High Holiday 5776 sermons

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon – 5776
Looking Inward and Backward So That We Can Look Forward
September 13, 2015

Dear Friends,

After more than a year as your rabbi, it is still my distinct pleasure to welcome you to our celebration and observance of the Jewish New Year. You have made Phyllis and me feel so welcome in this community – for that, we both thank you! Together, we have studied and prayed, rejoiced and mourned, and in so many ways through so many activities, have become important parts of each other’s lives.

Therefore, on this Rosh Hashanah, I’m glad to say…..Happy New Year! We don’t need noisemakers for our New Year’s celebration, but we do have shofar blasts to rouse our souls and our consciences. We don’t need to toast the New Year with champagne: rather, we sanctify it by making Kiddush over wine or grape juice. We don’t need to make lists of meaningless New Year’s resolutions that are broken before the ink is dry or the pixels on our screens have refreshed: instead, we make serious promises to break with old ways, to repent and make atonement for our false steps, and then establish new, healthier, more positive habits and practices.

And the best way to do this is to go by the “specs”: introspection, retrospection, and prospection.

This is the prime time on the Jewish calendar for introspection: we look inward to search out our ethical missteps, our hypocrisies, and our moral failures so that we won’t make the same mistakes in the coming year that we made in the last. What were the motivations that led us to sin? How have we worked on our attitudes and behaviors so that we could become better spouses, parents, children, or siblings? This heshbon ha-nefesh – this accounting of the soul – is difficult to do honestly and thoroughly, yet that is our task.
To do this, we must be retrospective: we need to look backward through the year and review what negative actions we took and then try to figure out why we took them. This is a very hard thing to do, because we are quick to note our triumphs but slow to admit to, let alone document, our mistakes and our sins. Even frequent users of social media rarely start a Facebook post with the admission, “I really messed up today…” and then describe how they had so miserably failed. Why is this? Is it merely cowardice, or the inability to own up and take responsibility for our misdeeds, be they minor or serious? Often, I believe, those are our reasons, but I also know that we most often do not immediately know that we have screwed up. Sometimes it is not until we do this retrospection that we even discover our mistakes. Maybe we should find a mechanism for doing an annual self-audit, but if we did, how many of us would really effect the changes needed to balance the books?

I believe the truth is that we are not really here each year on the High Holy Days to only look inward or backward; it is more so the opportunity to look at the coming year in prospect that draws us. Almost instinctively, we look forward, craning our necks and straining our eyes to try to peer into the future. We are essentially a hopeful people, despite everything that has happened to us throughout the millennia. Every Rosh Hashanah, we speculate upon the New Year, anticipating happier times and more opportunities for rejoicing together and for treasuring the company of family and friends. Few of us ever do this with rose-colored glasses, but we always seem to manage to move bravely forward despite the anticipated challenges of the future and the tragedies of the past.

We will find greater fulfillment, I believe, if we not only look forward but outward as well; we need to gain a greater appreciation of the presence and needs of the Other. My study of Mussar this year has clarified that for me – the more we seek to, and succeed in, carrying the burden of the Other, the more we are able to serve G-d, however we define the Eternal One. And we move toward this higher spiritual level by striving to strengthen specific middot – traits or characteristics – that can potentially fine-tune our souls.

I invite you to join me in this ongoing spiritual quest this year – we will begin with an exploration of leshon hara – literally, evil speech, but connoting slander, libel, gossip, and the like – the most prevalent and frequent of all our sins, toward the goal of lessening if not eliminating it from our lives.

May this be a year of growth and fulfillment, of joyfulness and satisfaction, and of health in both body and soul for you and your families. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year; this is our traditional greeting on Rosh Hashana and my heartfelt wish for this community. And may we learn through our actions to write ourselves into the Book of Life – we might not be able to choose how long we’re to be in that particular book, but we can choose to live as maximally as we can for our community, for our families, and for ourselves as long as we live. L’shana tovah tikatevu!

First Day of Rosh Hashanah – 2015 (5776)
“I’m All In,” But “I’ll Do It Without Strength”

Dear Friends,

As we greet the New Year, the world’s struggles seem to buffet us daily in a never-ending barrage of bad news. The 24-7 news cycle gives us not a moment’s rest from knowledge of famine, poverty, disease, natural disaster, terrorism, refugees, political unrest, and all manner of violence. We might even try to ignore the news from overseas, but when we see the trouble close to home, it’s easy to say, “I’m all in” – in the sense “I’ve got nothing left.”
That certainly might feel true, but I contend that it essentially isn’t. In the Israeli movie, Life in Stills, that we viewed as a community last Saturday night before our Selichot service, the grandson asks his 96-year-old grandmother, his savta, if she had the strength to help make the move from the photoshop that she and her late husband had run for many decades to a new store to be located in the high-rise building that would replace their Tel Aviv block. She says no, she doesn’t, and when the grandson then asks her if that means she won’t help at all, she says, no, of course she will. How so, he asks, when she said she doesn’t have the strength. “I’ll do it without the strength,” she replies.

There is a great truth and a powerful lesson in that simple statement. How do we find the strength to overcome major challenges when we believe, no, when we know, we don’t have any? When we find the ability to do what we never thought we could, where did we get that? And why do we think that we have nothing left, that we’ve used all of our reserves? The answer is that as long as there is breath, there is some amount of strength, some hope, some possibility of forward movement.

Why, then, do we often give up while we still have strength? I believe that we give up too soon when we lose hope, and that most often happens when we experience too little love in our lives, too little connection. What kept the Savta Miriam in the film going, I am convinced, was the doting love of her grandson Ben. That and the burning desire to keep alive the legacy of her late husband, the official photographer of Israel’s earliest days. She had a mission and an ally in that mission.

The key, then, is to find that mission and to locate and encourage those allies. For us still working, that mission might be to make the most of our careers while optimizing time with family and friends. For those of us who have retired, that mission might be to squeeze all the life and good times and meaningful relationships that we can manage into our days. Our allies are on one level quite clear: those with whom we are close and with whom we are sharing our life. For an increasing number of people, especially the young, that might include many people whom they have never met in person. It is no exaggeration to say that the Internet and social media have redefined what we mean by community – it certainly has redefined the word “friend.” Our real friends, our truest allies, however, are those who are closest to us and have our best interests at heart – in fact, they share in our mission as well, either directly or through emotional support.

For many of us, our mission and our allies include our larger communities: the synagogue, civic groups, and organizations established to aid and support those in need. It is amazing how we lose track, perhaps only momentarily, of our troubles and worries when we are concentrating on helping others. However, to effectively help others, we often need to make a commitment that we might be afraid to make. To help others is to have them count on you, and that’s a responsibility that we might be leery about.

Yet, when we do that, when we pledge to put in the time and then follow through, we find that fulfilling such a mission might be truly transformative. And that brings me to the other definition of “all in” – it comes from poker; it’s when you bet all your chips, thus making a total commitment. Similarly, you go “all in” when you commit yourself to a greater cause. Then when you say, “I’m all in,” you’re not expressing exhaustion or despair – you’re saying, “I’m completely committed to this, when I believe I have the strength and also when I feel I don’t.” Because truly, the strength is there, and it is within you – I believe it is that spark of godliness which gives spirit to all that lives. To access that strength, we might turn to our traditional sources – to prayer and to study. We might seek the insight that meditation might bring. Music, also, is a path into higher holiness, as is a walk in the forest. Light exercise or yoga might do it for some.

I feel that spark the most in relationship with others, when working toward gaining insight into a certain passage in Torah, or when davening before or as part of a congregation, or when working alongside others in a social action project. When we are together in communal work, I feel G-d’s Presence. Some believe that it descends from above; some feel that it ascends from within. Some experience G-d’s Presence when they are at their lowest, their most hopeless, and when they are out of strength – witness in this morning’s Torah portion how Avraham heard G-d’s guidance when the patriarch was so greatly distressed about sending Hagar and Ishmael away, and how Hagar discovered the Lord’s help when she had already given up her son Ishmael for dead but then lifted up her eyes and saw the well. Other’s experience G-d’s Presence when they are totally committed and involved in holy work, when they are experiencing peak spiritual moments, when they are fully engaged in human relationship.

No matter how G-d’s Presence is there, it seems to come when we are “all in.” May we find numerous ways and opportunities to be “all in” and feel that Presence in our lives this year.


Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah – 5776
What is Character, and How Do You Build It?

Dear Friends,

Let’s consider the following quote, generally attributed to Frank Outlaw, founder of the Bi-Lo chain of grocery stores:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
Watch your words, they become actions;
Watch your actions, they become habits;
Watch your habits, they become character;
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

This is certainly excellent advice, but each of the watch-phrases is challenging. How do we go about effecting change on such a personal, fundamental level? The first step is a rigorous cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul; in other words, a character audit. Unlike other audits, which are imposed upon us, this one is trickier, since it is a self-audit, which requires unusual honesty and an often-embarrassing confrontation with the worst within us.

The reading Seeing the Flaws by Martin Buber found at the top of page 156 of our mahzor says this well: “A person cannot find redemption until he sees the flaws in his soul, and tries to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be a person or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of one’s flaws is shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”

How do we begin to see our own flaws? Where do we start? Our traditions, our liturgy, and the accumulated wisdom of our millennia of sages all provide guidance – the al kheyt confession of sins, for instance, which appears frequently in the Yom Kippur service, lists sins for which we not only atone, but which we implicitly pledge to guard against in the coming year. After all, what is the use of atonement if it doesn’t alter our future behavior?
But aren’t some of us asking ourselves right about now, “why should I alter my behavior? I’m good enough as I am – after all, I don’t rob or steal or hurt anyone.” That might mostly be true, but that sort of complacency is dangerous – like in bike riding, if you’re not moving, you’re probably falling. Complacency leads to stagnation, which doesn’t mean staying the same, but rather degrading over time. Even the best of the best among us can improve – and the most spiritually mature people already know this.

As I mentioned on erev Rosh Hashanah, a small group of our congregants and non-congregants have been studying Mussar this past year. For those unfamiliar with Mussar, it is the systematic study, and more importantly, the practice, of middot (which, in this context, refers to character traits), the improvement of which makes us more able to bear the burden of the Other.

The goal of the study is not merely enlightenment; it is character building. Character is not what we are born with but rather what we develop. Building character is all about openness to growth, to change, and to learning. It’s about moving out of ourselves, our own egos, and our self-interest and being concerned with our interactions with others and how we can better our society. The paradox in this project of character building is that the work is primarily done on our personal values and traits, such as equanimity, truth, modesty, and deliberation. As we study, analyze, and try to adopt these values and traits – these mussar middot – we are all working toward the same goal: the betterment of self for the benefit of the Other.

Yet it is that very interaction with others that can cause us to stumble in our quest to build character. Sometimes it is an encounter with an arrogant or even dangerous stranger that can hinder our character development, but most often it is our interaction with closer relationships, family or close friends, that can set us back. Jewish thinkers have long wondered about the effect on Yitzhak (Isaac) that the akeidah, the binding and near-sacrifice by his own father Avraham, had on his character – was Isaac’s participation voluntary and a courageous act of faith equal to or even exceeding that of Avraham’s, or was he duped and nearly destroyed, an unwitting near-victim of his father’s zealous attachment to his invisible G-d? While the commentators present a great diversity of perspectives on this question, many of the more believable signs point to the latter – Yitzhak probably lived with the trauma of the akeidah for the rest of his life, despite his having been saved at the last moment. We don’t really know the effect that it had on his character – the Torah text itself is terse – but it would be hard to imagine that it was helpful. While it is true that many have used adversity in their lives to build their character in positive ways, we must also be aware of its dangers and the negative effects it might have had on us.

While our own lives have probably not presented us with such dramatic challenges in child rearing, they nevertheless have contained opportunities for character-building that we either used wisely or bungled. As parents and grandparents, we have the chance to contribute wisdom and perspective to the ongoing construction of the next generations’ character. Will we share our hard-earned wisdom in a measured, well-considered way or will we keep it to ourselves for fear of meddling? How do we decide when to step in and when to butt out?

For those of us who are teachers, the challenges of character-building are that much more difficult. How do we teach values along with our given subject matter? How much can, and should, we invest ourselves in building the ethical and positive characters of our students? Will our students profit from our life learning as well as learn from our teaching? I have long believed that teaching character should be part of the curriculum of every public school, just as it is supposed to be part of that of nearly every private school. The challenge is doing so in a way that doesn’t present a narrowly theological rationale. There are secular human values that can be considered universal and need to be taught seriously and rigorously. At one time, teaching values was considered the domain of the home and family and religious institutions – if that was ever truly the case, it is clear that, sadly, it is no longer. Transferring that responsibility to the schools, however, implies that teachers must be exemplars of the highest moral standards of conduct as well as subject matter experts. This is asking a lot, I realize, of an already stressed system, but I do not see any other way of accomplishing it. Positive character building must come from somewhere.
Let us not, however, leave ourselves out of the project – synagogues can be strong centers of building character by helping to transmit the strong values that our tradition have always championed: those of helping the poor, the downtrodden, and anyone in need; of pursuing justice; of giving generously of one’s money and time, not because it feels right but because it is right; of being thankful for the blessings that we have received; and of meeting life’s myriad challenges with courage and faith. And this is where we can find our niche as we move into the future – we can be a source of particularly Jewish teaching on how to become fuller, more developed and evolved human beings, using our rich and wise millennia-old yet constantly fresh heritage as a guide.

Toward this goal of building character, I again invite you to register for the class on Lashon Hara – preventing gossip, talebearing, slander, and the like, which our tradition calls “evil speech.” I’ll begin that class next month as a tangent off of our mussar study. Another, more immediate opportunity will be this coming Friday evening at 5:30 pm, when we will participate in the nationwide Character Day 2015, sponsored by Let It Ripple, a California-based organization that sponsors crowd-sourced films by Emmy-nominated film-maker Tiffany Shlaim. This year’s Character Day will premiere two short films – we will be showing one, The Making of a Mensch, and having a discussion of its central theme – which is character building through the Jewish perspective of mussar. The program will be followed by a Shabbat dinner and the kabbalat Shabbat service. One way of learning to function better within community is by spending warm, sharing times with your community – we build character through our interactions with others.
Come join us this year in that effort as we rediscover more and more pathways into character building to the benefit of ourselves, our families, our community, and our world.
I hope and pray that the New Year will afford us many opportunities to help write ourselves and others in the Book of Meritorious Life. L’shana tova tikatevu.


Yom Kippur Sermon – 2015
Mi Yikhyeh uMi Yamut – But It’s Not How We Die: It’s How We Live

Dear Friends,

On one of the first days of our vacation in August, I read a very sad piece of news – the so-called Route 29 Batman was killed on a Maryland highway. He was a Jewish man from Baltimore who had made his fortune in the dry-cleaning business. This man, 51-year-old Lenny B. Robinson, was a very different kind of philanthropist: had spent his own money on outfitting a Lamberghini to mimic the Batmobile, had designed and dressed in an authentic looking Batman costume, and had spent the last 15 years visiting children’s hospitals, schools, and charity events from Baltimore to Washington, DC, and beyond to give support, love, and some much-needed excitement to children, including those battling often-deadly diseases. He was on his way back from a charity event in West Virginia when his famous car developed an engine problem while in the fast lane of Route 70, and when he pulled over to check out the problem, someone crashed into his car and he was killed. He left behind a family, including three sons in their early 20s, and thousands of grateful fans, many of them sick children and their families.

As our mahzor tells us in the powerful prayer Unetana Tokef, “On Rosh HaShanah it is recorded, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live, and who shall die, who in the fullness of his years, and who before his time…”

It might be easy to ultimately be depressed by the story of the Route 29 Batman – a good man does good deeds, real “mitzvoth,” but meets a tragic end anyway. Where was his reward? Is the cynical saying, “no good deed goes unpunished,” really true, after all?
We cannot allow ourselves to believe that. Of course it is not true. While no one can say that helping others will lengthen our life, we can claim with certainty that doing so will strengthen our life. It is too easy to focus on how people die, and we all do that for a variety of reasons, some positive and understandable, and some negative, such as a morbid curiosity. And, indeed, we might endlessly ask that unanswerable question of why good people die. The harder but more spiritually useful endeavor is to pay attention to how people live, as difficult as that can be.

Yet, we must do this to maintain some measure of sanity in a seemingly insane world, one in which no one can predict what will happen from one moment to the next. It seems nonsensical to say that good work will bring long life – we have seen time and again that this is not apparently the case. And yet, to contradict Billy Joel, it is not only the good who die young, but when they do, we cry out to G-d in utter shock, in anger, and we might even lose our faith altogether.

How do we attempt to maintain our focus on the goodness in life when the bad can be so horrific? Early last month, a Reconstructionist rabbi, Josh Snyder, a colleague of mine, who is the Hillel director of Goucher College in Baltimore, lost his wife Neely in an auto accident. She was a vibrant 37-year-old woman who had worked for Jewish camps, schools, and other programs in the Baltimore area; she left her husband and three young daughters. How will this family recover from this devastating loss? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that Rabbi Josh has taken to Facebook to thank their many communities for the outpouring of support that he and his daughters have received, and for the stories of his late wife’s many contributions to the lives of so many people. They all know how she died, but they concentrated instead on how she had lived.

I believe that is all we can do. We can, and we traditionally do, wish each other to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, but let us also consider one of the other lines in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer: in it, we pray “Avinu Malkeinu – Our Ruler, our Parent – Inscribe us in the Book of Meritorious Life.” We acknowledge that it is not enough to have a long life – we pray that our lives should have value, that they should make a difference, and that we should leave the world better than we found it.

To do that, we might need to live as if we will not die, or at least as if the thought of dying doesn’t often cross our minds. Bette Midler sang in the song The Rose, “it’s the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.” I think there is a lot of truth to that – since no person knows the date of their death, logic would seem to dictate that every person would need to live each day maximally, experiencing every joy that they can and helping every person whom they can reasonably help. Fear of death blocks appreciation of the beauty and wonder of life. And it keeps us from making true atonement, from offering the most sincere prayers, and from doing the most charitable work that we can do. Why? Because the most common reaction to fear is paralysis – neither flight nor fight, as our instincts might dictate. Fear of dying can bring on despair – which is the enemy of hope, and hope is the driving force behind all manner of advancement of the self and others.

Fear of dying is detrimental, but fear of dying without first doing all the good in the world that we hope to accomplish can be an effective motivator. Moving forward unafraid helps us to reach the three goals of this holiday season: teshuvah, tefillah, u’tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds. By doing teshuvah, we can change course and move towards productive behavior; through tefillah, we can ask for G-d’s wisdom to best navigate life’s rappids; and through acts of tzedakah, we can be active participants in the betterment of the world. None of them are guarantors of long life, but all are contributors to a meaningful and memorable life. The Unetana Tokef prayer goes on to say, “U’teshuvah u’tfillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah” – But repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds transform the harshness of the decree – the Hebrew literally says that they annul the harshness of the decree, but note that they don’t annul the decree itself. That is, they can transform the decree’s impact on our lives through how we respond to it.
Zochrenu l’khayim, Melech khafetz bakhayim – Remember us for life, our Sovereign who delights in life – we pray today, knowing that we have no idea how long that life will be, but fully aware that, to a large extent, our lives are what we make of them. And, as significantly, they are valued through what we have left behind, not materially, but in the hearts of those whom we have loved.

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