Shabbat Shuvah-What It Means To Repent

Have you ever wanted to be perfect? To get things right the first time without making mistakes? To never have to say “I’m sorry” because you get everything right?

Today is known as Shabbat Shuvah, not Shabbat T’Shuvah. It is the Sabbath of Return, not the Sabbath of Repentance. Yet these words have the same Hebrew root: Shin-Vav-Vet (שוב). It’s as if to say that the way by which one returns to G-d is through repentance.

How does our tradition describe repentance? First, it contrasts us and G-d. Today rather than focusing on being made in G-d’s image, בצלם אלוקים, we ponder the fact that we are the in need of repentance whereas G-d is perfect. As found in this morning’s Torah reading, G-d is described as הצור תמים פועלו כי כל דרכיו משפט אל אמונה ואין עול צדיק וישר הוא,  “The ROCK! His deeds are perfect, all his ways are just. A faithful G-d, never false, true and upright is He.”[1] The earliest Midrashic work on Deuteronomy, Sifrei Devarim, goes further, stating “His ways are not to be brought into question…he sits in judgment with everyone and gives him what he deserves.”[2]

Many of us question this because we’ve seen bad things happen to good people and because we’ve seen thing occur in the world which do not appear to be the result of a just, perfect G-d. How do we maintain our faith in G-d when we see someone get cancer or people killed by natural disasters? The goal of Judaism is not to answer these questions but rather to focus on the things which we can control.  By teaching that we should not question G-d’s ways, the Torah is not that we should remove all doubt from our midst, for it is natural to have concerns, questions and doubts. Rather it is to transcend our doubts, to reflect on what we can do to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of the others around us.

Every year we get the gift of Shuvah, of returning to be the people G-d meant us to be through doing Teshuvah, actively working on changing our behavior for the better. Our tradition believes that we continually evolve in our behavior and our actions and that there is always room for improvement. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches in his book Halakhic Man, “Repentance, according to the Halakhic view, is an act of creation-self-creation. The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals-this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve for the future.”[3] The phrase from Ezekiel, לב חדש ורוח חדשה, “a new heart and a new spirit,”[4] is what we are supposed to instill in ourselves-that we are constantly capable of change. Maimonides took it even one step further, stating “and one who changes his name, that is to say ‘I am another, and I am not that same person who did those deeds.’”[5] One can acquire a שם חדש, a new name for oneself, resolving to make one’s previous behavior a thing of the past.

While we’d like to be הצור תמים, the perfect rock that is G-d, it is better that we are not, as we can see how far we’ve come. One of the reasons I love climbing mountains is because despite the pain and at times slow progress, when I reach a peak I look down and see how far I’ve come. To see the progress you’ve made individually is worth its weight in gold. Things which seemed insurmountable, or where one said “I can’t do it” over time can become done without a second thought because of the hard work that’s been put in. Next time I might try to climb to a higher peak or one which is more strenuous and takes greater energy exertion to reach.

The same is true with spiritual growth, working towards being more caring, thoughtful and refined people. The hardest thing is before we can change, we need to atone for past behavior. In so doing, we need to go through that pain again, to put ourselves in a state of vulnerability through going to another and asking for forgiveness, yet admission of wrongdoing is the first step in correcting one’s behavior. When one recognizes the error of his/her ways, s/he can work on ensuring that these mistakes do not occur again, acquiring a new name and new identity.

In 5778, let us each make a name for ourselves by changing our names for the better. May we look carefully at our actions and take systematic, gradual steps for self-improvement. As such, we will recognize that we will never reach the level of G-d yet we will elevate ourselves to greater and greater spiritual heights.

[1] Deuteronomy 32:4

[2] Sifrei Devarim 307:6-7

[3] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: JPS, 1983), p. 110.

[4] Ezekiel 18:31

[5] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:4

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Rosh Hashanah Day 2-Time to Reflect

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.

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5734-1973”

Another New Year

Marking passing of time,

A fresh chance to reflect

And to question how I am

Passing my days

In my journey through time-

Do I value each moment

God sends to be mine?

Do I criticize much

Which I do not approve,

Instead of attempting

Myself to improve?

Another New Year

Marking passing of time

Holds the need to reflect

On my whole life design.[1]

What are you thinking about this New Year season? Is there something on your mind that you want to change? I’m so thrilled that you have decided to come to synagogue today. Let’s explore the topic of our relationship within ourselves and within our congregational family.

There’s a dichotomy on the High Holidays between our being viewed as a community or as individuals. It’s well known that כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, all of Israel is responsible for one another.[2] That’s why we say the entire list of sins in the וידוי (The Confessional) in the plural on Yom Kippur, for even if we did not do a sin, someone in our midst did, and we are all viewed as אגודה אחת (Agudah Ahat), one bundle. This stands in contrast with ונתנה תוקף (U’netaneh Tokef) where it states וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון, all of Israel passes before you כבני מרון. What does כבני מרון mean? Looking at the line which follows כבקרת רועה עדרו מעביר צאנו תחת שבתו, we see “as a shepherd shepherds his sheep causing his flock to pass beneath his staff, so too do we pass before G-d.”[3] The phrase כבני מרון first appears in the second Mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah[4] as the way in which the people of Israel are judged on Rosh Hashanah.

The rabbis ask in the Gemara what is the meaning of this term בני מרום? Three interpretations are given. The first is ascribed to the Babylonians, who assert that it means “like a flock of sheep,” using the Aramaic term בני אמרנא.[5] Rashi explains that when sheep are counted in the giving of a tithe, they pass through a narrow opening too small for more than one at a time to go out. So too does Israel appear before G-d one at a time.[6]

In contrast, Resh Lakish states that it refers to the elevated heights of the Maron area. Where exactly is this? According to Rashi, the Maron area had a road with a steep drop on both sides, making it so narrow that two people could not walk side by side. Thus they needed to walk one after the other.[7] Often when climbing a mountain the ascent is so narrow that a group of hikers need to go single file. So too is it with us-we approach G-d singularly, as individuals.

The third interpretation, of Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel, is that כבני מרון refers to the soldiers of the House of David. As Rashi comments, David’s soldiers were counted one at a time as they walked out to war in single file.[8] In war today we do the same; a troop is an individual, and troops are counted one-by-one.

Which interpretation is correct? Does כבני מרון mean a flock of sheep, the high places or the soldiers of David? Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute wrote a responsum on this asserting that the pshat, or literal meaning is a cohort of soldiers, based on the word numeron, which means a troop. [9]  It’s hard to connect with an image of a soldier when living sheltered, suburban and peaceful lives. At the same time, I would argue that we are all soldiers in a way. Each of us wages battles in our daily lives, fighting for things in which we believe. Rabbi JJ Shacter of Yeshiva University quoted the late Alan Paton, writer of Cry of my Beloved Country, who wrote from one of his characters: “When I shall ascend to heaven, which I certainly intend to do, I will be asked, ‘where are your wounds?’ When I will say, ‘I haven’t any,’ I will be asked, ‘was there nothing worth fighting for?’ and that is a question that I do not want to have to answer.”[10]

How do we pass before G-d not as sheep, merely led by our shepherd, but as soldiers, armed with a mission and fighting for a purpose? What can we do to ensure that our actions are judged not from a position of submission or weakness but rather from one of strength? At times I am scared of taking a stand, of what the consequences will be for doing so, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this room to whom that applies. Yet our tradition teaches that at times we must take strong stances based on what we believe and that if we do not do so we can be called to account for it.

We can find deep meaning in our encounters with G-d whichever of these three ways we look at how we pass before Him. As sheep we can examine whether we are owning our Judaism or just going along with the herd. Alternatively, sheep are submissive and we should look at whether we submit ourselves to the Torah guidelines and boundaries. Regarding passing before G-d on the heights of Mount Meron, let us examine how we raise ourselves up, elevating our actions to greater heights. In seeing ourselves as soldiers, may we look at whether we have the other guys’ back: are we really committed to someone else or to a greater cause? How do we extend ourselves for others?

The lessons as to how we pass before G-d as individuals also become applied to the nature of community. We are judged as sheep, which travel in a group (in fact, the word “sheep” is both singular and plural.)  We recognize that we achieve a greater impact when we act together. Looking out into our congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I feel our collective strength as the Jericho Jewish Center. It is also apparent whenever I go to a Shiva minyan and see the outpouring of support and warmth for those who are most vulnerable. We are also part of an initiative called Partners in Caring where a number of our congregants have been trained as Friendly Visitors, tasked with bringing comfort to those who are ill or confined to their homes, a number of whom are our own congregants. In addition, we know the importance of taking a stance as a community, whether historically for the Campaign to Save Soviet Jewry or every year at the Salute to Israel Parade on 5th Avenue. As a whole, we truly are greater than the sum of our parts.

Similarly, we are judged upon ascending the Heights of Mount Maron. In our lives we must ask if we are striving to rise higher, to be better spouses, parents and friends. Are we fine with the status quo or do we continually want to elevate ourselves? Even if the challenges are immense that does not give us the right to stop engaging in them. We always want to be the people who believe in ourselves and strive to make the greatest impact we can with all that we are.

In terms of being a soldier, let us ask what do we really fight for? What matters to us? The issues of past generations might not have the same degree of importance to us, but if we don’t have something for which we are willing to stick out our neck, if we live in a world where “anything goes,” than we do not stand for anything. It’s no coincidence that Chabad shlichim are referred to as “The Rebbe’s Army”: they know their mission in life and they stand behind it 100%. What is our personal mission statement and how are we going to fight to make it a reality?

As we pass before G-d single-file this Rosh Hashanah, we need to think about how we want to be judged. According to Rava in the Talmud, at the moment that we pass before G-d for judgment, we are asked “Were you honest in your business dealings? Did you set aside fixed times for Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you seek out the words of the prophets? Did you delve into wisdom? Did you seek to understand the matters that were inside other matters?”[11] That is a lot of questions for us to ponder, and it would be overwhelming to take them all at once.

At this time of introspection, let us work towards answering those questions in the affirmative one at a time. May we say “Today I am going to be sure to set fixed time for study, to learn the wisdom from our tradition,” or “Today I’m not going to jump to conclusions but rather think about the deeper meaning behind what I’m supposed to do today,” or “Today I’m not going to gossip but rather think before I speak.” In being more reflective, mindful and intentional, we will truly make this a year of great spiritual growth, refinement and development.

I will conclude with another piece of my grandmother’s wisdom as we prepare for the reflection brought about by the powerful Hineni prayer:

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5732-1971”

At the approaching of each New Year

One must really pause and ask oneself

What one has accomplished in the past year,

What one has envisioned of the New Year.

For time is not guaranteed progressive,

And living can advance or be regressive.

Thus, at the approach of every New Year,

One must really pause to reassess

What one has accomplished in the past year

To assist the new year to progress.[12]

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

We continue with Cantor Goldstein leading us in Hineni, “Here I am,” on Page 124.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 133.

[2] ספרא בחוקותי פרק ז, ה (Sifra Behukotai Chapter 7, Midrash 5)

[3] Unetaneh Tokef Prayer (ונתנה תוקף)

[4] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2

[5] Rosh Hashanah 18a

[6] Rashi on Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1

[7] Rashi on Rosh Hashanah 18a

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Golinkin Insight Israel: The Schechter View, Vol. 5, No. 1 September 2004 (Jerusalem: Israel).

[10] JJ Shacter, “Was There Nothing Worth Fighting For?” in A Treasury of Favorite Sermons by Leading American Rabbis by Sidney Greenberg (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1999), 226-27.

[11] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a

[12] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 132.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1-The Shofar: A Call to Worship and to Repent 

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are united with children, grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center. The program sheet that we provide is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are offering during this year. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

Sound of the Shofar-by Lucille Frenkel

Call of the past and out of the past,

You rouse us to face to the future.

Sound of the ram’s horn, its meaning precise,

Reminds us to recall the sacrifice

Of a past which begot us so we may beget

Finer future.[1]

I’ll never forget when I participated in the Hazon Labor Day Bike Ride.  This bike ride went from Camp Isabella Friedman in Falls Village, CT into Manhattan.  Immediately before we took off we heard the blowing of the Shofar.  When we arrived at the Manhattan JCC at the end of our two-day ride, we also heard the blowing of the shofar.  It was very meaningful to me to have this bike ride bookmarked by the blowing of the shofar and to think about the shofar’s significance at this time of year.

Every day, since the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (one month ago exactly) we have been sounding a ram’s horn at morning minyan.  We especially sound it at Rosh Hashanah in the Musaf Amidah (additional penitentiary prayer).  We also have a section of this prayer called the Shofarot.

The history of the shofar is a fascinating one. Its first mention occurs in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading when Abraham saw a ram caught by its horn in a thicket and killed it.[2] In Numbers[3] and Psalms,[4] the shofar is instructed to be used to announce the New Moon, fast days and days of rejoicing (תקעו בחדש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו). In Leviticus,[5] we see the origin of using the shofar for the New Year, which is referred to there as a “day of blowing” (יום תרועה). The New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is further referred to there as a zikaron teruah, a remembrance of blowing.

In the Book of Joshua, the shofar is used for a different purpose, blown as a sign of war before the Battle of Jericho  (no relation to us). It is a catalyst in the walls of Jericho coming down and in the subsequent Israelite victory. The Shofar occupied an important place in the orchestra of the Temple, alongside the trumpet. On fast days and feast days there was a shofar that would blast in the midst of all the trumpets (חצוצרות וקול שופר).[6] Because of the sadness that resulted from the loss of the Temple, there was a ban on playing musical instruments for ritual purposes. As a result, the shofar, which was not considered a musical instrument, became identified as the object used chiefly for religious use. Over time, however, its use gradually faded along with the other musical instruments, except of course on הימים הנוראים, the Days of Awe.

What message does the use of the shofar convey to us? Some of us hear the musical notes and think about the persecution our people have undergone and the loss of lives and land in our past. Others get entranced in the wailing noises and the combination of notes, appreciating the distinct musical quality. Tekiah: the attention grabber. Shevarim: moaning and groaning. Teruah: sobbing and wailing. Others find that the shofar reminds them of God’s creation of the world and of God’s creativity in making even a ram’s horn a significant object.  This relates to Rosh Hashanah being the birthday of the world, the day on which we thank God for creating the world.

The shofar also serves as a call to worship. After the Torah and Haftarah readings, we are re-centered through the hearing the sound of the shofar. Most significantly, the shofar is also a warning to repent for past transgressions. It is beseeching us “Turn inward! Look at your actions! Change yourself!”

According to rabbinic tradition, hearing the shofar is what triggers in us a desire to repent, especially when repentance is difficult to achieve.[7] Through hearing the shofar, many of us think about our past year, both the good and the bad, and what we can do to help make a better next year, and that is an essential part of repenting. It is a warning to us to reflect on and examine our personal behavior, to strive to improve our thoughts and our actions.

Unfortunately the warning call of the Shofar hit the United States very hard in a number of ways this year. We experienced hatred in the streets of America, with hooded Klansmen yelling “Seig Heil!” “Jews will not replace us!” and “Jews are Satan’s children!” We experienced a swastika in our own backyard at Merry Lane Park and anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted at Syosset High School. We have seen hatred that always existed emanate out into the public sphere. It is of course not all from the alt-right; the anti-Semitism spewed by BDS activists and their refusal to allow conservative speakers at their college campuses is shameful and disgraceful. $600,000 in armed security and concrete barriers for Ben Shapiro to speak at UC-Berkeley? Despicable.

Some have said I have a moral obligation to speak about the political issues of the day. This is as close to politics as I’ll get for now, but if you want to go further in depth, join me at a Politics and the Pulpit discussion later today from 12:00-12:45 pm in the Rabbi Richardson Beit Midrash (teens and adults encouraged to attend).

We have an obligation to respond against the hatred that rears its ugly head and spews out from around us. That’s why we had the rally to Break the Hate on Sunday August 27 at the Mid Island Y, and why I am wearing the yellow bracelet that says No Place for Hate that the ADL gave out there. Hatred of others has no place at the Jericho Jewish Center, whether from the left or the right.

What concerns me most is the breakdown of communication occurring today. As Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote last Sukkot, “We’ve lost touch with how to speak with one another…seemingly overnight, our national conversation has sunk into a morass of racism, classism, Islamophobia and misogyny. And yet it didn’t happen overnight. We created-and allowed to be created-a system that encourages each of us to demonize anyone from a different background and with a different perspective. We got used to interacting only with people who agree with us. We got used to dismissing anyone whose perspective was different by saying they were stupid, uneducated, “didn’t get it.” We were the enlightened ones. Everything became about “we and they” (and I would add, us versus them).[8]

How did we get to the point where there have been fights at the breakfast following morning minyan over political issues? Since the last fight over half a year ago we generally avoid political issues but is that really better-to sweep issues under the rug and pretend they don’t exist? There has to be a middle ground between shouting someone down and speaking about the sports scores. As one who often doesn’t speak out because of a desire not to offend anyone or fear of a reprisal, I have to say that there’s got to be a way to speak about issues without getting so worked up that we lose control over ourselves. We need to remember that passion is not a bad thing: it means we care.  The challenge is when we become ideologues, so intense about our ideas that we put them on a pedestal over those around us, or when those ideas lead to hatred, dehumanization and devaluation of others.

At the same time, I see a few messages of hope. Billy Joel wearing a yellow star at his concert at Madison Square Garden on August 21. Pink, who I did not even know is Jewish, and Regina Spektor speaking against the neo-Nazis while on tour in Berlin, having seen the hatred from Hitler’s capital (ימח שמו, may his name be erased). Strong comments from Charlottesville Mayor Mike Singer and from Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Charlottesville’s Beth Israel Synagogue. These signs of hope tell us that the hatred experienced at Charlottesville will not divide us-for we are much stronger than that. Similarly, the Shofar, heard today at synagogues throughout the world, serves as a reminder to us to uproot any hatred and prejudice that we feel towards others and to move forward with love and with an open heart.

What is the shofar warning us to do or avoid doing? Will it motivate us to try to connect to our fellow humans or to G-d in a deeper way?  The resonant sound of the Shofar needs to hold timely meaning for us; otherwise it is just a vestige of what our ancestors used to do.  As we continue to hear the Shofar during Musaf, may we think about how the Shofar warns us to change our behavior for the better, to open ourselves up to new possibilities of connecting with others. Let us examine how we can heed the sound of the Shofar as a call to action, to let go of previously held prejudices or hurt that we’ve felt and respond to the world with only love. The Shofar is sounding-may we have the resolve, the strength and the courage to hear and act according to its message.

The following prayer was written by my colleague, Rabbi Ari Saks, the new rabbi at the Huntington Jewish Center, for the Shabbat after the violence in Charlottesville. I have kept the parts of the prayer that apply to today (היום). I encourage us to heed its message as we turn inward momentarily for the personal prayer of the Hineni:

Adonai El Malei Rachamim, Lord God who is full of compassion, we are feeling the absence of Your compassion.

 

We know You placed into our hands the choice of blessing or curse (see Rabeinu Bachya on Deuteronomy 11:26), but God at times our hands seem too weak to handle that choice.

 

We react out of our most base instincts, we fear that which we do not know, and we cultivate hopelessness for political gain.

 

But B’yad’kha Afkid Ruchi, into Your hands, O God have we entrusted our spirit.

 

Hands that hold us up, that do not strike us down; hands that caress our wounded hearts, that do not inflict upon us any more harm.

 

Please God, help us find the space to love when the instinct is to hate.

 

Open the hearts of your creations who are full of hate to the power of your compassion while instructing us on the just way to be intolerant of intolerance as we proclaim, “Never Again, Never Again, Never Again.”

 

May You comfort the families of all who have perished as a result of hatred.

 

And may You inspire the vision and the will within all of humanity to achieve a day with no hate and only peace.

 

We continue with Cantor Goldstein leading us in Hineni on Page 124.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), page 130.

[2] Genesis 22:13

[3]  Numbers 9:10

[4] Psalms  81:4

[5] Leviticus  23:24

[6] Psalms 98:6

[7] Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33b

[8] Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, “Face to Face,” JTS Torah Commentary, October 21, 2016.

Erev Rosh Hashanah-Which Leap of Faith will You Take?

When you hear the term “leap of faith” what do you think of? Many of us believe we have faith but in reality we cling to the status quo. We are afraid of making the changes that would improve our lives, taking the steps we need to experience personal growth.

I know that the thought of uncertainty terrifies me. It is much easier to stay within my Daled Amot, the 4 cubits of personal space with which I am familiar. At the same time, I know that if I don’t take risks, going into uncharted territory, I will never develop into who I am meant to be.

There’s a story of a man who went out for a nice, peaceful drive. He drove through the mountains and the valleys, and along the way he saw breathtakingly beautiful scenery. The man felt relaxed and tranquil-that is until he arrived at a curve in the road. As he was rounding the corner he noticed an eighteen-wheeler headed toward him. “One of us has to stop,” the man thought. “There’s no way both of us will make it through.” As he got closer to the truck, the man became even more fearful because he realized that while he could see the truck, the truck’s driver gave no indication that he saw the man’s approaching car. To make matters worse, the man was approaching a hairpin turn, where the road was very narrow and there was no shoulder-off the side of the road lay only a very, very steep cliff. The man concluded that he had no choice, and so he swerved off the road.

When the car stopped, the man was immediately flooded with relief because he realized that he’d survived the crash. His happiness was short-lived, however, because his car was perched precariously above a cliff. He knew that in only a matter of minutes his car would tumble down the 5000 foot drop. He could hardly believe his misfortune: He’d survived the crash but was going to die nevertheless!

Sure enough, the man felt his car begin to lunge forward. He knew his time on earth had come to an end. Yet as the car plunged downward, the man felt a tug, and within second he saw that his car had reached the bottom of the cliff, where it exploded. “Wait,” the man thought. “If I’m seeing my car burning up, I must be alive.”

Once again the man had survived. But once more his relief was only temporary. The man looked around and figured out what had happened. Apparently, when the car began to plummet, the driver’s-side door had popped open, and when the man fell out, his clothing had gotten snagged on a large branch. “This is incredible,” he thought. “I was almost killed once because I was about to go into an eighteen-wheeler but I was temporarily saved. Then I thought I was going to hit the bottom of the cliff and die in a fiery crash, but miraculously the car door swung open. Now, after surviving twice, I’m going to die anyway because this branch can’t hold me for long. How could this be happening to me? There’s got to be a reason.”

The man had never been very religious. In fact, he didn’t even know if he believed in G-d. But he knew that if he didn’t do something in a matter of minutes, he was going to die. “G-d,” he cried out. “If you’re out there-if you’re real-can you please save me? I’ll do anything. I don’t want to die.”

Nothing happened. The man made another plea, even more vigorous than the first. “Please, G-d. I really don’t want to die. I will commit myself to learning more about Judaism. I’ll try to learn. Just please get me out of this predicament.”

Still the man heard nothing. Finally, with a vociferous cry, the man called out from the depths of his heart. “Please,” he said, “if you’re there G-d, know that I need your help. Please, please, just help me!”

The man heard a voice. “Yes, my son.” He gasped in surprise. “Oh my, Thank goodness!” he exclaimed. “There really is a G-d in the world. And right here! Please, G-d, just take me out of this mess and I’ll do anything you want.”

“You’ll do anything I want?” G-d asked. “Fine. Then I will help you.”

“Great. Just tell me what I should do,” the man asked. To which the Almighty replied, “Let go of the branch.”[1]

What are the branches that we are holding onto, the safety nets which while helping us feel secure, prevent us from the growth that we need? How can we have enough faith in ourselves and in our future to let go of these things?

Rabbi Jack Riemer spoke about the three things you need to bring with you when you come to services on the Days of Awe. He asks “Do you know what they are? Your Tallit, your Machzor? Your ticket? No. If you forget your Tallit, we will give you one. If you forget your Machzor we will give you one. If you forget your ticket…you can always come back next year (joke).”

Instead he asserts that “the three things you have to bring with you are three different kinds of faith. If you come without them, the service will mean very little to you.” The first type of faith he mentions is faith in G-d, that “unless you have some conviction that there is an order and a structure to the universe, that the world is not hefker (a free-for-all), that morality is not just a matter of opinion, in short, that there is a G-d; the service will be an empty show, a boring performance. Bring faith in G-d with you and Aleynu will be a majestic moment, the Amdiah will be an intimate conversation, and prostrating oneself on Korim will be a Declaration of Dependence.”

The second kind of faith Rabbi Riemer discusses is “faith in the people with whom you will pray.” He says, “Look at all we Jews have done in recent years and you will see that we are worth believing in, with all our faults.” Just look at what Israel has done in absorbing millions of refugees and what American Jewry has done to finance their Aliyah. Examine all of the technological advancements and developments made by Jews in Israel and abroad as well as the humanitarian aid given and you will see that Jews are a people worth believing in.

Lastly Rabbi Riemer discusses having “faith in yourself and in your own ability to grow and change.” He asserts that “if you don’t believe that, if you think that the way you are now is the way you will always be, then this service will be a torture.” Not only can we change but “we are capable of infinite change.” Rabbi Riemer implores us to bring with us our faith in G-d, our faith in one another and our faith in ourselves.[2]

These High Holy Days, how will you maintain faith in yourself and in your ability to make changes? What will you do to take the necessary leaps of faith to better yourself, even if it means letting go of that branch, of the safety nets you cling to? If we ask “Can you really re-create yourself?” I would respond “Yes, but it takes a lot of hard work.” As we are all works of progress, let us begin that work today (היום), moving forward with an unwavering spirit and unyielding motivation. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

We continue with a responsive reading on Page 20 in the Mahzor, “How to Number Our Days.”

[1] Rabbi Yaakov Lablinsky, “Taking a Leap,” in Laney Katz Becker, ed. Three Times Chai: 54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, Inc. 2007), p. 44-45.

[2] Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Three Things to Bring With You When You Come for the Holidays. In The World of the High Holidays (Miami, FL: Bernie Books, ), pg. 29-30.

Moses’ Strength

He, whose eyes had seen

The brilliance of the Burning Bush

The grandeur of Egyptian scene

Within the Pharaoh’s palace courts-

He, whose eyes had seen

Of forty years of wilderness,

And the scope of world as seen

From Mount Sinai’s holiness-

He, whose eyes had seen

The pasture hills of Midian,

These eyes, vision undimmed, now span

The wonder of G-d’s Promised Land!

And in his eyes, the tears of joy-

And on his lips,

And on his lips,

A prayer.[1]

Lucille Frenkel, “The Destination: Comment on Deuteronomy XXXIV Lines 1 Thru 4”

Does a leader need to be strong? Physically, mentally, spiritually or emotionally strong? What are the qualities under which a leader can continue to lead and when is the time for him/her to “hang up the gloves?”

Questions such as these come to light when we examine Moses at the beginning of Parshat VaYelekh. Moses told Israel “I am one hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in (לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבוא), for  G-d has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.”[2] There is an apparent contradiction when we look ahead to Parshat VeZot HaBracha, where it states “His eye was not dimmed and his freshness did not fade” (לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחה).[3] Rashi asserts that it simply means that Moses was not permitted to enter Israel, for G-d removed authority from him and transferred it to Joshua.[4] Ephraim of Luntshitz (Kli Yakar) takes Rashi one step further, asserting that Moses was concerned that Israel would take him literally and see him as physically weak. Therefore, he walked briskly before Israel, the entire length and width of their encampment, so that Israel would understand “not able” (לא אוכל) as “not permitted” ((לא רשאי.[5] This jives with the title of the second portion we read being וילך, indicating that Moses walked out to the Israelites.

Or HaChaim takes Kli Yakar’s comment one step further, stating that Moses purposefully went out before all of Israel, asserting that if he was permitted to serve Israel he would this very day. It is not on his account that he is leaving Israel but rather on account of G-d’s command for him not to cross over.[6] We know from Parshat VaEtchanan that Moses entreated G-d to enter Israel; now he is resigned to the fact that he will not accompany his people when they enter the land.

Why such a great emphasis from the commentators on Moses’ physical strength? After all, we know of so many leaders who might not be the strongest physically but who have hearts of steel, fighting for their life’s work at all costs. At the same time, we know of people who lose their leadership position when the vigor and strength that they put into it wanes. The goal here was to show that despite all the roadblocks and challenges that Israel put in Moses’ path, his belief in Hashem and faith in leading Israel remained unabated and he would lead them as long as he was able. This is the very message he tells Joshua three times in VaYelekh, חזק ואמץ, be strong and resolute no matter which challenges you encounter.

We are so fortunate today to be installing our new congregational board, the leaders of our congregation. These are the individuals who have a fiduciary responsibility towards the welfare of our congregation. They have volunteered for this position, giving of their time, their talents and their energy to strengthen the Jericho Jewish Center. Each Board Member needs to be strong in every way: physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, as they encounter numerous challenges. At the same time, they must be resolute in knowing that their actions are making a difference and that their leadership is invaluable to the success of our congregation.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us think about how we can have the strength of both Moshe Rabeinu and of the members of our synagogue Board of Trustees, continuing to have faith in who we are and what we stand for and maintaining unabated vigor in the leadership roles that we occupy in life. When our faith is tested, may we have the strength and the resolve to continue forward.  Let us learn from Moses that it is never too late to lead, even at 120 years of age-all we need is to be ready and willing to embrace the task at hand.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “The Destination-Comment on Deuteronomy XXIV Lines 1 Thru 4” in A Biblical Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1980), p. 135.

[2] Deuteronomy 31:2

[3] Deuteronomy 34:7

[4] Rashi on Deuteronomy 31:2 ד”ה לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבא

[5] Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 31:2 ד”ה וילך משה וידבר את הדברים האלה

[6] Or HaChaim on Deuteronomy 31:2 ד”ה וה אמר אלי

Honest Weights and Measures

It’s no accident that the first thing we will be asked when we leave this world and reach heavens’ gates will be “were you honest in your business dealings?”[1] The Talmud teaches that “punishment for dishonest business dealings is greater than punishment for transgressing sexual prohibitions.”[2] After all, our Torah portion highlights the importance of this, stating “you shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a large one and a small one. You shall not have in your house diverse measures, a large one and a small one. A perfect and just weight shall you have; a perfect and just measure shall you have; that your days may be long upon the land which g-d gives you.”[3] This passage is directly followed by remembering what Amalek did when we left Egypt.

Rashi commented that the passages are purposely juxtaposed, asserting that “if you were deceitful with your measures and weights, you should dread provoking the enemy.”[4] We know that Amalek surprised us by attacking us in the rear. When we deceive others, we in turn will be deceived by our enemies. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of 16th century Poland, wrote in his work Gur Aryeh, that “G-d limits the power and ability of the enemy to the proper measure of power. But if you do not restrict yourself to proper weights and measures your enemies will no longer be restricted to the proper measure of power allotted to them by the Creator, and they will be free to harass you (כאשר האדם משקר במדות ובשיעורים אשר נוהגים בבריות, אז בא האויב).[5] In other words, when wrongdoing happens to us, it was brought about by G-d as a result of some bad action on our part.

Ephraim of Lunshitz, a 16th century Polish rabbi, took this one step further in his book Kli Yakar. He asserted that not using honest weights and measures, secretly defrauding and robbing, will lead G-d to bring in the enemy who will take what you have in public. In other words, the fortune Israel made dishonestly will be exposed for the world to see, when Amalek takes off with all their booty.[6]

The interpretation that I prefer on this topic is brought out by the Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Berlin of 19th century Poland) and Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser of 19th century Ukraine). Both of them assert that dishonest weights and measures is a means of denying one’s faith in G-d. The one who cheats his fellow thinks ‘Who will notice what I am doing?’ forgetting that G-d is always watching us.[7] The issue is not merely the deceit to make a quick buck but rather the lack of belief in Torah and that G-d will do anything in retribution against our behavior.

In the world in which we live, we often feel like we’re in a bubble, that what we do is no one else’s business. This is a completely foreign view to the Torah, which asserts that there is always “an eye that sees, an ear that hears and a book in which all your deeds are recorded.”[8] We need to keep in mind that our actions do have consequences, even if we can’t directly see the harm in what we are doing. That is why the month of Elul is used for Heshbon HaNefesh, self-accounting of what we have done and where we are headed. Our task is to never strive to deceive one another or to deceive ourselves, even when there is a personal cost attached to not doing so. While some don’t feel that honesty is always the best policy, I would argue that it is when dishonesty results in direct harm to another.

Let us live life each day with integrity and purpose, focusing on living ethically rather than striving to get ahead of our peers. In so doing, when we live this world and meet our Creator we will be able to answer “Were you honest in your business dealings” with a resounding “YES.”

[1] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 88b

[3] Deuteronomy 25:13-15

[4] Rashi Deuteronomy 25:17 ד”ה זכור את אשר עשה לך

[5] Gur Aryeh on Deuteronomy 25:17 ד”ה בא זדון

[6] Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy 25:17

[7] Netziv on Deuteronomy 25:17 ד”ה זכור את אשר עשה עמלק

[8] Mishnah Avot 2:1