It is our custom at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation to choose themes when we call people up to the Torah, and all who feel moved by that theme are invited to rise. Then, after the reading, a member of the congregation crafts a special blessing, known as a misheberach, and offers it to all who have risen. A number of people asked me to post both the themes and the special blessings, so that they could read and reflect on them further, and I do so here. It is a fairly long document, so please feel free to read only part of it at a time, so that you have time to soak in the blessings of these High Holy Days.
Love, continued joy during this festival of Sukkot, and Shabbat Shalom,
ALIYOT AND BLESSINGS FOR THE FIRST DAY OF ROSH HASHANAH, 5777
1. Births and New Beginnings:
Isaac is born. This Aliyah is for those among us who, like Sarah, have experienced a birth or new beginning – perhaps unexpected or even seeming miraculous – and want to acknowledge, give thanks, and receive a blessing.
Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah,
May the one who blessed our ancestors bless you.
May you be blessed.
May you be blessed with joy.
May you be blessed to feel the sun on your face,
May you be blessed to feel the wind in your hair.
May you be blessed to laugh and cry in equal measure.
And may your joy increase: may you still feel the sun and the wind when the beginning of your endeavor has ended, and the middle has begun.
2. Death, Losses, Brokenness:
Hagar and Ishmael are banished. This aliyah is for those among us who have walked this year in darkness and through the valley of the shadow of death, who have felt burdened and shackled by life; for all those whose year was marked by loss, brokenness, or death, and who would like to acknowledge that and receive a blessing for a better year.
Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Yaakov; v’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah: May the Healing One who blessed our ancestors bless you.
In this past year, we have suffered. Our souls have been wrenched apart by loss, by pain, and by ruptures that seem irreparable, and we may have a hard time finding comfort. Our hearts are so heavy we feel they must break. Let them. Let the grief you feel take over your spirit until you have nothing left. Then God can come in.
God enters when we open our eyes and see, really see, where we are and what is before us. Just as Hagar felt the terrible grief of knowing with certainty that Ishmael would die in the desert, only to have God open her eyes to the saving grace of the well, so may we reach the depths of our despair only to have our inner spirit nourished, revitalized, and strengthened.
Though we all bear our separate losses, we grieve in community, saying Kaddish only when there is a minyan. We confess in community, knowing that we are all responsible for becoming better, holier people. We therefore stand here together, now, in community, helping one another to heal and to find solace because we are family. We can walk through this desert together. May this year open our eyes to let us see the well of life-giving waters (mayim chayim) that God shows us, and may we allow ourselves healing, comfort, and ultimately, joy.
3. 77=ע׳׳ז For Strength and Hope in the Coming Year
Some more “sevens”: this new Jewish year is written Tav-Shin-Ayin-Zayin. There are no numerals in traditional Hebrew, so the letters each represent a number. Tav and Shin are 400 and 300 respectively, adding up to 700. Ayin is 70, and Zayin is 7. Thus the letters combine to 777. But Ayin and Zayin, which add up to 77, also spell a word, oz. Oz means “strength”. I would, with your indulgence, like to offer this aliyah to our entire congregation. In this aliyah, Hagar is in despair, certain that she and her boy Ishmael will die of thirst. An angel reaches out to her and tells her to have no fear. And Hagar lifts up her head and looks around, and lo and behold there is a well of water to sustain her and her son. I would like to bless us with strength in the coming weeks and in the coming year: the strength of our convictions; the strength of faith and hope; physical strength and well being; emotional strength; the inner strength that we need to meet each day as it comes, and to face a troubled world. Psalm 27, the traditional psalm for this season, concludes with this exhortation: “Be strong and of good courage, and keep hope alive!”
I would like to invite Noami Halpern up to the bimah – she will offer and teach us a blessing to share for this aliyah. Please rise.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, Source of Life, our Rock and our Redeemer.
ALIYOT AND BLESSINGS FOR THE SECOND DAY OF ROSH HASHANAH AND FOR YOM KIPPUR, 5777
(These themes were repeated, first on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and then once again on Yom Kippur.)
As the computer program combs the entire Hebrew Bible, out of that search one and only one complete verse emerges whose numerical value is this entire Jewish year: 5,777. It is a haunting verse from the Book of Lamentations, a lament that speaks to the human condition when we feel dislocated, when historical tragedy overtakes us, when insecurity undermines us. The verse is:
Tzod tzaduni ka’tzipor oy-vai chi-nam (Lamentations 3:52)
My enemies have ensnared me like a bird, without cause
What is this verse’s message to us, in the year 5777? In what ways have we become
ensnared, without noticing? Certainly one of the great challenges we face at this moment is the sense that events are overtaking us, that we are trapped in a juggernaut of cultural and civic degradation, and of course planetary climate degradation, that leave us feeling bewildered and powerless. I feel this lament, this cri-de-coeur: how did this happen, and what are we to do? Who, or what, are our enemies that trap us and keep us from flying towards our destination? How do we get out of the trap?
The remedies I seek with you today are not external political or social programs. I believe each of you here is a thoughtful person who will decide how you want to contribute to the public discourse. But if we feel trapped, how can we be our most effective selves? So, we are here first to focus on the spiritual, internal work that will give us the grounding, the perspective and the wisdom to avoid feeling victimized by circumstance. We want to know how to walk in this world with grace and power, rather than be buffeted and swept off our center by the torrent of headlines that always threaten to overwhelm.
I look to the Torah for guidance. As is my custom, we searched for other verses in the Torah with numerical value equaling 777, Tav-Shin-Ayin-Zayin, the more conventional way of writing the year in Hebrew. Interestingly, a cluster of phrases all from the Book of Deuteronomy popped onto the screen. I chose three of these phrases that speak to me most deeply about how to free ourselves from feeling trapped and victimized. I felt that the Book of Lamentations and the Book of Deuteronomy are somehow in dialogue, one presenting the ailment, the other offering good medicine for what ails us. Here they are:
1. “V’hayu l’totafot been eynecha” (Deuteronomy 6:8) = 777
“And they shall be a sign for you between your eyes”
The passage after the Sh’ma, which we know as “V’ahavta”, is from Deuteronomy, chapter 6. We are supposed to place “these words” as a sign upon our arm and as a sign between our eyes – these words being that the Source of Life is ultimately one unity, and that we are to love the Source of Life with all of our heart, soul and might. In time, this instruction becomes fulfilled by the creation of tefillin, the lacquered leather boxes that are worn during prayer. I am certain that it is not accidental that the tefillin traditionally rest on the forehead between the eyes – the place known in other spiritual traditions as the “Third Eye”. Our Third Eye represents our expanded awareness, our mindful presence, the seat of our opened consciousness. In Jewish spiritual discourse, this expanded consciousness is called mohin d’gadlut, literally “large mind”. By attending to this greater sight that we each possess, we learn to not become trapped in the mazes of our repetitive thoughts and emotions.
This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice the remedy of mindful presence in the coming year, freeing ourselves from the trap of unneeded worrying and anxiety, and keeping our eye on the great and wondrous mystery, the fact that we get to be here and participate in this experience called “life”.
Misheberach for Second Day Rosh Hashanah:
Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah –
May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all of us.
To your presence
May we feel
The touch of your loving hand
Upon our brow,
Opening our sight,
From complaint to gratitude
From worry to stillness
From separation to fullness
From despair to wonder
Help us to return
From our lost wanderings
To finding you,
The one always waiting
With patience and welcome
The one endlessly longing
To greet us again.
We are your miracles.
Your breath is our breath.
Our lives are your gift.
Bless us to dwell in your divine mystery.
And let us say Amen
Misheberach for Yom Kippur:
Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah – May the One who blessed our ancestors bless you.
At the start of Genesis, amidst his growing rage at his brother Abel, Cain hears God’s voice saying, “Beware, Cain, sin is a crouching demon at the flap of your tent. But you can overrule it.” May you be blessed with the capacity to rise above yourself and hear such a voice of warning when you are captured by anger, jealousy, or any moment of fear or constriction; and may you have the will to heed that warning and overrule your own demons.
May you be blessed like Abraham as he raised his knife against Isaac, to hear a voice say, “Stop. Do no Harm,” even when you are sure you are following a path of right and righteousness.
May you be blessed like Jacob after wrestling with the angel, who tells his brother Esau, “When I look at you I see God’s face.”
Through this sign, through this knowing with your third eye, may you be blessed with truly seeing that our God, YHVH, is one; one unfolding process that is all that was, is and will be; visible and invisible; transcendent and immanent.
And in that awareness may you be blessed to see that EACH of us, human, animal, plant and rock, all of this physical world are G-d, holy and to be cherished.
And finally, may you be blessed to feel the divine presence of that One unfolding Being, our God, Adonai Eloheinu, with you at all times, offering compassion and support no matter what befalls you.
2. “Hatov v’hayashar b’eyney YHVH elohecha” (Deuteronomy 12:28) = 777
“What is good and upright in the eyes of YHVH your God”
Maintaining our integrity and our moral center will always help us remain upright in the midst of the traps of confusion, attacks and temptation. This is where our true strength lies, a place where we are much less likely to be shaken, a place where our petty thoughts and venality and resentments cannot find purchase, a place of quiet humility but also of power.
This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice the remedy of doing what is good and upright, of doing the right thing because it is the right thing, of being able to look oneself in the mirror and know you have done your very best to be a mensch. Take the high road. It is worth the effort, and the view is way better.
Misheberach for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah:
Mi sheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov
v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah:
May the wisdom of our ancestors fill your heart with compassion for those who stand before you in disagreement and struggle.
May you stand outside of yourself, taking three steps forward to a sacred higher ground of being where you can listen and be heard, beyond right and wrong.
When confronted by confusion, attacks, temptation, and control, may you stand on that higher ground in a field of moral integrity, seeing from that perspective, the impact of your actions.
May you speak your truth with a strong and resilient heart
laced with humility, knowing that the other has his or her truth, and like you, doing the best he or she can. Even though you might not be in agreement, acknowledging what is, asking for forgiveness and forgiving, gives peace of mind.
When you bump up against another, may you remember to take three steps forward onto this higher ground, surrounding yourself and the other with compassion…. for living is often a challenge.
And let us say Amen.
Misheberach for Yom Kippur
Mi sheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov, v’imoteinu Sara, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah, May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all of us,
with the resilience and fortitude that you blessed our ancestors
Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel; with the wisdom and courage, you blessed our teachers; Moshe Rabainu, Miriam ha’naveiya, Dinah the prophetess, the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rav Kook, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Reb Zalman Shachter Shalomi.
May we be blessed with insight, strength and resolve to walk in the essence of our souls seeds of light. Let their subtle seeds of wisdom’s truths infuse our thirsty souls and feed our hungry hearts. For each year at this time,
we are born and reborn again out of infinite divine desire to cloak this world in godly goodness.
May you, o God, of our knowing, hear the truths of our hearts,
may we in your image, in deep reflection, hear the truths of our hearts as we open our lips to you in prayer and contrition.
may the wisdom of your divine knowing, deep listening and understanding, permeate our souls.
May we remember, as we remember our ancestors and teachers
and bathe in their light and the light of our Torah, and know our purpose here in this life. Help us to remember that we are sparks of your light, goodness and infinite wisdom buried deep within us. May you ignite and re-ignite the fires of our passionate hearts
to illuminate our sparks, as we strive to be a holy people.
Let the awesome awareness that our being is one with you infuse us with courage and strength, and let this deep knowing define and determine how we walk in the world.
May we re-inform ourselves of these seeds of light within us, as they illuminate the call for equitable justice, and the divine qualities of grace, compassion and wisdom, so to inform our actions as we live our lives.
Bless us all with the critical courage to transform our decisions, speech, directions and actions into the seeds of light that will transform ourselves, and our lives.
Bless us all with the audacity of courage to dare, to sprinkle the seeds of our light, of love, goodness, conviction and compassionate justice,
to repair, rectify and restore your magnificent creation.
Ribono Shel Olam, God of our knowing, bless us all with the deep and constant knowing that these truths of Torah are all within each of us,
always within our mouths and within our hearts and the works of our hands.
and let us say amen.
3. “Ya’arof ka’matar lik-chi” (Deuteronomy 32:2)
“May my words fall like gentle rain”
With these words Moses begins his final address to the Children of Israel: “May my words fall like gentle rain, my speech drip gently like the dew, like showers on new growth, like droplets on blades of grass.”
The breakdown of civil discourse and thoughtful speech in our public realm entraps us in pettiness and divisiveness, and undermines the constructive power and purpose of communication. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” (18:21)
This aliyah is for all those who wish to practice thoughtful and constructive speech, no matter what venality you encounter from others. It’s not easy! But let us watch how we speak, so that our words nourish rather than pummel and destroy. This too is powerful medicine for the troubles of our times.
Misheberach for Second Day Rosh Hashanah:
May the one who blessed our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel bless you: you adult learners, who need a good reason to do the right thing; who so want to avoid the strong temptation to deliver that clever slapdown that may be sitting on the tip of your tongue. May you be blessed with prescience to know just how great you will feel having avoided delivering a withering blow. May you be blessed with clarity, kindness and patience to know that when you take the elevated path and avoid the sarcasm or cynicism you elevate us all and give us the encouragement to do the same thing. So when the dialogue gets heated take a deep breathe, hear the inner voice urging you on to goodness and help lay the path for us all to create a new normal: kindness.
And let us say: Amen.
Misheberach for Yom Kippur:
Misheberach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzhak, v’Yaakov
V’imoteinu Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah
May the one who blessed our ancestors bless you, who have risen today in honor of this day of Yom Kippur and in honor of Torah with the resolve to refrain from hurting others with your words.
Words have power to help and heal, to enlighten and comfort but also to cause anger and fear, and to damage relationships.
We were just reminded by our Torah that we have choices in life, to choose between life and death, blessing and curse; choosing life-enhancing things, choosing compassion, this is what makes our lives worth living.
When we hear people who should know better use language that demeans, belittles, or bullies others,
or worse, when we let ourselves slip into lashon ha-ra, hateful speech, let us remember that, however angry or upset we may be, we are speaking to or about other human beings who are also made in the image of G!d.
Let us remember to separate their hateful speech from their humanity, and may we be blessed to find the right words to convey our meaning with firmness, with kindness, with gentleness.
And let us say: Amen.