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Salmon and the Holy Days

07/09/2013 09:03:45 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

I write this as my plane jets its way through a thick layer of grey cumulus clouds, a wet, whirling blanket of grey so common in Southeast Alaska. I am on my way home after a week in Juneau, visiting a colleague who recently moved there. Juneau is surreal; a small town of 30,000 tucked at the foot of steep mountain range, between two glaciers and a large, bay-like channel. Juneau is to mountain views as Sonoma County is to vineyard vistas; every turn in the road is another breathtaking scene, constantly evoking in me an impulse to sing Psalm 123: “Esai enai, el haharim me-ayin ya-avo ezri/ I lift my eyes unto the mountains from where my help comes, it comes from Adonai, maker of heaven and earth.”

All summer, salmon arrive – Kings, Pinks, Chums and Silvers – tens of thousands of them pouring into the channel from the Pacific and then running up the many streams that tumble down from the mountains all around Juneau. Yes, I did fish and even kept and ate some, but I won’t bore you with that tale today.

It’s the spawning salmon that inspired me to write today, because as I observed their annual pilgrimage I could not help but think of our own, the Holy Days, which are early this year and now just around the corner. It’s a bit of a stretch, but think about it: like the salmon, we all “come home” for the Holy Days, making our way from near and far, motivated by a plethora of emotions at least some of which feel like instinct: we just know we need to be there. Thankfully, we don’t all then spawn and die… but in truth, for many of us it is as if we are “dead”, at least to the synagogue, inasmuch as we may not show up shofaragain until next year. I love the fact that we are all together, but even after all these years (this will be my eighteenth Holy Days with you), I still struggle to accept the occasional nature of my relationship with many of you.

For years my discontent focused on worship; I love to pray in community and longed to hear 800 people in unison say “Shema Yisrael” more than a few times a year. I’ve grown a bit over the years – y’all are excellent teachers – and now my concern is not so much worship but rather relevance. How, I wonder, could Shomrei Torah be more relevant in your lives so that you would want to come around more often than just for the Holy Days? What would make congregational life so compelling that being involved (more than just showing up on occasion) rose closer to the top of your priority list? What does this relevant, compelling, necessary experience look like? What do you need that we could offer (in a Jewish framework, of course), that would draw you in and keep you involved?

It is true that at the end of their long journey the salmon spawn and die. It is also true that in their death they create new life via their progeny and the immense amount of nutrients their decaying bodies give back to the stream and the eco-systems they flow through; dig up earth in a Sonoma County vineyard and you will find salmon DNA! Salmon is more than just a fish; it’s an essential link in the chain of Being we share. Essential, relevant. What would it take for Jewish life and your Jewish community to feel that way as well?

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780