Yom Kippur: spending a whole day in prayer, song, chant, and deep introspection while fasting with a whole community is quite a way to open up one’s soul connection. I'm incredibly privileged to work with Cantor Abbe Lyons and extremely grateful for all of our fantastic PCS volunteers, on and off the bimah.
I always find Yom Kippur a soul-stretching experience. I want to say "transformative." I'm not sure that I'm actually transformed, but my soul definitely feels more transparent and my ethical aspirations feel challenged and stretched. A few years ago, I published a personal essay about the holiday's deep JOY (yes, joy) that you can find here.
I was very moved by all of our community interactions over the High Holidays, as we learned and prayed together, and especially as I heard some of our members talking about the wonderful mitzvot that they do and how we can participate. As I said, I have #mitzvahaspirations. If you want to be involved with Tikkun Olam/Social Action, Refugee Resettlement, Greening the Synagogue, or the Chesed/Caring Committee, please be in touch and I'll connect you to the appropriate person.
It amazed me the day after that exalted state on Yom Kippur, to find myself outside, hammering nails into the sukkah with my husband Avraham. I felt how much Judaism values our spiritual lives but also our embodied, physical lives. We have to come down from that holy mountain in time and create something very concrete and grounded, to start the New Year right.
It was great to host many of your for dessert and great conversation (and a little singing!) in our Sukkah on Sunday evening, and then to jump into so many fun events for all ages over the week! I also enjoyed leading an Erev Shabbat Hike and a B'nei Mitzvah parent-child hike at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. It's a joy to help people to discover their spiritual connection in nature. Wishing everyone a great Sukkot and hope to see you at my "favorite" holiday of Simchat Torah!. (We are having a 3-piece band; hooray!)
We often call the Days from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the "High Holy Days," or the "High Holidays." Their original name is Yamim Noraim, or "Days of Awe." I used to think that meant they were days that evoke fear and trembling, but now I think that it means they are 10 days to really tune in to the awesomeness of life.
I loved seeing so many from our community and beyond on Rosh Hashanah. It was also a special family time for us as we welcomed a new grandson. What a blessing to celebrate with our family and our community at the same time!
Today, as I walked in the park to reconnect with my body and nature after two days of prayer in the synagogue, I found the themes of the holidays echoed in nature. I thought of the way our deeds ripple and touch others, and saw the round ripples created by raindrops in the lake (as my photo header on this post).
I thought how we are all connected in the web or mandala of life, and saw raindrops adorning a spider's web:
And just as I was hearing Cantor Abbe's gorgeous melodies of Unetaneh Tokef running through my thoughts, with the image of how we are like sheep to a heavenly shepherd, I saw that sheep had returned to the meadow!
If you would like to spend some time in nature with me, I'll be leading a Shabbat walk at Rockefeller State Park Preserve on Friday, Sept. 14, from 6-7pm. If there is interest I hope to keep enhancing our outdoor spiritual activities as part of my project with Rabbis Without Borders.
A highlight of the Holidays for me is just to to immerse in the holiday music from our wonderful holiday Cantor, Hazan Abbe Lyons, and our other musicians, choir, and Torah chanters. The melodies are almost all special ones just for this season. Prayer is about both the content and themes but also the deep emotions that are evoked. Especially on Tuesday, which was the anniversary of 9/11, I felt the meaning of these days very deeply. When I chanted "Avinu Malkenu, act for those who went through fire and water for your sake," I felt the words in my body, like it was almost hard to stay standing. On the other hand, when we did the prostrations during the Great Aleynu, it felt transcendent and expansive, almost an out-of-body experience.
Also: I truly enjoyed our Torah study and discussion on Tuesday about the sources of the two sayings that Rabb Simcha Bunim kept in his pocket. It was cool seeing everyone engrossed in dialogue and then hearing what you had to share. I learned so much from your insights! As Bruce Gutenplan noted, when you see the sayings in their original context, it almost reverses the meanings, and it certainly adds a lot of depth to the way that we understand them. You can find the source sheet here.
What is meaningful or emotional for you during this season? I would love to hear from you in the comments (or in person!).
Looking forward to seeing many of you on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.
“The King is in the Field,” is a teaching of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism. He likened Rosh Hashanah to a time when the king is in the palace and it is very formal act to approach the throne.. But when the king is traveling to the palace anyone can approach him as he travels through the fields.
The Rebbe used this parable to explain that during this month of Elul prior to the New Year, it is easier to access our connection to the divine. That doesn’t mean that you literally have to go out to a field. It’s in your heart. But at a recent Shabbat morning meditation, PCS member Peter Schaffer shared a teaching of a contemporary Torah teacher, Gavriel Strauss, who encouraged that at this time of year we literally go out in nature, to a real meadow or field, as a wonderful way to feel that spiritual closeness.
I have found that advice very helpful during the month of Elul. Hearing the crickets and cicadas, seeing the drying flowers and hints of fall foliage, feeling the texture of the air at late summer, all these connect me to the change of season and the Divine Presence that pervades all things. May I suggest that you take some time in these waning days of Elul to go outside and seek your inspiration for the new year? If you don't manage to do so before Rosh Hashanah, I will be leading an Erev Shabbat walk at Rockefeller State Park Preserve at 6pm on the Friday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and would love to have you join me then.
Other customs of this month include hearing the Shofar, saying Psalm 27, giving additional tzedakah, reaching out to friends and family (as well as those with whom we need to make amends), sending Rosh Hashanah greetings (I love the old fashioned cards!), recalling departed loved ones (visiting their graves if possible), and doing our Heshbon Hanefesh (taking stock of our souls and lives)
In addition, I have made that effort to be outside, in the field, for spiritual connection. Of course, I find being outside a spiritual experience at any time of year, but in Elul I try to give it extra Kavannah (focus, intention). This morning, for example, I was at a Labyrinth walk for clergy led by Rabbi Pam Wax of Westchester Jewish Community Services. I also went on a photo walk earlier this month and did a series of photos, titled "The King is in the Field," which I posted @wellsprings on Instagram, and one at the heading of this post. (You can now also find them in a gallery on my website.)
Another idea for Rosh Hashanah preparation: Sign up for "Do You 10Q?" and you will get an email a day over the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a question about your life. Then the answers are sealed away and emailed back to you next year just before Rosh Hashanah. A lot of PCS members do this and find it very meaningful and a great way to get perspective on life.
And here is a bonus High Holiday tip: if you are a coffee drinker, start to dilute your caffeine with decaf until you are gradually weaned off caffeine before Yom Kippur. This can help to make your Yom Kippur fast much easier because you won't be dealing with caffeine withdrawal!
Whatever you can do to prepare for the Days of Awe ahead will make Rosh Hashanah more meaningful for you...and for our entire community. Shanah Tovah!
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.