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More Rabbis’ messages for the New Year (Middlesex/Monmouth)
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More Rabbis’ messages for the New Year (Middlesex/Monmouth)

Leaders of area congregations share their High Holy Day thoughts

Note: This is the final installment.

The blessing of life

On Rosh HaShanah, we recite the Shehecheyanu blessing during candle-lighting, kiddush, and shofar blowing. The Hebrew word, “Shehecheyanu,” is derived from the same word as “chayim,” which means “life,” as well as “chai,” which means “live.” With this blessing, as we praise and thank Hashem for “granting us life,” may we remember that each of us is God’s partner in the work of continually renewing creation.

By observing certain mitzvot, we act as partners in Hashem’s life-granting mission. When we fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting those who are ill, or nichum avelim (comforting mourners by visiting them during shiva), we may enable those in need to feel more alive and special. When we welcome people into our home, our synagogue, and our community, we have the opportunity to make them feel valued and enlivened by our warmth and inclusiveness. When we study Torah and other sacred Jewish texts, we may infuse our minds and souls with additional life. When we face each new day with faith and a commitment to God, Israel, and Torah, we may invigorate our spiritual lives.

This Rosh HaShanah, as we thank Hashem for granting us life, may we all strive to be God’s partners. May our acts of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and righteous giving) renew us so that we may successfully work with God to grant life to ourselves and others in the year ahead.

L’shanah tovah t’kateivu v’tichateimu. May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

Rabbi Lisa S. Malik
Temple Beth Ahm, Aberdeen


Day of re-creation

IT’S THAT TIME of the year. Shofars are blowing, apples are dipping, briskets are cooking, and honey is sticking.

But, most importantly, God is calling.

With apologies to Andy Williams, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

Now many Jews view the “Days of Awe” as more awful than awesome, but that is a shame. Because beyond all the praying and eating, the ceremony and tradition, there is a simple yet profound idea that Rosh HaShanah represents: change, renewal, a second chance.

These concepts are built into the fabric of the holiday, the day when, thousands of years ago, man was created, with a whole world of opportunity at his disposal.

He blew it, big time, but God didn’t give up on him and doesn’t give up on us. He gave Adam and Eve a second chance; He gives each of us multiple chances. And not only does God give us another chance, He tells us that he has confidence that, despite our past, we have what it takes to achieve greatness.

The Torah tells us: “It is not hidden from you, nor is it distant. It is not in heaven…nor across the sea…. Rather, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

This Torah portion is read right before Rosh HaShanah to remind us of this lesson, that Rosh HaShanah is not only the day of creation, but, more importantly, the day of re-creation, a day that offers the opportunity to re-create ourselves and realize the highest limits of our
potential.

So listen carefully to the sound of the shofar — the haunting call of a loving Father cajoling His children to be all that He knows they can be.

Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz
Monmouth Torah Links, Marlboro


Laughter and repentance 

THERE ARE TWO things that are good for the body, the mind, and the spirit: honest repentance and a good belly laugh.

We all know we feel better after spending time during the High Holy Days repenting, but what about laughter? There have been controlled tests conducted with groups asking them to laugh on demand. The testers measured core muscle responses and found that muscles reacted similarly as to when they exercised. Furthermore, when we laugh, our brains release more serotonin and dopamine, reducing our stress, anxiety, and depression levels.

Another study of two groups proved that laughter has a positive impact on short-term memory. The first was shown a 20-minute comedy video while the other group sat in a quiet room until the film ended. Both groups were given memory recall tests immediately before and after that 20-minute period. The group that watched the comedy scored much higher.

What we learn from this is that we should laugh. Whenever I laugh, other people around me smile and sometimes laugh with me. When we are done laughing, we all feel better.

This is also true when we repent during the High Holy Days. We ask God for forgiveness surrounded by people who are doing the same thing. Knowing we are repenting with our peers for our sins makes it easier for all of us to be apologetic. More importantly, it makes us all feel better.

Mindful of this, as we review what we did during this past year, maybe we should laugh, not to minimize what we did wrong, but to make it easier to repent when we stand before God. If we do this right, a huge smile will cover all our faces when we hear that final shofar blast that ends Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Eli B. Perlman
Congregation Beit Shalom, Monroe Township


Loving neighbor

FEW BIBLICAL VERSES are as famous as Leviticus 19:18 — “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And yet this simple rule has spawned much commentary. Each word is open to multiple interpretations. Does “love” refer to an emotional disposition (feelings) or to behavioral expectations (actions)? Is our “neighbor” one who lives near us (geography) or one whose beliefs are closest to our own (ideology)? Finally, how do you love someone “as yourself”? Must we love ourselves? Must we love others just as much?

Talmudic wisdom sharpens our understanding of this verse. “Love” refers to loving behavior, which then generates loving feelings. “Neighbor” is defined not merely by geographic proximity, but by shared core beliefs. We “love ourselves” by rationalizing our less-than-perfect behavior. We must judge others by the same generous standard.

I recently viewed “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — a new documentary film about Fred Rogers, the host and creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the TV show’s debut.

I found the film deeply moving. Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and he viewed his work with children on TV as his special ministry. He understood children’s fears and anxieties and spoke to them in a calm and reassuring way. Viewers quickly come to understand that the kindly man they met on TV is every bit as warm and empathetic in real life.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” I am told, is the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time. Why such a fuss about a man who died in 2003?

Perhaps Fred Rogers symbolized civility, a trait that is sorely lacking today. The Days of Awe are a fresh opportunity for each of you to turn to others and ask: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Rabbi Robert Pilavin
Congregation Sons of Israel, Manalapan


First things first

FOR RABBIS AND cantors, August is the cruelest month. It’s not so much that we have to prepare for the holidays, from Rosh HaShanah through Simchat Torah, or the beginning of a school year, or adult education classes, but rather that all of that happens simultaneously — and on top of our regular weekly responsibilities. People don’t avoid getting married, having babies, praying, getting ill (or worse) just because the clergy are busy; life goes on. It’s enough to make you yearn for a moment of respite, for time to reflect, to gather your thoughts, and to re-prioritize your life.

And that, of course, is what these holidays are all about. Life’s ceaseless tasks, its endless obligations, will never end, until life itself does. Ask any retiree; every one of them tells me that they have never been busier since they stopped working. What the holidays provide us is calm amid life’s storms, forcing us to truly think about our priorities by ritualizing time away from obligations to each other, so that we can reconsider those obligations. How have we spent the last year? Did we focus on things or people? Was our time spent complaining or praising? In the year to come, will we learn more, do more, and be more?

Forcing ourselves to confront our past is the only way to create a better future. We take time out to think about time and how we use it. There is always another pleasant yet meaningless game to play on an electronic device; this year let’s all put them down long enough to assess what our relationships mean and what we need to know and do as Jews and as citizens. As August turns to September, let’s pray for the wisdom to put first things first.

Rabbi Jeff Pivo
East Brunswick Jewish Center


Humility matters

JUDAISM TEACHES that you should be a mensch, but what does that mean? I think it can be summed up in one word — humility. Some equate this with weakness, but in our tradition, humility means to have a healthy sense of self, neither poor self-esteem nor arrogance.

One area in which all of us could stand to show humility is in how, and how much, we speak. Especially with social media, there is just too much talking and not enough listening! Here’s an idea: Let others go first in a conversation you would usually dominate. Consider the acronym WAIT — “Why Am I Talking?” — before speaking, to give space to others to express themselves.

Too often, we speak unkindly and hurt others. The Bible describes such a case: when Miriam badmouthed her brother Moses publicly. Not only did Moses forgive his sister, but he also prayed for Miriam when God struck her with skin disease. Moses didn’t carry a grudge, but allowed his sense of compassion to override any anger he might have felt. It is no wonder that the Bible describes Moses as exceedingly humble; I suggest that this quality is part of the reason Moses was one of the greatest leaders of all time.

May we and our families be blessed with humility in the New Year.

Marlboro Jewish Center is a dynamic Conservative synagogue, celebrating 47 years of service to the community. We are located at 103 School Road West in Marlboro. We have a large preschool with a nurturing staff and a wonderful Hebrew school. Please join us for Shabbat, holidays, and programs — you are welcome here! Go to mjcnj.com and call our office at 732-536-2300 for more information.

Shanah tovah!

Rabbi Michael Pont
Marlboro Jewish Center


You matter

WHEN MOSES AND Aaron are about to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let their people go, suddenly, at that dramatic moment, there’s a time-out in the story, and we’re told that Aaron is 83, and Moses is 80. Why, at the very beginning of their careers as leaders of the Jewish people, does the Torah pause to tell us their ages?

My guess is the Torah wants us to appreciate that they started their careers at a time when most people have already retired, to appreciate the fact that even in one’s 80s, one still has enormous potential and capacity for living.

Age is only a number. I’m getting older, but I’m far from done. Let me share a quote from Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

How do we discover why we were born? The Lubavitcher Rebbe tells us why in his response to the question whether it is permitted for Jews to celebrate a birthday, a secular celebration. His response: “Of course one should celebrate a birthday, because that is the day God decided that the world cannot live without you.”

You and your soul are needed because every person has a mission to fulfill during his or her lifetime. Like musical notes in a grand divine composition, each of us has our unique music to play. Your birth is God’s way of saying, “You matter.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was teaching, “Yes, you matter — not because you think you’re important, not because others tell you you are, not because of your wealth, status, looks, performance, or talent. You are important because God put you here. You are an indispensable musical note in life’s symphony!”

Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, emeritus
Congregation Beth-El, Edison


Sparks of holiness

THERE ARE many ways to describe the work of this season. This year, I resonate to the teaching of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezeritch. Rabbi Dov Ber teaches that there is an element of holiness in everything in the world — every tree, every blade of grass, and every stone. Not only that; that spark of sanctity also dwells in every person and every human act, even the ones that might have been mistakes or, heaven forbid, transgressions or sins.

The Jewish calendar affords us this special season to pause and direct our attention to identifying and nurturing those sparks of holiness. Hopefully, over the year that is ending there have been many that have been in plain view as manifested in the beauty of the world around us and the love we share in our deepest relationships. Others may have been harder to recognize among the challenges, disappointments, and moments of uncertainty that we have experienced over the last 12 months. In these cases, the Magid urges us to turn our attentions to the work of teshuvah, focusing on the inspirational potential for repair of anything that seems to be broken in ourselves and in the world around us.

At Neve Shalom in Metuchen, we will be turning to each other and to the wisdom of our tradition as we welcome the New Year. Please, come join us as we rededicate ourselves to the challenge of living with the constant awareness of the sanctity that surrounds us.

Rabbi Eric Rosin
Neve Shalom, Metuchen


Coats and bonfires

THERE ARE TWO ways to keep warm. You can put on a heavy winter coat or you can build a bonfire. Both the coat and the bonfire will accomplish the same goal, and yet the coat and the bonfire are as different as night and day. The coat keeps the individual warm. However, the bonfire will keep everyone warm. It is the difference between the individual and the community.

The High Holy Days always focus me on the power of community. Anyone can close the door to his room and by himself offer prayers for the coming year. It’s like putting on a coat to get warm. You do it for yourself.

On the other hand, when the sanctuary is packed and we all sing the same words at the same moment, you can feel the energy in the room. You can sense the power and the warmth of a community. It’s a bonfire.

One of the reasons I chose to be a pulpit rabbi is because I deeply believe in the power of community.

So, join us. As you figure out your plans for the holidays, make it a point to be with us.

The High Holy Days are the High Holy Days. It is a time for community to shine. Being here for the High Holy Days is the difference between being warmed as an individual by a winter coat and finding comfort in the toasty warmth of a bonfire that brings everyone together. Now, more than ever, we are in need of a good old-fashioned bonfire.

Shanah tovah! I look forward to seeing all of you on the holidays.

Rabbi Ira Rothstein
Temple Beth Shalom, Manalapan


Seeking the right path

THE DIVREI CHAIM, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (18th century), used to tell a story of a man who had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked the man, “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering in this forest for several days.”

Said the other to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: Do not take the way I have been taking for it will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.” (S.Y. Agnon, “Days of Awe,” 22).

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, with its promise of renewal and transformation, each of us has much work to do — personal, difficult work that no one else can do for us. As we gather together with family, friends, loved ones, and community members at home and in the synagogue, let us strive to be present for one another in our journey to discover our paths toward transformation and renewal. As we begin a new year together as individuals, Americans, and Jews, let us remember that whenever we feel lost, we must redouble our efforts to create, nurture, and sustain those meaningful personal relationships in our lives that can often serve as our biggest resource and inspiration. May each of us be blessed to discover such relationships in the year to come, as we look for ways to create sacred purpose in our lives and in our world.

Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun
Congregation Torat El, Oakhurst


Dance of life

ONE POETIC EXPRESSION of life is that it is a dance. How we dance depends on the music.

Throughout the year there have been many reasons to dance to joyful music. We derived immense joy from the accomplishments of those we loved and even took pride in ourselves. For many, there was also great sadness and challenge. The dance was more somber and reflective, slower, and sometimes we didn’t even know the steps. We prepare for a new dance of life on the cusp of the new year. In our highly ritualized Jewish way, the great symphony of reflection, celebration, forgiveness, joy, and sorrow plays out in the acts of these Days of Awe.

The new year celebrations and reflections are a micro-dance all rolled into one. There is the joy and sweetness of the new year and the reflectivity and somberness of Yom Kippur. The prayers and readings and, yes, the music reflect the dance. The genius of Jewish tradition is that both the joyous ebullience and the somber reflectivity happen at the same time. Most people understand that feeling of being both joyous and sorrowful at the same time. Each of us very often has parallel dances going on. That is why, I believe, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are so close together. The spectrum of life’s realities and Jewish tradition’s holy response is the foundation for a new year and a chance, yet again, to reorient our dances to lives of holiness to ourselves, to others, and to God.

I wish for you a joyous dance of life in the new year; may its low notes be few, its rhythms uplifting. May the holiness these Days of Awe inspire give you direction and strength, and may you live to see your world fulfilled.

Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam, Elberon


Heart’s hope

HOPE IS A dream held secretly in the heart. Prayer is the heart’s hope held out to God. The High Holy Day season provides us with a crucial opportunity to transform our hopes and dreams into prayers and, in feeling God’s love for each and every one of us, to experience His closeness as the answer already taking shape.

Looking ahead to the coming year, we all know there is so much for which to pray. May God grant us all the strength and spiritual wherewithal to share our prayers with Him, and may He, in turn, fulfill each of our heart’s prayers for the good.

Wishing you and your families a healthy, joyous, peaceful, and blessed year.

Rabbi Effy Unterman
Young Israel of East Brunswick


Turn around

ONE OF GOD’S greatest gifts to the world was the mechanism of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often translated as repentance — a turning of our hearts away from our erring toward a better path, but I prefer the more literal translation — “returning.” When we engage in the mechanism of teshuvah, we are returning to our pure states of being, our pure neshamas.

For many of us, this year has brought challenges we have never seen — in our personal lives, at the national and global scales, for the Jews in America, for Jews all over, for Israel, for humanity, and for the planet. Though we engage and try to do well, given the state of the world around us, we can all clearly do better. We can all hold on to our hopes and dreams a little bit more tightly and act upon them; we can all think a little more creatively; we can all connect and be present with more souls.

The Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us that none of us are innocent; we have all erred at times. But it also reminds us of the good news: We can always turn around, and God will always be ready to meet us halfway.

May this year of 5779 be better. May every human being be safe and honored with everything they need, and may we all be filled with hope, blessing, and strength, as we bring God’s light to this sacred world.

L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah.

Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg
Temple Emanu-El, Edison


Who are we?

THE TALMUD teaches us that each year begins with blessings but can end with curses. And I believe I am not alone in feeling that this past year has been, if not cursed, at the very least tense and difficult. It forces us to address the question: Who are we really? An overwrought (and ugly) political climate forces us to ask: Who are we as Americans? The nation-state bill just passed in Israel forces us to ask: Who are we as Jews? #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and other hashtag activism movements force us to ask: Who are we as human beings?

Rosh HaShanah gives us the opportunity to seriously address these questions. The essence of the High Holy Days, teshuvah, “return,” is an invitation to restore our soul, reorient ourselves, and move once again in the direction of blessing. As Shlomo Carlebach (himself under scrutiny in our #MeToo era) sang: “Return to the land of your soul/ Return to what you are/ Return to who you are/ Return to where you are/ Born and reborn again.”

May your journey of return in this New Year be filled with meaning and joy and peace. On behalf of Cantor Bruce Rockman and the whole B’nai Tikvah family, I wish you a shanah tovah u’m’tukah, a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
Congregation B’nai Tikvah, North Brunswick

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