This page contains High Holidays messages from a number of years.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5754
A story is told of a woman who visited the famous Louvre Museum in Paris. For four and a half hours she moved from one hall to another in the great former palace of the French kings, observing closely and carefully one great work of art after another. When she returned to her hotel, the concierge asked her how she enjoyed his nations treasure-house of paintings, sculptures and architecture. "It was magnificent," she replied, "in close examination throughout that museum, I did not find a speck of dust anywhere..."
There are a number of lessons to be learned from this story. First, consider the heroin. Who is she? The occasional tourist, the "ugly American" who has no couth, no refinement, but has enough money to travel to "famous places" and visit "all the right sights." She goes to the Louvre because it is on the tourist "must see" list. She does not notice the halls, the great stairways, the paintings, the colors -- none of this even enters her mind -- she is too busy examining surfaces for dust. Nor does she know, or care to find out, about the history of the place she is visiting. She travels the world, but she neither affects it -- nor is she affected by it.
Then there is a story of a student who applies to study with a great Rabbi. "Tell me about yourself." Says the Rabbi to the student. Full of himself, the student replies, "I have been through the Torah and the Talmud twice already." "You have been through the Torah and the Talmud -- that is good. Now, tell me, how much of the Torah and the Talmud has been through you?" Like the lady in the Louvre -- who could not find a speck of dust, and had no comment on a speck of art, the student is queried by the Rabbi to discover how much of Torah and Talmud is trophy, and how much lifes-blood.
Tomorrow, during the musaf service, we shall hear the sound of the shofar in the triple theme of Malhuyot, Zihronot and Shofrot -- sovereignty, historicity, and sound-blasts. After hearing the shofar we shall recite "Hayom harat olam. Hayom yaamid bamishpat kol ytzoorey olamim." -- "Today is the birthday of the world, today You shall make to stand in judgement all of the worlds creatures." The word " harat," though, means pregnant, and "עולמים olamim" means eternity -- and thus a different translation of the verse will render, "in this pregnant moment before the world is delivered, all eternitys creation stands in judgement." Stop and think -- do YOU believe that this is so? Can there be a "birthday of the world?" Is it really this day? Do you, or can you, really believe that "at this pregnant moment before the world is delivered, all eternitys creation stands in judgement?"
Well, basically, it is a question of definition. Time, itself, is a creation of man. Thats right! God created the world, but man created the concept of time. How strange, when you think about it, that He who has no form and no physical manifestation created all the physical and concrete in this world -- while man, with feet of clay, created the one thing that you cant hold in your hand, store, or even give a good definition of. God is infinite, and time is meaningless to the infinite. From Gods infinite perspective, the moment of creation and this very moment, though they may be divided by billions of years, are on the same plain, in the same picture, one might say. In other words, this moment IS the moment of creation. Now we are fashioned. Now we are born -- or now God makes a different choice... You might say that the only constant in His creation is change.
Lewis Mumford, in "Faith for Living," stated that "Mans chief purpose is the creation and preservation of value; that is what gives meaning to our civilization, and the participation in this is what gives significance , ultimately, to the individual and human life." Yet, I ask you: What has value? What is the meaning of value? Sand is common and has no value, you would not buy it for "good money" -- you can go to the beach and pick up a handful, a bucket full or a truck load of the stuff. The "sands of time," though, are a different matter. Many have been willing to pay a kings ransom for another handful there. What do we hold dear? What really matters to us? Why does anything matter to us at all? I would like to propose to you that the only things that matter to us are those things we imbue with our attention, our personality. In one way or another, we "own" something -- and that makes it important to us. Thus, value is a measure of caring, which in turn is a function of personality, a sense of identity, a measure of self worth. To fulfill ve'ahavta lere'akha kamokha -- the "golden rule" `love thy neighbor as thyself -- you must first love yourself. To fulfill the admonition of the Shma -- ve'ahavta et adona'y elohekha `and you shall love the Lord your God -- you must first discover the power of love, you must learn how to love, and know how to zealously guard loves integrity -- or you shall devalue it forever.
Thus, when the sages of Israel established the liturgy of the High holidays, they designed a service that will allow us to search for our identity. Now, it has been said that identity is something physical. Young people have to I.D. themselves to purchase alcoholic beverages. Look at a picture on a drivers license and you can identify a person. This is true, though only in a limited way -- some pictures dont do us justice, and some are dated, and the subject has since matured, grown up, become fat or skinny, grey or bald. Above all, the picture tells how we look, not who we are. That kind of identity is both an experience and a process of discovery. It requires a coherent sense of the self. Above all, it is not static, and it is not easy to define. So, this High holiday season, open yourself up to a voyage of discovery -- lets all go on a trip to find out who we are, and maybe even who we want to be, who we need to be, to make it all worth while.
First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5754
In the portion of the Torah read this morning we dealt with three issues. The reading began with the words,V'adona'y pakad et sara ka'asher amar, "and the Lord remembered Sarah as He had promised..." and continues to tell us of the birth of Isaac. The second issue was the removal of Hagar and her son from Abrahams household. In relation to that there is the corollary story of how Hagar left her child to die of thirst and dehydration, while a well of water was within her sight -- but yet unseen by her. In the third issue Abraham reminds Abimeleh that his servants seized a well that belonged to him -- and Abimeleh claims ignorance. "I do not know who did this; you did not tell me, nor have I heard of it until today." This answer reminds me of the story of the neighbor who, when asked to return a lawn-mower he had borrowed, replied, "I returned it already, and besides -- it was broken when I took it, and anyhow, I never borrowed it!" Protesting ones innocence too much achieves the opposite of the desired result. Three stories in the reading from the Torah, three separate issues, with a thread connecting them all: God remembered Sarah, Abrahams wife. Hagar lost heart because of her ignorance of the availability of water, and Abimeleh allowed injustice to be done by claiming ignorance of the "crime." This is the reading for Yom Hadin, the day of judgement, or Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance -- the two Scriptural names for Rosh Hashanah.
Why were Abraham and his wife Sarah remembered by God? It was because they had established their identity as His champions! They sought God, they related to Him, and He, in turn, remembered them! Which brings me right back to the theme I advance in my talk last night: Identity is a coherent sense of selfhood, through which we can put our life in context, and without which, as Hagar and Abimeleh demonstrated to us in this mornings Torah reading, life loses its focus and chaos and injustice reign unchallenged. That is the thread that runs through the three issues we read about.
However, don't turn me off -- I am not talking of a time long ago, in a land far away. I am talking of America in 1993. I am talking of Lakeland and Tampa and Orlando, of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and Boston. I am talking of where some of you have children and grandchildren, and where other will soon see their college bound kids travelling to. You have a sense of pride, belonging, and propriety that is derived from your Jewishness. Or maybe I should say that I assume you have a sense of pride, belonging, and propriety that is derived from your Jewishness, from your Jewish identity. Maybe it is not you but your parents who had it, and YOU, yourselves, are in the position I am ascribing to you progeny, to the next generation. At any rate, this much is sure: the Jewish identity is in danger -- and there is nothing there to replace it with!
Let me repeat, identity is a coherent sense of selfhood without which life loses its focus and chaos and injustice reign unchallenged. We are confronted with a psychologically troubled and unstable world. Everything, even the most basic dimensions of our culture, is undefined, in a state of constant flux, in chaos. The promise of world peace and universal understanding that seemed at hand a year ago has been shattered by the brutality and viciousness of the war in the former Yugoslavia, by strife is the former Soviet block and throughout the African continent; our satisfaction in the victory of "justice over evil" in a post world war two repentant and humble Germany has been dashed in the stench of burning Turkish bodies; even our sense of security in the inviolate nature of our own country has been shaken in the aftermath of the Twin-Towers terrorist bombing. Watergate and Irangate, Bosky and Keating, Judges Bork and Ginzburg, Scalia and Thomas, Chief Sessions of the F.B.I. and Grey of Los Angeles -- call into question our whole system of values, our trust in the political, economic, and judicial institutions that are the hallmark of our society. Look at our heros, if indeed we still believe in heros -- are Magic Johnson, Michael Jackson, or even General Schwartkopf role models?
What have we done in the name of modernity, progress and adaptability? We have taken a culture and life style developed and refined over a four thousand years period and tossed it over -- or at best denuded it of its meaning and essence to the point where all we had left was a hollow shell, a caricature of its former self -- and then we found fault with what we had in hand. All that was sacred became profane, all that was valuable was made worthless -- and now we ask ourselves, "why hold on to this lifeless form?"
And yet, what do we have to replace it? Where do we go if we leave the fountainhead? Who do we trust if we give up our age-old faith? Where is there relevancy, what is our alternative coherence? And who, tell me, who shall we be when we cease to be us? Our ancestors pledged, Im eshkekhekh Yerushalayim tishakakh ymini "if I forget thee, oh Jerusalem..." What shall be our new pledge? The pledge of allegiance to the flag? Is that enough? Is that how we are to end our history, our struggle? And what happens when the flag comes off the flagpole?
Second day of Rosh Hashana 5754
Todays Torah reading tells us the famous story of the Akedah. At the behest of God, Abraham took his son Isaac, left his wife Sarah behind, and upon a mountain that the Lord had chose he made an altar and bound his son for a sacrifice. The binding of Isaac, known traditionally as "the Akeda," is a central theme in the process of the "trial of man" or "the trial of the House of Israel" before God on this holiday -- Yom Hadin. The liturgy in replete with references to it. "...and remember, Lord our God, the covenant and the favor and the pledge you swore to Abraham at Mount Moriah..." "...and the binding of Isaac you shall remember in grace and pity to his seed today..." However, this same story is also a cause for complaint, if not outright rebellion, against our religion and our history. "Who has given Abraham permission to offer his son?" Ask the critics. "Is not a man, even the son of the great Abraham, a master of his own destiny?" This critique is only a first stage in the indictment, for next our interlocutors question, "and why did God ask of Abraham such a terrible proof of his fidelity?" It is enough for any man to give up religion! Or is it?
Faith is a wonderful attribute of man. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher, said that "we may define faith as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence." Faith gives a man courage in the face of what seems like a no-win situation; it keeps the desperate going in the worst of times and prevents them from giving up. Faith heals the sick and supports the downtrodden. It has been stated by Eugene Joly that "faith is an encounter in which God takes and keeps the initiative." Faith has kept our people alive through two thousand years of twilight existence. Oh, no, dont sell faith short, nor bemoan our fate throughout our history. For while our history, in retrospect, is not a pleasant stroll through fields of clover -- neither is it quite the nightmare we seem bent on painting by highlighting only the bad times, the exiles, the massacres, the persecutions, the pogroms and the holocaust. Also, to put things in perspective, we must look at the history of the world around us. Even a cursory examination will provide us with evidence aplenty that the rest of mankind did not enjoy any greater security, permanence, or well-being. The great and mighty empires of antiquity lasted for very limited days. Sumer, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all came and went in quick succession -- as did the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish and Portugese empires, and the French and British commonwealths. As for the citizens of all these once great nations: most did not have even the most minimal and basic living comforts. They were cold in winter and hot in summer, poor from cradle to grave, hungry and above all else scared. Life offered no security, no shelter.
The world of our fathers in the Shteytles of Eastern Europe, in the hovels of North Africa and the Middle East, or in the ghettos of Italy, Germany, and other countries in Western and central Europe appeared like a dark and dreary existence -- but that appearance was only the outward shell, only on the outside. Inside, in the secret places of their spiritual lives, there was, at all times, a bright and pleasant existence in the world of Torah, of Mitzvot, and of a shared sovereignty with God.
In Jewish communities -- and the Jews always lived in communities, which by their nature were supportive -- the people were all friends. Even enemies were friendly enemies. People lived in close proximity by edict and by choice. They visited one another, helped with household chores and with life-cycle chores. They mid-wived at births, nursed in sickness, and helped bury the dead. What they could not do as neighbors they did in communal societies which they developed and honed to perfection. The external realities of life in a hostile world were blotted out by study, by Torah, and by the Shabbat. T.G.I.F. is not a modern American cheer, calling yuppies to the watering holes for an extended "happy hour" at the onset of the week-end. Jewish ritual and observance of the Sabbath transported them out of their misery into a sanctuary in time where they were free, where they were blessed with everything. Life was, for a moment, good -- no, more than good -- it was perfect!
Nor are we talking here of "the opiate of the proletariate," as the late Communist world called it. Religion did not mask the misery of life. Through the Torah God and Israel were amalgamated, fused together. Henceforth and forevermore God suffered the pain of the Jews persecution, and His people enjoyed the out-of-body joy of His heavenly abode, the celebration of His perfect creation. Israel became a people of the spirit, and their spirit grew and expanded and filled the universe. Nothing was impossible for them -- the most distant became very close, almost intimate. Jerusalem, long lost and desolate, became their dear hometown, their sanctuary of safety. The amazing fact is that their faith, etherial and metaphysical, sustained them, and kept them going, and somehow prevented the enemy from striking the death-knell.
Now look around you today, look at all the reports of social scientists and community leaders. Here we are in a "new age" for Judaism, an age of no persecution, no threat to our continued existence, no ghettos and no pogroms. Yet, our future is in danger, and our continuity is in doubt. Ask yourselves, why is that? Why is ease a greater danger than difficulty? Why do we give up without a whimper, by default, what we held on to so tenaciously when there were those who wished to deny us the right to choose? This is the right time, this is the right season of the year to ask these questions. It is a time of judgement. Who shall live, and who shall leave. Who shall comprise klal Yisrael, and who shall compromise. Who shall endure, and who shall just end. The jury is out, and the verdict is yet to be given. But while All Jewry stands in the box of the accused - YOU, each one of you, is the jury. It is you who must decide the case!
Kol Nidrei 5754
Kol Nidrei night has been called, throughout Jewish history, the most solemn and holy of Jewish holidays. Even in a physical sense, there is something unique and different about this evening -- it seems to be an "upside-down" time: We are used to congregants wearing tallitot in the morning service -- yet here we are, in the spreading darkness, wrapping ourselves in the traditional prayer-shawls. Most congregations dont even open the ארון קודש Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, in the evening -- and this night we open the ark and remove all the scrolls, וכל המרבה הרי זה משובח vehol hamarbe, harey ze meshubah -- and the more scrolls, the better! Above all, this evening is renowned for the prayer we chant -- Kol Nidrei. Yet, little noticed is the opening verse for this prayer: "By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of this earthly court, with divine consent and the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare it permissible to pray with those who have transgressed."
We dont budge, we dont feel uneasy, we dont look around us and we dont even ask ourselves who are the "those who have transgressed?" Why? It is probably not because we know what we shall state later on, just before the "viduy," the confession we shall all utter communally later in the evening, when we preface our disclosure of sins with the words, "we are neither so arrogant nor so stubborn as to declare that we are righteous and have not sinned; for, indeed, we have sinned."
I remember reading, years ago, a satire called "How to be a Jewish Mother." One of the items read, "with a sad and forlorn face, point a finger at your child and say, `you know what you did, and I hope God will forgive you for it. You need not know what your child is guilty of -- but make sure he feels guilty!" Though the article was humorous, the concept is all too real, and does seem to be "an invention of the Jewish mother." We have all made fun of it, and, no doubt, we have all been touched by it. Well, guilt is not so bad! In fact, a little guilt is quite good. Just like pain, in its place and in its time, is good.
Without pain we would become reckless and do ourselves great harm. For example, the pain associated with touching hot surfaces prevents us from burning ourselves to death. Guilt, similarly, keeps us on our best behavior in relation to our relatives, our neighbors and the world at large. The Jewish mother gave us the guilt as an added measure of ethical social training -- and we have ever been in her debt. Jean Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, said, "man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does." Unfortunately, now-a-days, we wish to live a life free of responsibility, pain and of guilt. In the process of achieving this kind of a life we are desensitizing ourselves both physically and spiritually.
"No pain, no gain" tell us the gurus of physical fitness. A Rabbi can do no less. Yes, there is guilt, and we all need must have a measure of it! I would like to suggest to you that the reason so many of our brethren are turning away from the synagogue, and many who come are only here "pro-forma" -- to be seen, not to meet their maker, is not because they do not believe in a God of judgement, but because they do not want to stand in judgement, particularly not before the most exacting judge of all -- themselves. They wish to avoid the guilt they know is hidden somewhere, in the spark of the Jew that they inherited from generations long forgotten. They intellectualize their sense of belonging to the body of the people Israel, and in so doing divorce themselves from the responsibility they have to that corporeal body.
One of Robert Frosts best known and best loved poems reads, "the woods are lovely, dark and deep... But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep..." Not long before his death, the poet was asked in an interview just what promises he had in mind when we wrote those lines. Frost smiled and replied, "Oh, promises to myself and promises to my ancestors." The poets answer can be called a conditioned reply of the child of a Jewish mother -- for we all feel (or should feel) that we have unfulfilled promises to ourselves and our ancestors that burden us with guilt because they are left undone. The question is, what are we going to do about it? The poet says, " but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep..." and we ask, especially this evening, what are the promises, and where are we running to? Are we going miles out of our way, are we hiding from God and ourselves in order not to keep the promises?
It is interesting to note that the secularization of American Jews was achieved to a great measure by an organization called "Bnei-Brith" - sons of the covenant. Yet, it is precisely this covenant that calls us to fulfill the promises inherent in our part of a contract with God "You shall be My people and I shall be your God." Deny God, and you void the covenant. Zionism tries to find a secular, rational, "modern" reason for the establishment of a Jewish state -- and yet, if Zion is not the land God promised to Abraham and to his seed for all time -- why bother with that land, and why care for the wretched remnant of a people degraded and despised universally for two millennia? At the heart of our tradition stands the שבת Shabbat -- Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The Torah teaches us, "veshamru veney yisrael et hashabbat... The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath to make it throughout their generations an eternal covenant between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever. " -- Ot hi leolam, a forever sign, a promise. So let each one examine his or her itinerary and see where are we heading, and the miles we go before we sleep -- where will they lead us?
Yom Kippur 5754
The central theme of the Yom Kippur service, manifested in the reading from the Torah and the core of the Musaf service, is the "Avodah" -- the labor of the high priest on the day of Atonement in the Temple. There are a number of reasons for this: historical continuity is one of them, a vicarious participation in the expiation of sins is another. A third, and in my opinion a most important reason, is a message of the nature of atonement -- it is an intense labor. Quite obviously, it is not the kind of effort we normally associate with the word: it is not ditch-digging or brick-laying! However, if it is to be "the real article" it needs to be intense, energy consuming, trying and tiring.
One should not expect to attend a "nice little service" at which he or she will be inspired, amused, and made to feel good and wholesome. This is a time of suspense, of fear of the unknown -- life and death are in the balance. Yes, life and death -- and not only our own! The whole future stands in judgement -- and the past hangs on in the balance, too. For if there is no future, the past becomes an anachronism, a waste. Thus countless generations of martyrs and heroes await our response, our intensity, our determination -- which will either mirror and affirm theirs, or will sell them short and send them and all their efforts into oblivion.
Who are we and what are we? Is it important for us to know, to proclaim it to ourselves and to others? Why were we placed in this world in our particular existence. Are we creatures of happenstance? Did we just appear at the end of a long chain of "begats" for the purpose of the "pursuit of happiness?" Or are we a link in an eternal chain, placed here by the Maker of the chain, to connect all the yesterdays with all the tomorrows that are still to come. What is our debt to yesterday, and what is our responsibility to tomorrow. If we are todays link in the chain, we must make sure that we are uniform with all the other links, and that we are fitting for links yet to come. Because we are a biological chain-link, we have a further duty to prepare the life stuff, the building blocks for those coming links.
Our most important endeavor is to prepare the coming generation. It has always been this way in Judaism -- "for the kindalahs," we always said. Give the kids a better life than we ever had. Send the kids to the best schools, the finest summer camps. Give the kids clothes and toys and foods that we never had, expose them to the best that life has to offer. Ballet classes, gymnastics, ice-skating, horse-back riding, cotillion, computer camps, space camps -- if it is available, we try to give it to our kids. It has always been so. John Fiske, in "the Destiny of Man," said, "the future is lighted for us with the radiant colors of hope. Strife and sorrow shall disappear. Peace and love shall reign supreme. The dream of poets, the lesson of priest and prophet, the inspiration of the great musician..." Yet, what do we, in this generation, teach our progeny about home and hearth, about family values and ancestral practices, including the traditions and rituals that define us as Jews? Our biggest failure is in Jewish education. In the world of our fathers, in the yesteryears of two, three or four generations ago, Jewish identity was so profoundly etched upon the character of the Jew that it was not necessary to spend much time to impart it to the young. However, times have changed, and we live today in an open society where "gut" feelings just arent enough. We need a "holistic" approach to learning, where there is an integration of the school program with all aspects of Jewish life -- inside and outside of the synagogue. The Jewish learning experience must begin at birth and extend into adulthood. It must be multidimensional and extend to Jewish youth groups such as USY, Jewish camp experience and Israel trips. If we expect to succeed we must give our children experiences which both form and transform, that will create a lasting effect on them. In the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey it was reported that one of every two American Jews who married since 1985 married a non-Jew. Another reality is that 38% of American Jews are "Jews by choice." This gives the term "Jewish continuity" a new meaning. We have to face our dilemma of intermarriage, try to slow it down, prevent the loss of the Jew in such union, encourage those who are seeking to join us, give respect to those who wish to remain different, and hold steadfast to our own character, refusing to change to make someone else feel more at ease in our midst.
Since it appears that those Jews who are exposed to intensive Jewish education from early childhood through the college years are far more likely to have a positive Jewish identity as adults, it becomes our sacred duty to provide this kind of an experience in the home, in the religious school, and in the synagogue. While there are no guarantees in the open society of America, we firmly believe that intensive Jewish education at every level appears to be the most viable potential means to counter the troubling trends identified in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. But how do we implement this Jewish education in Lakeland? I suggest to you that the only way is Family Education. I have been advocating it for years. Now, the National Jewish Population Survey calls it "The Next Jewish Educational Frontier." In the wake of the recent demographic studies its potential is being more fully appreciated. The transformation of Jewish lives and souls is the most complicated job facing the American Jewish community. We need to reach out to every young family and help them confront the central issues of Jewish life. Those of us whose children are grown must share in the life of the community, or the effort shall fail. For, in the final analysis, the critical issue is not intermarriage. It is determining the value of Jewish life.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5756
Erev Tov -- good evening to you all. Shanah Tovah Umtuka -- wishes of a sweet and good year. Philosophers tell us that there are a number of questions that all of existence hangs on: What is this world, from whence did it come? What is man, what is his purpose? What is life, and what is its purpose and meaning... What are man's thoughts, what drives them and what is their purpose?
Allow me to draw your attention to some Torah text. In Exodus, chapter 9, verse 29, at the end of the story about the plague of hail and a confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, we read, "Moses said to him, "As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord's." This concept of God's ownership of the world was beautifully put to words in the 24th Psalm, where we read, "Ladona'y ha'aretz umelo'a, tevel veyoshvey va. Ki hu al yamim yesada ve'al naharot yekhoneneha. -- The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers." When was it that God founded the earth? It was on the first day of Tishrei. Thus, we are celebrating a most awesome and miraculous day -- when God created Yesh -- something, me'a'yin -- out of nothing.
Now, all Jewish holidays are uniquely Jewish, as well they should be. After all -- we call them "Jewish holidays" -- don't we? Of course, we are all familiar with the fact that there was an event in Jewish history that triggered the establishment of each and every holiday. We are all aware that Pesakh celebrates the night of God's visiting His worst punishment upon Egypt. We all know that Purim celebrates Esther & Mordekha'y's perseverance in the face of Haman's threat of annihilation. Jewish history, Jewish survival, and Jewish holidays are linked together. Many Jews, whose attendance record at services is less than laudable, make a point to be in the synagogue at least for a small part of the lengthy services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- or, in other words, during the High Holidays. These are special, and oh-so-Jewish days. Yet, as we examine the reason for the holiday, we rediscover what we learned in our early youth -- that the event that triggered our celebration of this holiday season is, in fact, not peculiarly and particularly Jewish -- it is universal.
It is true that we have a commentary on the story of creation that tells us that the first verse in Genesis, "bereshit bara elohim -- in the beginning God created" should not be read bereshit but b' and reshit. B' means "for the sake of," and Reshit is the first word of the term 'reshit tvu'ato,' meaning the first of his fruit -- which is Israel. Thus, commentary tells us, God created the world so as to give a place of habitation upon it to the people Israel, who He intended to make "His" from before the time of creation. For had there been no Israel, the world would not be cognizant of His sovereignty and His ownership of this world. Without Israel, we are taught, there is no purpose to the world, there is no intelligent life, there is no chance of life's perseverance. God's conscious thought brought about the creation, as the first four letters of bereshit are בראש -- which reads "in his head" or in His thought; and God's thought is found in Torah. Torah, also, is a "reshit," and God created the world for Torah -- and Israel to be the people that will receive the Torah. Torah and Israel exist as one unit. Without Torah, an Israelite is just a human being, and without Israel Torah is just... "old testament?"
There is a wonderful lesson in Midrash that says that Torah is made of four parts: pshat, remez, drash and sod. Pshat is the simple text, as it stand. Remez is a hint, found in the text, which gives us the greater meaning of the text. The different reading of the word B'reshit that I spoke of a couple of minutes ago is an example of remez. Drash is an expansion and explanation of the text. Drash may also contain a pilpul, which is a didactic and philosophical argument about the text, and finally Sod is the mystery behind the text. Only Israel has the Torah in its original tongue. Only Israel has the four parts of Torah in their possession. Now, the Torah is called an "etz kha'yim" -- a tree of life; the four parts, pshat, remez, drash and sod give us the acrostic פ.ר.ד.ס -- making the word "Pardes" -- which means an orchard. Thus it is Israel that carries on the purpose of creation -- toiling in God's orchard, pardes, which is the complete and comprehensive Torah. An interesting interpolation of the above tells us that "sod," with an additional "yod" for the presence of the Almighty, makes "Y'sod" -- which means foundation. Thus Israel is the keeper of the secret flame, who guard the foundation of that world. Judaism, and its adherents, the Jews, possess an original, pure essence from creation -- and it is what allows the world to go on. What is that essence? It is the knowledge that God's creation is capable of self-renewal, if only we shall elevate ourselves to the task. Only we, as Jews, knowing this about the nature of God's creation, are called upon to dedicate ourselves at this time of year to God's stated purpose for our being: "Vihyitem li lmamlekhet kohanim vego'y kadosh -- but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." By our holiness we consecrate all of our surroundings. By our ministering we bring about "tikun olam -- repairing of the world." Thus, what is universal in character -- the creation of the world -- becomes perticularely Jewish by design and by research into the purpose of God and the meaning of life.
This is a special time, a time of commencement, and of renewal -- as the text tells us in the "untane tokef" prayers -- this is the day when it shall be determined "who shall live and who shall die..." "Utfila, utshuva utzdaka ma'avirin et ro'a hagzera -- and prayer, repentance and tzedaka avert the evil decree." Let us, therefore, concentrate on our task, and may we be successful in our holy endeavor. Amen
First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5756
As we survey the scene today, in the beginning of the third year of the Washington signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the P.L.O., I believe we can note a change among the Arabs - subtle, incipient, as yet not too deep, but at least an agonizing reappraisal, a questioning. Were they indeed right in assuming, as they had, for the first forty five years of Israels existence, that its enterprise was temporary? This questioning is the result of the miraculous, phenomenal stand of Israel and its only steadfast ally -- world Jewry -- for nearly half a century; of five wars successfully fought by Israel; of world Jewry opening its heart and its pocket to help Israel in the economic boycott that threatened more than the military posturing; of the fact that vast armies numbering tens of millions look through telescopes and know that facing them are small forces of young men, on the Golan Heights, along the Jordan Valley, who look into a vast unknown without fear. They came to realize that the only way to remove these young men from their doorsteps was by signing on the dotted line of an agreement to end hostilities -- as was done by Sadat of Egypt, as was done by Arafat of the P.L.O. and by king Hussein of Jordan. It stands to reason to stipulate that the Arabs have come to this conclusion: Only a people feeling that they are in their own land, after a recent homecoming, with total conviction, in total stability, in total security, in total assurance of their future, could stand as Israel stands and face them as it has faced them. The impact of this conclusion proceeds continuously. Despite the shooting and the bombs that unfortunately have not ceased though we surely do hope they soon will despite the bitterness, despite the distrust and suspicion, despite the tangled wires that divide us, despite the blaring of propaganda on both sides, it is there; and, for the first time, in recent months Arab capitals have at least begun to say the word Peace. I will not, at this stage, enter into a semantic analysis of what peace means to them, what reservations they have for the future, whether they have not merely pushed aside their dream of vengeance for a better day.
Time was, in the Arab world, that one did not breathe the forbidden word, Israel. But the fact is that they can utter the word now, it can be said day in and day out on their radios and televisions and be spoken by their leaders. For the first time they are acquiring a glimmer of balanced assessment, a realization that the Middle East may well have to be a mosaic of different peoples, faiths and communities, and perhaps this phenomenon, which they considered a passing phase and an aberration in the Arab Middle East, enjoys a permanence and roots that stretch back beyond the existence of the Arab people.
This agonizing reappraisal has not yet found emotional expression in a drive, in a thrust, for peace, but it has found calculated expression in more realistic assessments of the balance between war and peace, of the dangers to the Arab world of renewed war and in a questioning with regard to the wisdom of their course until now.
The future of Israel, whatever the odds, is in the midst of the Arab crescent. Not in vain have our defenders shed their blood and gave their lives not in vain have we asserted our faith and belief. The dialogue continues, and we draw encouragement from it.
But this dialogue is essentially not a question of territory, of refugees or of the usual problems between states, which can be solved at a conference, around a table. Essentially it refers back to the crucial roots of continuity, the idea that we are a nation, and have a right to assert that throughout history we have maintained a metaphysical link with this land, and, consequently, this gives us the justification to claim it as our own in the twentieth century. The Palestinian Covenant negated this concept -- but the D. O. P. affirmed it.
The strategic capacity of Israel, its permanence on the Middle Eastern scene, and its position as a major factor in Middle Eastern strategy, is accepted today. The new relations between Israel and the Vatican can be seen as one manifestation of this reassessment. Furthermore, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the whole power structure and consequent military strategy in the world, and in the Middle East in particular, has changed -- and this change is well noted in Arab capitals. There is only one world super-power -- the United States. It is not the policy of this great power to let Israel go down the drain. Thus, as Arafat told his council at a meeting in Tunis not too long ago, "Israel is going to be with us for the foreseeable future -- the United States wants it so."
The question that occupies the great centers of thought and religion across the world continues to be, "what is the inner meaning of all this? How has this people, a third of whose sons and daughters were led to slaughter only a half-century ago in endless humiliation, in unmitigated cruelty, who were at the nadir of their fortunes, flung to the abyss of a cruel and merciless fate - whence do they rise again, phoenix-like, with force, with vigor, with faith and conviction to regain the capital of their eternity, Jerusalem? What is the meaning of all this?" Cardinals and princes of the church, Statesmen and military strategists have asked: "what is the enigma, what is this mystery of your survival, of your resurrection and survival against all the odds?" The debate goes back and forth across the world on the nature of this miracle.
Indeed, the Jew today - not only in Israel, but throughout the world - is no longer a subject of humiliation nor of contempt, but of a spiritual scrutiny that can touch the very essence of vast theologies, philosophies of thought, indeed entire historical trends. The leaders of Islam, representing 600 million Moslems, upon a meeting in Rabat, Morocco, in September 1969, asked themselves what it is all about when we said Jerusalem is ours. Israel has offered, and gives, every religious freedom to every group in Jerusalem. But many cannot tolerate that the sovereignty in Jerusalem is ours. I certainly hope that the present government, or any future government of Israel, will not surrender on this issue. We have just recently begun to celebrate Jerusalem 3,000 -- and the Moslem world is again up in arms. Faisal Husseini, the representative of the Palestinian Authority in Orient House in Jerusalem, has issued a call to all Arabs, to all Moslems, to refuse to recognize this celebration. The representatives of 70 nations were invited to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for the opening event of Jerusalem 3,000 -- but only 17 showed up. The United States, sadly, was among the missing. This is a great problem, which has its core in the Middle East, with the Arab world, beyond it with the nations of Europe and the U.S. -- and beyond even that with the major spiritual forces of the world. But ultimately, as we analyze the assessments, as we analyze the new posture of the Jew -- his new dignity, his force, his firmness, his new perspective -- we come back to the change of assessment in the soul of the Jew himself. And they are interrelated. The dialogue between the people Israel and the nations of the world spans recorded history; as we feel and act, they react, and as they react and feel, we feel and act. It is an interlocked dialogue, ambivalent, often marred with blood and torment, but also uplifted, in a higher cooperation, in a search for a messianic period of peace and fulfillment for all mankind.
Within the Jewish soul a revolution has also taken place. In 150 years of emancipation, the Jew sought to obliterate his history of degradation and suffering by changing his identity, to escape into the abyss surrounding him, to be Germans-of-the-faith-of-Moses, then socialists, communists and part of world utopia, world revolution. Recall the story of the Jewish family who re-fashioned themselves to assimilate into a Gentile neighborhood in Westchester County, New York. They had the right accent and the right education, they dressed in the right cloths and lived in the right neighborhood. But when asked what their religious affiliation was, the responded, "why, were goyim, of course..." The Jew can leave his own people, but he can never become integrally or spiritually part of any other -- or he ceases to be what distinguished him as a person to that point. This is the nature of Jewish distinctiveness through the ages. This is not only our inner identification, this is our distinguishing mark in the eyes of the world. As such, we make our contribution to the supremacy of spiritual over material values in human history. And this characteristic of the Jews links up with the nature of Jerusalem, which, in a desolation for over 3,000 years, has maintained its timelessness, awaiting the Jew and remaining part of the Jew. Only to the Jew is Jerusalem a diadem of glory! The Hebrew author, S.Y. Agnon, and my neighbor in a suburb of the capital, told the King of Sweden on the occasion of winning the Nobel Prize: I was born in Buczacz, but only in a dream , in reality I was born in Jerusalem and exiled by Titus.
A revolution of Jewish consciousness started in 1967, when Jerusalem, in the words of the Talmud, "shekhubra lah yahdav" as it became reunited, "osa et kol Yisrael khaverim" made of the whole of Israel one great family, from one end of the world to the other, far surpassing any physical contact. It started, "kimedurat esh," as a beacon of fire, in the hills of Soviet Georgia, when the mountaineer Jewish villagers suddenly came down from their perches after half a century and said to the Soviet authorities, "we want to be in Jerusalem." With inimitable heroism and bravery, these Jews put themselves in danger and raised the call of Jerusalem in that vast system of slavery, of ideological uniformity, of mental coercion that was the U.S.S.R.. They said: We wish to return to our land. And as they spoke, their message got across to the universities, to the heirs of Trotsky, to members of the Communist Party, and the whole of Russian Jewry thing stared. Those who had never been to a synagogue, to a Hebrew school, were seized by something inward, something eternal, and they said : let us go, for we find no fulfillment here. Their awakening caused a mighty tremor that so shook the Soviet regime that eventually it brought about its demise.
And across the Arab lands, in the torture cells of Baghdad prisons, Jews said the same thing. They refused to yield, come what may, they asked their oppressors, let us go home. And in Washington, the capital of the free world, a delegation of all segments of American Jewry - including those who ran down the concept of Zionism a short fifty years ago, raising the irrelevant phobia of "dual loyalty," speaking, of Diaspora trends - appeared before the Secretary of State and argued the case of Israel as the bastion of freedom in an area threatened by the Soviet colossus, and therefore a key factor in American and free-world interest in the Middle East. But as they were about to finish, their leader rose and said . Mr Secretary, we must be honest with you, we have spoken until now as American citizens, but before we leave you, we must tell you that where Jerusalem is concerned, we are all citizens of Jerusalem , without it, we cannot live. He was not aware that he was merely echoing what a Jewish delegation answered Caligula, Emperor of the Romans, when he said, 1,900 years ago, I have given you your rights as Roman citizens. Wherefore do you link yourselves with Jerusalem, this tiny village in a remote province of Rome? Surely the lure, the force, the dynamism of Rome, conqueror of the world, mistress of lands in Europe, North Africa and the East, is sufficient. Wherefore do you link yourselves, wherefore do you come to us to speak on Jerusalem ? And they answered, We cannot do otherwise, because we can only be fulfilled Roman citizens if Jerusalem is with us in peace. We cannot divorce ourselves.
This is the essence of the metaphysical union spanning over 4,000 years. It has defied all odds ; and, at the nadir of Jewish history, at the moment of decline, at the loss of identification, at the flight from Jewishness, from peoplehood, from faith, it has suddenly flared anew as a vast beacon that lights up every Jewish path across the world -- from the Steppes of Russia to the deserts of Arab lands to the pleasure-domes of affluent societies of the Western World. And believe me, there is nowhere that my travels have taken me personally in over half a century of teaching and preaching and seeking the peace of Jerusalem where I do not feel the warm presence, the electricity of the eternity of Jerusalem.
This, my friends, is the background against which we stand today as we enter the three thousandth anniversary of Israels capital. There is a new perspective ; yet we still face vast perils. No man can guarantee that fighting will not resume tomorrow, that our soldiers will not have to again fight bloody battles. But we know that we have the strength to withstand any onslaught. We may face political pressures from all sides, we may be terrorized by suicide bombers and knife yielding assassins, but we face all this in the knowledge that we belong to a new epoch and that the Jew has changed - in Jerusalem, in Israel and across the world. And though at times it looks dark, the light will reappear. With all the difficulties, with all the pressures, with all the dangers -- by chance and by design -- we are the generation of redemption. Let us indeed be worthy of this privilege that defies human logic and supersedes human vistas. Let us gird ourselves with patience and fortitude to be steadfast and strong. Let us renew our commitment to the perpetuity of Am Yisrael -- the Jewish people, Dat Yisrael -- the faith of Judaiosm, and Eretz Yisrael -- the Land of the promise, eretz Zion vyrushalayim. Amen
Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5756
Rosh Hashanah was unusually early last year. This year it occurred relatively late -- at the end of September. The truth of the matter is that Rosh Hashanah is never on time; it is either too early or too late. But whenever Rosh Hashanah occurs, we always react the same way. "Is it already another year? How have the months and weeks and days gone by. It seems just like yesterday that we assembled to celebrate last Rosh Hashanah."
In our holiday liturgy we emphasize "Hayom," Ha - this. yom - day. This is the "Yom Hadin -- Day of Judgment," the "Yom Hazikaron -- Day of Memorial," the "Yom Tru'ah -- Day of sounding the Shofar," the "Yom Harat Olam -- Day the world came into being." We plead with God, "Hayom te'amtzenu -- strenthen us this Day."
The existentialist philosophers urge us to focus on life in the here and now, as they emphasize the categories of feeling, and doing. Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard and other religious or atheistic, all emphasize the moment. It has been aptly said, yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, only today is here and now" Therefore, our concern must be today, hayom. What are we doing with today?
George Wills once wrote that "our lives are measured by coffee spoons of small activities." He referred to a fascinating survey prepared by efficiency experts in priority-time management. They came to the conclusion that in the normal life span we spend seven years in the bathroom, six years eating, five year waiting in line, four years cleaning the house, and three years at meetings. We spend one entire year searching for misplaced articles and eight months opening junk mail. Six months is consumed by waiting at red lights.
Are these results exaggerated? Though they may not apply to you or to me, if they are accurate, the figures are most depressing. Do we measure our lives in coffee spoons of petty activities? Certainly; on Rosh Hashanah we should undertake to answer that question.
The word "time" is frequently on our tongue. When we say, "time is money; " we are emphasize the materialistic aspects of life, for time is more than money -- it is life itself. We say to each other: "Have a good time!" But time has nothing to do with goodness; we are merely referring to the sensual aspect of life. Then, again, some people seem to have "plenty of time." We talk about "killing time," "wasting time," and "using time." Prisoners "serve time." A musician "marks time." Idlers "pass time" or "fritter time away," a referee ""calls time," an historian "records time," and a scorekeeper "watches time." Pete Seeger took a verse from Ecclesiastese and wrote a song "time, time, time."
Rosh Hashanah reminds us that our days are limited, that time is precious, that today will never come again. In the words of Fitzgerald: "The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line."
How shall we utilize the time allotted us, the months and weeks, the days and hours ahead?
In the first place, we must learn how to evaluate time. Storm Jameson wrote: "I believe that only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend 59 minutes an hour in the past, with regret for lost joys or shame for badly done, or in a future which we either long for or dread... There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute during which you are alive -- this minute, here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle, which is exactly what it is a miracle and unrepeatable."
One of the most me of all our prayers is the "modim". Three times a day in our silent devotion we thank God "for the miracles that are daily with us, evening, morn, and noon." Every event is part of the miracle of life, the unearned gift of God. But it is a miracle and a blessing only if we are aware of it.
The first prayer that we should recite when waking in the morning is, "Mode ani lefanekha melekh khay vekayam -- I fully thank You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me.. .." When we sleep at night, we are dead to the world, a new day brings new life and fresh opportunities. Other early morning prayers are of a similar nature. Thus, we thank the Lord "for opening the eyes of the blind," for it is a miracle that we are able to see. We thank God for "clothing the naked." It is a miracle to have food and water, to be provided with shelter and clothing. We even thank God for"giving freedom to those who are enslaved"
One of the most intriguing prayers Jews constantly recite is the asher yatzar. I remember visiting a patient in the hospital who was in terrible pain, climbing the walls, because he was unable to eliminate the wastes of his body. The next day this was corrected. Afterwards, he said to me: "I cannot tell you how unbearable the pain was, and what relief it was when my ailment was cured. I said to him: "Do you know that a prayer should be recited when one eliminates the wastes of his body?" "Youre kidding," he said to me. Delicately, I translated from the Hebrew: "Thou has created within us orifices and openings. If one of them opens or closes improperly, the body cannot survive." He asked me for a copy of this prayer and says it every day.
In short, we must appreciate time as it pauses if we are to embrace the moment. The miracles that are daily with us must not be taken for granted. We have eyes that enable us to see, legs that make it possible for us to walk, ears that let us hear, and a mind that is capable of thought and awareness. Let Us use them properly.
Secondly, if we are to embrace the moment, we must find more joy in today. So many of us are always complaining. No matter what and how much we have, we are constantly bitter and sour, farkrimtt.
I read an interesting chapter in a book called Jewish Curses For All Occasions. Apparently Jews were prolific inventors of imprecations, some of which were quite long and detailed. "You should have a toothache and the dentist should remove every tooth except one, and that should be the tooth that is you pain." "You should achieve fame when you make medical history." "You should live in a mansion that has 13 bedrooms with ten beds in every room, and you should be aflicted with kadukhes, which is bad fever, and toss and turn every night, going from bed to bed and from room to room ceaselessly." Then there is the well-known Hungarian curse: "Your mother-in-law should be a shrew like your wife, and the two should live together with you in the same house with only one room.
While our scriptures have but one word for snow, the Eskimos have 15 different words for it, obviously because it is very common in their environment. But when it comes to complaining, we Jews have more expressions than most cultures -- kvetch, nudge, shmendrik, nudnik and even phudnic, which is a nudnick with a Ph.D. Someone who complains is a grindge, a ferkimtt poonim, one who acts with azoos-poonim.
What is a classic Jewish telegram? One that reads: "Start worrying, a letter follows!" There are some who define a Jew as one who always sees a cloud behind the silver lining.
The story is told of a person who joined a Trappist monestary, where there is complete silence at all times. However, the Abbot allowed each monk to say two words every five years after the first five years, the latest recruit said to the Abbot, "Hard Work!" After the second five
years, he exclaimed "Bad Food!" At the end of the third five-year period, the Abbot asked him what his next two words would be. He replied "I Quit!" The Abbot rebuked him: "Its just as well. For 15 years, all you did was complain!"
Life is a journey, not a destination. We must enjoy the trip. Some people live only for tomorrow , meanwhile, all the precious, irretrievable todays drift away. Happiness is not out there somewhere. It is here, hayom, today. Enjoy it; hold on to it; embrace it!
Will Rogers was once asked, "If you had 48 hours to live, what would you do?" He answered simply, "I would live one hour at a time!" It has been aptly said: "I have no yesterdays, time has taken them away. Tomorrow may not come. But I do have today!"
Thus in order to embrace the moment, we must enjoy it and take full Stage of it. We must not complain, but rather wipe the scowl from our forehead, blot out the frown, and banish the ferkrimte poonim.
Of course, I am not advocating illicit joys. I am not suggesting a philosophy of hedonism, of "Eat and drink for tomorrow you die!" I am not suggesting that we should be immoral, ruthless, and cynical, since there is nothing beyond the present. Rather, my thesis is that one should take advantage of licit pleasures.
Enjoy your children as they are growing up their bnai - mitzva, graduations, weddings, and children; give your best to your job; and be active in your synagogue and community. Treasure your friends. Voltaire cynically observed, "there are no friend, only moments of friendship." Upon how many friends can you rely in a crisis? Many so-called friends, when you really need them, are
like rats deserting a ship.
Do not rush through life. The story is told of a pupil running past his teacher at a breakneck pace. "Where are you going?" asked the teacher. "I am rushing after life!" was the reply. "How do you know if you have not passed it?" chided his teacher. For too many of us, life has become a mad dash to catch a train to nowhere.
I like this little prayer:
Slow me down, Lord, I am going too fast,
I cant see my brother when hes walking past.
I miss a lot of good things day by day.
I dont know a blessing when it comes my way.
Slow me down, Lord, so I can talk
With some of your angels.
Slow me down to a walk.
Finally, if we are to embrace the moment, we must learn how to add value to time.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, once observed that Judaism is a religion of time, while pagans worshipped things in space. Our aim is to sanctify time. How do we make time holy?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holy because we worship on them. Sabbath is holy because we refrain from some mundane pursuits. Actually every day has sanctity. Every moment is holy if we make good use of its potentialities.
How do we make time holy? By sharing it with other. We hallow time by visiting the sick, talking to the troubled, helping the poor. We hallow time by expanding our knowledge and sharpening our sensitivities. Time becomes sanctified when we remember meaningful things too long forgotten and forget some things too long remembered. Time becomes holy if we reclaim those that were
abandoned and abandon that are often foolishly cherished.
There was a young woman, a brilliant attorney, whose father lived 500 miles away. He was approaching 80 and failing health. He would complain to his daughter: "I do not see you very often. How about a visit?" She would reply, "there are so many demands on my time. I have so many court appearances and meetings that I am really
too busy to leave the city!" One day, he called her and said: "I have been worrying for a long time. When I die, will you attend my funeral?" She answered: "I cant believe that you are asking this question. Of course I will attend your funeral." Then he said simply: "Forget the funeral. I need you now!"
We are all aware that the word khamets designates food which is forbidden on Khag Hamatzot. In reality, the food is not "to blame;" it is the faulty preparation that disqualifies it. When the dough is prepared to be baked the oven, it must be done within 18 minutes. If it stays longer, it becomes fermented -- or khamets, and may not be used on Passover. In other words, because we waited too long, the dough became spoiled. Life, too, is spoiled by procrastination.
Our parents are getting older. We want to call or visit. We would like to share thoughts with them before it is too late. We postpone and postpone and then suddenly - khamets. They are gone. We are now too busy to enjoy special time with our children. We promise ourselves that soon we shall have a close and intimate conversation with them. We remain busy for so long that before we know it, they have grown up and left home. Khamets again. We want to attend services at the synagogue, to enroll in a course in Torah or history. We have every good intention, but we wait and wait. Khamets once more. How many of us have never visited Israel? It should be an absolute must for every Jew, so that he or she can stand tall in pride and self respect and experience first hand the greatest miracle in Jewish history. But khamets has won.
We know that there are words of forgiveness that should be spoken, hatred that should be banished. There is love that should be shown and kindness and charity to be practiced. There are books that should be read, beauty that should be seen, music that should be heard, respect that should be given, duty that should be discharged. Our tradition tells us: "Do not say I will study
when I have the leisure. You may not have the leisure." (Avot 2:4.) Embrace the moment now, for tomorrow it will become khamets.
If you want to fulfill your prayers for hayom, then learn to appreciate time, find joy in the present, and make better use of the moment. It has been aptly said: "Yesterday is a cancelled check, tomorrow is a promissory note and today is ready cash." Let us spend our money wisely and happily.
Sunday Sermon Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda (Published in the Lakeland Ledger Sept 1996)
The Purpose of Life
Tomorrow evening, after dusk, Jews throughout the world will assemble in synagogues to begin a period of introspection and communion with God that is known as Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.
Judaism celebrates the New Year as the anniversary of creation, and it is a time of new beginnings since the "old" year is over. Repentance and atonement are the central themes of the High Holiday period. When the new year arrives we perceive God as judge, trying us in His court. On Yom Kippur sentence is passed and our fate for the coming year is sealed.
In todays world, as advanced as we are in science and in technology, the idea of God as a judge passing sentence on us may be a little difficult to accept -- we are not "simple" enough to view God as an actual judge, like a master puppeteer pulling our strings; at the same time we may be too simple, not sophisticated enough, to grasp the concept of an infinite, non-physical, non-person God that Moses and our other great religious leaders tried to teach us -- and still relate to Him.
How, then, should we view a day of judgement? Maybe we can look at it as a psycho-drama: We are all familiar with mental stress, and we are aware that it can bring about a nervous breakdown, which is the collapse of our personhood. Well, the great sages of Judaism understood these problems two millennia before Dr. Freud wrote it down as a "discipline." They realized that the mental well-being of each and every one of their co-religionists depended on being rid of all guilt known and unknown. Absolution from guilt can be arrived at in a number of ways and Judaism, being an ethical faith, tried to bring it about by making amends for wrong doing and through good deeds.
Thus the concept of a period of repentance is one which demands of us to try to "square" things with our fellow men -- our known guilt, and then, and only then, spend some time and effort in meditation, seeking the peace of mind that comes from communion with God, recreating our mental balance.
However, new beginnings are just that -- beginnings. The question that must then be addressed is: a beginning of what? Where are we going? To what purpose are we going there? What will we do when we get there? Scriptures tell us that there is a purpose for our existence. We are here to sing the praise of God, and to make Him known to all. Micah has summarized our purpose with the words, "It has been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord does require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." [Micah 6:8] The first two requirements deal with the relationships between man and his brother, and only when these are fulfilled can we reach a state of mind that allows us to relate to God by walking humbly before Him.
What we learn from this is the priorities that should motivate our lives. Dedicating ourselves to God by shunning the world is folly and vanity -- it will achieve no end, not even communion with Him. We can only reach God by loving that which He created in His image -- mankind. The road to God is not through the desolate wilderness -- it is through the teeming masses of the wretched, the oppressed and the suffering. When we will have achieved "liberty and justice for all" our prayers will be heard -- and they will be answered.
Rosh Hashana 5757
I always knew that I was a Jew. I was born and raised in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish world -- though, of course, I did not know quite what the significance of Jerusalem was -- but more about that at another time. I just knew that I was a Jew. In fact, I thought that people born where I lived were "automatic Jews" -- and those born outside the land were... "Goyim." Thats how simple, nay, simplistic, was my acceptance of my Judaism. I felt proud of our people: the patriarchs and the prophets, the scribes and the sages of ages long gone; the pioneers who were turning the wasteland into a blooming garden, the heroes who, like Joseph Trumpeldor, were giving their lives for our redemption with the words "Tov lamut bead artzenu -- it is good to die for our land" on their lips. It was like living in the days of Nathan Hale and George Washington -- who would not be a patriot? I was crushed and devastated when I heard of how we were beaten and exiled by Babylon, Greece and Rome; how we were mistreated and persecuted by heathens, Christians and Moslems. I felt personally threatened by the Hitlerite menace during the second world war, and by the Arab attempt to abort the State of Israel. I lit Hanukkah candles, and I worked hard to prepare for my bar mitzvah. There were no tape recorders then, and my teacher didnt have either patience or pity. But he did teach me to chant the trope, and I carry it with me to this day. Judaism, to me, was something natural and almost inevitable. What I did not like was religion.
Yes, thats right, I did not like religion! In Israel, when I was growing up, pretty much as it is today, there was only one kind of Judaism -- orthodoxy. It was dark and oppressing, and it descended into peoples lives and made things difficult. It made Shabbat a long day with no fun, no heat in winter, no transportation to friends or relatives (except walking which kids dont like to do), no joy. Synagogue was something my grandfather went to -- not "the kids" (if we could help it). The prayers were muttered fast and furious, and those who did not know where the cantor was in the book had no chance of catching up with him. There was never an announcement, no responsive readings or communal participation -- and kids were not invited nor welcomed to participate in any part of the service. So, whats to like?
I am not really sure when it was that I began to change my attitude. I suppose it was when I began to "grow up." I came to realize that "grown-ups" did not know everything, nor did they do everything "right" all the time. I discovered commentaries, texts that said that God only wants our pleasure. God is "Avinu malkenu -- our Father and king," said the text of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and He wants what all parents want for their children their growth to maturity, their happiness, their pleasure. God created us for pleasure. Pleasure has to be distinguished from something else that is often mistaken for pleasure, namely comfort. Comfort is the absence of strain or pain, a warm bath, a feather bed, sleep. Pleasure is energy and excitement. Pleasure is purchased at the price of effort and sometimes even of pain. You know the claim, "money cannot buy you love." Well, there is a counter-claim: "yes, but it can rent a fairly good imitation thereof..."
Pleasure involves our physical senses - sight, touch, smell, taste. Wine, food, sex and leisure, lying in the sun tanning ourselves are pleasures that most adults crave -- and Judaism endorses their enjoyment, within reason and in moderation. On Shabbat, it is a mitzvah to bathe, put on fine clothes, eat fine food, and lovingly woo our wives with the words of the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs, "A woman of valor who can find? -- Eshet khayil mi yimtza." Old men should sit in the sun, says the Talmud, to remember the simple feeling of well-being that physical enjoyment brings. Many physical pleasures are made possible, or more accessible, with money -- we may develop an appreciation for the fine arts. We can develop a keen interest in, and an appreciation for good music and fine paintings. We may frequent concert halls and museums -- or we can acquire a great hi-fi system of our own and collect our favorite paintings. All this will add to our pleasure. We come to identify with it to the point where we say that we love it.
Love, you may say, defines a much greater yield of pleasure. However, love surpasses physical pleasure in the effort needed to achieve it, as well. Commitment, loyalty and patience are necessary for love. Love exacts its own price in yearning and longing for the object of our love. Very few people love art or music or culinary delights without being initiated and trained to love them. "Love at first sight" is not love at all, it is merely infatuation -- which with time and nurturing may grow to become real love.
A case in point is children. Those of you here who have raised one or more will attest to the fact that we have to learn to appreciate and love our children. As we go through the routine of caring for the children, which is not an instinct and does not come naturally -- but which we learn to do in our culture, we are aware of little peaks of pleasure which we get along the way -- together with the bother and the work and the pain and the regrets. It is only in the still small voice that accompanies those rare moments of total peace and empathy which may come when they are asleep, or when they stand up at the end of a miracle moment when they shine before the whole world: a piano or a dance recital, a special honor in school, a scouting achievement, or a bar or bat mitzvah -- that we say to ourselves, "yes! I love that child, and it is all worth it."
Oh, yes, many people talk a great game when it comes to love. Many would like to make a career of "loving," moving on from lover to lover like a butterfly flies from flower to flower. Many claim a "right" to love freely and without restraint -- but, in fact, they have little knowledge or understanding of love. For they do not know, they fail to realize that love requires energy, and that love is hard work, and that love is not taking -- it is giving, and more than giving, it is sharing. Love is making a commitment -- not avoiding it. This is where I found that my faith connected me with my pride in Judaism and in all that I liked about Judaism. I discovered that Love of God is at the top of the pleasure scale. In Judaism, I discovered, we teach and confirm that God created man to enjoy the rich experiences of life in its awesome depth of pleasure, a world with the opportunity to love, to validate our brief span upon this earth and create, God-like, our own little universe. The appreciation of that great gift is the love of God.
We must receive special training to do almost anything -- be it trade school, college, law or medical schools -- you name it. Yet to engage in the most difficult thing of all -- proper living -- we seem to think that there is no need for special training. Except in religion, except, for us here, in Judaism!
To help us achieve our pleasure potential that the Almighty has given us, He gave us a text book to train us, the "Book of Love" -- Torat Khayim, literally, "instructions for living." The Torah teaches us crucial definitions and distinctions: the difference between love and infatuation, pleasure and comfort. The Torah gives our life meaning and purpose. The experience of "meaning" adds a greater quality to pleasure and to our love. When we come to recognize that our lives have a goal and a purpose, it gives us a sense of rootedness. Just as a tree with good roots bears good fruit, so also our roots yield energy and strength. We long for the ecstasy of committing ourselves in the service of some great mission. We labor long, deprive ourselves, put ourselves in jeopardy, we may even risk death -- so nourishing is the experience which gives our life ultimate purpose.
This ultimate purpose is a pleasure which surpasses "meaning" in the enjoyment of power and the ability to create. The Talmud directs each of us to say, "the world was created for me; it is my world to shape and to define." The pleasure of social and political action, like the pleasure of teaching and of parenting, comes from the realization that we become partners with God in creating and molding the world. Kindness, too, is an aspect of creativity. When I nurture another and help the other to discover and express his potential, I bring meaning out of clay. All these satisfying aspects of power and ability are positive affirmations of the Image of God in which man was born. This is what Judaism is all about -- this is what Torah teaches us. This is why I no longer hate religion. I have found out what religion is all about: it is the school for human existence on the highest possible level -- it is the bond between energy and enjoyment. I present it to you as a New Years gift. Enjoy.
Rosh Hashana 2nd day 5757
Yesterday I presented the congregation with the gift of love and purpose. Today I want to confess to you that I am a fake and a sham -- for I have given you what was not mine to give, since I did not own it. At best, I can claim "the right of discovery" -- though even that maybe in doubt, since I have discovered what has been known by so many over the ages. So what did I do? I merely presented anew what our heritage has been teaching for generations: "veahavta et Adonay Eloheikha -- and you shall love the Lord your God." The original injunction was spoken by Moses. Well, at least I chose a good teacher to quote.
This morning I want to go a step further and move from "veahavta" -- the act of loving, to "Adonay Eloheikha" -- the Lord your God. Let me tell you, when you use this term in polite society, Jewish or otherwise -- you are often met with an embarrassed silence by your listeners! I think that part of the reason may be the fact that Fundamentalist Christians have cornered the "God" market. We hear them on the radio, see them on TV, in airports and on buses praying aloud, invoking His name, daring you to deny Him, challenging science on His behalf, and, to be quite frank, they embarrass us. Jews, in particular, and many thinking men and women in Christian congregations and the rest of the faith community in no way want to identify with that.
In many synagogues and churches, God is rarely discussed. We talk about Tzedakah (charity), Israel, holidays, tikkun olam (repairing the world), politics and current events. Everything and anything but God. In public or in private, in the press or in casual conversation, God is hardly ever mentioned. Sometimes we use the word as a figure of speech. In this usage it represents an ideal, a hope for peace, a desire for better understanding among men and greater self-awareness. "Oh, God, I dont know how long it has been..." We say, invoking His quality of infinite existence and, well, remoteness. But in the simple, emotionally direct way in which our ancestors called out to the Creator of the universe for help and succor, for renewed strength, and out of love and reverence and desire, "Our Father our King have mercy on us and answer us," Jews (and others) today almost never talk about God.
Now, of course, I am not talking about "religious practices." To be sure, when you come to synagogue you expect things to follow a pattern established long ago. Congregational prayer is a different matter. It is distant and formal enough that we can speak quite directly, without embarrassing ourselves: "Barukh ata adonay eloheinu melekh haolam, yotzer or uvore khoshekh -- Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe -- who creates light and makes darkness..." Ask the fellow praying aloud these words in a booming voice to say a few words of his own to God or about Him, in English, and he becomes awkward and put-off as though youve asked him to sing aloud.
Why is this? The first reason for this awkwardness on the topic of God is that people, even those who are quite religious, find it difficult to treat God as anything more than an abstraction. We believe in principle, remotely and dispassionately, even as we believe in "justice," or in "freedom." God, for many people, has become an ideal, an intangible article devoid of personhood and reality, incapable of either inspiring or terrifying us. You wonder why, other than force of habit, would anyone avoid eating on a fast day "for God," or why one would proclaim seven times at the end of a long and full day of meditation and introspection, "Adonay hu haelohim -- the Lord, He is God."
Prayer, moreover, is very difficult. We dont understand it and it offends our rational sense. Is God really listening? Is He listening to me? Does He really need my prayers? How do I pray, and what am I praying for? Is prayers purpose to give God a petition? Doesnt He know, ahead of time and before I speak, exactly what I need -- without my saying it? Why should He want me to praise Him all the time? We dont really know what were doing in synagogue and we feel out of place and alienated. Traditionally, Jews understood that prayer isnt for God but rather for us. He isnt lonely without our communication or in need of reassurance of our love; we are the ones who need the sense of connection. With this appreciation lost, prayer seems foolish.
The fact is that God is what Judaism is all about. The holiday liturgy tells us, in the famous "untane tokef" prayer, ascribed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, "We proclaim the great sanctity of this day, a day filled with awe and trembling. On this day, Oh Lord, we sense Your dominion..." Even "tikkun olam," perfecting the world, the age-old Jewish pursuit of justice and peace on earth, has its roots in our desire for the universal recognition of Gods sovereignty. Long ago, in another age when, possibly, people were embarrassed by the faith in God, we borrow from the holiday liturgy a prayer that we made a closing hymn for all our services, three times daily -- the Aleinu. Why? Because it establishes for all times our basic concept: "It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of everything that exists, to proclaim the greatness of the Author of creation -- Aleinu leshabeakh laadon hakol, latet gedula leyotzer breshit..." You should know, you must know, that God is all there is -- and therefore we hope soon to perfect the world under His sovereignty. Take God out of Judaism and we have removed the soul and purpose from our heritage. We become "ethical culture" -- not wheat but chaff.
So, how do we return to God? This is the question of the season. This is the time of Teshuva, or return -- and we must reclaim our covenant and our relationship. The best way to establish a sense of emotional relationship with God is by talking with Him. Now, you know that if you mumbled something unintelligible at your wife or your child or your friend, and if you did it in a language neither of you understood, your relationship would suffer! So speak to God in English. Yes, Hebrew is the language of choice for prayer in Judaism -- but not for the uninitiated. Next, read the prayer book as a textbook about conversing with God. What do the prayers teach us about the context of a conversation with the Almighty? We give our prayers weight and meaning by identifying who it is that we are speaking with: the God of creation -- master of the Universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- Master of our history; then we ask for understanding, for the strength to change, for forgiveness for our mistakes. Most powerfully, we need to speak to God in our own words. We need to be inspired by the service, by the poetry and the music of the liturgy -- but we must not stop there. Take time when youre alone and calm. Make it a time for introspection and prayer. Try it in your car, on the way home after services, when no one can hear you. You could sing your personal prayer in the shower, with the water running and your skin all covered with soap. God does not stand on ceremony, and indeed you may find that you "come clean with God." You dont ever have to reveal to anyone that youre developing a relationship with your Creator -- but you will find that the burden of everyday life is suddenly lighter, and you feel better, in this sanctuary, in your home -- wherever you walk with Him.
Erev Yom Kippur 5757-- Memory
Years ago, Leah and I participated in a special program at the local hospital: it was an expectant parents class, where first-time parents were introduced to the fine art of child-rearing. The course was a public service of the hospital and other agencies, and presented lectures on a number of subjects from "natural child-birth" to the "importance of breast feeding." Leah and I presented a class on family dynamics, in which we told these soon to become parents of the changes that were bound to occur in their lives, and how to deal with these changes to insure continued grace and sanity. I always made my presentation first, since Leah was much more familiar with the actual "facts" of pregnancy and birth, and I wanted to assuage the anxiety of the men who felt awkward and out of place among all those pregnant young women. I tried to make the men realize that their role, during pregnancy, is crucial.
"The fact that you are here," I would say to them, "is proof that you know that it takes two to be pregnant. I am sure that you are keenly aware that you, too, are in the family way. Yet, every day, you wake up in the morning, bounce out of bed, prepare for the day and go out to meet it. All day you are gone, and with no effort at all you forget that you are pregnant. But your wife cant! She cant bounce out of bed -- she rolls out, like a car backing out of the garage. She makes it to the bathroom in the nick of time, because of the pressure on her bladder, and when she finally stands in front of the mirror, oh my gosh -- she sees the image of a VW beetle standing on its side, with her old familiar face placed right where the front bumper ought to be... She has back pains and mood swings, and she cannot forget, for even one second that she is pregnant. You, the man, must always keep that thought in mind, and you must, for her sake and for both of you as a unit, never forget."
Memory, in Hebrew, is "zikaron." The word for man is "zakhar," and the word for remembrance is "zekher." The only "deviation" in the words of the Ten Statements at Sinai between the text in Exodus and in Deuteronomy is in the fourth statement, where in Exodus it reads "Zakhor et yom hashabbat -- remember the Sabbath day" -- and in Deuteronomy we read, "Shamor et yom hashabbat -- observe the Sabbath day..." To understand this deviation we need to focus our attention for a moment on the importance of memory. Memory isnt the academic subject called "history" that is written up in books, nor some souvenirs of people long dead; it is not the stuff that archaeologists search in the bosom of mother earth, nor is it the fine displays in prestigious museums. History, archeology, museums and books merely highlight, verify and display what memory has already established. By defining the past, memory creates the present. Repression of memory creates mental disease. Health comes from memorys recovery. Dictators consolidate power by altering national memory. Hitler did it by convincing Germans that they did not lose the first world war, Stalin removed the memory of his colleagues Trotsky and Bukharin from the history books after he had them "rubbed out." So called "Revisionist-historians" deny the Holocaust ever happened (in spite of all the physical evidence), and claim that we Jews merely use the myth of the six millions to blackmail the world. Why does it matter?
Commentary tells us that without memory there can be no observance. Man, in fact, is memory. People who suffer memory loss through illness or accident dont merely misplace some personal effects. They lose their personhood. They become lost and adrift, their lives become an empty shell. Time becomes meaningless to them, as does place -- because without memory, the current moment has no context, and no meaning. Yom Kippur is called "Shabbat Shabbaton" -- the Sabbath of Sabbaths. If we must "remember The Sabbath day to keep it holy," how much more so do we have to remember on this most holy Sabbath of Sabbaths. The core of the Musaf service is a recitation of the ritual of the Kohen Gadol -- the High Priest as it was conducted when the Temple stood. We also have a special, and most poignant part of the service called "Martyriology," when we remember the sages who died for Torah and its perpetuation in the days of Rome, and all the martyrs and sacrificial victims of the hatred of our people throughout the generations. This part of the service begins with the words, "Eleh ezkera venafshi alay eshpkha -- these are the ones I do remember; Oh, I pour out my soul upon myself." We explain the text, saying, "Because I remember, I have a soul within me, and I can pour it out, I can wax sad, I can know joy -- I can mourn, and I can celebrate."
The reading of the Haftarah, from Isaia 58, also gives us a message concerning memory and Yom Kippur: "Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail." The prophet implores us to remember the downtrodden, the neglected, the unfortunate, the persecuted, the ill and the poor. If we do this, we shall find that our lives shall be blessed. When we realize how much suffering and deprivation there is in the world, we come to realize how very fortunate we really are. "I cried because I had no shoes," says the proverb, "until I saw a man who had no feet."
Memory allows us to place things in different perspectives and see them from different angles. Once we gain a different view of things, they are no longer linear and two dimensional, and we face a different, three dimensional reality. Even the sound of the prayers of the holiday evoke memory. The beloved melody of Kol Nidrei gains currency the more we hear it. The very character of Judaism is etched and molded by historical events, the stuff that memory is made of. In the kiddush, and in so many other rituals, we repeat and recall "zekher litziat mitzrayim -- a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt." We were slaves in Egypt, and therefore we must be humble, caring, compassionate. God is Master of memory: in the Untane Tokef prayer we say, "on this day, oh Lord, we sense your dominion... You, indeed, judge and admonish, discerning our motives, and witnessing our actions. You record and seal, count and measure; You remember even what we have forgotten." We remember, we are aware that we were rescued from abject slavery by a Power greater than any on earth -- and therefore, in our own moment of strength and vigor, we must exercise control, and have pity, and understand the downtrodden. Memory -- it is the essence of existence. May we never forget who we are, where our roots are, and what our roots and our being obliges us to do: Justice, mercy, lovingkindness, sincerity and humility. Amen
Yom Kippur 5757
Last night I spoke to you of memory -- and of how important it is for our character and our mental well-being. Today I would like to extend the subject and speak of the memory we carry with us as a people. For each of you, seated here today, beside being an individual, which is the most basic unit of existence, is also a unique and irreplaceable part of a greater body called "Yahadut" -- the Jewish people. Last night I said, "People who suffer memory loss through illness or accident dont merely misplace some personal effects. They lose their personhood. They become lost and adrift, their lives become an empty shell." Let me reiterate it, and add that a Jew who suffers memory loss of his Jewish identity, likewise loses his or her personhood -- their Jewish essence, which is a most basic element of personality. They may become successful in business or politics or some other field of endeavor -- but their Jewish spark in gone, and it leaves a gap in the Jewish flame that burns from generation to generation, illuminating the world.
God chose Abraham -- and his seed after him, to be his messenger. He wanted them to be a living example of His power and glory from that least likely place of enterprise -- the "Promised Land" -- which the Torah described as "the land of milk and honey." Actually, those of you who visited it know that it is more the land of sand and scorching sun, pebble and thistle, scrub brush and scorpion. It is only by the grace of God and the devotion of Israel that this most unlikely piece of real estate becomes a blooming garden. Because we did not follow Gods teachings, and because we have failed in our purpose to teach His message of brotherhood and peace, we have been exiled and persecuted. Many of our kin were massacred -- and many more chose extinction by assimilation and conversion. To us, and to the eternity of Israel, they are lost, even though the are still alive -- just as the people who, having lost their memory, become nothing more than empty shells. The Baal shem tov, the founder of Khasssidism, said "forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption."
When the Jews were first exiled from Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah uttered the famous vow, "Im eshkekhekh Yerushalayim tishakakh yemini -- If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning. May my tongue cling to my palate if I fail to recall thee, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my highest joy." The memory of the Promised Land, and of Jewish sovereignty, is distilled and focused on Davids Capital, the city where the Temple once stood, the place where, tradition tells us, Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Abraham said of Jerusalem, "This is the place where God is seen." The Talmud says that Jerusalem was named by God. The name has two parts: Yira, which means "to see," and shalem, which means "peace." Jerusalem, according to our tradition, has seventy names, each one more beautiful than the previous. "There are ten measures of beauty," says a proverb, "nine were given to Jerusalem -- and one to the rest of the world." "Jerusalem is the umbilicus of the world," says another.
Somehow, Jerusalem is linked to our current vigor as a people. Who among you does not remember the reverberating current of excitement that swept through the Jewish world when were heard, in 1967, the fateful words, "Jerusalem is ours, Temple Mount is in our hands." One of the mountains of Jerusalem, Mount Zion, lent its name to our national movement of renewal and redemption -- Zionism.
But what is the mystical draw of this town? What is in the memory of Jerusalem that makes it so important to us -- and to our detractors and foes? What does this city contribute to our personal memory, to our understanding of who we are? Surely it is not merely the "historical" aspect of our connection -- it is not David, or Solomon, or the Maccabees. If it were, would we not feel a similar connection to Bethlehem, Davids birth place, to Hebron, the Patriarchs burial place, or Modiin, Yehuda haMaccabee's hometown?
I would like to suggest to you that Yerushalayim is connected to the very essence of Jewish being -- which is to say to our memory. It is connected to our roots, which are with God. Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Jerusalem, God is seen, and felt -- He is a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. Here we tread a path traveled by prophets and seers. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. London has its fog, its famous bridge and Parliament. New York is home to the United Nations. Paris, with its Rive Gauche, may be the place for lovers -- our capital, Jerusalem, is a place for dreamers and visionaries. The Talmud says that creation began in Jerusalem, and that the whole world was spun, as it were, outwardly from this place, like a huge crochet. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the very center of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows in and out of this spot, and all lifes forces radiate from it. From this place, the whole world was cast into perspective.
Jerusalem, the center, gives perspective to the rest of the world. Jerusalem is where God is seen. Jerusalem the complete, the completing. Humanity has long understood that he who controls Jerusalem controls the worlds memory. He controls the way God is seen. He controls the way lifes forces are cast into perspective. He controls the way we, individually and collectively, see ourselves and our future.
Jerusalem was conquered by King David from the Jebusites. It was attacked by Egypt, Sumer and Babylon, who, after five hundred years as Judaisms capital put it to the torch and razed it to the ground for the first time. The Jews returned in the days of Ezra and Nekhemiah, and continued to battle for the city against Samaritans, Greeks and Romans. Antiochus desecrated the Temple, and the Romans burned the city to the ground in the year 70, at the end of the great revolt. Once the Temple Mount was the highest point in the city of Jerusalem, but after the Bar Kokhba revolt, in the year 135, Roman slaves carried away the very earth of this mountain, and turned it into the valley we now look down on from the Mount Olives. The Romans also expelled Jews from Jerusalem and barred them from reentering on pain of death. They renamed the city Alea Capitolina, a name that itself is long relegated to history books. Jewish life, they proclaimed, was now at an end.
Christianity was born of Judaism, and part of its drama was played out in Jerusalem. However, it grew and matured in Rome and Byzantium. The Crusaders rewrote Jerusalems importance, turning it from the center of Jewish national memory to the site of the passion and death of Jesus, equal in importance to Rome. Like the Romans before them, they massacred the Jews, destroyed synagogues and homes, and forbade them to return. The Moslems came after, and as those before them rewrote the memory of Jerusalem, expelling Jews and Christian, claiming its centrality to their faith. They systematically built mosques on Jewish holy sites. In rewriting their own history and connectivity to Jerusalem, each of these cultures rewrote our place, the Jewish place, in history. They consigned us, so it seemed to them, to the dust bin of history a once great people, now abandoned by God; bypassed by time -- a post script to their history.
We Jews, however, preserved Jerusalem as a memory. To us Yerushalayim was real and tangible, always. We remembered it though we had not seen in tens of generations. When we built our homes we left an eastern wall unplastered, "zekher lakhorban" -- in remembrance of the destruction; at our happiest moment, at weddings, we broke a glass in memory of Jerusalem. From all over the world we turned and prayed toward Jerusalem, and because memory was kept alive, the Jewish people lived. Jerusalem is a metaphor for a perfected world, and it gives us perspective on our lives. Aldous Huxley, whose father actually wrote Darwin's "Theory of evolution," said, "we have each of us our Jerusalem," he meant much more than a temporal city of towers and taxi cabs, minarets and music shops, Temples and traffic jams. He meant roots, and a vision of what life might, and ought to, be.
The vision of lifes promise is a memory of things yet to come, an eye fixed on the promise of tomorrow, giving us the energy and the will to live. In exile for two thousand years Jews said "Next year in Jerusalem," in poverty and persecution they never lost their hope -- they preserved the ideal of a world in which love and justice, not politics, power and self-interest, would be the currency men live by.
Since the Oslo agreement, the specter of sectarian violence is suddenly present in the Jewish city of Jerusalem. Already divided by language, by geography, and even by religion, our people is bound only by threads of memory and of hope. These threads are exquisitely fragile. If they sever we will fragment, and the long and bitter exile of our people not yet fully ended, may be repeated again. This is because the exile is consequence of the distensions which tears us from one another. Sinat akhim -- brothers hating brothers.
To this threat, Jerusalem provides counterpoint, for Jerusalem embodies our memories and hopes. Jerusalem is a living memory, a vision of God in our lives, an image of a perfected world. Jerusalem gives us the strength to achieve what we as a people must do, to unite ourselves, and to sanctify this world. This year, this day, resolve to visit Jerusalem, to celebrate its three thousand years of history, become a part of its essence, and make it a real memory to last you the rest of your life. You shall be rewarded with the eternity of Jerusalem. You shall find peace in Jerusalem.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5758
I would like to wish all of you a very happy and wonderful new year. I would also like to begin to celebrate our special honorees of the evening. Selma and Lester Wishnatzki deserve our recognition and our admiration. They also deserve an evening that is dedicated totally to them, when they are the focus of attention. So I will not launch into a long discussion of the significance of Rosh Hashanah and the theological intricacies of prayer, meditation, and the recuperative powers inherent in prayer and fasting.
I will speak for a minute of two about Selma and Lester -- but only long enough to tell you that I appreciate both of them and everything they have done, and continue to do for this congregation, for our community, and for our fellow Jews in distress and despair wherever they may be. Truly, this couple shows in their dedication of a lifetime to tzedakah and ma'asim tovim the true meaning of a Jewish education and Jewish ideals. We celebrate this evening the beginning of creation, the birthday of the world. After the shofar blowing tomorrow we shall recite the line, "Hayom harat olam. Hayom yaamid bamishpat kol ytzoorey olamim. -- Today is the birthday of the world, today You shall make us to stand in judgement all of the worlds creatures." The world was birthed by God, and He continues creation, so we believe, because of people like Selma and Lester, who, having been blessed by God, realize that they are not owners -- they are stewards. Theirs is the responsibility to administer the blessings given to them, to tend and multiply it, and to send it out to bless those around them. That is why they have been good and successful parents; that is why they have given freely of their time and talents to sit on boards of organizations, from our Temple to Hadassah to the Lakeland Jewish Welfare and U.J.A. to the museum to countless other worthy projects.
Dear Selma and dear Lester -- I personally, and in the name of the congregation, salute you and thank you. I hope that the service this evening was pleasing and inspiring to you, for I led it with you in my mind and with prayers for you in my heart. May God continue to be kind to you, granting you continued blessings of love and of satisfaction in all that you kindly put your hand on to do deeds of lovingkindness and mercy. May God grant you health and happiness in the midst of family and friends. Amen
First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5758
I thought that we ought to go back to basics. Let us, on the occasion of this time of remembrance and introspection reexamine our paradigms. We are taught that each person should live his/her life aware at all times of three things: "mi hu, uma hu, velifney mi hu atid liten din vekheshbon -- who we are, what we are, and before whom we have to give the final accounting." Our great teachers and sages in different ages gave different answers. One particularly humble teacher suggested that who we are is answered by an observation of man in his natural habitat: the world we live in. The answer to the question, then, is a most fragile, weak, and unlikely creature to survive in its natural domain; as for the second question, the answer is that we are the product of a chance meeting between two parents who were totally unprepared to raise a child or children in a hostile and dangerous world such as the one we live in. However -- when it comes to the third question, there is no doubt in any believer's mind. We will render the last accounting before the Lord God, creator and master of all that exists. The only ones who do not endorse this answer are people who are "not religious" -- who have no faith. Such people say that there is no final accounting, that there is no master plan, that all is happenstance, a huge joke played upon us by capricious nature... Yet they are the same types who use DNA tracing to prove kinship. DNA is a blueprint of production -- not a by-product of a huge series of accidents... Still, there is no convincing them.
We, who assemble in synagogues throughout the world on these Yamim Nora'im -- these Days of Awe -- are the current generation of a people who have believed since the dawn of civilization. As a matter of fact, we brought about, by our belief, that dawn. Yet today, after four thousand years of carrying the torch to light the path to all who wish to follow -- there are some who have become confused, who do not know what it is all about. They ask for direction, they long for instruction. I propose to make this High Holidays season a time of learning, a time of rediscovering and convincing ourselves anew that there is but one God, that He is Master over all and everything, and that we are His people, destined, obliged and committed to doing His will.
Let us begin our journey of discovery with a story. In a shteitle in the Pale of Settlement lived Mira'le and her retarded son, Yossel. The Rabbi of the shteitle was a real sensitive man who did not want Yossel to suffer because of his God given limitation. He spent many hours teaching the boy to pray -- but to no avail. All the child learned was to joyfully respond with "Amen" to blessings and prayers. On Rosh Hashanah, Mira'le came to synagogue with Yossel, and because he was getting to be quite a big boy, he did not sit with her in Ezrat Nashim, the women's section, but rather, he sat with the men. Time after time he responded with "Amen," and the Rabbi smiled at him from the bima. Then the congregation stood silently for a long time, reciting the silent prayers of the holiday. Yossel could not take the silence. "Amen," he said in his gruff flat voice, "Amen, Rabbi, I said Amen. Now sing some more." The congregation was stunned, poor Mira'le was burying her head and hoping that no one would notice her sitting there. The men were murmuring, "who let this imbecile in here..." "Get this boy out of here..." "How can he..." But the Rabbi was not disturbed! In fact, he came down of the bima and put his arm around Yossel. In a voice that could be heard across town he said, "you know Yossel, I must really thank you. I, and all the other people were so deep in our own thought that we did not hear God asking for more melody. Only you, Yossel, only you were not so full of yourself as to turn off the voice of God. Come, Yossel, you belong on the bima, to remind us that this day belongs not only to us, but to God, too."
What do we learn from this story? The obvious lesson is that only the simpleminded is so selfless as to not be lost in a moment of our own making. To them, time is transparent, and the purpose of assembling in the sanctuary remains the "amen" that repeats and repeats. What is less obvious is the message conveyed by the actions of the Rabbi, in his treatment of Yossel. Surely the Rabbi wished to finish his silent meditation -- but he recognized the fragile nature of Yossel, the innocent retarded but not stupid youth. A congregation standing in prayer asking God to forgive their sins should not engage in a hatchet job on such a simple and eager spirit. Yossel needs to be supported, elevated to the highest level of relation with God and with men that he is capable of.
None of us assembled here this morning is Yossel. Thank God for that. Yet, maybe there is a little Yossel in all of us. We wish to do the familiar and the accepted. We want to recite our well learned lines, beat our chest ever so slightly and feel that we have discharged our responsibility to God and to ourselves. Only, maybe we need to listen to the Rabbi's comment. Forgive me, God, if I have been too busy showing off my virtuosity in Psalms and in piyutim, those love filled poems of devotion and self effacement that become routine. Let me cut short my pontification, dear Lord, and let me attune my ear to Your message, to Your concerns, to Your satisfaction. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Yihyu leratzon imrey pi vehemyat levavi lefanekha Adona'y Tzuri vegoali. And as for me, may my prayer arrive at a desirable time -- and may You, oh Lord, by Your great kindness, answer me by the truth of Your salvation. Vani tefilati lekha adona'y et ratzon. Elohim, berov khasdekha, aneni be'emet yish'ekha.
Second day of Rosh Hashanah 5758
Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist (1817-62), wrote the following lines: "At a lycceum, not long since, I felt that the lecturer had chosen a theme too foreign to himself, and so failed to interest me as much as he might have done. He described things not in or near to his heart, but toward his extremities and superficies. There was, in this sense, no truly central or centralizing thought in the lecture. I would have had him deal with his privatest experience, as the poet does. The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool... A man once came a considerable distance to ask me to lecture on Slavery; but on conversing with him, I found that he and his clique expected seven eighths of the lecture to be theirs, and only one eighth mine; so I declined. I take it for granted, when I am "invited to lecture anywhere - for I have had a little experience in that business- that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country - and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve, accordingly, that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me, and engaged to pay for me, and I am determined that they shall have me, though I bore them beyond all precedent."
Well, I hope I will not bore you -- but you came to synagogue to hear me teach a lesson, and it can't be a "feel good" little fluff. This is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgement, and I must speak words of Torah. Todays Torah reading tells us the well known story of the Akeda -- the binding of Yitzkhak. At the behest of God, Abraham took his son Isaac, left his wife Sarah behind, and upon a mountain that the Lord had chose he made an altar and bound his son for a sacrifice. This binding of Isaac is a central theme in the process of the "trial of man" or "the trial of the House of Israel" before God on this holiday, which is called Yom Hadin יום הדין and was known by that name long before the seventh month became the first month, and the holiday became the New Year. The liturgy in replete with references to it "...and remember, Lord our God, the covenant and the favor and the pledge you swore to Abraham at Mount Moriah..." "...and the binding of Isaac you shall remember in grace and pity to his seed today..." However, this same story is also a cause for complaint, if not outright rebellion, against our religion and our history. "Who has given Abraham permission to offer his son?" Ask the critics. "Is not a man, even the son of the great Abraham, a master of his own destiny?" "What a male chauvinist, the great Abraham, did he even consider speaking to Sarah about God's request?" This critique is only a first stage in the indictment, for next our interlocutors question, "and why did God ask of Abraham such a terrible proof of his fidelity?" It is enough for any man to give up religion! Or is it?
What is religion anyhow? Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher, said that "we may define faith as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence." To the Jew, religion is not a question, it is a given. God created man. He is the father, the life giver, and he owns us. In His goodness He has given us freedom of choice -- but He also challenged us to use our freedom to take up the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot -- "ki hem khayeynu ve'orekh yameynu," for they are our life and the length of our days. Abraham took Yitzkhak his son to Moriah because he trusted in God. God had given him this son, to bring about his continuity and perpetuity. He would not ask Abraham to do anything that would threaten that future -- and so Abraham does as the Lord commands. This is not an issue of who has the right to decide if Yitzkhak will go or not. It is not a feminist issue, it is not a "children's rights" issue.
The issue comes down to what you believe, and what you do about it.
Moshe Rabenu taught us the Torah, which God instructed him to do. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Ya'akov -- the Torah which Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob." [Deu. 33:4] The Torah contains 613 mitzvot -- and those have been the foundation of our way of life for a very very long time. While having something for a long time has never been a good reason to keep it, neither is it a good reason to cast it off. One needs to consider what it is and how useful it is -- and then make up one's mind as to the desirability of retaining it -- or disposing of it.
Let me state categorically and most emphatically: there is nothing in the Torah that is capricious or against man's best interest. The dietary laws, circumcision, the Shabbat laws, rules governing our business ethics and our family purity -- all are positive and worthwhile for us if we wish to live a good and long life. We need mitzvot to give our lives purpose and direction. I have seen many who consider themselves "free" -- free of religion, free of the "fear of God," as they put it -- and I have found them to be "free" of responsibility and connectivity. They show no fidelity to parents or family, to friends or social order. They contribute nothing, they imitate life -- they don't really live it!
We Jews are different -- or at least we used to be. We always lived in communities, which by their nature were supportive -- and the people were all friends. Even enemies were friendly enemies. People lived in close proximity by edict and by choice. They visited one another, helped with household chores and with life-cycle chores. They midwived at births, nursed in sickness, and helped bury the dead. What they could not do as neighbors they did in communal societies which they developed and honed to perfection. The external realities of life in a hostile world were blotted out by study, by Torah, and by the Shabbat. There was practically no crime in the shteitle, no Jewish thieves. There were no drunks, and certainly no drug addicts. Today things are different -- and by no means better! We Jews lead the pack of the philosophers of personal gratification, the 'me' generation. We follow every new prophet of comfort and personal gratification from one corner of the earth to another -- from Tibet to Waco, Texas!
"Hashivenu adona'y elekha venashuva, khadesh yameynu kekedem. Return us, Oh Lord, and we shall return, renew our days as of old." Let us resolve this holiday season, that given the chance by our creator, we shall renew our covenant and live the way He wants us to. It may turn out to be the best choice we have ever made.
Shabbat Shuvah 5758
T.G.I.F., or maybe I should say T.G.I.S. -- Thank God it is Shabbat I am sure you have had about all the Rosh Hashanah services you can handle -- and then some! Indeed, maybe you have had 'too much' services, altogether -- but, thank you very much for coming this evening anyway! And, yes, this is different from khag, from the holiday, for this is the first Shabbat of the New Year. And if the New Year celebrates the anniversary of creation, this Shabbat is the anniversary of that first Shabbat, that original day when God rested from all his work, which, as the Torah stated, "Asher bara Elohim la'asot -- in creating the Lord had made."
Our sages said that God sat down before creation and made a plan for Himself. First of all He wanted to make Shabbat. Shabbat is called "keter habri'a -- the crown of creation. So, God wanted to make this crown. He asked Himself, "how do I go about making Shabbat?" For, after all, He is almighty God! He does not need time at all -- He is infinite, outside of time. Creation, like all eternity, are but a blink of an eye -- an undetermined instant in the realm of the infinite God. Why take six days to create a world? "Sof ma'ase bemakh'shava tkhila -- the end of doing was first in His mind," the poet tells us. So, how do you make Shabbat"? You work for six days, get things going in this world, for this world -- indeed, get this world going -- and then take a day of rest! There you are, a Shabbat made to perfection, of course, for it was the Perfect Almighty who made it.
But now God found Himself with a party -- and no one to invite to the party! Originally, God finished working in the middle of the day on Friday, and He inspected His work and saw that 'it was good' -- but had not yet made man! Now, late in the day, He determined that in order for His Shabbat to be appreciated, he must make some creatures who shall be just a little lower than the angels. "Let us make man," He said, and He made them, male and female, innocent and unknowing -- and they did not understand Shabbat. Then did God resolve to find Abraham, and bless him and his seed, and give them the Torah, and through the Torah teach them about His labor of love, the six days of creation, and the crown of creation -- the Shabbat. "Khemdat yamim, the cherished of all the days," so it was called, and it was a blessing to the community of Jacob, the people who became known throughout the world in days of antiquity as the "Sabbath people."
Through the Torah and the Holy Shabbat God and Israel were amalgamated, fused together. Henceforth and forevermore God suffered the pain of the Jews persecution, and His people enjoyed the out-of-body joy of His heavenly abode, the celebration of His perfect creation. Israel became a people of the spirit, and their spirit grew and expanded and filled the universe. Nothing was impossible for them -- the most distant became very close, almost intimate. Jerusalem, long lost and desolate, became their dear hometown, their sanctuary of safety. The amazing fact is that their faith, etherial and metaphysical, sustained them, and kept them going, and somehow prevented the enemy from striking the death-knell.
Now look around you today, look at all the reports of social scientists and community leaders. Here we are in a "new age" for Judaism, an age of no persecution, no threat to our continued existence, no ghettos and no pogroms. Yet, our future is in danger, and our continuity is in doubt. Ask yourselves, why is that? Why is ease a greater danger than difficulty? Why do we give up without a whimper, by default, what we held on to so tenaciously when there were those who wished to deny us the right to choose? This is the right time, a Shabbat called "Shabbat tshuva" -- which means a Shabbat of answer. This is the right season of the year to ask questions like will Shabbat disappear? Will the Jews disappear with it? Next week, next Friday eve, it will be the time of opening our hearts most completely, a time of judgement. Who shall live, and who shall leave. Who shall comprehend and who shall compromise -- who shall be a part of the community of Shabbat people, and who shall depart, choosing to live apart from congregation and kin. Who shall endure, and who shall just end. Using the palette and the canvas of the season, allow me to draw for you this picture: The jury is out, and the verdict is yet to be given. But while All Jewry stands in the box of the accused - YOU, each one of you, is the jury. It is you who must decide the case! Shuva Yisrael -- return, oh Israel, and reclaim your heritage, your crown of glory, your past -- and your future!
Kol Nidrei 5758
A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to converse with one of the men who know about as much as anyone does concerning the situation in the Middle East. My conversation was with Shabta'y Shavit, former head of the Israeli Mosad, the intelligence organization that gathers information and analyzes it for presentation before the government of Israel, so that it would be able to act in the best possible way to enhance the chances of Israel's survival. Mr. Shavit is a man who weighs each word he utters. He speaks slowly and tries very hard to make his point decisively and unequivocally. That is only natural for a man who has been in his occupation for some thirty years. In our conversation, I made to him the presentation that I shall make to you -- and he had no argument with it.
Israel is being pressured by the European Union and the U.S. to make concessions to the Palestinians. Israel has already made many concessions, and she will continue to work with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, in the hope that it can gain if not an eternity of peace, at least a few good years with relative calm in the security of the citizens of the state. However, the Israeli concessions are not making a lasting impression on the Palestinians. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the Arabs are not working towards peace at all. Official Palestinian sources have repeatedly distorted or denied entirely the ancient attachment of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and Israel. However absurd many of the assertions, the Palestinian Authoritys role in promoting them makes the subject highly newsworthy. We live in the age of the 'information explosion,' and the Arabs are very busily using the internet to spread their fabricated facts that rewrite history. Yet there has been only scant media coverage of these troubling statements.
Of special concern is the PAs recent emergence on the Internet, where it disseminates its garbage of historical revisionism. As you know, millions around the world, especially young people, are using the Web to retrieve information on subjects such as the Middle East. These 'facts' are used in preparing papers for classes in history and social science in high schools and colleges. Eventually, these facts find their way into printed media as footnotes and references. I thought you might be interested in the enclosed excerpts on Jerusalem from the Palestinian Authority Website (http://www.pna.org). Among the claims:
-- Jerusalem is "an old Arab city built over 5000 years ago."
-- Judaisms Western Wall is actually named the "Al-Boraq Wall" -- which is described as "part of the exterior facade of the western wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The 'Al-Boraq' creature (sic) which carried Mohammad during his ascension to heaven was tied to this wall." According to the PA Website there is no archeological evidence indicating the prior existence of a Jewish Temple at the site of the Wall.
-- Arabs are descendants of the Canaanites and Jebusites, peoples who preceded the ancient Hebrews in the land of Israel
The Website assertions are consistent with a long-standing effort to delegitimize Jewish links to the Land of Israel. A map published by the Arab Studies Society, a Palestinian agency, and sold in bookstores in Jerusalem identifies Islamic and Christian holy sites but omits all Jewish ones. Likewise, a Palestinian Legislative Council Website (http://www.pal-plc.org) displays a map of the Old City that excludes all Jewish presence. On the same site is a distorted chronology of Jerusalems history preceded by an unattributed quote expressing love of the city. The quote is from the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 49b)!
Official Palestinian television disseminates similar statements. One segment recently averred that the stories of the Bible took place in Yemen, not in Israel. Another claimed the Jews of the Old Testament have no connection to Israeli Jews and are the ancestors instead of the Palestinians. Program participant Jarid Elkadaweh said, "God is my witness that in my blood there is more of the Children of Israel than in that of Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu." Likewise, Yasser Arafat and Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi have revised Jesus heritage. No longer a Jew, he is a "Palestinian" born in the "Palestinian town" of Bethlehem. (This claim is not original -- Hitler also claimed that Jesus was not a Jew!)
Commenting on this campaign to rewrite the past, the eminent Princeton historian Bernard Lewis observed in his 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites that:
In recent years a new doctrine has been developed in the Arab countries which has come to dominate the teaching of history in schools and the popular projection of the past in the media... According to this view, the great Arab expansion after the advent of Islam in the seventh century, which took them out of their home in the Arabian Peninsula into the countries of the Fertile Crescent and then eastward across Iran to Central Asia and westward across Egypt to North Africa and Spain, was not, as had previously been believed, a religious or imperialistic expansion. It was a war of liberation, in which the free Arabs living in Arabia rescued their brethren who were the oppressed subjects of Persian and Roman imperialism. To justify this interpretation, it is necessary to maintain that all the inhabitants of these countries before the advent of Islam were in fact Arabs, even if known by other names. There was, of course, considerable Arab settlement in the borderlands of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and even Egypt in pre-Islamic times, but the vast majority of the inhabitants of these countries belonged to other ethnic groups and spoke other languages. Modern Arabic historiography has extended the Arab name and identity to all or nearly all the ancient Semitic peoples in the Fertile Crescent. One of these ancient peoples presented problemsthe one that is still in existence, bearing the same name, using the same language, and, most troublesome of all, professing the same religion. Had the Israelites accompanied the Canaanites and Phoenicians and Assyrians and Babylonians into extinction, no doubt they too could have been claimed as Arab ancestors. But they did not...
The rewriting of the past is usually undertaken to achieve specific political aims. By depicting the great Arab Islamic expansion in the seventh century as a war of liberation rather than of conquest, the Arabs can free themselves of the charge, even in the distant past, of imperialismthe most heinous crime in the current political calendar...
In terms of scholarship, as distinct from politics, there is no evidence whatsoever for the assertion that the Canaanites were Arabs.
Why do events in Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous areas receive such an enormous media attention -- and why is so much of it not as accurate and complete as it could be? Is it because of a pro-Arab bias, or is it (as the paranoid who see an enemy under every tree would like us to believe) the press loves to hate Israel. For some reason, even minor occurrences are often elevated to prominent focus. A hundred Moslems may be massacred in Algeria, and it won't make the front page -- a Moslem youth is beaten in Israel, and it makes the headlines in the world press from the former Soviet Union to the remote islands of Japan. Journalistic indifference to pervasive official Palestinian falsifications of Jewish history is all the more startling in view of the total lawlessness and corruption of the Palestinian Authority. The same journalists, the same statesmen and politicians who deny the rights of minorities from Azrubijan to Figi Island, from Kurdistan to Falkland Island, from Macedonia to China and Formosa -- insist on the so called rights of a people whose only existence in rooted only in its opposition to the continued well-being of the Jewish state! The kingdom of Jordan with a Palestinian majority of over 70% and a minority of Bedouwins not indigenous to the area is not a Palestinian state -- but Judea, Samariah, Gaza (and according to the Palestinian covenant that was not changed -- Galilee, the Coastal Plain, the Hills of Judea and the Negev desert as well) are the State of Palestine. So, how do we make peace? Last week, Israel tried to eliminate the head of Hamas in Jordan. They failed, and the diplomatic fall-out is hard to take, but as Shabta'y Shavit, that head of Mosad I mentioned earlier, said on a news interview on N.P.R. -- Israel must reserve the right to fight terror, wherever and by whatever means. If states allow terrorist the freedom of their territory, they invite reprisals against the terrorists in their territory. This is not deplomacy -- it is a matter of survival.
This is a most holy night -- a time when God renders decisions -- and we all hold our breath. What will tomorrow bring. We are a small people, a people who depend on the good will of others to secure for ourselves a life of safety and normality. We don't wish to receive any favors, we don't expect to be treated any differently than others -- but, please God, don't let our enemies have the upper hand. Don't allow falsehood to be accepted as truth, and don't permit the accuser to prosper in his liable. Kol nidrei -- all vows are cancelled. Kol nidrei, all bets are off. In a world of wolves -- please allow your lamb to keep its small sanctuary. Let not evil prosper. Let not perversity gain the upper hand. Relent, Oh Lord, How long must we suffer. Bless the house of Israel, and let the remnant blossom in the Land that You promised from of old.
Yom Kippur 5758
In six months and four days we shall all be sitting at a dining room table, and a young child will ask, "Ma nishtana hala'yla haze mikol haleylot... Why is this night different from other night..." And the assembled will answer and say, "Avadim ha'yinu lefar'oh bemitzra'yim -- we were slaves to Pharoh in Egypt..." Now, you may well ask, "why are you talking about Pesakh on Yom Kippur? Don't you have your seasons mixed up?" And, of course, you are right, and -- of course -- I am well aware that this is Kippur and not Pesakh. However, there is a connection both coming and going, for what would Pesakh be for a people who do not know the forgiving nature of God, and what would Yom Kippur be for a peopole who have not known slavery and the saving power of Melekh Malkhey hamlakhim -- the Holy One, Blessed be He! In the days of our grandfathers, or perhaps a generation earlier than that, the similarity and connectivity went even further: on the night of the Seder, as on the night of Kol Nidrey, the men of the household would wear a white kittle, a linnen robe.
What am I trying to tell you? I wish to point out to you that before we get to Kippur we have to recognize "Yom" which is 'day.' For it is God who created this world, with its passage of time -- its nights and its days. "Va'yhi erev va'yhi boker yom rishon... Va'yhi erev va'yhi boker yom sheni... Va'yhi erev va'yhi boker yom shlishi, etc. etc. Yet we know that God is infinite in every sense -- he is infinite in power, infinite in wisdom, infinite in love and infinite in mercy. Time, though, is not a quality of God -- for 'infinite' means outside of time. For God, all time is telescoped into an instant -- into His presence. That is why we call Him infinite. By His standard, in His sight, from His vantage point of infinity, all the righteous of the world stand in prayer this day, this very day, and ask for His forgiveness, for His mercy. By His sight, in His vantage point of infinity, all the evil in the world, all the sins and all the transgressions are also happening this day. This is the moment of creation, even as it is the anniversary of it. Thus, this day is the day that stands in judgement, and everything is placed on the scale. Which way do you think the scales would tip?
Rabbi Amram of Meyence, a martyr of the cruelty of the Inquisition, was tortured to the verge of death. Brought to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement to throw fear into the heart of the congregation -- was driven by his faith to worship God one last time, speaking the words that became a poignant High Holidays standard: "Untaney tokef kedushat hayom, ki hu nora ve'ayom" -- we proclaim the great sanctity of this day, for it is filled with awe and trembling. On this day we sense Your dominion as we envision You on Your throne of judgement. Judgement, in the court of the Holy One, Blessed by He, takes place in time, not in a place of judgement, a palace of justice. When the Jews were in the ghettos, and in the death camps, there were those who knew that the date was the tenth of Tishri -- Yom Kippur was at hand. In the deepest agony and misery of the temporal world they were still able to perceive and understand, appreciate and participate in this ancient experience of an out of body, spiritual experience in time. Perhaps this is what made the madness around them bearable, what convinced them that God is still watching over them, that even in the total eclipse of morality and human decency the light of Shekhina, God's presence, was still there, still shining, still giving hope to a people lost in a sea of cruelty, in a storm of mad onslaught on our very existence -- shining through the Fog of humanity's indiference, calling us to make an effort to reach the safe harbor.
One should not expect to attend a "nice little service" at which he or she will be inspired, amused, and made to feel good and wholesome. This is a time of suspense, of fear of the unknown -- life and death are in the balance. Yes, life and death -- and not only our own! The whole future stands in judgement -- and the past hangs on in the balance, too. For if there is no future, the past becomes an anachronism, a waste. Thus countless generations of martyrs and heroes await our response, our intensity, our determination -- which will either mirror and affirm theirs, or will sell them short and send them and all their efforts into oblivion. As we stand in prayer we must recognize that while prayer is a personal experience, an "I -- Thou" connection with God -- we are commended to do it as a community, as a large family. The concept of kehilah is essential in our tradition. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Ya'akov -- the Torah which Moshe taught us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob." The more we do as a community, the better is our chance of continuity, and giving our progeny a firm foundation to build their own Judaism on.
Who are we and what are we? Is it important for us to know, to proclaim it to ourselves and to others? Why were we placed in this world in our particular existence. Are we creatures of happenstance? Did we just appear at the end of a long chain of "begats" for the purpose of the "pursuit of happiness?" And what is happiness? Are we meant to run wild, throwing caution to the wind, trying every avenue open to us to find satisfaction in the pleasure of the moment, abandoning family and friends, neglecting our health and our personal safety? Is happiness the forbidden fruit on a branch too high to reach that we are always striving to grab and bite -- and possibly poison ourselves by biting? Or are we a link in an eternal chain, placed here by the Maker of the chain, to connect all the yesterdays with all the tomorrows that are still to come. What is our debt to yesterday, and what is our responsibility to tomorrow. If we are todays link in the chain, we must make sure that we are uniform with all the other links, and that we are a proper fit for links yet to come. Because we are a biological chain-link, we have a further duty to prepare the life stuff, the building blocks for those coming links.
Our most important endeavor is to prepare the coming generation. It has always been this way in Judaism -- "for the kindalakhs," we always said. Give the kids a better life than we ever had. Send the kids to the best schools, the finest summer camps. Give the kids clothes and toys and foods that we never had, expose them to the best that life has to offer. Ballet classes, gymnastics, ice-skating, horse-back riding, cotillion, computer camps, space camps -- if it is available, we try to give it to our kids. It has always been so. John Fiske, in "the Destiny of Man," said, "the future is lighted for us with the radiant colors of hope. Strife and sorrow shall disappear. Peace and love shall reign supreme. The dream of poets, the lesson of priest and prophet, the inspiration of the great musician..." Yet, what do we, in this generation, teach our progeny about home and hearth, about family values and ancestral practices, including -- but not limited to -- the traditions and rituals that define us as Jews? Our biggest failure is in educating our children.
In the world of our fathers, in the yesteryears of two, three or four generations ago, Jewish identity was so profoundly etched upon the character of the Jew that it seemed as though it was not necessary to spend much time to impart it to the young. Actually, it was being imparted in the home, in the ghetto, all around them. However, times have changed, and today we live in an open society where "gut" feelings just arent enough, because they don't get imprinted in the neighborhood, in the Jewish school, in the home. We need a "holistic" approach to learning, where there is an integration of the religious school program with all aspects of Jewish life -- inside and outside of the synagogue. The Jewish learning experience must begin at birth and extend into adulthood. It must be multidimensional and extend to Jewish youth groups such as USY, Jewish camp experiences and Israel trips. If we expect to succeed we must give our children experiences which both form and transform, that will create a lasting effect on them. If we are shocked and disturbed by the report that one of every two American Jews who married since 1985 married a non-Jew, we must do something very concrete to reverse the trend. Another reality is that 38% of American Jews today are "Jews by choice." These new Jews bring with them new attitudes and new ideas which will form a new Jewish culture and norms in coming generations. This gives the term "Jewish continuity" a new meaning. How can we hold steadfast to our own character, refusing to change to make someone else feel more at ease in our midst, when we take in so many people who come to us with the luggage of their past, non-Jewish experience. And, yes, we must make every effort to welcome the "strangers in our midst" and make them feel accepted and at ease -- but we must also train them in the full complexity of our ancient philosophy, traditions, culture, and life-style.
Since it appears that those Jews who are exposed to intensive Jewish education from early childhood through the college years are far more likely to have a positive Jewish identity as adults, it becomes our sacred duty to provide this kind of an experience in the home, in the religious school, and in the synagogue. How do we implement this Jewish education in Lakeland? I suggest to you, and not for the first time, that the only way is Family Education. I have been advocating it for years. The transformation of Jewish lives and souls is the most complicated job facing the American Jewish community. We need to reach out to every young family and help them confront the central issues of Jewish life. Those of us whose children are grown must share in the life of the community, or the effort shall fail. For, in the final analysis, the critical issue is not intermarriage, nor is it the changes caused by new Jews. The critical issue is determining the value of Jewish life. Some may think that it is a chore, a terrible burden. It is not -- it is the very purpose of our existence. Seize the day, make it count, make it holy -- and find for yourself the forgiveness of our God, which come from "for give-ness." Discover that Kippur, Atonement is achieved by being at-one with God, the creator.
Gmar Khatima Tovah -- may you be sealed in the Book of Life.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5759
Dear friends, fellow Jews, fellow worshipers of the One Loving and Forgiving Master of the Universe, I want to wish you all a "Shanah Tova!"
You probably think that I just said to you in my native tongue, "Happy New Year." But that is not correct. You see, you lose something in the translation. I want to wish you what I originally said, which is, "Shanah Tova" Am I splitting hairs here? No, indeed
Allow me to explain: "Shanah Tova!" is our greeting on "Rosh Hashana" but it is not a mere salutation by which we greet one another in a friendly way on this festival of the New Year. Rather, it is a Festival blessing, a short version of "Yevarekhekha Elohim be'Shana Tova, Ken yehi ratzon" May the Lord bless you with "Shanah Tova," so may it be His will. And you will note that I did not translate the words "Shanah Tova!" And why is that? Because the Hebrew is so much more than the English greeting.
"Shanah" is an intriguing word. Did you know, or would you have ever guessed, that it was related to the well-known question from the Passover Haggadah, "Ma Nishtana," the familiar query with which a child begins our trip to freedom, asking us "why this night is different from all other nights?"
"What," I hear you ask, "does Rosh Hashanah have to do with Pesakh?" Well, for sure, because we have had Pesakh we are free to celebrate Rosh Hashanah as Jews. But more to the point is the actual examination of the word "Shanah." It is a very versatile word. the basic meaning is'to repeat, and it appears in the Torah in the verse of the Shema, veshinantam levanekha "and you shall teach them diligently to your children." Actually, it does not mean teach them, but rather repeat them. By extension of the meaning it also came to mean "to teach", since we earn by repetition.
So, does it mean that we are wishing our friends a happy repetition? No indeed. Some things repeat -- the seasons, the readings from the Torah. Some things are different, and the word "Shanah" relates to "Sheni" which means second or other. Second is "not the same," and refers to change. And change induces fear. We are afraid of change. Change makes us tremble as we ponder the future. Can we, and how can we, cope? The celebration of Rosh Hashana -- the New Year holiday - teaches us how to cope with change. Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the world in our liturgy. "ha-yom harat olam - Today the world was born," we read in the Makhzor. Rosh Hashana, therefore, challenges us, dares us, to change. It calls for "Teshuva": radical reformation, a complete change of direction!
Now, in nature, change is forced upon us by circumstances. Darwin spoke of "the survival of the fittest." Rosh Hashana counters with the proposition that change ought to come from within ourselves. The idea of Teshuva is that we can initiate change. To cope with change enforced from the outside we must make it the occasion for an inner change, for self-initiated change that is under our control. "Be not a victim of change," it bids us-- "but rather, become its author!" Think of change as a God-given opportunity for self-renewal. Do not fear change, welcome it. Change is exciting. It is a new opportunity to grow.
Think of that day, long ago, the first day you attended school. What a challenge! Or how about all the new immigrants that came to these blessed shores from the lands of upheaval and misery, to start a fresh life in a new land. What of those who, by force of economic necessity, change profession in mid-life? What of the elderly, who by fear of remaining all alone in old age enter new relationships in late life, full of fear and uncertainty, yet hopeful enough to consecrate their relationship before God. These are all changes that occur in life.
Welcome change, and go with it. Change is, as a matter of fact, a liberating experience. It frees you from the shackles of the past. Nothing is more numbing and negative than remaining in doubt, enslaved by habit. Always look at what you stand to gain from change, not what it may appear that you will lose! Starting a new career, beginning a new life in a new town, in a new home, with new neighbors, can certainly be a new and exciting challenge of your capabilities -- go toward it, join its energy and make it your own.
What, then, is the essence of redemption? Is it not to have a vision of a better world, and then to change the existing world into our vision for its perfection?
So what is it that we mean by saying "Shanah Tova?"
We recognize that when our world changes, we will respond by accepting the challenge, and thereby change ourselves. We say, may the changes work out. May the new year see an even better you than you have been so far. We say, "Have a good trip on the voyage of the rest of your life." Shanah Tova.
Kol Nidre 5759
Religion has fallen upon bad times.
There are two ways to understand this statement--and both of them are true and correct. First, religion is considered necessary, more often than not, only when people are in distress. Somehow, most people take credit for all their successes, earned or unearned. Failure, since time immemorial, has been an orphan. Miss a nail and hit your thumb, and immediately you'll think of the deity. Get good news, and you congratulate yourself. Hear bad news, and the first reaction is "Oh, God, why me!?!! A dear one celebrates an anniversary, and we go out partying. The same dear one is in the I.C.U. at the hospital, and we find the chapel and utter a prayer to ask for divine intervention...
And yes, religion has fallen on bad times in that people just don't seem inclined to share their daily lives with their God. Many have given up faith. Many claim a belief in God but no use or need for organized religion. They claim that our faith is oppressive and demanding, controlling human behavior by threats of supernatural punishment and a demand of obedience that is wedded to outdated practices such as fasting, repetitive prayers that mean little if anything in a language that has no real connection to most Jews outside of Israel.
"Shema kolenu, Adonay eloheynu, khus verakhem aleynu. Vekabel berakhamim uvratzon et tefilatenu. Hashivenu hashem venashuva, khadesh yameynu kekedem. Hear our voice, oh Lord our God, Spare us and pity us. Accept willingly and gracefully our prayer Return us Oh Lord, and we shall return, renew our days as of old."
It is not an easy- task to come before God even as we used to try and draw the attention of our father when we were little. "Dad, oh dad, please, p-l-e-a-s-e..." No, it is not easy. Actually, Yom Kippur is not so much like visiting Dad -- away from where we're at on this day, at this time in our life. We are not going back home, we are going somewhere we are not familiar with, and we are not sure who we are going to face -- the loving father who used to give us ice-cream on weekend outings, or the strict disciplinarian dad, the one who made sure that we did all our assignments for school and showed proper respect to Miss Haley, our old cranky teacher...
On Kol Nidre night we come before God to recreate ourselves. We say to him, "Do not banish us from Your presence, do not deprive us of Your Holy spirit" -- but where is His holy spirit that is in us? We are taught to emulate His qualities -- and we recite them a number of times during the holiday service, claiming that He is constant, a God of pity and inner beauty "Adonay, adonay el rakhum vekhanun. Erekh apayim verav khesed veement. . . taking long to get angry, full loving-kindness and truth.
But are we?
We come to the synagogue this evening to ask for His forgiveness, and we carry with us our resentments and our old ways, which are not His ways. Some of us come late and leave early; some of us show little respect to the occasion, compassion to those around them or love to the officiants, who try to inspire and inform... Children are not taught to sit quietly and respectfully dedicating the time they spend in the sanctuary in meditation and prayer. Instead, they make a social occasion of this most holy convocation. They make noise and distract those
who are serious about communicating with God. Parents turn a blind eye to this behavior, and the whole congregation, and, indeed, the sanctity of the occasion, suffers the consequences. Some of us face an entirely different problem-- and the holiday liturgy deals with it, too. We are all getting older! But getting older does not have to mean getting feeble, or changing our very way of life. The text of the prayer says, "Do not cast us off in old age, when our strength declines, do not forsake us. . . Al tashlikhenu leet zikna. Kikhlot kokhenu al taazvenu.".
Yet, is that not exactly what many of us are doing vis-a-vis our "good old" congregation? Should I tell you how many times each week, each month in the last year l have heard people say, "I've done my share. Let other people do their share of maintaining this congregation, providing for the refurbishing, expanding, redeveloping, and education. When we complain that the only time we hear from the synagogue is when "they need money" -- are we not aware that the only reason that this is so is because we are not using the synagogue more often -- that we are not here to take advantage of the place -- and we don't offer our help before we are approached for help? If we came weekly, if we socialized in this place, if we threw birthday parties and anniversaries and other happy occasions here, making contributions to "share our joy" -- there would be no need for emergency appeals and special dues reassessments, We ask God not to cast us off -- but have we not cast ourselves off, when we no longer collect money for charity, when we don't come to this place protesting, "where is this years charity appeal, where is the school fund-raisers, why is it that we no longer offer the Shabbat meals, and who, tell me, who is offering "gmilut khasadim," interest free. loans for those whose lives are tottering on the brink of disaster?
"Hashivenu adonay elekha venashuva. Khadesh yamenu kekedem...""Bring us back, Oh Lord, Return us and we shall return, renew our days as of old!" Yes, my friends, let us resolve to follow the words of our prayer. Let us make this location on Lake Hollingsworth more than a lovely edifice, Lets make it a beyt knesset, a house of assembly, where we come together to enjoy each others company, to learn together and grow together; to celebrate life-cycle events and special surprise events. Let1s find out all the good things about each other, and use our talents to make every one of our members a special person, a man or a woman or a child living by the Grace ofOod, in a Kehilat kodesh, a holy congregation of loving and caring people. When we do this, God will rnake our days long and fruitful and satisfying It will give us rest at night and make ourold age a time of satisfaction and joy as we observe the labor of our hands grow and mature in the children of today, and in their children, too. So may God grant us to live.
Rosh Hashanah 5761
Welcome to the first Rosh Hashanah service of the year 2000. We are so lucky to be here! We think we got here by ourselves, because we are free to make our own choices. And we think that we are so independent, so self sufficient. We have done it all ourselves.
Well, that is not quite so. Not one of us originated speech; no one person invented the double helix of D.N.A.; no recent genius discovered a way to make life where there is no life. We are good, quite good, at figuring out the systems that are in existence. The super computers exhibit signs of working almost as well as the human brain - but, of course, they are limited by the need to be plugged in to a power source while the human brain is powered by the Source of all power, the Holy One, Blessed be He.
Nor is it true that we are not affected by our surrounding. We think that our religion, Judaism of the twentieth century, is not affected by Christianity or Islam - but of course it is or maybe it is they who are affected by us. After all, they claim to be spiritual off-springs of Judaism. Sometimes they even claim to supercede us. Take for example the matter of numbers: The Christians believe in the Trinity. We claim that this is a heresy, and profess a belief in the unique and singular nature of God. We avoid counting anything, it is considered bad luck. You know how they count a minyan in an orthodox shul: not one, not two, not three, etc... Our great Sephardic sage, Moshe Ben Maimon, was vilified for publishing lists of numbers: from the qualities of God to articles of faith, from positive mitzvot to negative mitzvot. However, the holiday liturgy quotes the Hebrew Scriptures, So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom [Psalms 90:12] So it is that numerology, or gimatriya is very big in Judaism. Which means that we do not believe trinity, but do believe in the power of three. Quite so, we do, indeed. Ecclesiastes teaches us, And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; a threefold cord is not quickly broken. [Ecc. 4:12] In case you are wondering what that means, let me make it clear: one is weak, two is stronger, three is the strongest yet... Does this apply to our God? Probably not, not the way Christianity does! But the numerical value of Eheye (I am [that I am] IS three in gimatriya... And in the liturgy of the High holidays we read Utfila utshuva utzedaka maavirin et roa hagzera and prayer, return to the good path and deeds of proper lovingkindness avert the evil decree. Tractate Avot in the Mishnah teaches us, Al shlosha dvarim haolam omed the world exists by virtue of three things: Torah, the service of God, and Gmilut Khasadim deeds of lovingkindness and mercy. We have our three fathers, Avraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov. Now, the modern thinkers will hasten to add, but we also have four mothers. I agree, and would like to point out to you that the three and the four are together seven, as the seven days of the week six for labor and the seventh for rest. We are all influence by and from one another, from generation to generation and from civilization to the next civilization. We are all limited by the length of our days and the paucity of our Shabatot that come only once a week!
Only God, who is eternal, whose Being is from everlasting to everlasting, is without the limitations and restrictions of time. For Him, today is the Day of Creation. Today is the day of His revelation to Israel at Sinai, and the day of infamy, whenthe Israelites mourned the report of the spies, bringing about the curse of the ninth of Av; Today is the miracle of Khanukkah and the debacle of Beitar, the expulsion from England and Holland, from Spain and Portugal. It is today that we arrive at New Amsterdam and Newport; today we establish the Zionist movement. It is also today that our great-grandchildren, still unborn, still subject to our creative genius or destructive impulse, will usher the Messianic era. How good it is to think that if only we heed His word, if only we use our God-given powers to learn from our past and improve our present His will shall prevail, and His design shall come to be speedily and in a timely fashion. This is our destiny, this is our challenge.
Shanah Tovah to one and all.
Rosh Hashanah I
We read in the Torah the history of our first Patriarch, Avraham, from a Rosh Hashanah view point that is, the view toward the future. And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had spoken. For Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. [Gen. 21:1,2] Abraham had waited long to see a child born to Sarah, since children are every generations hope for the future. Because Sarah could not conceive for such a long time, she had attempted to procure a child by proxy, allowing her handmaid to bear a child to Avraham, who was mades Yishmael. After the birth of Sarahs son, Yitzkhak, we read that Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, mocking. And she said to Abraham, Cast out this slave and her son; for the son of this slave shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac. [Gen. 21:9,10] The text in the Torah tells us that Avraham was not keen on doing as Sarah had asked, but God intervenes. And God said to Abraham, Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your slave; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called. And also of the son of the slave will I make a nation, because he is your seed. [Gen. 21:12,13] Modern scholars of Torah and social science like to condemn our heritage because of this story. Avraham and Sarah are painted as heartless manipulators of human lives that should have been left to their own destiny. Hagar becomes a sex slave, raped and forced to raise the child forced upon her, and then expelled from the camp precisely because of the presence of that child.
We must be wary of people who wish to impose the mores of our times on a civilization four millennia old. We do not live in the age of Avraham, even as he did not live nor perform his destiny in our times. Would that he did. I think we could have learned a thing or two from him. However, there is value in learning from the experience of our progenitors. The lesson they impart to us concerns the rearing of children. All too often, nowadays, we allow our children to grow like weeds in the field. We believe that self expression is a natural right not only of adults but of children, without limit or restriction. We fail to discipline children, and we demand precious little of them. Consequently they grow like weeds in the field, uncivilized and uncultivated, socially maladjusted and incapable of interacting in society for the good of the community. So many young people go astray, lacking discipline they fall prey to negative disciplines: cults, violent gangs, drug cultures and the such.
This shortcoming of the young is not new! It is precisely what happened to Avrahams first born son. He was failed by his mother, who reared him, and became a child of violence and raw emotions. His mocking which Sarah noticed and for which she asked to have him expelled was not a matter of joking or fooling around. Commentary suggests that he was threatening the life of Yitzkhak. When Sarah said to her husband, for the son of this slave shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac, she did not mean to disinherit him of his portion, but rather she was informing Avraham that Yishmael was not inclined to share any inheritance with his younger brother. Gods affirmation of Sarahs request of her husband was not the act of a capricious deity that favors one over another of His creatures, but rather the intervening of a merciful God who recognizes the potential of extreme violence and who wishes to prevent theviolence from taking place. Hence, he prompts Avraham to follow his wifes request, but immediately informs His servant, And also of the son of the slave will I make a nation...
Judaism teaches us that our progeny is in our hands as a trust from God. If we wish to see them prosper and become responsible adults and members in good faith of the community of Israel, we must insure their proper instruction and rearing. In those cases, and there are always such cases, when children go astray, we must accept the need for what is called these days tough love. We must not allow our children to engage in unlawful and destructive behavior while under our roof and our protection. A child who becomes criminally involved, who takes drugs or abuses alcohol must be expelled from the home, for the benefit of society, and possibly even for his/her benefit. For when a child realizes that his/her own parents will not put up with this kind of behavior, it may just be the impetus to change and return to the good grace of society. This is a time of repentance and return, and we must learn to forgive and to forget. However, we must also recognize that the habitual sinner, who asks to be forgiven and then proceeds to repeat the sin again, will find the gates of forgiveness closed before his insincere plea. Let us hope that the lesson will be learned, that the misbehavior will be mitigated, and that pardon will be gained by all who have gone astray. Amen
Rosh Hashanah eve II
This evening I will make a brief comment since we are all still sated from the morning service and wish to return home to be with family and friends.
We come to worship Him on this holiday, and we ask, what holiday is it? We have just consecrated the holiday with the wine of Kiddush, and we mentioned Yom Hazikaron (the day of Memory) and Zikhron Terua (the remembrance of the blast of the horn). These named give us a clue to the nature of the holiday and the theme of our observance during this holiday. The remembrance we mention is our history, and the history of Gods interaction with that which he created. We say in the service, Hayom harat olam this day the world is pregnant, about to give birth to creation. Thus we celebrate history, from the time of creation to our time, but also onward, for all the coming years, generations, and even eons to the end of time. The Zikhron Terua that we call the holiday speaks of the sound of the Shofar, a rams horn which is sounded as part of the service of the holiday except when the holiday falls on Shabbat. The name of the instrument in Hebrew, Shofar,
comes from the root leshaper, meaning to improve. The horn is sounded to alert us to the need to improve: improve our attitude, improve our relation with God, improve our relation with Gods creatures, from the beasts of the field to our brethren, Gods handiwork.
We gathers in synagogues around the world on this holiday, and we pray for a shanah Tovah Umetukah a good and sweet year. We ask God to review our behavior during the past year with compassion and forbearing, with mercy and pity, granting us a chance to change and improve our performance. We ask this with a view to the future a future which is manifest in our progeny, our children and grand-children. We must be keenly aware of the passage of time, that we play our role as adults even as our parents and grand-parents did only a few short minutes ago. Life is a fleeting commodity. Time is the only thing in our lives that we cannot save nor hoard, give away nor store for a future opportunity. Time passes, it moves on whether we make use of it or not. It waits for no one and is the same for the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the wretched.
This holiday that we celebrate, which is not called in our Torah Rosh Hashanah why do we call it that, and why is it so important? The Mishnah, which is the Oral Torah that was carried on by our people in parallel with the Torah in ancient times and was then transcribed after the destruction of the first Temple, says, There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year of sovereignty and pilgrimage; on the first of Elul is the new year for tithing the domestic animals... On the first of Tishrei the new year for years and for the release and the jubilee and planting vegetables; on the first of Shevat, the new year of the trees, according to the House of Shamay. The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth of that month. [Tractate Rosh Hashanah I]
What does it mean, On the first of Tishrei the new year for years and for the release and the jubilee and planting vegetables? It does not sound like the important festival that we have come to accept this yearly celebration to be. I have found in commentary a very interesting and instructive explanation.
Normally we accept the term Rosh Hashanah to mean head of the year, since rosh is head and Shanah is year. This new commentary I spoke of suggests that rosh is not the word head but rather an acronym for retzon Avinu Shebashamayim the wishes of Our Father who is in the Heavens above. Thus, the holiday is not head of the year but the time of year to do the will of Our Father who is in the heavens above. In this regard, we read in the our Scriptures, Return, O Lord, deliver my soul. Oh save me for the sake of your loving kindness! For in death there is no remembrance of you. In Sheol who shall give you thanks? I am weary with my moaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my enemies. Depart from me, all you evil doers; for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer. Let all my enemies be ashamed and much troubled; let them return and be ashamed in a moment. [Psalms 6:5-11] God wishes to have us follow inHis path, do that which is proper and receive His blessing. All we need to do is recall our history, follow the example of those who did Gods bidding, and make sure that we establish Gods purpose upon this earth. It seems simple enough, though to be sure it is far from simple. However, it is do-able.
May we so conduct ourselves during the coming hours and days that we shall be judged by our God as fulfilling His wishes, and thus we shall inscribe ourselves in His book of merit, find favor before Him, and be inscribed in the book of life. Let your work be visible to your servants, and your glory to their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish the work of our hands upon us; O prosper it, the work of our hands. [Psalms 90:16,17] Shannah Tovah.
Rosh Hashanah II
I must make a confession: I have sinned by speech. I have been very sophisticated, which is a Greek word, meaning polished or refined - but only skin deep. Actually it means to place a thin veneer over something, which hides all imperfections and makes it look like something it is not. I have spoken to you three times in the last day and a half, and I waxed philosophical, and hopefully profound and wise, too. I told you of freedom and connectivity, of love and harmony with God and our fellow men (and women, to be sure). But yet I have not looked at the fact that when push comes to shove, we shove that is to say, when our intellect is threatened by brutality, brutality wins every time. In the final analysis, we are flesh and blood, we are clay and dust. We aspire to godliness but we rarely achieve it. The High Holidays, with the beautifully lyrical and rich liturgy composed and written by God inspired-men in over a millennium, attempt to elevate us from the everyday to the sublime, from the primordial soup to the lofty heights of the Eternal, way above the atmosphere to the domain of the Almighty. Yet our mortality and our physicality bring us back to earth time and time again. We aspire for the apogee, but we end up in the dust and dirt, in the slime and silt of human existence. It is the curse of our nature.
Our faith recognizes it, and gives voice to it with the sound of the shofar, and with the physical characteristics of the Rams horn. It is interesting to note that while we have very fancy and beautiful shofrot (horns) that some from kosher animals such as gazelles and mountain goats and are long and curled and capable of multi-sounds still, for the obligation of hearing the sound of shofar on the High Holidays, it is the wild rams horn that is required. The ram is the animal that was caught in the thicket when Avraham bound his son to offer him as a sacrifice to God. The ram replaced the boy, as a measure of mercy from God for the life of the boy. Another reason for using the rams horn is that the sound emanating from this kind of a horn is harsh and shrill and reminiscent of the screeching cry of small infants. Listen to its plaintive wail, and you shall become aware of what it awakens in us. Call it sound therapy, or call it atavism, there is a primitive and deeply rooted reaction to the sound as we hear the tekia, shvarim truah, tekia. And when it is time for the tekia gedolah the longest possible wail why, the very heavens rip open to plead before the Eternal, Blessed be He: Av harakhaman, Father full of mercy, listen to the cry of the infant, the frail human you have placed on the earth that you created. You have made him smaller than the bear, weaker than the tiger, slower than the wild dog, and least ready to face the elements in his naked and natural state. The only advantage You have given him is that he has a prehensile thumb and a brain that can figure out how to overcome his handicap. Why be surprised if he turns out to be a little wicked, malicious, spiteful and sinful in his ways? Have pity on him and give him a second chance to do well, to do good. Another tekia, a couple of more shvarim, and our case is made. Here we are, suspended between our mortality and His Eternal nature. We are the ones you created with the Spark of the Divine - we are humanity. With all our failings, deficiencies, imperfections, inadequacies and weaknesses, God, have pity on us! God, save us for the sake of Your glory. Grant us a year of peace. Amen