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E-Newsletter - Preparing for High Holidays
September 03, 2012

What Shall We Ask This Year?

In this High Holiday edition:

Preparing for High Holidays - This Year - a letter from from Rabbi Debra

Help Us Reach 100 Reviews - or "How many Jews does it take to reach 100 opinions?"

"Are We There Yet?" - an article about journeys, both physical and spiritual

Links to Resources - Preparation tools you can find on the website

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

CD's and Audio Downloads

Thank you - our appreciation for your support

Preparing for High Holidays - This Year

Dear Friends,

I can’t pinpoint the moment when I finally “wised up,” but it was at least a decade into my rabbinate before I realized that preparing for the High Holidays was not going to get easier with time and experience. For rabbis and laypeople alike, many rituals and holidays do. Practice may not make “perfect,” or even “permanent,” but it at least makes “proficient” in many cases. With respect to the High Holidays, however, the very fact that we are at this point in the year again can feel like a kind of indictment. If the accounting of the soul had really “taken” last year, would we be doing it again this season – and with so many of the same, well-worn concerns?

We can easily fault ourselves for how much stays the same. But what strikes me this year is how different the Holidays and their effect on us can be from year to year. We can point to examples of true transformation – behaviors changed, relationships repaired, temptations overcome. But if those experiences are relatively rare, or if we are enduring a year when we don’t see many positive changes, then the High Holidays are even more needed. Because each year gives us the opportunity to view persistent problems in a new way.

One important reason why High Holidays don’t get easier is that they don’t really repeat. The liturgy repeats, but each Holiday season has its own mood and moment, shaped by an alchemy of the timely and the timeless in personal, communal, and global development.

It was about the time that I gave up on “hitting my stride” with the High Holidays that I began to celebrate them more deeply, seeing each year as a unique and irreplaceable variation on familiar themes.

“Themes” is a key word. Of course, the broad themes of the Holidays -- repentance, repair, renewal, forgiveness, etc. -- remain from year to year. I have come to preach and teach through the prism of a particular theme each year. A few years ago, in my most memorable and daring venture, I gave all five major High Holiday addresses on Gratitude, (The newest, double-album CD is the result.). Last year was, for me and my community in NJ, the year of Reb Nachman. I took up two of his major themes: “Never Give Up” and “Joy” – which can be both goals and methods in the process of repentance. In a year when so many people had been hit so hard – financially and otherwise, Nachman’s biography, stories, and ideas were powerful points of access.

This Elul, I am dwelling with the theme of questions. To that end, I have selected and annotated a series of questions -- taken from everyday parlance, Jewish texts, and other holy sources – meant to provoke new thought about who, what, and why we are. Jews love questions and value them, often, more than answers. The quality of the questions we ask about these Holy Days can determine the quality of the next year. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky once said of the High Holidays that his aspiration is to cultivate a better class of sin each year than the last. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s incremental, it’s doable. His remark acknowledges how much stays the same. Yet it insists that change does and will happen. We can become more sensitive to sin, more refined – in short, better.

I don’t rule out sudden insights, rapturous moments, transcendent experiences that leave us changed forever. But here’s a question: If none of that should happen for you and me on Rosh Hashanah 5773, how can we nevertheless make this a powerful, spiritually transformative, good, and sweet New Year?
- Rabbi Debra Orenstein

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"Are We There Yet?"
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Reprinted from The Menorah, a publication of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, NJ.

Over the summer, in cars, mini-vans, and RV’s across the nation, legions of children asked this all-important question: “Are we there yet?” We have all asked it and one time or another and, maybe more often, we have all been irritated by the question, too. We wish that our kids could develop the patience to stop asking “are we there yet?” although we haven’t yet arrived. If only they could relax and enjoy the scenery and the company. If only they could learn to appreciate where they are on the way to where they are going.


I began by reminiscing about summer vacation and “kids today” and suddenly I find myself writing about Rosh Hashanah and adult angst.

The journey from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah seems to go more quickly each year. Now I am more likely to say, “Have we arrived already?” than “Are we there yet?” – at least when it comes to the passage of time. But when I think of the intentions that we set last year, of our unrealized dreams and our under-served goals, then I am prone to ask: Are we there yet? Why haven’t we arrived? When will we ever get to those important priorities?

These inquiries are intrinsic to the High Holiday season, and they are part of what make it meaningful and successful. Only if we measure our progress can we improve it. Only if we notice where we fall short can we transcend obstacles and move ahead.

Yet sometimes I imagine God as a Parent driving the family mini-van (seating capacity: infinite). And in the back seats (plural), all God’s children whine, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” God is erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet, long in patience, abundant in lovingkindness and in truth. So God replies again this year, “Not yet, my dears. But we will get there. As long as I keep the covenant of Driver and you keep the complementary covenant of passengers, as long as you stick with me for the long haul, we will get there. In the meantime, won’t you please enjoy the scenery and the company?”

May God bless you this year with patience, lovingkindness, and truth enough to recognize all the goodness and greatness of where you are on the way to where you are going. May you direct your mind and your mini-van toward worthy destinations. I look forward to seeing you on Highway 5773. Honk and wave if you spot me. Maybe we’ll pull off for a Shabbos rest stop together. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

Links to Resources - Preparation tools you can find on the website

New - The High Holidays Questions Page
These questions, gleaned from the Jewish tradition and other holy sources, are a helpful way to prepare and become inspired for the New Year.

Chai Elul Meditations - One of the most popular pages on the website.
The 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul begins this year on Tuesday night September 4 at sunset and continues through the following day at sunset. The “Chai Elul” meditations begin on this auspicious day and carry you through the rest of Elul and the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Daily Elul Meditations
It’s not too late to join in with daily meditations. Begin where you are. (That is always good spiritual advice.)

Holidays page
Enjoy all our High Holiday downloads, quotes, stories, and sermons.

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

Every time I walk into the sanctuary, take the lecturn in my classroom, open a new file on a computer, or meditate on an important decision, I am searching for that x-factor of inspiration. Whether articulated or not, I am offering a prayer that I can be an agent for positive change – in myself and others. The current political conventions showcase this idea of positive change writ large, and in this season of Elul before the High Holidays, I am spurred to consider “Where am I?” in my life, and, if I can access that x-factor in myself, “Where do I go from here?”

Let me “out” myself and admit that I am a Simon Cowell fan and was an avid watcher of his American X-Factor show. What I found most engrossing in the show were not the technical skills of the contestants or the judges’ comments. The show for me lived in those astounding moments when you got to see someone break out of the chrysalis of their troubled life. Simon spoke for me in uttering legitimate surprise and amazement after aging fast food clerk Josh Krajcik took on Etta James’s “At Last.” When fresh-out-of-rehab trash collector Chris Rene auditioned with a heartrending original song, initially drawing immense skepticism, he transformed the arena. Simon rightfully imparted that he couldn’t calculate whether Chris needed the show more or, for his bravery and revealing honesty, the show needed Chris. And when eventual champion Melanie Amaro revealed in mid-season the Caribbean accent that she had been hiding out of shame, the live and television audience got to witness real growth and the power of harnessing that x-factor within you.

The truth is that these X-Factor contestants didn’t change in those moments on television; they changed with their decision to compete and bare their souls. Our ambitions for transformation during the High Holidays may be more modest than these life-changing events, but why should they be? Despite “conventional wisdom,” stories of people making real change are all around us. And whether you are contemplating a major issue or just looking at how you approach daily challenges, the process of harnessing that x-factor is central to making progress. Whether you want to call it “God,” “the still small voice,” your muse, your discipline, or the x-factor, the power to change yourself and the world is available to all. In this season let the shofar, your heart, and your Jewish community wake you to that power within you. And when you feel it, I pray you will know the answer to the question in this meditation from trash collector Chris Rene . . . [Click here]

CD's and Audio Downloads

For more guidance in making change happen, check out Debra's album "Transformation Now."

For e-newsletter subscribers below is a sample from the album, the first track, "Why We Are Here Tonight." It was delivered at the beginning of services on Erev Rosh Hashanah. In this three-minute audio clip, Rabbi Debra Orenstein reviews some essential questions of the High Holidays: Why are we here? How well have we lived up to our purpose? How can we do better? And if not now, when?

The Rabbi Debra and Reb Zalman CDs & audio downloads are all edited from live High Holiday recordings. They include explanations of the High Holiday prayers and liturgy, inspiration on the themes of the day, meditations, sermons, prayers, and stories. For rabbis, cantors, and lay people alike, these are the best resources we have to offer for preparing for the High Holidays.

Since last High Holidays, we released a double album entitled "Gratitude."

Order CD's by mail.
Download albums or individual tracks from iTunes.

These High Holiday teachings, sermons, and stories are a great way to prepare for a truly good and happy new year.


We truly appreciate all the kindness and support that you, our community and followers, have given us.

Craig Weisz and Rabbi Debra Orenstein

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