August 2020 Keeping Connected
At the time of writing this letter we are experiencing a significant heat wave, so it feels odd to know that the Days of Awe are just around the corner. I have begun to listen to the music of that season, so rich with memory and emotion. I have begun to think about the season’s traditions like hearing the shofar, performing tashlich, eating honey and apples, placing stones on the bimah in memory of a loved one. I have begun to reflect on the themes of these holy days and prayers: renewal, return, teshuvah, new beginnings, forgiveness, justice, connection, l’dor v’dor, responsibility, mortality, joy, sorrow and so much more.
In July I invited you to share with me one or two highlights of last year’s holiday season; what was your most significant memory or what stayed with you the longest? I have loved receiving your thoughtful notes and appreciate you trusting me with something so personally meaningful. Please continue to write and share. Your words, insights, stories and experiences inspire me and help me to think about how we can make the New Year season more consequential and impactful on a spiritual and emotional level.
Now I would like to share with you what is for me, one of the most important experiences of the holiday season. I find it profoundly moving at the end of Neilah, to stand in the darkened sanctuary, in front of the open ark. It is not because I think God is more present at that moment or in that place. For me, the holiness and profundity really is about what is happening within me and within Jewish community at that moment in time. When I walk forward as an individual, supported by others in our congregation, I feel vulnerable, open-hearted and filled with intention. At that moment it feels that anything is possible and that the opportunity to make true teshuvah is possible. In this sense I mean teshuvah in the broadest way possible. I am not thinking just about making amends with others or even within myself, although that is part of it. I mean that at that moment I feel empowered to make significant and lasting change in the way I think about things and live out my values. To be fully aware of this possibility is humbling and very moving.
It is at this moment, standing in front of the ark, keenly aware of the history of my people and the existential hopes of so many people, year after year after year, to change for the better, that I most understand the source text and imagery of this ritual. Psalm 118 reads, “Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avo vam odeh yah” – “Open the gates of righteousness. Open the gates of justice. Open them for me. I will enter the gates and find God. I will enter the gates and offer prayer.” Standing before the ark, finding privacy in the darkness around me, I sense the possibility more keenly than at most other times of the year. I can walk through the gates of righteousness and lead a more compassionate and humble life. I can walk through the gates of justice and do more to speak out about wrongs in society. I can walk through the gates and find a connection with the Divine and with the best parts of my soul. The choice is mine. I can walk through those gates… or not.
This year the imagery of Gates takes on an even deeper meaning for me. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes, “Traditionally, explained the rabbis, the city gate is where the action is: where one goes for news, for trade. It is where justice is administered. The gate is no less central in the relationship between man and God. One need think only of the gates of prayer, the gates of repentance. The closing portion of the Yom Kippur liturgy, the Ne’ilah service, which centers on the closing of the heavenly gates, is regarded as the penitent’s last chance at redemption. The gate is the threshold between the known and the unknown, past and future. It’s a place of risk, where demons lurk; it’s where one hangs the mezuzah.”
This year, I can’t help but think about the Gates/Doors to our congregation. I have walked through the physical doors of Congregation Shalom less than ten times since March. Other than my home, I have spent more time in that physical space in the last 22 years, than perhaps any other place in my life. I have done a lot of soul searching about what this means and of the impact of this “diaspora” for our members. Every time we walk through the Gates of 87 Richardson Rd. we have the opportunity to learn, to find friendship, to reflect, to pray and to live the full spectrum of life. So for me, more than at any other point of my rabbinate, I have really been forced to reflect, “What does it meant that the doors are closed?” This is what I know for sure. The doors may be closed, but our synagogue is OPEN! In the year ahead, beginning with these High Holidays, a committed group of members and staff hope to provide many, many, many opportunities, some through the virtual world of zoom, some in-person experiences in our parking lot and yard, and some right into your home for you to explore at your leisure. We are committed to making the text Pitchu li a possibility for every one of our members.
These focused efforts will begin with the first day of Elul, August 21st. Elul is the month of preparation before the New Year begins. We will be sending out materials in early August describing these programs and we hope that you will ‘Open the Gates’ and get involved. I know for sure, that if you do, your experience of the High Holidays will be more meaningful and perhaps, when you have the opportunity to stand before the open ark on Yom Kippur, you will feel a sense of sheleimut/wholeness, in your spirit and a true sense of possibility. You can walk through those gates.