James S. Tisch
Stephen H. Hoffman
From the UJC President and Chairman of the Board
James S. Tisch, Chairman of the Board, and Stephen H. Hoffman, President & CEO
A Memorial That Causes Us To Ask Why
By Rabbi Harold Berman
Promises to Ourselves and to Our Ancestors
By Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, D. Min.
The Power of Our Words
By Rabbi Jack Riemer
Formal Jewish Education Isn't Enough
By Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, D.Min.
The Radical Claim of Judaism
By Rabbi David Gutterman
The Whole Year is Rosh Hashanah
By Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld
It is Still Me
By Rabbi Elana Kanter
By Rabbi James Stone Goodman
The Risks of Openness
By Rabbi Adam Chalom
May God Bless You and Keep You
By Rabbi Moshe ben Asher and Magidah Khulda bat Sarah
Don't Blame Me!
By Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, z"l
Face to Face
By Rabbi Michael Charney
Giving and Sharing the "Gift of Life"
By Rabbi Bonita E. Taylor and Rabbi David J. Zucker
Facing Our Imperfections
By Rabbi Michael Friedland
Making a Difference in Our LIves and in the Lives of Others
By Rabbi Jon Konheim
No Fear of Growing Old
By Rabbi Howard Cove
Life Can be a Covered Bridge: A Yizkor Sermon
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
The Lesson of Sukkot is Simplicity
By Rabbi Amy Small
By Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
We Are Family
By Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Ph.D.
UJC Rabbinic Cabinet Honor Roll (opens new window)
United Jewish Communities Rabbinic Cabinet
111 Eighth Avenue, Suite 11E, New York, NY 10011-5201
Phone: 212.284.6513 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in cooperation with the Rabbinic cabinets of local Jewish federations
The mission of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet is to unite rabbis of all ideologies in the work of kiyum ha'uma and tzedakah, acquaint and involve the North American rabbinate with the goals and activities of UJC, and bring the talents, resources, and perspectives of the rabbinate to UJC and its UJA-Federation Annual Campaign.
The cabinet serves as the rabbinic arm of UJC, the major agency of North American Jewry for tzedakah. It promotes the unity of the Jewish people in its efforts to support the needs of Jews everywhere by including rabbis from every movement in North American Jewish life.
The Rabbinic Cabinet further seeks to inform colleagues about the most current developments in Jewish life, the needs of our people, and the techniques for effective utilization of rabbinic leadership within local communities. In addition, the Rabbinic Cabinet endeavors to apprise the lay Jewish leadership with the concerns of the rabbinate, infuse Jewish values and content into the annual and special campaigns of local federations, and serve Israel and the Jewish people with rabbinical involvement and support.
1. Raise the level of knowledge about UJC in the rabbinate and community.
2. Stimulate and support rabbinic participation in, and relationships with, UJC and local federations.
3. Assist with and participate in UJC's UJA-Federation Annual Campaign by enlarging the scope and intensity of synagogue involvement.
4. Upgrade rabbinic giving and increase rabbinic solicitations.
5. Identify new donors, leaders and major gifts.
6. Develop programs and educational materials about Israel and the Jewish tradition.
7. Serve as teachers and spiritual resources to the leadership and constituencies of UJC, local federations, and the Jewish community.
8. Serve as a forum for the discussion and resolution of important Jewish issues.
9. Recognize exemplary service of rabbis in the UJA-Federation Annual Campaign.
Standards for Membership:
Members of the Rabbinic Cabinet should:
1. Be involved in local federation and campaign activities.
2. Work in harmony with local colleagues.
3. Pledge at least $1,000 to the Annual Campaign.
4. Participate in a UJC mission.
5. Attend the Annual Meeting of the Rabbinic Cabinet and/or regional conferences and special meetings.
From the UJC President and Chairman of the Board
James S. Tisch, Chairman of the Board, and Stephen H. Hoffman, President & CEO
And in the seventh month, in the first day of the month,
shall be a day of solemn rest for you,
a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns. (Leviticus 23:24)
Based on these words -- and a few similar ones in Numbers 29, where the Torah also specifies the sacrifices to be brought on that day -- the Torah establishes the holiday we call Rosh Hashanah. In fact, as Rabbi Joel Roth points out in his commentary on Shabbat and the holidays in the Etz Hayim chumash, "The Torah knows of no holiday called Rosh Hashanah, New Year's Day." The significance of the "blast of horns" is not explained; the concept of the birthday of the world is absent.
It was our rabbis, Rabbi Roth says, "reflecting the view that the world was created by God in the autumn," who decided that this tersely described holiday would be the Jewish New Year, and who recast it as one of our holiest days. The description of Yom Kippur is more detailed, and resonates more with the holiday we know today. The Torah specifies, "You shall afflict your souls," which the commentators understood as fasting, and "...it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God" (Lev. 23:27-28). It was our rabbis, again, who introduced the concept that on Yom Kippur human beings are judged by God. The notion that Elul and the beginning of Tishrei are a time for reflection and repentance, a time when we stand before God most humbly, most vulnerably, has become so central to us as a people.
When the rabbis developed these concepts, they were clearly addressing a basic human need for such a period each year. And a need to think about a personal God who is aware of each of us, our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures. As the summer ends and fall approaches, as our children return to school and workloads intensify for many of us -- especially for rabbis -- it seems natural to put our religious lives in order. And the concept that Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the world, and thus offers us a new beginning -- well, September has always felt more like the beginning of the year than January.
Just two years ago at this time of year, the tragic and terrifying events of September 11, 2001 felt like both the end of history and the beginning of a new era. For Jews, who had to segue directly from 9/11 into Rosh Hashanah that year, there was something extremely comforting about the rituals of the Yamim Noraim. We came to shul to be together, to console each other, and to try to make some sense of what had happened. The traditional liturgy and tunes, even the blasts of the shofar, gave us something familiar to hold onto. And as we intoned "Teshuva, tefila, u' tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a hagezaira" (repentance, prayer and charity can avert the severe decree) we wondered if somehow we could have some positive effect, through our own good works, on this new and frightening world.
Two years later, the world is a different, less secure place than it used to be. But if we have learned anything, it's that we cannot stop performing acts of teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah, as individuals and as part of the organized Jewish community. No matter how we perceive the Almighty's intervention in our personal lives, or how we contemplate God's intervention in human history, it's clear that we can have a positive impact on the world -- even in these difficult times -- when we work together.
As a community, UJC and the Federations of North America have done so much this year to relieve suffering in Israel, in Argentina, in the Former Soviet Union, and in our own backyards as well. We have not been able to change the ro'a hagezeira, but we have done much to make the world an easier place to live in for many, many individuals. And we must continue to engage in this work. As we celebrate the birthday of the world this year, let us renew our resolve to change the course of our personal history, and to do our part to have an impact on the larger world.
Ironically, I have developed a special feeling toward a non-Jewish memorial in Jerusalem. It has deeply touched me on many trips I have made, although it is a place that has never been part of any tour. Yet it is a place that makes me think, reflect and ask troubling questions.
The place, familiar to many, is the British Military Cemetery, which dates from World War I, located on Mount Scopus between the Hyatt Hotel and the campus of Hebrew University. Having lived briefly on French Hill, and having played much tennis on the courts across the street, I have passed by the cemetery many times, and more than a few times I have wandered among the stones, reading the names of those who fell fighting under the British Flag.
What strikes me at any military cemetery is the tragedy of early death, of vigorous young people taken in their prime with so much yet to do, perhaps leaving a young spouse or even young children. And in this cemetery, the question haunts me -- while they were doing their duty and following orders, did they have a real sense of purpose?
Did they really care about this piece of land as opposed to any other? Or was it just another place of some strategic importance to someone, for which they were asked to risk and ultimately to sacrifice their lives?
It is such a different feeling at Mount Herzl. There one senses the same feeling of tragedy, but at least it is matched with a sense of purpose. There Israel buried the remains of people who knew why they were part of a Jewish army and why they were fighting for this land. At Mount Herzl, and at other military cemeteries around the country, one knows, in most cases, that families will remember, and will lead better lives for the sacrifices that were made.
On the High Holidays, we ask ultimate questions about what we are doing with our lives. Sometimes we are also forced to ask even harder questions, about things that might even be more important than life itself. This past year, a year of war and bloodshed, those questions have been asked in many places.
And we have the privilege of knowing that whatever sacrifices have been made for the land and the people of Israel have purpose and meaning. In another generation when people come and see the legacy and remnant of what we did, they will not ask why we did it. Let us hope, as well, that they will not ask why we did not do more.
Rabbi Harold J. Berman, Chair, UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, Ohio.
There is a story about a pilot who is reported to have made this announcement to his anxious passengers: "Folks," he said, "this is the Captain speaking. We are off course. But we are making excellent speed."
All of us should be grateful for Yom Kippur. It always comes when we are speeding along and, all too often, far off course from what should be the true meaning of our lives. Yom Kippur arrives, stops us, or at least gives us pause, and enables us to choose to right the course of our destiny. No other evening besides Kol Nidre has a name of its own. Erev Shabbat is Shabbat; Rosh Hashanah eve is Rosh Hashanah. But Kol Nidre is just that: Kol Nidre.
The Kol Nidre prayer is a troubling piece of liturgy. We don't know when it was written or by whom. We don't even know precisely why. Most have been taught that Kol Nidre was written by Jews when they were forced to publicly declare a vow renouncing their faith and accepting the faith of one of the lands through which our people has journeyed.
Perhaps, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews would secretly descend into cellars or ascend into attics and, in small numbers, recite the words of this mysterious statement, releasing them from the vows they had taken against their faith. We are just not sure. But what we do know is that Kol Nidre has a power of its own. We have come to see it not just as a piece of liturgy but as the most powerful moment in our spiritual calendar.
I remember as a rabbinical student being told that over the centuries the rabbis tried to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. However, no matter how hard the rabbis tried, they could not excise it from the service of erev Yom Kippur. The people insisted that it be included in the liturgy. Its popularity was not just the beauty of the melody but its meaning. But, I am troubled by that. Should Kol Nidre be used as a tool to release us from our responsibilities? Is Kol Nidre some liturgical device to be used each year so that we can exempt ourselves from promises made, oaths taken, commitments declared?
That seems out of character for Jews. We are the people of the Covenant. Our oaths are sacred. No, Kol Nidre found its way into our Machzor precisely because we are a people of promises and oaths, a people of commitment and covenant. That is what makes us unique as the Jewish people; and, I believe, it is that very nature of who we are that has enabled us to survive throughout the centuries. Kol Nidre has continued to be part of our liturgy because human beings do make promises that are not kept. Every one of us here has made some kind of promise, oath or vow that has gone unfulfilled in the past year. Kol Nidre is about a demand that each of us confront ourselves, recognize the unfulfilled promises, and then work to fulfill them in the year ahead.
What unrealized commitments have we failed to achieve in the year now gone? Have we lived up to the commitments we made to ourselves, to our loved ones, to our spouses, our partners, our friends? Let's be perfectly blunt: We have not lived up to who we are supposed to be. We have not expressed our full capacity for kindness, for thoughtfulness. Few of us have given our full measure of generosity. We have found excuses to avoid giving, and have run from responsibility when we were called upon.
Kol Nidre is our opportunity to look hard at who we are, at who we have become, and then to change, to make an honest turning, to repentance in every good sense of the word. I pray that we use this time wisely.
Rabbi Bennett F. Miller, D.Min., is Rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick, N.J., Vice Chair of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet and incoming chair this November.
When Cain kills Abel and hides the body, God calls to him and says: Where is Abel, your brother? And Cain answers: Am I my brother's keeper? And God says: kol dimey achicha tsoakim alay min ha adamah -- the BLOODS of your brother are shrieking out to Me from the Earth. The Sages of the Midrash notice this word, bloods, and they explain it this way: whenever you kill a human being, you also kill an entire life. You kill all the potential people to whom this person might have given birth.
That is the midrash. The following story is based on that midrash:
Back in the l930's and 40's, there was a teacher named Rabbi Shlomo Hyman who taught at Yeshiva Torah V'Daas. Rabbi Hyman was known for the enthusiasm with which he gave every shiur. He would throw himself into each lesson and would be drenched with perspiration when the class was over. Once there was a blizzard and very few students showed up for class. Still Rabbi Hyman gave the shiur with the same energy, with the same total involvement, that he did when there were a hundred students present.
The three or four students who were there were embarrassed, and they said to him, tactfully, "Perhaps the Rebbe would like to shorten the class today, since there are so few students. If you do, we won't mind."
Rabbi Hyman shook them off and insisted on giving the entire shiur, teaching with the same passion that he demonstrated when there were many students present.
He said to them: "Do you remember the midrash that says that when you kill someone, you don't just kill that person. You also kill all of the potential people to whom that person might have given birth. In the same way, I believe that when I teach you, I also teach all those people whom you may someday teach. I don't consider this a class of just a few students. There is no way of knowing how many people my words will someday reach through you."
We rabbis have no way of knowing when or where our words may take root. We have no way of knowing when the words that we teach to a small class or even to one student may someday make a difference in their lives or even in the lives of those whom they someday reach. Our words have more power than we know.
From The World of the High Holy Days, Volume Three, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, published by the National Rabbinic Network, 20833 Cipres Way, Boca Raton, FL 33433, available in book or disk format.
As the school year begins we recognise that many of our Jewish families go to great lengths to provide a Jewish education for their children. Our expectations are that the schools will not only teach Torah and Jewish literature, Hebrew, history and culture but also provide the ultimate weapon against assimilation and intermarriage. Our yeshivot and day schools aren't the only schools that many expect such results. Some believe that the afternoon religious schools, where 80% of our school age children are Jewishly educated, should also expected to teach everything our children need to know about being Jewish and to insure our people's future.
However, no matter how important formal Jewish education is, it isn't the silver bullet that alone will guarantee a secure and creative Jewish future for these students, their families and our community. When I was a congregational rabbi I often was astounded that some of my families that would pay thousands of dollars annually for tuition for formal Jewish education for their children but would hardly step foot into the synagogue for religious services with these children.
How many times did I hear, "But rabbi, they don't need to daven since they daven in school every day." Tremendous spiritual opportunities were lost as parents and children missed sharing sacred moments together in prayer. These sacred moments are but one example of religious experiences and are among those critical factors needed to impart religious feeling and Jewish commitments in our children.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt"l, of Yeshiva University, also known as the Rav, the spiritual leader of contemporary Orthodoxy, taught an important lesson in his 1976 teshuvah derashah: "My religious world-view was formed not only through learning Torah, but also by my religious experience. Those emotions which overtook me as a child stimulate me still today and my whole Weltanschauung, my whole religious philosophy is a result of this experience."
The Rav powerfully made a dichotomy between learning and experience, and I believe that insight forces us to reflect anew on what we can reasonably expect of our chools.The Rav continued, "Contemporary Orthodoxy is well grounded intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion and enthusiasm." Although the Rav was reflecting upon the Orthodox community, I believe that his trenchant insights could also be a comment on the other religious movements of 21st century Judaism.
There is a debate within the Jewish community on which formulas are needed to strengthen Jewish life. Often we turn primarily to institutions of formal Jewish education to play the primary role in imparting Jewish communal and spiritual religious values. However, I side with those who believe that schools play an important role but need to be accompanied by the work of another series of important institutions. These institutions are important because they potentially can inspire the "passion and enthusiasm" necessary according to the Rav.
For example, some contemporary synagogues are recognizing that if they retool, they can become a setting for religious experiences and spiritual transformation. Some federations and Jewish philanthropists have been partnering with those congregations and organizations to help train their courageous leaders, both volunteer and professional, who are prepared to challenge the status quo and to rethink and reallocate resources. The goal is to spiritually energize congregations, increase learning opportunities for all ages and inspire individual families. Other federations have been conceptualizing Jewish summer camps (not only camps with Jews) as important partners to provide religiously transformational experiences for the campers and not simply an expensive add-on to keep our children busy and safe in the summer. Other federations are truly engaging the youth movements as another important setting for providing inspired religious experiences and Jewish spiritual transformation.
The UJC Rabbinic Cabinet is prepared to actively participate with the federation system to respond to the challenges articulated by the Rav and others. We will be introducing a wonderful new tool for spiritual growth and learning this Fall: Mekor Chaim, a weekly e-mail and web-delivered parashat hashavua series written by our volunteer members, which we expect will be shared at the Shabbat tables in tens of thousands of Jewish homes each week.
Rabbinic Cabinet members will be leading important educational programs at the General Assembly in Jerusalem this November. Our Rabbinic Cabinet members continue to engage their federations on the local community level by participating in setting the priorities of Jewish life and marshaling the human and financial resources to address these priorities. We are proud that our rabbis continue to teach Torah in all of its manifestations, sharing the authentic message of God's concern for our people and reminding us of our responsibility to share our unique contribution to the world.
Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, D. Min. is UJC Director of Religious and Educational Activities and directs the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet.
In his book Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah describes the type of religion that a nurse by the name of Sheila Larson presents. It is an intensely personal and intimate one where the only doctrine is to love yourself. When asked what she would name this religion, she answered, "Sheilaism." Can you imagine if the person that Bellah interviewed was named Judy? Now there's a name for a religion...
There is a phenomenon in America that people have called the "American religion." It is a personal, intimate, solitary experience. It is the "feelings of individual men in their solitude," to steal from William James. Judaism presents a radically different claim. Maimonides explains why we have the three major Jewish holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the Guide for the Perplexed, he asserts that Jews went to Jerusalem and the Temple for these holidays so that they could socialize, eat, and study together. In a word, the underlying and compelling reason for the holidays was to allow Jews to create community. Jewish expression of the sacred was primarily a communal enterprise.
I remember passing by a soup kitchen in the Old City of Jerusalem with a sign prominently displayed in the window:
"Restricted Entrance. Family Only. And Everyone is Family."
Rabbi David Gutterman, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Executive Director of the VAAD: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and Rabbi of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
One of the famous Hasidic dynasties in Israel is the House of Slonim, named after the Russian town from which it originated. I once asked Rabbi David Weinberg, the director of the Yeshiva Bais Avraham in Jerusalem and himself a son of the Slonimer Rebbe, why the dynasty was moved from Slonim to Israel.
Rabbi Weinberg explained that his grandfather, the Slonimer Rebbe, when asked the same question, had responded: "I want to live in a land where the whole year is Rosh Hashanah." He had quoted Deuteronomy 11:12: "A land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year (reshit ha'shanah) even unto the end of the year (acharit shanah)." He understood this text to mean that the beginning of the year lasts until the end of the year, thus Rosh Hashanah in the Land of Israel lasts the whole year without interruption.
What did the Rebbe of Slonim mean? The Rabbis tell us in the Talmud that on Rosh Hashanah the Almighty carefully watches us, searching for anything that might provide a favorable explanation for our deeds and even our misdeeds. He does not simply cast a cursory critical eye upon our lives. Rather, we undergo a careful, in-depth examination. Our innermost thoughts, sometimes unknown even to us, are known to God.
The truly pious Jew desires and is, indeed, eager that the Almighty see into every corner of his life, for only then will He find some z'chut, some merit in that life. The knowledge that nothing is hidden from God in our personal lives will -- or at least should -- elevate us on Rosh Hashanah to levels of piety and integrity that we would otherwise not achieve. This is the idea the Rebbe meant to convey.
He felt, however, that spiritual elevation could not be achieved in an atmosphere of oppression and persecution. Only as a free person could a Jew submit himself to this close examination of his life. And this freedom, he felt, was available only in Eretz Yisrael, where "a gantz yohr (a whole year) is Rosh Hashanah." In the land of Israel, where every day lends itself to a striving for perfection, a Jew is able to spend his entire year pursuing the spiritual elevation which the Rosh Hashanah scrutiny by the Almighty makes possible.
In quoting the verse from Deuteronomy, the Rebbe was also pointing out another important idea. We all make resolutions about our conduct and demeanor with the coming of a new year. A new beginning beckons to us. This is going to be THE year of improvement and betterment. We are determined to be better parents, more tolerant children, more loving spouses, more responsible members of Klal Yisrael; to give more charity, study more Torah, pray with more devout concentration. We are going to make this reshit hashanah, the beginning of THE year.
Where do all the good intentions go? At year's end we are faced with acharit shanah. Gone is HA-shana, gone is THE year. All that is left is shanah, simply and disappointingly, our ordinary, deja vu year.
Only in Eretz Yisrael do we have the opportunity to attain the goal of ending our yearly cycle with acharit HA-shana, the end of THE year. The Slonimer Rebbe taught us a great lesson; may we be worthy to learn and understand it.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Rabbi of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y.
"I lift my eyes to the mountain, From where will my help come?
My help comes from God, Creator of Heaven and Earth." ( Psalms 121:1 )
The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, is one of the most familiar stories of the whole Torah. It is also one of the most disturbing, because it deals with every parent's worst nightmare -- the potential loss of a child.
Recently, I heard a presentation by the head of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psycho-Trauma at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. He and his staff had been dealing with the fallout from the traumas that Israel had been experiencing. He noted that the hardest trauma to recover from is the loss of a child. Like our ancestor Avraham, the Jewish people find themselves today being tested. And like Avraham, what is at stake is nothing less than the potential loss of our children.
We are more than aware of the threat to the physical lives of our children: Jewish children who are fighting in the Israeli army to defend the people and the State of Israel, and Jewish children who become the cruel targets of terrorist attacks. The physical threat takes priority, as it should. And yet another serious threat to which we must pay attention is the risk to the spiritual and moral lives of Jewish children. We read the Akeidah to remind us that the choices we make in the face of heart-wrenching dilemmas, both individually and collectively, define us more than anything else.
I picture Avraham walking up the mountain asking himself, from where is my help going to come? Taking the walk up that mountain was not his idea. Under these circumstances, in the face of possibly giving up the life of his son, he could have snapped at Yitzhak, he could have beaten the servants who accompanied him -- there were many things he could have done. But when his son Yitzhak calls to him, "Avi," my father, Avraham responds "Hineni B'ni" -- "Behold, it's me, it is still me." The situation might be a nightmare, but I am still Avraham, the father who loves you and who will walk with you and be with you.
In order to deal with the catastrophic moments in our lives, we, like Avraham, have to be able to hold on to our humanity while we are struggling to climb that mountain. So how did Avraham do it? Ezri mei'im Hashem -- he reached inside himself and drew on the deepest spiritual resources he had. I imagine that Avraham said to himself, "God is going to help me get through this." And in reminding himself that he was not alone, he wasable to say hineni, I am here and I am still me. Avraham was one person -- by himself, the first Jew. But we don't have to face this individually. We have our connection to the Jewish people and the members of our community to help us keep our moral footing.
My prayer for us this Rosh Hashanah is that as we climb the mountain of the years of challenge in Israel, and as we struggle with the moments of suffering in our own lives, we can draw on our connection with God and the power of community. We should be able to say hineni, here we are, God: it is still us, we are still trying to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And if we can do that, if we can hold fast to our basic moral core and our sense of mission as a people, then no enemy, no matzav and no force will be able to defeat us.
Rabbi Elana Kanter, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is co-Rabbi of the New Shul, Scottsdale, Az.
On the Shofar
What is the significance of the sound of the shofar? Once there was a queen who had an only son, whom she loved more than the world. The queen reared the son in the castle, and there came a day when there was nothing more for the son to learn there. The queen understood that and with a heavy heart sent her child off into the world. The son was eager to learn the wisdom that only other peoples could teach him.
So he traveled outside the kingdom, learned the language of the next kingdom, spent a time there, and on to the next kingdom, learned the language there, etc. One day he recognized that he was so far away from home that unless he turned back, he might never return. So the son began to retrace his steps, from kingdom to kingdom, and finally he arrived at his own, where he began. He had been so far and had learned so many languages that he had forgotten his own tongue.
No one recognized him. He went into the courtyard of his castle, and looking up at the chambers of his beloved mother, he began to cry out for her. He had forgotten the words but the sounds of longing for home was heard by his mother, who welcomed him home with great tears of joy. The sound of the child's voice, that is the sound of the shofar. And the return home, that is its purpose.
R. Chelbo asked R. Samuel bar Nachman, since I have heard of you as a master of Aggadah, tell me what is meant by the verse "You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through" (Lam. 3:44).
R. Samuel answered, prayer is like an immersion pool, but teshuva is like the sea. Just as an immersion pool is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of teshuva are always open. -- Lam. R. 3:43
Imagine yourself floating on the great sea of teshuva. You have given yourself completely to the inexorable rhythm of the sea, the gentle ebb and flow, the great cosmic float on the surface of the ineffable sea. If you think you can master the sea, you cannot. You cannot swim for shore, you can only give yourself to the sea as it rises and falls in some inscrutable way that has nothing to do with what you do or how strong you are or how well you swim. The Sea will not be mastered or managed, the Sea just is. Here you are floating on your back on the Great Sea, up and down the gentle cadence of the Sea, reliable, infallible, the beautiful rhythm of life's ebb and flow. This is a sea you cannot swim, you can only float. When you learn to do that, it is so beautiful you wonder how you ever did anything else.
R. Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan, all the prophets prophesied only concerning baalei teshuva, but as for the reward of the wholly righteous, "Eye hath not seen, O God, beside You (Is. 64:3)." But R. Abbahu differed. In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the wholly righteous are not permitted to stand, for Scripture promises, "Peace, peace to one that was far and to one that is near" (Is. 57:19) -- first to one who had been far, and then to one who has been near all along. -- Talmud Berachot 34b
How do we understand the teaching of R. Abbahu, that a person who makes teshuva is somehow on a higher level than one who has never sinned at all? Imagine this image: we are all connected to each other (as it were) by invisible fibers of relation. How much the more so are we so connected to God. To God we are connected (as if) by a rope. When we make a mistake, when we commit a sin, when we miss the mark, we cut the rope that connects us to Godliness. But when we make teshuva, we retie it. Each knot that we tie shortens the rope, bringing us closer to God. So it is that one who has sinned and makes teshuva moves closer to God than one who has never sinned at all. Closer to God -- that is always the point.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman, is Rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom, St. Louis, Mo. This article is from Ketoret, the Yom Kippur Machzor of Congregation Neve Shalom.
It is true in the stock market and in personal relationships: The more you risk, the more you can receive in return, but the danger of getting hurt also increases. To connect with another person, we risk being open and getting hurt. Yet the more we open, the more chance we have of creating a meaningful connection. Asking forgiveness leaves us open to both recrimination and reconciliation.
In I Kings 19, when Elijah relives a Sinai-like revelation, God manifests a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire, "but God was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice." Sometimes it takes danger, great noise and tumult to break through our protective barriers, like riding the market, or suffering through wedding planning to enjoy a marriage. Yet the most meaningful connections are not found through noise, but through a still small voice afterwards.
In the Sefat Emet (Rosh Hashana 119), the Baal Shem Tov gives his disciple kavvanot ha-t'keeot, yet the disciple forgets them. Broken-hearted, he sounds the shofar and later confesses. The BeShT responds: "A king's palace has many rooms and sanctuaries, and there are different keys for each opening. But the master key of all is the axe, with which one may open all the locks of all the gates. So intentions are keys, every gate has a different intention, and the master key is the broken heart." We must risk brokenness to achieve wholeness. And an absolute openness to the world can open all the doors to intimate connections in our lives, and all the personal treasures those doors conceal.
Having the courage to experience our emotions requires an openness to risk, but in the end it is what makes us human, and what can give meaning to our universe. You have to risk loss to make money, and you have to risk pain to experience love and forgiveness. It is a basic truth of human existence.
Rabbi Adam Chalom, is Rabbi of the Birmingham Temple, Farmington Hills, Mich.
What does it mean when a prayer leader makes the three-fold priestly (Nu.6:24-26) blessing? We dismiss the possibility that the leader has the power to bring "blessings" or that we receive blessings because the leader is petitioning God. The idea that blessings come without our action leaves us feeling religiously and spiritually incompetent.
But blessings may also be understood as opportunities -- God's openings to "miraculous" possibilities -- to which we may respond or not. Then the three benedictions are not entreaties to God but questions to the congregation. May God bless you and keep you? The question is, are we willing to use the openings that the Creator has made for us?
First, are we willing to use the Creator's openings to achieve material well-being? Material needs may be satisfied by un-Godly means -- greed, gossip, deception, lies, exploitation, injustice, and much worse. But will we use God's openings to fulfill those needs through kindness and respect that may not always produce more goods, but results in more satisfaction with what we have?
Second, will we see the wonder of God's creation by using the Torah's blueprint to its design and workings?
Third, will we overcome our yetzer hara and use God's openings to make peace with one another? Or Hachayim teaches that shalom is "the reverse of every kind of separation and fragmentation." One of God's names is shalom because the Holy One "ties together worlds [and] keeps them united..." Akeidat Yitzchak teaches, "Peace is more like the silver thread that joins two people or two entities, combining them into a unified whole." Without unity, separateness leads to decay and disintegration.
But how are we to become united? We asked that question at a Talmud Torah and one person answered, "We have to listen to one another, to hear one another's everyday pain and hope." But it's harder to talk about our pain and hope than to listen to that of a relative, friend, or neighbor. As one Jewish advice columnist put it to a correspondent whose friend was having marital problems but wouldn't talk about them, "Kvetching is OK, but anything beyond that we keep private." Without sharing with and listing to extended family or close neighbors, we act like rugged individualists.
Hillel said, "Do not separate yourself from the community." But we have become geographically dispersed and denominationally disparate. Community has been succeeded by personal careerism and disdain for giving and receiving support communally. Yet tzibbur is the very thing that is to be "completed" in the blessing of peace: "The holiness of God depends on the community. (Leviticus 22:32), I will be sanctified within the community of Israel." (Akeidat Yitzchak)
Therefore, how shall we answer the questions of the Birkat Kohanim?
If we use God's openings for peace, reaching out to family and community, we shall be blessed with relief from private anxieties and depression, blessed with personal enlightenment and liberation, and blessed with a community in which both Am Yisrael and God are sanctified by one another's deeds.
Rabbi Moshe ben Asher and Magidah Khulda bat Sarah are co-directors of Gather the People, a non-profit organization in Baltimore, Md., that focuses on congregational community building and faith-based community organizing.
Projecting onto others the blame for our actions is one of our most persistent human traits. Anna Russell, the British comedienne-singer, has a little lyric that tells how this face-saving mechanism works:
"But now I'm happy; I have learned
The lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that's wrong
Is someone else's fault."
The human tendency to avoid moral responsibility for misdeeds is scarcely a modern phenomenon. It is as old as humanity. When Adam in the Garden of Eden eats from the forbidden tree, God confronts him with the accusing question: "Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?" Adam defends himself by saying: "The woman whom You gave me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat."
Adam divides the blame equally between the Almighty and the woman. "The woman whom You gave me." In other words, I didn't ask for her. She was Your idea and Your creation. "She gave me of the tree." The eating was her idea, not mine. After Adam passes the moral buck to Eve, God asks her: "What is this that you have done?" Eve replies: "The serpent beguiled me and I did eat." The Torah doesn't report any conversation between the Almighty and the serpent on this matter. It would have been interesting to hear the serpent's excuse.
Every age has its own Adams, Eves and serpents. In an earlier, less sophisticated age, when people believed in astrology, heavenly bodies often served this purpose.
In our own times we are pictured as the passive victims of genes, reflexes, and complexes. We are controlled by heredity or environment or both. Massive forces that you and I are impotent to control buffet us about and make us act as we do. When a director of a large New York City bank was arrested for embezzling one million dollars, he said: "I don't know why I did it. Maybe a good psychiatrist can figure it out." He himself, he implied, was not to blame. Some mysterious forces were at work, compelling him to steal. But our tradition does not let us off the hook so easily. It looks upon us not as robots or puppets but as free moral agents who know the difference between right and wrong and who have the capacity to choose right over wrong.
To be sure, our biological inheritance, our childhood experiences, our environmental conditioning do exercise a vital influence upon us. These factors are real and powerful, but the human will is no less powerful. We are not only shaped by our environment, but we shape it. We are not only the creatures of circumstance; we are also the creators of circumstance. Our genes may determine whether our eyes are blue or brown, but whether we look upon each other with cold indifference or warm compassion is for us to choose.
Our physical height may be biologically determined, but our human stature we fashion ourselves. Our environment determines the language we speak and the pronunciation we use, but whether our words are cruel or gentle, carping or comforting depends squarely upon us. Our passions, appetites and instincts are part of our animal equipment, but whether they rule us or we rule them is left for each of us to determine.
One of the hallmark verses of the Torah tells us: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life." It is only when we believe that there are indeed moral choices and that we have the power to make moral choices that we can truly live meaningful lives.
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, z''l was Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sinai, Dresher, Pa.
In the Torah, the Kohain, in order to be a source of blessing, was commanded to face his people. He was told to look directly at the people when he offered the Priestly benediction. "Thus shall you bless the people of Israel." Say to them, "May the Lord bless you and keep you..."
The Rabbis in the Talmud point out that this meant "Panim el Panim, face to face, talk to them as a person talks to his companion."
The Israelite nation was not a faceless mass of humanity. They were people, individuals, each with a face, and each worthy of respect. Every person is created in the image of God. Note the significance that in this blessing the Hebrew uses the singular, Yvarechecha, May God bless you (the singular form of you). God is viewed as the creator of every single person, endowing each person with the sanctity of human personality.
One major problem of mankind has always been what we refer to as the faceless masses. Too many people still have no faces, so to speak, and are looked upon as mere statistical data. In the Torah, though, Moses, in the name of God, instructs Aaron the High Priest and his sons on how to bless the people. He teaches them to bless in a friendly manner, in a soft voice, the way one would talk to a companion, face to face, individual to individual. For when you face someone, you grant them recognition as a human being worthy of direct confrontation.
We do count! We are each important and precious. We are not just statistics. What we do matters. In a sense, through the blessing of kohanim, God has spoken to each one of us as individuals and has blessed us, Panim el Panim, face to face.
Rabbi Michael Charney is Rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation, Uwchland, Pa.
Giving and Sharing the "Gift of Life"
By Rabbi Bonita E. Taylor and Rabbi David J. Zucker
Who among us hasn't prayed for a second chance at health for ourselves or our loved ones? When God has answered our prayers, how have we showed our thanks? Many times, we make a donation to a charity, often to benefit the life of someone unknown to us. According to the Rambam, this is one of the highest and holiest forms of charity. In addition to financial contributions, we encourage you to consider donating life, to consider donating blood.
Judaism teaches that we are partners with God in continuing the daily miracles of creation and in sustaining life -- for each other and ourselves. As Jews, we do not live only for ourselves; we live in covenant with those around us. Chief among our responsibilities is the precept that we must actively do whatever we can to save a life. Yet, most of us will never be called upon to act in a physically dramatic way to directly perform the mitzvah of Pikuah nefesh, of saving someone's life. However, Pikuah nefesh may be something that we can do in the quiet precincts of a blood bank.
As we celebrate the High Holy Days this year, let us also recall that Judaism teaches that the one who saves a single soul saves the entire world (Mishna Sanhedrin 4.5; BT Sanhedrin 37a). This is your opportunity to save the world.
Rabbi Bonita E. Taylor is staff educator at the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care, and Rabbi David J. Zucker is director of Pastoral Care at Shalom Park, Aurora, Colorado.
A little story to start off the new year.
A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on the end of a pole, which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For two years this went on daily, with the water bearer delivering only 1 1/2 pots full of water to his master's house.
Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the bearer one day at the stream.
"I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you."
"Why?" asked the water bearer. "What are you ashamed of?"
"I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half of my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts," the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and with compassion he said, "As we return to the master's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."
Indeed, they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt badly because it had leaked out half of its load, and so again the pot apologized to the water bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, and none on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known of your flaw and I took advantage of it. I planted seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table.
Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."
The sages teach us that God is not like human beings, in that human beings treasure only perfect and whole items whereas God treasures damaged goods. "God does not dismiss a contrite and crushed heart." (Psalms 51: 19) It is in our weakness and failure that we face our humanity and in our ability to accept and persevere despite our weaknesses that we attain our nobility of spirit.
In this coming new year, let us not deny our transgressions, our failures, or our inabilities, but face up to them, acknowledging that we are not perfect. Perhaps in that recognition we shall find our strength.
Rabbi Michael Friedland is Rabbi of Sinai Synagogue, South Bend, Ind.
A mechanic was removing a cylinder head from the motor of a Harley motorcycle when he spotted a well-known heart surgeon in his shop. The surgeon was there, waiting for the service manager to come take a look at his bike. The mechanic shouted across the garage, "Hey Doc, can I ask you a question?" The surgeon, a bit surprised, walked over to the mechanic working on the motorcycle. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag and asked, "So Doc, look at this engine. I open its heart, take valves out, fix ‘em, put ‘em back in and when I finish, it works just like new. So, how come I get such a small salary and you get the really big bucks, when you and I are doing basically the same work?"
The surgeon paused, smiled and leaned over, and whispered to the mechanic, "Try doing it with the engine running."
I suspect that a lot of us look at our lives and wonder at times how it is that they appear to be so complex and hectic. Perhaps it is because we are attempting to do something really difficult, like making delicate changes and adjustments while the engine is running. I can think of all of the moms and dads rushing in to drop off or pick up their kids from Nursery School or Religious School, and then rushing off to do a day's work or home to get dinner ready, or to drive the next carpool and keep their family happy and connected. I think of all of the volunteers who find ways to give time to staff a table for Men's Club or to show up at Bingo on a Monday night or to help out with a kiddush on Shabbat. How they manage to give their help to our community and balance all of the complexities of their lives is amazing.
All of us are busy performing "heart surgery" in some area of our lives, whether we are valued for our skills or not. The mechanic probably went home from work and played ball with his son or changed his grandchild's diaper. Whether he knew it or not, he was doing something precious. It may never have big bucks attached, but its value will be in the enhancement of someone's life.
Why not think of someone you know who does something complex and nderappreciated and tell him or her how much it means to you. It may not make up for a disparity in salary, but it will make a difference to that person and probably to you, too.
Rabbi Jon Konheim is Rabbi of Beth Am, Baltimore, Md.
The coming of a new year is a time of mixed feelings. On one hand we are glad that we still are around to welcome it. But the New Year is a sharp reminder of the irreversible passage of the years, and as we grow older they seem to be passing much faster. This awareness fills us with a certain amount of anxiety.
One of the most widespread fears we have is the fear of growing old. William Lyon Phelps, the American teacher and essayist, once wrote about the alarm with which we greet the first gray hair. He went on to say: "Now, one really ought not to be alarmed when one's hair turns gray; if it turned green or blue, then one ought to see a doctor. But when it turns gray that simply means that there is so much gray matter in the skull that there is no longer room for it; it comes out and discolors the hair. Don't be ashamed of your gray hair; wear it proudly like a flag. You are fortunate in a world of so many vicissitudes, to have lived long enough to earn it."
Now, one does not have to share Dr. Phelps' affection for gray hair. If we happen to prefer another color, we have a choice today, and if another color makes us feel cheerful we are each entitled to our personal preference. But Dr. Phelps is entirely correct in sounding the caution against allowing the advancing years to plant seeds of fear in our hearts. There has been widespread acceptance of the erroneous conception that life reaches its climax in youth. Consider what it would mean if it were true that youth is the happiest time of life.
If that were so, than nothing would be sadder than a young person of 25, for he or she would have reached the very peak of existence and now could expect only deterioration and decline. This would be the greatest insult to human personality and human potential.
If we are to face the advancing years with serenity and hope, we must realize that God has arranged human life on an ascending scale, and that every age has its unique satisfactions and joys, just as every hour of the day has its own charms.
Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "If you haven't cut your name on the door by the time you've reached 40, you might as well put away your jackknife." But the same Holmes didn't write Over the Teacups until he was 75. The German philosopher Goethe completed Faust at 80. Henrietta Szold's remarkable work of rescuing children from the Nazi inferno did not begin until she was in her 70s, and Chaim Weitzman became the first president of Israel in his middle 70s.
A kindly lady who was asked by a child whether she was young or old, answered, "My dear, I have been young a very long time." May we all reflect the attitude of this lady for years to come.
Rabbi Howard Cove is Rabbi of Kol Emet, Yardley, Pa.
During a family trip to Yosemite National Park one summer, we visited the restored Village of Wawona. Across the river from the public road into the park, it was built to accommodate visitors to the natural wonders of Yosemite Valley. To cross the river, the first park caretaker, Galen Clark, built a covered bridge. Historians are not sure whether Clark covered the bridge to protect its foundational beams from the elements or whether he was driven by a nostalgic desire to build a bridge that reminded him of the covered bridges back in his native Connecticut.
As I walked across that covered bridge with my son, Yoni, I too felt nostalgic, not for the back roads of New England but for my mother of blessed memory. When you lose someone you love, memories of that person can come to you at the strangest times and places. As I walked across that covered bridge, I was reminded of my mother because she loved covered bridges. I never knew how her fascination began, but crossing over that bridge, I could begin to understand it.
When you cross open bridges, you can look all around you. The landscape and activity on each side can distract you. The light can blind you. You can see the vastness of the sky, the distance to the horizon, and how far down it is to the water and the rocks below. Crossing an open bridge can be frightening. That is why the great Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman, compared the world to a narrow bridge, and taught that the essential thing is not to be afraid, because such a fear can immobilize us, making it impossible to reach the other side.
Crossing a covered bridge is different. When you cross a covered bridge, you enter, for a moment, a different world. The bridge's walls and roof offer protection from the wind and the elements, but also much more. There is a quiet stillness about such a bridge, a sacred quality. Perhaps it is the way the rays of light diffuse through the cracks between the planks like a series of tiny revelations that appear to assist rather than overwhelm one's sense of purpose and direction. As you walk along, the strong supporting beams rise up on each side. The roof and walls temper the harsh weather, offering the wayfarer a temporary respite that makes the rest of an otherwise difficult trip bearable.
Each one of us has bridges we must cross. When we survive a tragic loss, a debilitating injury or a life threatening illness, we cross a bridge that stretches over a deep and frightening gulf. When we struggle with making ends meet, confronting addiction, or simply engaging in the process of raising a family or finding satisfaction in our work, we cross a bridge that takes us from one part of our lives to another.
But each of us can construct a covered bridge that can make the crossing easier by providing support and comfort, protection from the raging winds of our own fears in the face of challenge and vicissitude, and direction in the face of distractions that all too often make us lose our way. While Clark built his covered bridge with the strong pine and cedar he found growing plentifully around him, we have different resources at our disposal: faith in God, the embrace of Jewish tradition, the support of our community, and the love of our family.
Faith in God provides the foundation beams that support us through difficult times. We sometimes confuse faith in God with our desire to harness a power that will protect us from all harm. Every time there is another bombing in Israel, l am asked the same question I was asked after September 11, "How could God have let this happen?"
The question is motivated by grief, empathy and fear, but it misses the essential point: God did not blow up the families celebrating the seder in Netanyan or drive an airplane into the Twin Towers, terrorists did. I believe that faith is not a roof over our heads, protecting us, but the foundational beams that support us when we don't know if we will have the strength to stand on our own. Faith in God is believing in a Power who can comfort us when the inevitable tragedies of life strike.
I don't know why God chooses not to intervene to stop tragedy. I do believe God wishes the best for us, that God is present for us, cries for us and with us, even though God, like a good parent of adult children, does not intervene directly in our affairs. We are responsible for the world we build, a world which includes self-sacrifice and generosity, but also hatred and terrorism. And through all of it, God is there, waiting to comfort us with open arms, with a symbolic shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold. If faith in God is the foundational beams of our bridge, then Jewish tradition is its walls.
I heard a story of an Israeli man who came to inquire about transferring his children from secular to religious school. He explained: he was born to religious parents, but as he grew up he rejected his parents' religious observances, wanting to fit into secular Israeli society. He had spent many years in the army and had recently been seriously wounded.
With no help in sight, he had been afraid he would die alone, and so tried to think about how he could comfort himself in what he believed would be his last moments. He found himself thinking back to reciting the Shema with his father in synagogue, watching the Shabbat candles and singing zemirot at his family's Shabbat table.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital -- someone had obviously rescued him. Lying in bed, he began to wonder what his children would find comfort in during what might be their last moments. He decided to begin to observe the Jewish traditions he had abandoned as a youth so his children would also have comforting memories on which to draw.
Like crossing an open bridge, life today is full of distractions. Advertisements surround us, video games mesmerize our children, e-mails constantly beckon us, our cell phones are always ringing. In the noise, we lose the place within us where we find the stillness that lies at the root of all true spirituality. We lose the connection to the rituals that enveloped the lives of our ancestors, providing meaning, guidance, and rich memories. Shabbat shelters us, helping us to become reoriented and reinvigorated.
If faith in God is the foundation and Jewish tradition the walls that embrace us, community and family are the planks in the roof that shelters us. We need both community and family to shelter us. As we recite in the penitential Psalm 27, "Though our mother and father leave us..." God is with us, and the expression of God can be found in the community. Anyone who recites mourner's Kaddish daily understands this.
It is difficult and often inconvenient to get up early for minyan. But nothing substitutes for rising with others who are also reciting Kaddish, surrounded by people who have come to ensure there is a minyan, providing the shelter of community when we are feeling most vulnerable and alone. That also helps explain why attendance at services is so important.
Time spent together binds a community together. I have watched regular synagogue attendance transform people's lives. I have seen people taken ill who have little family yet are surrounded by the care and concern of friends they made coming to services. If half the planks in our roof represent the shelter offered by community, then the other half represents the shelter offered by family. I believe our relationships with our families of origin define in large part who we are. I am reminded that whenever I was sick at heart or not feeling physically well I used to go "home" to my parents' house. My mother would cook for me and my parents and I would have long talks.
In 24 hours I would feel good as new, whole again in body and soul. That's the role of parents, and when they are gone, a gap remains in our lives and we wonder who will care for us like that again. Hopefully we have nurtured other family relationships, siblings, spouses, children, aunts, uncles or cousins, with whom we can find shelter.
As I walked across the covered bridge at Wawona with Yoni, I said softly, "Grandma loved covered bridges." Looking at the soft light streaming in, I finally understood. Somehow she knew that life is a narrow bridge, and it is easier to cross if we cover that bridge with tradition, community, and the love of family.
Rabbi Susan Grossman is Rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation, Columbia, Md.
Each year as I construct our sukkah and prepare to decorate it, the joy I derive from this wonderful observance is tempered by a tinge of sadness. There just doesn't seem to be much energy left for exploring the deep issues of yet another sacred observance.
Perhaps it is exhaustion after the Yom Kippur experience, or even (I would like to hope) a sense of spiritual fulfillment following the Yamim Noraim, that leaves many Jews, particularly those who are not observant, with little enthusiasm for the spiritual experience of Sukkot.
At times I wistfully wish that we could reverse the order, celebrating Sukkot prior to the Yamim Noraim! Knowing, of course, that we cannot, and realizing most importantly, that our tradition has a beautiful internal wisdom of its own, I realize that we are given an opportunity for teaching through the linkages between the holy day.
During the period that stretches from Elul's introspection through Yom Kippur's raw encounter with our deepest fears, we are to spiritually "strip down" to our neshamah, removing all of the layers of masks we wear. We spend much of our lives hiding from ourselves, from God and from each other, compensating for our insecurities and inadequacies by covering up what is true in our lives with airs and superficialities.
That's nothing new -- it is the human condition for which these holy days were created. But in early 21st century America we are, it seems to me, particularly smitten with an attachment to all things material. We have somehow internalized the idea "the bigger the better" as the symbol of American success (notice the SUV craze).
The book "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser traces the cultural roots and effects of our attachment to super-sized fast-food portions. By examining the way the fast food industry is transforming not just our diet but also our economy, workforce and culture, Schlosser frames an enormously important issue that challenges the spiritual values of American Jews. Consumer culture has influenced Americans to be driven to value and even prioritize the acquisition of things as a life pursuit.
Generosity through tzedakah, which ought to be commensurate with personal spending on consumer goods, is set aside in the race to demonstrate self-worth through material possessions.
Sukkot is a sensory experience with a different kind of motto, "less is better." This is the path to the realization of our deepest spiritual potential. In Deut. 8:10 the Torah teaches, "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord for the good land which God has given you."
The significance of gratitude taught by this verse, which is the basis for the birkat hamazon, is precisely what the celebration of Sukkot reinforces. The next verse goes on to explain, "Take care lest you forget the Lord Your God and fail to keep God's commandments, rules and laws, which I enjoin upon you today." The text then repeats the phrase "when you have eaten your fill" (v. 12), so as to make it absolutely clear that we are bidden to consume only what we need.
The fragile structure of the sukkah provides the perfect opportunity to reconnect with how little we actually need. In the barest of accommodations we are reminded of the true source of all of the earth's bounty that we enjoy. According to the verse from Deuteronomy, we thank God for the land and not for food. God is the source of the raw materials, and we are responsible for using them properly. Should we produce and consume just because we can? The Torah's message is a resounding "no."
Let us remove the layers of superficial importance we have come to place on consumer goods. From the portion sizes of the meals we eat, to the size of our automobiles, to the quantity and expense of our material possessions, let us examine what it means to say that "we have eaten our fill." If we truly follow the dictum, "V'achalta v'savata uvayrachta," blessing God each time we have eaten our fill, we would remember how little we actually need. Then we will be ready to give to others generously and to use our resources to strive for economic and social justice.
May these Yamim Noraim return us to the spiritual path of simplicity, bringing us ever closer to God and our own opportunities for Godliness.
Rabbi Amy Small, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Chatham, NJ. She is President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and a member of the Executive Committee of United Jewish Communities.
The mere mention of France these days in Jewish quarters evokes strong emotions and negative reactions. We are alarmed by the burning of synagogues and attacks on Jews over the last two years. More than a year ago, I, as well as many other rabbis, urged congregants to refrain from visiting France and from purchasing French goods. So you can imagine my feelings as I joined members of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet for its mission to Paris last winter.
We landed in Paris a little after 7 a.m., and by 9 a.m., after davening under the Eiffel Tower, we were already in our first meeting, with Roger Cukierman, the head of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of 60 French Jewish organizations, which represents and speaks for French Jewry. He had given a major annual public address the previous night on the state of French Jewry. Cukierman's talk, which was widely reported in the French media as well as American Jewish newspapers, dealt head-on with the issue we wanted to learn about and was attended by the French Prime Minister and many prominent government and business leaders.
France's foreign policy is unquestionably pro-Arab. Its diplomatic approach is not driven only by economics and oil. Cukierman explained that France is still obsessed with guilt over its role as a colonial power and views all international politics through this prism. In addition, the French press is left-leaning and quick to criticize the Jewish state.
Cukierman is an honest and charismatic leader. His speech made waves, for he spoke of a dangerous alliance between extremists on the left and the right who converge in their anti-globalist, anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist positions. In many respects, the issues have all become meshed, as Jews have become equated with Israelis, and America's and Israel's identities have also merged in the thinking of these extremists.
Home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 600,000 Jews, France is also the home of Europe's largest Muslim population, outnumbering the Jews at least ten-fold, with estimates ranging from 6-10 million, most of whom them émigrés from North Africa. Undoubtedly, the French government allowed the situation to get out of hand, according to Cukierman. Muslims from North Africa are fed a steady diet of hate in their mosques and on the most popular TV station, Al Jazeera. By all accounts, they are the main perpetrators of violence against French Jews and Jewish institutions. However, the positive news is that over the last 20 months, the French government has begun to take action to counter the excesses of anti-Semitism.
The new Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, is taking the threats very seriously. At a later meeting with one of his top aides, who went out of his way to convey to us what the government is doing to prevent further deterioration of the situation and to protect Jews and Jewish institutions. Several things we heard from Cukierman and other French Jewish leaders surprised us. For example, we learned that the French Jewish community urges us not to boycott France or French goods. They feel it would have an adverse effect on their efforts to portray the perpetrators of anti-Semitism as the outsiders, and would also hurt Jewish-owned businesses.
Our visit to a French Jewish day school was most refreshing. How wonderful it was to meet and see young French Jews, proud of their heritage, in spite of the anti-Semitism they confront on an almost daily basis. Several of the young people told us that it is dangerous for them to wear a chai, mezuzah, magen david, or kippah in public. Still, they were all fiercely proud to be Jewish and did not shy away from being active members of the Jewish community. The headmaster of the school, which has 330 students, told us that their enrollment already is filled through the year 2009, and the demand is so high, they could accept another 1,500 kids immediately if they had the space to accommodate them.
Some 28,000 children are enrolled in the Jewish day schools run by this pluralistic group, Kol Yisrael Chaverim, and there are four other sponsors of Jewish day schools, with about 150 Jewish day schools total in France.
We went to France expecting to see a community reeling from anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. In many respects, that is what we found. People fear for their personal safety, though they also recognized and appreciated the fact that in the last year the situation had improved considerably, and that the government was trying to protect them.
French Jews are well-organized, both integrated into French life and extremely connected to Israel. One quarter of the entire French Jewish population has visited Israel in the past year. The Jewish Agency helps to train teachers and educate students. The community has never been so united. They are beginning to send members of the French regional press to Israel. Clearly, the response of French Jews has been an increase in their level of activism and commitment to Israel and Judaism.
We American Jews were proud of the massive rally we assembled in Washington, D. C. last year in support of Israel. On April 7, 2002, 200,000 people rallied all across France against anti-Semitism and in support of Israel. In Paris alone, 130,000 attended, which is most unusual, for French Jews do not usually go out to demonstrate in the streets.
Rumors that Arabs would attack them did not deter people from coming out in full force. Over the last two decades there has been a quiet renaissance of Jewish life in Europe, among people rediscovering and reclaiming their Jewish past. It is demonstrated in the flourishing of Jewish museums, social and intellectual groups, publications, and thriving kosher restaurants. Rather than abandon their Judaism, French Jews see it as the means to define who they are and to confront the world around them. Judaism is seen not as a burden, but as what sustains and nourishes them.
May we be inspired by their example.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, is Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Zedek, Potomac, Md.
At the end of a visit to Israel last year, I got into a cab in Jerusalem at about 4:30 a.mm to make my early morning flight. My driver, in his 20s, was clean shaven and "looked" Jewish, but with his dark complexion, I couldn't be totally sure. In Israel, especially today, one is always making judgments about a person's tribal connections: religious or secular? Ashkenazi or Sephardi? Jew or Arab? native born or emigré? hawk or dove? We are a fractious, divided people. I sized up my driver as a secular, native born Israeli, but I wasn't totally sure. And then I put it out of my mind, lost in thought over my intense week in the land.
As we approached Ben Gurion airport, the darkness of night yielded to the first signs of daylight. Suddenly my driver turned on the radio, and I recognized the sounds of one of Israel's state sponsored stations. According to Jewish law, upon the first signs of dawn, a Jew is required to recite the Sh'ma. Here on the radio was a voice reciting the Sh'ma. And here was my cabdriver reciting the prayer with the radio, and with the rest of the people Israel -- Shma Yisrael, Adonay Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.
As I listened to my bareheaded cabbie recite the Sh'ma in tandem with Israel's state-sponsored radio station at the halachically indicated time, all of the conflict and divisions and tensions of the previous week dissolved. I was overtaken by the primary meaning of the Sh'ma -- oneness, unity, cosmic harmony. I was in the Jewish homeland, hearing a prayer that has been the anthem of our people for over 3000 years.
I was experiencing the very oneness that is the message of the Sh'ma. Isn't it ironic how we learn some of the most profound lessons by sheer coincidence? Or perhaps it was the hand of God that put me in that cab, a hand that we perceive only when we are fully present to the holy moments that happen to us every day.
So what's a rabbi to do when his secular cabdriver becomes his rebbe? I joined my cabbie and, the rest of my family, past, present and future, and said the Sh'ma.
Wishing you, your families and our extended Jewish family, a year of health, harmony and peace.
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, Ph.D. is the founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for
Jewish Leadership and Values, and the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md. He is a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet.