Rabbis’ messages for the new year

Rabbis’ messages for the new year

Leaders of area congregations share their High Holiday thoughts


Note: This is the first installment of New Year’s messages from area religious leaders; the next group of messages will appear in the Oct. 1 edition.

Pass inheritance on

THE MIDRASH tells an amazing story: Rabbi Yannai was walking and met an elegantly dressed man. He said to him, “Will the honorable gentleman please be my guest?” The man replied, “As you please.”

Rabbi Yannai took him home and questioned him on Torah, but he knew nothing; on Talmud, nothing; on Aggadah, nothing. Finally, he asked him to say grace. The man replied, “Let Yannai say grace in his house.” Rabbi Yannai said, “Can you repeat what I tell you?” The man answered, “Yes.” Rabbi Yannai said, “Say a dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.”

The guest seized Rabbi Yannai, demanding, “Where is my inheritance that you have and are keeping from me?”

“What inheritance of yours do I have?”

The guest replied, “The children recite, ‘Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob’” (Deuteronomy 33:5). (Vayikra Rabbah 9)

It’s a powerful story. Rabbi Yannai looks at the guest with contempt for his ignorance. But the stranger, with great dignity, says to him: “The Torah is my inheritance as well as yours. Since you have much, and I have none, share a little with me. Instead of mocking me, teach me!”

The Torah is ours and our children’s inheritance. We all have a right to a soul. The children should receive from us more than just shelter, food, and clothing and the education of their mind. Many Jewish souls have through their parents’ neglect been deprived of their spiritual inheritance of the Torah. The Torah of the Jew is the greatest classic of all literature, the most vivid document of history, the constitutional charter of our moral society and spiritual humanity. Yet many parents dispossess their children of their most ennobling spiritual heritage by failing to teach them mitzvot and Torah diligently.

Let us ensure that we and our progeny take possession of our heritage by learning more Torah.

Rabbi David Bassous
Congregation Etz Ahaim, Highland Park

Merit and peace

ROSH HASHANAH, the head of the Jewish New Year, commemorates the anniversary of the creation of mankind and is a Day of Judgement. On Rosh HaShanah, we coronate the King, through publicly acknowledging that the creator of the world is our God, our King. On that day, every being passes before the heavenly throne and is judged on his deeds. The King decrees who will continue to live and what blessings will be had in the forthcoming year.

The shofar (ram’s horn) is sounded to stir the Jewish people from their slumber, rousing them to return to God. We hope that the shofar is reminding Hashem of the binding of Yitzchak, our forefather, thereby arousing Hashem’s attribute of mercy.

The month of Elul, which precedes Rosh HaShanah, is a time to prepare for the holiday through introspection of one’s past deeds and commitment to improve in the future. We all must enlighten ourselves of our meritorious service of the Almighty and our lack thereof, through expanding the breadth and depth of our strengths and quelling our weaknesses. We rejoice on Rosh HaShanah with the faith that Hashem will grant us another year of life, full of blessings, to work on ourselves and achieve
our goals.

During the intermediate days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we gradually intensify our efforts to regret misdoings and commit to improve. We seek to make peace with anyone we may have harmed. All of our actions, including lending a helping hand, putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles, or hanging a mezuzah on our home, have an impact on both our souls and the world. Each of us has unlimited capacity to perform good deeds, which bring merit and peace to our brethren worldwide.

Best wishes for a healthy and sweet new year!

Rabbi Yossi Kanelsky
Center for Jewish Life, Marlboro

‘A thought in God’s mind’

“IN THIS HOUR” is a new collection of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. They were composed primarily during his years in Nazi Germany.

What, I wondered, might a rabbi in Nazi Germany say to Jews before the Days of Awe? Would he see the political crisis as “proof” of Divine wrath? Whom does he hold responsible? What action does he propose? What does he identify as Jewry’s highest priority in a time of crisis? Does he offer a message of consolation and hope?

In “The Meaning of Repentance” — an essay he wrote in advance of Rosh HaShanah in September 1936 — Heschel says the following:

“The establishment or destruction of the kingly dignity of God occurs here and now, through and in us…. The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of His attention. He may punish and discipline me, only let him not forget me, nor abandon me…. The most unassuming of all miracles is the miracle of repentance…. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and damage that we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation….”

Amazingly, Heschel does not call for political action or enhanced security of synagogues. There is no condemnation of anti-Semitism. Why?

Perhaps Nazi tyranny made it dangerous to do so. Or perhaps Heschel viewed spiritual transformation as the Jewish community’s highest priority.

All too often, we Jews make political activity our religion, usually to our detriment. In advance of 5780, I pray that we realize, as Heschel did, that a heavy dose of Torah study, prayer, and deeds of lovingkindness (and repentance!) might mean more for our collective health.

Shanah tovah,

Rabbi Robert Pilavin
Congregation Sons of Israel, Manalapan

Looking up

ON JULY 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The entire world was mesmerized, watching as humans set foot on the moon. Fifty years later, it is worth reflecting on this incredible moment.

In observing Apollo 11 footage, Jason Gay wrote in The Wall Street Journal in July that people were looking up: at the spacecraft and at computer monitors. Their heads were tilted upward toward the blue Florida sky, both at the launch and in anticipation of the parachuting return of the command module Columbia. There was a sense of awe — no one had seen this before.

Mr. Gay laments that most people today spend their time looking down, namely, at their smart phones. He wrote, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed people sitting at an event, missing real-life human action before them because their faces are buried in a phone. They are there, but they are not present, because they are virtually somewhere else.” (WSJ.com, Sept. 14, 2019)

In 2019 we are hyper-connected, yet many feel lonely. In this new year, let’s look up more often. Let’s pay more attention to loved ones and to friends. Let’s take every interaction as an opportunity to connect and to acknowledge our blessings. Finally, let’s be grateful for the world God created for us — including the stars.

Rabbi Michael Pont
Marlboro Jewish Center

Bring lives into harmony

REB SIMCHA BUNIM of Pshis’cha (1765-1827) is quoted as having said that when he was young, he thought he could change the world. As he got older, he saw that he could not change the entire world, but at least, he thought, he could change his city.

As time went on, he saw that even that was beyond his grasp, but he said, “I’ll at least change my neighborhood.” When he saw that that was not working, he said, “I’ll at least try to change my family.” When he saw that that failed as well, he said, “I’ll have to try to change only myself.”

But once he succeeded in changing himself, he saw that his family was different, his neighborhood was different, his city was different, and, in a sense, the entire world was different.

During this, the most introspective time of the Jewish year, may each of us give ourselves permission to unplug from the news cycle and to take the time to do the personal and spiritual work to discern how we can bring our lives into harmony with our highest ideals.

While it is never easy to turn our attention away from all of the challenges and conflict and strife that so vigorously demand our attention, it is our prayer that doing so will bring us the clarity and the strength that we will need to bring about the changes that are so desperately needed in the world around us.

May the year to come be a sweet one, full of healing, peace, and repair for all.

Rabbi Eric M. Rosin
Neve Shalom, Metuchen

From brokenness to wholeness

WHEN I WAS growing up, there was a small table in the entryway of my house on which could be found a small, brown shofar that belonged to my zayde (grandfather). It was incredibly difficult to blow, and I would spend hours trying to make the shofar “cry” with the sounds of tekiah (1), shevarim (3), teruah (9), and tekiah gedolah (1).

Did you ever notice that while the shofar contains many short, broken notes, the cycle of blowing always ends on one whole note? We are being reminded that while it might seem as if brokenness is all around us, healing and wholeness are always possible. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov used to teach: “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

But wholeness takes effort. In trying to explain and unpack the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, one opinion in the Talmud suggests that it represents the cries of Sisera’s mother. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

Sisera, a Canaanite general who oppressed Israel and was defeated by Yael, was our biblical “enemy.” Why would our sages believe the cries of the shofar represent his mother’s cries? One commentary, which I learned from Rabbi Ed Feld, relates the idea that brokenness can turn to wholeness only when we learn to have empathy for others, even our “enemies.” Our sages remind us that wholeness will come — in our personal lives, our society, and our world — only when we learn to approach those who seem radically different from us with kindness, love, and an awareness that they too are made in the divine image.

May this be a year when we strive to increase our empathy and concern for one another, as individuals and American citizens, as we seek to move from brokenness to healing and wholeness in our lives.

Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun
Congregation Torat El, Oakhurst

Join the journey

THE DAYS OF Awe can be a profoundly moving and meaningful period. The liturgy and the music, the moments of remembrance and the feeling of connection with the holy and the divine have the elements that allow us to begin anew and fresh, entering a new year as better people, one step closer to being tzadikim, righteous people.

There are many opportunities for change. We can change the hateful nature of speech, the anger and caustic resentment that eat at our souls, the relationships that have been broken and only appear to be beyond repair. Our tradition knows that reconciliation is possible and comes when we wish to release the burdens that weigh us down. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and the Ten Days of Repentance focus us on our tasks. The challenge is ours but only if we openly embrace it.

The hardest question to answer during the Days of Awe is how to face our shortcomings head-on; we have to do something we don’t often do: be completely honest with ourselves. Overcoming our sense of absolute righteousness is hard. I have found it can best be done in community. And that is where it is important for the community to be together. Perhaps this is the reason the Days of Awe attract so many people; a common goal is often best achieved in partnership.

At Beth Miriam, we invite you to share the Days of Awe with us. The services are meaningful, formal but haimishe; the music is superb, the people friendly. You will see old friends, renew relationships, and meet new people. Together we journey through challenges and opportunities of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility. I invite you to join us. Visit bethmiriam.org or call 732-222-3754 for details.

Shanah tovah — a joyous and wonder-filled new year.

Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam

Looking in the mirror

THE BAAL SHEM Tov said, “Your fellow human being is a mirror for you. If there is love and compassion in your soul, you will see the goodness in others. If you see a blemish in another, it is your own imperfection you encounter. Take careful note of the flaws you perceive in others. This is a lesson for you: They are your own flaws set before you, a reminder of your own spiritual work.”

Was there ever a time when this teaching was more important than today? We live in a world of name-calling, not conversation. We all know how difficult it is to try to have a conversation across political or religious lines. Politicians have learned that voters respond to rhetoric, not reason. We don’t want to know that a problem has complex solutions. From the economy to immigration to Israel to gun safety to how to live a Jewish life, we write off those who disagree with us and carry on in the bubble of our own making.

But what if we took the words of the Besht seriously? What if we were to ask, before our next angry Facebook post, what this comment says about me? Am I guilty of the sins I accuse others of committing — blind to what is happening around me, focusing only on my own needs, without thinking of the good of my community and society?

The new year calls upon us to make cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul. It does not tell us to evaluate other people’s souls, only our own. Perhaps this year we could begin with humility, understanding that there is only one True Judge, and it is not us. The result might be a better year for everyone — starting with ourselves.

Rabbi Donald A. Weber
Temple Rodeph Torah, Marlboro

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