Note: This is the first installment. Rabbis’ New Year’s messages will next appear in the Sept. 13 edition.
Identity and culture
HUMANISTIC JEWS say what we mean and mean what we say.
This motto was adopted decades ago as a touchstone of our movement. It declares that the most important part of our Jewish practice is the intellectual integrity at the core of our dignity. The most important thing that we do in our community is to speak and share words of clear meaning that reflect our deepest understandings of the world we live in, words that bind us to each other in community, and words that invoke our aspirations for ourselves and all people. Saying what we mean and meaning what we say is never more important than at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
As Humanistic Jews, we reflect on actions taken and not taken in the past year that have impacted our inner selves, our families and friends, and all humankind. We take personal responsibility for the things in our control, both the good and the bad. We resolve to continue our good works and refrain from the bad. We aspire to mend relations with others and to contribute more in the coming year. And we search inwardly for the at-one-ment that will comfort and strengthen us in the year to come.
This year will be the 20th for our congregation, Kahal Chaverim, formerly the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Morris County. We will celebrate together the High Holy Days, Passover, and other holidays for the 20th time. Most importantly, we will also celebrate the culmination of the education of our 60th b’nei mitzvah student.
Our services and programs are open to all who wish to express their Jewish identity and culture by saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Please join us!
Rob Agree, Ceremonial Leader, Kahal Chaverim
New Jersey Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
IN LEVITICUS we read, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord” (19:16). A few chapters later: “Ye shall not wrong one another” (25:17), which, according to tradition, refers to the harm we can cause with our words. And in Psalms we read, “Keep thy tongue from evil” (Psalms 34:14).
This idea was expounded upon by later sages. “I can retract what I did not say,” Solomon Ibn Gabirol (c. 1020-57) taught, “but I cannot retract what I already have said.” Jewish tradition compares speech to an arrow. Once words are released, they cannot be recalled, and the harm they might do cannot be predicted, for words, like arrows, often go astray.
These sacred texts form the foundation of Judaism’s concern over the negative impact that can occur when words are used carelessly. The rabbis of old never imagined social media, but they knew that words can be used to build up or tear down, and time and again they urged us to use our words to build connection and expressed concern for the damage that can be done when words are used carelessly.
In recent years, the speech we hear in the public square has begun to confirm the worst of the rabbis’ concerns. Attack speech has replaced serious debate. Ugly language on social media is increasingly the norm. And our willingness to accept such language has grown.
Change will have to begin with us. At the New Year, may we commit ourselves to using words in the way the rabbis intended — to help bring increased holiness to our world. And maybe, just maybe, others will follow our example. Shanah tovah.
Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen
Rabbi Alexandra Klein
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange
Humility the key
HUMILITY, A MODEST view of oneself and one’s own importance, isn’t something a lot of people identify as a personal virtue or quality. In fact, the watchword of our time may be the opposite — arrogance, or when a person thinks he knows it all and that she doesn’t need to improve because she’s already so great. There’s a lot of arrogance around us, in our politics, in our national discourse, in our society’s emphasis on the centrality of the self. And there’s not enough humility around us. That’s regrettable because the virtue of humility — deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition — is an important key to building a society guided by tolerance, coexistence, and harmony.
The Jewish tradition urges us to embrace the attribute of anavah, humility, repeatedly declaring it the greatest of all the moral virtues. Talmudic sages emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check. They point to the heroes of the Bible as role models of suppressing boastfulness and excessive pride. Abraham refers to himself as
being “dust and ashes.” Moses famously resists God’s call to lead his people out of slavery because he feels that he is underqualified and unworthy of the task. Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others.
Humility doesn’t require that we have a self-deprecating attitude or that we diminish our inherent value as human beings. An attitude of humility enables us to make room for others in our lives — their needs, their views, and their values.
Let this be a year in which we seek to embrace anavah, of living with a humble spirit in our speech, deeds, and perceptions of others.
Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange
AS ELUL ARRIVED, I dusted off my shofar collection and proceeded to try to sound a tekiah. A former French horn player, I know how to blow a shofar, but it’s not easy when you’re out of practice. Each morning of the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah it is traditional to hear the shofar blast to awaken our souls to the work of teshuvah. Just as getting a good tekiah blast from the shofar requires practice, so too the work of teshuvah is a process.
Teshuvah’s root is “shuv,” which means “turn.” At this time of year, we are especially mindful of our efforts to turn back to God and turn toward the best versions of ourselves. Tekiah. The shofar’s blast awakens us each day and of course on Rosh HaShanah and the end of Yom Kippur. Tradition tells us that we are to “repent the day before you die.” (Rebbe Eliezer, Pirkei Avot, 2:10) This really means that we should always be working on repentance, teshuvah. The yamim nora’im, the High Holy Days, draw our attention to this ongoing personal work.
May the shofar’s blast wake us up and may we stay awake to do the work of teshuvah this Elul, this Tishrei, and each day so that we can make ourselves and the world in which we live a better place.
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz
Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston
Good for all?
ROSH HASHANAH always prompts me to think about where I fell short in the year ending and what I wish for in the year ahead. My thoughts usually turn to my community, my family, and myself. This year is different. The world at large is too scary.
I love the United States. I am an Eagle Scout, literally and figuratively. I stand for the flag at the Fourth of July parade. I think this country, while surely imperfect, is perhaps the greatest experiment the world has ever known in, as Lincoln wrote, government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Today we live in agitation. We are still the world’s great democracy, but xenophobia, racism, and a tolerance for fascism threaten us. If anyone should understand these dangers, it is we Jews. When the weakest among us are an object of scorn, no one is safe. When the distance between haves and have-nots widens, our stability is threatened. When privilege is touted because of where one was born, how one prays, or the color of one’s skin, who gets to draw the line?
We Jews are living proof of the greatness of American democracy. Our educational, economic, and communal achievements are likely beyond parallel in our history. If that is true — even if it’s not — our success here is largely a function of the opportunity this country offers.
Our singular responsibility as American Jews is to ensure that what America has been to us it must be to all people: a place where freedoms ensure we can speak our minds, worship as we choose, and have access to the tools to make our lives what we want them to be.
America has been and continues to be “good for the Jews.” In the year ahead, may it be so for all who live here.
Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston
Replace ‘you’ with ‘we’
YOU CAN TAKE it or leave it, but please don’t ignore it. “It” involves the “Find and Replace” command on your mental hard drive. No fear, this can be performed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, even on Yom Kippur.
This action is specific but not limited to times when you are dealing with your shul, Jewish school, and similar local Jewish institutions. To begin, please search for the word “You” and replace it with the word “We.” To follow, please also search for “Your” and replace it with “Our.”
Exceptions can be made when practicalities or grammar call for the original format, provided that the updated attitude is plugged in and current.
Because we deeply and personally care that each of these precious institutions should continue and flourish. Because we want them to feel our appreciation for the crucial and invaluable work they are doing — for us. Because we are vested in their success in an equal measure to those who are employed by them. Because, when the big day comes, we are going to be asked just this: “Were you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
Rabbi Mendel Dubov
Chabad of Sussex County, Sparta
Petition for life
THE STANDARD BLESSING on holidays is the Shehecheyanu, expressing that we are thankful to have reached this moment. But what moment do we arrive at during the High Holy Days? Other holidays celebrate a historic event — the Exodus from Egypt. We can celebrate that. God gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai. Sure, that’s amazing; let’s party. But the High Holy Days? They were non-events. It’s even more complicated than that. Our joy on these holy days is tempered. We don’t sing the celebratory Hallel praises on these holidays. Why not? The Talmud answers: How can we sing with a full heart when the books of life and death are open before God?
So, these days bear no historic significance and are days when life hangs in the balance. To return to the question, why are we excited to be “alive and arrived” at this moment? This, to me, is what these days are all about. We stand in judgement before the King of Kings. And we have a chance — maybe only a slim chance — to stand in our defense, to plead the case of our goodness before the Creator of all.
We are grateful to be alive because that allows us to petition for life, for a chance, for more time, for more laughter, for more love, for more family, for more, for more, for more. In another sense, every other holiday celebrates the historic experiences from our past; Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are about the history we are about to make.
I don’t know you, or I may — but I know that I want this to be a year of life for you and me and all of us. When we make our blessings these holidays, let’s ask for more.
Shanah tovah — a sweet New Year.
Rabbi Menashe East
Mount Freedom Jewish Center, Randolph
WE OPEN THE service on Rosh HaShanah evening with the “Hineni” prayer, one of the most humbling prayers in our worship. The chazzan/chazzanit chants the prayer in its mournful tone, these words: “Behold me of little merit, standing before You, pleading on behalf of Your people…. Let [congregants] not be put to shame because of me, nor I because of them.
The simple, straightforward style of “Hineni,” combined with the beautiful melody, makes this prayer one of the high points of Rosh HaShanah. “Hineni” is one of the most powerful words in Torah and in our vocabulary. It means “Here I am,” as I am. Accept me for my flaws, knowing that I am truly in the moment. We all experience these moments: when the sight of our child, grandchild, niece, or nephew takes our breath away. When the sights and miracles of nature overwhelm us. When we witness true healing or are present with a soul when they take their last breath.
Here are some of the Hineni moments I wish for all of us in the coming year:
God please grant all souls peace, health, compassion, and justice.
May we all see each other as truly created in the image of God and have the opportunity to sit face to face and see the humanity in one with whom we may disagree.
May we each find a new path to God, whether through connections with others, taking classes, praying together, doing acts of loving-kindness, or volunteering our time.
May we have faith not only in God, but also in each other, knowing that we are acting with our higher selves and living “derech eretz” (the proper way to behave).
L’shanah tovah: A sweet and blessed New Year.
Rabbi Renee Edelman
Temple Sha’arey Shalom, Springfield
Who we are
“TODAY IS THE birthday of the world,” we read in the prayer book. The immensity and beauty of the world come to mind as we recall majestic mountains, beautiful beaches, and breathtaking sunsets.
It is curious that we do not read the opening chapters of Genesis on Rosh HaShanah. We save that for Simchat Torah. It is conspicuous by its absence; there must be a lesson in it.
On Rosh HaShanah we read the story of the birth and the binding of Isaac. Perhaps the reason is because ancient Babylonians read “Enuma Elish,” their creation story, on their creation festival, and Judaism wanted to put distance and contrast between our celebration and theirs.
But perhaps the lessons of Rosh HaShanah weave together who we are not and who we are. The Torah and haftarah combine to tell us the suspense-filled stories of the miraculous births of Isaac and Samuel, impressing upon us that the birth of a child is nothing short of miraculous. The Torah reading tells the story of two children (Isaac and Ishmael) who come perilously close to losing their lives, and we come to understand that the life of every child is a precious gift, to be cherished and cared for, knowing that our roles as parents, guardians, and caregivers can sometimes be fraught with challenges and danger.
Rosh HaShanah is a sacred time, the first of our days of awe; we celebrate the awesome magnificence of our 5,779-year-old (or older) world. We also stand in awe of our roles as b’nei brit, inheritors of our covenants with God — a time to understand our awesome roles as the guardians of God’s creations, large and small, that have been entrusted to our care. How we face these roles will shape our future and our destiny.
Rabbi Mark Finkel
Pine Brook Jewish Center, Montville
AS DAVID BOWIE famously taught us, “Time may change me.”
The Hebrew words for “change,” “repeat,” and “learn” all come from the same root word as “shanah,” the word that we know as “year.” All of these words ultimately come from the Hebrew word “shnayim,” which means “two.” What does all of this confusing linguistic information mean?
Our ancestors believed that the best way to learn something was to repeat it over and over again. The teacher would say something the first time, and the students would say it the second time. Thus, the name of the first post-biblical Jewish law book was the Mishna (learning/repeating). So, “shanah” means both “repeat” and “learn.” However, “shanah” also means “year,” because the seasons repeat themselves over and over.
It seems to me that the Hebrew language is trying to tell us that with the passing of each year, we should seek out learning and change. When we wish each other a shanah tovah, therefore, we are not just wishing one another a “good year.” We are hoping and praying for positive change, gaining experience, learning about ourselves and others. We are reminding one another of the potential that can be found in every new beginning.
With that in mind, I wish you a shanah tovah — a year that changes you.
Rabbi Avi Friedman
Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center
Chance for renewal
OUR TRADITION teaches there is spiritual work to be done for our innermost desires to come to fruition. According to our sages, three steps of teshuvah give passage to a year of fulfillment and meaning.
Teshuvah is often translated as “forgiveness” but the literal meaning is “to turn” or “return.” The following is the three-step process of “return”:
Return to self — According to our sages, this means that each of us is born with a purpose in life. We spend too much time being jealous, angry, guilty, frustrated, judgmental, and fearful, transgressions that most often inhibit us from being our best selves. Let’s do an accounting of our souls and allow ourselves to be everything we were born to be, giving ourselves the gift of being happier and more fulfilled.
Return to others — The second sacred task is when teshuvah does mean reconciliation and forgiveness. This is when we are encouraged to evaluate our relationships and are given the privilege of asking the tough questions about our connections to spouses, partners, parents, siblings, friends, bosses, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers.
This is the time to have the conversation, to ask for forgiveness, to let someone know they hurt us. This is the time to let go of the grudge.
Return to God — How are we to return to God when so many of us have questions about who and what God is? But our tradition teaches that God doesn’t want to hear from us on Yom Kippur unless we have fulfilled the two tasks above, when we have reconciled with ourselves and those around us. This works for believers and for those who struggle. Prayers become significant when the words, our values, are acted out in real life.
A healthy, sweet, joyful, and meaningful New Year!
Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills
THE CENTRAL, iconic object of the Days of Awe is the shofar, the ram’s horn. Its traditional presence in our observances and its ubiquitous presence in our holiday graphics can give us a sense of comfort and reassurance — “Some things never change.” But change is actually the main point of this time of year! The shofar’s role is not to soothe us. It is meant to sound an alarm for us. It serves as a wake-up call. Maimonides, some 850 years ago, heard the shofar blast to be calling: “Awake sleepers from your sleep and slumberers, from your slumbers!”
These days some of us have heard of the condition of being “woke.” It refers to an arousal of awareness about the unjust conditions that are part of our society, conditions that are often so ubiquitous that they become taken for granted. To be “woke” is to shake off the blinders of habit that make social injustice and its victims invisible to us. It can even mean that we awake to our own place in the social reality that needs fixing. Are we ourselves victims? Are we ourselves supporters of injustice?
These questions can make us uncomfortable. But we cannot observe these Days of Awe properly in a state of spiritual and ethical slumber. To be “woke” is also to be energized and inspired. The shofar is meant to shake us up and to help us become invigorated with a new sense of purpose.
We cannot afford to let our souls and consciences sleep through these coming days and the challenges they set before us. May the shofar blasts we hear in this New Year shake us awake so that our renewed sense of energy and vigor may bring blessing to this needy world.
Rabbi David Greenstein
Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair