From the Pulpit: Messages for the New Year
The following are the responses to New Jersey Jewish News’ invitation to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages.
The High Holy Days afford us the opportunity to forgive. We know that the impossibility of forgiveness dwells within our own hearts; nevertheless we try to convince ourselves that we can’t forgive because of the other, the one who hurt us, the one outside us. We tell ourselves that forgiveness is not deserved and that our anger is justified. We say, “You don’t know what he did to me!” or “I can’t forgive her!” and yet, we often comment about our situation because we have to forgive not because of the other, but because of us.
You may walk through life holding a grudge. You can’t forgive your parents, your children, your spouse, your ex-spouse, your friend who betrayed you, or God, who failed you. You may not be able to forgive the living; you may not be able to forgive the dead. And yet, we all need to find a way to forgive, to let go.
In the words of Rabbi David Wolpe: “Forgiveness is about letting go…. To forgive someone is to believe them to have been wrong and to let go of the moral leverage that our righteousness grants us over another. Forgiveness is renouncing the position of remaining superior. Sometimes we cling to anger not because we have to, but because it gives us something: the feeling of our own righteousness, a reason not to deal with another, a clean line to draw between good and bad. But our tradition asks us to rise above pettiness, anger, divisiveness; all that sullies the purity and beauty of God’s world.”
Rabbi Laurence P. Malinger
Temple Shalom, Aberdeen
There is a wonderful story about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. His older brother died but the newspaper instead ran an obituary for Alfred Nobel. He opened the paper and had the strange experience of reading his own obituary. It read: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” The obituary even called him “the Merchant of Death.” Nobel threw down the paper and declared: “That’s not the way I want to be remembered! That’s not what is important to me.” He decided to throw his entire fortune into rewarding people for bettering this world and bringing it closer to peace. It was this experience that led to the establishment of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nobel had that life-changing experience one morning; as Jews, we have the experience every year. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ask us to glimpse at what we have become, look at ourselves not only through our own eyes but through the eyes of others and the eyes of God. Maybe it was a good year; maybe it was a bad year. Maybe this year we came closer to becoming who we wanted to be or perhaps moved farther from that vision. Reflecting helps us refocus our efforts to better who we are and how we behave toward others and the world.
Who will live and who will die? None of us knows what the year will bring. But the time we are given is precious and should be used for bettering the world. It doesn’t have to be on a global level — but bringing peace to our friends, to our family, and to ourselves is a great place to begin.
If you opened the paper tomorrow and read your own obituary would you be happy with what it said? This new year gives us the opportunity to rewrite and refine our life story. Hopefully we can all work on finding ways of creating our stories in such a way that we would be proud to read about them in the future.
Rabbi Melinda Panken
Temple Shaari Emeth, Manalapan
If you ask most Jews about the arrival of this year’s High Holy Days, they will probably tell you that they are “early” — that compared to the Gregorian calendar, when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are at the beginning and middle of September, they are “early,” when they are at the end of September or beginning of October, they are “late.” It is just another reminder that we Jews live by two calendars, one “secular,” the other “religious” or, in two worlds. The same may be true of other faith groups.
Unlike past generations, however, we are no longer striving to be accepted in America – as exemplified by the recent marriage of a “First Daughter.” Academically, we are welcome at the best universities. We hold prestigious positions in business and government. We have reached what some might regard as the pinnacle of success. But it is also a tipping point.
Having succeeded at integration, are we on the cusp of assimilation? Or are we seeing something now, something different — where religious identity is no longer defined by membership in a faith community, but instead has become personalized to fit the needs, wants, desires of the individual? Is this what is meant by what some call the era of post-denominationalism?
Classical Judaism has always recognized the tension between the needs of the individual and that of the community. Yet classical Judaism has survived and maintained itself because both personalized religious identification and affiliation with the community are necessary. Contemporary Jews of any age who remove themselves from a community are like a glowing ember removed from the fireplace’s collection of logs — once totally separated, it may burn for a while but will eventually extinguish.
May this year be the one in which your flame is kindled and you help kindle that of others.
Rabbi Kenneth Greene
Freehold Jewish Center-Congregation Agudath Achim, Freehold
Once upon a time there was a nobleman who decided to build a brand-new synagogue for his small village. On the day of the grand opening, the people breathlessly walked through their new synagogue. They had never seen a sanctuary so stunning. They had never walked the halls of a building so inspiring. Yet, there was something missing. One of the townspeople asked the nobleman, “Sir, this synagogue is truly stunning, but where are the lamps? There is not one candle or lamp on the walls. How are we to see?
“Look at the walls,” said the nobleman, “and you will see empty brackets.” The nobleman then gave each person a lamp and said, “Whenever you come to synagogue bring your lamp and place it in the empty brackets. And that way, whenever we are all together, our synagogue will be illuminated. But when you are not here, the lamp in your house that belongs in the synagogue will remind you that some part of your synagogue is dark. I have built the shell, but you must bring the light. Share your light with each other and you will be a community.”
Temple Beth Shalom is a place that will benefit from your inner light. Share your light with us and you will in turn benefit from the light we share with you. There is much darkness in the world; why not find a place where there is some spiritual light? Shana tova.
Rabbi Ira Rothstein
Temple Beth Shalom, Manalapan
In the past, nonobservant Jews were “twice-a-year Jews,” attending services only on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Today, many Jews don’t even do that. When asked why we don’t attend more, we say services are not meaningful to us. Yet we never stop to realize that we are the ones stripping away the meaning, because we don’t stay around long enough to hear — that is, to understand — what the holidays are saying.
“You changed all the melodies,” we complain, without understanding that the music is different on purpose. We change the words, too, and the Torah readings, and even the Torah covers. The New Year challenges us to see things differently, but if we don’t attend we don’t hear the challenge.
From Selihot through Simhat Torah, we weave a picture of the world as we want it to be, as we hope it will be. We imagine a better, healthier, more peaceful world, with better priorities and better values, and we see that our vision begins with ourselves. We realize that our prayers really are meaningful — full of meaning — only when we immerse ourselves in them.
I offer this challenge to everyone: Come to services this year. All of them. Come to the hauntingly beautiful Selihot service, then to Rosh Hashana services — evening and morning. When Yom Kippur arrives, commit to the whole nine yards: stop eating before sundown and spend the entire day immersed in study and prayer. Become part of the Jewish people, part of Jewish prayer, part of the Jewish New Year. Get inside it and see what you discover.
Rabbi Don Weber
Temple Rodeph Torah, Marlboro
To all gentle souls: This is the season in which we seek renewal. We long to re-engage spiritually. If only we could feel lighter and rev up our optimism in a time that is uncertain and trying for many.
There’s an enigmatic line in the Talmud that might perk up our spirits. It says, “If I had not lifted up the shard, would you have found the pearl beneath it?” How much of value is hidden from sight, covered over by a broken piece of life?
The point of our prayers and soul-searching these Ten Days of Repentance is to lift the broken pieces –— the old wounds that still plague us, the insecurities that haunt us, our failures, and life’s blows — to glimpse the resilience, the love, and the still untouched potential beneath.
May you find what you seek in the New Year, and may it fill you with hope.
Rabbi Toni Shy
Congregation Ohev Shalom, Marlboro Jewish Center
We see around us disheartening and troubling trends. Jews often choose not to affiliate with synagogues, seeking community not in a Jewish context or even with Jewish values. The communal concern for the Jewish people dissolves into a uniform lack of interest in what the Jewish people and Jewish life is all about.
And then, in the midst of the malaise come the Days of Awe, which are, paradoxically, individual and communal. Its messages are of hope for a life of peace and forgiveness for the individual with the cautionary note that an individual cannot live without community. But which community should we choose? Clearly Judaism teaches that there is more value in a Jewish community than outside of it. It challenges us to reach beyond our own self-interests to pay attention to the rest of the world, a world so in need of a Jewish message but caught in its own self-loathing and pessimism and complaining that it has lost sight of its potential.
With the promise of Rosh Hashana and the challenges of Yom Kippur, the besieged look from deep within the well of despair and sadness and look upward toward the light for a way out. Sometimes the light seems more distant but that is only an illusion. The light is always there and when these Days of Awe lie before us, we are reminded, not as individuals alone but as a community, that there is strength and light and promise and hope with our brothers and sisters. Together we reach for the light and together we find common purpose.
Perhaps these Days of Awe ought to be called the Days of Light, for this is when we reach out of the well of darkness together. These are days of reconciliation and peace with each other and with God. These are days of promise of a better future, a more fulfilling life, and a renewal of the covenant.
Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam, Elberon
All of us have rituals before we go to bed for the night; we wash our face, brush our teeth, and, possibly the newest one, plug in our cell phone to recharge the battery for the next day. Many of us use the cell phone so often that if we did not do that, our cell phone batteries would be totally discharged by the next day.
The same can be said for our spiritual batteries as well. In the very hectic world we live in, our physical, emotional, and certainly spiritual batteries run low, too, as we try to cope with the many pressures that drain us each and every day.
The High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be that spark and give us the recharge we all are in need of. However, to get that full charge, we have to enter the sanctuary in the right frame of mind and with the correct intent.
The liturgy on the High Holy Days is so very beautiful and rich with prayer asking for heavenly blessings in the coming year, yet its emotional and spiritual impact is lessened when one’s intention and attention is focused on other things.
Let us all strive to fully use the coming holidays as a true opportunity to open our hearts and minds to their true message of hope for a brighter and better future for ourselves, for all the people of Israel, and for all humanity.
Rabbi Michael Klein
Congregation Ahavat Olam, Howell
In new beginnings there is the excitement of a fresh start. Working spiritually to take a accounting of our souls, a new slate is ours. In my first year at Monmouth Reform Temple, we are laying the foundations of our congregational partnership, receptive to new possibilities. The trick is opening our hearts and minds.
Rabbi Daniel Swartz shares this cautionary tale. There was once a lady of limited means. She had scraped together enough money for a Caribbean cruise. Instead of eating in the dining-room, she brought her own saltines and tuna fish and dined in her room. Though people played racquet ball and tennis on deck, she stood on the sidelines. How would she pay the rental fees? Folks in deck chairs often tipped the stewards, so she never sat down. Instead she saved for the final banquet.
When the banquet arrived, she took pride in her sacrifice, the food elegant and delicious. A wonderful young man danced her into the night lamenting that he had not met her sooner. With the cruise almost finished, she summoned her courage and asked the waiter for the check.
“Madame, all of the services are included,” he told her. “The on-board amenities, the food, especially the banquet are all part of the package!”
On the High Holy Days we do the hard work of preparing our souls, paying our dues of a sort. Our God who delights in life sets the “package” before us. Will we open it? The choice is ours.
Wishing you a sweet New Year!
Rabbi Michelle Pearlman
Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls
“Happy New Year” we wish each other at this time of the year in the Jewish calendar. But this is not the “hats and horns” greeting that is proffered on Jan. 1. Rather this is the “L’shana tova” greeting that we say to each other, allowing the meaning of “tova” to have true resonance. For the Hebrew word is not to be translated as “happy,” but as “good.” We are hoping that each of us celebrates a year that is a good year, one of commitment to goodness and honor, to dignity and honesty.
Those actions allow each of us to do that which is good and right. In so doing, we hope that they lead to personal happiness and fulfillment. At this season of our religious and emotional lives, we accept that doing the “good” might not lead to personal happiness but will allow meaning and a sense of “shalom” in those with whom we share this world.
So our prayer to and for each other should be that in pledging a “good year,” a true “shana tova,” we might find true happiness in a life well and honorably led. Let this be our promise to ourselves and to each other — for a shana tova, a good year!
Rabbi Brooks Susman
Congregation Kol Am, Freehold