Posts Tagged ‘high holidays’

Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?


The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Am I the only one who has trouble repenting?

September 29, 2011

There is a lot I love about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I love the reminders that we are dust and return to dust. I love the remonstration that “for transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”  I love being reminded that we all fall short of our potential as caring, aware human beings.

But I have trouble repenting.

Basically, I feel like a good person. I try to pay attention to others’ needs. I’m involved in community organizations. I give to a bunch of charities. I’ve chosen work that (most of the time) provides a service to people, or at least doesn’t exploit anyone.

And when it’s high holidays and I’m sitting in services trying to name my sins, I come up with pretty lame stuff. I scraped a car in the gym parking garage and didn’t leave a note for the owner. I could do better at accepting my daughter for who she is. I didn’t stay in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives. (Plus a few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention.)

It mostly seems like pretty minor stuff compared to what other people might need to repent for. Imagine Bernie Madoff on the high holidays? Henry Kissinger? Dick Cheney, if he were Jewish?

Honestly, I think to myself, if the whole world were limited to committing my sins, this planet would be a much better place to live.

And this is of course the sin of arrogance.

Madoff and Kissinger are probably saying the exact same thing: If the whole world were like me, this planet would be a much better place.

The point is not whether I have behaved better or worse than Bernie Madoff.  Gates of Repentance, the Reform Jewish prayer book for the high holy days, says:

“Each person’s abilities are limited by nature and by the circumstances we have had to face. Whether I have done better or worse with my capacities than others with theirs, I cannot judge.

“But I do know that I have failed in many ways to live up to my potentialities and Your demands. Not that You expect the impossible. You do not ask me, ‘Why have you not been great as Moses?’ You do ask me, ‘Why have you not been yourself? Why have you not been true to the best in you?’”

Still, it’s hard. I sit in services trying to think about my sins and I notice that the hem of my skirt is unravelling. Or the person in front of me has a really gorgeous tallit. Or my stomach is starting to rumble.

It’s like looking directly at the sun. You might will yourself to do it, but your eyes reflexively look aside — at the clouds, the sky, the trees, anything but the sun.

(The place where this analogy falls apart is that looking directly at the sun would truly hurt your eyes. But looking at my shortcomings would only hurt my pride.)

Repenting seems like it should be easy. You don’t have to raise $50 million like making a Hollywood movie. You don’t have to learn to operate power tools like building a kitchen cabinet. You don’t even have to move a single muscle — it’s less work than walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, or clicking a mouse, or blinking an eye.

But of course it’s not easy.

I guess the good thing is that the high holidays give us a while to work on this. It’s not just the evening and day of Yom Kippur. It’s not even just the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition gives us the whole month of Elul, and the selichot service before high holidays, and then high holidays themselves.

And if we still don’t get it right, we can keep trying through the entire year.

The Talmud quotes the sage Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah (repentance) are always open.”

Shana tova!

September 7, 2010

It’s here! We’re finally at the High Holy Days. I’ve been waiting all year for our temple to retrieve the holiday prayer books from storage so I could share a couple of my favorite readings. 

I never went to synagogue as a kid. When I started going as an adult, it was initially to high holiday services. I was surprised by how some of the passages from Gates of Repentance, the Reform high holiday prayer book, spoke to me. 

Much of the traditional liturgy did not hit home with me at all, and still doesn’t – the praising of God as holy, holy, holy, as mighty, as all-powerful, as the Lord of Hosts, and so on.

But the Reform prayerbooks incorporate modern readings that add a humanist and existentialist color to the traditional themes. They’re part of what drew me to become more involved in the religious side of Judaism. (And ultimately, to this Bat Mitzvah process.)

Here’s my favorite, which is read during the Yom Kippur evening service: 

Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey:

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age;

From innocence to awareness

And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then, perhaps, to wisdom;

From weakness to strength

Or strength to weakness –

And, often, back again;

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again;

From offense to forgiveness,

From loneliness to love,

From joy to gratitude,

From pain to compassion,

And grief to understanding –

From fear to faith;

From defeat to defeat to defeat –

Until, looking backward or ahead,

We see that victory lies

Not at some high place along the way,

But in having made the journey, stage by stage,

A sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning

And death a destination.

And life is a journey,

A sacred pilgrimage –

To life everlasting. 

Now, personally, I don’t believe in the “life everlasting” bit. But I love the rest of it. It seems so much more honest than a lot of what passes for “inspirational” books and talk in America these days. It reminds us that: 

Life is not a race to the biggest McMansion or highest-ranking job. Sometimes our lives get better and better, but sometimes they don’t. Life, for even the most successful or righteous of us, is a series of defeats. But even with those defeats, life is precious. Living itself is a victory.

I’ve been waiting all year to cite this here in the blog. So today I took the opportunity to look that passage up on the Web.

It turns out it was written by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine, a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco who died in 1999 at the age of 82. Rabbi Fine’s obituary in the J. mentioned his mellifluous voice, his opposition to Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting, his Labor Zionism, his hosting of Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou at the synagogue. 

It did not mention that poem – although ironically, Rabbi Fine may have touched more lives around the country through this one piece of writing than through sixteen years at the Emanu-El pulpit.

None of us know which of the many things we do — big things, small things, even unnoticed things — will ripple out to move others and change the world.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, may you have a sweet and fulfilling 5771. And may you find time, either in the next two weeks or at a moment that is fitting for you, to reflect on your own journey in the spirit of Rabbi Fine.

Shana tova!