This year, we return to the wisdom offered by our rabbis during the High Holy Days in years past. What follows are excerpts from some exceptional sermons and High Holy Days writings; many more voices could have been included, of course, but we hope this will inspire you to revisit your own synagogues’ archives.
by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis
Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.
A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.
So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”
So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.
On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon he delivered in 2008.
Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?
The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!
Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!
Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a recent longer article at aish.com.
by Rabbi Zoë Klein
The very ritual of teshuvah exists because we are flawed. Because of the expectation of mistakes. It’s no surprise that we need to repent, to return. No one arrives at this season without a regret, without private silhouettes one tries to forget moving behind the curtain of our eyes. Demons and hauntings and walls that bleed.
If you participate in life you leave imprints, footprints, fingerprints. You distill waters and exhale poisons. You shed cells and leave waste, and consume things that died for you. This is not an ugliness about you, this is you participating in life. What transforms us is our ability to return.
The object of return is not to perfect. Even when we repent to a person we have hurt and we re-stitch the threads, the new fabric we create has weaknesses, it has residue. Torn and worn, but lovely. Soft.
Rabbi Zoë Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation. This is excerpted from a sermon she gave at Rosh Hashanah in 2011.
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