“The questioning allows us to dig deep into the Torah portion and make the aliyot personal. Excellent strategy to include everyone.”

— Lay retreat participant Winter 2012

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Revitalizing Prayer

An interview with Rabbi Nancy Flam on the power of meaningful prayer is the featured story of the Fall 2014 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, and can be found at www.reformjudaism.org/revitalizing-prayer.

A new movement is emerging to transform prayer into a more powerful and compelling practice, building upon our ancestors’ recognition that we truly can effect change through prayer.

You have said, “We risk losing a core of Jewish religious life if we do not discover better ways to pray.” Why is discovering better ways to pray so important?

I believe that prayer is a fundamental, defining human need. When our hearts are full or empty, when we feel deep longing, gratitude, humility, awe, love, or devotion, many of us—even those who don’t relate to liturgical prayer in a formal service—instinctively turn toward prayer, just as a flower turns toward the sun.

One woman told me how she took a certain route each week when driving to an appointment in order to pass a beautiful field bathed in late afternoon sunlight—the sight always uplifted her. “I noticed the beauty and was grateful for it,” she told me. “Then I was grateful for eyes that could see, a heart that could understand, the happenstance of this incarnation….I’ve come to realize that my noticing is a prayer.”

 Click here to read the interview in its entirety, and join in the conversation below!

Transitions – Haibun

By Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg

This transition in my life from full time to part time work and toward retirement and old age is reflected in the season. It is a dappled time. It is a golden time.

Golden sunshine
Bright golden leaves
Nearly blinding

I move toward acceptance and wisdom, deeply wanting to give myself away, but in a different way. I want to enjoy life, feel nurtured, and truly embrace the love in my life.

Dappled dry leaves
Crunching under my foot
As I kiss the ground

I want the spiritual awareness that I have unearthed to be realized fully so it can serve as a beacon, a witness to God and others – a witness to my purpose and my legacy.

The oldest tree in Pennsylvania
Embraces me;
We have one mother.

And there are challenges – like strength and energy and especially balance. Also just remembering. And getting so tired. And habitual striving. Habitual good girl. And the pain in my face, my jaw. Frustration and fear are still here.

Amazing standing log
Upright on three legs,
A face but no roots.

Dreaming again
Wanting solace,
There’s only change.

Roots, yes, I have them. Some are crumbling, being questioned. Still I have Torah, Jewish community, the world of mysticism, wisdom literature, poetry, music. There is so much to draw upon. NO reason to despair.

Many trees with split trunks
Divided in two,
How well I know.

In many ways less divided now, clearer, knowing when to say yes and no, not needing a face anymore, not wanting to appear as anything or anyone. The time is urgent. The tasks are immense. I want to recall to call upon the Source of All.

Every leaf and nut
Knows it is the season
To return in love.

Returning to the Source of faith and love. What else gave birth to everything and what else awaits us at the end? Miracle of miracles. No matter who you are.

Super large magnolia leaves
Fallen, dried and brown,
Size no safe haven.

Neither size nor accomplishment, brilliance, cleverness, wit, not even friendliness, lovability.
We all return to the earth like the leaves in autumn.

And there still is plenty to unfold, perhaps. Who knows? Staying open. New teachers, new friends, new students, children, learning, all blessings. New struggles, new campaigns, losses and victories – who knows?

Delicate mini oak leaves
Still perfectly green
This time of year.

Yom Iyyun: Engaging in Prayer as Practice

Yom Iyyun is currently SOLD OUT! 

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Avodah Meditation

Larry Yermack
5773

I am privileged to lead two meditations during the High Holidays this year at my synagogue. One will be during the Shofarot section of Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and the other during the Avodah Service on Yom Kippur. This is largely a result of my participation in Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training II, and the good work of my teachers Jeff Roth and Sheila Weinberg in preparing me to teach.

Each meditation will start with a discussion of mindfulness but for this article let me get to the heart of the matter. Imagine that you are sitting in services on Yom Kippur in the early afternoon:

Our tradition teaches that in the time of the Temple, on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would enter the Holy of Hollies to pray on behalf of the people of Israel and seek forgiveness. He would prepare himself for this moment through prayer and fasting. We are told that The Ark of the Covenant was originally inside the Holy of Hollies, but by the time of the second temple, the space inside was empty. Holy space. He would enter into the space in silence but when inside, would utter the ineffable and secret name of God, that only he knew.

We have no record of that name from any of the High Priests We only have an image of a holy man entering a holy space in silence to connect with the divine.  However, I like imagining a different scenario.

The High Priest prepared himself with fasting and prayer, both spoken and silent.  He was prepared to connect with the divine on his own behalf and that of the people of Israel. It was an awesome responsibility and perhaps the sound of a voice would have taken him out of his concentration and the holiness of the moment. Imagine instead that the High Priest entered in silence and stayed in silence. Imagine that his connection to the Divine was just his breath, his essential ruach.

I invite you now to enter into your personal holy of holies. So just sit up, in a dignified posture and gently let your eyes close.

Notice your breath as it enters and leaves the body. You don’t have to do anything special, just notice the breath either at the nostril or in the chest or in the diaphragm.  As you follow your breath, let it lead you inward. Your fasting, prayer and song have brought you to this holy moment. Allow your breath to usher you into this holy space.

As you notice a thought cross your mind, gently return your attention to the breath. This is not about clearing your mind of thoughts. Minds don’t work that way. This is about noticing our thoughts and directing our attention to this holy moment, to this holy breath.

If Not Now, When?

Elul 5773
Rabbi Jonathan Slater

A profound shift in human consciousness took place when someone imagined that God spoke and the world came into being. Previously the cycles of nature were the basis on which people conceived of time: fixed in a pattern of birth and death, decay and renewal where nothing truly new or innovative could take place. Now, time stretched in a linear fashion from a point of beginning forward. Every day brought something new; innovation and transformation were necessary to adapt to changing conditions and contexts. This shift had moral implications: acts have consequences, and we are responsible for our deeds.

The past, as it recedes in our mind’s rear-view mirror, can become foggy, vague. We forget what we’ve done; major mistakes become smaller the farther away they get in time. We can trick ourselves into thinking that with time we have changed, that we are not who we were in the past. Our tradition, wisely, retained something of the ancient cyclical mind-set, and so at this time of year we are coming round again to “the beginning”. We are being brought face-to-face with our past, as if it were today. That which we wished to ignore comes into view and demands our attention.

That is the gift of the month of Elul, which so often coincides with our season of vacation, of spaciousness and openness. Rather than waiting until Rosh Hashanah to take stock, under pressure of the Day of Judgment, we are invited to allow our past to come into view now. In the spaciousness of long, languid days, we can allow our hearts and minds to open to the truth of our lives, to see clearly who we have been, how we have been in the past. We can meet it fully, without judgment, held in the capaciousness of free time, and self-acceptance. We can do the work of personal assessment and change before the rush and tumble return to school, business and busyness.

The mystical tradition holds that each month in the year can be identified with one permutation of the four letters in God’s name Y-H-V-H. A phrase in which the letters appear in that particular order – either as the first or last letters of words – is attached to each permutation. For the month of Elul, the phrase is connected to the verse “And righteous-merit will it be for us when we take-care to observe all this commandment before YHVH our God, as He has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25), particularly on the first few words: utzedakaH tehiyeH lanU kY, the last letters of which are H-H-V-Y. The spirit of this month is that God is waiting to credit us with righteous-merit (tzedakah), to find the good in us. But, we have to do some work. We have to “take-care”, pay attention, look out for what is true in our lives, and begin the process of change.

We have the time and space now, and the spirit of the season welcomes our efforts. Why wait?