Tag Archives: rosh HaShanah

Message for Rosh HaShanah Evening

18 Sep

I am conducting High Holiday services online for B’nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga, TN, from my studio pulpit in Boynton Beach, FL. Here is my message for the first night of Rosh HaShanah. Wishing a peaceful, sweet and healthy year to all.



Love Is a Verb

2 Oct
The Torah's three commandments of love

The Torah’s three commandments of love

“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” These words echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” the story of one of the least appreciated American founding fathers. The setting in which these words are sung is early in the Revolutionary War. The Americans are not faring well. Yet, the women who sing these words are brimming with optimism. War and bloodshed have engulfed the young nation, and still, there is a sense that better days are ahead.

Our Jewish tradition calls on us to cherish and affirm life, even when, or especially when, our world is rife with hatred, violence and fear. We gather on Rosh HaShanah for a communal wake up call to take careful note of the world around us and to commit ourselves to creating a better world. We take note of a sense of instability in our nation and around the world that has aroused fear, hatred, and even violence. The news is often overwhelming, and we may feel powerless in our ability to bring about change. Judaism demands otherwise.

Judaism demands that we not resign ourselves to fear, hatred and violence. Judaism demands love.  The Jewish concept of love is not random; it’s intentional. It’s not passive; it’s active. In the Torah, to love is a mitzvah, a commandment. On the surface, it seems ludicrous to legislate an emotion. In the Torah, love is a verb, ve’ahavta, you shall love. Love is an action. Love requires intention.

To illustrate this vital mission, I’d like to share three stories.  These stories are connected to commandments in the Torah on love, and, incredibly, each is connected to the climax of the High Holiday prayer Un’tane Tokef. The words u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeirah, “repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree” provide a blueprint for us to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to love.

Story #1. A rabbinic colleague tells of receiving an urgent request to visit a patient who was very ill. The patient asked the rabbi to arrange for his sister to visit him. They had argued years earlier and then went their separate ways. When the rabbi phoned the sister, she accepted the invitation to see her brother at his bedside. The patient later told the rabbi, “Thank God I had the time to see my sister. You know, when I looked at her, I didn’t see the same person I had been angry with for so many years. I saw the young girl who had walked with me to school. I saw the young girl who brought me treats whenever she went to the store. I feel better now, but I am left asking myself the same question over and over, ‘Why did it take so long?’”(Klein, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, 60-61).

Three times the Torah instructs us to love. In Leviticus (19:18), we learn the familiar verse וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ, love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule! In the Hebrew, רֵֽע can mean more than just a neighbor, it is someone in your inner circle, someone close. We sometimes take these relationships for granted and allow anger, jealousy and spite to get in the way. However, like we saw with the sick man and his sister, there is path out of this place of “stuckness.” In Un’tane Tokef, teshuvah is one of the three pathways towards reconnection and renewal within our closest relationships.

In recent days, I’ve read many obituaries about President Shimon Peres z”l. On Yom Kippur I will reflect more on his legacy, but for today, one thing he said stands out for me. He once said, “[Reconciliation ] can’t be done if there is no forgiveness. Have you forgiven and can both [parties] move on? If you are focused on the past, you will not succeed. There will be no future.”

Teshuvah means return and reconnect, and that includes letting go the burdens of the past that hold us back so that we may move forward toward a renewed future. The High Holidays are our special time to reconnect. There are relationships in our lives that we need to renew. Someone needs to hear my apology, my gratitude, my appreciation. This is our time to make amends and rebuild love. Our future is at stake. The time for reconciliation is now.

Story #2. Just a few weeks ago, a Jewish artist in suburban Philadelphia, Esther Cohen-Eskin, woke up to find a swastika spray-painted on the garbage bin outside her home. Naturally, she was horrified by this vicious act of hatred as any of us would be. If this had happened to me I know I would try to erase all remnants of the swastika by either scrubbing it off, painting over it or buying a new garbage pail. That’s not what Esther did. She kept the swastika but painted over each of its legs a flower petal so that the end result was a beautiful flower. The story only began there. Esther’s neighbors were horrified, and with her encouragement, they painted swastikas on their garbage bins and then painted the same flower symbol over it as well as other symbols of love and caring. Soon Esther was receiving emails from total strangers in Canada, Germany and Ireland where people shared pictures of their own newly similarly decorated garbage bins. What started as the ugliest hate-filled antisemitism was transformed to solidarity and love.

The Torah expresses this kind of love as:  וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר (Deut. 10:19), you shall love the stranger. It’s not enough to love people close to you such as family and friends. We’re told to broaden the circle of love. Why? כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, because YOU were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it’s like to be other. We know what it feels like to be hated. Therefore, it is our sacred duty to cultivate empathy and kindness, like that Esther received from total strangers.

The Un’tane Tokef prayer urges us to show love not only to those in our inner circle, but also to the broader world. Through tzedakah, we bring healing to those around us to alleviate their suffering. We must draw upon our experience to empathize with those less fortunate than ourselves. If others are in pain, we must do what we can to heal, because we know what it’s like. We’ve been there. Esther’s neighbors put themselves in Esther’s shoes, and whether or not they were Jewish they said we are with you.

When we deepen love in the world by repairing relationships with those closest to us and by expanding kindness and compassion to those outside of our immediate circle, we are then most likely to succeed at the third kind of love, love of God.

This takes me to Story #3. It’s a personal story about a time recently when I felt the presence of God. At the beginning of the summer, my brother Henry got married. His wife, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann has created an independent Jewish community called Mishkan Chicago that caters to a population of predominantly Jewish millennials—young adult Jews mainly in their 20s and 30s. On the Friday night before the wedding, Mishkan held a service with at least 500 people present. It was an overwhelming, inspiring outpouring of singing, dancing and love that is still reverberating in my heart. The enthusiastic and spontaneous joy in that extraordinary community embodied for me love of God.

We encounter the mitzvah to love God every day when we say the Shema:   וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ, and you shall love Adonai your God” בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ, “with all your heart with all your soul with all your might” (Deut. 6:7). To love God correlates with the third pillar of Un’taneh Tokef: Tefillah, prayer. Teshuvah and Tzedakah open our pathways to authentic prayer. When we care about people near us and those further out, prayer affirms our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. The service that I experienced at Mishkan did just that. Prayer is our invitation to affirm our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. While our synagogues provide us refuge from the hatred and pain in the broader world, they also provide a structure within which we can model love. Love of humanity leads us to meaningful prayer. And meaningful, authentic prayer provides a structure within which to further cultivate love and take it back out to the world.

With unprecedented fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in our society, our task in this new year is to bring love into our community with intentionality and purpose. Love is a verb. Love is not random; it is an intentional action. This Rosh HaShanah, we reflect on a year in which fear and hate have caused so much pain to so many. I pray that next Rosh HaShanah will be different. I pray that we will reflect on 5777 and notice that we turned a corner. I pray that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words will come to fruition and we will say once again wholeheartedly “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

May God give us the strength to unlock love and bring healing to ourselves, our relationships and our world.

The “Sorry” Button: In Memory of “Car Talk’s” Tom Magliozzi

4 Nov
Half of NPR's "Car Talk" duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

Half of NPR’s “Car Talk” duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014


This was originally delivered as a sermon Rosh HaShanah Night, September 16, 2012. 

“Car Talk,” has been one of the most popular radio shows for a generation. This fall, its hosts are retiring. Yes, Ray and Tom Magliazzi, also known as Click and Clack, are “pulling into the garage,” so to speak. For 35 years, Ray and Tom have entertained listeners with their thick Boston accents, self-deprecating humor and occasional advice about cars. I know next to nothing about cars–most things mechanical, for that matter. What attracts me to listen to Car Talk is not Ray and Tom’s advice about cars, but their advice about life and relationships, couched in their advice about cars.

A few months ago, they produced a list, somewhat tongue-in cheek, of the top ten new features that they would like to see in all new cars. Their top potential innovation is the ‘Sorry!’ Button. We know all cars have horns. As things stand now the only way drivers have to communicate with each other is with their horns—or their fingers. This state of affairs makes it difficult to create a friendly atmosphere on the roads. So, in the words of Ray and Tom: “Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a ‘Sorry!’ button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.

“As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you’re a moron [HONK!]. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a moron, too! [HONK!]’ Say you’re sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A ‘Sorry!’ button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.”

Imagine occasions for using the “Sorry” button. Say, I cut you off because I didn’t see you. Or, you’re stopped at a green light and your honking at the car in front of you to move already. Then you realize there’s a poor lady with a car full of kids she’s taking care of. Or, perhaps I got too close behind you, and it wasn’t my intention. Right now, the only mode of communication is a loud HONK! It’s shocking, aggressive, sometimes even abusive. The Car Talk brothers say let’s try something different. Let’s push a button that says “I’m sorry.” This would expand our repertory of communication. I cut you off, and I didn’t see you–I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had kids in the car–I’m sorry. I know I got too close and wasn’t paying attention–I’m sorry.

Why is it that in so much of our travels, our only mode of communication is the testosterone-fueled aggressive horn? HONK! You’re in my way, GOSHDOGGIT! (or fill in blank). Get out of my way! What if Ray and Tom’s idea came to be and instead of strictly aggressive behavior, we could just say, “Hey, I’m sorry.”

Now, imagine if we had an “I’m Sorry” button for life. “You know, I just said something I shouldn’t have said–I’m sorry. I was wrong; I offended you; I’m sorry.

In the pressures of life, we often fall into easy but harmful habits of communication. We are conditioned to make ourselves understood before we seek to understand. We may know intellectually that the opposite is the best practice: first seek to understand, then to be understood. Cultivating that habit requires effort, and many of us fall short, even in our closest relationships.

Imagine if every married couple took a course titled, “How to lose a fight.” Picture some typical marital bikkering. Those of us who are married have probably experienced this at some point. But there’s a twist. All of a sudden, let’s say the husband says mid-fight: “Time out. I’m going to shut up. Tell me again what you just said.” The wife says her piece, and then the husband reflects back: “You’re telling me that when I come home from work and I’m grouchy and hungry and had a hard day that you’ve had a hard day too and that I’m not sympathetic enough to you? Boy, you’re probably right.” Imagine this type of conversation taking place not only with married couples but between siblings, children and parents, co-workers, business associates and synagogue members. That’s an example of bringing the I’m Sorry Button into life.

Well, I have good news, everybody. We do have an “I’m Sorry” button for life. We Jews call it Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of returning that we begin tonight. This is our reset button. While ideally we should be in a constant state of teshuvah every day, during this season teshuvah is especially prevalent on our minds. Our tradition allows us the time and space to think, “What can I do differently to make myself or the world better?” In teshuvah, we dare to think about ways in which we can change our habits, getting rid of harmful habits and embracing nourishing ones.

There is an emerging science of habits. This year a fascinating book came out titled: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. The author unpacks the neuroanatomy of habits. He breaks down the formation of habits of individuals. Then he studies habits of companies and organizations. Finally, he demonstrates how entire societies can be conditioned by habits for better and for worse.

Duhigg posits that habits–even once they are rooted in our minds–aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Over the course of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I plan to explore in greater depth the role of habits in our lives. They have enormous effect on our personal lives, on our community life including here at Temple Torah, and on society as a whole. I invite you to join me on a journey over the next ten days to explore how we can embrace new, wholesome habits for ourselves and our community.

I don’t know if engineers in Detroit will ever equip cars with “I’m Sorry” buttons; however, if we cultivate the right habits perhaps we’ll never need them. May we be so blessed in this New Year.
Shanah Tovah

Inspired by and largely derived from D’var Torah by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles, before the Chicago Board of Rabbis, August 22, 2012.

Drawing hope from the depths of despair: Rosh HaShanah Message, September 25, 2014

28 Sep

There’s an old story about the political science professor who was asked to sum up the situation in Israel in one word. He thought about it for a while, and finally said, “Good.”

Then he was asked, “All right, if you had one more word, if you were asked to sum up the situation in two words, what would you say?

So he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “Not good.”

I believe it’s safe to say that if any of us were asked to summarize this past summer for Israel and the Jewish people, most of us would say “not good.” The truth is, we all know it has been a very difficult summer. Even with the benefit of the Iron Dome, Israel was forced to carry out a difficult operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rocket fire from above and terror tunnels from below. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired their rockets against Israeli civilians while hiding their rocket launchers and weapons amidst their own civilians. Imagine what could have been had Hamas spent years investing in science and technology, hospitals, schools and playgrounds. Instead they spent billions of dollars on rockets and terror tunnels and used schools and hospitals they did have as launch sites for the rockets. The moral clarity is crystal clear. Israel uses rockets to protect its children. Hamas uses children to protect their rockets.

As we take a broader view of the world, the scourge of fundamentalist Islam is spreading like a cancer throughout the Middle East. The brutal terror of Hamas was exported to ISIS and honed into barbarism the likes of which we’ve not seen in modern times. The beheadings of American journalists and a British aide worker have sickened us and galvanized our nation to respond militarily.

So how was this summer? It was not good.

Nevertheless, if we dig beneath the surface, we will find reason not to despair. After Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during July and August, the month of June seems like ancient history. Let’s take a look back at June, though, and recall the prelude to Gaza. Three Israeli teenage boys Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilead Shaar, were hitchhiking their way home from yeshiva when they were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Their whereabouts were not known for weeks until their mutilated bodies were found near Hebron. We all felt pain and outrage over this crime. The only thing that could make it worse would be Jews sinking to that level and perpetrating revenge terror attacks against Palestinians. Indeed, such a horror occurred when Jewish terrorists abducted and burned to death a teenager named Muhammed Abu Khdeir, just one day after the three Israeli teenagers were laid to rest. Amidst this charged atmosphere, Hamas ramped up its rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israel launched the operation to protect its citizens.

With our attention on Gaza and the threat to Israeli citizens that Hamas posed, the murders of the four teenagers faded into the background. With the perspective now of a few months, let’s look back to the aftermath of those murders. While the Israeli families were sitting shiva, the Abu Khdeir family was also mourning their son in their tent of mourning. In the midst of observing shiva, Rachel Frankel, the mother of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Frankel, made a courageous emotional statement condemning Abu Khdeir’s murder. “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder,” she said. Her family went a step further and called the Abu Khdeir family to express condolences from one house of mourning to another. Amidst the most wretched violence humans could afflict upon one another, we must take inspiration from this spark of humanity, decency and courage. The Frankel family reminded us who we are as a people and what Israel is all about. Out of the depths of despair, a bold Israeli family in the depths of mourning dared to be decent. Rachel Frankel’s courage and compassion provided a glimmer of hope that Israel will be ok.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, wrote a moving piece this month on how Israelis are able to cope in the midst of anxiety and despair. He writes:
“We cope because we have no choice. This is the only corner of the planet where Jews are sovereign. Many of us continue to struggle to preserve a decent Israel. Despite growing mutual suspicion, coexistence efforts between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews persist. The Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli media are among the most vigorous anywhere. In a seemingly endless conflict, we can’t take those achievements for granted. Other democracies have broken under far less pressure.”

Klein-Halevi continues: “And through it all Jews keep coming home. This year, 1% of France’s 600,000 Jews are moving to Israel. Even as the missiles fell on Israeli cities, planeloads of French immigrants continued to land. They are fleeing growing anti-Jewish violence. But these well-educated immigrants aren’t going to Canada, they’re coming to the Jewish state. The final shore.”

Klein-Halevi adds a personal note driving with his 16-year-old son and fighting traffic in Jerusalem. “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem,” Klein-Halevi writes. “But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”

His son replied, “I think about that a lot.”
Klein-Halevi concludes: “That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.

Israel is a symbol to the Jewish people and to the world that from amidst despair we must draw hope. In a world of injustice, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue. Bimkom she’ein ish, hishtadel l’hiyot ish, in a place in which there are no decent people, strive to be a decent person. Amidst all of its internal political strife and external threats, Israel inspires us to the ideal that we can dare to make the world a better place. Od lo avdah tikvateinu–our hope is not lost–we stubbornly declare when we sing Hatikvah. The ethos of Israel, drawing upon the well springs of Jewish tradition, is to look forward, to have hope.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, Rosh HaShanah as a holiday bids us to look forward. This is odd. We are starting the Ten Days of Penitence. It would seem that first we should reflect on the past, then resolve to do better in the future. Both steps are essential to teshuvah; however our calendar and our liturgy buck conventional wisdom and the order of actions towards attaining teshuvah. Rabbi Sacks notes that Rosh HaShanah contains no confessions, no penitential prayer. We don’t beat our chests today and say Ashamnu (We have sinned) or Al Het, (“For the sin that we have committed before you…”).We save these for Yom Kippur, ten days into the new year. Why? Teshuvah is driven by two different mindsets: Rosh HaShanah is about the future, Yom Kippur is about the past. Rosh means head, and the default position of the head is to look forward not back. The placement of Rosh HaShanah before Yom Kippur means that our determination to act better in the future takes priority to our feelings of remorse about the past. To which we might add that this is why we blow the shofar on RH. The shofar turns our attention to what lies ahead, not behind.

As Rabbi Sacks writes: “Rosh HaShanah reminds us that to mend the past, first we must secure the future.”  This idea is amplified in the three sections of the Musaf Amidah: Malkhiyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot.

Malkhiyot proclaims the majesty of God. We are reminded that no human ruler or government has absolute authority. As we know, among human beings absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our humility before God as a people and as a civilization will fortify us in the face of today’s current evil regimes such as Hamas and ISIS. As we look ahead to a new year with great anticipation, a sense of humility before God tempers us and leads us to act more wisely and with more compassion.
Zikhronot is about memory, but not about our memory. We call upon God to remember the merits of our ancestors and to credit us in turn. In the process we strive to be worthy of our ancestors’ rewards by refining our own actions. We appeal to the past, but for the sake of a better future.

Finally, Shofarot invokes the image of the shofar, the very symbol of a call to the future. The sounds of the shofar penetrate our hearts, evoking God’s cry to us. We know that we are mortal, and this season we reaffirm our mortality. When we hear the wailing sounds of the shofar, we know each one of us will not live forever. Yet, we defeat death by living by values that live forever. The shofar calls upon us to be compassionate, like Rachel Frankel, and create blessings in this world that will live on after us for generations to come.

There is no doubt that we live in challenging times. Yet, we gather today at the dawn of a new year not to cry about what was but to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future. For inspiration, we must turn to our brothers and sisters in Israel who do this day in and day out. Rachel Frankel sitting shiva for her murdered son refused to be consumed by hate. Israelis went about their business working, celebrating weddings, inventing, affirming life, even as rocket attacks disrupted their daily routine. Immigrants made Aliyah because the Jewish people have no other land to call our own. Jerusalem residents were snarled in traffic in their daily commutes. We have great reason for hope. In fact, we have no choice. Let us resolve in this new year to look forward. Let us be vigilant against those who seek us harm and at the same time stay true to our deepest principles and values that have sustained us throughout the generations. Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yevarech et amo ba-shalom; may God grant His people strength, may God bless His people with peace. Amen.

Our Communal Mulligan: Rosh HaShanah, First Night, September 24, 2014

28 Sep

Shanah Tovah,
As we begin Rosh HaShanah tonight, I’d like to share with you a thought experiment. Imagine an American activity that for generations has had millions of practitioners. People would devote significant time and money to this activity every week. Strong traditions developed around how one should dress to these activities and what items one had to bring to participate. The activity involved a high degree of skill, and practitioners were expected to adhere closely to the rules. The traditions of this activity were passed down from generation to generation until one day younger people stopped participating in this activity. It took too much time, cost too much money and was too difficult.

The scenario I just described is true; however, I am not talking about Judaism or even religion. I’m talking about golf. According to a recent New York Times article, golf in America has lost some five million participants over the last decade. Like many Jewish organizations as well as many other religious groups, golf clubs are struggling to attract a new generation of golfers. People under 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.

Recently, the PGA and other golf industry leaders are so fearful of losing the next generation of golfers that there are now experiments with alternative forms of golf with new equipment, new rules and radical changes to courses. The goal is to alter the game’s reputation in order to recruit lapsed golfers and a younger demographic. There are now–get this–15-inch holes, the size of pizza pans. There are games based on time, rather than completion of 18-holes, with limits at six or nine holes. There are newly designed balls that don’t slice. Some courses have introduced kicking a soccer ball down a fairway, and, yes, most importantly, players are allowed mulligans on every hole. Of course, golf traditionalists are up in arms over the dumbing down of the game. Industry leaders say they have no choice if they are going to pass the tradition of golf to a new generation. They’ve got to make it less time consuming, more accessible and non-judgmental.

Does any of this sound familiar? Indeed, the American Jewish community faces similar challenges. I could speak at length about the many parallels between the challenges faced by golf and those faced by Jewish institutions in terms of how to be relevant to younger generations. Just as golf attempts to reinvent itself, many Jewish institutions around the country are engaged in creative innovation that preserves Jewish tradition while making it more accessible. I’ll let you consider for yourselves the numerous parallels between Judaism and golf. For now, I wish to offer instead a major difference between Judaism and golf.

Judaism has a secret sauce that golf is only just discovering now: the value of renewal and reinvention. Judaism has renewal built into our DNA.

For golf, traditionalists might consider it a heresy to allow mulligans, or do-overs. In Judaism, we allow mulligans all the time. Pirke Avot teaches hashev yom echad lifnei motcha, repent one day before you die. The understanding is that since we never actually know when our final day will be, we must do teshuvah every day. Every day in the Amidah we say to God Slach lanu…m’hal lanu, forgive us, pardon us for our sins. We say this three times a day, every day of the year. And if that’s not enough, we also have Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of Penitence that we begin tonight. These ten days are all mulligans all the time. It is a reset button for the entire year. We take stock of our deeds, we make amends, we seek forgiveness from one another and willingly grant it when asked of us.

Among Judaism’s greatest gifts to civilization is the notion that people can change. Nothing is pre-ordained. We find our way through life one mulligan at a time. This notion is not obvious. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with, although it may take great courage to realize our potential. Heroes are born, not made. Before the birth of Oedipus, his fate had already been foretold by the Delphic Oracle, and nothing can avert it.

This is precisely the opposite of the key sentence we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: uteshuvah ut’fillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the evil decree.” While difficult stuff happens in the world, we have control over our destiny. No fate that is final, No diagnosis without a second opinion – half of Jewish jokes are based on this idea.

As Isaac Bashevis Singer wittily put it, “We have to be free; we have no choice.”

On these High Holy Days, we renew our tradition of renewal itself. While golf widens holes on the putting green, let us widen our hearts. While golf shortens its games, let us make the time we have with one another in our families and in this synagogue community as meaningful as possible. While golf adds mulligans to allow players multiple chances to hit the ball well, let us reengage in our ancient tradition of Teshuvah, so that we may begin this year truly renewed.

It’s time for us now to tee off on a ten-day journey of introspection and renewal. May God grant us the strength to make these days meaningful and transformative so that we may bring positive change into our lives, our relationships and the world.

Take the #TTShofarChallenge

18 Sep

The Ice Bucket Challenge is so “last year!” Get into the 5775 groove and take the #TTShofar Challenge!

The Most Precious Thing in the World

7 Sep

“The Most Precious Thing in the World”
Rosh HaShanah, First Evening
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 4, 2013

The return of the High Holidays represents a bench mark. We have made it through the past year with all of its joys and all of its trials and tribulations. This season rekindles our hope that the worst is behind us. The themes of the season remind us simultaneously that we are fragile mortals, and at the same time, we have the ability to change ourselves and our worlds. Now we are ready to move on with the work of bringing healing to ourselves, our families, the Jewish community, our country and the world.

Part of the healing power of the High Holidays comes from our gathering in large numbers in synagogue on these days. We have an innate need to connect and to be present for one another. Teshuvah is what we call the process of healing relationships that may be broken so that we can strengthen the connections with those around us. Building and strengthening meaningful relationships are part of living a life that matters. Rabbi Harold Kushner, the distinguished rabbi and writer, wrote a book entitled Living a Life That Matters and will be at Temple Torah on January 15, 2014, to speak on that topic. As we eagerly anticipate his visit, I hope over the course of the holiday to offer my take on living a life that matters. Tonight, as we begin our ten-day journey of renewing these bonds, I’d like to share a Jewish folktale that captures the essence of teshuvah and renewing relationships.

“The Most Precious Thing in the World,” told by Joan Sutton in Chosen Tales, Penina Schramm, Ed., pp. 372-375.

Once upon a time, God spoke to an angel and said, “For this Rosh Hashana, the New Year, bring me the most precious thing in the world.” The angel bowed low to God and then winged her way to earth. Searching everywhere, she visited forests, mountaintops, and soft green meadows. But although she saw bright butterflies and flowers, nothing seemed quite right. Then, peeking through a window, she saw a mother holding her baby. As she gazed down at her child, the mother’s smile was full of love and tenderness. The angel thought, “This mother’s smile must be the most precious thing in the world. I will take it to God.” Gently, the angel took the mother’s smile, but the mother didn’t even notice; she had so many smiles left that she would never miss just one! With great excitement, the angel showed the smile to God, who answered, “This is indeed wonderful—the smile of love that a mother gives her child—but it is not the very most precious thing in the world.”

So the angel went back to earth and searched again everywhere. One starry night, in the midst of a deep, dark forest, she heard exquisite music: it was the song of a solitary nightingale singing among the trees. The song was so beautiful that the angel folded her wings and listened for many hours. Then she took the song to God. But, upon hearing the music, God answered, “This is indeed very special, but it is still not the most precious thing in the world!”

The angel was getting tired but she knew she could never give up, so again she flew back to earth. This time she arrived in the big city, where she saw crowds of people. They were all in a hurry to get somewhere. They pushed each other as they passed quickly in the streets. They waited impatiently in long lines at banks and supermarkets. They looked nervous and weary. Everywhere there were traffic jams and tired divers honking angrily.

Standing at one busy intersection was an old man. He was waiting to cross the street, but there were so many cars that he didn’t know when to try. People kept rushing past him, never pausing to notice his predicament. The old man felt dizzy and confused. Just then, a young girl came walking up to him. She had noticed him hesitating and looking ill and felt sorry for him. “Excuse me,” she said to him shyly, “but may I help you cross the street and walk you home?” Gratefully he gazed into her kind eyes and answered, “Yes, thank you, young lady, I was feeling so tired and weak!” he took her offered arm and walked with her across the street. Slowly and steadily, they made their way to his apartment building, which was nearby.
Now the angel was watching all the time, although the old man and the young girl couldn’t see her. The angel was so happy! “This really must be the most precious thing in the world—a kind deed, a mitzvah, a helping hand! It has many names, but it is the same everywhere. If we can help each other, we can have a peaceful world! So I will take the story of this kind deed to God. It must be what I have been looking for all the time!”

God heard the story of the kind deed and answered, “This is indeed important. A mitzvah is one of the most special things in the world—still, it is not quite what I have been waiting for. Go once more, dear angel. You are on the right track, and I feel sure that this time you will find what we seek. Look everywhere—in cities, forests, schools, and homes—but especially look into the hearts of people.”

Sighing with disappointment, the angel again winged her way to earth. And she looked in so many places! Still, she could not find the precious thing. “Maybe I should give up! But how could I fail my God? There must be an answer or God would not have asked me to do this.” Tired from her ceaseless searching, she sat dejected upon a rock, resting and thinking. As she sat there, she heard something—the sound of someone crying! It was not a little child crying, but a grown man! He was walking through the woods with tears rolling down his cheeks. “Soon the High Holy Days will come, and I am thinking that I was cruel and mean to my dear brother! We had a fight about something unimportant. There were harsh words and now we haven’t even spoken to each other in several weeks. Today, this very day, I will go to him and ask him to forgive me. Then I will pray to God to forgive me too, for I am truly sorry that my unthinking anger has caused so much unhappiness.” Another tear rolled down the man’s cheek.

Then angel felt that she had found the answer. Being an angel, she was invisible, so she flew up to the grieving man and gently caught one of the tears that were falling from his eyes. The man thought to himself, “What a soft and fragrant breeze is surrounding me! Suddenly I feel better. Perhaps this is a sign that all will be well!” The angel flew away; she flew away to God. In a small tiny bottle she held the one tear that she had collected. She held it up to God. And God…smiled upon the angel. The radiance of that smile filled the whole world like the sun coming out suddenly from behind dark clouds.

Then God spoke: “My faithful angel, this is indeed the most precious thing in the whole world—the tear of someone who is truly sorry. For it is a tear from the heart, and it will bring peace into the world. The two brothers will forgive each other, and they will enjoy a loving and happy New Year. My dear angel, I bless you for your good work. And may this story be told, so all who hear it can learn from it.”

L’Shanah Tovah—May we all live a life that matters and enjoy a sweet and happy New Year.

#TieBlog #Rosh HaShanah

4 Sep
The scales of justice

The scales of justice

With the approach of the Day of Judgment and a new year, I wish you Shanah Tovah.