About rabbilaufer

Rabbi. Teacher. Learner. Wife. Spin class connoisseur. Friend. Shoe-holic. Daughter. Thinker. Wannabe wanderer. Aspiring epicure. Seeker. Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, NYC. Tweeting @rabbilaufer. Blogging at torahblahnik.blogspot.com

What the Talmud Taught Me About Yoga: Lessons From a Non-Yogi

Like others before me, I am trying to participate in Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s #BlogElul. Here’s a thought for Day 3.


The first time she said it, I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes. The second time too. Probably the third time. But somewhere along the way, the lights dimmed, candles burning, and the sounds of everyone else’s ujayyi breath lulled me into acquiescence.

I should state, for the record, that I had never been much of a yogi. Give me a good spin class or dance class, or sign me up for a 5K any day. If I am going to be exercising, I want to be breathing hard, sweating, and probably wondering if I am going to make it. But stretching myself, finding balance, and taking a moment of stillness? That sounds like hard work.

But, I fell in love with a dance class—and a community—and yoga came with it. And so,several days a week, I found myself closing my eyes, breathing deeply and finally giving in. “Take a breath. Let it travel through your body. And, just when you think your lungs are full—sip a little more air. And then a little more. Hold the breath, and in this space: Set an intention for your practice.” Yeah, right. Can’t we just start dancing?!

Let your mind go. Breathe deeply.

Somewhere along the way, though, I noticed that my experience in those opening moments shifted. I stopped rolling my eyes, and started closing them. I stopped smirking, and started breathing. And I began to set an intention—sometimes an inward reflection. At first, my intentions were solely fitness-based: Lose weight. Get in shape. Tone my arms.

But as those physical changes actually did start to happen, I noticed that my intentions grew more expansive, if still totally embodied: Love my shape. Celebrate my body’s abilities.

Then, my intentions grew wider, more integral to the life that I was living. Sometimes a specific goal. Sometimes a one word plan: Hope. Contentment. Focus. And my dance became more than just a way to work out.

Sadly, I had to leave my studio behind. But I often hear my teachers’ words when I embark on a new project, a new endeavor. And they came right back to me as I began Daf Yomi a few weeks ago. While I am not sure I will be able to finish it, I have—for the time—committed to studying a daf (two pages) of Talmud every day…for 7.5 years. And I thought to myself—I better set an intention. And so I did. One of discpline, of learning lishmah (for its own sake, and of rejoining a conversation I think desperately needs our liberal, female voices.

The Talmud begins with a discussion of the recitation of the Shema. After a thorough discussion of when to recite Shema, the rabbis begin to ask how we recite Shema. The case that they bring is of someone who is engaged in Torah study of some sort of another—even studying the verses that contain the words of the Shema—when the time arrives for the recitation of Shema. What, they ask, is he to do? The rabbis teach that if he directs his heart towards the recitation of the Shema, he (or she, I suppose!) has fulfilled the obligation to recite the Shema.

The word for “direction” here is kavannah. While it is often used to describe the parts of the prayer service that happen organically, in contrast to the fixed liturgical pieces, it more correctly means “intention.” It means your internal compass is focused, directed, on what you are doing—or what you hope to do.

And the Gemara continues with one short, weighty statement: Mitzvot require kavannah. To engage in the significant acts of Jewish life, it is not enough to do so woodenly, robotically, without deep thought and commitment.

As Elul begins, we are asked to take spiritual stock, to reflect on the year that was—to consider who we have been and what we have done. And this “inventory” we are asked to take should inform who want to become and the steps we’ll take to get there.

So, I invite you to sit. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Breathe in a little more. And set an intention for your practice.

Rabbi Sari Laufer is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She also blogs at torahblahnik.blogspot.com, and is Tweeting #DafYomi @rabbilaufer



By Rabbi Sari Laufer

This post is dedicated to the wonderful community of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, which has, in my six years here, welcomed me, nurtured me, and allowed me to be a teacher and a student.


“Welcome to the community….you have some mighty big shoes to fill.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me in my first year on the job, well…I’d probably have enough for some pretty great shoes.

Some pretty fabulous shoes…..that I don’t own

When I was hired, the job existed because the longtime, very beloved, associate rabbi had taken a job as senior rabbi at a dynamic suburban congregation. While I hope to emulate many of his wonderful characteristics; he is warm, dynamic, engaging, and spiritual, I knew there were two things I could never be: male, and possessing a 13 year history with the congregation. I knew this: his shoes were NEVER going to fit me.

In this week’s parasha, the people’s dissatisfaction with their spiritual leadership takes a dramatic turn. Korach, Datan, and Abiram rebel against Moses and Aaron’s leadership, contending that: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?”

It’s actually a parasha, and a story, that I love. I love learning it with lay leaders and clergy alike; I think we all understand why the teachers of Itturei Torah say that “the parasha of Korach can be used nicely at any time, because there are always disputes among Jews.” All kidding aside (not that they were kidding), I think that Korach and his not-so-merry band raise a lot of important questions about leadership, respect, and relationship. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic teacher, suggests that Korah could easily have been, or become, a leader of the children of Israel. He came from good yichus, he was a wise man and he was wealthy. Rabbi Bunim goes on to ask:

Why, then, was he not given such a position? It is because “וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח ,” Now took Korah­—he took himself. He did not wait until he was offered the leadership, but sought to take it by force. That was why he was not worthy of it.

6 years later, I am part of a different transition. I watched as our community said goodbye to another beloved rabbi, my friend and colleague as she prepares to take on new challenges and celebrate new triumphs. And in a few weeks, we’ll welcome a newly ordained colleague. And I have no doubt that she too will be told that she has tough shoes to fill. Through this transition, I have spent some time reminiscing about my first year—in both practical and emotional ways; I want to be helpful to her and to this community in making such a shift. But in the end, I think she will learn what Korach learned, what each of us who wants to be a leader learns: that leadership cannot be taken, it must be given. That a leader is not automatically respected, one must earn respect. That true leadership cannot be solely rooted in personal ambition but in, as Rabbi Rachel Cowan writes in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “an expansive covenanted life in a community of mutual care and responsibility.” In such a community, she says, all people are holy.

Holy, yes. The same? No. I knew I could never be my predecessor. During my rabbinic interviews, the man who is now my senior rabbi and mentor gave me a piece of advice that I now give to students about to enter the job market. He said to me: “Wherever you go, choose to go somewhere that loves its clergy.” I knew then, as I know now, that if they were to love me—and me them—it would have to be as me, not as a replacement for anyone. I would have to bring my own skills, my own challenges, my own teachings….my own self to the place. And in return, I hoped, they would come to know me, to love me, and to offer me the chance to be their spiritual guide and leader.

A few days ago, a parent came up and shared with me a story that I have been carrying in my heart ever since. “I get up early for work every day, so I lay out my outfits—including shoes—the night before. For the past few weeks,” she said, “my daughter has been coming into my room, putting on my heels, and saying: Don’t I look like Rabbi Sari?” “And the thing is,” she continued, “when she does it, I see this confidence exuding from her. And I love that.”

I knew this then as I know it now: I was not looking to fill anyone’s shoes, and in the end—they did not want me to. No one else’s shoes were EVER going to fit me.

Lucky for me, I have a FABULOUS shoe collection.

Not my shoe collection!

Rabbi Sari Laufer is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She also blogs at torahblahnik.blogspot.com