Monthly Archives: September 2019

New Year’s Prayer

May we reject cynicism and despair, hatred and prejudice.  May we embrace hope and kindness, goodness and caring, wisdom and life.  May we find meaning in our days, strength and courage in our hearts, and love in our relationships. May we give freely, and live fully.  May we choose wisely, do justly, and walk humbly.   And may we together create a world of peace.


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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, prayer, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized


It was the slightest thing, just barely noticeable.  Maybe it was my own sense of perception, maybe reading my own hopes, my own romantic sensibilities into what I saw.  But then again, maybe not.

They were widowers, you see, having lost their spouses after long and loving marriages.  I officiated at each funeral, maybe a year or so apart.  He was lost without his wife for a time, had struggled, they were so close, but now a year and a half had gone by and he was feeling lighter, as if warmth had begun to creep back into his heart.  Her story was similar.  She was wonderful, kind and wise.  She came to services every day after her husband died, and kept coming even after the kaddish period had ended.  She and her husband had made a truly good life together, traveling the world, raising children, maintaining friendships.  I didn’t know they knew each other, my two widowers, had never thought their social paths would have crossed.  At first I thought it was just sheer coincidence that they were sitting next to one another.  After all, it was crowded at Friday night services, seats were at a premium, few and far between.  Perhaps it was simply fate that cast them together.

But there was something more than that.  At least I hope there was.  Just the way they sat, like teens on a first date, so intensely aware of where the other was, of how a forearm rested on a chair, or legs crossed.  It was one of those things you feel, maybe better to say sense – almost like there was some kind of electricity in the air around them.  So carefully keeping their eyes on their prayer books, so intent on not looking up at the wrong time, not wanting to accidentally catching the other’s eye when someone else might see.

And yet the slightest, almost imperceptible, leaning in, one towards the other.  In that subtle way it seemed to me they acknowledged something, if not to others than at least to themselves.  Yes, we are here together.  We are exploring this together, to see what it means, how it feels, how strange, and also exciting, how sad and also maybe how sweet.

There is a passage in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one of my favorites.  The Lady Eowyn has lost one love, and her heart has grown cold and distant.  But the possibility of love begins to come back into her life.  Slowly, quietly, almost imperceptibly, the young prince Faramir heals her heart.  And then finally she understands that it is possible for her to feel love again, and that darkness, even the deepest darkness, can give way to warmth and light.

From Tolkien, the Return of the King, the chapter entitled The Steward and the King”

“Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or she at last understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

“And Faramir took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.  And many indeed saw them and the light that shone about them as they came down from the walls and went hand in hand to the Houses of Healing.”


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Leaping Souls

There is a lithograph that hangs at the end of our upstairs hall.  It is a depiction of one of the Bible’s best known scenes, showing a sleeping Jacob at the foot of a tall ladder that runs from Earth to Heaven.  On the ladder angels can be seen, seemingly going from one place to the other, although it is a bit unclear from the picture if they are going up or down.

I’ve always read the biblical story (Genesis 28:10-19) as a narrative about the way God’s presence can suddenly appear in unexpected places at unexpected times.  Here was Jacob, alone in the wilderness, in a place that might actually be described as ‘God-forsaken,’ and he has an experience that reminds him that God is still with him.  Even there.  But the lithograph in our home has given me a different perspective on the story.  The two lower angels seem to beckoning to Jacob, waving their arms upwards, as if to say, ‘Rise with us, shake off your slumber, you can follow us to a higher place, a more sacred space, and we can show you the way.’

Freud might say the angels are a representation of Jacob’s unconscious.  Even while he sleeps there is a part of him that is striving to do and be better, to ‘rise’ to become the person he knows he should be.  After all, Jacob has at best a complicated history.  He has just deceived his father, and this seems to be part of a pattern in his life, having previously done something similar to his brother Esau.  He knows Esau is threatening to kill him.  So Jacob flees for his life.  He is physically alone when he dreams of the ladder and the angels, but he is also suffering from an existential loneliness, and perhaps he is engaged in what the Sages would call a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  So that night, alone with his thoughts, he dreams not only of a way out, but also of a way up.

The Kotsker Rebbe taught that when we are born God sends our souls from Heaven to Earth on a ladder, and that the fundamental task of our lives is to climb back up that ladder in the course of our earthly journey.  But there is a trick.  For according to the Kotsker, God pulls the ladder up, just out of our reach, the moment we arrive on Earth.  We might sense the ladder is there, but we can’t see it.  Some souls leap, trying to grasp the ladder, and after trying for a time get discouraged.  But other souls continue to leap, year after year, knowing that something sacred is there, and never giving up on finding it.  The Kotsker Rebbe said that for those souls God has mercy, and ultimately reveals the ladder to them.

Our task then, in the words of the Kotsker Rebbe, is to be leaping souls.

That image is a powerful one, particularly during our fall holiday season.  We do spend these weeks thinking about our lives, weighing our own characters, and wondering what we can do to be better.  Just like leaping, the process can be tiring, even discouraging at times.  We know ourselves well, we know the foibles and the flaws, the shortcomings and the sorrows.  But we ask God for the strength to continue to leap, to almost literally jump forward into a new year, with all of its possibility and hope.  A metaphoric leap of faith.

The picture in our hall reminds me, day in and day out, that the ladder is out there, even if I can’t see it everyday.  Like the angels with Jacob, there are so many forces in my life that constantly encourage me to continue to reach for that first rung.  People who love me and trust me.  Family and friends with whom I’ve shared the joys and sadnesses of life.  The beauty of God’s world that brings to me a sense of the sacred.  And always the start of a New Year and the chance to both return and renew.IMG_0932

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