Posts Tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah’

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.”

A happy new year, but less so for Isaac

September 10, 2010

The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is one of the most powerful but also most disturbing episodes in the Bible – the Akedah, or sacrifice of Isaac. 

You know the story: God tells Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his son Isaac. (Cue up Springsteen singing “Prove it all night.” Or if you want to be more literal, Dylan at the start of Highway 61 Revisited.) Abraham takes Isaac to the top of Mt. Moriah, and when the boy asks why there is no lamb for the ritual sacrifice, he says only that God will provide the lamb.

Ram spice box

Abraham ties Isaac up, gets out the knife and is prepared to kill him when, in perhaps the original instance of deus ex machina, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Miraculously a ram appears in the bushes to take the place of hapless Isaac. 

This is horrible on so many levels. What kind of God would make such a demand on a parent? What kind of parent would go along with such a request, without even a protest?  

How can Judaism glorify and praise Abraham’s mindless – inhuman – obedience? What kind of psychological scars would this incident have left on Isaac? And what about the ram? 

In one of the first high holiday services that I attended at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Steven Chester gave an entire sermon on the Akedah from the point of view of the ram – who committed no sin, harmed no one, was merely going about his ramly grazing when he was casually eliminated, collateral damage in God’s game of chicken with Abraham. 

In all honesty, I don’t remember the details of any other high holiday sermon. But I remember that one. 

Of course there have been all kinds of justifications of the Akedah over the centuries: 

  • God never really meant for Abraham to kill his son. He was just testing him.  

That’s nearly as bad in my book. Why should God design such a vicious test? Isaac may not have perished physically, but I suspect he suffered a death of the soul – betrayed by his father, toyed with by God. Like the ram, Isaac was collateral damage. 

  • Abraham never meant to go through with it.  He was just testing God.  

Ditto. How dare Abraham use his son as a pawn in his chess game with God? 

  • The point of the Akedah story is not that God asked Abraham for a human sacrifice, but that in the end God repudiated human sacrifice. For that historical era, this was actually a progressive and humanist statement.  

Well, that holds a little more weight with me but not much. The Akedah story isn’t just about human sacrifice, but about unquestioning obedience to God – about setting aside reason and even the deepest human bonds of love to carry out God’s will. 

And we know where that leads today – to suicidal jihadis, Quran-burning preachers, zealots who murder abortion providers, the dust of 9/11. 

If I ever get my current two novels sold, I have a germ of an idea for the next one: Not giving away any details, but it would be a modern take on the Akedah. 

Now, none of my thinking on this is remotely new. There is loads of anguished  writing about this. Rabbi Chester, in fact, has over the years made a personal project of collecting poetry and fiction on the Akedah. 

In that sermon that made such an impression on me, he quoted from Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Real Hero about the ram: 

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

(You can find the full text of The Real Hero here, from a U.C. Press translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.)

The British poet Wilfrid Owen wrote about the Akedah in 1916 in his Parable of the Old Man and the Young, which is more about World War I than about the Bible. (Owen died on the battlefield two years after writing this poem.) You can find Owen’s poem, and a couple of others about the Akedah, here

Much more recently (hot off the electronic presses, in fact!) rabbinical student and poet Rachel Barenblat just posted a cycle of poems about Abraham, Sarah and Isaac on her blog The Velveteen Rabbi. Here’s one of them that I particularly love. But it’s worth visiting her site to read them all

6. The angels say

Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.