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.
by Rabbi Elazar Muskin
We all hear voices. One comes from the harsh, cruel outside world. It is strong and powerful; it blasts our ears; it seems to conquer us. But then we hear a second voice, a quiet voice, an inner voice, urging us to have courage, to support our people, to stand by Israel, to obliterate terror.
The Talmud, in discussing the shofar, also makes another profound and telling observation. It states the principle that “two voices cannot be heard simultaneously.” But then the Talmud includes an exception: “If it is beloved and dear, one concentrates and hears.”
We are constantly subjected to two voices that compete for our attention. Which sounds shall we hear — the loud clamor of the evildoers, the terrorists and their supporters? Or the still, small voice of the heroes — the firefighters in the Twin Towers, the rescue workers at a suicide bombing, the pain-filled voices of those slaughtered at Auschwitz and those massacred at a Passover seder in Netanya?
At first you might think that the loud voice will win, and the soft voice will definitely lose. The loud voice seems so powerful; it seems to conquer all. But if the soft voice is the voice of God, if it is beloved, it will be heard and ultimately will be victorious.
Simon Wiesenthal relates that when he was imprisoned in a concentration camp, he once saw a fellow inmate risk his life to smuggle a siddur into the camp. At first, Wiesenthal admired this man. But then, the next day, to his horror, he saw that man rent out the siddur in exchange for pieces of bread.
Wiesenthal recounts, “I was angry with this Jew. How could he take a holy siddur and use it to take a person’s last piece of bread?” From that moment on, he vowed never to pray again.
After the liberation, he explained his lack of faith to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the famous U.S. Army chaplain, who had come to comfort survivors. In response, Silver asked, “Why do you look at the Jew who rented out his siddur? Why don’t you look at the dozens who gave up their bread in order to use a siddur? That’s faith! That’s the true power of the siddur.”
Wiesenthal concluded, “When he said that, I walked together with him to pray.”
Which voice are we going to hear? The laws of the shofar are there to guide us, to tell us that if we listen to the inner voice of our conscience, we will find the right path for the coming year.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin serves as rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, a Modern Orthodox congregation. This is excerpted from the Jewish Journal’s Torah Portion column, Sept. 5, 2002.
Introduction to jewels of Elul VIII
by Rabbi David Wolpe
Our sages tell us that the first time Adam saw the sun go down, he was terrified. He had seen day, but had never experienced the night. God took pity on him and gave him two stones to rub together in order to create fire. The name of one stone was afelah, darkness, and the other maveth, death. As the spark emerged, Adam said, “Blessed be the Creator of light.” Out of darkness and death, the first human being realized that we can create light.
On the High Holy Days, we think back over the difficulties and even the tragedies that have befallen us in the past year. We have lost people we love, done things we regret, been hurt and saddened by life. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive to remind us that our task in this world is to strike a spark, to carry light in the shadows.
“We work in the dark — do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task,” wrote the great novelist Henry James. We all work in darkness, unknowing, uncertain; but if we do what we can, our passion can ignite each other’s souls. Light does not erase difficulty or doubt or even death. But it allows us to seek blessing: Blessed be God, who grants us memory and gives us light.
Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from the introduction to this year’s Jewels of Elul series, an online series created by Craig Taubman.
Toward an ethic of imagination: The case for creativity
by Rabbi Sharon Brous
Do you know why we blast the shofar 100 times on Rosh Hashanah? The Song of Deborah is considered by scholars to be one of the oldest Biblical texts. Deborah was prophet and judge of Israel, and her song tells the story of Sisera, the Canaanite commander who ruthlessly oppressed Israel for 20 years. When Israel rises up to challenge Sisera in battle, he flees, taking refuge in the tent of a woman named Yael. Yael feeds him warm milk, sooths his spirit and puts him to sleep. But as he rests, she takes hold of a tent peg and, with a workman’s mallet, drives it through his head, piercing and shattering his temple.
From the Song of Deborah: “He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet … dead.”
After years of oppression, Israel is avenged by a powerful woman, putting herself at great personal risk in the pursuit of justice.
But the story does not end there. The Song of Deborah continues:
“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?’ ”
In the moment of triumphant victory over a vicious oppressor, Israel’s ruler imagines the enemy’s mother, staring out the window, waiting for her son to return from battle, fearing that she would never see him again. This comes to show that Deborah was a leader and a warrior, but she was also a human being. Tradition teaches that Sisera’s mother cried out in despair 100 times that night, thus the 100 blasts of the shofar.
Rav Soloveitchik offers that this comes to teach us that “as we awaken from spiritual complacency, we must witness our own illusions being relentlessly shattered,” just as Sisera’s mother’s illusions of her son’s safe return were shattered that day.
But I would suggest another approach. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar calls us to see the common humanity in all people. These blasts come to remind us that Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Korean, Democrat, Republican — we are all God’s children. And even our enemies have mothers who weep for them.
Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a progressive, egalitarian community. This is excerpted from one of Rabbi Brous’ 2011 High Holy Days sermons.
Having a near-life experience
by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben
Today I ask a very simple question on this holiest of days – What are your commitments? Where are you going in the year ahead? What are you going to be? Show me someone who hasn’t decided yet, who hasn’t made a commitment to something yet, and I will show you somebody who is having a near life experience, never quite fully living.
Frankly, the single most powerful lesson I have ever learned about life is simply this — you become what you think about, and you do what you decide to do. Period. Choose, or life will choose for you. Decide your own path, your own journey, your own results or you will simply drift afloat on the sea of life, battered and tossed randomly from one port to the next, at the whim of every other person in the world who has decided, who has chosen where they want to go. …
… In a famous football game between Michigan State and UCLA, the score was tied 14 all with only seconds to play. Michigan State’s coach sent in place-kicker Dave Kaiser, who booted a field goal that won the game. When Kaiser returned to the bench, Coach Duffy Daugherty clapped him on the back and said, “Nice going, but I noticed that you didn’t even watch the ball after you kicked it.”
“I know, coach,” said Kaiser. “I was watching the referee instead to see how he’d signal it because I forgot my contact lenses and I couldn’t even see the goal posts.”
Make a decision, and then have faith that all that is left is for you to follow through on the direction that decision takes you in life. You may remember the story of a young man who was eager to make it to the top so he went to a well-known, successful businessman and asked him, “What’s the No. 1 reason for your success?” Without hesitation the successful businessman answered, “Choosing to work hard.” After a pause the young man asked, “Is there a No. 2 reason?”
Make a decision. Choose what you will become this year. Choose to live fully this year. Choose to let go of your near-life experience and embrace the life you were meant to live. There is a reason that every single year we read these words in the Torah — “See I put before you good and evil, life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life. Choose life. Choose life.”
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation. This is excerpted from a Yom Kippur sermon from 2011.
Living in the present
by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Generally speaking, we rarely occupy ourselves with the present moment. We are always either planning for the future or reminiscing about the past. The present is merely the point in time at which we are engaging in one or the other of those activities. We consider the present moment to essentially be a disposable unit of time, too insignificant to ponder. But from Rosh Hashanah on through to Yom Kippur, we need to alter this perception. The Talmud teaches that Isaiah’s words, “Seek God when He can be found,” are referring to these first 10 days of the New Year.
According to this teaching, we are now presented with 10 days — 14,400 minutes — that are like no others during the year. These are minutes and days during which we are promised by Isaiah that self-examination will be easier to accomplish, and that the obstacles that ordinarily stand in the way of our ability to connect with God will be removed. They are unique days and minutes, which we can only capitalize on if we deeply enhance our appreciation of the oft-dismissed, oft-discounted present moment. The special opportunity is only now.
Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation. This is excerpted from a Jewish Journal Torah Portion column published on Sept. 28, 2000.
Are you chicken or not?
by Rabbi Kenneth Chasen
If we want to create the kind of world we always say we want, we’re going to have to do it the old- fashioned way. It so happens that the very thing that will make our temple life stronger — the building of real relationships, the sharing of our stories, the discovery of everything we have in common ... the pains, the hopes, the visions — this happens also to be exactly what is needed to make our neighborhoods, our city, our country and our world stronger.
The well-known guru of social capital, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, has laid out the facts. Our emotional isolation from one another is itself one of the main causes of the societal weaknesses we most decry. Failing schools. Struggling children. Rising crime. Political incivility. Philanthropic decline. Even premature death — believe it or not, Putnam has found that social isolation causes us to die sooner. All of this happens in a world where we choose not to relate with one another — where we try simply to drive around one another through the traffic jam of life, while our road rage increases as rapidly as our sense of hopelessness.
There is a solution — for our souls, for our temple, and for this world that needs us. And it’s the same solution that’s being utilized in medicine ... and in prisons ... and in history museums ... and in philanthropy. They are all awakening to the power of personal narratives — the power of story. And if they all get it, we, as a Jewish community, have no excuse not to. After all, Rabbi Larry Kushner rightly states: “Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are a hopelessly communal people.”
Rabbi Kenneth Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform congregation. This is excerpted from a High Holy Days sermon in 2011.
Moving beyond “why?”
by Rabbi Jocee Hudson
In the Torah portion we read this morning, we will hear the story of Hagar. Hagar, we can say, lived a difficult life. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid. And, when Sarah was unable to conceive, she convinced Abraham to take Hagar as his wife so that she could bear him a son. When Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah was racked with jealousy. And she convinced Abraham to banish Ishmael and Hagar.
Looking at the world from Hagar’s vantage point, it would be all too easy simply to ask “Why?” Why did Sarah do this — do any of this— to her? Why would Abraham have let it happen? Why would God?
And let’s assume those were the questions running through Hagar’s mind as she stumbled through the wilderness, without food and without water. And maybe this wilderness wasn’t just a wilderness, and the lack of food wasn’t just a lack of food, and the lack of water wasn’t just a lack water, but all of this represented the landscape of Hagar’s soul and the overwhelming lack of emotional and spiritual fortitude she had to move forward.
Let us assume it was a bone crushing cry of “Why me?” that caused Hagar to leave her child under one of the bushes, to sit down at a distance, and think “Let me not look on as the child dies.”
And then a miracle of a sort we rarely think of occurred. Torah tells us, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Listen carefully to these words, for their meaning is clear — the well of water was there all the time. God didn’t put a well in front of Hagar — all God did was open her eyes so she could see it. And of course, the well wasn’t just a well. It was the first ray of possibility.
The well represents a radical shift in Hagar’s thinking — from despair to hope, from doomed past to viable future, from everything to nothing and back to something again.
Here is the strength I draw from Hagar’s story — despair is a part of our lives, but so is moving past it. Anger and hurt are a part of our lives, but so is moving past them. Wrongs inflicted are a part of our lives, and so is moving past them. In the end, Hagar’s movement forward had nothing to do with Sarah or Abraham. It had to do with her, and her son, and God, and the well she grew to see.
When she saw the well, that was the moment Hagar’s life stopped being defined by what Abraham and Sarah had done to her and started being about what she would claim for herself.
And we can learn something about forgiveness from this story. The act of forgiving is ultimately for and about us, not about the person we are forgiving. When we cling to past hurts and pain, we are living in the “Why?” We are living with our eyes shut to the well.
When we fail to forgive ourselves, and, therefore, make it impossible to ask forgiveness of others, we remain locked in the space of asking “Why?”
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation. This is excerpted from a sermon she gave at High Holy Days services in 2011.
Heaven and Earth
by Rabbi Haim Ovadia
The human being, formed from the dust of the earth but blessed with the Divine breath of life blown into his nostrils, is torn between heaven and earth. When Elton John sings, “And it seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind,” he is echoing the words of our sages, following the Bible, which describes the human soul as God’s candle. Just as a candle is physically connected to the physical, palpable world, so are we rooted here, fighting for survival, winning our daily bread, trying to secure peace and harmony for our little corner of the world for completely selfish reasons. And just as the flame keeps reaching upward to heaven — abstract and beautiful, caressing and threatening, multicolored and never the same — our soul, our spiritual essence, seeks the good in the world and in us, searching for greater causes and the meaning of life, settling sometimes for reality, and eventually flickers and disappears, leaving only a memory and the smiles of those who benefited from it while still here.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills, a Sephardic Orthodox congregation. This is excerpted from a 2009 Jewish Journal Torah Portion column.
by Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Do you know how the Torah ends? Week after week we follow this man Moses in his struggle to lead his people to freedom. Week after week we join in his victories and we cry at the anguish of his defeats, and then at the very end ... he doesn’t make it. Just as he’s about to lead his people to the Promised Land, his life ends. He never reaches the goal, he never sets foot in the land of his dreams. Why that story? Why do we put ourselves through the ordeal of reading it again and again, year after year? A man, so close to the fulfillment of his dreams, denied, a failure, a tragedy.
We never expect to fail. We never expect to find ourselves on the other side of the Jordan, just outside the Promised Land. We don’t expect to fail, and when we do, we lose faith in ourselves. We sit paralyzed, unable to do the good that’s within our power, because failure has convinced us that nothing we do is worth anything. And that’s why the Torah ends as it does. Everyone faces failure, even Moses. And the greater you are, the greater your failures. But the question is: What do you do next? You roll the Torah back to Bereshit, back to Genesis, and you begin again.
What is the most powerful message of this holiday season?
Salachti Kidvarecha — God forgives. God in His divine perfection and completeness, forgives us. And if God can forgive you — can you forgive? If God can find it in His heart to forgive you, can you find it in your heart to forgive yourself? Forgive yourself for your mistakes, your limitations, your failures? Can you forgive, and begin again?
Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah sermon he gave in 1994.