High Holiday 5777 Sermons

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 – October 2, 2016

Using Our Rosh on Rosh Hashanah

Dear Friends,

As is our tradition, let us first say the blessing that expresses our thanks for reaching this holiday – Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu Ruach HaOlam, shehechiyanu, vikiyimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, Adonai, Our G-d, Spirit of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, Who has sustained us, and Who has allowed us to reach this season.

What, however, is this season all about? What does the coming of another Jewish New Year evoke in us? What are we doing here? Certainly, feelings of communal togetherness, of tradition, and of that desire for self-improvement, healing, resolution, and repentance that we call teshuvah compel us to unite this evening. I have long envisioned the advent of each Rosh Hashanah as a cue to get my head – my rosh – on straight, to orient myself towards entering the year with my priorities realigned, my values clarified, and my mind sharpened, so that I can better help my family, my congregation, and my world.

Each of us might have our own very-individualized agenda for the holiday season, one that addresses our own, our families’, and our community’s needs. Some of us might seek to strengthen family ties, to reconnect with formerly close friends from whom we have grown distant, or to better engage our intellects or our souls. Some might be hoping that the new year will bring greater economic opportunities, greater job satisfaction, more satisfying relationships, a higher appreciation of all of life’s blessings, or better health and fitness. Yet we must know that none of this comes passively with the passage of time – the new year itself brings us nothing new. The changes we want to see in our world and in ourselves are the changes that we actively pursue.

Why do we pray to G-d if we must ourselves do the hard work of repairing the world? Because we know that we cannot do this alone. With G-d’s help – and with the help of all who are motivated to do Divine work in this world – we can accomplish what none of us individually could hope to do. When we pray that we might soon see the Kingdom of the Almighty here on Earth, aren’t we really hoping and praying that all humanity can somehow unite via godly ideals to fix our myriad problems and thereby bring universal salvation?

Whether we see G-d as a mostly internal force that impels us ever forward, seeking the good for all, or the traditionally imagined Creator, Master of the Universe, Redeemer and Sovereign, we can unite in the dream of a peaceful, healthier, and kinder world, one in which all are equal and valued. However we try to define G-d, Whom we acknowledge ultimately denies definition, we might be able to agree that G-d, the entity, Force, or simply the concept, can be a source of wisdom, support, and motivation for growth and improvement as we meet the challenges of the new year. However, to connect with G-d, and thus more fully with each other, we need to use our rosh on this Rosh Hashanah. Let us both think and feel so that we can work our way toward teshuvah.

Phyllis and I and our family wish every one of you happiness, health, fulfillment, and peace on this new year. L’shana tovah tikatevu – may you be inscribed for a year of the greatest possible goodness.



Rosh Hashanah, First Day, 5776 – October 3, 2016

Sailing on the USS Teshuvah

Dear Friends,

According to one of the most memorable and moving prayers of the High Holiday liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, after the list of the many ways people might die in the coming year (who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, and the rest) we read U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah maavirin et ro’ah hagezerah – “but repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds transform the harshness of the decree.” We’ve noted before that the prayer does not say that the severe decree will be removed but rather that its harshness will be transformed, which we could assume implies that it will be mitigated.

We know from having lived our years that no one escapes death and few escape at least some amount of impairment or illness. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a lessening of their severity for our loved ones and for ourselves. Our tradition tells us how to effect that transformation: hoping is not enough – we must actively seek repentance, pray with meaning and intensity, and perform righteous deeds.

Therefore, over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will explore each of those three pursuits in a little more depth, making teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah the vessels through which we will seek change in the new year. These are not small watercraft, however; each of the three is a massive ship, powerful yet vulnerable, and all three must reach port for the voyage to be successful.

So, today we launch the USS Teshuvah! What really is teshuvah? Repentance, or atonement are needlessly heavy definitions. Teshuvah literally translates as “return.” But return to what? The right path, for sure, or rather the right seaway, if we are to hold onto our metaphor. Yet as anyone who has ever really tried to change their sinful ways knows, the voyage of repentance is hardly smooth sailing. No one “does teshuvah” on calm waters and docks in a quiet harbor. And, sadly, not everyone completes their journey, not all get the opportunity to repent. And what is worse is that many people never realize that they need to repent, as they have grown complacent in their sinfulness. If they do finally acknowledge how much they have lost their way, they believe that they are unable to regain their previous innocence.

Our traditions, teachings, and Torah all come to tell them they are wrong – it is precisely the function of the High Holidays to bring those who truly wish to do teshuvah the opportunity to do so. While it is true that we will never again return to childhood innocence, it is only because we are no longer children; however, we can do teshuvah and thus rise to a higher plane than that of innocence.

Encouraging words, perhaps, but how do we actually make it happen? Many years ago, Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People became a popular and powerful source of change. It and its follow-on volumes sold at least 20 million copies and were admired by business and political leaders around the world. I recall sitting through several sessions facilitated by my supervisor’s supervisor at work. The materials were excellent, the paradigms well illustrated, the learning modules were well designed. And the facilitator did a fine job of presenting Covey’s lessons, but I cannot now recall it having any lasting effect then and it only vaguely remains in my mind now. Why is that? Perhaps I am too skeptical of any self-help program, especially one that is business-oriented, and rooted solidly in Mormonism (which I did not know at the time). Perhaps, however, there is something flawed in the approach itself. Are we really the sum total of our habits? Can we truly shift our paradigms? Can we actually divide our tasks and activities into neat quadrants? If we are already effective, why bother with this book or its ilk?

Teshuvah, I truly believe, involves far more than changing our habits, which are, after all, essentially ego-centered. At the core of teshuvah is the crucial understanding that we ourselves are not the center of the universe, but neither are we unimportant in it. Hassidic tradition relays a story of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Persycha – he taught that every person should carry two notes, one in each pocket, at all times: the first says “bishvili nivra ha’olam – for me was the world created,” and the second says, “v’anokhi afar v’efer – and I am but dust and ashes.” As the situation required, he would refer to one or the other. We are important, our tradition insists, but we are not supremely so.

I have spoken of mussar many times in the past, and the study of that discipline and its middot (traits, characteristics, or behaviors) is certainly one path to teshuvah. Mussar’s greatest teaching is that we must focus on “carrying the burden of the other.”

Yet most of us know what the ideals of human interaction are, although we might not demonstrate them. What keeps us from “carrying the burden of the other”? I believe that it is “the burden of ourselves,” that is, our own needs and desires, be they legitimate and important or not, that too often prevent us from helping others. We only seem to read Rabbi Simcha’s note that reads “for me, the world was created,” ignoring the one that tells us we are but dust and ashes.

And yet, neither are we permitted to be completely self-effacing – after all, the Torah teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Eloheem – in the image of G-d, and are enlivened with Divine breath. Therefore, who we are and what we want also matter.

Teshuvah, then, succeeds or fails based on our ability to navigate between the twin shoals of egoism and abject denial of self, and we are pulled, inexplicably it seems, towards one or the other at different times. Both are deadly. While the channel between them might seem wide, it is nevertheless the rare captain who can sail through the center without a mishap. It is important to remember that the occasional accident, the inopportune grounding on a sandbar, needn’t be fatal. We will sometimes fail, backsliding into sin, despite our best intentions, but this does not mean that we are failures. To be human is to make mistakes, but to be alive is to be assured the chance to try again and succeed. And when we hit the same rough waters the next time around, and having learned where the rocks are, this time succeed in steering through, we know we have done teshuvah.

It is both my hope and prayer that 5777 may be for you and your families a year of health and happiness, fair seas and following winds.



Rosh Hashanah, Second Day, 5777 – October 4, 2016

Tefillah: To Whom Are We Speaking?

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, we discussed a three-pronged way of understanding what we are really doing in synagogue on the High Holidays. Using the assertion from the prayer Unetaneh Tokef that teshuvah, tefilah, utzedaka maavirin et ro’ah ha’gezerah – that “atonement, prayer, and charity transform the evil in the decree,” we began by analyzing what teshuvah can mean. This morning, then, let us take a closer look at tefilah, generally translated as prayer.

As I have often taught, the noun tefilah comes from the Hebrew verb l’hitpalel, meaning “to judge.” Since it is a reflexive verb, it can be better understood as meaning “to judge oneself.” So much of the imagery, however, seems externally directed – to G-d as our Parent, our Ruler, the Blessed Holy One, the Almighty Who sits enthroned, writing in a Book of Life. Where are the images of self-judgment? And can we pray using the traditional imagery of kingship, using words that may or may not resonate within us?

Returning to the idea that l’hitpalel is a reflexive verb, where is the border between external praise and petition, and inward soulful examination?

When we pray, we must then ask, to whom are we praying? To literally follow the meaning of the verb and say “to ourselves,” is to seriously miss the mark. Rather, the act of prayer comes from a soul-searching, an internal inquiry into our deepest thoughts, our most closely held beliefs, and our most elevated motivations, turning those into words that are either then spoken aloud or uttered silently, so softly that no one’s ears, even our own, can hear them. Who, then, is listening? G-d!

But Who is G-d? Each of us can and will have a different answer to that, ranging from the most traditional and supernatural to the most post-modern or scientific. I would not attempt to define for you Who or What G-d is; I can only tell you what images of G-d do or do not work for me. However, I can tell you that I could not be an atheist, because to believe that there is no god is to say that everything is random, and I don’t see how that could be possible.

Those who have studied with me in the Process Theology, Psalms, and other classes have heard my theology, so I apologize to them at the outset, but allow me to repeat it now because it is relevant to how I envision prayer. Although I take none of the account of the creation of the world in sefer Beraishit, the book of Genesis, literally, I see it all as highly symbolic, evocative, and holy. One image works particularly well for me, that of the creation of humankind, symbolized by G-d’s creation of Adam. As we read in Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 7: “Then the LORD G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” I understand the last two clauses of that sentence almost literally – after G-d created people through the earliest ancestor, Adam, this lifeless flesh was given both breath and soul directly from G-d. What I learn from this is that every person contains the breath of G-d, a Divine spark, a unique human soul enlivened by the creative force of the universe.

When we pray, therefore, we needn’t focus our prayer-power in an almost unreachable quest for heaven’s gates, hoping to sneak our prayers in before the gates slam shut. No, when we pray, we only need to reach within ourselves, seeking openly to connect with the spark of the Divine that is always with us, always accessible, ready for connection and conversation.

And we know when we’ve related to the Divine spark, don’t we? Those times when we know we have really helped someone else, those times when we experience a sudden burst of enlightenment, when the vague and obscure become, in a flash, crystal clear, or at lifecycle moments when our patterns of life suddenly transform – those are G-dly moments, a brush with the Divine, a connection with the Eternal.

Let’s be frank, however; how many of those experiences, moments of radiance and enlightenment, and tastes of the holy do we enjoy regularly? They are rare for almost all of us, I would imagine. Yet, it is necessary, if we want to balance the normal and perhaps boring with an innocent love of the transcendent, to recognize and understand those insights and moments when they occur.

So, how does prayer fit into all of this? Tefilah can help train us to see more of those moments in daily living, to elevate us to knowing that we are divinely created holy beings capable of connection with the Force that Enlivens All, while keeping us grounded in the realities and occasional hardship of living life on Earth and with community.

The problems with engaging in prayer are many, I know – just because I am a rabbi, it doesn’t necessarily follow that tefilah comes easily and naturally to me. The problems that I face might be the same ones with which you might struggle – finding adequate time, interest, and freedom from distraction to focus on prayer, difficulties with much of the wording and imagery of the prayers, and feelings of inadequacy to the task of connection with the Divine.

So much of the prayer language in our siddurim, our prayerbooks, and our mahzorim, the prayerbooks that we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, uses words and images that might not always, or perhaps even ever, speak to our souls. It is not fair to fault the prayers and their ancient and Medieval authors – I believe that they tried their best in the words and vernacular they used to express feelings and ideas that are difficult if not impossible to fully describe. The authors of the modern age faced the same problems.

The tefillot, the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be particularly problematic – we are directed by them to acknowledge our sinfulness, which is hard to do. They can feel like a big guilt trip, something that we might instinctively reject. Of course, there is a lot more going on with the High Holiday liturgy than communal confessions of sins, but that one feature, sadly, in my opinion, turns off a lot of people. The prayers are filled with images of G-d enthroned on high – reassuring to some, no doubt, but difficult to relate to for many others. The task of relating ancient imagery to contemporary relevance is a hard one indeed. Yet, the urge to pray, to reach simultaneously beyond and within, persists. We can, and should, seek out the gems to be found in the texts, but more is needed.

We still face the same predicament known to our ancestors – if we are to try to pray, how do we do so if the mahzor generally disappoints us? Going along with my strong contention that Judaism is not a spectator sport, I recommend that, if we are to fully engage in tefillah, we should try as they did to express ourselves in writing in ways that we find meaningful. Write down your thoughts, your most meaningful prayer, in your own words, and bring them with you on Yom Kippur. Some time during the day, take out your prayer and read it to yourself. Don’t worry about sharing it with anyone. If you would like to do so, of course, go ahead – but that means opening yourself up, which for many is uncomfortable. The key is to have a personal prayer that you can use to completely and honestly express what you most need and want to say this year. Don’t worry about how the words flow, or whether it is appropriately written, or whether it pales in beauty and form compared to the grand images found in the mahzor. Work on it and polish it, if you wish, but the crux is to create a tefilah that you can honestly pray.

Why do I suggest that you write it out freehand or print it rather than simply think about it and say what is in your heart? We are humans and most of us need props – holding a piece of paper often helps us not only to remember but to better connect with the words. The hope is that the physical text will lead us to greater internal exploration, just as the Written Torah inspired the Oral Law, which in turn, led to greater and greater learning, and ever deeper engagement with its transformative teachings.

My pledge is to attempt to be more prayerful this year, for my congregation’s and my own benefit. If you have no desire to be more fully engaged in tefilah yourself, you are, of course, still welcome in services, but I don’t understand how it can be very interesting for you. There is of course, communal sharing, and a satisfaction in seeing the congregation gather, and a lot to be gained from the Torah and haftarah readings, but the element of prayer is primary during the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, as the High Holidays are known. If achieving even a little of that sense of awe is the goal, we need to awesomely pursue it.

My prayer is that we are all more able to connect through prayer this year. I wish a shana tova u’metuka, a good, sweet year, to you and all your loved ones.



Yom Kippur 5777 – October 12, 2016

Tzedakah: The Personal and Public Solution

Dear Friends,

Over the course of the High Holidays, we have discussed two of the three ways cited by the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of mitigating the severity of the decree: teshuvah – repentance, and tefillah – prayer.  The third is tzedakah, which is often translated as charity. I said on Rosh Hashanah that all three were required, so we need to explore today what we mean by tzedakah.

For many of us, tzedakah is a touchy subject, perhaps because we associate it with an obligation, felt either within or imposed by others, to donate large sums of money to worthy causes. We read about world-renowned philanthropists who endow great institutions and eternally memorialize their names over the doorways of universities and hospitals and we shrink back from giving our relatively paltry contributions, which must be practically unnoticeable compared with the magnanimous gifts of billionaires. It is too easy to think that we, who have comparatively little, need not give anything when there are so many who are so well off who can give far more.

Clearly, that is not a helpful attitude, neither for our own growth nor for those people and causes who need our help.  If that is our attitude, then learning to participate in the mitzvah of tzedakah in a meaningful way might require us to gain a greater understanding of what tzedakah is. Calling it charity is a bit of a misnomer, simply because charity implies giving when the heart motivates you to do so – the word charity comes from Latin words for “dear” and “heart.” “Charity” is given to the poor and sick from feelings of love, no matter whether that help is in the form of money, food, or other kinds of assistance. Of course, the obvious problem is that we may or may not feel that love at any given time.

Feeling love is not a necessary component of the Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is derived from the word tzedek, meaning righteousness or justice. That is to say, you do tzedakah because it is the right thing to do, because you must, because it is tzedek – it is just, not necessarily because your heart so moves you. The Torah obligates the Jew to giving ten percent of one’s income to tzedakah, which has been interpreted to include supporting schools and synagogues, the elderly in and outside of family, and communal causes both Jewish and non-Jewish. Doing tzedakah helps to create balance in society, to right wrongs, and to take bad situations and attempt to fix them.

If it were only that easy – do your part and the problem goes away. We all know from past experience that some problems, no matter how much money or effort you throw at them, cannot be completely solved. The poor will always be with us, the Torah tells us. There will always be disease, there will always be natural disasters, there will always be societal ills to be addressed. What can we do? One thing is for sure, and we learn this powerfully from our tradition: we cannot throw up our hands and give up. Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, tells us: Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben horin l’hibatel mimenah – It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to withhold yourself from it. In other words, we are obligated to fight the good fight, to do our part, even if we cannot fix the problem.

We have friends who lost their daughter at a young age, in her early 20’s, and they were, as you might imagine, devastated. Yet, eventually they were able to turn their grief into positive energy and in her memory now run yearly fundraisers to carry on the communal work with which their daughter had been involved. We probably all know of other examples of turning pain into progress, and we can recognize that this is a level of tzedakah that is doubly beneficial – it is a personal and public solution. The pain of loss, the grief is still felt, but it is balanced by the good that is being done for others. When we make donations to our synagogue, for instance, in memory of loved ones, we turn our sadness at their loss into a living memorial that benefits our community. Elie Wiesel, whom I spoke of last evening, certainly lived this ideal to the highest level, taking the devastation and grief that would be part of him forever from having lived in the very heart of the evil that was Auschwitz, and using it to drive his lifetime of not only being the voice of the Shoah, but being the ultimate defender of all who are oppressed and persecuted.

Perhaps that is what the Unetaneh Tokef intends when the prayer claims u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah maavirin et ro-ah hagezeirah – that repentance, prayer, and righteousness transform the severity of the decree. The decree is the decree, and it is often devastating, but we can, with effort, change the energy flow. Through repentance, we can change our behaviors so that, with will and opportunity, we can do better the next time, and perhaps even help others to avoid making the same mistakes we have made. Through prayer, we can begin to work on our internal landscape, set our souls on a more helpful and healthy trajectory, and bring us to greater peace and fulfillment. And through tzedakah, pursuing righteousness or justice, we can reach outside of ourselves and become active participants in creating a better world.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 16, verse 20 tells us: tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you must pursue – why do we have to pursue it? Because it is ever fleeing. And like truth, justice is often hard to find. The same is true of tzedakah; while the opportunities to help seem limitless – so many hands are constantly reaching out for help – we are torn both by a doubt fueled by cynicism and confusion as to how we can really make a difference. So we need to pursue tzedakah. We can, again with effort, hush the cynical voice by accepting that while we might occasionally be fooled into giving help to someone who is not truly in need, we have tried our best and have not sinned on their behalf. We can alleviate much of the confusion by doing diligent research, choosing to more substantially support causes that resonate with us, while also helping others that are worthy.

Additionally, we need to remember that not all tzedakah is done through monetary donations; sometimes, it is our labor, our verbal support, or merely by showing up that we can help. Writing a letter to your congressmen on behalf of measures that will help others or the environment is tzedakah. Signing a petition aimed at righting a wrong is tzedakah. Certainly, gemilut hasadim, deeds of lovingkindness, such as visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved, is tzedakah.

What will 5777 bring us? No one can predict that, neither on a communal nor on a personal basis. What we do know is that we have the ways taught by our tradition to encounter whatever comes – we can meet the joyous times with hoda-ah – gratitude and with b’racha – blessing, and we can meet the challenging times with teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah,  thus doing what we can to restore the balance in ourselves and in our world.

G’mar hatimah tovah – may you be sealed for a life of health and happiness in the coming year.