Far Too Busy?

spinningby Rabbi Wendy Spears

The High Holy Days season is the most frenetic for rabbis as they prepare for the largest crowds of the year attending synagogue worship. In addition to writing and editing multiple sermons, rabbis are also focused on the opening of synagogue membership season. New folks are coming in the doors to check out what the synagogue can offer them, while veteran members are re-evaluating their involvement in on-going activities. As a community rabbi rather than a synagogue rabbi, I am a step removed from this although I see my colleagues trying to juggle a lot of plates.

The end of August and beginning of September is also the time many families make the transition from the relative relaxation of summer schedules to the fast-paced action of the new school year with its requisite renewal of sports practice, music and art lessons, homework, and Hebrew practice. I see many of my friends consumed by busy-ness. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte writes about all of this frenetic activity in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything on the to-do list completed.

Happily, I find myself in a very different place. I’ve entered a new chapter in my life in which I am succeeding in putting mindfulness into practice. I have one child in college and the other in high school. They have begun to take charge of their own activities. The hard physical work on my part of their early childhoods is completed, as is the need for constant conversation to stimulate their developing brains. I am devoting more time to my rabbinate, to my enjoyment of attending cultural activities with my husband, and to my own spiritual sustenance. I take time to reflect and be present much more in the moment. I used to admire my colleague Rabbi Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, for his ability to do this on a regular basis. As Brigid Schulte writes, “Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. Then we starve the capacity we have to love. It creates this ‘unquiet heart’ that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”

With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on the evening of September 24, we have a tremendous opportunity to be present in moments of holiness within community. It is the time to begin reflecting on what we’ve accomplished and experienced this past year and to rejoice in that, while also recognizing the mistakes and hurts we’ve caused others and to make amends. I plan to read again the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes during the many moments of silence during worship. The wisdom literature attempts to teach us how to live a good life when we know that the people and things in this life are ephemeral. Much of the literature sounds as if it was written today rather than thousands of years ago.

While many people I know complain about being too busy, I find that I’ve really stopped feeling that way and saying those words. I make time for what’s important to me, whether it’s for myself or to spend with friends and family. As I think back on this odyssey of raising my children, I didn’t over schedule them with sports, lessons, and other activities. I tried to leave them enough time to just be. Sometimes we went on field trips to explore the culture of Los Angeles. Most often, we were at home on the weekends and available to each other or to be with friends and extended family.

While it’s in my nature to push forward and get a lot of stuff done, I’ve tried over the past year to stop cramming so much into each minute of the day. Previously, I was constantly looking at the clock, trying to determine how much I could get done before the next activity or appointment. I was consistently late, and I really hate being late. This year, I’ve been a bit easier on myself and have even left some things on my to-do list undone. I’ve started to exercise again and have let go of some hobbies. I can honestly say that I feel calmer, even though my calendar of activities looks as full now as it did last year. And I feel more prepared and eager for the opportunity for spiritual introspection on these quickly approaching High Holy Days.

#overwhelmed #busy #roshhashanah #rabbis #highholydays #mindfulness

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

A Sweet and Delicious Twist for Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah star of david

Have a sweet New Year!

By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

A few years ago a friend was visiting me for the High Holy Days and so we decided to do one of the things for which Long Island is famous- we planned to go to a winery.  I searched for the closest winery in my GPS and I started driving.  When we arrived at our destination we had reached an industrial park- clearly not an idyllic, picturesque setting. We were surprised, but figured maybe this is just a storefront and the vineyard is a few miles away. However, as we got out of the car and entered the store we realized we were not at a winery per se, but rather a “meadery.”  Right away, I remembered having had mead-wine made entirely from honey (no grapes), a few years earlier while celebrating a friend’s wedding.

We were a bit apprehensive at first, but we tasted and thoroughly enjoyed this wine. At this local meadery, there was “pure” mead as well as mead mixed with other fruit juices.  On their list of meads, they even had one made with apples- so it was a wine made completely of Honey and Apples. They didn’t have any to taste, but I thought, “wow, this would be great for Rosh Hashanah.”

An idea was born. I shared this with my husband and told him, how I’d like to sell this apple mead, known as cyser and call it “Rosh Hashanah in a Bottle.”  I thought it would be a great way to celebrate the New Year with something new- that was also something very old, as mead is the most ancient type of alcohol.

Additionally, I thought it could be a fun way to add some sweetness to the holiday. Maybe, this “hip,” alcoholic beverage could be an entry point to Judaism for some people for whom “going to services” wasn’t their thing.  Maybe they could drink a little of this wine or bring a bottle to a friends’ home and at least have a moment of connection to their faith, their heritage, their history.  I am not trying to imply it is a “magic potion,” but I know that there has to be ways to connect people to Judaism outside of simply saying you have to go to services, or have to keep Kosher, or you have to light the candles or you have to….fill in the blanks.  

Don’t get me wrong- I think all of those things are important and CAN help people BE Jewish and connect to their Judaism.  However, some people need other entry points- not being told what to do or being pushed into faith based on guilt or other non-motivators. Basically, I thought wouldn’t it be great if a simple bottle of wine could actually help Jews (and others) find the real meaning of Rosh Hashanah… and that our hope for the new year and always is to have sweetness in our lives?

Well, the next year I got too busy when the High Holy Days came around to pursue my idea. And then the next time I looked into it, that meadery- the one in the industrial park had closed. (I never found out why, but I think it may have had to do with the fact that it was originally just the owner’s hobby). So I basically let my idea go…until my husband encouraged me again. Emily-09Through a business connection he met someone who inspired us again to follow our idea. I won’t bore you with the details of having to find the perfect winery/meadery to make our “Rosh Hashanah in a Bottle” but after a lot of searching, some due diligence, a bunch of wonderful phone calls and a drive upstate, we found the perfect winery/meadery with whom to partner for our High Holy Day wine.  And now the idea has been born…

Earlier this month, we began spreading the word about our special, exciting and delicious drink for the New Year and always. In addition to sharing some joy and sweetness, my hope is that this wine will also enable some congregations or groups to use our product as a fundraiser and further the principle of Tikkun Olam.

As a rabbi, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to “push” an alcoholic beverage (and maybe in the future I can also have a non-alcoholic version). However, since we use wine at almost all of our happy occasions, I thought this could be a nice added twist to something that is already part of our tradition- already a symbol of joy and happiness!

So, raise your glass to a Shannah Tovah U’Mitukah- May you be blessed with a good and sweet New Year!

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, New York.

The Akedah from Sarah’s Perspective

by Rabbi Ellen A. Greenspan

Thank you to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, for giving me the opportunity to write this Midrash for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The dramatic story of the Akedah, (Gen. 22:1-19), concludes as Abraham returns to his servant lads and travels to Beersheva. What strikes me about the end of the Akedah is that the text never mentions Isaac’s unbinding or his return to Beersheva with Abraham. In the very next passage of Torah, (Gen. 23:1-2), we read about the death of Sarah. I have written this story from Sarah’s perspective, to help us envision what happens between the binding of Isaac and Sarah’s death.


Isaac was so excited to go on a journey with his father. But I didn’t have a good feeling about it.

Abraham was too silent, deep in thought – leaving the two servant boys to gather the necessary items for their multi-day trek. Why would they need so much fire-wood?

Usually, when Abraham would go off by himself, he was open with me and would tell me of his plans – where he was headed, what he planned to do on his excursion. But this time…silence.

I only heard after the fact about everything that happened. I don’t know if Abraham would have told me at all, but Isaac confided in me after I asked him why he was so quiet and subdued when they returned.

According to Isaac, the trip started off normally enough. He and his father trekked through the desert along with two servant boys and a donkey to carry their gear.

Although when Isaac asked where they were going, Abraham was evasive – which really is not like him. He is a smart man and doesn’t usually venture into the desert with out a destination. It is too dangerous. But Isaac related to me that this time Abraham said something like “God will tell us where to go.”

Abraham puts a lot of faith in God. I used to think it was too much faith – way too much trust – until Isaac was born. He is such a gift. What a blessing to be given a child when I was long past the age of child-bearing. God predicted that we would conceive a son. Although I was skeptical, I have to give God credit and my gratitude. So, I thought, maybe Abraham’s relationship with God is OK.

But now…after the story Isaac told me…I am not so sure.

As they approached Mt. Moriah, Abraham asked the servant boys to stay with the donkey so he and Isaac could go up the mountain to pray. I’m still not sure how Abraham knew where to go – and Isaac didn’t seem to know, either. Isaac thought it was a bit strange that they should have to climb a mountain to pray when Abraham has taught him that God is everywhere. And Isaac also wondered why they were carrying so much fire-wood, a fire-stone and a knife.

When Isaac asked, Abraham used the God excuse again. “God will provide us with a lamb for the sacrifice.” Come on, Isaac thought, how is a lamb going to wander our way at the right moment, and on a mountain, no less? But, I know that when it comes to God, anything is possible.

But then, Isaac said, everything got weird.

“Father made an altar out of stones and the fire-wood and then looked around as if he were waiting for something. Then he grabbed me. He tied me up and threw me on top of the wood. I struggled and cried and made it very difficult for him, but he is stronger than I am.

“Then, he took the knife in his hand and raised his arm – and the knife – above my head.”

“Nooooo!!!! Father, what are you doing?” I called out.

Suddenly a voice came from above and told Abraham not to kill Isaac.

I am speechless. Horrified. What was Abraham thinking? Does he really trust a God that would require such a thing? I don’t want to believe in a God like that. I don’t know if I can possibly have any faith in God’s wisdom any more.

My poor Isaac. No wonder he is subdued. Traumatized is more like it…

Anyway, the end of the story is that Abraham found a ram caught in the bushes behind him. He freed the ram from the tangled branches and offered the ram as a sacrifice instead. Isaac brought back the horns…he showed them to me.

Isaac did say that Abraham was in tears, that he was clearly distraught over the whole thing. Abraham almost forgot to untie Isaac – but Isaac called out to him. It was as if Abraham was in his own world. Isaac said Abraham was startled when he cried out to him…like he was in a trance or something. But, Abraham cut the ropes with his knife, and Isaac freed himself – without Abraham’s help, really. Then they returned to the servants and the donkey in silence.

I am totally shocked that Abraham did not have one of his usual arguments with God. I mean…just last week, he was arguing with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now, when God asks him to do an unthinkable task…he doesn’t argue or question. I don’t know if I can go on…having faith in Abraham’s wisdom – or God’s.

The Akedah, by Pat B. Allen

The Shofar

Anat blows the shofar

Anat Hoffman blows the shofar (Photo credit: RahelSharon)

By Rabbi Ruth Adar

Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah, the day we are commanded to hear the sound of the shofar.


The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The first time I handled a shofar, I had another surprise. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument; it is just an old piece of horn. There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever. It does not make the sound: the mouth of the Jew who blows it does that. The shofar shapes the sound, and magnifies it.

The Hebrew word nefesh can be translated either as “breath” or as “soul.” Is it possible, then, that the sound of the shofar is really the sound of a Jewish soul, magnified so that we all can hear it?


When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Miriam, one with Devorah, one with the daughters of Zelophechad. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call. It is a call to battle, a warning sound, a summons.


What does the shofar say to you?

What are you going to do about it?


Click here for the sound of a tekiah gedolah, a long blast on a shofar.