Heart of New Jersey: Rabbis’ messages for the New Year
The following are responses to an invitation from New Jersey Jewish News to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages:
SOME WEAR IT on a chain around their necks, others express it through the amount of money they donate: Chai — numerical value: 18, meaning: life.
Judaism views life as a divine gift. God breathed into the first human the soul of life (Genesis 2:7). Common courtesy dictates that gifts, especially divine ones, must be appreciated.
“And you will verily ensure the well-being of your souls” (Deuteronomy 4:15). We are obliged to ensure our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, a mitzva that overrides almost all others, even Yom Kippur.
By eating the right foods, sleeping well, engaging in exercise, and observing personal hygiene we fulfill this important mitzva.
We must also tend to our emotional and mental needs and those of our children. Stable relationships and ethical upbringings are basics. Sometimes we may need expert professional involvement. God gives the doctor the moral imperative to heal (Exodus 22).
Maimonides viewed the physical body as the abode of the soul; the ideal is a healthy soul in a healthy body. We normally refer to life in the plural, chaim, alluding to the duality — physical and spiritual — of our being. Spiritual health can be gauged by one’s thoughts and purity of motive, but mostly by one’s deeds.
One of Moses’ last exhortations was “Choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19). This has a double meaning: A person can subsist, the pulse may beat, the food and drink may go “down the hatch,” but life may not be lived to its fullest. God’s world may not have been savored; the other dimension, that of the soul, may not have been lived.
Let us resolve to nurture and cultivate not only our physical well-being, but also our spirituality.
Rabbi David Bassous
Congregation Etz Ahaim
The call of the shofar
THIS PAST SUMMER, I was the spiritual leader of a group of 50 adults and children celebrating a bar mitzva in Israel. We were expecting to celebrate a beautiful Shabbat together in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
But — I developed a severe case of cellulitis on Shabbat eve and had to be rushed to the emergency department of Shaare Zedek Hospital. The considerable pain in my leg was surpassed only by my emotion of “letting down” my group.
Lying on a gurney in an Israeli hospital on a Friday night is interesting. What surprised me the most, and what took away all my pain for a few minutes, was the following: A young rabbi walked into the ER and started shouting, “Shabbat Shalom” for 30 seconds. People congregated in the large room, patients in all stages of dress and undress, family members, nurses, hospital personnel came to hear the rabbi’s prayer welcoming the holy Shabbat. People put their arms over their heads as makeshift yarmulkes and parents held their children close, as the beauty of Shabbat transcended all pain in the ER.
I cried. I said to God, “Look at your precious children who welcome you and Shabbat in midst of all their pain and hardship.”
So too, on Rosh Hashana, we, the nation of Israel, stand together in all stages of spiritual dress and listen to the sound of the shofar. We welcome the New Year and resolve to get closer to our Creator. God is looking, too, seeing how His children and nation proclaim their loyalty to their Creator.
Rabbi Yosef Carlebach
Chabad House at Rutgers University
What a world!
AS THE NEW Year begins, we find ourselves in a world of cynicism and despair. But our tradition teaches us that we need not be resigned to live in such a world. On Rosh Hashana, the world is born anew. And what a world! A world of possibilities:
Instead of bitterness, we can feel gratitude.
Instead of coarseness, we can offer compassion.
Instead of distrust, we can demonstrate fidelity.
When we sense arrogance, we can respond by feeling the fear of God.
When we sense pomposity, we can seek wisdom.
When we sense egocentrism, we can embody principle.
In place of conceit, we can offer praise.
In place of nihilism, faith.
In place of suspicion, trust.
If we feel directionless, we can remember our responsibilities.
If we feel disoriented, we can find ourselves in our history.
If we feel dulled, we can awaken through appreciation.
If we feel lost, we can come home.
Rather than loneliness, we can seek — and find — God’s presence.
Rather than emptiness, we can seek — and find — meaning in our lives.
Rather than despair, we can seek — and find — hope.
Rather than being trapped in the past, we can seek — and find — a future.
And above all, above all, we can again open our eyes and feel that sense of wonder with which children naturally see the world — before filth and cheapness and disappointment sully our view and make us forget God’s insight that the world is not just good, but very good.
Remember! And then it will truly be a good and sweet New Year.
Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
Congregation B’nai Tikvah
Rededicate and refocus
AT THE HOLIEST period on our Jewish calendar, I take stock of the world we live in. Amid the difficult news that fills our conversations are the very real stories of hope and heroism that keep my heart full. Even while headlines go to sordid acts of destruction, we witness the miraculous healing and enriching work in our schools, hospitals, shelters, homes, and streets that tell a very different story.
Torah teaches us to pay more attention to the “still, small voice” of righteousness than to the bravado of power-mongering. The more open are our eyes and ears, the wider are our arms and hearts open to embrace those in need, and those in need of shared celebrations.
God created us to be miracles in each other’s lives. We are given these “Days of Awe” in order to rededicate and refocus our energy on elevating our spirits above the painful and into the miraculous.
Join us at our vibrant, spirited, growing congregation; we do not sell tickets but welcome the whole community to share our holiday celebrations. We can’t wait to make our home your home.
Rabbi Marc Kline
Monmouth Reform Temple
Call to a safe shore
THE PIERCING BLASTS of the shofar are supposed to serve as a Jewish wake-up call. Some have compared them to an alarm clock, a siren, or a bugle. When a lifeguard blows a whistle at the beach, he or she is alerting swimmers to come closer to shore to be safe. Similarly, the blasts of the shofar are meant to shake us out of our sense of complacency and motivate us to improve our lives by coming closer to the safe shore of Jewish tradition.
Rosh Hashana was not the only occasion upon which the shofar was blown in ancient times. It was also used to announce all the holidays, the Jubilee year, and the coming of Shabbat. In the Book of Psalms, the shofar is one of the instruments used to praise God. But perhaps the most famous occasion when the shofar was sounded was matan Torah, the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The shofar blasts stirred the hearts of b’nei Yisrael, encouraging them to observe God’s commandments.
The sound of the shofar is supposed to remind us of our wrongdoings and encourage us to transform and elevate the quality of our lives with mitzvot.
During this season of teshuva (return/repentance), may the shofar serve as a call to action, a reminder to incorporate the Torah’s teachings into the fabric of your life.
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik
Temple Beth Ahm
IMAGINE A FACEBOOK post more than 3,000 years ago: My father took me on a bonding journey. We brought two helpers who made sure we had everything we needed. On the third day, dad and I headed to the top of the mountain by ourselves and brought everything to have an awesome barbecue, except dad forgot the steaks. He said, “No worries, son; a very important presence will provide for us when we get to the campsite.” I thought that was awesome!
We got there and my father had a strange look in his eyes; he tied me onto a pile of sticks, took out his knife, and was ready to stab me! Suddenly, we heard God’s angel: “STOP! Do not harm the boy!” Whew! I am so glad that voice stopped this nonsense, but I am afraid and angry with my dad. He found a ram to cook, but then he went down the mountain and left me all alone. Now what I am supposed to do?! — Isaac ben Abraham
Social media has connected people like never before, but loneliness is still escalating faster today than ever before. The problem with social media is people share only good things, crafting an image they want the world to see. This kills any sense of vulnerability, of genuine shared experiences so crucial to emotional closeness. This is the season we work on reconnecting to one another and to the presence of God in our lives. I hope that none of us is posting like Isaac, but that we are strengthening our connections to one another.
Rabbi Laurence P. Malinger
Conversation across generations
DEUTERONOMY 19:14 TEACHES: “Lo tasig g’vul rayecha” — “Do not remove your neighbor’s landmarks,” warning us not to move back our neighbor’s landmark so as to extend our own. Roman law deemed this crime a capital offence!
The Talmud and later legal literature expand the definition of encroachment to include other crimes. We may not attribute the statements of Rabbi X to Rabbi Y or vice versa. This is the origin of copyright (or “intellectual property”) law. “Moving landmarks,” in the sense of “violating boundaries,” morphs into a ban on unfair competition that encroaches on another’s livelihood and other rights.
The verse continues: “asher gavlu rishonim” — “set up by previous generations.” Rav Sherira Gaon (10th century) deemed this the source for the respect accorded to minhag (ancestral custom).
What does this discussion have to do with Rosh Hashana? The study of Torah — indeed Jewish life as a whole — is a conversation across the generations. It requires the earnest effort of each Jew to connect with the larger Judaic community. That community is the synagogue, which unites Jews in prayer, study, and acts of loving-kindness. It is the synagogue that initiates and sustains the conversation across the generations we all need. May the year 5777 find each Jew passionately engaged with the synagogue of his choice!
Rabbi Robert Pilavin
Congregation Sonsof Israel
The still, small voice
THE WORLD IS a noisy place. As of late, the noise has become almost deafening. Turning off the television or avoiding social media can quiet the noise for a little while, but we as responsible citizens need to hear the information that noise carries with it.
What information might we receive if we had the ability to sift through the thunderous racket without turning off the TV or avoiding social media? If we could find the silence within the loud commotion? If we truly listened, would we be able to hear kol d’mama daka, that still, small voice, the voice of God?
Elijah heard it in the wilderness, and each year we are beckoned to hear it on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. “The great shofar is sounded, and the still, small voice is heard.” Despite the loud shofar blast, we can, if we truly listen, hear the voice of God.
Increasingly, the noise in the world beckons us to hate. By piercing through the thunderous racket we can hear God beckoning us to love. May each of us this year find our way through that thunderous racket, and discover the tranquil stillness that is the voice of God.
Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Congregation Kol Am
The great unknown
THE DAYS OF AWE are all about unknowing. We remain in the dark about what the coming year will bring, and so much of the liturgy revolves around that theme. Look at the U’n’taneh Tokef — Who will live? Who will die? Who by fire, who by water? There is great unknowing and great trepidation.
There are many ways of dealing with the unknown. One is to ignore it and live in the past. If there is no awareness of the future, there is no fear of it. Another is to make stories about how wonderful everything is going to be in a future messianic age. A more immediate and healthy response is to admit that the days ahead are unknown and sometimes frightening and that the way to move ahead is to meet the new year head on and embrace what happens fortified with faith, trust, holiness, and strength.
These are trying times. Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” and, by God, he was right. But that is no reason to escape into a past or embrace a fantasy. Rather, let us embrace the truth that there is a place for holiness and faith in this broken world and each of us is the bearer of light illuminating the unknown. These Days of Awe are truly about how awesome we are when we face the unknown questions without fear, and with the faith that inspires us.
Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam