The following are responses to an invitation from New Jersey Jewish News to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages.
Keeping the balance
STUDENTS ASKED their rebbe “What is the proper attitude one should have in life?” The rebbe took them to the circus. “Look at the man on the tightrope. He thinks of nothing but his balance. Nothing else exists but his next step.”
One symbol of today is a balance scale — “God holds the scales of judgment in hand.” Balance scales measure not definite weight, but weight relative to another object. God compares our deeds. There is no objective standard of a good person. If our merits outweigh our sins, we are good — outweigh, not outnumber.
To succeed we must find that balance in life by which we yearn for the good and avoid the toxic and abusive.
We celebrate Abraham’s son Isaac, but Abraham had another son, Ishmael, whose world is destroyed by Isaac. God orders Abraham to do the unthinkable: expel his son. God promises that Ishmael will be a great nation; his future is secure, but his destiny is to know that he is not his father’s favorite.
This is not Abraham’s best moment, but it is also not his defining moment. When we define ourselves by our worst moments, we become people who never get it right, rather than people who make an occasional mistake; it is toxic to allow others to define us by focusing on our worst moments.
Our tradition ascribes Abraham’s passion of hospitality to everyone, strangers and even angels. His other passion is to challenge God’s ethics — especially at Sodom, when he argued against the city’s destruction. Giving charity doesn’t undo the selfish or thoughtless things we do. But it does introduce us to our better self. Deed “balances” deed.
Rabbi Steven Bayar
Congregation B’nai Israel
New Year, a new mahzor
TEMPLE SHAREY TEFILO-ISRAEL will greet the New Year with Mishkan HaNefesh, the new High Holy Days prayer book of the Reform movement, in hand. Through its gender-inclusive language, this new mahzor celebrates our congregation’s commitment to egalitarianism. Through its varied readings and translations this new mahzor recognizes the diversity of ideas and beliefs that exist in our community. Through the inclusion of transliteration, this new mahzor welcomes the participation of all members of our community, regardless of upbringing. The new mahzor is not just a new prayer book. Instead, it is a statement of the kind of welcoming community we strive to be. It is a change whose every page sends the message that we strive to be “A house of prayer to all people.”
May that be the message sent by every synagogue in this new year of 5777. For it is by opening our hands and our hearts that together we will continue to strengthen the Jewish people and share the powerful messages of the Jewish people with all people everywhere.
Rabbi Daniel M Cohen
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel
Begin the healing
THE TALMUDIC SAGES declared that Rosh Hashana is the “birthday of the world.” This idea fits nicely with the notion that each of us begins a new life on the first day of the New Year. We are, in a sense, recreated on Rosh Hashana. The talmudic rabbis also taught that when God created the world, only one human being, Adam, was created to make the point that all of us are descended from a single source. None of us can claim that our heritage is greater than another.
In recent months, we have witnessed painful divisions within American society. Racial tensions seem to be blazing out of control. The assassination of police officers is unspeakably horrifying. The fatal shooting of African-Americans by police is equally horrifying, an event that occurs with such frequency it should be called an epidemic. Where can we start if we wish to heal the tensions and divisions within our society?
Healing can begin by reminding ourselves that no person’s ancestors are greater than those of another person’s. We all share the sometimes precarious position of being human, a condition that is marked by great wonder and challenge. We should remind ourselves that every human soul is a creation of God and that the loss of even a single person is equivalent to the loss of the entire world. We should remind ourselves that the world was created for the sake of each of us individually and we each have supreme importance.
As the New Year dawns, my prayer is that this fundamental truth enter the heart and mind of every person who walks this earth. May it be a year in which the inherent dignity of every human life is respected.
Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation
Enjoying the game
I TOOK THREE of my children for a night game at Citi Field to watch our beloved, beleaguered Mets. The lateness was a definite problem, but they didn’t have school the next day, so I didn’t mind the parenting demerit. I didn’t account for a tough pitcher’s duel and a 1-1, three-hit game going into extra innings. God bless those kids for not going batty from boredom. But the four-year-old was coming apart, so we left in the top of the 10th, game tied. My seven-year old insisted we listen to the rest of the game on the radio. It took a while to figure out how to locate the channel on the car radio. The AM stations were foreign to me. (Did you know that in 10 minutes, one station promised to give us the world?)
We did find the station and, as we left the stadium, the Mets slugger, Yoenis Cespedes, clobbered a game-ending home run. I could hear the thinned crowd going crazy. I kicked myself for not staying another inning. How could I miss the walk-off home run?! Really, I wanted the kids to experience the thrill. In the back of the car, as I was mentally upbraiding my impatience, my seven-year-old was cheering — “YES! We won!” That’s right, we did. This year, I hope to enjoy the game and not worry about missing the home run.
Rabbi Menashe East
Mount Freedom Jewish Center
Doing the hardest work
WE BRING OUT our white robes and change the Torah mantles to the purest of white and polish the silver to make the Torah scrolls as beautiful as they can be. We polish the pews and clean the stained glass so that the colors are even more defined.
We write letters and make phone calls and schedule appointments to say the words that free us from the pain we have kept close to our heart for the past year. You hurt me when you said this. You hurt me when you did that. If they are caring human beings, they offer the words we have waited for: “I am sorry for causing you pain. Please forgive me.” The even braver make our way to those we know we have damaged and apologize three times. If they cannot accept our apology, we are free, for the sin is transferred upon their head.
The High Holy Days are about doing the hardest work we can, acknowledging we make mistakes and claiming these flaws as part of our being. For only when we acknowledge our missteps and try to prevent them from happening again do we take the journey to becoming a whole human being.
May we all find a way to apologize to others face to face and may we accept those who apologize to us. May we do the hard work so that we can face ourselves in a true-to-life mirror and accept exactly what we see. May we dedicate ourselves to pray with strength, to move firmly toward justice, and to open our arms in rahamim, compassion. For this is what we as Jews do during the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Renee Edelman
Temple Sha’arey Shalom
Goodness from chaos
WHEN IT’S SAID that someone “lives in his/her own world,” it suggests that one is detached from reality; it’s often said with disdain, but also a touch of envy. On Rosh Hashana we declare: Today is the world’s birthday; like our birthdays, a day marking the birth, but also a transition from history to the future.
We save the reading of Genesis for Simhat Torah, but the story is present in our thoughts — God took a world of tohu va’vohu and brought order, justice and mercy, and goodness from chaos. Notwithstanding how one holds chapter one of our Torah, we cannot help but marvel that we live in a world that contains those qualities, though they may get limited attention in the news.
The news on Rosh Hashana is that God does not create junk. The Torah tells us: “God saw that [creation] was good,” looking it over, as we ask students to do before turning in an exam, not only seeing that it was good, but seeing to it that it was good. And it gets better: Our prayers remind us “in goodness God renews the act of creation continually.”
As those created in God’s likeness, we have the opportunity to see goodness in the world and see to it that there continues to be goodness in the world through tikun olam. Although we created neither the sun, the moon, nor the stars, through our relationships we have created a world full of mo’adim: sacred times in our lives which add goodness to our days and years.
Rabbi Mark Finkel
Pine Brook Jewish Center
Reach out to others
ONE OF THE many names of God that we find in the Bible is “Adonai B’kol Shofar — God Who Resides in the Shofar Blast (Psalms, 47:6).”
When we come together as a community for this ancient ritual each New Year, we are reaching out to one another and to the Divine presence as well. That unique sound is a reminder that we could go about our daily routines taking care of our loved ones and ourselves and never notice all the amazing things that go on around us.
The shofar blast challenges us to reach out to others in order to make the kind of world God wants for us. Then, the God who resides in the shofar blast will instead reside in us. May the coming year of 5777 bring health, happiness, success, and meaning into your lives. L’shana tova!
Rabbi Avi Friedman
Congregation Ohr Shalom
A time to pause
AS A FATHER of three, I know as well as anyone how overwhelming the fall season is for so many of us. Everything ramps up and so do we.
We are luckier than most as Jews because our calendar gives us a built-in reason to pause and remember why it is we are running in the first place. Our High Holy Days are a time when no matter what is happening in our lives, we are asked by our tradition to stop and clear the spiritual brush, to inquire from within about our purpose. The rabbis of old teach that each of us is born with a purpose for being alive. Do you know yours? When we remember why, that same reason is to help us live with more intention and drive.
Each of us counts. Each of us impacts the world, especially the people and community around us. Each of us possesses a spark that on one hand distinguishes us as unique, and on the other makes us the same because we can all see ourselves as made in the image of something more transcendent than us all. The trick is, however, that we have to stop and actually see. If we are lucky enough, we can physically see, but I am speaking about seeing with our souls, clarifying our values, peering with our spirits to realize what it is all about.
I know the act of looking within is complex and sometimes even painful. But the work is filled also with rejuvenation, renewal, and profound understanding.
Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
All we need is love
IT IS ALMOST 50 years since the Beatles gave the world the song, “All You Need Is Love.” They say that the music is somewhat complex and creative, while the message is pretty simple. That simple song became the anthem for what seemed like a much simpler time. Our time does not seem simple at all. It is harder to dream, harder to believe in the power of love.
It seems pretty obvious that we can’t return to that time. We cannot rewind the clock and we cannot rewind our lives. What is done is done. What is gone is gone. It is as if we are stuck on a New Jersey highway that never lets us turn around. There is no return.
What, then, is the message of these Ten Days of Returning (teshuva)?
It is that the gift of consciousness and freedom — the gift of being created in God’s Image — endows us with a remarkable ability to recapture and repair, relearn and renew ourselves and the world — to return. But, in returning we do not go backward. We return to reclaim something we have left behind, to take the past with us into the future.
Our response (teshuva) to these harsh, ugly, and frightening times cannot be to become harsh, ugly, and frightening. We need to return to our commitment to loving. The Beatles told us, “It’s easy.” But it’s not. It’s very hard — but we have no choice.
This year may we sing new songs of love and compassion.
Rabbi David Greenstein
Congregation Shomrei Emunah
Climbing the mountain
IN HIS BOOK Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins relates the following story:
After a long and difficult climb up the mountain, the spiritual seekers stood in front of the great teacher. They had come to ask the question that they so desperately needed answered:
“How do we become wise?”
The teacher replied: “Good choices.”
“But teacher, how do we make good choices?”
“And how do we get experience?”
The teacher smiled and said, “Bad choices.”
Judaism does not frown, per se, on making mistakes. Instead, our tradition knows that we are fallible. Our goal is not to be perfect, but rather to learn and grow from the mistakes we all inevitably make.
Confessing our sins — Viddui — is a powerful way to hold a mirror up to our souls, not to make us feel ashamed at what we have done wrong, but to seize the opportunity this spiritual mirror gives us. Confession gives us hope that we can realize our potential to be even better than we were last year. Viddui teaches us that our errors are a necessary part of our growth. While it may seem counter-intuitive to be thankful for enunciating all the ways in which we have done wrong, it really is something to be thankful for because it is exactly what we need to gain the experience to make wise choices.
Let’s hope we all “climb the mountain” of righteous living a bit higher this year.
Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman
Temple Sholom of West Essex
OUR SAGES GRAPPLED with a difficult question: Which shofar is most appropriate to use, one that is curved or straight? On the one hand, a curved shofar reminds us to develop a greater sense of humility before God, while on the other hand, a straight shofar symbolizes the importance of removing crookedness from our hearts.
Though our custom is to use a curved shofar, the messages of both shofarot speak to us today and every day throughout our life’s journey. Do we bend before the altar of those things that are temporary or timeless, ephemeral or everlasting? Do we strive for greatness or smallness? Are we prepared to straighten our hearts in His service or are we still unwilling to remove the blockage? Is our spiritual heartbeat irregular or steady, capricious or constant?
The entire liturgy of the High Holy Day season is focused on improving our relationship with the Almighty. Whether we use a curved shofar or a straight one on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one thing is certain: There is much for us to reflect upon and consider in order to become better subjects to our King.
Rabbi Joshua Hess
Congregation Anshe Chesed
Jars and pitchers of beauty
I’VE BEEN MEDITATING on the poem “Ki Hinei Kahomer” that we recite in synagogue on Kol Nidrei night. The text says that God is an artist — a potter — and we are the clay. God is bending us into shape.
At first glance, we could easily take the God-as-potter metaphor to fit the stereotype of a deity in whose hands people are nothing but putty. But potters rarely think of their material as just mud to be manipulated. They work with the material, seeing deeply, revealing what is hidden, and bringing the vessel into center. I find the God-as-potter image appealing.
The humanity-as-clay image is more problematic. If we are clay, do we feel we are still wet and flexible, or have we been fired into hardness? Are we sitting on a shelf, gathering dust?
It seems part of us is fully baked. We have become stunningly cynical. We are appalled but not surprised by the hatred and violence we see every day on the news; we feel helpless to respond. We sometimes try to make the people in our lives more emotionally available to us, but they resist and get defensive, and we can’t imagine they will ever change.
Yet the poem invites us to envisage that the potter is not done with us. The clay is still in process. There is still the possibility of our saying something true, doing something new, choosing and embracing change. The poet prays to God, “labrit habeit” — be mindful of the “brit,” the covenant between us, the pledge that God will help us see the best possibilities open to us.
May this be the year when we offer the raw material that is ourselves to God, and find the guidance and support we need to bring out our full potential and become beautiful jars and pitchers.
Rabbi David Klatzker
Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim
GENESIS 12 IS a curious choice for the first day of Rosh Hashana Torah reading. We might expect to hear an inspiring moment in the life of a patriarch or matriarch, or an account of Moses’ wisdom or patience, or a text to rouse us on the road to redemption. We read instead about Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah, and Abraham.
Hagar, we recall, was Sarah’s servant. Sarah believed herself barren. She urged Abraham to “consort with my maid, perhaps I shall have a son through her.” This happens; Ishmael is born.
Later, of course, Sarah presents Abraham with Isaac. Sarah becomes uncomfortable and perhaps territorial. She says, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of a slave shall not share the bounty of my son Isaac.” Not Sarah’s finest moment and Abraham knows this is wrong, but God tells Abraham to do what she says. God promises that Ishmael, too, will become a great nation, just as will Isaac.
I wonder: Was the choice of this text, centuries and centuries ago, made simply to ensure it was waiting for us as we greet 5777? Was there ever a year in which people needed a reminder that we all share a common past, that greatness comes from more than one place, that we are never as far apart as we think we are?
Eventually, Isaac and Ishmael reunite; they come home to bury their father together. I like to imagine them with shovels, side by side, joined in common purpose by a sacred task. Divisions today beset us; Isaac and Ishmael remind us that finding common ground is a holy endeavor.
Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Temple B’nai Abraham
ON YOM KIPPUR I will focus on the concept that the whole world needs to do teshuva and thus create a positive change in relationships to achieve peace.
Remember, we recite the “Al Het,” the confessional, in the third person because we are all communally responsible. As the Talmud teaches, “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh” — “All of the people of Israel are responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39b). Likewise, as we are called upon to be a light unto the nations, we are all responsible for one another.
A world at peace — it seems so intangible, so unattainable, a concept our rabbis long understood.
There is a strange and singular phenomenon found in Numbers 25:12 when Pinchas is lauded for turning away divine wrath and halting the plague that endangered the Jewish nation. For this he is given the reward of brit shalom — a divine “covenant of peace.”
There is an anomaly found in this verse in the word shalom; the vav in the word is severed in the middle, and no one knows the reason why.
One explanation is that the severed vav conveys the fragility of peace and the need to make sacrifices to achieve true peace. Peace is very fragile, almost always difficult to maintain, and it requires great effort to keep it together. It is our responsibility as a light upon the nations to bring peace on us and upon the whole world.
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael
THE DIPPING of the apple in honey is a symbolic act at this season, as through the act we convey the hope that we will experience sweetness in our lives. Yet how can we literally increase the sweetness around us and in our world? I believe it is by all of us trying to be sweet ourselves. Think about the individuals you know whom you would describe as sweet. What a pleasure it is to encounter them! Now take a moment to reflect on the people you know who can be surly, or short with you, or who pretend to be kind and sweet, but who behind your back are anything but. Think of those who make you dread conversing with them because of their tone or attitude, versus those who, no matter what you ask or what their answer is, respond with a “sweetness” as pure as honey. Whether it is a relative, a friend, or your waitress, when you encounter a “sweet” individual, it can brighten your whole day and change your mood. The driver who lets you cut in a line of traffic does more than save you a minute of driving time; this random gesture of sweetness can brighten your day.
So as we begin our New Year, I would like you to think about this question: “Are you generally someone who can be described as ‘sweet’? If not, what can you do to try to be sweeter and kinder to others?”
Rabbi Steven Mills
Temple Beth Am
WITH THE ARRIVAL of the High Holy Day season come many changes: the calendar year, the seasonal weather, our work and school schedules, our commitments and activities.
Yet, regrettably, our concerns, our fears, our doubts, our hesitations, and our worries all remain the same. What can be altered through the symbolism and traditions of these profound days, however, are our attitudes, our outlooks, and our hopes.
The sound of the shofar is literally capable of arousing in us new possibilities, the tastes of the apple and honey can sweeten our days, the seeds of the pomegranate can help us to number our blessings, and the hunger of Yom Kippur can assist us in reorienting our priorities. In short, through our senses we can work to hear, taste, see, and experience the potential of new beginnings! L'shana tova!
Rabbi Randi Musnitsky
Temple Har Shalom
IN THE WORLD of social media, it is so easy to compare ourselves to others. We look at others’ pictures and are sad because they look happier than us; we see status updates and are envious of others’ success. And since social media is an opportunity to share ourselves with others, we present a skewed version of ourselves, no matter how inauthentic.
We invite you to connect with Congregation Beth El on Facebook, but we also know that community is felt face-to-face. That is what the High Holy Days are about. During these days of awe and reflection, we are face-to-face with community. We are by each other’s side, there for each other. We celebrate and mourn together, laugh and cry together, learn and teach together. We are face-to-face with God. Just as the Torah teaches us that Moses saw God face-to-face, we use these High Holy Days to wrestle with the Divine and find space in holy community to do so in a way with which we are comfortable. And we look in the mirror and come face-to-face with ourselves. We do a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, and compare ourselves only to ourselves. We strive to be the best version of ourselves.
At Beth El, we welcome all with open arms to a place to learn and grow, to challenge and act, to question, connect, and wrestle with God. But most of all, we hope you find a community of relationships, where we look at each other face-to-face and celebrate the best version of ourselves. That is a status update we can certainly LIKE!
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky
Congregation Beth El
THE HOLIDAYS ARE late this year! This is the reaction I often heard this summer when I told people that Rosh Hashana will begin on Oct. 2. Each time I heard this reaction, I was reminded of one of my teachers who always said that Rosh Hashana comes at the exact same time each year — the first day of the month of Tishrei.
The Jewish calendar is based on cycles of the moon, and most Jewish holidays are celebrated in the middle of the month when there is a full moon. In ancient times there was no electricity, so it made sense to celebrate when there was the most light. But Rosh Hashana is different. Rosh Hashana comes at the time of the new moon. It really doesn’t matter how early or how late the holiday falls in relation to Labor Day, or the start of the secular school year, or whether it is in September or October. What is significant about Rosh Hashana is that after complete darkness, light returns.
Whatever darkness there may be in our personal lives, in our communities, our country, and our world, Rosh Hashana comes to remind us that after darkness, there is always a tiny sliver of light. May that light grow brighter and illumine our lives throughout the coming year.
Rabbi Hannah Orden
Congregation Beth Hatikvah
Zionism is beautiful
IN THE MID-19TH century, the words “Jew” and “Jewish” were seen as having a negative connotation. Thus the first national organization of U.S. synagogues was called the Union of American Hebrew congregations, its rabbinical school the Hebrew Union College. But by the late 19th and early 20th century, a “Jewish is Beautiful” movement arose, and we saw the Jewish Theological seminary, American Jewish Committee, and so forth.
Today, another important word affirming Jewish life and values has been defamed by detractors — Zionism. Pollster Frank Luntz conducted a survey that revealed a growing resistance to the term. So what we need now is a “Zionism is Beautiful” movement. As journalist Yossi Klein Halevi noted: The assault on Zionism is an assault upon our Jewish historical narrative and must be treated as a threat to our very being. There is no Jewish people, no Judaism, without the Jewish story.
Its detractors try to reduce Zionism to so-called “right-wing” political views, insisting that to be a Zionist means supporting every political and diplomatic position taken by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. They imply that if you ever disagree with Bibi, you are no longer a Zionist, that you no longer support Israel’s existence. Of course, we know that in a democracy, we may periodically disapprove of the policies of the current president and still remain proud Americans.
So let us reclaim Zionism, exploring and celebrating its spiritual importance, its impact upon a Jewish cultural flowering, its standing as a role model of the human spirit’s power to achieve — and so much more!
Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel
New Year verse
SOURCE OF Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
We bow in awe and silence before You
You crown the year with goodness.
G-d of Kindness and Mercy
Grant us another year.
Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
Protect us; protect our Planet
Break the hold of the wicked; respond to those in need
G-d of Justice and Righteousness,
Grant us a good year ahead.
Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of all that is.
Guide us on the right path
Grant us a good year
Shield us from adversity and violence; hear the cries of those who suffer
G-d of Goodness and Light,
Grant us a good year ahead.
Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
We seek to dwell in Your Home
We seek refuge in Your Tent
G-d of Love and Peace,
Grant us a good year ahead: health, strength, prosperity, wholeness of mind and heart
Kein yehi ratzon!
Rabbi Debra Smith
Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation
Sing the unique melody
THANKS TO AN incomparable performance by Meryl Streep, the flamboyant and eccentric character of Florence Foster Jenkins came to life again this year on the silver screen. Jenkins was a mid-20th century patron of the arts and ardent music lover who lived in New York City during the Second World War. Despite her mediocre vocal abilities, she chose to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall. Though she elicited laughter from many GIs in the audience, she also won the admiration of others who sensed she was singing from the depths of her soul. At the end of the movie, as Jenkins is on her deathbed, she proclaims: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Like the shofar — with its shrill and piercing tone that sometimes sounds sharp or flat depending on the blower — each of us is an imperfect instrument to further God’s goodness in the world. Despite our deficiencies, when we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to that which we love and hold dear, we may bring joy and benefit to others in ways we never imagined. This season asks us to be authentic to ourselves, to speak out for what we believe, to stay true to the dreams we have held onto for years, and to sing the unique melody that God implanted in us to the best of our abilities. Though some may deride our efforts, others will applaud the sincerity of our commitment and find renewed inspiration from what we have done.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Spector
Temple Beth Shalom
SITTING IN MY office recently with a family deciding whether to give their children a Jewish education, I had prepared all the arguments in favor and had in mind how I would address all their doubts. They were, of course, concerned about the commitment of time and resources, the conflicts of soccer and baseball in an already overbooked schedule, and they even questioned ultimately the value of the education itself.
As I spoke with them I realized what I had always known but never so viscerally felt — namely, that it was not merely the substance of the answers that mattered, but whether the parents would find in our school, in our teachers, in our clergy, the role models they sought for their children. We were being judged not only by what we taught, but by who we were.
We live in a time when the role models society offers our children sadly leave much to be desired. Our kids look to sports stars and pop stars, actors and actresses, who in their words and actions and lifestyles all too often greatly disappoint. As clergy and Jewish educators, we rightly try to direct our students to the great figures in our tradition — to the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the prophets and sages of old.
And yet it is we — parents, teachers, and all — who in some way represent the synagogue and the Jewish community, who must strive to be the kinds of heroes our children will look up to. With kindness and strength, with warmth and authenticity, we can be their heroes.
Cantor Steven Stern
Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah