Turning Inward to Find Ourselves

Rabbi's Message - August 24, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

We turn our attention inward during the Hebrew month of Elul.  We begin our journey back to our truest, most pure selves.  The process takes time.  We can’t just show up for Rosh Hashanah (in-person or online) without beginning our soul work and expect to instantly be transformed into who we would like to be.  How far in advance we begin this work differs from one community to the next.  In the Sephardic community, Selichot (“forgiveness,” Jewish penitential poems and prayers) begin on the second day of Elul.  In the Ashkenazic community, we begin selichot on the Saturday night right before Rosh Hashanah, with minor exceptions depending on what day the holiday falls.  Here at Temple, we have recited Selichot at our Elul Shabbat services.  On this Saturday night, we will also participate in an evening Selichot service during which we will change out our Torah mantles to reflect the elevated importance of the High Holidays.

As we approach the holidays, the most common question being asked is about where each of us will be – at Temple or at home.  Ultimately, we will each make the best decision for ourselves and hopefully have a meaningful worship experience wherever we are physically.  Yet, this is the same question we should be asking every year, but not in the physical sense.  It is the question that God called out to Abraham before the akedah (the binding of Isaac). “Where are you?” To which he responded “Hineni,” here I am.  Hineni carries a deeper connotation of emotional presence.  I like to translate it as “Here I am, at the ready.” 

Spiritually, we must be prepared to respond to the same question: “where are you?”  God knows where you physically will be.  God wants to know where you are existentially, spiritually.   To be ready to answer, I suggest we ask ourselves the following questions:  How have I shown up for my loved ones this past year?  How have I shown up for my community?  Am I showing up and being seen in the way that I want to be seen?  Where am I now in relation to where I was last year?  What are the gifts I bring?   Am I living up to my potential? Am I fulfilling my gift as a human being?

None of these are easy questions.  Nevertheless, we need to be ready to answer them.  We want to show up on Rosh Hashanah knowing exactly where we are and, having spent this month of Elul reorienting ourselves, be ready to respond “hineni.”

Return Again

Rabbi's Message - August 10, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Yesterday we entered into the Hebrew month of Elul, the period of time leading up to the High Holy Days.  It is a time of self-reflection, forgiveness, and exploration.  We are tasked with turning (or returning) our attention to the most important work at hand - ourselves.  Our "homework" is to perform heshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.  We must contemplate who we are, who we have been, and who we wish to become in the coming year.

This year, Elul feels like a homecoming in so many ways.  We are gathering for our first in-person Friday night services since March of 2020.  How wonderful it will be to share the words of Hinei Mah Tov while truly appreciating how good and how pleasant it is for us to be in each other’s presence.  This Friday will also be the first of four Shabbatot during which we will pray from our Rosh Hashanah prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh.  For the first time in nearly two years, we will hear some of our most beloved holiday melodies and liturgical readings together, in person.  As we read year after year in our High Holiday liturgy: “Now is the time for turning.”    Indeed, it is time.
Since Sunday, the sounds of one of my favorite High Holiday melodies has filled my head - Shlomo Carlebach’s “Return Again.”  Its brooding melody feels daunting, yet hopeful.  This prayer speaks to me so strongly this year because everything about this moment feels like a return.  Physically, emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually.  “Return again, return again, return to the Land of your Soul.  Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn again.”  This can feel like an overwhelming task at the beginning of Elul.  It requires a lot of introspection and critical examination of our true selves.  We just need to remember that the work isn’t too hard for us.  It is within our reach and we must do it.
I pray we all find our way back this year - to our souls, ourselves, and our Creator.  Let this new year be filled with meaningful Shehechiyanu moments in which we joyfully embrace long-lost and new experiences.  I look forward to being with you this Friday night, either in person or streaming on YouTube.  Together, we will return again.

One Year Later

Reflecting on the Last 365 Days

Rabbi’s Message – March 16, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

March 16, 2020:  This was the last day I sat side by side with my colleagues at 130 Riverside Drive. Our closing would be temporary, I thought.  We wanted to be cautious, announcing our reopening after Memorial Day weekend.  A hand drawn calendar stands on an easel in the corner of my office, with plans for a meaningful 2020-2021 fiscal year, filled with learning, worship, and gathering.  As I collected my resources to take home with me, I was blessed by an unexpected visit from a former student, who reflected on her life as a young Jewish adult.  A thoughtful token of appreciation still sits on my desk, waiting for me to find the perfect place to hang it.  My heart was filled with hope and uncertainty.  The staff and I began to prioritize the ways in which we could sustain Jewish life in our absence.  Technology was still a bit of a mystery, but were committed to finding ways for congregants to recite names of loved ones for Mi Shebeirach and Kaddish.  We would help meet the urgent needs of congregants and encourage new congregational relationships through a calling committee.  We would increase our communications –TIDBITS would go out twice a week, and be filled with updates from the synagogue, songs of comfort, practical information on how to use technology and order food, and a collection of some of the best virtual programming across the country, including links to congregational services in communities that had been streaming for years.  We would send cards to let our members know we were thinking of them.  We would ensure ways to observe our holidays together, beginning with a virtual second seder.  

March 16, 2021: Today, I sit here in my home office, stepping away from what has proven to be the largest conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), with emails coming in from rabbinic school classmates for virtual class dinner and notifications from Google Sheets about calls reported from our incredible Caring Committee.  We will surpass having made more than 1650 calls by the time I finish writing.  I am surrounded by video equipment – a boom mic, bright lights, and second computer screen. There is a report by my side showing that over the past 365 days we have gained 148 new YouTube subscribers, uploaded 83 videos, had almost 3,100 views, and more than 155 watch hours on our YouTube channel.  My Ring doorbell informs me that my produce has arrived on my doorstep, joining another box filled with shampoo and parmesan cheese.  My phone dings to remind me to report any side effects after my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. This life hardly resembles the one I inhabited a year ago.  

As I take this moment to reflect I am filled with many emotions and healthy tears. 

Sadness, Loss, and Pain:
For lives ravaged by Covid-19, taken too soon and without loved ones 
For families forced to mourn without the comfort of community and ancient ritual
For the postponement of weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, graduations, and baby namings 
For individuals living in solitude
For my own struggles in learning to balance congregational responsibilities with the need to care for and educate my own children 
For the moments spent with you this past year, especially at times of mourning, when I could not hold your hand, offer a hug, or just sit together and be present with you

Gratitude and Appreciation:
For the teachers and caregivers who have gone above and beyond to keep our children healthy and provide them with a sense of normalcy
For the medical professionals and frontline workers who have had to risk their own health and wellbeing to serve the needs of the community 
For those who have reached out to check on others, including me, and helped sustain a sense of community
For community leaders who continue to make difficult decisions on our behalf
For my husband, my children, and my family who fill my heart with joy and love
For scientific and technological advancements that have saved millions of hearts and souls 
For an amazing team of co-workers who support one another and excel in their jobs
For the email that came across my screen today to announce that as of Friday, anyone over the age of 40 may be vaccinated, together with those who suffer from cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, heart disease and obesity.
For a light at the end of the tunnel

I hope you will also take a moment and reflect on this past year and allow yourself the space to feel all the feelings, cry all the tears, and express joy for surviving this year.  

To this effort I offer both a prayer and a poem. The Shehechiyanu, thanking God for allowing us to reach this moment, and Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Miracle of Morning,” which reminds us that “like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.”