Posts Tagged 'High Holidays'

Glimpsing the House of Tomorrow

From the start of Elul through Shemini Atzeret, we recite Psalm 27. There we read, “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent God’s Temple” ( Psalm 27:4). On a simple level, when meditating on this we are beseeching God to allow us to return and stay in the Temple. Do any of us pretend to understand what it was like to be in the Temple? What are we really asking for? 

Maybe we are seeking the feeling of home.  

My name is Avi Orlow. Over 20 years ago, I was honored to start as a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) while its beit midrash, or study hall, was still nascent. There, I felt that sense of home described in Psalm 27. I came to YCT with a deep love for the Jewish people, and thanks to my education there, I left it years later with a profound appreciation for what Judaism has to offer humanity. I look back fondly at how after every class we would discuss how we might transmit the experience of YCT’s spiritual environment to the outside world. 

Many of us yearn to create a sense of home in multiple areas of our lives. For me, I have attempted to replicate that feeling of comfort in both my professional and personal spheres. It is not surprising, then, that my professional growth has run parallel to that of my family. The same spring I was ordained by YCT in 2004, I became a new father. I was fortunate enough to have our son’s bris, and then his pidyon haben, at YCT. Soon after these events and my graduation, our growing family packed up our books, the BabyBjörn, and our life in New York as we prepared to take on the bigger world.

Along the way, my career has taken me all over the country. First, I spent four years as a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis where we opened our home to students. While I loved working on campus, I moved on when given the chance to impact how thousands of young people every summer understand Jewish camp to be their home away from home. I have spent the last 13 years at Foundation for Jewish Camp where I have traveled the country learning from and with Jewish camps all over North America about how to spread joyous Judaism. During that time, my wife and I have been blessed with three more amazing children.

While I have helped build the home that is my family, I have never forgotten the home I knew at YCT. My connection to YCT has waxed and waned over time, but I have always stayed curious as to the successes and challenges of my fellow alumni in our efforts to bring the goodness of the YCT beit midrash to the world. Many of us started at YCT with little more than a vision for what Open Orthodoxy could mean. In some moments, I haven’t always been sure how much impact our small school has had on the world.

Recent events, however, have made me realize that the home we all built together at YCT is being realized in unforeseen ways across generations.

A few weeks ago, I was picking up some of my children at the Camp Stone bus stop in White Plains, New York, where I live. I was expecting to see the usual neighborhood YCT suspects: Rabbis Jack Nahmod (‘05), Seth Braunstein (‘06), and YCT faculty member Chaim Marder. Our children are all friends from the neighborhood and we send them to the same camp. 

a school bus stopping on a road with its doors open while a line of small children with backpacks walk in a line to get onto the bus

I was surprised, however, when I spotted Rabbi Seth Winberg (‘11), the executive director of Brandeis Hillel, at the stop. It was his daughter Hadas’s first summer at camp so she had flown there. She had assumed, however, that she would know people on the way home, so she came back on the White Plains bus. Rabbi Seth had come in from Boston to pick her up. As we chatted and caught up, the buses rolled up the street. Rabbi Seth found Hadas, and I found my daughter Emunah. I asked Emunah if she knew Hadas. She responded, “Of course I do, Abba! We just sat next to each other on the nine-hour ride home from camp.” What are the odds, I thought to myself!

When we got home, Emunah did not want to talk with us. We were not surprised. She just wanted to talk with her camp friends. She talked with her friend Amollia for over an hour. Later that night, she was having trouble falling asleep. It turns out that when you work in camping as I do, your kids do not get homesick at camp. Rather, they get campsick at home. To calm her down, I asked her to go through a list of her friends. I stopped her when she told me about Amolia Antine from Maryland. Her father, Rabbi Nissin Antine (‘06), from Potomac, was ordained two years after me at YCT. Truly, what a very small world! It was astonishing to me that, without any direction or interference from me, my child had just naturally gravitated toward the children of other YCT rabbis.

When Kalil Gibran’s Prophet is asked about children, he responds:

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Emunah discovered these people on her own. She is her own person, and she is finding friends who share her interests and her values. It is amazing to see the emergence of the next generation of YCT as our children build their own community. 

This time of year, when I get to L’David 27, I reflect on how the world is sometimes a very big and a very scary space. I cannot say that I want to hide from it in the Temple, but there is a part of me that yearns for the comfort and holiness of the beit midrash I knew as a rabbinical student. I know that the YCT rabbis are each doing what we can to share this experience of home from the beit midrash with the larger world. And while I might not be able to gaze upon the beauty of our children’s “house of tomorrow,” I find that even a glimpse is heartwarming, affirming, and worthy of meditation. 

-Reposted from YCT Blog

A TED Prep for the High Holidays

Over Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we will get to recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a medieval a piyyutThere we read:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!”

It always seems rather graphic to imagine the various ways that people might die, but perhaps that is what makes this piyyut so memorable. There seems to be some significance to thinking about death in order to get the high of the High Holidays.  I was thinking about this when I saw recent TED talk. It is totally worth watching.

I think that Candy Chang summarized her talk and the High Holidays well in saying, “Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.” I know that I will be thinking about what I would write on a wall in the next 10 days.  We know that ” Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree”, but it also seems that public art and sharing our inner most thoughts with others might also do the trick. Might we pursue ways of doing the same in our own communities( check out the website).

Preparing a Clean Slate

At the start of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read, “And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and do possess it, and dwell therein” ( Deuteronomy 26:1)With these opening words we are reminded where we were in the bigger story. A generation of slaves had escaped Egypt and went on to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. Amidst their time in the desert they and their children are warned what they will need to do when they finally get into the Promised Land. While they were free in the desert, their ultimate autonomy will only be achieved when they are a free people in their own land (If you feel that you need to stop and sing Hatikvah I would not be upset). At this point in the story they are still in preparation. There we read:

1 And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. 2 And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan into the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. 3 And you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, when you are passed over; that you may go in into the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you.(Deuteronomy 27:1-3)

Slaves do not own their own property, children, time,  or even their own narrative. It takes a certain power to be able to write your own history. In a profound way autonomy is bound up in the very idea of authorship. It seems fitting that these freed slaves write their narrative on these rocks when they enter the Promised Land. Not only is it empowering, it allows the People of the Book to frame the entire land of Israel in the context of their story.

Having their story be shared in public and in a permanent way is powerful, but  we could easily overlook the media for the message. The very process of preparing these large rocks is a critical part of the story. They were instructed to take rocks and establish them as monuments. They had to take these rocks that would have been otherwise overlooked and prop them up. After doing this they needed to prepare them to be written on and only  then could they write the Torah on them. This process seems to run paralleled to the very process of downtrodden slaves becoming free people. First they needed to be lifted up. Then they needed to be cleaned off and prepared to tell their own narrative. It is only after this process that they , the people  and the rocks, are prepared to share the story.

In our Torah portion we read about the people waiting for the time when they will prepare these rocks to tell their story.  In a deep way this also runs parallel to where we are now in the calendar. Elul represents a similar time when we need to pick ourselves up, start cleaning ourselves up in preparation for Tishrei. Yom Kippur, is the Day of Atonement during which we do Kaparah. Kaparah means to atone, but it also means to cover over. Similar to the large rocks that get a covering of plaster so we can write our collective story, Yom Kippur is a day on which we are freed from the slavery of our sins. It is on that day that our sins are covered over so we can write a new narrative for the coming year.

How are we preparing ourselves to have a clean slate? What story do we want to write this coming year?

We all have some work to do before we may be inscribed and sealed for a good year. Gmar Chatima Tova

The Fields of Av

In Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, we continue with  a recurring theme of the book of Numbers.  There we read:

26 Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; 27 and you murmured in your tents, and said: Because the Lord hated us, God has brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. ( Deuteronomy 1:26-27)

There is nothing new, the Israelites are complaining. On this Rashi asks how the removal from Egypt could be understood as an expression of hatred. There we read:

It can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who had two sons  and two fields. One of these fields was easy to irrigate and other one was solely dependent on rain water. To the one whom  he loves he gives the field that is easy to irrigate and to the one whom he hates he gives the field which is dependent on rain. The land of Egypt is well irrigated because the Nile rises and waters the fields and the Land of Canaan is one that depends on rain. God took us out of Egypt to give us the Land of Canaan ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:27)

The Israelites experienced the exodus from Egypt as its own exile. This echoes the choice that Avraham gave his cousin Lot. There we read:

9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself, I pray of you, from me; if you will take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.’ 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go unto Zoar. 11 So Lot chose him all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east; and they separated themselves the one from the other.  (Genesis 13:9-11)

Just like Lot before them the Israelites wanted the choice Egyptian style land. In their wandering in the desert they felt dispossessed of the opulence of the land of Egypt. And according to Rashi they felt relegated from the role of the chosen to hated son.

Parshat Devarim is always read the Shabbat Before Tisha B’Av. This is the yearly commemoration of some of the worst tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. If we were to ever feel hated, it would be on Tisha B’Av.This is interesting in the larger context of the flow of the Jewish Calender. This month of Av comes right before Elul which leads into Tishrei. While we are judged by the divine King in Tishrei, in Elul we have a different imagination of the King.

The Baal ShemTov called the days of Elul the days when the King is in the field. To gain an audience with the King during Tishrei we must go through a lengthy procedure. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. And then even when permission is granted is may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. When we does finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Not used to the royal surroundings the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place and by the time we got there we might even have forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King.

Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. When the reaches the outskirts of the city the King is to visit, the King’s entourage sets up a camp while a special delegation goes ahead to the city to make preparations for the King’s visit. While they are doing these preparations the King is in the field; relaxed and enjoying the early fall weather. Here formality is transformed into familiarity. Here in the field the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive blessings. During Elul, the King is in the field and is easily accessible. We need only make the effort to go out and greet the King.

And what does this mean for these fields and the King in this month Av? Is this time that the King is engaged in a war with our enemies? Is the King out there dispossession us his citizens of their choice fields? Is it just a time of reward and punishment?

I think we have to experience the pain and hatred of Tisha B’Av. But, we cannot get stuck there. We need to move past Anti-Semitism to a Jewish contribution to make the world a better place. During Av the King is also in the field, but during this time the King has rolled up the King’s sleeves and is joining us in irrigating the fields. The world is broken and there is a lot of work for us all to do to continue rebuilding the Kingdom.


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