This is the final installment of New Year’s messages from area religious leaders.
A JEWISH BOY from a small village came to the city for the first time and stayed at an inn. Awakened in the night by the sound of loud horns, he inquired about the purpose of the shofar blasts. Informed that a fire had broken out and that the horn blasts were the city’s fire alarm, he went back to sleep. When he returned to his village, he reported to the leaders about the wonderful system: When a fire breaks out people in the city blow shofarot, and before long the fire is out.
The people of the village decided to try this method of fire control. When a fire broke out, there was a deafening blast of horns; the people waited for the flames to subside. Instead, a number of houses burned to the ground.
A visitor passing through the village asked the reason for the ear-splitting din. Upon hearing the explanation he said, “Do you think a fire can be put out simply by blowing a shofar? The horns sound an alarm to wake the people so they can get to work extinguishing the fire.”
Wishing for something to be does not make it so. Action does.
Hoping for change does not result in change. Action does.
Wanting to make amends doesn’t do anything. Action does.
By themselves, the High Holidays do nothing. Like the shofar blasts, they are a wake-up call for us to look within and do the work that will allow us to reconnect to loved ones, ourselves, and God. The holidays and the shofar’s call offer an opportunity to take the “soul action” that will allow us to live most fully in this New Year.
May we heed the call … and get to work.
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange
Focus on what matters
BEGGARS CAN’T be choosers. This centuries-old proverb dictates that those in need must be content with what they get. The converse — choosers can’t be beggars — is also true.
Our High Holiday liturgy encourages us to see ourselves as “beggars,” utterly destitute and empty before God. As “beggars,” we open up a space where God can provide us with what we really need, rather than what we want. When we act as “choosers,” we can hardly claim to be “beggars.”
We act as “choosers” in many ways — the services are too long or too short, or there is not enough or too much singing. The people in our synagogues are either too religious or not religious enough, or from the wrong socioeconomic class. Our leaders act as “choosers,” too, ensuring that only those who “belong” may attend.
We insist our synagogues be places of comfort in an attempt to wrest control of our High Holiday experience. In so doing, we lose the essence of what the High Holiday experience is about. As humans, we are far from perfect. It is uncomfortable to consider our failures over the course of the past year and admit those failures to ourselves, let alone God or others. We focus on minor, aesthetic discomforts in an attempt to avoid the major discomfort of seeing the humanity in others as well as ourselves. Yet it is this sort of discomfort that God demands from us, in order for us to learn and grow.
I pray that this year we come to our synagogues prepared to submit to the experience and be in a place of discomfort. Let us not be “choosers” who focus on minor distractions, but “beggars” who can focus on what really matters, to help usher in a year of spiritual growth and blessing.
Rabbi Daniel Geretz
Maayan, West Orange
Crack the wall of burden
THE SEASON IS about to change. The crisp fall air will arrive, just as we welcome our Jewish new year of Rosh HaShanah. These most sacred days call upon us to shake the dust off, recommit to our best sense of self, retrofit our spirits to the anatomy of hope, demand of ourselves to act in ways that will sew the pieces of our communal fabric back together.
I know it feels like we have to be a little bit out of our minds to do so. Life in our country and world feels hard and complicated — perhaps even depressing. There seem to be more problems than solutions. We look at our fellow citizens and wonder if we can understand them; what makes them feel and act so angry? Collectively, and for some of us, personally, life just feels hard.
What are we to do? We can’t pretend it all away. We are a people of action. We have a tradition of working with our hands and words to make our world better. If we just commit ourselves to being better, to changing one thing each day, we start to crack the wall of burden. Complaining and bemoaning won’t put the world back together, but our actions can help mitigate our woes.
We invite you to join us — to find it within yourselves to still believe in a better tomorrow, brighter days. We invite you to join us in believing there is still hope.
Our families join us in wishing all of you a happy, sweet, healthy, and fulfilling new year of 5780. We all need and deserve it!
Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills
Wholeness and holiness
I WRITE THIS on Sept. 1, Rosh Chodesh Elul. The next 30 days are a gift to us to prepare to speak with God and ourselves on the High Holidays. We have an opportunity to wish our family and friends a shanah tovah, to listen to the sound of the shofar, beckoning us to reorder our priorities and focus on what is important in our lives. We may visit the graves of our loved ones to invoke their loyalty and values to help us enter “The Book of Life.” We can recite prayers and psalms of repentance to enable us to be in the zone of teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer and service to God), and tzedakah (charitable giving and deeds of lovingkindness).
But we are distracted — by the senseless mass murders that infect our society, by a lack of justice for migrants and immigrants. We fear attacks on the pillars of our government and society that diminish what makes America unique. We are frightened by fires and hurricanes and the man-made contributions to global warming that threaten our world. And many of us are concerned about threats to Jewish life by rising anti-Semitism and attacks on the legitimacy of Israel.
I urge us all to take a deep breath and pray for truth, justice, peace, and righteousness; engage to contribute to the betterment of America; be proud Jews who care about the fate of Jewish communities around the world and the State of Israel. Let us show love to those who are forsaken, give food and resources to the less fortunate, devote our time to the lonely, heal the wounded, and comfort the
May the sounds of the shofar lead us to find wholeness in our minds and holiness in our hearts and actions.
Rabbi Paul David Kerbel
Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, Cranford
Focus on the 99 percent
ON A RECENT trip to Israel, my wife and I spent the night at Kibbutz Nir Am, located near the Gaza border.
We were shown orchards and fields that had been burned by terror kites and firebombs and heard first-hand accounts of attacks from the locals, who have 15 seconds to run to bomb shelters every time rockets are launched in their direction.
I figured I’d ask a loaded question to Ofir, the lovely farmer acting as our guide:
“Ofir, how’s life on the kibbutz? How do you do it?”
Ofir’s response touched me deeply and taught me a life lesson I have tried to internalize ever since.
“Life here is 99 percent heaven,” said Ofir. “One percent, we have a problem.”
How simple, yet how profound!
Here was someone who raises his children in what we all would consider a difficult place, someone who has every reason to complain and focus on challenges and obstacles. Yet he relegated all that to 1 percent and chose to make the beauty of life on the kibbutz in our Holy Land, and the miracle of life itself, 99 percent of his focus.
We all have challenges, obstacles, and difficulties in life — and often they can be quite significant. Yet we have the ability to choose how much we focus on them, and how much we focus on the 99 percent of life that we can consider heaven.
As we approach the new year, I will try a little harder to focus on the parts of life that are wonderful; I encourage you to do the same. May this new year be a time when we all appreciate the blessings we have, as we hope and pray for an even brighter future.
Rabbi Shalom Lubin
Congregation Shaya Ahavat Torah, Parsippany
Director, Chabad of SE Morris County
Comfort in names
THERE ARE MANY names for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, each reflecting a different approach to their meaning. Each of us who are connected and involved Jews, or who are exploring how to connect, can find comfort in these different names. Each of us who is reading these reflections from area rabbis can, hopefully, find meaning in these days. Each of us can be influenced by the process that starts in Elul and goes from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur.
The most common name is the High Holidays, for which there is no direct Hebrew translation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first time “High Holidays” was used — in 1890 — it was intended to place Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur into a couplet and describe the first 10 days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The term “the Days of Awe” was popularized by Hayim Nahman Bialik, the great Israeli poet and writer, in the 1960s. Awe — the feeling one might have during these intense days spent in prayer, learning, and thinking about our being, our souls, our existence. It is not meant to scare us; it is meant to make us feel a sense of awe.
Finally, there is Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the Ten Days of Repenting, always trying to do better. We all at times err in our relationships with others — friends, teachers, spouses, children — but we can always return, repent, do teshuvah, and better ourselves. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a positive “al chet” encouraging us to seek out all the amazing and positive things we did in the last year. These 10 days give us the room and the space to both think about all the good we do and how we can change where we want growth — to do better!
Rabbi Paul Resnick
Congregation B’nai Israel, Millburn
Sea of gratitude
SEPTEMBER SIGNALS the end of beach season. Summer homes at the shore are slowly shuttered as pleasure-filled moments on sand and surf fade into memory. On the Jewish calendar, however, a season of aquatic imagery now begins. Our fall festivals are rich with watery symbolism, from Tashlich on Rosh HaShanah to Geshem, the Prayer for Rain, on Shemini Atzeret.
Water reminds us of the fluidity of our lives — nothing is permanent. Heraclitus famously asserted that one cannot ever step into the same river twice, because new water constantly flows into it, and no person remains the same as they were from one moment to the next.
Water also symbolizes depth. It reminds us that there is so much that we have yet to fathom in our lives. The path to true self-awareness requires us to plumb the depths of the soul relentlessly — to dive ever deeper into our own psyches, to confront the demons within, and to find the undiscovered beauty in ourselves and in other people.
Water is also a symbol of love. In movies and in literature, the seashore is a place of romance, where lovers stroll in silent bliss. Our ancestors sang to God at the shore of the Red Sea. The sea of gratitude enables us to immerse ourselves in love.
In our youth, many of us would return from the beach with a seashell, a memento of a happy season. When we pressed that seashell to the ear, we could “hear the ocean.” As adults standing on the shore of a New Year, we need to hear that sound with all its resonances. It is the same sound that we hear in the shofar. Watery waves and wavering notes both remind us to embrace change, to live deeper, and to love with overflowing hearts.
Rabbi Geoffrey Spector
Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston
Justice and mercy
AS B’NAI SHALOM opens its doors for the High Holidays this year, we are grateful for the diversity and energy that defines Judaism in America. This is a time for each of us, and all of us, to look at the past year with honesty and the kind of criticism that only love can bring to bear. When did we act contrary to our own best beliefs and traditions? When did we not act when we should have? How did we strive to create the world that God wants for us, and when did we stand by allowing injustice or bigotry to rule the day?
Our holidays stress the themes of justice and mercy — themes that should define our lives and our country. Justice declares that there is an objective standard in life, called both law and morality, to which human beings are accountable. The laws of the land and the laws of the Torah are real for each of us. But mercy also demands that we mete out justice in a tempered form, knowing that its purpose is to improve us, not to punish us. The law teaches lessons and is not simply power imposed from above by authority because it can.
The Torah declares “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” while to God we pray for forgiveness like that of a parent toward a child. May this year be a year where you can stand before justice and offer more mercy to others than you might ever need in return.
May you be inscribed for health, happiness, and goodness in the year ahead.
Rabbi Robert Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange
Each of us matters
I’M ALWAYS touched by the message of Rosh HaShanah, the day of hara’at ha’olam — the birth of the world. I’m particularly moved by the Torah reading that recounts the story of Hagar and Ishmael. After being sent out into the wilderness by Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael in their moment of desperate need — though they are not of the special line that will eventually become the Jewish people — are nonetheless saved by divine intervention. The message? God cares about everyone, regardless of identity, state, or stature. Each one of us, created in our own right and existence, matters. To God, each of us is absolutely relevant. Each of us is treasured and cared for, and what we choose to do with our lives is always significant.
At this time every year we Jewish people receive a potentially life-changing gift — a reminder that no matter what’s going on in our lives, no matter how we feel about ourselves, somebody cares, and so too should we.
May we each feel counted upon, cared for, and significant this Rosh HaShanah. In turn, may we work to ensure that all whom we meet over this holy period and after receive the same blessing.
A Shanah Tovah u’m’tukah, a sweet and fine new year to you and yours.
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg
Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston