Jew. It is both earthly and divine; the gift of creation from the Creator. 
Tragically, today, art is under siege. With the cultural Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) effort against Israel, politically motivated organizations and individuals in free western societies are using censorship as a strategy to advance their agenda. 
Proponents of the cultural boycott want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. They want to bar films from festivals, silence instruments, and take canvases off walls.
The risk posed to mankind goes far beyond Israel’s borders or the lineage of the Jewish people. Boycott proponentshave orchestrated a social media and on-the-ground campaign of intimidation that, left unchecked, poses an existential threat to the freedom of artistic expression.
Art is integral to the human experience. It is a connective tissue between people and places.  It simultaneously reflects the world in which we live and serves as a vehicle for change.
Artists challenge us, bring us together, and provide a bedrock for peace.
From the poetry of King David, to the writings of postmodern linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein, traditions both spiritual and secular recognize art’s unique ability to help us understand the world around us in profoundly deep ways that extend beyond the capacity of mere conscious thought.
A song can elevate a moment; a book can inspire one’s mind to new thinking. With a human’s breath, the ram’s horn shatters hearts of stone and washes away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means. 
The proximate target of the boycott effort is Israel, but freedom of artistic expression, fundamental to our humanity, is its ultimate victim. 

Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc., a leading expert and commentator on the cultural boycott effort against Israel, a Hollywood liaison, and a professional speaker and writer.

At Yom Kippur, dreaming of a white yontif

These days, more people are wearing white after Labor Day, especially on Yom Kippur. Last year, to keep up with the trend, I looked to buy a white suit to wear during my yearly battle of spirituality vs somnambulism. I had heard that everyone else in my congregation was going to wear white, and on this day of communal confession, I wanted to be part of the crowd.

I also figured that on a day when God is supposed to take note of us as we pass before Him or Her (choose your Judge), it’s not a good day to stick out.

Why wear white and not the more traditionally somber black? After all, according to one interpretation, white is supposed to make us look like one of the angels. (I suppose that if the angels aren’t white as snow, as they are always depicted, at least they must look good in it.)

White is also a symbol of purity and repentance, and on the Days of Awe it’s what all the Torah scrolls are wearing.

White, it should also be remembered, is what many Jews are wearing when they are buried. The kittel, as it is called, is a kind of white robe-length shirt that many traditional Ashkenazic men wear on Yom Kippur. Wearing the kittel is meant to remind us of the gravity of a day in which we are struggling with life and death.

By those standards, my day shopping at Macy’s, where I had happened upon an after-Labor Day white sale, was very much in keeping with the spirit of the Day of Atonement.

Having looked up some shopping tips online, I found that when shopping for white, it was important to check for transparency. So when I found a pair of pants, I stuck my hand in them. Good thing I checked; I could see it waving at me. If I had bought them, on the holiest day of the year, more than my soul would be on review, and not just by God.

On a second rack, I found a less see-through pair, and they were a perfect fit.

“But are they going to fit on Yom Kippur?” my wife asked. She had come along to offer  guidance.

She was right. I was on a diet, and by then, hopefully, would lose an inch or two. So I squeezed into the next smaller size, and did the same with the coat. So what if the suit cut off my circulation. If as it says in Isaiah “our sins shall be made as white as snow,” I would at least look like I tried to make amends.

Soon it was Kol Nidre. Putting on the suit, I wondered: Would I have to cancel my vow?

For a lot of us, wearing white at anytime is a bad idea. It makes us look pale, sickly or like Tom Wolfe. I know this day above all others is not about earthly style, but looking in the mirror on my way out to shul, I could barely believe my eyes. I didn’t look much like an angel; more like an angel’s milkman.

Before my kids went to summer camp at Camp Alonim in the Simi Valley, here in California, we had to shop for white outfits for them to wear on Shabbat. The camp’s dress code stated that the outfit had to be pure white. Not off white or kind of white, as we discovered many things were, but blazing white — the thought being that when the teenagers came together on Shabbat for prayer, they would see themselves as a like-minded community. Kind of like a Shabbat uniform, I thought.

Except it wasn’t.

On a Shabbat when we were invited to visit — we wore white, too — the effect of wearing white was more than uniform. Though each person wore white differently, the effect was of a common fabric wrapped around the entire congregation — a shechinah in cotton and light. It was a light that on the Kol Nidre I decided to step into.

When adults wear the same color, they are often drawn together, but for reasons not apparently spiritual. For sports, we put on the team’s colors, sit in the stands and cheer. For war, we put on our country’s uniform and try to stay alive. On St. Patrick’s Day, even Jews wear green to fit in.

Is wearing white any different on Yom Kippur — a day of cheering for our side and trying to stay alive for another year, even if we do it just to fit in?

For a day, white on white are the team colors drawing us together. And even if we have an accident at the break fast, like I did, we still can start anew. That is, if you have one of those stain remover pens on you.

Climate change will be the number one issue in the 2034 midterm elections

On the day after the Sept. 23 “>Unetanneh Tokef, the troubling prayer at the heart of the Days of Awe, will resonate with news from the summit and the march preceding it about global efforts to rescue our planet.     

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many will pass and how many will be created?

Who will live and who will die?

Who in their time, and who not their time?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by sword and who by beast?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?

Who by earthquake and who by drowning?

Who by strangling and who by stoning?

Who will rest and who will wander?

Who will be safe and who will be torn?

Who will be calm and who will be tormented?

Who will become poor and who will get rich?

Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?

For my fellow congregants, in the wake of a week of speechmaking about fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, when they come to “drowning,” will it mean floods and rising sea levels in their minds?  Will “thirst” mean drought?  Will “wander” mean climate refugees?  Will “not in their time” mean the extinction we risk inflicting on posterity?  Is that the sentence now being written and sealed?

As I look around my congregation, as we speak the prayer in unison, I know that other thoughts, not about the planet, will also come to mind – that “strangling” will call up images of unspeakable barbarity that have assaulted us; that “stoning” will put many in mind of the sanctioned evil being visited on women around the world; that “poor” and “rich” will remind us of rampant inequality; that “earthquake,” in at least some parts of the country, will pierce if only for a moment the veil of denial; that “tormented,” for some, will bring thoughts of Robin Williams.  

I also know that the “but” – the hairpin turn this prayer makes after its inventory of life’s unbearable, inevitable jeopardies – will put many people off balance:

But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah avert the severe decree.

Every word of the Jewish liturgy is the tip of an iceberg of commentary.  Teshuvah has inspired volumes about returning, repentance, reconciliation; tefillah, about prayer, gratitude, awe; tzedahkah, about generosity, righteousness, justice.  No matter how those words are translated and interpreted, what they have in common in this prayer is that they trigger the “but.”  If we embrace them, they promise a stay of execution, a turn of fate, a better path than the one we’re on.  Will that work for climate change?

“If the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate,” scientist Michael E. Mann “>defeat Senate Republican candidates Scott Brown in New Hampshire, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Terry Lynn Land in Michigan – and potentially save the Senate majority from falling into the hands of science-deniers.  I hope the money that NextGen puts into ads, field operations and get-out-the-vote efforts to beat Republican gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Paul LePage in Maine and Rick Scott in Florida will rally citizens of those states to rescue them from environmental ruin.

But the national polls I’ve seen tell a different story.  In January, the Pew Research Center “>April, when Pew looked for the top issues in the midterms, they didn’t even include it in the survey.)  When “>“2036,” the short video that the Norman Lear Center has made for climate week, and not images of planetary devastation. 

Is the prospect of solving problems and giving kids a better future a more powerful motivator than fear?  ISIS is banking that terror will hold onto the world’s attention like nothing else.  It will be righteous of us to degrade and ultimately destroy their capacity for doing evil.  When it comes to climate change, much better than repenting because the end is nigh is rejoicing because hope is at hand.