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Rabbis’ messages for the New Year: Greater MetroWest
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Rabbis’ messages for the New Year: Greater MetroWest

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The following are responses to an invitation from New Jersey Jewish News to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages:

Magic of community 

AT THIS TIME of year, we Jews pause to review — to look back over what we have done and decide where we want to go. Our tradition provides for us not only a method for self-reflection, but a measure as well. We exist to live up to the standards that Judaism demands of us.

Why are we here? This High Holy Days season, at Temple Sholom, we ask ourselves these primary questions — not only why are we alive (What is our purpose in life?), but why are we members of this particular community? 

Each of us should find a community that helps us bring out the best in our Judaism. There is a balance in community of finding what we need and providing for others. The magic of community is in the push and pull of its members. We look for a home that meets our needs. We make demands that fit who we are or want to be. Yet the point of coming together is fulfilling the needs of others as well. 

For those of us searching, or not even knowing to look, let us find a community in which to share this New Year — to fit who we are and expand who we might imagine ourselves to be. For those who have found a community, let us resolve in the coming year to not only rejoice in what we have, but appreciate the tugs and pulls of others that bring us out of our comfort zone.

Al tifros min hatzibur — Do not separate yourself from the community (Hillel, Pirkei Avot 2:5). Instead, dive in, rejoice, celebrate, and support each other. 

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham
Temple Sholom
Scotch Plains 

 

 

On authenticity

PEOPLE ADMIRE and respect a person who is authentic, who knows what he believes and makes sure his actions conform to those beliefs. We admire the politician who has the courage to say what’s on his mind and back it up with deeds. We admire the person of serious religious conviction who is ready to make the sacrifices in life so that his behavior can mirror those convictions. An authentic person seems whole, not one person on the outside and somebody entirely different on the inside, not one person at home and somebody else at work. We all need to live with a sense of wholeness that could open the door to a more satisfying and happier life. 

I would hope that the synagogue, because the falseness and pretense of the outside world hasn’t intruded, could be a place where we can fill that need. The synagogue must always be a place where no one feels compelled to keep his guard up or her mask on, where we can feel comfortable that we won’t be judged, where none of us will be forced to pretend to be who or what we are not, where we can bring our real self to our work and our study and our prayer. 

The synagogue has to be a place of tolerance and acceptance, and each of us has to commit to preserving the synagogue as a place of truth and honesty. That is how a beit knesset, a house of assembly, a place where the lonely and lost, the frightened and the searching can find sanctuary from the storms of the world around us.

Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation
South Orange

 

 

God’s home protection 

SO, CHANCES ARE you don’t have a mezuza — or at least according to some recent data. In the summer of 2013, after 14,892 mezuzos in 4,286 homes in Israel were sent for checking, only 38 percent came back kosher; 31 percent were invalid beyond repair, 9 percent were found to be empty cases with no mezuza inside, 4 percent were forged (a photo-copy or the like), and 18 percent were not kosher but reparable. 

You see, It’s like buying a car or an appliance. First, you need to make sure that the thing is authentic and you are not being duped into buying junk. So it needs to be from a reliable source — maybe recommended by someone in the know, etc. Then it needs maintenance — like you can’t leave it to rust for 10 years and still expect performance. 

Now this is serious business: God’s home protection policy. Not something to fool around with. Better safe than sorry. What to do? Take down your mezuzos and send them in for a check. You’ll be happy you did it, whatever the results may be. 

Rabbi Mendel Dubov
Chabad of Sussex County
Sparta 

 

 

Finding our confidence

JEWS THINK in weird ways. During the Days of Awe, so our tradition tells us, our lives hang in the balance. And yet many of us are planning meals with family and friends, eating honeyed foods and drinking, maybe drinking a bit too much; many of us buy new clothes and dress in our finest, and that too is endorsed by our tradition. When the moment calls for austerity, we go extravagant. When the emotion calls for dread, we call up celebration. Jews think in weird ways. 

But those extravagances and the joys come from a much deeper place than base nihilism or Jewish gallows humor. It comes from a knowing confidence, confidence in a past and in a promise. We enjoy, we dress, and we live because we know the year is bright. 

This message is vital to return to today, this year and forever. We must not sink into our self-pity or become victims of global despair. With every word and every vote and every pledge pulling our allegiance and calling for our dollars, let’s find our confidence in each other, in our strength, and let’s move from a place of love. The confidence gifted to us by God and in God will bring a Shana Tova, a good year. 

Rabbi Menashe East
Mount Freedom Jewish Center
Randolph

 

 

A second chance

5,776 YEARS IS a long time. Why not say, “Today is the world’s birthday: 4.543 billion years ago?” Some might cheer that we got it right. But joy may dissipate in checking the numbers. 4.543 billion leaves six unaccounted digits.

5,776 is a long time. It may not have the zeros of 4.543 billion that take our breath away, but it is enough time to teach us stories of a world created with order where each of us has a role in renewing creation daily.

5,776 years allow us to look at our actions and ponder their consequences: a year, 10, 100, or in 1,000 years. Pondering the effect of our actions three million years hence is too distant, let alone in 4.543 billion.

For somewhat less than 5,776 years, our High Holy Days readings present us with wisdom: ancient, yet timeless, but not prehistoric. Like Abraham, we will be asked to make heart-rending decisions that others may question for generations. We see the struggles of Abraham’s and Samuel’s families and pray God is and has been with us in our difficult journeys. When tragedy strikes, Jeremiah reminds us: God sends a Rachel who cries with us. Isaiah teaches us that righteousness is within our grasp. We learn that repentance is and has been possible since Sinai in our covenant with a compassionate God of second chances. As Yom Kippur draws to a close, Jonah teaches us that repentance means giving others and ourselves a second chance.

Rabbi Mark Finkel
Pine Brook Jewish Center
Montville

 

 

Glimpses of good will

IT WOULD BE understandable to feel pessimistic, even hopeless, as we look out at a world so prejudiced along political, religious, racial, and economic lines.

Oy! We could easily fall into despair. But on Rosh Hashana, we don’t allow pessimism or hopelessness to rule over us. Rosh Hashana presents us with three positive action items: to imagine visions of a new and better horizon, to feel irresistibly called to action, and to pay attention to the many glimpses of good will in this world and to reciprocate in kind. 

I want to focus on philo-Semitism, on those who respect and appreciate us because we are Jews. The second glimpse of good will is the sincere empathy that Jews feel for the pain of the black community after the horrific shootings in Charlotte, SC. The third glimpse of good will is the Muslim scholars and imams who testify to the historical truth of the Holocaust, who speak out against anti-Semitism, and who condemn terrorism as incompatible with Islam. 

The three action items and the three glimpses of good parallel the three sets of shofar blasts we hear in the synagogue, as we imagine ourselves thrice called, summoned, challenged:

Called to pay attention to the many glimpses of good will in this world and to reciprocate in kind by building greater mutual understanding and appreciation between Christians and Jews. 

Summoned to feel irresistibly called to action to achieve Dr. King’s dream and renew the historic alliance between Jews and blacks. 

Challenged to imagine a new and better horizon by restoring the historic relationship between Muslims and Jews of mutual admiration and respect. 

Rabbi Stuart Gershon 
Temple Sinai
Summit 

 

 

Light of action and faith

DURING A “SPIRITUAL” tour of our sanctuary with a group of fourth-graders, I explained that it is not God who ensures the continuity of the live flame above our Ner Tamid. “Without people changing the lights of our faith, our religion, our synagogues,” I said, “the light would die out.”

During the days of old, the Israelite people were responsible for bringing the fuel and lighting the Temple menoras. If not for the menora, the light it provided, the basic structure of the Temple, would not have flourished. Light was the foundation of all Temple activities. The priest kindled the lamp as a sign of God’s presence; it was the place our ancestors offered sacrifice, came to receive priestly counsel, and participated in all types of community activity. Yet, this was only the symbol of the light the Israelites had to kindle to maintain their belief and faith.

Today we are called upon to kindle the lights of prayer, study, and action — to light Shabbat candles each Friday night, to mark the time we and our families gather to eat, tell stories, come to synagogue together, and establish a sense of centeredness. We kindle lights to mark holidays, celebrating our sense of renewal through repentance, rededication, and acknowledgement of our values and ethics emanating from our tradition. We kindle lights on sad occasions, marking the memory of loved ones.

And we kindle the metaphorical light of action — to help connect the dots of justice for those who are hungry, homeless, or oppressed. To bring light into the life of a sick or lonely relative or friend. We perpetuate the light of our souls and our faith when we tend to others who are in need. 

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz 
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
Short Hills 

 

 

Striving to improve 

IT’S LATE IN the service, you’ve looked at your watch for the thousandth time, when you hear these words, “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” You shift as you stand there with a prayer book in your hand listening to yet another dirge-like tune; your mind starts to wander to lunch, which should start immediately after these never-ending services. You look at your watch again. “It’s got to be at least 20 minutes later; I know it.” You look down and you see that only two minutes have passed since the last time. 

Every year (after the challenge of finding a parking space) it’s a challenge to find meaning in a long service replete with theology and imagery so foreign to us. We struggle with our life and how it fits into our tradition. We read words about a God who sits in heaven who is judging us and determining who is going to die by fire, and who is going to die by the sword. 

I don’t believe God sits on a throne judging us, weighing our sins and good deeds. That’s not God; that’s Santa Claus. The God I believe in is the God who created us to look inside ourselves and to see how we can be better this coming year. The God I believe in knows that we are imperfect and wants to see us improve. May we be blessed to be better people this year than we were last year. Not perfect, but constantly striving to improve and to find ourselves in our tradition and our tradition in ourselves. 

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim
Cranford

 

 

Opening doors

THESE ARE THE days when all doors are open: the doors of prayer, song, meditation, and silent introspection; of family, friendship, and solitude; of exploration, seeking, and solace; of joy, pride and humility, and awe; of acceptance and forgiveness and love.

Recently, I held the door open for an elderly woman who was also entering the building. She thanked me warmly and then told me a story. Just that week she had gone to the local coffee shop. “I tried opening the door but it was very heavy. I pulled it open a little. Then I saw a young man coming toward me, leaving the shop. I thought he would push the door open for me. But instead, he squeezed through the space I was holding open and left.” She laughed ruefully. 

I suggested that she take the young man’s action as a compliment. He probably saw her as young and capable enough to look after herself. But we both knew that I was kidding. And I thought that we are all, at various times, either the young man or the elderly woman. These days are meant to remind us of that. 

So, as we enter and leave our places of worship and assembly, hoping to find the open door that we need so much, may we take the time to greet each other, old friends and new, old-timers and first-timers, and may we remind ourselves to hold the door open for each other. 

Rabbi David Greenstein
Congregation Shomrei Emunah
Montclair

 

 

We cannot stand alone 

THERE IS A hasidic teaching that tells us that we should see ourselves as a shofar — we have no sound, except that which someone blows through us. That “someone” is God, by whose power and because of divine love, we are able to do good. We are a mere trumpet, without merit; our goodness comes from God.

This teaching departs radically from our modern notion of self-empowerment. We are taught that we can “be all that we can be,” and we celebrate individual achievement. The hasidim provide a useful counterpoint of humility and gratitude that serves us well not only on the Holy Days, but every day.

It is healthy to believe in our own abilities and take pride in our achievements, but taken to an extreme, this leads us to leave no room to acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe, and that we all lean on others — family, friends, community, and God.

It has been a trying time for the Jewish people of late; as we think of our sisters and brothers in Israel, we can remember that we need each other — Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews — and that we cannot stand alone. We can be grateful for each other and appreciate the unique gifts we all bring to the Jewish people. We can also take time to let the people we love know how much we appreciate and need them. Humility and gratitude are the foundations to a meaningful spiritual life and the pathway to a life of blessing.

Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman
Temple Sholom of West Essex
Cedar Grove

 

 

Year of unity gatherings

THE YEAR 5776 is a “Hachel Year,” meaning “You shall gather together.” It was during this time — once every seven years — that the king of Israel, the spiritual leader of the Jews, would gather all the people into the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to read them selected portions of the Torah. The purpose of this mitzva was for people to “listen, learn, revere Hashem, and carefully follow all of the Torah’s instructions” (Deuteronomy 31:12). 

Today we have neither the Holy Temple nor a spiritual leader of this magnitude. However, our Torah teaches that although we are unable to fulfill the precepts connected with the Holy Temple physically, these precepts are still vibrant and instructive. 

Our Torah teaches that every individual is likened to a “king” due to the soul powers he or she possesses. This is the clarion call of this year: to give full expression to our “kingly attributes” by organizing gatherings of family and friends in order to a) increase feelings of camaraderie and strengthen the unity of our people and b) arouse passionate sensibilities for our awe-inspiring heritage, through studying a passage of Torah — the backbone of the Jewish people — placing a few coins in a charity box, and reciting a prayer that all can relate to.

Throughout the world, offices have been established to stimulate participation in the Hachel initiative. We are ready to assist, including through providing meaningful materials to be shared at Hachel events, in homes, workplaces, or elsewhere (OneTorahWay.org/Hakhel).

It is our fervent hope that this monumental year will be observed to the highest degree, both to intensify Jewish unity and strengthen the faith cherished in the hearts of Jews everywhere. 

Rabbi Asher Herson
Chabad Center of Northwest NJ
Rockaway

 

 

Fulfilling the mitzvot

THIS ROSH HASHANA, as we complete the shmita year of 5775, we simultaneously usher in the Shnas Hachel. 

During the time when the holy Beis Hamikdash stood, the Jews were bidden to come to Yerushalayim to hear the king of Israel read from his personal sefer Torah. This mitzva was tied to the seven-year agricultural cycle and was an inspiring event for the Jews. As we are missing the Beis Hamikdash, each of us is bidden instead to visualize ourselves as if we were standing at Har Sinai receiving the Torah. Although we are unable to fulfill the mitzva as originally intended, we understand that the mitzvos of Hashem are everlasting.

We are issuing a call to action for everyone to participate in this important mitzva. We encourage those in positions of leadership — parents around the Shabbos and yom tov table or celebrating simhas, work-site leaders, and community leaders — to take an initiative once a week beginning now and throughout the entire year. Study a lesson of Torah, preferably related to the weekly portion. In this way, we are taking a step closer to Hashem, and you will bring His words of Torah closer to yourselves and others. 

In this way we can fulfill the ways of Torah, by knowing just a little more Torah, and therefore we will speed the coming of Moshiach.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life and for a Shana tova u’metuka.

Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky
Bris Avrohom/Congregation Shomrei Torah Ohel Yosef Yitzchak
Hillside

 

 

Meaning and fulfillment

IT ONLY HAPPENS once a year. The High Holy Days are an opportunity for growth, inspiration, and renewal. There is more to the High Holy Days than apples and honey and lengthy services. In actuality, there is depth and meaning beneath the surface. As we each prepare for our private evaluation with God, the days preceding the High Holy Days call for an analysis of the past and a resolve to improve in the future.

At Chabad of West Orange, we are always here for you, 24/7, 365 days a year for spiritual guidance and all life-cycle events. If you are unaffiliated, please consider celebrating the New Year with Chabad. We warmly welcome every Jew, and we invite you to participate in our unique and uplifting services and festivities throughout the holidays. Traditional prayers, song, and reflection incorporate modern themes so that first-time, occasional, and veteran synagogue-goers all experience a personal sense of meaning and fulfillment. An amazing children’s program led by a group of wonderful staff members keeps the children excited about coming to synagogue services.

We are thrilled to announce the much-anticipated purchase of our new home at 401 Pleasant Valley Way. Our goal is to complete phase one of the construction so we can enjoy our new shul for the High Holy Days. 

May you and your family be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and blessed with a sweet New Year.

Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz
Chabad of West Orange

 

 

Embrace the sounds

TEKIAH, T’RUAH, SHEVARIM — a short blast, three short blasts, and nine staccato sounds. The Talmud tells us these are the cries of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was the general who fought Devorah and Barak. The shofar sounds we are obligated to hear on Rosh Hashana are derived from the cries of the mother of an evil enemy of the Jewish people.

Sisera’s mother cried for her son because Rabbi Akiva, the great light of the Jewish people, would descend from him. She cried for her son who might be killed before the spark of greatness would reach its potential and give birth to that light. 

Every mother in the Tanach is the Mother of Creation. The Shechina, God’s feminine aspect, knows that every child has a priceless gift that can change the world. God forbid, a child’s great potential will be lost. The cries of the shofar are preceded by a tekiah. You can’t remain aloof, so you need to embrace the spark, feel the brokenness of a Jewish child. Feel the tears and be there in the fragmentation to lift him up. The tekiah before is your belief in the child: I celebrate you; nothing can destroy your pure Godly essence.

The tekiah after comes from a wholeness that has worked through the pain and the tears and leads to a tekiah gedolah, a stronger blast than ever.

We cry for the spark of every child that might be lost, the Rabbi Akiva in each of us. So celebrate the Godliness, the greatness in everyone. Blow the shofar, blow the sound of hope!

Rabbi Boruch Klar
Lubavitch Center of Essex County
West Orange 

 

 

Do your part

THE PRAYER KNOWN as “Unesaneh Tokef,” which is recited during the Musaf service on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is considered to be a high point of the entire season of repentance. We are moved by the soul-stirring melodies and the powerful words that all too clearly give us perspective on where we stand in life — and death. 

“Who will live? Who will die? Who by fire? Who by water?” The list goes on and on and is almost too much to bear. 

I think many have classically thought of these passages in very personal terms (perhaps with the exception of the excruciating Rosh Hashana 2001 right after 9-11), and we do not usually associate this tefilla with our nation as a whole. This year is different. 

Many of my colleagues will address the current existential threat from Iran during their sermons. The passing of the recent deal with Iran from the P5+1 only exacerbates that threat. One thing I am certain of is that Iran is no friend of ours. Iran has publicly stated that they will annihilate our people, our homeland, and everything in their path. This is not about politics; it is about protecting good against evil.

When you recite those fateful words, think about more than just your position in the eyes of Hashem. Think of your entire people. Pray for them and do your part. 

Rabbi E. Samuel Klibanoff
Congregation Etz Chaim
Livingston

 

 

An honest struggle

MARK TWAIN reportedly said, “Giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” A Jewish version might read, “Asking forgiveness is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness more times than we can count — and a year later we do it again. Is this progress?

Perhaps. The time of year is less about who we would like to be than who we are. We are human. Despite the best of intentions, we make mistakes, often the same ones, again and again and again.

A life lived with no reasons to repent is an admirable goal — it’s just never going to happen. Causes for repentance can spring from base motives: greed, pride, jealousy. Yet the need to repent is also born in moments when we cannot help but present ourselves as who we wish we were: more accomplished, more generous, more worldly, more wise. Even as we sin, we reach toward an ideal.

Every year we return to God to ask forgiveness and repent. Yet far from meaning we are a failure, this annual effort means something joyous and reassuring: that our endeavor to be better is an ongoing one.

The Midrash reminds us that Rabbi Zusya, in his final moments, quaked with fear. His students asked if he were afraid God would find him lacking for not being like Moses. “No,” he replied. “I am scared he will be disappointed I have not been Zusya.”

God most cares that we recognize we are not perfect, and as long as we honestly engage in the struggle to be better, we will have fulfilled God’s wishes.

Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Temple B’nai Abraham
Livingston

 

 

Divine guide of history

ONE OF THE 13 cardinal tenets of Judaism is the belief in the eventual redemption of the Jewish people through Moshiach, the Messiah. This is based on many verses of the Torah and the Prophets. In the very first benediction of the daily prayer of Shemoneh Esrei, we find: “…who brings a redeemer to the children of their children, with love” — obviously referring to Moshiach. 

The long tunnel of golus/exile has the light of redemption at its end, as per God’s promise to our forefathers. As good as we have it in the free society of the USA and present-day Israel, let’s not remain satisfied with the status quo, which is far from true redemption, not to mention how difficult it is for the Jews of Europe and elsewhere. 

The veracity of the Torah is based on the fact that three million individuals simultaneously witnessed the divine revelation at Sinai. The belief in Moshiach reflects the control that God has over the course of history and its divine master plan, culminating with the messianic era, the eradication of world-wide evil, and the intensification of Godly revelation. 

Many are currently focusing on derailing the Iran deal and its inherent dangers. Many fear the reenactment of the events that preceded World War II. At such a time, it is well to remember that history is guided by God, always open to answer our prayers. 

May we all be inscribed for a Shana Tova, a good and sweet year!

Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic
Congregation Ahavath Zion
Maplewood

 

 

Ever better

THIS HIGH HOLY Day season I find myself reflecting back on my time as a student at the University of Rochester. Approaching my 10-year reunion, I am reminded more and more of the U of R’s motto, “Meliora,” “Ever better.” As students we were constantly encouraged to be better, to grow and change to meet the demands of every new situation in which we might find ourselves. This idea is not solely to be contained to life as a college student, however. Throughout our lives we must continually challenge ourselves to be ever better.

There is no better time in the Jewish year to be reminded of this challenge than in the midst of our Days of Awe, our time of teshuva, of turning and change. We have spent the past few days, or even weeks, looking back on the year that was and identifying those times when we wish we had acted differently. Teshuva is our process of committing ourselves to be ever better in the future:

Ever better in our relationships with others. 
Ever better at respecting and embracing the diversity in our society. 
Ever better in our quest to make the world a better place.
Ever better at making positive changes to our own thoughts and behaviors in all situations and at all times.

This year, may we embrace the notion of Meliora in our process of teshuva as we strive to become ever better.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and sweet 5776.

Rabbi Josh Leighton
Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon
Pompton Lakes

 

 

Open hearts and souls 

AS WE COME together to celebrate the holidays, each of us brings our own unique experiences, emotions, and a lifetime of stories that bring the color and depth to the soulful songs we sing. 

The liturgy of the High Holy Days is the score to the grand and majestic, yet intimate and personal music that we create together. It is meant to challenge us, enrich us, and help move us from complacency to action. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, it is through our deeds that we express our faith as we make that faith real in our lives and in the lives of others. Our prayers find their true resonance when they move us to live a more purposeful life, working to bring more peace, justice, and compassion into the world. They are a call to and from the depths of our soul. This year as we open the pages of the mahzor, our challenge will be to find renewed meaning in the keva, what is fixed on the page, and give new voice to our kavana, the personal prayers of the heart. 

This year may we open our hearts and our souls to the liturgy of the High Holy Days and allow it to feed our faith and our deeds in the year ahead. On behalf of the entire Temple Emanu-El family, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary and 60 years of Reform Judaism in Livingston, I wish you a sweet and happy New Year.

Rabbi Greg E. Litcofsky
Temple Emanu-El of West Essex
Livingston 

 

 

Focused on hope 

OVER THE SUMMER I took some of my children on a fishing trip on Long Island Sound. We chartered a boat with a captain and mate and were all set to spend the afternoon catching fish. 

After casting our lines, we waited for the fish to bite. And waited. And waited. We spent most of the afternoon waiting. 

I was expecting the kids to get tired and give up, yet they were insistent that the fish were about to bite — “Just wait a little longer!” Every minute that passed meant they were one minute closer to catching “the big one.” So we stuck it out.

Rosh Hashana and the High Holy Days are the start of a New Year hopefully filled with much happiness and fulfillment. It’s a chance to shift our focus to the future and hope that the new year will bring an abundance of good news to fill our lives, the lives of our families, and the lives of all am Yisrael.

As long as we stay focused on our hope for a better tomorrow, we can get through the challenges and obstacles that may come our way.

Eventually we did catch “the big one” (OK, the “pretty big one”) and there was plenty of action on the boat and plenty of fish to take home and enjoy.

As a people, we’ve been waiting to live in peace and harmony in our homeland and throughout the world for a long, long time. May this be the year when our waiting pays off, and may we return to Eretz Yisrael in true and everlasting peace.

Rabbi Shalom D. Lubin
Congregation Shaya Ahavat Torah, Parsippany
Executive director, Chabad of SE Morris County

 

 

Promises to keep

I OFTEN WONDER about how the Kol Nidrei prayer impacts upon you. What do you hear? What do feel? What is your emotional response to the melody and words? And does it, or should it, impact on how you live your life?

I am sure that most of us can recall the concluding verse of Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Do we keep our promises? Do we stand behind our vows? Do we fulfill our oaths? Is our word our word? It is my humble opinion that these questions are what the Kol Nidrei prayer intends to invoke in us.

Our promises, our vows, and our oaths, the Kol Nidrei asks us to take them to heart — not just what we swear to God we will do, but what we promise one another to do. Do we keep our word? Is our bond sacred? Are our intentions realistic? These are not easy questions to answer; my hope is that the recitation of Kol Nidrei gives us the courage to examine our hearts and so do.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health and happiness.

Rabbi Mark Mallach 
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael
Springfield

 

 

Remember to ‘look back’

THE HIGH HOLY Days are a time for us to pause from our fast-paced lives and reflect upon our blessings — and the most important blessings each of us has are the friends and family who love us and who are there for us throughout the year and throughout our lives. 

There is a story told at this season of a father and son who were delivering some wood to a customer before the Holy Days began. Because the wagon was not built for such a load, one person had to sit on the front seat and drive the wagon, while the other person sat in the rear to make sure the load did not shift. The weather was extremely cold and a blinding snow was falling. The father, who sat up front, spent most of the trip turning around looking to see if his son, precariously perched in the rear, was still there.

On the second part of the trip, the roles were reversed. The wood was delivered and father and son returned home to prepare for the holiday. Suddenly the father burst into tears. Crestfallen, the father told his son, “You never looked back to see if I was still there — you never looked back.”

As we prepare for this holiest season of the Jewish year, let us make sure to “look back” to our family and friends as we move forward into the coming year. 

Rabbi Steven Mills
Temple Beth Am
Parsippany

 

 

Serving one’s fellow

A RIGHTEOUS MAN was permitted by God to attain foreknowledge of the world to come. In a celestial palace he was ushered into a large room, where he beheld people seated at a banquet table…laden with the most delectable foods, but not a morsel had been touched. The righteous man gazed in wonder at the people seated at the table, because they were emaciated with hunger and moaned constantly for food….

“If they are hungry, why is it that they don’t partake of the food that is before them?” asked the righteous one. “They cannot feed themselves,” said the guide. “If you will notice, each one has his arms strapped straight, so no matter how he tries, he cannot get the food into this mouth.” “Truly, this is hell,” said the righteous one….

The attendant escorted him into another room, and the righteous one observed another table as beautiful, laden with delectable food. Those seated around the table were well fed and joyous. To his amazement he discerned that these people, too, had their arms strapped straight. Turning to his guide he asked: “How is it then that they are so well fed, seeing that they are unable to transport the food into their mouths?”

“Behold,” said the guide. The righteous one beheld that each one was feeding the other. “In truth,” he exclaimed, “this is heaven!”

“As you can see,” said the attendant, “the difference between hell and heaven is a matter of cooperation and serving one’s fellow.” 

This folk tale is from The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values by William Silverman (Jason Aronson, 1995). Silverman, a Reform rabbi who fought for civil rights and social justice, admitted the story was not from a Jewish source, but insisted it was consistent with Jewish values. Halivai

Bennett Muraskin
Jewish Cultural Society
Montclair

 

 

Listen and act

AS WE PREPARE to welcome the New Year 5776, there is an abundance of human behaviors that overshadow the possibility for a bright future filled with shalom. Of particular note is our ability or inability “to listen” and then use our voices to change the world. At times we silence or ignore those who have differing opinions with a blunt dismissiveness. In other instances we hide behind “political correctness” as an excuse for our inaction. And still further, there are those who “quiet” voices for positive change with the sounds of violent revolt.

Perhaps our Torah can give context to these traits. It is in the Deuteronomy that we are taught the “Sh’ma,” the watchword of our faith. “Listen up Israel” is the command. These words remind us daily that we learn best when we can truly “listen” to those whom we agree with and to those with whom we disagree. Giving a fair and equitable hearing to all sides, without overreaction, physical harm, or dismissal, can help each of us to learn, decipher, share, and ultimately effect change where and when it is needed.

Our world, our nation, our families are in desperate need of attentive, thoughtful listeners who can help to heal our world. May this New Year find us all remembering and acting upon the Sh’ma!

Rabbi Randi Musnitsky
Temple Har Shalom
Warren

 

 

Praying to change

RABBI ABRAHAM JOSHUA Heschel taught that in Judaism, prayer may not actually save us, but it can make us worthy of being saved. When we pray, it isn’t about pronouncing some quota of magic words or enduring some “community service hours” in shul. We pray to work on our own souls. 

In Judaism we affirm that we can’t change God, but we can convince God that we can change. As we change ourselves, we make our souls more open to relationships, so that our lives are not so intensely focused on the self. We can try to see the beauty that lies within all people and not waste time looking at the beauty that is painted on the surfaces of faces, or that is Photoshopped into print ads. 

This is a season of brutal honesty. It is a season of asking the truly critical questions of life. It is a season of mending fences, with family, with coworkers, and — dare we imagine it — with enemies. Imagine seeing the humanity even in a person you can’t stand, or one you consider your enemy. This season of the year, we examine our personal brokenness, and perhaps realize that something in everyone is similarly broken. Then we move on to understand them better, and we hope they can understand us, when they get to a similar place of honesty. But the change begins within each of us, before it can radiate out, to touch other lives.

We will spend a lot of time in prayer over the Yamim Nora’im. Let us pray to change.

Rabbi George Nudell
Congregation Beth Israel
Scotch Plains

 

 

Willingness to forgive

THE HIGH HOLY Days are a time for new beginnings and fresh starts. These days of awe are an opportunity for each of us to say that this year things will be different. But in order to do this, we also have to be prepared to let go. During the High Holy Day season, we focus on teshuva, repentance. We spend these days seeking out those we wronged and asking them for forgiveness. We ask God for forgiveness, and ultimately, we ask ourselves for forgiveness as well. Asking for forgiveness is the easy part. The hard part is our willingness to forgive.

We cannot allow others around us to move on, to strive to do better and be better, unless we are prepared to do so. We cannot ask for forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive. This is a time when we must seek out those we’ve wronged, but also embrace those who have wronged us. May we be strong enough and courageous enough to forgive those who seek forgiveness, in order to become the best version of ourselves in the year ahead. 

At Congregation Beth El, we welcome all with open arms. We hope that you find at Beth El a place to learn and a place to grow, a place to challenge and a place to act, a place to question, connect, and wrestle with God. Most of all, we hope that you find our home to be your home, a home where you can begin again.

Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
Congregation Beth El
South Orange

 

 

Finding community

AT THE BEGINNING of the Torah, after the creation of the first human being, God says: It is not good for the human to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) We all know the truth of this statement — we are not meant to be alone. Judaism has long understood the importance of community, requiring us to pray together, celebrate together, and mourn together.

In this time when more and more people are finding community in cyberspace, I cherish the physical space that Jewish communities create for us to meet face to face to pray, learn, sing, eat, laugh, and support each other.

During my first year as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Hatikvah I have received a gift of community and meaningful connection beyond what I could have imagined. I am proud to be the rabbi of a community that truly welcomes every person who comes through our doors, knowing that it is not good for a human to be alone. In the New Year of 5776, may we all find true community and human connection.

Rabbi Hannah Orden 
Congregation Beth Hatikvah
Summit

 

 

Our collective core 

THERE ARE MANY more rational ways of spending our time this High Holy Day season than sitting in synagogue, blowing the ram’s horn, fasting, building tabernacles, waving the four species, or dancing with Torah scrolls. These are not laws of science. Researchers have not proven these specific acts to be beneficial to our health. (Though the emotional benefits of religious life have been studied!) However, droves of Jews throughout the world will walk through synagogue doors this season in order to participate in these ancient rites.

Perhaps irrationality is precisely why we are so committed to these things. We are passionate about our culture, as it is rooted in our collective core. That is to say that when we do them we feel it in our kishkes. They provide us with the opportunity to feel many of life’s most warm and fuzzy emotions: passion, inspiration, love, nostalgia, connection, and belonging. These powerful rewards are not limited to the High Holy Days. The same emotions can be stirred up on any random Friday night, Saturday morning, or Tuesday afternoon. 

My prayer for our communities is that while we are engaged in the sacred act of heshbon hanefesh, or soulful check-ins, this time of year, we discover our inherent connection to God and one another. It is this connection that, for me, makes sense of the seemingly irrational in our midst.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year from all of us at Temple Hatikvah. 

Rabbi Scott B. Roland
Temple Hatikvah
Flanders

 

 

Testing our faith

I RECENTLY ATTENDED a memorial service for a cousin who died. He was a recovering addict who had been clean for 30 years, and the service resembled a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. “I’m Billy,” said a speaker, and my cousin’s friends responded, “Hi, Billy.” Billy (and the other speakers) talked about their own problems and how my cousin helped them in their time of need. They talked about my cousin’s willingness to help anybody in the group at any time, and the stories they told reflected their unwavering faith in each other as they supported each other’s efforts to remain drug-free. Their faith in each other was beautiful to see, and I wondered whether people needed to sink so low to reach such heights.

Like these recovering addicts, our faith is tested every day; but unlike them, most of us acknowledge the test only at this time of year. We read how the faith of Hagar and Ishmael was tested by the expulsion from the camp, and we read how the faith of Abraham and Isaac was tested by God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. And we respond in some ways as though we are at a meeting: We publicly proclaim our sins to the reinforcement of our fellow congregants. 

Fortunately, most of the time we do not have to sink so low to have faith that God will hear our pleas for absolution and another good (or better) year. Let us have faith that this year, too, God will listen.

Rabbi Simon Rosenbach
Congregation Ahavas Shalom
Newark 

 

 

This world of trials 

HAOLAM KULO nisyonot — This world is all trials. If there is one phrase to learn like a mantra, it surely is this saying of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Maybe remembering that this is a world of trials is the reason we read on Rosh Hashana the account of the Akeda, the sacrifice of Isaac, the trial of trials. 

This year our community has gone through great trials: of our unity as a people as we confront the denominational divide both here and in Israel, of our cohesiveness as the American-Jewish community as we confront the Iran nuclear agreement, of our ability to be welcoming and inclusive as our community becomes ever more diverse — from trans-denominational and transfaith to transgender. Perhaps most tragically, we are confronted with the trial of confronting and unambiguously rejecting violent extremism within the Jewish people.

The great theme of Rosh Hashana is teshuva, repentance, self-change. How do we know when our spiritual efforts, the trial we put upon ourselves, dhas succeeded? The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, answers that we have succeeded when we are confronted with the same circumstances in which we previously failed, but this time we do not fail because we have become other than we were. 

This is the ultimate outcome of a trial: transformation into our true selves. 

All the trials and storms we have passed through and are poised to pass through can have the same positive transformational power only if our goal is to become more compassionate, more unified, more committed to the flowering of each Jewish soul and the nurturing of the world. Only then will this world of trials reveal its secret heart of blessing. 

Rabbi Moshe Rudin
Adath Shalom
Morris Plains

 

 

Be smart

WHEN I WAS in Israel this past summer, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Bakvish, al tihiyeh tzodek, tihiyeh haham,” Meaning, “While driving on the road, don’t feel you need to be right — be smart!”

Israeli drivers are notorious for cutting each other off, for disputing turns, etc., and this is designed to promote road safety. As a rabbi, I have seen too many lives ruined by a person trying to always be right, rather than being smart. Sometimes, it is the better course, on the road or in life, to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Rabbi Doug Sagal
Temple Emanu-El
Westfield

 

 

A blessed alliance

RABBI MORDECAI KAPLAN observed that American Jews live in two civilizations, the USA and our Jewish heritage. We are most comfortable when both parts of our identity work in harmony. Current differences about Iran openly expressed by the White House and the Knesset are disconcerting. Let us keep in mind that U.S.-Israel policy tension has occurred periodically. 

America is a huge, militarily powerful country located in a peaceful region. Israel is a small, vulnerable state struggling to exist in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. We look forward to a return of basking in the blessing of the uniquely close America-Israel relationship.

America is the only nation-state whose self-image always has been a “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Americans have always identified with the biblical Hebrews entering into a Promised Land. Hundreds of towns were given names like Bethlehem and New Canaan. The initial proposed seal of the United States depicted Moses leading the Israelites into freedom. Americans have always felt an affinity for the re-establishment of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. As President Bill Clinton remarked in his efforts to bring peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors: “My pastor taught me Genesis 12 — Whoever blesses the Jewish people will be blessed.”

The “Judeo-Christian” ethos also led Americans to pursue democracy and seek democratic partners. The majority of Israel’s citizens were raised in totalitarian Arab or communist regimes, yet the country is the only Middle Eastern state that has been democratic since its inception. Freedom of the press, of assembly, of speech as well as gender, religious, and ethnic equality before the law reign supreme. The Judeo-Christian value system led the U.S. to pursue goodness throughout the globe and seek allies for that mission. The U.S.-Israel alliance is a blessing in which to rejoice. 

Rabbi Alan Silverstein 
Congregation Agudath Israel
Caldwell

 

 

A teshuva prayer 

ETERNAL ONE of Blessing:
Looking back over the past year, 
We have passed much time being angry, resentful , stubborn: missing the mark.
Help us let go of old angers and resentments.
We have focused on the negative in our surroundings.
Help us become aware of the beauty of your Creation and the beauty in others.
We have lived with many fears, real and imagined.
Help us have faith in ourselves and in You.
We have often turned a blind eye to injustice and cruelty toward others and overlooked abuse of our Holy Planet.
Help us live in the world with kindness toward others, toward our Planet and toward ourselves.
We have often been discouraged with so many things.
Help us view our surroundings through a positive lens, with faith in You, in ourselves, and in each other.
We have not always treated our bodies with care.
Help us feel the gift of Your breath within us every moment. You are the Breath of all life.
During this time of teshuva, may we right the wrongs we have done to others and to ourselves, and once again turn toward harmony with You.
May we do so in hope, with insight and sincerity. 
We turn to You, Eternal One of Blessing, as we pray for a new beginning.
May 5776 bring renewal of insight, Healing, Transformation and Light to all. 

Inspired by the P’nai Or Mahzor)

Reb Deb Smith
Congregation Or Ha Lev
Succasunna 

 

 

‘Make up your mind’

A NEW BOOK by Dr. Seuss may serve to inspire adults and children alike on this High Holy Day season. Although the beloved author passed away in 1991, the recently discovered manuscript of What Pet Should I Get? has been published posthumously. Like all Seuss books, this one has a simple story, whimsical creatures, and an emphatic message. The plot involves two siblings who seek to purchase a pet, but the plethora of available animals at the pet shop makes their task incredibly difficult. With so many options, how can they possibly choose? But choose they must! That existential imperative is highlighted as a parade of exotic faunae hold up signs that read: “MAKE UP YOUR MIND.”

When the Jewish year begins, that is precisely the message of our tradition. This is a season of choice, both collectively and individually. As Jews, we must make important political and social decisions that will affect the future of America, Israel, and the world. As individuals, the choices in our personal lives are no less vital or significant. The number of choices can be dizzying. It is easier to throw up our hands and leave it all to fate. But not to choose is also a choice, and every entry in the Book of Life is signed with our own hand. At the end of the Seuss book, the children’s choice remains a mystery. Though our future is also unclear, may we choose wisely and with care so that next year will be better.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Spector
Temple Beth Shalom
Livingston 

 

 

Sharing the same goals

AS WE APPROACH the High Holy Days of 5776, cognizant of the many challenges that we confront, it is surely the Iranian nuclear deal that looms especially large. We are right to debate this question and to advocate for our respective positions, as the stakes are inordinately high. But disagreement must not lead to the fracturing of relationships, and advocacy must not engender disunity. We all share the same goal of a safe and secure Israel, and a Middle East where chaos does not reign and savagery does not run rampant.

We are right to concern ourselves with the issues of global import, yet the focus of the High Holy Days is more local. Our liturgy directs our attention more to our inner souls, asking us to examine how we can as individuals refine both our character and our deeds. To the extent that we can succeed in that effort, we will be in a better position to deal with the many challenges we face in life, as individuals, as a community, and as a people.

May the holidays usher in a year of peace, security, happiness, and prosperity. L’shana tova.

Cantor Steven Stern
Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah
Clark

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