Elevating Voices: Creative High Holiday Offerings

A Shofar OfferingShofar’s Cry: Sarah and Hagar Speak
This is an interpretive Torah experience for Rosh Hashanah, incorporating Hagar’s story from the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Akedah, which we read on the second day. This is designed to be read aloud by two people, each taking one of the parts. It would work well on Zoom as well as in person. Please feel free to use it with attribution.

A Haftarah Offering – Hearing in our Hearts: Hannah’s Story
Some prayers are spoken and some are silent. Our Amidah, our private prayer to God, is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them.

We read Hannah’s story on Rosh Hashanah. There are times when it hurts too much for me to hear it, and there are times when hearing it makes me feel less alone, and reminds me that this suffering links me to generations of ancestors who dealt with the same thing.

I was thinking about how the words of her prayers aren’t written in the text and I realized it’s because we know them by heart too. Every person who has struggled with infertility, who has miscarried, who has yearned that deeply: we know.

If you want to use this in your shul for the holidays, you’re welcome to, with attribution. The quoted pieces are from 1 Samuel. If you’re in the same place as me this year – praying with Hannah – please know that your prayers are mine as well. May the Womb of the World hear our longing this year, and may the new year bring new life to us all.

Letter from God to the Ones Who Struggle

after Song of Songs

O you who linger in the garden,
a lover is listening; let Me hear your voice.

The first time I created you,
we were alone together
in My garden

I separated light from darkness
sea from sky, and sky from the branches
who reach for her
But when I created you,
we were One.

Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is My beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to My mouth.

Oh how you longed for My fruit
when it was forbidden
Now I long for you
And I must seek you
wherever you roam.

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I sent you away from My garden
separating one from One
I have followed you ever since
across the sea and through the wilderness
into the Land that I have shown you
into The Place you did not know

“Whither has Your beloved gone, O Fairest Of Women?
Whither has Your beloved turned? Let us seek him with You.”

My love for you is boundless
You who return My love and you who turn from Me
You who struggle, and you who draw near
You who doubt, and you who dream
all of you are part of Me.

I opened the door for my beloved, But my beloved had turned and gone.

You wrote your love for Me
on the doorposts of your house
and then you closed the door behind you

I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer.

When you call out to Me from your narrow place
I will always answer, even if you cannot hear Me

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to pick lilies.

Our love began in a garden
It will grow there too
You’ll find Me among the lilies
waiting, always, to love you.

Image credit: Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81436538

Where Are You

“Where are you going?” She’s checking my bag.
It’s not supposed to be an existential question.

“Where are you going?”
The security guard catches me off guard.
Am I on my way there or on my way back?
Am I leaving or arriving?
Am I returning?

“Where are you going?”
I left the rain last week and arrived in the sunlight.
When I landed, tears arrived too,
my eyes and heart unused to piercing brightness.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going to snowy branches and a frozen lake.
I’m going to a fireplace, a sanctuary,
warm hugs and warmer hearts.

“Where are you going?”
I’m leaving the community
that reminds me where I come from.
I’m going to the community that reminds me who I am.
Life is in flight, community is fluid, time is an illusion,
and distance means nothing at all.

“Where are you going?”
I’m going toward myself, I’m going toward growing.
I’m going away, I’m going to, I’m going, going, and gone.
I am in flight, I am landing, I am bringing
too much baggage for carry-on.

“Where are you going?”
I don’t know, I don’t remember,
nothing is certain but
“You are flying out of Gate 19.”
I am ready for take-off.

A Chance Worth Taking: Yom Kippur Sermon, 5780

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway? 

It was cold, the first real rain California had seen in a long time. My university campus was relatively quiet and sleepy. There were only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people were mostly inside, studying for finals, buying plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at another university, the students were wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? What does it mean when 11 are killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or 20 in an El Paso Walmart? How many worlds are destroyed when 49 people are murdered in an Orlando nightclub?

On the High Holidays, we pray Unetanetokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die, who when their time comes and who before or after their time, who by fire and who by water.” Who will die in a shooting this year? Who will take their own lives? Next time, will it happen here?  Even if we don’t believe that our fate is sealed in the book of life and death on Yom Kippur, this holy day still forces us to confront the reality that we just don’t know. What are we supposed to do with this uncertainty? Yom Kippur has a few suggestions about how to respond (Existential fear has been around for a long time, and for better or worse, Jews are really good at it).

First, Yom Kippur teaches us that we can’t hide from mortality. Yom Kippur is transgressive – we live a grief and death-phobic society, and the Jewish calendar gives us a day when we rehearse for our own deaths. On Yom Kippur, and in the days leading up to our own deaths, we make a confession, and we don’t eat, work, or have sex. Some people choose to wear white on Yom Kippur because Jews are traditionally buried in white shrouds. On Yom Kippur, we look directly at the thing that scares us the most, and we do it together. 

That’s the second suggestion Yom Kippur has to offer: Togetherness. When we pray al chet, we atone for sins committed by others in our community, even if we did not commit these sins ourselves. We don’t call out individuals – instead, we reduce shame by confessing together. We face the fierce uncertainty of life by supporting each other in atonement. 

According to Yom Kippur, liturgy, Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzedakah lessen the severity of Unetanetokef. For some, this means that if you do these three things, you’re off the hook, and you’ll survive another year. For those who read Unetanetokef as an expression of uncertainty, these words deliver a different message. We don’t know if Teshuva (atonement), Tefilah (prayer, meditation, mindfulness), and Tzedakah (righteous giving), will save our lives this year. But we do know they make our lives better. And that’s what Unetanetokef actually says: “Teshuvah, Tefila, and Tzedakah transform this harsh decree.” We don’t know what’s coming next, but this will help in the meantime. 

There’s one more thing we can learn from this season. It’s a lesson from Sukkot, which thankfully arrives only five days after Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, we build, decorate, and live in unstable shelters that we tear down one week later. Five days after confronting mortality on Yom Kippur, the Sukkah is a powerful reminder to find beauty and meaning in the temporary. 

Gun violence has become an epidemic and our sense of safety has been shaken to the core. With every school shooting, I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. Is this it? Am I going to die? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

We don’t know. We don’t know who is going to die this year. So we are going to face our fears, and we are going to face them together. We will make life better through teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah. We will find beauty in the world around us, no matter how fleeting. We will march, we will vote, and we will organize. We will love harder and breathe deeper. We don’t know who will live and who will die, and we don’t know if any of our efforts will make an impact. But giving up is not an option, and we are going to try everything we can. Because we are a chance worth taking. 

Please rise for a Mourners Kaddish for those killed by gun violence this year. 

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Life is a volley of bullets
b’alma di v’ra hirutei, v’yamlikh malkhutei,
Time is a bleeding wound
b’hayyeikhon uv’yomeikhon uv’hayyei d’khol beit Yisrael,
in houses of worship, schools, shopping malls
ba’agala uviz’man kariv,
It seems that no one is safe.
v’imru: Amen.

God, these words tumble from my tongue
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh l’alam ul’almei almaya.
marbles in a bowl overturned
Yitbarakh v’yishtabakh v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
I don’t want to praise, I
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha
just want it to stop. Words, bullets, headlines,
faster and faster, they run
b’rikh hu
and I am out of breath. 

L’eila min kol birkhata v’shirata,
God, I am voting, marching, organizing,
tushb’khata v’nekhemata,
I don’t know if anyone is listening, but God,
da’amiran b’alma,
We are a chance worth taking.
v’imru: Amen.

Time, blood, thoughts and prayers
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
are never enough, but I can’t seem to stop praying
v’hayyim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael,
even though I’m not sure
v’imru: Amen.
You are listening.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
May the One Who Makes Peace in Heaven
Hu ya’aseh shalom
Make Peace
aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael
Over us and over all Israel
v’al kol yoshvey tevel
and for all who dwell on earth.
We are a chance worth taking
v’imru: Amen.

Invitation

When I say “Let’s get coffee,”
what I mean is “Let’s have a real conversation.”
When I say “How are you?” I’m asking for the truth,
even if you don’t think I want to hear it.
When I say “What have you been up to lately?”
I want you to tell me about the story you’re writing with your life.
I want the good, the bad, and the existential.
I want to know where you come from,
and how that affects where you’re going.
I want to know what moves you.
I want to know what’s holding you back.
“Let’s go for a walk” means “I care about you,”
and that means all parts of you.
“Can we catch up sometime?” means I’ve been thinking about your story
and I want to receive the next chapter.
Your trust is a gift and I’m so grateful for it.
Please tell me more.
I want to hear you. I want to be with you.
My heart is open.
Let me pull you in.

History of Loneliness

History of Loneliness

 

In a beginning, there was nothing. Then, God said.

There were light and trees and oceans and horizons,

and there was Adam.

 

God said everything into existence,

Those that missed something nonexistent no longer suffered.

 

Darkness was lonely, and there was fire.

The trees were despondent, there was shade.

Adam was aching. God said. And there was Eve.

God said “This is very good.” And it was.

 

But soon, Adam and Eve realized they missed the longing they’d felt without each other.

They built a fire, darkness disappeared,

and when the fire sputtered out, darkness became even louder,

thicker than before the first flame.

 

When Eve ate the fruit, and offered it to Adam,

they were sent out of Eden.

And the first people on the planet felt another kind of longing,

called: homesickness.

 

Ever since then, people have been obsessed with the notion of home,

and the notion of emptiness,

not to mention God.

 

You see, in a beginning,

God didn’t know that people could long for nothing,

could court nothing, could fall in love with absence.

 

So God filled God’s world with endless somethings

that begat more somethings,

and each something found a longing inside

that no other something could fill.

 

They say God’s light was a vessel that splintered

into millions of pieces.

We are glittering fragments, trying to heal the world

by finding light in each other.

We are drawn to glowing, because we are drawn to God.

 

They also say that God didn’t create the world,

but is creating the world,

so we are constantly repairing and shattering,

and repairing again.

 

It wasn’t the beginning,

it was a beginning,

and it was an ending.

It was the end of nothing.

 

– Heather Paul, 2007