Editor’s note: The TJP is thrilled with the overwhelming response of our local clergy to our request for their High Holiday messages. Here is the balance of submissions.
Each day is sacred, every action counts
By Sheri Allen
This year, I am struck by the relevancy and power of the Unetana Tokef prayer, which outlines the possible fates that may or may not await us in the new year. COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 200,000 people in this country alone. And I’m sure not one of them would’ve imagined that they would succumb to a disease that, just a year ago, none of us had ever even heard of.
This pandemic has changed our lives, and how we live them, forever. It’s also, hopefully, led us to a greater appreciation of blessings that we often take for granted, and reminded ourselves of how fragile, how sacred, each day is. Just the simple act of breathing comfortably is a reason to give thanks.
My days in isolation have been transformative in other ways. I, along with the rest of the world, have witnessed shocking acts of inhumanity and injustice. And I’ve had to admit and own my own complicity by not actively speaking out against them. Until now.
This is where teshuvah comes in. Acknowledging our missteps, our missed opportunities to help those who have been calling out for support, we can now choose a different path. We can take action to help make life more equitable, just, and safe for every human being. We can all help to “avert the severe decree” for each other. And in this beautiful reframing of the Unetana Tokef, Rabbi Joseph Meszler reflects on what that might look like.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts. Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is teshuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.
Sheri Allen is beginning her 11th year as cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom.
Overcoming the theft of time together
By Michael Cohen
COVID-19 closures create different faces of hardship in our community. We strive with faithfulness to be there, as best we can, through the loving care of The Legacy’s staff. A number of spouses have faced separation from life partners because of a needed change in level of care. It raises barriers to the life to which they’ve always been accustomed. Not everyone can use FaceTime to mitigate this distancing, without helping hands. But how does one cope with the concern for the well-being of your spouse with whom you’ve gone through everything, when contact is limited?
Adult children kept from their parents’ side, sometimes struggle, when they’ve previously shared a presence each has depended upon. The theft of time together during what may be the last portion of a parent’s life, is heartbreaking.
A very independent resident didn’t want to worry her kids, because visits were scarce, and mediated through a Plexiglas screen. She kept from them and staff that she wasn’t quite feeling herself, nor drinking enough fluids. When she was hospitalized, complications quickly took her from us all.
Perhaps the cruelest hardships befall our most vulnerable — suffering the cognitive decline of dementia that leaves them lonely and, in their confusion, fearful. Despite efforts of caregivers to visit and check on them, and facilitate FaceTime visits, it’s potentially devastating that their children can’t visit in our health center.
The psalmist identifies (Psalm 30) that “When connection with God is obscured, a moment becomes unbearably eternal.” How cruel to see dementia that robs us of our courage, compounded by the restrictions we must observe for COVID-19, pose such obstruction! “But to attune to the presence of the Divine is to be fully alive.” So much of that attunement comes in the heartfelt efforts of our caregivers, without whom loved ones would miss even FaceTime contact.
Even a “heart of wisdom,” such as we seek in Psalm 90, suffers with the knowledge that a loved one is distressed. May God inspire us in the new year of 5781 to find ways we can keep faith with our families, and communicate enough love through our Legacy staff.
Michael Cohen, rabbi and ACPE certified educator, is director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care at The Legacy Senior Communities in Plano.
We control our destiny
By Don Croll
On behalf of the board and members of Congregation Beth El Binah, I want to extend a Good and Sweet New Year wish to everyone. It has been a remarkable six months for all of us, with no end in sight. Countless numbers of people have been infected and some of our relatives and friends have succumbed to the disease.
The Unetana Tokef prayer takes on a greater meaning this year, especially when we pray, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall perish by fire and who by plague.”
Much has been written about this litany of life and death. Is it God who decrees our destiny or is it us? I’m thinking of those who called the disease a hoax, contracted it and then died. They had control over whether to wash their hands or not. It wasn’t God who settled the “who shall live and who shall die” decree. It was those who chose not to take care.
The prayer ends with the statement, “but repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” The prayer that follows Unetana Tokef is many times glossed over and not given enough emphasis: “God, you are slow to anger and quick to forgive. You do not wish the death of sinners but You seek that they should turn from their ways and live.” Our God is not a vengeful God, as many would believe, but a compassionate God. Why else would we pray at Neilah that the Gates of Righteousness (and life) remain open so we can enter?
As Harold Kushner wrote in his landmark book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” God created us, gave us the ability to choose, and then stepped back to watch what choices we made. A choice was made not to tell the American people about the seriousness of this plague and our lives, our destinies, our families have forever been altered.
May we all come to realize as we recite the Unetana Tokef prayer this year that we control our destiny.
L’shanah Tovah uM’tukah Tikateivu. May you have a good and sweet 5781.
Don Croll is cantor and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El Binah.
We can be better with how we treat one another
By Aryeh Feigenbaum
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the head of the famous Mir Yeshiva, was asked, “What should I think about during the shofar blowing?” Without pausing he answered, “Think about someone else.” We have been through a year like no other in our lifetime. We have been introduced to new terms: social distancing, isolation, quarantine. The way we fight the spread of COVID-19 is separation. Separation means that some people are alone. Some are hurting financially; some, emotionally. Think about someone else. Think about how you can help them. Think about those you don’t get along with and how you can change that. Hashem is sending us a message this year. He has shaken up the world. Perhaps the message He is sending us is, we can be better with how we treat each other. We can be better with how we feel about each other. We can put others first. We can “think about someone else” and through that we can pray that He will send us a shanah tovah, a good new year!
Aryeh Feigenbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Ohr HaTorah.
Finding order in a new world: embracing a new year of growth, challenge and success
By Yaakov Green
Beginnings are never easy — that’s by design. This week we celebrate the start of creation, and the coronation of the King of Kings. An important question should be asked of the opening verses of our Torah which describe these very first moments of creation — why tell us what existed before creation, why not just start with the first Big-Bang moments? Instead, the Torah directly tells its audience that preceding creation was “tohu va’vohu,” confusion and chaos. Why was this detail included?
It is such an important detail because it is God’s way of letting us all know that everything in his world is more naturally disordered and chaotic, and that it takes deliberate action and planning — it takes us — to place order upon our worlds. This can be hard and filled with challenge as we try mightily to wrestle the world from a place of uncertainty, anxiety and chaos, into a system of harmony, knowledge and coordination.
Our new year will be one of challenge and one of effort as we collectively work as a broad community to find order in the chaos of uncertainty. At Akiba Yavneh we have spent months working together with so many organizations and individuals throughout our great community to ensure the safety of students and staff. Equally important — we work to ensure that we can provide superior general and Judaic studies education and social-emotional education to our wonderful students at all grade levels, here on our campus.
These efforts of creating new systems, new expectations and new realities are monumental and I am filled with gratitude to our administration, staff, parents and students who have grown closer and stronger through this all. Together we have learned this vital lesson from Rosh Hashanah and the epic of creation. Together we see that we can find some order in this new world, and that this new year will be one of great growth, challenge and sweet successes.
From our AYA family to yours — we wish you all a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year!
Rabbi Yaakov Green is the Akiba Yavneh Academy head of school.
A High Holiday recipe for resilience
By Mordechai Harris
The climax of Unetana Tokef, hauntingly chanted by the congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reads “U’teshuva, u’tefilah, u’tzedaka ma’avirin et ro’ah hagezeirah” — “Repentance, prayer, and charity remove (the) harshness of the decree.” Reading this closely, it’s clear that the decree itself is still present. What changes is only our subjective experience of enduring the decree. It becomes tolerable.
While it is powerful every year, I encounter renewed resonance within the timeless truth of this phrase. Our very different High Holidays this year have brought into focus all that is out of our control. We can’t make COVID-19 simply disappear. It’s the decree we must live with. Yet, we have great power to shift our experience.
Firstly, we can repent, which is to say, we can reflect upon our lives and our actions, identify our errors, re-orient our behaviors to reflect our values, and heal our relationships. In a world of social distancing, this can tangibly bring us closer with God and with each other.
Prayer is our opportunity to nurture hope through our faith. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” documents well the impact of hope and purpose during even the most traumatic of times. Our traditional liturgy serves also as a mantra of mission, anchoring us amidst a chaotic world and giving cause for resilience.
Finally, charity has the capability to shift our entire narrative of suffering and powerlessness. When we care for others, it reminds us of all the blessings we do have in our lives. When we support our community’s vulnerable, we undergird our collective strength. Immediately, we go from those acted upon, to those who act and shift the world ever so much toward a better tomorrow.
As I go to recite these words this year, I will be thinking of all of you. I will be uplifted by the knowledge that with everything we have endured, we have certainly grown as individuals and as a community, and that those silver linings will continue to serve us well long after this decree has been revoked.
May it be a year of health and healing. Shanah Tovah.
Mordechai Harris is the executive director of the Center for Jewish Education and rabbi in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
Find renewal in new places
By Nancy Kasten
The theme of renewal is especially resonant for me this year as the Birthday of the World approaches. The description of what existed before Creation, “The earth was unformed and void, and darkness hovered over the abyss,” isn’t abstract right now. We live in dark times, when many sources of light are missing and may be uniquely painful on the High Holy Days. We won’t be gathering with family and friends to share meals and worship and laughter and hugs and sympathy and tears. How is it possible to make chicken soup and brisket for one, or even two? What will it be like to recite Unetana Tokef and Avinu Malkenu and be able to hear our own voice, not as one of many, but distinct, noticeable, shockingly unfamiliar?
The Sikh American activist and civil rights lawyer Valerie Kaur asks whether the darkness we are experiencing at this time in America and around the world is the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb. Our Jewish Creation story would say that it is always and forever both.
The Yotzer prayer, which we recite every morning, reminds us that God renews the works of Creation every day, out of goodness and compassion. The building blocks are always there — light and dark, peace and everything else. But if we keep looking for them in the same old places, we will never notice the renewal that is happening all around us. The goal is not to shut out the darkness, and at the same time, to discover new places to find the light.
These High Holy Days give us a unique opportunity to step back from routines and rituals that have limited us and kept us from seeing things in our world we have never noticed before. What might happen if we let ourselves live in the moment that we are in, without recreating or regretting things we can’t possibly do in the old, familiar way? May we all gain wisdom and purpose by allowing ourselves to see things from a different perspective, bringing renewal and blessing in 5781.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten is chief relationship officer of Faith Commons.
Be positive about the future
By Avraham Zev Kosowsky
As the last several months have been clouded by corona and for good reason, it is important to take the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to focus on our relationship with God, God’s relationship with us and with the Jewish people.
During the month of Elul and the ten days of repentance, our focus is on returning to God and mending our ways. On Rosh Hashanah itself, it is on crowning God King. On Yom Kippur, we spend the day in deep prayer and teshuvah, rejoicing at the end knowing that God has accepted our prayers.
In Mesorah, we are so excited to be back in school, knowing not to take it for granted as we follow COVID-19 guidelines, recognizing the blessings that we have. We have a few students learning from home and a few teachers learning from home, and these serve as constant reminders that we are in different times.
But the environment is happy, positive and growth-oriented and this should be a mirror of our service to God. We have to remove the corona cloud and remember that God is in charge; that has not changed. We have to be b’simcha (happy), positive about the future God has in store for us, and growth-oriented; we can’t let corona take the place of building that relationship.
Our hope is that this High Holiday season will give us the chance to break through the corona cloud and refocus on our relationship with God and all of its components.
The Mesorah family wishes all TJP readers a happy, healthy new year. May you be inscribed and sealed for a year of good.
Avraham Zev Kosowsky is a rabbi and headmaster of Mesorah High School for Girls.
Ever hopeful, ever energized
By Andrew M. Paley
As we wish each other a Shanah Tovah, a good year, that will hopefully unfold for us, never could we have imagined how much we needed shalom in our world, than we have seen over the past nine months. The pandemic has left illness and devastation in its wake, disrupting lifecycle events, schools, and our ability to be present for others in the way it is so needed. The partisan divides in our country seem worse than before; civic unrest has spread throughout the country. The word “normal” is now really hard to define. This time is hard to define.
And yet, I remain ever hopeful and energized by what I have witnessed in and among these difficult times: acts of courage, bravery, love, kindness and caring in more ways than I can count.
I witnessed the love and support of strangers helping to share much-needed food and supplies; I witnessed the bravery of doctors and nurses and first responders coming to aid of those in need of help; I witnessed the courage of people of faith being good citizens by being actively involved in trying to change our communities for the better; I stood in awe of people who, lacking the privilege that I enjoy, are still believing in and working toward their version of America the Beautiful.
I for one am honored and feel blessed to be part of this community that cares deeply about these ideals and I know you do as well. As we welcome in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we invoke God’s blessing to give us strength and courage in the year ahead.
May our prayers land in God’s loving embrace and may we all be inscribed, for joy, for prosperity and for health, in the Book of Life. Amen.
Andrew M. Paley is rabbi of Temple Shalom.
Improvement within us
By Yaakov Rich
Tests are intended to help us improve. It has been a time of great vicissitudes. Looking forward to a year of greatness in 5781.
Yaakov Rich is rabbi of Congregation Toras Chaim.
Think about the needs of others
By Aryeh Rodin
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, was the dean of the Mir Yeshiva in Israel. This Sage was asked by his students, what should one think about when hearing the shofar blown? He smiled and answered that we should think about the needs of someone else. As we enter the new year of 5781 and heard the shofar blowing last Sunday, may we take that sagacious and sweet advice from Rabbi Finkel and think about the needs of someone else.
May you and your loved ones be blessed with a happy, healthy, and sweet year!
Aryeh Rodin is the rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom.
Continue the good work they did
By Seymour Rossel
We are caught in a worldwide nightmare; suffering and death close in on us and threaten us. In ancient Egypt, our ancestors saw an economy celebrating death. Egyptians planned their tombs the way we plan our retirements. Egyptians purchased dolls to be buried with them to awake and become slaves to do their work in the next life. Egyptians commissioned personal chapters of the Book of the Dead. Most could afford only a few. Still, they scrimped and saved because each chapter was, for them, an insurance policy to reach the afterlife. The industry of death permeated Egypt. When asked what made the ancient Hebrews unique, Anglican minister Herbert Danby, who translated the Mishnah into English, said, “They came out of Egypt abhorring death and celebrating life.”
As Jews, our ultimate dream is never in the grave. It is in leaving behind a world that is better ahead — a world better because of the deeds we do, the teachings we embrace, the example we set, and the people whose lives we touch. Death comes but we do not celebrate it. We just become survivors in turn. Our Jewish values tie us to the past in order to ground us for the future. The High Holidays bring us not only a time for repentance but also a time of remembrance. We best honor our beloved dead by finding opportunities to continue and extend the good work they did, by giving tzedakah to the causes they espoused, by helping in the search for cures for illnesses that carried them away, and by sustaining the synagogues and federations and communal organizations which they labored to maintain.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year, a year of peace and prosperity, a year of health and well-being, a year of family and friends, a year of living well! Many blessings.
Seymour Rossel is a rabbi and author of “Bible Dreams” and “The Essential Jewish Stories.”
In the big inning: celebrating the anniversary of Creation with a baseball mindset
By Matt Rutta
I started writing my Yom Kippur sermon hours after last Yom Kippur ended. The Dodgers were eliminated again, giving me a Sisyphean sense of futility. Then we learned that the teams that beat them in 2017 and 2018 cheated to win and weren’t punished! Another great message: Why do cheating, evil people prosper while the good and innocent suffer? My sermon on theodicy was not to be as the curses of 5780 unfolded. How do we begin to pray for wind and rain on Shemini Atzeret, hours after those two elements conspire and form tornadoes and decimate our city? People are dying from disease, there is injustice in the streets, nobody is willing to listen to one another, we seem to be living the Unetana Tokef prayer, and I want to talk about BASEBALL?
Sports unite, bring camaraderie, pride, inspiration and relief. The Olympics would have brought the world together to rise temporarily above global squabbles and engage in fierce but friendly competition to show us at our best. When we are not at our best, athletes can use their platform to show us that we have a long way to go, from Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier to teams refusing to play in protest of racism. I’ve always looked up to Sandy Koufax for sitting out the World Series game that began on Yom Kippur (it helped that he pitched and won three more games, the championship and MVP). One of the milestone events of my life took place at MetLife Stadium on Jan. 1, when I finished the entire Talmud among almost 100,000 people.
Most importantly, sports bring us hope, something which so many of us find in short supply today. When the Dodgers get eliminated, I immediately start to count the days until pitchers and catchers report. We entered 5780 having no idea of the blessings and curses that lay in store, but we need to have hope. In the words of Mets great (and namesake for our cocker spaniel), Tug McGraw, “Ya gotta believe!” May 5781 be a year of blessings (and hopefully a Dodgers championship)!
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed. is a Jewish educator in Dallas.
‘One narrow bridge’
By Ronen Shimon
Hello dear friends,
Year 5780 was indeed a unique year. We were definitely able to feel the meaning behind the famous words of Rebbe Nachman from Breslev:
“The whole entire world is one narrow bridge.”
In these special days where the whole world is going through great trials and uncertainty, and working tirelessly to find a solution to this worldwide problem that has affected every aspect of our lives — be it financially, emotionally, or whatnot — it is our job to get off this crazy marathon of life and remember that there is a One and Only who is running this epic show.
And that is the Creator of the World.
We cannot forget for one second that we have a Father up in heaven. Just as a good father wants the best for his children, so too of course our Father in Heaven wants the best for us.
In order for our Father to protect and guard us, we must be close to Him today even more than any other day.
How can we do that?
We must learn Torah tirelessly with more effort than ever before and follow the mitzvot. We must do chesed with one another.
And remember the second part of the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev:
“The whole entire world is one narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid at all.”
Not to be afraid, because our Father loves each and every one of us.
I want to wish us all a year full of goodness, health, happiness, love and world peace.
Ronen Shimon is the rabbi of Young Israel of Dallas.
Leshanah tovah, beriah umevorechet tikatevu utihamenu
(May you be written and sealed for a good, healthy and blessed new year)
By Zecharia Sionit
On behalf of myself, my family and Sephardic Torah Center, I would like to wish a most blessed year to the greater Dallas Jewish community and the entirety of Am Yisrael. May all the challenges of this unprecedented year fade away with the arrival of the new year, and may 5781 indeed be a year of immense health, prosperity, growth and peace for our nation and the entire world, Amen.
Tichleh shanah vekileloteha, tahel shanah ubirchoteha. May the old year and its curses conclude; may the new year and its blessings begin.
Zecharia Sionit is the rabbi of the Sephardic Torah Center of Dallas.
We have been challenged, and we continue to respond
By Ben Sternman
In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, we declare: Hayom harat olam — today is the birthday of the world — because by tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation. When we read about creation in Torah (Genesis 1:2), we read “V’ha’aretz hay’ta tohu vavohu, the earth was a chaos, unformed.” I will admit to you that these last six months have felt a little tohu vavohu, chaotic and unformed. But I’ve also found the last six months to be inspiring. Yes…really. Inspiring.
Why have I found the last six months to be inspiring? Because I have witnessed the Jewish community of Greater Dallas unify to cope with the challenges we have all faced and we have done so together. Under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Kushnick, the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas, with rabbis representing the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Movements, has met on a regular basis to share best practices. We’ve joined with the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and other Jewish organizations to shepherd our community through these perilous times. Our Jewish community has unified to live out the talmudic dictum (Shevuot 39a) that kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh — all Israel is responsible for one another. Seeing the entire community come together is inspiring.
As we move into the new year, 5781, may we all be inspired to live up to the highest potential of our lives. May we be blessed with health and prosperity. May we join together to celebrate the New Year in joy and happiness.
Wishing you and all whom you love: Shanah tovah um’tukah — a sweet and happy new year.
Ben Sternman is the rabbi of Adat Chaverim
Ignite the spark in others
By Nasanya Zakon
We are taught that Rosh Hashanah, in addition to being the day of the creation of Adam and Eve, was also the day Joseph was freed from prison. Besides this being an interesting historical fact, there is a very deep message for us.
Joseph was the one who was able to live as an impressionable teenager all alone in Egypt and stay true to the values his father imbued within him. Despite the incredibly difficult test of the wife of Potiphar, he did not give in. The Chassidic masters teach us that due to this, Joseph represents the spark of holiness within a Jew that can be ignited into a fire of passionate Judaism! — a spark that cannot be extinguished and is laden with potential.
What holds us back from bringing this greatness out that is hidden within? Perhaps we are scared, trapped, busy, ignorant, embarrassed, feeling unmotivated… If Joseph went free today then THIS is the time to set ourselves free! Freedom is not a value unto itself; rather, it is a vehicle for expressing the dazzling beauty that lies within us!
We have all been sucker-punched with six months of COVID-19 and its related issues. Whether it was dealing with the illness, fear, financial setback…fear paralyzes and stifles. Freedom allows us to resume our growth and expansiveness. The way to emancipate ourselves and our families is to realize, my role in life is to ignite that spark in myself and my loved ones. Life is not about waiting for the break in the action to grow! Life is about getting onto the court of life in the midst of the emotional hustle and bustle inside ourselves! Let us not be trapped but rather become free like the Joseph within us and shine confidently! Shanah Tovah!
Nasanya Zakon is rabbi and director of DATA of Plano.