Save Us! The Meaning of Hoshanah

If I was a Martian visiting our synagogue, I would be very perplexed by the ritual after Musaf. Taking plants from three different species which are bound together, along with a citron, and walking around the synagogue imploring of God HOSHANA, Save Us! Why do we do such a ritual.

As with most piyutim (liturgical poems) we give examples of how God has saved us in the past. We describe how God saved us from slavery and from Egypt, imploring God to save us again now.

Why do we do this? According to tradition, the Days of Repentance do not end until Hoshana Rabbah, this coming Sunday, a day on which we make seven circles which ends with us beating willows and being forgiven for our sins. Therefore, up until that point we are still beseeching God for forgiveness, to “save us” and put us in the Book of Life for the new year. In Temple times, willows adorned the altar, a sign that the weakest of the species, the one with no smell or taste, still played a central role in our atonement, just as each of us has a role in strengthening our community.

This is not the only time on Sukkot that we are asking for God’s mercy. We also ask God to save us during the Hallel when we repeat after the prayer leader, אנא ה הושיעה נא, Please God save us! Mishnah Sukkah 4:2 teaches that each day of Sukkot in the Temple the Israelites circled the altar once saying “Please God save us, please God make us prosper!” אנא ה הצליחה נא   אנא ה הושיעה נא Rabbi Yehudah said that they would say “Please God save me and Him,” אני והו הושיעה נא, the same words that we say in the Hoshana prayer. Who is the Him? God himself!

This is the only time that I know of that הו is used as a name of God in our liturgy. It is also the only time I have seen it as a truncated form for the word הוא, or he. It forms the middle two letters of God’s name, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, whereas normally our shorter name for God is the first two letters, יה. Why was this name chosen? The Tosafot on Sukkah 45a reference Ezekiel 1:1 “I (ANI) was among the exiles” and 40:1 “He (VeHU) was bound in chains among all the exiles from Jerusalem and Judah. They interpret this as God himself was in exile, if one can say such a thing. Because of this, the Hoshana prayer asks for God to save Himself.

At first glance this appears to be a radical (and blasphemous) interpretation. How dare we say that the omnipotent God was in exile! However, I would argue that there is precedent for such a view. The rabbis teach that God’s presence, the שכינה, followed our ancestors into the Babylonian exile. God was marching and weeping alongside us. Furthermore, Talmud Avodah Zarah 29a teaches that when we return from exile, in the Messianic Age, God will return alongside us.

Some will likely remain upset with the concept of a God in exile, yet I find comfort from it. It means that no matter where we are in life, God is with us. If God were not in exile, suffering with us, we would not be able to connect to Him. We would feel that God is callous, not caring about our fate during times of persecution, not lifting a finger to help us. Instead God is with us in every moment, and we pray for both of our salvation.

And so we pray. We pray that God not be forgotten about in this age of growing popularity of the “nones,” those with no religion. In an age of secularity we need to pray that God’s presence remain part and parcel of our society rather than being relegated to a position of exile. We pray that God help enable our congregation and other religious institutions to prosper, to be a house of godliness for generations to come. Most of all, we pray that God give us the willpower, strength and guidance to make those decisions we need to make to be beneficial for our future.

God is with us, both in our times of jubilation and in our times of sadness, when we feel victorious and when we feel vanquished, when we are in the Land of Milk and Honey and when we are in the Diaspora. God is with us-it is just up to us to find Him. May we always remember that we are never alone and may we use that knowledge to bring wonderful things into fruition in the year 5776. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

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Sukkot and Homelessness

Why do we dwell in a Sukkah? From the Torah the answer appears to be self-explanatory. This morning’s reading teaches us that we dwell in Sukkot as a reminder that our ancestors dwelt in Sukkot when they were brought out of the Land of Egypt. This by itself is compelling-it completes the linkage of the three pilgrimage holidays to our exodus from Egypt. Passover commemorates the Exodus itself, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai 50 days after the exodus, and Sukkot commemorates the temporary structures that our ancestors dwelt in for the 40 years that they journeyed from Egypt to the Holy Land.

However there is more to Sukkot then just the booths themselves. The sukkah is connected to the Tabernacle that traveled with our ancestors, as well as to the Temple. In describing the Tabernacle, the cherubim angels are mentioned as סוככים בכנפיהם על הכפורת, protecting the ark’s covering with their wings. The same terminology is utilized in describing the cherubs’ role in protecting the Temple ark. Similarly, Moses is told וסכות על הארון את הפרוכת, that the curtain is meant to shield the ark. It is apparent that the word Sukkot has to do with protection. This is evident every evening when we pray in the Hashkivenu ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך, spread over us the protection of your peace, and in the penitential prayer of this time of year כי יצפנני בסכוה ביום רעה, for God will protect me in his Sukkah on the evil day. There is also a prayer said upon entering the Sukkah in which we request that God spread God’s sukkah of peace over us.

The purpose of these booths, although temporary, is as a source of protection. There’s yet another purpose of a Sukkah, and that has to do with the סכך, the covering over the Sukkah. In Exodus 33, Moses asks to see God’s face. God will not allow it, as no one can see God’s face and live. Rather, God puts Moses in a cleft of a rock and covers him with his hand as he passes by. The verb for cover is שכותי, and while it is with a “sin” instead of a “samech,” the roots are related. The Sukkah, and in particular the סכך, also cover us from the warm sun. As Isaiah says, by day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat, as well as safety and protection from storms and rain.

There’s a greater purpose to the Sukkah than just protection and covering, however-it can be used to represent the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Amos foresaw the Messianic Age, proclaiming ביום ההוא אקים את סוכת דוד הנופלת; on that day I will resurrect the fallen booth of David. This is often taken as restoring the Temple of David, though some view it as restoring the Davidic Monarchy. In either case, the Sukkah referenced here foreshadows the Messianic era. This is connected to the prayer that it said upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time each year: May it be your will Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that just as I have built this sukkah and dwelt in it, so may I merit next year to dwell in the sukkah made of the Leviathan’s skin. The Leviathan is a sea creature that fought with God, and tradition has it that it will be eaten at the time of the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps this is why Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתנו, the time of our joy, as it is a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

How do we relate to these texts? It can be difficult for us to view the Sukkah as a source of protection, as we live secure in nice homes. It can also be challenging to relate to the Sukkah as a covering, as the rays of the sun somehow still get through, and the rain definitely penetrates our Sukkot. However, I think each of us can relate to the desire for a Messianic era, a day when all are living side-by-side with one another in peace. Even if we don’t believe this is realistic, or isn’t coming anytime soon, it is a good idea to strive towards. In 7 days we will be back enjoying meals in the safety and security of our suburban homes. In contrast, 60,000 people in New York City will still be dwelling in homeless shelters, and many more on the streets. In that number is over 23,000 children. On Long Island it is 1,879 adults and 1,864 children.[1]

What can we do about our epidemic? Of course we can and should continue to give to the Coat Drive that we do so well each year to ensure that people have adequate clothing, or to Sandwich Sunday to ensure that they have food. Of course we should increase our personal Tzedakah contributions, and our tradition teaches it is especially important to do so during the High Holiday season. However, we can also volunteer by donating food or spending an evening at various homeless shelters in the area, such as Bethany House, Operation Homeless and the Farmingdale Shelter. When I was at JTS, I regularly volunteered at the Anshe Chesed Homeless Shelter, which had at least 10 guests each night, and others did at the B’nai Jeshurun Shelter. Unfortunately there is not yet a Jewish homeless shelter on the Island, yet we should do our part by helping the shelters that are in our vicinity.
As we joyously celebrate Sukkot by inviting others into our Sukkah, let us also consider those who do not have a home to go to, and let us do our small but significant part to combat this epidemic. May we realize how fortunate we are and that we have the means to make a difference, to change the world one life at a time. In so doing our Sukkah will truly be a Sukkah of peace and well-being. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

[1] From www.coalitionforthehomeless.org

Like an Eagle Protecting Its Young

How do you view your relationship with God? Is God watching your every action, sentencing you to judgment? Is God in the clouds, waiting for our prayers to ascend to Him? Is God leading us into battle, the “Man of War”?

My favorite image of God occurs in this week’s Torah portion. In the second Aliyah, God is described “as an eagle, fluttering over his young, He extends his wings, grasps them, He bears them on His wing.” God protects us from predatory forces that might lead us astray or take us on a path towards destruction, just as the eagle protects its young. Rashi from 11th century France comments that the eagle does not enter his nest suddenly, rather causing a commotion and disturbance over his children with his wings, between one tree and another, between one branch and the next, so that his children are roused and are capable of receiving him.” Upon first glance we must ask what is this about? How can a commotion or a rustling caused by the parent be good for the fledglings? The answer is that we are often sound asleep, missing God’s presence in our lives and in the world at large. We need this noise, just as we need the sound of the shofar, to wake us up and recognize God’s presence in our lives.

Rashi continues with his comment on why God is like an eagle fluttering over his young. He comments that God does not press Himself on them, rather hovering, touching yet not touching. This is like God who did not hit the Israelites hard from one direction but rather from all four. If something is right in front of you, you feel it, but if it hovers around you on all sides, like air or energy, you don’t always notice it. That is true with God, who is everywhere yet on account of being omnipresent is difficult to notice or feel.

Rashi’s commentary continues, describing God as an eagle setting its young on its wings. He points out a difference between an eagle and the other birds. Most birds put their young in their talons, which can be painful or at the least uncomfortable, for the young. If the children were on the wings of the parent, they would be vulnerable to birds of prey, like the eagle. The eagle, however, according to Rashi, can fly higher than all the other birds, and thus has the luxury of carrying its young on its wings. This is also how God is described in Parshat Yitro, when He reminds the Israelites how He carried them on eagles’ wings out of the land of Egypt.
Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher, has an exquisite interpretation on this biblical verse. He asserts that the eaglets are afraid to fly, huddling together in the eyrie. The eagle arouses them, flapping his wings and hovering over them. Then he spreads his wings and sets one of the young upon his pinion, carrying it away, and by throwing it into the air and catching it, he teaches it to fly freely. What a beautiful image! If you have children, think about how you trained your child to ride a bike without training wheels: the trepidation that your child had to get on the bike, the reassurance you gave by holding onto the handlebars and s/he started to peddle, the fear s/he had as you let go, perhaps falling and scraping his/her knee but then the sheer thrill and enjoyment when s/he was able to ride on his/her own without training wheels.

This is in accord with how I see life. We are all afraid of making changes. Our parents (and our ultimate Parent, God) assure us that it’s ok to make changes, taking baby steps at a time. We take one step forward, then perhaps a small step backwards, but then we proceed forward on the path of our destiny. Sometimes we have to take a leap, as when the eagle lets go of its young in the air. When we leap, however, we need to remember that God is there, protecting us from crashing. God will always be like the eagle, hovering over us but at the same time enabling us to have the courage to take the steps we need to take. My prayer is that we have the wisdom to move forward, rather than letting the fear of the unknown and the comfort of inertia dominate our thoughts. Let us continue to feel God’s presence in our lives and move forward believing that God is with us as an eagle protects its young.

The Meaning of Life

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. We are often so busy in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to think about what’s most important: our interpersonal relationships.

I’d like everyone to think for a moment of your answer to the following question: What is the meaning behind your attending synagogue services? Is it to repent for sins, to be with friends and family, to remember loved ones, or something else? What meaning do you find in being here and how will you transfer that meaning into tomorrow?

Many people have pondered the question “What is the meaning of life” but not too many have found satisfaction doing so. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy taught us that the meaning of life is 42, interestingly the number of stops the Israelites took on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it never explained how this is the case or what it means. Monty Python tried to teach us The Meaning of Life “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” However, this is too simplistic for my tastes. What then is the meaning of life?

As a rabbi I look to God’s teachings in the Torah and the commandments to attempt to arrive at an answer. We learn from Rabbi Simlai[1] that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. 248 are positive commandments (where one is told to “do” something) which the rabbis say correspond to the number of bones in one’s body, and 365 are negative commandments (when one is told to refrain from doing something), corresponding to the number of sinews in one’s body or the number of solar days in most years. The contention is that by following these commandments, we will do what God wants of us and therefore will follow our mission in life.

This is all well and good but Rabbi Simlai’s words do not end there. He asserts that King David reduced the 613 commandments to 11 principles in his writing Psalm 15: Walking uprightly, working in righteousness, speaking the truth in one’s heart, having no slander upon one’s tongue, doing no evil to one’s fellow, not taking reproach against one’s neighbor, despising those who are evil, honoring those who fear God, acting on self-imposed restriction, not giving money on interest and not taking a bribe against the innocent. The 613 commandments get reduced down to 11 ethical principles, characteristics of a mentsch.

Rabbi Simlai then has the commandments reduced to six by means of the Prophet Isaiah: Walking righteously, speaking uprightly, despising any gains that come from oppressing others, not holding bribes, not hearing false accusations and not looking upon evil. Again we are focusing on moral attributes as opposed to ritualistic aspects. It appears that the focus needs to be on utilizing the rituals in order to be a more ethical Godly person. Next we are reduced to the 3 principles of the prophet Micah: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. Finally we have the one principle of Habakkuk: seek me and you shall live.

What is this reduction of commandments into ethical principles all about and how do they tie into life’s meaning? To me it boils down to Habakkuk’s single principle-we each need to seek out God and in doing so we find our mission in life. However, there is no one set course of action that every person needs to follow. For those who are naturally structured, type-A personalities like me, this might be unsatisfying but what I seek out, the path I take to get there, and what I find as my end result will likely be quite different from yours. Each of us must individually look for our own unique mission, how we can serve God and those around us.

My Grandmother Lucille Frenkel, who is turning 85 this year and who has been writing poetry for 50 years, has a different answer as to what life means and what we are supposed to do with the limited time that we have. This is her poem Progressions:

Knowledge I asked when I was young,

The purpose of Life-how did all become.

Answers, I yearned for and sought a reply.

I searched for the answers to my every “Why?”

Truth was my objective-my foremost goal

Was to find exact truth for my questioning soul…

But Life’s response (as much time went by)

Just posed newly-found questions within its reply.

Years passed-and I learned-and asked no more

About plan of all Being, about what Life is for.

Life withheld its answers until I knew

That what really mattered was what I could do

To change my whole focus and my attitude

So to see living splendor with increased gratitude-

And to live every day with more faith and my prayer

That I add to existence all the love I can share

While still I do live-while still I am there

To offer life my efforts.[2]

What my grandmother is trying to teach in this poem is that life is about transforming our outlook and out attitude, knowing what to let go of and what to retain. This is a goal which is more easily said than done. In Pirkei Avot[3] the five students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai are given different attributes. The two of note are the bookends: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, a “cistern who never loses a drop” and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, an “ever-flowing spring.” Which is better? According to Rabbi Yochanan, the cistern is the preferred quality, so much so that if they were on a scale Rabbi Eliezer would outweigh the other four students combined. After all, he has a photographic memory: he can remember every fine point of Halacha, every teaching that he has been taught. Not so fast, says Abba Shaul: the preferred quality is actually that of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who was able to not only take things in but add to them, forming new ideas and interpretations in Torah. He was able to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” not getting bogged down in the unessential minutia that he was taught but knowing what was truly important to add to and to discard.

Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman in his book The Rabbi’s Message highlights the importance of being like Rabbi Elazar as opposed to Rabbi Eliezer. He comments: “some people retain within themselves all the character traits resulting from the ups and downs of their life and become schizophrenic, fluctuating erratically in their moods from malevolence to benevolence. They are like the sponge, absorbing everything. Others are like a funnel, spending an entire lifetime on earth and ending up as immature as infants. A person who is compared to a strainer is arrogant and haughty as a result of his successes, and bitter, miserly and unfriendly because of his past troubles. The ideal person is one who utilizes his past experiences for the good. He is humble and merciful, remembering his hard times, and is cheerful and charitable, expressing thanks for his good days.”[4] Rabbi Weberman points out that we are NOT inflexible but rather are able to change our behavior for the better, taking lessons from both our good and our challenging experiences. Life experience is meant to move us towards this ideal. There is no quick fix, no simple solution moving us from point A to point B. The only solution is to constantly work on ourselves, day by day becoming the people we are meant to be.

What is the meaning of life? I don’t have a simple answer to this oft-asked question. However, I believe that there is so much more to life when we strive to do our best each and every day, living with purpose and meaning. The same is true for those who came before us and who we are gathered here today to remember. They worked tirelessly each and every day so that we would have a better life. They taught us the values by which we live: the importance of family, of being part of a community, of always doing the right thing. We remember them tucking us into bed or reading us a bedtime story, sharing with us stories of what things were like in the “old country,” taking us to our first day of school, teaching us to drive our first car, walking down the aisle with us on our wedding day, seeing us at our graduation. Some of us still set a chair for them, for their presence is still very much with us. The meaning they have given to life in all they have built and all they have created, especially in giving us life, is something for which we should thank and praise them every day.

As we approach another Yizkor, an opportunity given by our tradition to remember those who are no longer physically with us, though who remain spiritually eternal, let us remember the lessons that they have taught us through the lives they have lived. Let us continue to feel their presence in our lives. May we turn to them when we need strength, hear their voice when we need advice, feel their hand caressing us, telling us that everything will be ok, reminding us that we are not alone. Let us remember the immortal words of the anonymous poet, “if you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.” As we prepare to recite Yizkor, may we keep in mind these words of affirmation from James E. Miller Willowgreen:

AN AFFIRMATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVE LOST

by James E. Miller Willowgreen

 

I believe there is no denying it: it hurts to lose.

It hurts to lose a cherished relationship with another,

          or a significant part of one’s own self.

It can hurt to lose that which has united one with the past, or that which has

          beckoned one into the future.

It is painful to feel diminished or abandoned,

          to be left behind or left alone.

Yet I believe there is more to losing than just the hurt and the pain.

For there are other experiences that loss can call forth. 

I believe that courage often appears,

          however quietly it is expressed,

          however easily it goes unnoticed by others:

          the courage to be strong enough to surrender,

          the fortitude to be firm enough to be flexible,

          the bravery to go where one has not gone before.

I believe a time of loss can be a time of learning unlike any other,

          and that it can teach some of life’s most valuable lessons:

 

In the act of losing, there is something to be found.

In the act of letting go, there is something to be grasped.

In the act of saying “goodbye”: there is a “hello’ to be heard.

For I believe living with loss is about beginnings as well as endings.

And grieving is a matter of life more than of death.

And growing is a matter of mind and heart and soul more than of body.

And loving is a matter of eternity more than of time.

Finally, I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss:

 

In the midst of darkness, there can come a great Light.

At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope.

And deep within loneliness, there can dwell a great Love.

I believe these things because others have shown the way—

          others who have lost and then have grown through their losing,

          others who have suffered and then found new meaning.

So I know I am not alone:

          I am accompanied, day after night, night after day. [5]

 

[1] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Makkot 23b

[2] My grandmother has made a vow not to publish her work except for family. This poem is freestanding (not part of a book).

[3] Chapter 2 Mishnah 11

[4] Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman, The Rabbi’s Message: Modern Thoughts on Ancient Philosophy (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1975), p. 114.

[5] From his book A Pilgrimage Through Grief: Healing the Soul’s Hurt Through Loss.

Yom Kippur: A Joyous Fast?

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, there were no happier days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), for on them the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments which were borrowed in order not to shame the one who had none. All the garments required immersion. And the daughters of Jerusalem used to go forth to dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? – ‘Young man, lift up thine eyes and see what thou wilt select for thyself; set not thine eyes on beauty but fix thine eyes on family; for Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Eternal she shall be praised; and it says further, Give to her the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates; and it says moreover, Go forth, ye daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother hath crowned him in the day of his espousals and in the day of the gladness of his heart.’[1]

This Mishnah describes a beautiful celebration and it is used when describing the 15th of Av, known as the Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day.  However, this Mishnah also refers to Yom Kippur as being a day on which these joyous practices occurred.  How could Yom Kippur, which many Jews view as the most solemn day of the year, be a day of dancing, sexuality and joy?  Commentators on the Mishnah say that the celebrations occurred “directly after Yom Kippur” but that is not what the Mishnah says. Rabbi Robert Eisen, my Senior Rabbi when I was in Tucson, used to refer to today, Yom Kippurim, as the day which is like (“k”) Purim.

How we view Yom Kippur will directly influence how we treat the next 25 hours.  Should they be moments of happiness, as our Mishnah suggests, or moments of somberness, as many of us have learned to be proper for a day like this.  From our tradition, one can argue both for treating Yom Kippur as a joyous day and for viewing it as a serious day. You will have to decide how you see fit to observe it.

Why would Yom Kippur be viewed as joyous? First of all, we get to atone for our sins. While we have the famous statement of U’netaneh Tokef that “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” that our fate depends on what God determines on this very day, the assumption is that we will be forgiven and able to rejoice. As Cantor Black chanted earlier this evening, כי  היום הזה יכפר עליכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני ה תטהרו “This day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins-you shall be pure before God.”[2] While we are sad for what we have done wrong we are looking forward to new opportunities of growth and development and to a new year filled with blessing.

Yom Kippur is also joyous for a number of other reasons. It is the day on which, according to our tradition, the second set of tablets were given at Sinai. The 10 commandments and our covenant with God were reaffirmed on Yom Kippur. We should therefore be joyous in this revelation of Torah.

In addition, on Yom Kippur we reach a state of purification. We are like angels, abstaining from daily human needs, and being garbed in white clothes. In other words, we transcend our human bodies in our attempt to arise towards divinity. Unlike other religions, we do not have permanent stains on our records, but rather, if we take steps to ask for forgiveness and reform our actions, we are able to begin anew with a clean heart and conscience.

We also see Yom Kippur’s unique nature amongst fast days in that it can occur on Shabbat. This is in contrast to all the other fast days, which are days of mourning and sadness and may not be observed on Shabbat, instead being pushed back to Sunday. Rabbi Robert Eisen referred to Yom Kippur as a “white fast,” as it is a day of purity on which we are forgiven from our sins, in contrast to Tisha B’Av, a “black fast” in which remember the tragedies which befell our people.

Perhaps most importantly, on Yom Kippur more than any other day on the Jewish calendar, we come together as a community, joining our people in synagogue. We thus show the unity of the Jewish people and that in addition to all being responsible for one another, we all come together to praise God. In doing so we take responsibility for one another’s actions, proclaiming “ashamnu, bagadnu,” that we are responsible for the wrongdoings of all in our community. At the same time, we also rejoice together in being blessed to reach another year and in seeing friends and family, some of whom we might not have seen since last High Holy Days.

This is all well and good, but it’s not the feeling I experienced from Yom Kippur in my youth. The somber nature of the prayers, the incessant asking for forgiveness and the beating of one’s chest don’t appear to correspond to a joyous outlook.

Furthermore, the Bible has a different perspective. Numbers[3] states that on Yom Kippur ועיניתם את נפשותיכם, “and you shall afflict your souls.” Furthermore, Leviticus[4] utilizes the same verb, stating “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice affliction/self-denial.” The rabbis say self-denial refers to fasting. They also established strict prohibitions to be followed on Yom Kippur: that we are to refrain from sexual relations, food and drink, anointing our bodies with oil, bathing or wearing leather shoes.[5] Why would these prohibitions on pleasure be issued if this day were not supposed to be somber?

In addition, there’s an element of urgency, of pleading, on Yom Kippur.  The majority of each Amidah is comprised of Selichot, of penitential prayers in which we both admit guilt and beg God to forgive us. This becomes all the more evident in the Neilah service at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, where we plead to God פתח לנו שער “KEEP THE GATES OPEN!” and where we change the word “Kotveinu” (written) to “Hotmeinu” (sealed) when pleading to God about what we want our fate to be.

Even if one treats Yom Kippur as a joyous day, a day of “at one ment” in which we most closely connect with our God, one cannot dispute that there are sad elements as part of the day. We remember the High Priest proclaiming the name of God at the Holy of Holies in the Temple, yet at the same time reminisce over its destruction. We recite the  אלה אזרכה, the Martyrology Service, shuddering as we remember the destruction of European Jewry through the massacre of one-third of our people in the Holocaust. We also have Yizkor, sadly remembering our loved ones who while still with us, are not physically present.

How do we reconcile this? Some treat the first part of Yom Kippur as sadness for the wrongs we have done but view the second part as joy for being forgiven from those wrongs. Others feel the full day is about introspection, which leads to thinking both about serious thoughts and about our goals for the coming year.  The most interesting insight I have seen on the topic is from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel. Rabbi Riskin says we need to look at the root ayin-nun-yud. This root means afflict in the Yom Kippur biblical verses and that is the common meaning. However, in Numbers[6] it means “to sing out,” עלי באר ענו לה, raise your voice to the well, sing to it! Perhaps we are singing out at being given a second chance. Ayin-nun-yud also has a third possible meaning, “laanot/to respond”. Exodus[7] makes reference to this when it says “It is not the sound of them that respond (ענה) in victory, neither is it the sound of them that respond in defeat but it is (simply) the sound of them that respond that I hear.” Also Deuteronomy states, וענית ואמרת,[8] our ancestors responding to the priest after giving him their first fruits. A response can be either good or bad depending on the context; similarly, Yom Kippur can either be a responded to with joy or with somberness.

There’s one other definition of the verb ayin-nun-yud that I relearned yesterday when looking at my rabbinic list-serve. In the Talmud[9] there is a story of Rabban Gamliel, the President (נשיא) of the Sanhedrin (rabbinical court), having a disagreement with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabban Gamliel humiliates Rabbi Yehoshua by making him stand during the entire court proceedings until the rabbis yelled out “STOP” and deposed him. With another in his place, Rabban Gamliel realized the severity of his error and went to apologize to Rabbi Yehoshua. He said before him  נעניתי לך מחול לי, “I apologize to you. Forgive me.” Eventually he is forgiven by Rabbi Yehoshua.

This is the core meaning of what Yom Kippur is all about. We need to go through a process of עיניתם את נפשותיכם, of afflicting our souls. We do this not only on Yom Kippur but also on the days leading up to it, through the pangs of our conscience, the sleepless nights, humbling ourselves by going to those around us and asking for forgiveness, by working hard at changing ourselves for the better, setting up success for us in the new year. At the end of the day, however, if we have done the serious work leading up to the holiday, we rejoice at being given the opportunity to start anew, with a clean slate. Often the hardest person to receive forgiveness from is not a friend or a family member, but one’s self. We are our own worse critics. That is another purpose of ענוי, of self-affliction. As we humble ourselves and take steps towards self-improvement, we also need to look into the mirror tonight before we go to bed and say “I forgive myself for any mistakes I’ve made during the past year, and I’m letting go of them now. I am freeing myself of any guilt I’ve felt over what I think I should have done, and I’m starting over now.” That is the joy that comes from Yom Kippur-the ability to approach things freshly in the year ahead, to let go of past pain and start the year with only joy.

Depending on how we interpret the verb anah, we can emphasize the affliction of Yom Kippur or sing out in joy.  There is a time and a place for each of these.  I do not envision changing anyone’s long thought out and well-reasoned view on what Yom Kippur is about, only to provide a possible alternative to those of us who find it difficult to spend the entire 25 hour period in somberness.  There are strong Scriptural, liturgical and contemporary sources for both outlooks and because of this I cannot say that Yom Kippur is all about seriousness or all about joy.  All we can do is try to demonstrate some serious introspection during the day while at the same time attempting to rejoice where it is appropriate.  This tension in my opinion enriches the holiday of Yom Kippur rather than confusing it, as it enables us to express different sets of emotions at different times on this important day.  That is what being human is all about and Yom Kippur if anything is about coming together as a community to acknowledge our humanity.  Each of us has sinned yet each of us has the opportunity to overcome past mistakes, to change ourselves for the better. May the Jericho Jewish Center community come together in strong, supportive prayer over the course of this 25 hour period, and may we all merit a good year to come. From Karina and me, l’shana tova tikaveivu v’tehateimu-may we each be sealed into the Book of Life for the coming year.

[1] Mishnah Taanit Chapter 4 Mishnah 8

[2] Leviticus Chapter 16 Verse 30

[3] Chapter 29 Verse 7

[4] Chapter 16 Verse 29

[5] Mishnah Yoma Chapter 8 Verse 1

[6] Chapter 21 Verse 7

[7] Chapter 32 Verse 17-18

[8] Chapter 26 Verse 15

[9] Berachot 28a

 Change in the Year 5776-Rosh Hashanah Evening 1

 

It is so wonderful to see so many gathered together, reunited with family and friends, in anticipation of a year of blessing for each of us. As we gather here for another Rosh Hashanah, beginning the year 5776, I’d like us to think about how we want to change ourselves for the better in the coming year. I would argue that Judaism is unique amongst the world religions in that we begin the year by focusing on self-improvement, always striving to reach a higher spiritual level than the one on which we currently stand. In fact, the word Shanah, or year, has as its root Shinui, or change. Our challenge is to internalize which things are eternal, that will not change, versus the significant changes that we need to make it our lives.

To explore this I’ll begin with a story that I relearned from my uncle’s rabbi in Scottsdale, Arizona. There were twin brothers, extremely different from each other. One of them was named Anav, and he was meek and humble-a worthy virtue but one which was out of balance in his life, dominating him entirely. Anav was constantly self-effacing, feeling that he was unworthy. In contrast, his twin, Hallal, was extremely self-confident, to a fault. He was boastful and arrogant, and he carried with him a sense of entitlement.

As the boys grew up, they grew apart. Anav the meek could not relate to Hallal the confident. Hallal the self-assured could not relate to Anav the humble. The boys’ parents became distraught over the distance created by their sons. They could see that each brother possessed a virtue, yet it was incomplete and would only be whole if shared with the other. After consulting with their rabbi, the parents had an idea as to how to proceed.

The parents met with each son separately. To Anav they said, “You have the sweetest, kindest soul, overflowing with humility. That is your gift to share with the world. Perhaps you could share some of it with your brother. He could use some of your gift.” To Hallal, they said, “You have the confidence which can change the world; your self-esteem is overflowing. That is your gift to share with the world. Perhaps you could share some of it with your brother. He could use some of your gift.”

That evening the boys, in their separate rooms, each had an idea, taking to heart their parents’ advice (as children always follow their parents’ advice). Anav, on a piece of paper, wrote down “I am but dust and ashes.” At the same time, Hallal wrote on a piece of paper “For me the world was created.” Each boy rolled up his prayer and tied a ribbon around it-their gift to the other.

In the middle of the night, each boy went to sneak into the other’s room and place their prayer on their brother’s nightstand. Their plan was to wake up in the morning and, like an angel had come down in the night, there would the prayer be. Tip-toeing in the dark, so as not to awaken anyone, the brothers were startled when they bumped into each other. The parents, awakened by the noise, opened their door, just a crack, to see and overhear their sons. Both boys extended their prayer, each pausing to read their gift for the other. Then, for the first time in a long time, the boys embraced each other in the hallway, their parents holding their breath with delight. By receiving the gift from one another, the boys were made more whole. Surely angels had descended.

Each of us has both Anav and Hallal inside of us. When we feel out of balance, tipping to one side or the other, we need to take the appropriate prayer out of our pocket and read it. When we are feeling broken, that we can do no right, we need to take our Hallal’s prayer and realize that we can make a difference and that we have a special role to play in the world. By reading Hallal’s prayer, we believe in ourselves again, and have faith that things will work out. When we feel on top of the world, that we can do no wrong, we need Anav’s prayer to recognize that we are not “hot stuff,” but rather dust and ashes, in order to bring us down to earth. Both prayers together balance us out and make us into a whole human being.

My maternal grandmother has modeled for me how to achieve this balance. Whenever I had an accomplishment in Milwaukee, be it winning an award or achieving recognition in school, people would tell my grandmother, “You must be so proud of him!” Her reply was always, “I’m proud of all my grandchildren.” She taught me to never let things go to my head and to do things not for recognition but because they were the right thing to do. Similarly, when I was completely downtrodden, feeling that I could never get anything right, my grandmother would know what to say to enable me to persevere and move forward. Words like “you’re not a quitter” or “you’ll get there” were enough to propel me forward on the task at hand be it getting through rabbinical school or finding my bride.

Each of us in our own way handles the challenges of Anav and Hallal. At times we feel like Anav, “who am I to change the world?” Perhaps we wish we were wealthier, better educated, smarter, or thinner. At these times, we need to look at the prayer of Hallal and recognize that we’re needed, that we can and will make a difference in the world. Tomorrow I will talk about prayer, and one of Judaism’s core teachings is that we are God’s partners in creation, that our mission is tikkun olam, constant repair of the world. The time to do this is now…not when we have inspiration, or motivation but NOW.

At other times we feel like Hallal, invincible, like we can do no wrong. At these times we need to recognize that we are part of a greater whole. No matter how much success we have in our career, no matter how privileged our upbringing might have been or how good looking we feel we are, we need to put our egos in check. Our tradition teaches that each of us came from the earth and each of us will return to the earth. We also are reminded each time we step into our synagogue דע לפני מי אתה עומד, know before whom you stand. We are nothing without God and without the others who give meaning to our lives: our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our children and our friends.

This Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity to take a spiritual checkup, to see where we are at and where we would like to go. Are we more Anav or Hallal right now? What steps are we taking to recalibrate ourselves, to maintain the healthy balance between self-worth and humility? As we enter the New Year, let us hold onto both prayers, one in each pocket. Let us celebrate the creation of the world, recognizing that on one hand it was created for us, while on the other it serves a far greater purpose than our needs alone. Shana Tova, a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year to all.

Renewing Your Covenant-Rosh Hashanah Day 2

Thank you for joining us for another morning of spiritual prayer. It is so great to see multiple generations of families together, both new members and those who have been here for decades, joining together as a spiritual community. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? Some may say doing teshuvah, or repentance for sins. Others believe it is welcoming in the new year, the anniversary of the creation of the world. Yet others feel it is being judged by God for one’s behavior; that on Rosh Hashanah our decree is written yet on Yom Kippur it is sealed. While all of these opinions are valid, I believe the central theme of Rosh Hashanah is remembering the covenant between God and the Jewish people, as well as the covenant between each of us as human beings. We do not lose sight of the fact that just as God had a special and unique relationship with our ancestors, so too does God have one with us.

The Selichot prayers (prayers for forgiveness) that we said this past week and continue to recite through Yom Kippur center on remembering the covenant between God and our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Prayers such as “ki anu amecha”, “ki hinei kahomer” and the zichronot (remembrance) section of the amidah beseech God to remember His ever-present covenant with the Jewish people. Furthermore, yesterday’s Torah reading is a reminder of God remembering his promise to Sarah for her to have a child, demonstrating the beginning of God’s promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It also shows that God cares about how God relates to us. As said in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work Between God and Man “To Jewish religion…history is determined by the covenant: God is in need of man,”[1] that in addition to us trying to connect with God, God is attempting to connect to us.

The concept of covenant, of ברית, goes back to Noah and the flood.[2] God will never again destroy the world, no matter how bad humanity is. The sign of this covenant is the rainbow in the clouds. This is a universal covenant, as nothing humanity can do will violate it. True it does say beforehand that humanity is supposed to be fruitful and multiply and not kill one another, but these statements are independent of the covenant being fulfilled.

Ten generations later we have another ברית, a covenant given to Abraham. God promises Abraham numerous descendants and the land of Canaan, from Nile River to the Euphrates River.[3] This is the basis for our people’s claim to the land of Israel. This also appears to be unconditional, with nothing required from Abraham or his descendants to attain it. However, God adds a condition for us to partake in the covenant: each male must be circumcised at the age of eight days. If not, it is so serious that he will be cut off from his kin for breaking the covenant.[4]

Which type of covenant do you prefer: one that’s conditional or one which is unconditional? I imagine that most of us would lean towards the latter, as that means that you are guaranteed of receiving the reward without any pressure of living up to one’s responsibility. However, even though the word ברית is used, Noah’s is not a covenant in the truest sense. Covenant requires partnership between two sides; that both parties live up to their obligations. Otherwise, it is just a gift, and while gifts are nice they are more appreciated if we work for them.

Covenantal ceremonies remain a core pillar of our congregations-the main example being welcoming newborns into our community. The  ברית מילהor bris that a baby boy has is how we affirm our covenant with God through welcoming him into the Jewish people and giving him a Hebrew name. There are also a growing number of שמחת בת ceremonies for baby girls, to give our daughters a Hebrew name and welcome then into the Jewish people.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of emphasis on covenant, on what our personal relationship should be with God and with our people. Rabbis from all four major Jewish denominations (Eugene Borowitz in Reform Judaism, David Wolpe in Conservative, David Hartman of blessed memory in Orthodoxy and Sid Schwarz of Reconstructionist Judaism) have argued for a renewal of covenant. Wolpe went so far as to claim that Conservative Judaism should change its name to Covenantal Judaism![5]

How have the aforementioned rabbis reemphasized the notion of covenant? I will begin with our movement. Rabbi David Wolpe has argued that we need to increase our discussion of our personal connection to God and that we need to build a community which relates to others rather than being self-focused, a community of we rather than a community of me. For Wolpe, our focus needs to be on how we can work with others to bring godliness into the world.

David Hartman z”l also believed in a renewed emphasis on covenant. In the introduction to his book A Living Covenant, he states “The Sinai covenant was not perceived as one moment in history.  The tradition calls upon the community to renew the covenant in each generation.  As the rabbis teach, one must live by the Torah as if it had been given in one’s own time.  Covenantal renewal imparts contemporaneousness and immediacy to the experience of studying and living by the Torah.”[6] In other words, our covenant reaffirms our commitment to God and to our religion in every generation.

In his book Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenantal Responsibility, Eugene Borowitz centers on the tension between traditionalists and modernists- in other words, the struggle between reaffirming Israel’s covenant with God versus affirming the autonomy of the Jewish person within Israel’s covenant.[7]  While in Reform Judaism each person has the opportunity to apply Jewish law to his/her life as s/he sees fit, Borowitz argues that we have an obligation to preserve our commitments to God and to our community. In an age where we tend to be focused on individual accomplishments, he strives for us to make a place for communal obligations as well.

In his recent book Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, Sid Schwarz distinguishes between tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.[8] He differentiates between tribal Jews, who see their identity as one of group solidarity, and covenantal Jews, who see it as a spiritual legacy, as our birthright. Covenantal Jews, Schwarz argues, are attracted to Judaism because of the ethics and values that Judaism has brought into the world, including justice, compassion, human dignity and the protection of those who are most vulnerable. Their priority extends beyond Judaism to our responsibility towards the entire world. In his book, Schwarz offers suggestions as to how Jewish institutions can embrace covenantal Jews, as well as maintaining their connection to tribal Jews.

What are other ways to embrace our covenant with God and with our people? First, to realize that our relationship to God and personal religious growth is based on a growing appreciation of the world that God created. We sometimes struggle with formal prayer or with aspects of Jewish law, and while these are paramount, they are not the only ways through which we can reach God. We can also reach God through our work in social justice and interpersonal relationships. I often find God’s presence when I am hiking in the woods or when I look out my window and see a beautiful sunset. During prayer services I often take time in the Amidah to connect with God “off the page,” to either express elation over something great in the world or to express anger or frustration over something that is occurring.

We can also fulfill our end of the covenant by learning through Torah study how we can partner with God to improve the world. As Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein z”l the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary said, “When I pray, I talk to God. When I study, God talks to me.”[9] By examining the laws of giving Tzedakah (to those less fortunate), of loving the stranger and of providing for the community, we can see that Judaism is heavily based in the service of others. Judaism is a religion where specific actions taken matter and that through participation in these actions, we will strengthen our religious commitment and our connection to God. In addition, we will fulfill the words of Isaiah 46:8 of being “a light onto the nations.”

We can reflect on our covenant with God through appreciating the vast diversity of religions in the world as demonstrating multiple ways through which connect to God. My maternal grandmother loves to say that “all religions are different paths to the same goal.” We are blessed to have so many types of people in the world and in this room, and we must respect their traditions and the ways in which they connect to God. At the same time, we need appreciation for our own religion and for our own, personal connection to God, an understanding that we each have our own spiritual path and unique mission in life.

Just as we appreciate other religions, so too must we honor diverse perspectives as being from those who are made in the image of God, even when they go against the essence of our personal beliefs. Too often we give credence to the sad maxim “everyone is entitled to MY opinion.” In some cases the stakes are high, such as with Iran, but are they really so high as to demean or belittle others for their opinions? Does disagreement with another’s endorsement of the Iran deal warrant comparing him to a Kapo, a Jew who worked for the Nazis? There is an art form to disagreeing strongly with someone but demonstrating that our unity is more important, that sharing in the same Abrahamic covenant is what is central. It is our challenge to construct a helpful dialogue that does not require us to omit our core identities and beliefs, to constructively and impassionedly argue the issues without engaging in ad hominem attacks or giving up when our view is not followed, when we “lose” the debate.

 

Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches that the ideal argument is one that is לשם שמיים, for the sake of heaven, citing the example of the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai.[10] The Talmud[11] asks what makes this an argument for the sake of heaven? It answers that although these two schools of thought vehemently disagreed with one another, their sons married their daughters. They recognized that even though their thought was diametrically opposed to one another, that respect for and love of one’s fellow human being was far more important. In contrast our sages give us the example of Korach and Moses as an argument that was not for the sake of heaven, where Korach sought to supersede Moses and take his position. We can learn much from this today: whether progressive or conservative, Democrat or Republican, egalitarian or not, one MUST affirm the right of the other to hold his/her opinion as well as a shared belief that we are all made in the image of God, and that our love of our fellow human beings trumps all.

What will you do TODAY, היום, to connect with our tradition and with God באשר הוא שם, wherever you are at in this particular moment? What will you do to renew your covenant with God and with our people? Are you going to increase your study of Torah, strengthen your prayer life, increase your observance of the commandments, enhance your ability to dialogue with those with whom you disagree?  What changes will you make day by day so that one year from today, on Rosh Hashanah 5777 you will be able to say “I have done my part in renewing the covenant, in reconnecting to my people, to my community and to God”?

 

[1]Fritz A. Rothschild, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Herschel (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1959), 51.

[2] Genesis 9:9-11

[3] Genesis 15:18

[4] Genesis 17:11-14

[5] Speech at Jewish Theological Seminary, November 10, 2005.

[6] David Hartman, a Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), 9.

[7] Eugene B. Borowitz, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenantal Responsibility (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 380.

[8] Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 10.

[9] Attributed to Rabbi Dr. Louis Finkelstein by his students through personal conversations they shared with him.

[10] Mishnah Avot (known as Pirkei Avot) 5:19

[11] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yevamot 14b