Life is Messy: A Drash for Shabbat Shuvah

This was my sermon this past Friday night. Laundry and dishes are done now, and houseguests gone, but the shoes remain.

“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”

I’m not sure exactly where this adage comes from, or even whether it refers to the Jewish New Year or the secular one. But around this time of year, it gets lodged in my brain, reminding me to tie up loose ends and take care of business before the sounding of the shofar. We are fortunate that the beginning of our year stretches from the beginning of Elul to the end of Yom Kippur—forty days—giving us plenty of time to get our affairs in order. Even if we hit the snooze alarm until Rosh Hashana, we still have the ten days of repentance to make things right. Now is the allotted time to make apologies and write thank you notes, to settle debts and give to tzedakah, so that we can begin the year with a clean slate.

And now is also the time to clean the house.

For some reason, that is what I think of when I hear, “As you begin the year, so shall you end it.” Though I’ve never been much of a neat-freak, I wouldn’t want to go to Rosh Hashana services with the bed unmade or the dishes undone. In fact, when I get blocked writing sermons, I might even clean out the drawers of the fridge or empty out the closet for Goodwill. (My other procrastinatory activity is cooking, which sometimes counterbalances the cleaning, as I teach myself to caramelize onions or make pudding from scratch).

This year, I didn’t have much time to procrastinate, and I was fortunate enough to be able to hire someone to do a good deep clean of my new apartment in preparation for the holiday. The cleaning, however, took place on Wednesday, a good four days before the start of the New Year, giving me WAY too much time to mess it up again.

By Sunday morning, the laundry basket was overflowing and the dishwasher was full. The kitchen countertops, just days earlier scrubbed clean, even under the burners of the stove, were smeared with traces of turmeric and pomegranate. There were onion peels and thyme leaves scattered across the kitchen floor. Boxes of new shoes were stacked against the wall of the bedroom, waiting either to be worn for the holiday, or sent back to the store. Piles of paper were strewn everywhere: bills, magazines I need to cancel, and notes for my sermons.

I had houseguests too, adding suitcases, toiletries, and extra towels to the mix. It was a mess, and it made me anxious about the starting the New Year off on the wrong foot.

I didn’t grow up in a super neat household. My mother decorated our house with placards that read, “Dull women have immaculate homes,” or, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy.” Our house was a happy tornado of Play Doh, Matchbox cars, and Barbie heads; every surface covered with family photographs, notes scribbled on the back of junk mail envelopes, and piles upon piles of unread magazines.house_cleaning

So I trace my obsession with cleaning for the holiday to a series called All of a Kind Family, which my mother and I read when I was growing up. The books told the story of five sisters and a brother growing up Jewish in New York City at the turn of the century. In one chapter, the girls are charged with cleaning the house for Shabbat. (The brother is still a baby at this point). As they dust and mop and polish, one sister turns to the other and tells her the legend of the Shabbat angels:

Every Shabbat, when a man comes home from synagogue, there are two angels with him, one on each shoulder: a good angel and a bad angel. If the house is spotless, the table set, and the children smiling and freshly scrubbed, the good angel says, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the bad angel has to say, “Amen.” But if the house is messy and the children unruly, the bad angel will say, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the good angel has to say, “Amen.”

I have a number of problems with this story: it puts an undue pressure on the women of the house to get things in order while the men are away at shul. It places too much emphasis on an ideal of domestic bliss and makes no mention of the spiritual aspects of Shabbat.

It also implies that one can get caught in a cycle of bad Shabbatot or bad years. In this season of change, we need to know that, no matter how Shabbat or Rosh Hashana starts, if we truly desire to change our ways, we can turn things around, and make the next one better.

This story also ignores one crucial thing: that life is messy. Life with six kids in a tenement on the Lower East Side must have been messy. Having three kids under the age of six in a Pennsylvania suburb was definitely messy. And life today, even in a home all by myself, is messy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Messiness can be a reminder of all of our blessings.

As we mopped chocolate off the counter and scraped pomegranate stains off the white cabinets, I realized that this mess was a happy one. I was blessed to have loved ones spending the holiday with me. We were blessed to have abundant food to eat. I felt blessed that I had finally made an entire meal in which I burned nothing and everyone took seconds. Even the piles of paper accumulating in the corners were a reminder that I was finally doing the meaningful, creative work that I had longed for over the last few years.

Which is not to say that all messiness is good. No celebration is without its reminders of who is missing, who is hurting, and who might not be with us next year. There is always uncertainty on the horizon. What kind of a mess will our lives be next year at this time? But that is all the more reason not to postpone our festivities until the house is clean, or the transitional period is over. We celebrate even in the midst of life’s messes.

This is what teshuva feels like.


This time of year is also when we are encouraged to go deeper into the messiness of life. Teshuva is not a neat process. It is kind of like cleaning out the top drawer, the one where we throw everything that cannot be categorized or made useful. If we leave everything as it is, no one will be able to see the mess from the outside, but we know it’s there. Teshuva is when we dump the drawer all over the floor and figure out what is worth keeping, what needs to be fixed, and what must be thrown away. The result is that things get messier before we can get organized.

And we never get it exactly right on the first try. We know that not everything we put back in the drawer is worth keeping; we know that, the next time we need something, it will be that exact thing that we threw away; and we know that, by next week, we’ll have tossed something else useless in there because we don’t know what else to do with it. That top drawer is never going to be exactly how we want it. But once in awhile, we dump it out, we explore its contents, and we try again.

Teshuva requires us to take a hard look at the messiness in ourselves, knowing that we might only be able to attack one cluttered corner at a time, knowing that we are making new messes even as we clean up the old ones. And teshuva requires us to sort out the messes we’ve made with other people. This might mean opening old wounds, making ourselves vulnerable to the people we have hurt or who have hurt us, exposing ourselves to the possibility of pain and rejection. Teshuva is messy. But teshuva, that digging deeper into the mess, is also the only way we can really get things cleaned up.

“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”

Regardless of what we’ve gotten in order and what we have yet to scrub clean, the confessions of the High Holy Days give us a chance to start fresh. Isaiah tells us, “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white. Be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece” (Isaiah 1:18).

Teshuva offers us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. But there’s a reason we do it every year. Life is messy, we are messy, and as we begin the new year, it is hopeless to pray that we’ll be able to keep our lives free of mess for an entire year. Rather, let us pray for the courage to live fully within that mess, to dig deep into it when we need to, to sort things out, and to embrace it when we can, to find the blessings within it.

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Spiritual Housecleaning: A Tashlich Ritual for Kids #blogelul

Shana Tovah to Everyone!

Tashlich is one our lesser-known High Holy Day rituals (kind of like Selichot), so I thought I’d make a video to explain. Right after Rosh Hashana–and presumably after we’ve made all of our apologies and fixed all of the things we’ve broken–we go to a moving body of water: a lake, a river, or an ocean. We take breadcrumbs and cast them into the water (The word tashlich means “to cast away”), symbolically letting go of our sins or anything else we don’t want to take with us into the coming year.

When I was in college, someone in my chavurah taught me a beautiful ritual you can do without a river, lake, ocean, or bread. Writing our sins on paper with washable marker, we were able to make them “disappear” with the help of warm, soapy water.

With our mistakes and regrets washed away, we are able to start the New Year off with a clean slate. And when we’re finished casting away, we can start to think about what we want to write in the coming year–and do that with a permanent marker!

Here’s demonstration below (iMovie cut off the top of my head, but you’ll get the point).

Vassar Temple and Vassar College Jewish Student Union will be performing tashlich at Sunset Lake at Vassar College at 4 p.m. on Monday, September 14th. All are welcome to celebrate the New Year with us!

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, safe and sweet New Year! L’shana tova tikatevu.

P.S. In 1997, Richard Israel z”l created a list of different kinds of bread for different kinds of sins. This is more for adults.

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Staying Awake for Selichot #BlogElul Day 17: Awake

“Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber. Examine your deeds, and turn to God in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round…” -Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 3:4, as quoted in Gates of Repentance, p. 139.

There is a sanctity to being awake in the middle of the night.

Ask anyone who has gotten up for a midnight feeding, or worked the night shift, or taken a run at dawn. We may be groggy, overwhelmed, or even resentful when we wake up so early (or stay up so late). Even so, we cannot deny that there is a stillness and a quiet to that time. Alone with our thoughts, the day’s distractions mostly gone, there is a possibility of clarity that we may not be able to achieve at another time of day.

alarm clockOur ancestors knew this and imagined that God, too, was more receptive and more focused between dusk and dawn. This led them to develop the tradition of reciting Selichot–penitential prayers–in the middle of the night, in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

Traditions vary around the world. Sephardic Jews rise before dawn every morning from the 1st of Elul to Yom Kippur to recite Selichot. This 40-day period of reciting Selichot remind us of the 40 days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, receiving the second set of tablet of the covenant, after he had broken the first set in anger.

Ashkenazi Jews recite Selichot on the night after the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. The end of Shabbat was seen as a favorable time to ask for forgiveness, since we have just spent the day in study and prayer and are about to begin a new week. The end of Shabbat can signal the opportunity for a fresh start, just like the High Holy Days themselves.

Selichot is an intimate experience, and not only because, sadly, it is often not well-attended. The middle of the night is an intimate time, not often shared with large crowds of people. Likewise, Selichot is a time to seek intimacy with God. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we celebrate God’s transcendence. We imagine God enthroned on high, meting out justice from a place high above the heavens. On Selichot, we recognize God’s immanence, and we are able to draw closer to God than we could in the brightness and busyness of the daytime.

There is another element to staying up for Selichot. Staying awake until midnight or rising before dawn upsets the natural order of things. Which is exactly what we are meant to be doing in the days leading up to the High Holy Days. By shaking us out of our normal routine, Selichot wakes us up and lets us know that the High Holy Days are approaching, and that now is the time to begin our cheshbon ha-nefesh, our accounting of the soul.

With the sounding of the shofar as our “spiritual alarm clock,” participating in Selichot reminds us to wake up, shake ourselves out of our old habits, and prepare ourselves to be judged, to change our ways, and to make ourselves worthy of being inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.

Vassar Temple’s Selichot Experience begins this Saturday, September 5, at 7:30 with the presentation of the Rabbi Steven A. Arnold Award to Melissa Erlebacher, followed by Havdalah, “This I Believe” with Donna Loshin and Howard Brown, followed by our Selichot service. Everyone present will be invited to approach the ark and make your own personal prayer to God.

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Camp is Still Awesome: The Language of “When”

Over the past 10 days, I visited three different URJ Camps in Massachusetts: URJ Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, and URJ Six-Points Sci-Tech Academy in Byfield. I didn’t have enough time to be faculty at any camps this summer, but my visits allowed me to have just a taste of the many different flavors of Jewish summer camp.

My URJ Camping roots run deep. I can honestly tell you that I have no idea who I would have become without my seven summers at URJ Camp Harlam. At the age of twelve, I was that girl who had to be forced to speak in class or pick up the phone. Towards the end of the summer, I spontaneously stood up and led a color-war cheer during a sporting event. I remember that moment profoundly because it was so out-of-character for me. I actually remember thinking, “Wow, I’m really different!” (I have no memories of actually playing sports: I guess camp didn’t change me that much!).

I found my voice at camp, made lifelong friendships, and engaged with Judaism in ways that I did not know were possible. Learning was interactive and provocative, whether we were exploring the history of Zionism–reenacting the siege of the S.S. Exodus in canoes on Lake Joshua–or debating whether the events in the Torah had actually happened. Tefillot in the Chapel on the Hill and the Chapel in the Woods were opportunities to sing, to connect, and to be creative. And this week, when someone from camp posted one of the lyrics to Arlo Guthrie’s Motorcycle Song on Facebook, dozens of us started virtually singing along.

Camp. Was. Awesome.

And, after a whirlwind visit to these three camps, I am here to report: Camp is Still Awesome.

IMG_2110At Crane Lake, I was treated to an inspiring Shabbat morning tefillah, complete with a Mumford and Sons inspired Elohai N’shama that had every age of camper moving their body. At Eisner, I bumped into at least one person from each of the communities I’ve worked with, plus a cohort from the synagogue where my mother grew up. At Sci-Tech, I attended the end-of-session “Tech Talks,” which featured original movies and video games, robots, weather charts, and a mock crime-scene.

These three camps are at very different moments in their history: Eisner is so old that I am the third generation in my family to have worked there (my grandfather was faculty in the 1960s, my mom was staff in the early 1970s, I was an Olim Counselor in 2002). Crane Lake is celebrating its “Chai” (18 year) anniversary, and Sci-Tech is only in its second year.

But one thing I noticed that the camps had in common was the language of “when.”

This was most poignant at the event I attended at URJ Eisner Camp. Alumni and donors had come to the camp to dedicate

Isabel Gershon, from Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

Isabel Gershon, from Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

two buildings that would serve the camp’s oldest units: Olim (campers entering 10th grade) and Machon (a leadership program for those entering 12th grade). As we ascended the hill to the new Olim building, our path was lined with every current camper, from 2nd grade to 12th grade. Each camper held a sign that stated what year s/he would be in Olim and what year s/he would be in Machon.

At camp, there is no “if you come back next summer,” or “if you end up working here one day.” As I listened to campers, staff, and faculty speak, the word “when” was always on the tip of their tongues: “When you come back next summer,” “When you are in our oldest unit,” “When you are a machon (CIT),” “When you are a counselor.” Camp is deeply engrained in each camper’s personal story. It reminds each camper that this place will be here for them, year after year, no matter what. It lends a shape to the people these campers will become and the Jewish lives they will lead.

Just as camp was a huge part of the path that led me to become a rabbi, camp is a huge part of the rabbi I want to be. The camps I’ve visited and worked with offer so many different kinds of programs for different kinds of campers, and the people I met at these events are dedicated to making these experiences accessible to all campers.

So as I begin to meet the young people in my congregation, I’m learning to say, “When you go to camp next summer!”

And now, please enjoy this clip of song session at URJ Sci-Tech Academy:

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Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Letter to the Community


This post appeared today in the Poughkeepsie Journal, check out the published version here:

Originally posted on Vassar Temple Blog:

By Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz

In the Jewish tradition, we welcome people into our community in two different ways. We usually say “Shalom,” which means “peace.” We can also say “Bruchim Ha-baim!” which means, “Blessed is the one one who has come to us!”

This second greeting reflects my feelings as I join the Vassar Temple community as rabbi. I am truly blessed to be a part of the 167-year history of Poughkeepsie’s Reform Jewish community. I am grateful to the leadership of Vassar Temple for engaging me as their next rabbi, and for Rabbis Emerita Steve Arnold and Paul Golomb for providing me with so much support during this transition. I know that I will continue to rely on their wisdom and guidance as we move forward into our next chapter.

There is a legend that our ancestor Abraham lived in a tent that was open on all four…

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A Video Message to My Congregation on My First Day in the Office!


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Four New Questions and Remembering Selma on Pesach

My ninth grade class was on fire yesterday with the questions:

1) If matzah is supposed to symbolize leaving Egypt in a hurry, why do we celebrate by cooking brisket and turkey, which are the slowest possible foods you can cook?

2) If a Catholic priest technically “owns” all of the snack food on a college campus (I was telling them about Father Michael buying all of Brandeis’ chametz for a dollar), can he just go from room to room and eat whatever he wants?

3) If matzah is the bread of slavery, and we are celebrating our freedom, shouldn’t we celebrate by eating bread?

4) I know legumes is a French word, but is it also a Hebrew word?

The Mishnah tells us that our children should ask us questions on Pesach, to ignite the conversation about the journey from slavery to freedom and begin the retelling of our people’s sacred story. The Mishnah (I think it’s Pesachim 10:5) gives us four suggestions, mostly about the different types of food we eat. However, eventually these evolved into a rote recitation rather than a genuine inquiry. It’s questions like those above that remind us that every generation needs to ask different questions than the one before it.

So every year at Pesach, I try to come up with a new set of questions, something we can ask each other around our table. One year it was about the chametz in our lives we wanted to get rid of, another year it was about what symbols reminded us of freedom and which reminded us of slavery. Last year it was about difficult events in our lives that had shaped us.

This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, I built my questions around the echoing narratives of our separate walks from slavery to freedom. Feel free to use it at your seder. Chag Sameach!

Selma and Mitzrayim

Three times, in March of 1965, hundreds, and then thousands, and then tens of thousands of activists attempted to walk the 54 miles from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery. They marched in protest of the restrictions and harassment that African-Americans faced when they attempted to exercise their right to vote. Their courage and conviction was instrumental in bringing about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We celebrate the 50 year anniversary of these events as we retell our own story of the journey from slavery to freedom.

When they arrived in Montgomery, on March 25, 1965, the marchers listened to these words Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King:

“We are on the move now…Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.

Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream….The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going….

I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you … however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.

How long? Not long. Because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

–“Our God is Marching On,” March 25, 1965

Like the Israelites marching from slavery to freedom, they made their journey on tired but joyful feet.

Like the Israelites fleeing the Egyptian soldiers, they were pursued by those who wanted to do them harm and stop the course of history from moving forward.

Like the Israelites destined for forty years of wandering, they took steps forward in a journey whose end they would not see, a journey we are still making, in their honor, today.

And like the Israelites walking between the walls of water, they found that, in spite of physical brutality and verbal abuse, they could not turn back.

They could only walk, one tenuous step at a time, towards the Promised Land.

If you could participate in any “march” from slavery to freedom that took place in history, what would it be?

What “march” from slavery to freedom are you most proud to have taken part in during your lifetime?

What “march” from slavery to freedom do you still hope will happen in your lifetime? What can you do personally to take steps on this march?

P.S. I asked these questions at my Thursday a.m. minyan and people actually answered! One student said he wished he could fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War, but they answered!


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