Sukkot: The Festival of Double Joy

Sukkot is unique among the festivals for being referred to as זמן שמחתנו, the time of our joy. Why is this the case? Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about how Sukkot is defined not by one overriding symbol but two, both of which were referenced in this morning’s Torah reading. The first is to “take for yourselves a fruit of the citron tree, palm fronds, myrtle branches and willows of the brook, and be joyous in the presence of the LORD your G-d for seven days.”[1] Two verses later, the command is “You shall dwell in booths for seven days…so that your descendants will know that I settled the children of Israel in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your G-d.”[2] Rabbi Sacks writes that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday which is part of both festival cycles: the festivals of the seventh month which serve as “a memorial of creation” and the pilgrimage festivals which “tell the singular story of Jewish creation.”[3] The four species, as Maimonides states, remind us of the fertility of the land of Israel,[4] as does the water-dwelling festival of Simhat Beit HaShoevah which I will discuss tomorrow. In contrast, the command to dwell for seven days in Sukkot presupposes the absence of rain, for if it rains we are exempted from the command to eat in the Sukkah.[5]

In encompassing both the universality of creation and nature and the historical story of our ancestors, Rabbi Sacks writes that Sukkot represents “the dual character of the Jewish faith. We believe in the universality of G-d, together with the particularity of Jewish history and identity. All nations need rain. We are all part of nature. We are dependent on the complex ecology of the created world. We are all threatened by climate change, global warming, the destruction of rain forests, the overexploitation of non-renewable energy sources and the mass extinction of species. But each nation is different. As Jews we are heirs to a history unlike that of any other people: small, vulnerable, suffering repeated exile and defeat, yet surviving and celebrating.”[6] That is why we have Sukkot, which will be observed as a universal holiday when the Messiah comes, and Shemini Atzeret, a day which is only for G-d and Israel. As Jews, we recognize our part in the larger world while concurrently our unique mission to follow the Torah and be role models for the other nations.

One can also see the dichotomy between universality and particularity by contrasting yesterday’s Haftarah with todays. Yesterday we read from the Prophet Zechariah who gives the universalistic message proclaimed thrice daily in Aleinu, “The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day the LORD will be One, and His name will be one.”[7] In contrast, today we read from 1 Kings about the creation of the Temple in Jerusalem. This just refers to our people, “all the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast.”[8] On Sukkot we thus experience joy both from it being a holiday where we celebrate being human, the beauty of nature and the One who created it all as well as a holiday when we commemorate our ancestors’ journey through the Sinai Desert and their creation of a House of worship for G-d.

This Sukkot we should celebrate both forms of joy, the gift of life we feel from being human as well as the beauty of being born a Jew and getting to celebrate the achievements of our people. We need time to put our challenges aside and revel in the wonders of life. May we feel the double joy of the beauty of creation and the gift of Judaism each day of this festival, and may it lead us to feel only gratitude, appreciation and amazement for the gifts and opportunities life has to offer.

[1] Leviticus 23:40

[2] Leviticus 23:42-43

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (Jerusalem, Maggid Books, 2017), p. 108.

[4] Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:43

[5] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Leviticus (Jerusalem, Maggid Books, 2015), p. 348-9.

[6] Ibid, 109-10.

[7] Zechariah 14:9

[8] 2 Kings 8:2

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Second Chances

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 your presence here. Please know you always have a place here at the Jericho Jewish Center.

Lucille Frenkel “A Note to My Ancestors”

That you were.

And that you were what you were and as you were.

And that my being mirrors what you were.

And that you are now mirrored in my soul.

And that you were-and in me, you still are-

Just that you were is but ample reason

That I am and shall progress to be.[1]

 

Do you believe in second chances? That is what Yom Kippur is all about. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the second set of tablets. Moses ascended to Sinai on the first of Elul and came down with the tablets forty days later on the tenth of Tishrei. It was a day of second chances. The tablets which had been destroyed were replaced. As Rabbi Avi Weiss writes, “No wonder that we feel joy on Yom Kippur. We celebrate being given a second chance. In too many of life’s pursuits, we are only given ‘one shot.’ If we miss, it’s all over. G-d says: ‘No matter that you have failed before; you can still return.’”[2]

The tablets serve as the blueprint for the entire world. When the first tablets were destroyed by Moses, only shards were left. G-d reminded Moses that he made a mistake by making him write the second set of tablets by himself and stating וכתבתי על הלוחות את הדברים אשר היו על הלוחות הראשונים אשר שברת, “I will write on these tablets the exact same words that were on the first set of tablets which you broke.”[3] Today is the anniversary of that second set of tablets coming into the world, a sign of forgiveness for the mistake Moses made by smashing the first set.  At the same time, after Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face was radiant. He exuded confidence and light, no longer dwelling on the past.

The light of Moses is the same radiance we seek for ourselves. We constantly strive to be  stronger and better, in a more elevated place in life. We yearn to be inspired, to burst out of this service with a sense of radiance and light. What can we think about as we sit here hour after hour to give our lives a sense of meaning, to appreciate what we have and to try to structure our lives so that we provide this for ourselves?

Where did Moses’ radiance come from and how can we experience it in our lives? In the Midrashic collection Yalkut Shimoni, the rabbis state that Moses received radiance when he saw G-d. G-d said, ‘You cannot see my face, but you can see my back,” and then proceeded to put Moses in a cleft of rock and passed in front of him.[4] The nature of the intensity of Moses’ closeness to G-d is the source that provided the radiance. Imagine being in such an intense relationship that you lose track of the outside world. Any thoughts you have about the rest of your day or your commitments fall by the wayside and you just engage in the moment. You don’t even check your phone for emails or text messages (which you shouldn’t be checking anyway today). That’s the level of mindfulness and engagement we’re talking about.

Unfortunately this is becoming a very difficult skill for many of us, including me. Our lives are so full, we spend so much time being busy and even when we not busy we look to fill our time. When in line in the post office or the grocery store, we put hands in our pockets, take out our cell phone and we rifle through our e-mails. I know I’m guilty of this. We don’t give ourselves a chance to just be ourselves. We spend too much time doing and not enough being. Where’s the white space in our lives? The words of the Torah only encompass half of the scroll. For every black letter there’s a white letter, for everything written, a blank space. This encounter between Moses  מן המערה, at the cave, is his experience being comfortable with himself, focused on his relationship with G-d which provides him with radiance.

There is a power to solitude. The first source of our radiance is being comfortable with who we are, not always rushing off to do something. In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Starr writes about “the desire of solitude as a means to escape from the pressures of ordinary life and as a way of renewal.”[5]  He writes about Admiral Byrd, an explorer of Antarctica, that he would be certain to take time every day “to be by himself for awhile and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.”[6] Obviously solitude is not meant as an end in and of itself, as too much solitude is a bad thing. It’s why they place prisoners with severe crimes in solitary confinement. A person’s mental health depends upon relationships with others. One needs to ask him/herself ‘what nurtures and sustains me?’ as well as ‘what gives me the ability to replenish and sustain others?’

A congregant e-mailed me after Rosh Hashanah asking if I’d do a meditation during Musaf. I decided instead to do it during my sermon. In January I will begin an eighteen month program called the Hevraya at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which focuses on developing skills in yoga, meditation, silence and song as well as weekly study of Hasidic texts. I chose to do this program not because mindfulness is “in vogue” or for a “kumbaya” moment but rather so that I can serve you better as your rabbi, being fully engaged in every encounter with congregants rather than distracted by my “to-do list.” I want to be fully present and the new year with its bringing second chances is a new opportunity to try to do that. You might have a different skill you’re working on now. If you’ll join me on this brief journey, let’s close our eyes, breathing in all the potential, the skills and the good things that will come our way this year and breathing out all the pain, suffering and difficulties we experienced in the past year. We breathe in…and we breathe out…

Is everyone still awake?…A second source of radiance, as demonstrated by Rabbi Berachiah in the Yalkut, is that of the tablets themselves.[7] He writes that the length of the tablets was six handbreadths. G-d held onto the top two, Moses grabbed the bottom two and radiance emanated from the middle two.  Like many Kabbalistic ideas, there is a limited part of the world with which we can connect. The top two handbreadths are too holy; we cannot live in that world. The bottom two handbreadths are too mundane and don’t inspire us at all. The radiance emanates from the middle two handbreadths that are between heaven and earth. As we do on Shabbat, we take the earth and bring it a little closer to heaven. We do something spiritual, relinquishing control of our daily routine, and it elevates us closer to G-d.

Moses was a great leader in elevating earthliness closer to heaven. When G-d threatened to destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the spies, Moses would not permit him to do so. He demanded that G-d pardon Israel. What great hutzpah to first demand this from HaKadosh Baruch Hu, G-d Almighty, and then to ask for pardon of a people who were ready to return to the slavery of Egypt. What did G-d do? ויאמר ה סלחתי כדברך, G-d said “I will pardon in accordance with your word.”[8]

The Talmud goes even further, referencing another time when G-d threatened to destroy the Jewish people: the sin of the golden calf. Rabbi Abahu asserts that Moses took hold of G-d, like a man who seizes his fellow by his coat, and said to Him: “Master of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.”[9] Moses’ enduring passion for a people who didn’t believe in him, who brazenly said “We do not know what has happened to him”[10] is what caused G-d to save our ancestors.

What can we do to live an exalted life, to raise up ourselves and our families to a higher, more spiritual standard of living?  That effort is karnei hod קרני הוד, a source of inner fulfillment. On Yom Kippur, we celebrate the first human being who exuded that form of radiance. Moses thus came down holding not merely a set of rules but rather the blueprint for human existence.

The third and most important idea on Moses’ radiance is espoused by Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman. He asserts that when Moses finished writing the Torah, he had a little ink left in his quill which spilled onto his fingers. He took from that ink and wiped his forehead, and that was the source of his radiance.[11] Moses wrote a blueprint for humanity and yet even when he finished, there was something left, a little ink. We sometimes feel, “What can we do? What difference can we make?” The answer is “You can make a huge difference.” No matter what you do, there’s a little bit of ink left over for us to write a difference in our lives. We are the authors of our own book of life. We just finished writing the chapter on 5777 and now we are ten days into writing the chapter for New Year, 5778. We always need to be confident and optimistic that there is a little ink left over for us to write a new, glorious chapter in our lives. If we did something wrong in 5777, we have the chance to right it in 5778. After all, our greatest ancestor, Moshe Rabbenu, enabled Israel to get a second chance through G-d giving Israel a second set on Ten Commandments, the anniversary of which we celebrate today on Yom Kippur.

There is a lesson to be learned from each of these three interpretations. The unnamed rabbis in the first interpretation from Yalkut Shimoni teach us to be comfortable with ourselves, to nurture and sustain ourselves. If we do this, we will be in a position from the radiance we gain to return and help others. Rabbi Berachiah teaches us to find that sacred space in the middle, to bridge the gap between the peaks of heaven and the realities of earth. It is Rabbi Yehudah bar Nahman’s interpretation that I want us to hold onto after Yom Kippur: that our work is never done, for there is always more to write, contribute and to share. May G-d grant us the ability to appreciate our lives, overcome our challenges, and enhance ourselves as we sit here in the synagogue on this most holy of days.

What do we remember about loved ones? Their work was never done. There was always ink left in their quill-they modeled it for us. We are the ink left in their quill. Their neshama (soul) continues and we help it on its journey. Their story has not finished being written, and we continue to write chapters in their book of life. They tried to bring heaven and earth closer together. They lived with radiance and brought life into the world. Religion’s job is to reflect between the earthly and heavenly, the infinite yearnings and the finite reality.

On this Yom Kippur I reflect back on those loved ones who have gone to their eternal reward. What can I do to make them proud of the person I am? How can I live each day with meaning and purpose, continuing to follow in their footsteps? There are many ways in which we can show honor to loved ones. One is to attend services, not only for Yizkor as today but for each Yahrzeit (anniversary of their passing) and to commit oneself to attend our minyan at least one morning or evening of the week. We are also going to be starting a weekly class on the service (proposed names are “Shul Shy” or “Baby Steps” but I want to find something a little less infantilizing) to complement our Beginning Hebrew class and help people feel more comfortable at services and in the synagogue. No one should be embarrassed by what they don’t know as אין הבישן לומד “the person who feels shame does not learn.”[12] I hope that you are open to learning new things. Please let me know if you are able to commit to either one day of minyan a week or to attending the weekly class-or if you have an idea for another class topic.

In addition to growing intellectually and communally, we have the opportunity to grow spiritually in the New Year. Last Sunday evening I left for a short trip to Arizona as one of my friends in Tucson flew me out to see a football game. I had finished the drafts of my sermons right before Rosh Hashanah so I had a five hour flight to do something I don’t get the chance to do often anymore: read a book. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the book I chose is the most powerful book I’ve ever read-I couldn’t stop tearing up as I was ensconced in its pages-and that it has the potential to serve as an impetus to change me for the better. The book is Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Rabbi Naomi Levy. I’m only going to share with you one piece of wisdom from her book this morning: her memorial prayer for before lighting the Yahrzeit candle in her chapter “Living on Soul Time.”

A Memorial Prayer

I haven’t forgotten you, even though it’s been some time now since I’ve seen your face, touched your hand, heard your voice. You are with me all the time.

          I used to think you left me. I know better now. You come to me. Sometimes in fleeting moments I feel your presence close by. But I still miss you. And nothing, no person, no joy, no accomplishment, no distraction, not even God can fill the gaping hole your absence has left in my life.

          But mixed together with all my sadness, there is a great joy for having known you. I want to thank you for the time we shared, for the love you gave, for the wisdom you spread.

          Thank you for the magnificent moments and for the ordinary ones too. There was beauty in our simplicity. Holiness in our unspectacular days. And I will carry the lessons you taught me always.

          Your life has ended, but your light can never be extinguished. It continues to shine upon me even on the darkest nights and illuminates my way.

          I light this candle in your honor and in your memory. May God bless you as you have blessed me with love, with grace, and with peace. Amen.[13]

I remember all my grandparents this Yizkor and want to share one story from my maternal grandmother whose poetry I’ve been sharing during my holiday sermons. Lucille Frenkel z”l epitomized for me the importance of the spiritual. She attended synagogue services Shabbat after Shabbat not knowing one word of Hebrew, with her eyes closed whenever the Cantor and choir sang, just absorbing the music. She was “always behind” and often did not get past the English in the Silverman Preliminary Service. I asked her once why she came to synagogue when she couldn’t understand what was read. Wasn’t this frustrating for her? Her response surprised me: she said “I need this. I need this to survive.”

I didn’t understand it then. Why would anyone “need” a service in a foreign language reciting the same prayers week after week? I think I do now: there is something beyond the words, even beyond the melodies used, that can emanate deep into the soul if we let it in. It’s not even about what’s said but rather about letting go of oneself, being present and connecting deeply with something greater than oneself. Her closing her eyes was like we do for the Shabbat candles or the Shema: blotting out all external distractions, letting go of all thoughts, and striving to connect to The One, to G-d. She understood the deeper, spiritual connection whereas I get distracted by the physical needs of my “to-do list.”

As we remember our loved ones with Yizkor, let us all find our refuge: our place where we can be mindful, meditative, thoughtful. I hope that our synagogue will be one such place for you throughout the year. If you have doubts, think ‘I’m too far removed,’ just remember that Yom Kippur is a day beckoning us towards new opportunities. Who would have thought in their wildest dreams that our ancestors would have merited receiving a new set of tablets? Let us take advantage of each new opportunity that presents itself to us over the course of 5778.

 

Lucille Frenkel, “Synagogue Thought”

Within the Sabbath service,

I can hear the echoes,

The presence of soft echoes

Of every Jew that ever

Prayed a Sabbath prayer.

 

And I wonder if

Someone in the future,

In centuries beyond me,

Will share the distant echo

Of my earnest Sabbath prayer.[14]

 

We rise and continue with Yizkor on Page 321.

[1] Lucille Frenkel A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 129.

[2] Rabbi Avi Weiss, “Four Reasons to Rejoice on Yom Kippur,” in The World of the High Holy Days, edited by Rabbi Jack Reimer (Miami, FL: Bernie Books, 1992), p. 231.

[3] Exodus 34:1

[4] Yalkut Shimoni Ki Tisa 34. See also Exodus 33:12-23.

[5] Anthony Starr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York: The Free Press, 1988), page 34.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yalkut Shimoni 34.

[8] Numbers 14:20

[9] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 32a

[10] Exodus 32:1

[11] Yalkut Shimoni 34

[12] Mishnah Avot 2:5

[13] Rabbi Naomi Levy, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), p. 283.

[14] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 52.

Permission to Move

Lucille Frenkel “The Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur”

Mankind, judge of all things, does now await

Life’s Judge to weigh its actions and its fate,

Most cognizant that one who would a judge be

Will understand of failing and of mercy.[1]

 

The High Holy Days is all about having the permission to move.[2] We began with the month of Elul, hearing the Shofar as a clarion call to wake us up. The sounds of the Selichot liturgy made it all the more urgent, asking us ‘what are you waiting for’? Rosh Hashanah beckons us to heed the sound of the shofar and for it to lead us into action. Now we are at Kol Nidre, one more attempt to move ourselves into the people we are meant to be.

The transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is one of particularism to universality. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, a day on which we rejoice in all creation. The Torah readings we read on Rosh Hashanah are particularistic: the birth of Sarah’s son, the struggles between Sarah and Hagar, the agreement between Abraham and Avimelech, the almost sacrifice of Isaac. The story read on Yom Kippur, however, is a universal one: the Kohen Gadol taking a goat, which has the sins of the entire community cast upon it, and leading it into the wilderness. On Yom Kippur we transcend our personal stories and come together as a community. Our main prayers are in the plural, from אשמנו, detailing all the things which we as a community have done wrong, to על חאט שחטאנו, the longer confessional, to אבינו מלכנו, read when Yom Kippur is not on Shabbat to beseech G-d, “our heavenly Father,” to write us in the book of life.

At the same time, there is an individual element to repentance on Yom Kippur, and it begins by examining tomorrow morning’s Torah portion. The text on the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, atoning for the people of Israel through the goat offered to G-d and the goat offered to Azazel teaches us three things about repentance. First, the Kohen Gadol must prepare for seven days prior to Yom Kippur in order to be familiar with the laws of communal purification. Similarly, Yom Kippur is preceded by the entire month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the ten days of repentance, all of which deal with preparation for this moment. Also, the Kohen Gadol must do the entire atonement service, which we reenact with the Avodah service tomorrow, by himself. Similarly, atonement can only be achieved by each of us for ourselves. Finally, the Kohen Gadol atones for himself first and his family first, followed by his tribe, and finally for all of Israel. Concurrently, we are responsible to take care of ourselves first, then our families, and then those geographically closest to us, infinitely extending outward.

Two years ago I spoke about Yom Kippur being a joyous day in our being forgiven for all our sins. Today, I want to teach another aspect of that joy. Too often we look at our shortcomings rather than undergoing הכרת הטוב, a recognition of all which is good in us. A contemporary prayer, written by Rabbi Avi Weiss and modeled after the אשמנו (we are guilty) but called אהבנו (we have loved) does just that. It goes as follows:

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,

רִחַמְנוּ, שָקַדְנוּ
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,

תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ
We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.[3]

The Ashamnu, unlike most prayers in Selichot, is written in a major key. As we say it, we are hopeful about changed behavior. Similarly, by saying Ahavnu, we can be grateful for all the positive things we do in life and use them as examples to propel us forward.

This year I would like to develop more patience, more satisfaction with what I have and increased understanding that things will work out in the end. Too often we focus on the things we don’t have, or our inadequacies, instead of all the things we do have. What if the balance was reversed-that we spent the majority of the time counting our blessings and only a minority of it looking at what we lack?

Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches (and I took her words as the title of my sermon) that Yom Kippur gives us “permission to move.” We need to ask ourselves what we are waiting for in order to transform our mindsets, “the inflexibility, insecurity and inertia of our lives.”[4] One of the main things we have control over moving is our mentality. We can’t always control what happens to us but we CAN control how we respond to it.  What are the messages of love, strength, and healing that we can carry with us into the new year of 5778?

We often look at our world as stable until something shatters that stability. We think we are in control until something comes along that demolishes those feelings of control. How do we own our lack of control, believing that we have agency when it feels like we have anything but, affirming that the world is good when it does not feel that way? How do we move ourselves to feeling that we can make a difference as opposed to sighing and saying what difference do we make?

We can illustrate this by means of a story. A Chasid once asked his Rebbe: “Why pray on Yom Kippur? After all, we inevitably sin again.” In response, the Rebbe asked him to look out the window. Outside was a toddler learning to walk. “What do you see?” asked the master. “A child, standing and falling,” replied the disciple. Day after day, the Chasid came back to witness the same scene. By the week’s end, the child stood and did not fall. The child’s eyes expressed the joy of having attained this milestone. “So it is with us,” said the Rebbe. “We fall again and again, but in the end, a loving G-d gives us the opportunities we need to succeed.”[5]

This story resonates deeply with me, as I’ve watched Ariela learn how to walk. I saw her transition from being scared to stand in place on her own to now running all over the place. In May the pediatrician said she was behind and might need PT yet within one day of getting our puppy Simba, she was walking after him. Sometimes in life we need something to jar us out of our rut, to get us over the hump after failing numerous times. Even after walking, I watched Ariela develop numerous scrapes and bruises from falling yet saw her determination nevertheless. If only I had that spirit to continue forward encountering obstacles rather than staying back and resting on my laurels. What would give me the oomph to feel I have the permission to move forward despite the potential pitfalls lurking in my path?

This Yom Kippur, I hope that each of us will feel that we have permission to move forward in all of our pursuits, that we will not be pushed back by the challenges that we will encounter, that we will move forward recognizing that we are imperfect beings and that’s ok. It does not stop us from continually working on ourselves. As in the immortal words of Rabbi Tarfon, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא עתה בני חורין להבטל ממנה, “It is not up to you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”[6] Let us always understand that we are a work in progress and may we give ourselves permission to move forward, one step at a time. If we are faced with a challenge, like a child learning to walk, let us never give up but always propel ourselves forward with the determination that G-d will give us the strength we need to succeed. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

Before we return to prayer on the most spiritual day of the year, we continue with a cute poem sent out by Young Israel of Jamaica Estates entitled “Time to Pray” sent to me by Steve Mann.

I got up early one morning

and rushed right into the day;

I had so much to accomplish
that I didn’t have time to pray.

Problems just tumbled about me,

and heavier came each task.

“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask.” 


I wanted to see joy and beauty,

but the day toiled on, gray and bleak;

I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “But you didn’t seek.” 


I tried to come into God’s presence;

I used all my keys at the lock.

God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock.”

I woke up early this morning,

and paused before entering the day;

I had so much to accomplish 

that I had to take time to pray.  

We continue with the reverse acrostic Yaaleh on Page 227. Please rise as the ark is opened.

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

[2] Idea from Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles from New York Board of Rabbis High Holidays Sermon Seminar, September 8, 2016.

[3] Taught to me by Rabbi Avi Weiss and found here: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ahavnu-beirachnu-yom-kippur-is-also-a-time-to-confess-our-good/

[4] Taught to me by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles at New York Board of Rabbis High Holiday Sermon Seminar, September 8, 2016.

[5] Rabbi Avi Weiss, “Four Reasons to Rejoice on Yom Kippur,” in The World of the High Holy Days, edited by Rabbi Jack Reimer (Miami, FL: Bernie Books, 1992), p. 231.

[6] Mishnah Avot Chapter 2 Mishnah 16.

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

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.