Next week, we will gather for Rosh Hashanah in all the ways that our diverse community approaches the Divine. Let the stirring sounds of the shofar call us to examine ourselves, to work hard to be better people and to do what is right for ourselves and others. Most of all, may you have a sweet new year and many blessings of health, spirit and peace.
Oh, what a difference (we thought) a year makes! This past year was challenging in so many ways. Figuring out how to navigate Zoomland and creating a meaningful prayer service when we were unable to be together created many challenges, but I believe we weathered them successfully. The rollout of vaccines gave us hope that we could return to our regular, in-person, un-socially distanced no-hugs-barred services. We are back to mandates and protocols, leaving me wondering how to fulfill the spiritual needs of my congregation while we all try to breathe comfortably in our masks.
Every Rosh Hashanah, we strive to let go of the baggage we’ve carried and the mistakes we’ve made, as we look forward to new beginnings and renewed faith that this year will be better than the one before.
I’ll bet I’m not alone when I say I’ve struggled to keep myself from falling down the rabbit hole of despair over these past 18 months. But our tradition allows us to acknowledge our struggles, sit in those moments of difficulty and call out to God for help. Psalm 34:19: “The Eternal is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit (God) delivers.” What helps me most is remembering that our ancestors have survived despite enormous odds against them through the centuries. I believe that’s due to the resilience of our people, and the stability of our traditions, rituals and holidays.
Despite everything that we’ve gone through, or witnessed others go through this past year, we will be together again this year, in person or online, to celebrate our new year, praying that, whatever it holds, we will find strength in God and each other.
As we approach the High Holy Days, I am reminded of a story. The story goes:
There once was an elderly Chinese woman who had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot seemed perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one-and-a-half pots of water. The poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection and miserable that it could only do half of what it thought it should be doing.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.” The old woman smiled, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your crack, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace my house.”
As we can see from this story, there are two important aspects that will determine the significance of these High Holy Days and the year ahead. They are our outlook and the beauty of nature. Since God created nature and offered us the free will of perspective, we can understand that in order to have a blessed upcoming year, we must look toward God and the community with the beauty of the world around us and by watering that beauty with the flowing waters of mitzvot. If we do this, then we will truly inscribe our names in the Book of Life.
According to our sages, God initially made the world based upon the attribute of strict justice. But then God came to understand that it was not enough and the world could not exist solely upon the attribute of justice. And so, God made the world hinge not only upon justice, but also upon compassion. This perspective, looking beyond a strict demand for justice, helps me work past my personal struggle with theological and metaphysical questions, and has enabled my sense of faith to grow. I’ve come to appreciate the power we human beings hold when we affirm one another through the virtues of love, patience and forgiveness. And because we can rediscover that power again and again, even amidst the greatest loss and despair, I continue to grow in my faith.
Our liturgy repeats the message during these High Holy Day services that tzedakah, tefillah and teshuvah can mitigate whatever life holds in store for us. These concepts of Jewish tradition in significant measure depend upon the virtues of love, patience and forgiveness. Tzedakah, charity, is a way of describing how we put our love into action. Tefillah, prayer, asks of us the ability to slow down and take a deep breath in order to get in touch with our deepest self, and invites us to inculcate a patience deep enough to bring us in touch with the essence of being, itself. And teshuvah, repentance or turning to God, is all about the power of forgiveness, and making things right, and even making things new again.
Being present with others, affirming and supporting people — these are sacred acts that all of us can do for one another every day. They are acts of compassion that can lead us beyond the struggle with doubt. Some of the most powerful moments of life come to us when we respond to the pain or tragedy that happens. If we accept that we are here for a reason, and it matters what we do, then we can rise to partner with God to bring healing to this world. May 5782 bring the energy and commitment to each of us, to use our own power of love to change the world.
Yamim Noraim: the Days of Awe, when God decides who shall live and who shall die. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur It is sealed. Scary words, as we enter another year of this unpredictable pandemic.
Yet there are prayers of hope in our holiday liturgy that tell us that God is merciful.
The 13 attributes of God’s mercy, according to the opinions of Rabbenu Tam and Abudraham, are an example of this. In Exodus (34:6-7), God said to Moses, “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this and I will forgive them:”
Adonai: God is merciful before a person sins.
Adonai: God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray.
Eil: A name that denotes power indicating that God’s mercy surpasses even the degree indicated by this name.
Rachum: Compassionate God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty.
v’Chanun: Gracious: God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it.
Erech apayim: Slow to anger: God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve and repent.
v’Rav chesed: Abundant in kindness: God is kind toward those who lack personal merits.
v’Emet: Truth: God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him.
Notzeir chesed la-alafim: Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations: God remembers the deeds of the righteous for the benefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring.
Nosei avon: Forgiver of iniquity: God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner repents.
vaFesha: Forgiver of willful sin: God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him the opportunity to repent.
v’Chata’ah: Forgiver of error: God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness or apathy.
v’Nakeh: Who cleanses: God is merciful, gracious and forgiving, wiping away the sins of those who truly repent.
This appeal to God’s mercy reassures us that repentance is always possible and that God always awaits our return.
Sometimes it can feel like we’re in a hopeless cycle. With so many hardships and challenges, it’s understandable why it seems that way. We make the same mistakes year after year. And it’s not as if life has gotten any easier. Our tradition says that we need to try again. Return to the holy; return to God. Stop, reflect, repent — do better, be better. To do so we have to change and we don’t like to change. It’s hard to change.
Judaism asks us to do many hard things. It’s our responsibility to offer hospitality, to be honest, to avoid gossip and evil speech (in person/on social media), to do acts of loving kindness, to comfort mourners, to allow people to think differently, to make peace between individuals, to judge others fairly, to feel and express gratitude, to pray and study regularly. This is just a small list of mitzvot — sacred obligations — that we are expected to do regardless of what’s happening in the world around us.
Our tradition does not teach us to do these things because everyone else does them. We do them because even though they are hard, they are at the core of who we are as Jews. We do them because our relationship with God, our relationship with our People and the wisdom of our tradition point us in the right direction. Such teachings point to how we live Jewishly and when they’re performed with the best of intentions, they point the way to becoming a mensch — a full human being.
It’s not hopeless to strive to do better. It’s not hopeless to stop doing what’s easy and instead make every effort to become the person we hope to be. It may not be easy, but it is among the most important things we can do.
Our experience with COVID-19 over the past year and a half and the need for contingency planning in case of a significant uptick surprisingly provided me with a valuable insight into spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah. When I was asked if we had a plan if needed, I was able to respond with confidence that we could be ready in an hour to reconfigure things. Whereas the first time around took hours of agonizing planning and execution, there is much to be said for knowledge and experience.
So it is with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We know the drill. We do this year in and year out. Having just completed reading the biography of Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l, founder of Aish HaTorah, I would like to suggest a different approach to Yamim Noraim preparation. In reading the book, I realized two distinct themes in his life are interconnected. What was clear to everyone who knew him is that he really, really lived with Hashem as an immediate and personal presence. He also refused to allow failure to stop him. Hashem was real for him, and this full awareness of Hashem right there next to him allowed him to overcome countless challenges and outright failures.
Each of us can emulate this attitude, and feel Hashem’s presence in our daily lives, and it would not require a dramatic change to do so. We may not realize it, but we are constantly involved in fulfilling mitzvos whether we are at home, in the office or anywhere else. We practice honesty, which is a mitzvah, and when we do, we can do so with awareness that we are living with Hashem. When we practice kindness or patience, we can remember that Hashem is the one we are emulating. When taking care of family, we can do so with awareness that this is what Hashem wants us to be doing. When we study Torah, a change in focus will remind us that we are engaged in a dialogue with Hashem.
Rosh Hashanah is the day we crown Hashem as King. If we can inject this refocus into our daily lives, fulfilling the passage “I place Hashem before me always,” this could be our greatest coronation ever!
This time of year is one that fills many with a mixed bag of emotions. For some it brings a sense of dread and trepidation as we contemplate judgment and take stock of the lives we lead. For others it evokes a sense of awe and majesty, where the musical liturgy and memories of loved ones mix together in a powerful nostalgic connection to tradition. And many experience a mix of all these feelings.
The teshuvah process, often mistranslated as repentance, is a term that actually translates to a process of “returning.” We seek to return to a state of connection to the important relationships we have in our lives, and the self-reflection and improvements we can make that will lead to the healthiest, most fulfilling relationships.
We return our attention to our relationships with our friends and family — what our sages refer to as “ben adam l’chaveiro.” We seek to recognize our mistakes and take responsibility for the distance or hurt feelings that may exist in these relationships, and then we ask for forgiveness. We also return our attention to our relationship with our Creator — what our sages refer to as “ben adam l’makom” — and in humble supplication we celebrate the day of coronation for the King of Kings.
The great sage Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, teaches a foundational concept that always inspires me at this time of year. There is a third category of relationships in need of teshuvah — to which we need to return. We must take the time to truly connect within, and never neglect the relationship we have with ourselves — what he terms “ben adam l’atzmo.” We must carefully curate the little voices in our minds and hearts to remain positive and encouraging.
We must allow an honest accounting of how much time and energy, how much headspace and heartache, we pour into all three of these relationship categories. We must use this time of year to inspire a deeper and healthier connection to each other, to God and to ourselves. That is our recipe for a sweet New Year.
With the rise in COVID-19 cases and current patterns of transmission heading into the High Holidays this year, it can feel a bit like déjà vu. We’d all hoped we would be “back to normal” this year, and instead many of us find ourselves and those we turn to for leadership asking the same or similar questions as last year. Should we hold services inside, outside, or find creative alternatives for gathering in person? What’s the role for masks? Do we put one on the shofar? How should we handle family gatherings and ensure we remain connected with our friends and community?
Whether or not our answers to these questions are the same as last year, or even the same as others we care about, the process of finding ourselves asking the same questions from year to year is deeply rooted in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience.
During this window of time dedicated to self-improvement, the process of teshuvah (“repentance,” but from the root word of “return”) often involves regret about many of the same behaviors and thought patterns we focused our regret upon last year. Sometimes, it’s the very same incident, still haunting us years later. Other times it’s another manifestation of the same underlying issues we know we need to work on.
In all cases, becoming better, i.e., changing our behavior, is nearly impossible if we believe we’re still fundamentally the same person at our core as the person who failed to improve last year. Yet, this all-too-common belief helps explain why only one in seven heart patients successfully change their habits when doctors tell them that they need to do so if they want to live.
Knowledge, desire and motivation are simply insufficient to induce change on their own. We must first internalize the truth that while the questions we ask may be the same or significantly similar each year, the person who is asking them has indeed changed over the course of the year that’s just transpired.
If we are intentional to create space to allow the sacred introspection of this season, and are candid through the discomfort of self-assessment, we can certainly identify the ways we have each evolved as people.
With the gift of an additional year to ask the same or similar questions, the key lies not the answers we once held, but the conviction that this year, armed with additional information, tools and clarity of priorities, we can and will do better.
May we each be successful in guiding our own growth through this holiday season, and through doing so, may we as a community only grow stronger as well.
Many times, we process the message of Yom Kippur through a somber and solemn lens, feeling a subdued and stern energy from the day.
Yom Kippur is the day of repentance and forgiveness. However, far from being a day of depressed or deflated energy, it is one of vigor and renewed opportunity. It is the day we return to who we are, to the origins of our souls.
Kabbalah teaches that Yom Kippur is likened to the wedding day between God and the Jewish people. Just as a groom on his wedding day wears a kittel, we too wear one to mark this special day. What greater joy is there than that of a wedding day, knowing the loving bond that exists between spouses?
While Yom Kippur is the day we ask forgiveness for any wrongs we may have done throughout the past year, we are also celebrating the first act of national forgiveness, marking the day we received the second tablets. It is the day we discover that our bond with the Divine is so strong, that no amount of dirt, betrayal or misdeed could stand in the way of our return.
A man once told the Lubavitcher Rebbe that he felt like a hypocrite when he went to shul on Yom Kippur because he didn’t go the rest of the year. The Rebbe responded by saying that the natural place for a Jew to be is in shul. “You’re not a hypocrite when you go to shul on Yom Kippur,” he said. “You’re a hypocrite when you don’t go to shul the rest of the year.”
Our true and natural place is in the embrace of the Divine. More than just repenting or expressing remorse, we are returning to our rightful and natural state — a homecoming of sorts.
Viewed in this light, Yom Kippur is most uplifting and dynamic. It beckons us to continue coming closer, for this is where we belong.
This year, let us remember that Yom Kippur is also a “renewal of vows” with our Creator, the day we focus on our love and commitment, and our future together.
The Vidui Rabbah, or long confessional, is aptly named. It is very long. Its length makes it challenging to focus attention on each sin in the litany and still recite them all in unison with the congregation. But reciting them on my own in preparation this year, one sin in particular stood out: Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha b’timhon levav.
“Timhon levav” is found in Deuteronomy 28:28 in a different litany: the list of curses that will be visited upon the Israelites should they fail to listen to God. It is an affliction of the lev, referring not only to the heart, but also to one’s mind and thoughts. Timhon means confusion, bewilderment, being overwhelmed or anxiety, all widespread and virulent afflictions in the world we inhabit today.
Turning a curse into a sin implies that this is a condition that we can reverse through atonement. What teshuvah can we do to be less confused, anxious, bewildered?
First, we need to acknowledge the source of this affliction. Rather than blaming our confusion on external things like bad people, bad policies or bad luck, each of us needs to turn our flashlight on ourselves, with humility and remorse. I am experiencing this timhon levav because I have failed to listen to God.
Then we must find a setting in which we hear God, not ventriloquists who put words in God’s mouth. Of course, we have to want to change. If we don’t want to change, we won’t be able to hear God, making teshuvah impossible.
And finally, we have to be willing to accept the fact that change requires being uncomfortable. As my new hero, Ted Lasso, says, “Hey, takin’ on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”
May our teshuvah this year take us out of our comfort zone, that our hearts and minds might be better able to receive God’s blessing. G’mar hatima tova.
The shofar, a simple ram’s horn with a simple sound, is the highlight of the Rosh Hashanah service. The shofar was used in a number of different rituals and traditions throughout Jewish history.
Yet there is still one sounding of the shofar that we have not yet experienced. This of course is the sounding of the shofar that will announce the arrival of our righteous Moshiach (Messiah). May he come speedily.
As it says in the book of Isaiah, that we recite in our Rosh Hashanah Mussaf prayer: “And it will be on that day, the great shofar will be blown, and those lost in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come to bow to God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”
This year as you hear the shofar being blown, allow yourself to hear this sound as the sound of hope and optimism. While hearing the simple shofar, allow yourself to believe that soon the world will be transformed into the beautiful garden of G-d that it was always meant to be.
My prayer for this new year is, may this new year bring with it, a time of world peace, a time of good health for all and a time when the world will be filled with the knowledge of God.
There are two opposite movements within the soul, powers that stem from the depth of our being. The first is reflective: an inward resolve that forms the unshakable foundation of our identity. Exercising this trait requires honor and humility, turning the focus from self-gratification to embrace eternal and transcendent truths. The second is a movement outward, an innovative spirit that allows for adaptation, originality, and conquering new horizons. This trait promotes healthy self-expression — applying one’s strengths to spark a change and create a light that was not previously present in this world.
Knowing how and when to exercise both inner powers, in the proper context, is essential for success in any field — especially spiritual growth within the pillars of Torah, tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity). Put simply, there must be adherence to core principles that never change alongside a mental flexibility that breeds fresh developments. First, we turn inward to establish our foundation — the nonnegotiable priorities and principles to keep in mind. From there, we awaken our conquering creative power that shines to uplift our surroundings.
These two modes — and their interrelationship — are also reflected in the titles of the two Torah portions during this special time of year. The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah we encountered Nitzavim, whose meaning is “to stand firm.” This week’s title is Vayelech — “to travel.” They seem to convey opposite ideas. Yet our Sages teach that these portions, unlike other self-contained sections of Torah, are, in fact, one theme; only sometimes we recite them on separate weeks.
Applying this to our current mindset: During Rosh Hashanah, we built the inner foundation, accepting G-d’s omnipotence — the source of our life and “author of our powers” — while solidifying our commitments. With this firm resolve in place, we move toward Yom Kippur, where we are elevated like heavenly beings. The potent cleansing power (the deeper concept behind “atonement”) of this unique day not only ensures that we will be forgiven and continue moving forward, but gives us the energy to reach a new level in our personal relationship with G-d.
More specifically, through our effort in teshuvah — a reorientation and restoration of the wounded soul — we can uncover a bond with our Creator that is never tarnished, regardless of any missteps; we just need to expose it by removing the internal fog and barriers. Grateful and invigorated, we reveal this joyful energy within the outside world, moving from the comfort of our private homes to dwell in the Sukkah.
This week, known as the Ten Days of Teshuvah — a window in time, about which the prophets encourage us to “seek the Lord where He is found” — entails a greater closeness. Our prayers are more readily answered; our hearts are sensitive to feel fiery love and wise reverence. May we utilize these deep soul powers of firm commitment and personal expression to be sealed for a healthy, happy year of revealed good!
We state in the Yamim Noraim tefillot that God is presently King, God was always the King and that He will continue to be King into the future. At first glance, this demonstrates that God’s kingship is like no other as it is everlasting. However, upon a second reflection, referring to the past and future makes God seem like He exists within the confines of time like human creation. This of course cannot be true, so what is this statement coming to teach us?
The Chasidic masters furthermore note: “There is no king without a nation.” So in order to refer to God as King He needs a nation, which requires the language to refer to past, present and future because God’s nation only exists within time. This may explain the need to use time-confining language when discussing God. However, God’s relation to His nation is different from other kings and leaders. Most leaders will try to establish their policies and attract people toward their nation by giving them what they want. However, our king is additionally our parent and creator and, thus, gives His commandments not based on what people want but based on what people need. This is the dichotomy that exists within God’s rule that separates Him as King of all Kings.
As we once again on Rosh Hashanah coronate God as King and then on Yom Kippur ask this King for repentance, we must approach Him with the knowledge that His Kingship is indeed like no other and in that way He seems very distant from us.
We remind ourselves of this as Jews by watching a whole nation stop in recognition that by declaring God as King and asking for repentance, we are also acknowledging ourselves to be ever so close to be considered his subjects. At Levine Academy, our Jewish ethic that we are focusing on this year is citizenship. It is my sincere wish that we all take pride in entering this year being citizens of such a great community and people.
Every Jew is the son of a king, loved and lovable and dear to his heavenly Father. And here the dear son throughout the year is tempted to go astray after the arbitrariness of his evil heart, to do deeds that are against the will of his heavenly Father. And Satan goes and denounces him, mentions his evil deeds before the Creator of the world, and makes it very difficult for him to repent, to draw near to his Father.
But according to the Gemara (Tractate Yoma 21:1), one day a year, the devil goes on vacation. How can this be?
In Hebrew the numerical value of “The Devil” (Satan) is 364, while the days of the year are 365 days. Satan does his work faithfully for 364 days a year, but on one day, Yom Kippur, he is not allowed to denounce.
This liberation from the burdensome world of Satan, who is also the evil inclination, is felt in the soul. Indeed, we see that on Yom Kippur, every Jewish heart “moves” in something. So many Jews go to the synagogue, even Jews who are very far from Torah life and mitzvot feel on this day a spiritual urge to approach their Creator, even in something small. On this day, there is a special enlightenment and a special spiritual abundance. Every person feels a desire and longing to draw closer to God. Undoubtedly we will take advantage of this day and pray to God and grant us life without Satan’s harm!
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world and all the good things in it. But after declaring everything else in creation to be “good,” God declares, “It’s not good that this human is alone. I will create another.” A world without belonging is patently not good. What makes this scene even more spectacular is the fact that the very act of God’s creating the world and everything in it, up until that point, was an incredible act of Divine hospitality, the most beautiful act of making space for another, what the Kabbalists call tzimtzum — a stepping back and making room for another. To be sure, God didn’t need to create the earth and the heavens. God didn’t need to create us. And God wasn’t obligated to make room for us in the world, in relationship with God.
But this is precisely what God does. It’s as if God is saying: You belong. You belong to me. You belong to the creation, and it belongs to you. But for humanity to really feel belonging, God is not enough. And God knew that, and so, God created two of us. I’d like to imagine that first moment when the two humans looked at each other was a moment when they held up that magnet that simply said “YOU.” And they knew they were home. Belonging to God, to each other, to this world, acknowledges the value of each element of creation and the importance of being together in community.
The middle section of the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf is called Zichronot, or memories. It describes God as all-knowing and all-remembering, and in this context, we invoke the first time God “remembered” anybody. Long before He remembered Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah, He remembered Noah.
If you think about it, though, recalling Noah seems a bizarre choice. After all, the Prophet Isaiah calls the flood that destroyed the world “the waters of Noah” because, according to the Zohar, he bore some responsibility for it. Can’t we think of a less fraught story to bring before the Ultimate Judge on the Day of Judgment?
Perhaps Noah’s flaws are precisely the reason we mention him on this day, because the Noah we recall today is the one in whose merit the world was saved. When it comes down to the critical moment of Rosh Hashanah, when we stand before God, we acknowledge that God remembers everything about Noah, including his failings, yet He chose to remember Noah at his best.
On the day that we invoke God’s memories, we are challenged to ask ourselves, what do we remember? Do we nurse grudges and harbor hatreds? On a road trip, do we recall the rainy days and the traffic jams, or the amazing hikes and hilarious roadside tourist attractions? After a simcha — or, God forbid, a bereavement — do we remember all the people who came, or harp on those who didn’t? If we focus on the positives, kindnesses and acts of generosity that we have experienced even from flawed people, we can move forward in productive relationships and healthy self-perception.
There have been so many triggers over the past year or more that have caused us to communicate with one another in ways that don’t show us in the best light. Whether it is political viewpoints or elections, COVID-19 policies for synagogues or institutions or a host of other contentious social issues, we have rendered snap judgments, communicated out of anger and acted out of suspicion. When we reflect on the people we’ve interacted with, we will almost certainly focus on their negative attributes, but we want to be remembered for our positive ones. On Rosh Hashanah, we ask God to remember us for the good, for the best version of ourselves. If we want God to do that for us, let’s do that for others as well.
We come again to celebrate the world’s creation, the birthday of the world. And the very first story in that vast treasury of stories called the Midrash Rabbah presents the very first surprise regarding Creation. The Torah (in a very chutzpadik moment) declares that God required the Torah in order to create the world. Rabbi Hoshaiah explains: When a human king wishes to build a palace, he does not rely on his own skills. He calls on the skills of the architect who calls on the builders. Nor do the architect and the builders rely on their own skills for they require a plan, a blueprint. In the same way, God consulted the Torah and created the world. In the words, “Beresheet [In the beginning] God created …,” the word “beginning” refers to the Torah. As it says in Proverbs 8:22: “The Eternal created me beresheet [in the beginning] of God’s way, as the first of God’s works of old.”
As we hear this teaching of Rabbi Hoshaiah, we are nearing the end of another year of Torah study and the beginning of a new year of Torah study. Just as God supports the work of Creation day by day, our study of Creation’s blueprint can gladden our hearts and enlighten our minds. May this year bring you health and happiness, may it bring you renewal and joy, and may you find yourself in the blessed company of those who study Torah.
Each and every one of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. But is this meant to be taken literally? The Talmud in tractate Sotah 14a asks this question in interpreting the verse: “After the Lord your God shall you walk?” (Deuteronomy 13:5). Is it possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? As it is written, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!
Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One. Just as the Holy One clothes the naked, such as when God made clothing for Adam and Eve, so too, should you clothe the naked (malbish arumim). Just as the Holy One visits the sick, such as when God appeared to Abraham following his circumcision, so too, should you visit the sick (bikur cholim). Just as the Holy One consoles mourners, such as when, after Abraham died, God blessed his son Isaac, so too, should you console mourners (nichum aveilim). Just as the Holy One buried the dead, such as when God buried Moses, so too, should you bury the dead (chesed shel emet). In feeding the hungry, lifting up the fallen, releasing the captive, seeking justice, being slow to anger and being eager to forgive, and so forth, we also follow in God’s ways.
During the Tokyo Olympics, I was reminded of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is glued back together with gold. It will never be the same as before it was broken, but it is beautiful, unique and transformed. So too, the Perfect Crafter chooses to work with imperfect vessels. When we imperfect vessels attempt to mend our ways through teshuvah, we are more beautiful and valuable than gold and even stronger than we were before. With God’s help and with the Torah as our guide, may we recognize and remedy our flaws, continue to work in godly ways, and be worthy of truly being b’tzelem Elohim and partners with God in creation.
Leshanah tovah, beriah umevorechet tikatevu vetehamenu
May you be written and sealed for a good, healthy and blessed new year.
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 the recent, unprecedented couple of years fade away with the arrival of the new year, and may 5782 indeed be a year of immense health, prosperity, growth and peace for our nation and the entire world, Amen.
As we recite in the beautiful liturgy of Rosh Hashanah: “Tichleh shanah vekileloteha, tahel shanah uvirchoteha.” May the old year and its curses conclude; may the new year and its blessings begin, Amen.
As we adjust to wearing our masks more frequently again, what strikes me is not the discussion around them, but something much more intimate: the faces behind them. It opens some important spiritual questions. How well was I seeing another person before all the masking began? Even when I could observe smiles and frowns and lips and chins, was I seeing? Was I understanding the people to whom I am closest? Even when mouths weren’t muffled by KN-95s, was I hearing? Was I using a face of a certain color or shape to prejudge a stranger? How good has my vision been?
As powerful as the gift of seeing might be, the gift of being seen goes even deeper. It is this seeing that contemporary poet Ada Limon evokes in her brief and powerful poem, “A Name”:
“When Eve walked among
the animals and named them —
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer—
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.”
Eve’s simple and searing request — “Name me” — is a demand to be seen and known. It lies at the heart of powerful movements which have justly shaken our society, because for too long so many have gone unseen — women, people of color, migrants living in the shadows, our LGBTQ communities.
This season brings us, again and again, the Torah’s exhortation: Re’eh/See. And with that refrain, the High Holy Days impel us to another kind of seeing: introspection, the seeing within. As the new year dawns, let us not waste the gift of a return to seeing, neither by taking it for granted nor by slipping back into our old ways of seeing, our limited ways of knowing. We have the opportunity for recognition, a word which literally means to know again. May we know again, may we see anew — in a new year of health, blessing and peace for us all.
How many times have we gotten a gift from someone, or made a purchase ourselves, that turned out to be something we didn’t want? Maybe we already had one, perhaps it was the wrong size, maybe we picked it out at the store or online but then had a change of heart. In any case, this leads us to the need to return those items. Sometimes that process, too, can take a fair amount of time and be fraught with frustration. We schlep to the store and wait in line, or rummage around for the right size shipping box before bringing the item to the post office; we might deal with hassles in getting the full price refunded to us — all of which is to say that returns are not always easy.
This year’s High Holidays were supposed to mark the return to normalcy, to bustling sanctuaries with smiling unmasked faces in every seat. At Shearith, we had even planned on incorporating a special shofar ceremony — Tekiah: Our Call to Return — triumphantly reconvening our entire congregation while looking at the era of COVID-19 firmly in the rearview mirror. Sadly, things have not played out this way. We’ll be smiling through our masks at each other in half-filled sanctuaries, and the Tekiah ceremony trumpeting the full return of our congregation will have to wait until 2022/5783.
Yes, this has been a challenging and frustrating return for the Jewish community and for society at large, as we have yearned to be able to find our way back to the way things were as quickly as possible, while also looking out for each other’s health and safety. But teshuvah — the annual process of finding our way back to our Jewish community, our Jewish tradition, and God — and returns in general are often complicated and require significant amounts of patience.
No, we may not have fully completed our communal return yet, but with each other’s love and support, and with that much-needed patience, we will finish finding our way back, God-willing as part of the continued healing and recovery of our world.
As we enter into this new year of 5782, each of us can be that individual who guides another out of his self-imposed prison. Overwhelmed with loneliness, struggling with addiction, disappointed by children who reject their parents’ love, wondering how to pay for college, how to care for a failing parent or spouse or how to carry on when the world seems to be rejecting us, having been left behind by a spouse — life can appear so cruel.
No one lives without anxiety. Not one of us is worry-free. But, how many of us are willing to address our struggles, to expose our vulnerabilities, to lower the barriers that seem to protect us but, in fact imprison us?
When we encounter a crowd of people, the rabbis suggest we recite a special bracha: Baruch atah, Adonai…chacham harazim. Blessed are You, Adonai, who knows our secrets, who knows many of us are struggling this year, burying our secrets, unwilling to share our concerns, who knows we need to be supported, comforted and loved, to be literally touched and held by those we love and miss so dearly….
As the new year of 5782 dawns, filled with its challenges and blessings, may each of us find the strength to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. It is those vulnerabilities that expose our real self, open to friendship, and welcoming of God, our Maker, who invites each of us to have the courage to accept our insufficiencies. May each of us realize the impact we can have on our world that is filled with so many who are vulnerable, who need our friendship, who need our advocacy and who need our presence.
You are not stuck!
Rabbi Saadia Gaon gives many reasons for the sounding of the shofar. Among the reasons he enumerates is to commemorate the shofar of Yovel, the Jubilee. During Yovel, the shofar was sounded to signify slaves going free and land returning to its proper owners. What does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah?
The Chassidic master, Sfas Emes, explains that there is a hint to the power of the day in this sound. In life we become slaves to so much. At times we are slaves to negative self-perception, our childhood failures, the power we allow others to have over us…. What is the secret to climbing out from underneath these extreme limitations? This is the power of the shofar! Rosh Hashanah tells us, you are not a slave and you are not trapped! You can be free from whatever limitations have been placed upon you. The Talmud tells us of miraculous occurrences that took place on Rosh Hashanah. If we can tap into the power of the day and the hidden greatness within ourselves, the sky is not even the limit! We have had a rough year that came on the heels of a rough year! Let us ask Hashem for access to freedom from these difficulties and the emotional constraints we have placed upon ourselves due to them! May we merit a sweet year of health, happiness, peace, success, nachas, inner peace and meaningful Torah connection! Shanah Tovah!
It was on the first of Tishrei, 5782 years ago, that God mused that it is not good for man to be alone. And so, God took matters into His own hands. God removed a rib from Adam’s side and created woman. Come Rosh Hashanah, it is befitting that we remind ourselves of the corollary of that divine observation. It behooves us to realize that it is not good for God to be alone. Yet, rather than search for any heavenly ribs or seek out any fitting helpmate for God, there is a far more achievable way for us to remedy God being alone.
Because Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom HaDin, or the Day of Judgment, where God judges the entire earth, it would be most fitting if we were to remind God of the crucial role He fills in our lives. It would be only proper for us to assure God that we are in constant need of His guidance and judgment. It would be most appropriate for us to tell God that He matters in our lives.
Yom HaZikaron, or the Day of Remembering, is a suitable name for Rosh Hashanah as well. Not only do we believe that God remembers us, but it is essential that God believes that we haven’t forgotten Him. Moreover, it is essential that God believes that we love Him, even if we do not express that love nearly as often as we should.
Last but not least, Rosh Hashanah is the day that God created the world. Without God, the world would not exist. Without God, we would not exist. Rosh Hashanah is a time for admitting to God that we owe our existence to Him. Isn’t it time for us to usher in a new year by telling God that we can’t live without Him?
Imagine telling God that He matters in our lives, that we love Him and that we can’t live without him. What better way of ushering in Rosh Hashanah than God knowing how much we need Him in our lives?
I recently returned from the first half of a sabbatical. During the planning phase, I asked colleagues how they had spent their sabbaticals. Their laudable answers included immersing in study, traveling extensively and authoring books. While those options sounded exciting, they also sounded exhausting.
Where did the idea of professional sabbaticals start anyway? Its roots are in the Torah when God asks the Israelites to let the land lie fallow every seven years.
I decided to see what would blossom in me if I followed the wisdom of the Torah and rested. My family and I rented a cottage by the sea where I could lie fallow. We greeted each day with a slow start and luxuriated in hours of unstructured time. As I rested, I noticed the things in life that leave me feeling integrated and calmer. I started giving those relationships and activities more of my time and attention. What flourished during my sabbatical was the opportunity to reflect and live mindfully.
As sabbatical ended, I began to worry that all I learned about myself would disappear when I returned to the reality of a full-time job, children with school and extracurricular activities and a social life. Would I be able to prioritize what mattered most to me in life when I returned to my normal routine?
As I reengaged with my responsibilities, I found myself referring to the discoveries I’d made about relationships and activities that nourish me. I’ve continued to commit to making time for the people and things that keep me happy and healthy. I can’t dedicate the same amount of time to those relationships and activities, but I can include them in my life, especially during periods of stress.
As it happens, the year 5782 is a sabbatical year for the Jewish people. It’s an excellent opportunity to let our souls rest. Most of us don’t have a few months to take off, but perhaps this year’s High Holidays can become a mini sabbatical. Find some time between now and Yom Kippur to think about what you need in life to thrive. Do this with intention. Consider journaling, find a chevruta who can reflect with you, meditate or make time for solitude. As the sabbatical year begins, what will take root in you? What will you cultivate in a year dedicated to sacred rest?
The symbols of this holy season serve important roles as they seek to challenge and comfort. They ask us to return home in both spiritual and physical ways. And yet, we know in this new year of 5782 that we are still not quite there. We are on our way home, but there is still a ways to go. The work remains.
As we approach these High Holidays, we are closer than ever but still stand on the other side of the river.
May the slightly bitter taste of the apples remind us that even when feeling our best, there is work to do.
May the dip of honey remind us of the joy that awaits if we can face the tasks from which we hide.
May the white covers of the Torah scrolls remind us that change is always possible.
May our fast on Yom Kippur awaken our souls to what has been missing.
May the blast of the shofar awaken our bodies to do the work needed for our families, our communities and our planet.
May 5782 be a year of unlimited possibility.
Shanah Tovah, a new day and a new chance has arrived.