Note: This is the first installment of New Year’s messages from area religious leaders; the next group of messages will appear in the Sept. 19 edition.
ONE OF MY favorite chasidic tales is the story of a man lost in the woods. He has wandered for several hours and despairs of seeing his family and friends again. At a junction in the forest, he meets another man. With great joy, he asks him, “Which way leads out of this forest back to the town?” The man responds, “I don’t know. I am lost myself but together we can find our way toward civilization.”
We all get lost in the world at times, away from who we truly are, away from the people Israel, but the magnificence of our High Holidays brings us together again. Human beings are not meant to be alone. Jews are not meant to be alone, and the year 5780 needs to be one in which Jews come together. Last Chanukah, the entire Jewish community of Springfield celebrated in Temple Sha’arey Shalom. Four rabbis — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Chabad — watched with joy as our children got to know each other, as our members joined in important discussions.
We are am Yisrael, the people of Israel, whatever color our skin, whatever our sexuality, whether we pray with our mouths or our feet, loudly or softly. We have walked together to freedom through the muddy sea, through times of despair and of joy.
There is too much divisiveness in our world; let it not separate our people. We will all hear the sound of the shofar during Rosh HaShanah. Let it awaken us to listen to each other and talk to each other softly.
There were two people lost in the forest. They joined together, listening and supporting each other, until the town lay before them. Let this be the entire Jewish community in 5780.
Rabbi Renee Edelman
Temple Sha’arey Shalom, Springfield
Casting crumbs to start anew
BREAD CRUMBS. There — I said it. Amidst all the grandeur of the High Holidays — the piercing sounds of tekiah, shevarim, teruah; the drama of the tekiah gedolah; the elegiac chant of Kol Nidrei; the anticipation, and trepidation, of Neilah, I keep coming back to the bread crumbs.
It’s kind of silly, if you think about it. After all, we are talking about the Days of Awe. The awesomeness of the bread crumb understandably can be, shall we say … elusive.
And yet — standing on that little bridge overlooking that beautiful little stream in the lovely park, I find such spiritual fulfillment in tossing some bread crumbs into the stream at the Tashlich ceremony.
We gather together, say and sing a few prayers, and, surrounded by the beauty of nature, symbolically cast our sins away.
The setting is quiet and therefore conducive for reflection. And it feels nice to do something tangible — to take hold of those bread crumbs in my hand, cast them out, and watch them fall into the water.
Maybe I like the bread crumbs so much because it’s a lot easier to get rid of them by tossing them in the stream than it is to rid myself of everything that prevents me from living up to the values and teachings of Torah.
But it’s a start and, more than anything, it’s a reminder that for most of us it is the spiritual “crumbs,” more than anything huge, that we need to get rid of. It’s the way we speak to our kids or partner, it’s the manner in which we discuss difficult subjects, it’s what we have or have not done for our communities. It’s the crumbs. But crumbs matter, and piece by piece, we cast them out, they get carried away, and we start anew.
Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman
Temple Sholom of West Essex, Cedar Grove
The power of doing good
I CAN’T PUT it down. It’s this book I am reading titled “Positivity Bias,” by Mendel Kalmenson.
It’s a total mind shift. Here’s an example (page 191): “When people don’t take positive action, they risk getting stuck in the mire of negative thought. Most people have experienced the frustration of desperately trying to not think about something, believing that if they ignore it, it will just go away. It doesn’t; quite the opposite, actually.
“However, by consciously shifting your focus from negative thoughts to the performance of good deeds, you can cause your negative urges to gradually recede or even cease altogether. Why? Because you have moved on to something better.
“When you focus on the positive, there is an endless supply of good pursuits: volunteer in your community, tutor a child, donate food and clothing to people in need, study, pray, or raise money for a worthy cause. The list of ways to have a positive impact is endless.
“A young man once came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (ob”m), ashamed that he had distanced himself from Jewish observance. The Rebbe said, ‘Don’t focus on your past right now; rather, concern yourself with serving God through joy, and you’ll take care of the past at a different time.’”
Don’t fix the past — build the future!
Wishing you a happy, healthy, and joyous 5780!
Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz
Director, Chabad of West Orange
What’s in a name?
TWO THOUSAND YEARS ago, Rabbi Isaac famously mused about how we might shape our fate around the High Holidays, what actions we might take to head toward repentance in a season in which change is so important. In his mind, there are four avenues toward teshuvah: giving charity, supplication, and prayer; changing our conduct; and changing our names (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b).
The first three tasks seem obvious; the fourth is a little more complicated. True, changing our names gives us a fresh start. Someone who cannot escape cycles of sin in a given society might acquire a different locale and name and start over. But what does it mean to change our name when we are steady in life?
This year, I learned anew what it means to get a new name. I became a father for the first time right around last Rosh HaShanah, and this year, as my son learned to talk, I acquired a new name. I wouldn’t be called only Marc or Rabbi Katz; instead, there was now someone who would call me “Dada.”
Owning that name gave me a new perspective. When I embodied it, when I inhabited it, I carried myself differently. I see the world now in a slower, more open, more deliberate way because I own that new name.
We get our names in myriad ways. Some become parents, some get new jobs, some earn endearing nicknames, some get divorced, or some may transition genders.
When a new name presents itself, we can use it to shape our year, guide our actions, define our person. We don’t just shape our names; rather, they too shape our character. Own your names and discover what lies beneath them. Probe their meaning and use this discovery as an avenue toward change.
Rabbi Marc Katz
Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield
Shadows of fear and love
THIS PAST YEAR, Bruce Springsteen did a one-man show on Broadway based on his autobiography, “Born to Run.”
There was one segment of the Broadway show that struck a responsive chord in me. It was when Springsteen spoke about the “shadows” in his life.
He first spoke about a shadow that had haunted him since childhood, the specter of his father. In his book, he wrote that his father would feign “a few moments of parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son…. It was a shame. He loved me but he couldn’t stand me.”
The Boss also shared that there were “shadows” in his life that left a positive influence. One such was his long-time saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011.
In his book he writes about the impact of the difference in their races: “not all in God’s heaven obliterates race. It was part of our relationship …, it was also a part of its primal compellingness [sic]…. We were incongruent, missing pieces to an old unresolved puzzle, two longing halves of an eccentric and potent whole.” (page 244)
The dear memory of Clarence Clemons continues to shelter Bruce in a loving, embracing shadow: two longing halves of an eccentric and potent whole. The Boss truly speaks to us all.
My questions for you on this Yom Kippur are: Have we not all experienced shadows that haunt us, and the polar opposite? Do we ever feel embraced in a loving shadow?
My hope for the greater community is that we should feel embraced in our lives by loving shadows.
Rabbi Mark Mallach
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield
Possibility of a clean slate
IF JUDAISM HAS a “mystery” aspect, it is that there exists in the humanity-God relationship the possibility of beginning again with a clean slate, the power of teshuvah (repentance) — that we can approach God with all of our manifold mistakes, misdeeds, and missed opportunities, and somehow, all of the flaws and brokenness are redeemed. How can there be such a thing?
The act of Tashlich — symbolically casting our sins into the waters — gives a clue. Just as breadcrumbs are dissolved into water, whether eaten by fish, broken down by microbes, or simply eroded into molecules and carried to where they can be reused to build life, so can our incompleteness find resolution when we momentarily overcome our self-focus and strive for a higher awareness — a God-consciousness that sees the world as a totality. If we can achieve that in these High Holidays in moments of prayer, contemplation, meditation, even heartfelt conversation, then we can feel the tangled, torn webs of energy encasing our souls melt away and leave us open, shining, capable of transforming the world.
L’shanah tovah. May you be renewed for a good year.
Rabbi Moshe Rudin
Congregation Adath Shalom, Morris Plains
Journey of teshuvah
WE TALK A LOT about teshuvah, repentance, at this time of the year. But, what does this term mean? I find that the definition of teshuvah from the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen is particularly meaningful to me: “The Hebrew term for repentance, teshuvah, means ‘turning’ — a turning from evil, a re-turning to the good, or a turning inward into oneself…. [R]epentance serves as a guidepost to a principled way of life, a life of integrity. Renewal of the entire human being — a new heart and a new mind — that is the true significance of repentance … the religious task of achieving moral awareness.”
Wow, this seems daunting — new heart, new mind, turning from evil. Sometimes I feel that in striving for teshuvah I am setting myself up to fail. As much as I try, I will still lose patience and snap at my kids. I will still get lazy and forget to keep up with my emails. I will still do, God forbid, something much worse. But, I think, when Cohen writes “achieving moral awareness,” he is recognizing this. We are not perfect, and we never will be. Being aware of this helps us move on, step by step, to be the better people we are called to be. We have the sense of the ideal that God beckons us to, kedushah, and we are always on that journey.
May this season of the Yamim Nora’im, our High Holidays, be days of striving for transformation, but, if and when we fall short, we know that God is there, ready for us to try again. We always have the process of teshuvah open to us.
Rabbi Michael Satz
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown
Open doors to all
THIS HAS BEEN a painful year for the American-Jewish people. Between the tragic massacres in Pittsburgh and Poway and the increase of anti-Semitic incidents in our nation and abroad, the security that American Jews once took for granted has been shattered. While temples have long strived to have an open-door policy, the reality of our age calls for guarded entrances and elaborate security systems.
Still, at the core of contemporary Judaism, a big-tent philosophy exists. In fact, in recent years, we have witnessed Judaism becoming more and more inclusive and expansive. Two decades ago I performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for the first time, and shortly after, I officiated my first interfaith marriage. Much discussion and commentary surrounded these events, and for certain there was much criticism. Today our congregations are comprised of many non-Jews who are committed to the Jewish people and raising Jewish children, and people in the LGBTQ community are fully embraced by a significant percentage of the Jewish people. Indeed we have come a long way. Moreover, social action efforts, including acquiring food or supplies for those in need, abound. While many congregations offer food pantries, a number provide shelter for new immigrants.
While there are those outside of our buildings who choose to hate individuals or groups of individuals who are different from them, we can do everything inside the synagogue to promote acceptance, love, and inclusion.
Let evil not get in the way of our mission to create a better world. May our hearts — our spiritual doors — ever be open to all whom we encounter, and may we work to make 5780 a year in which justice will be experienced by all of God’s children.
Rabbi Andrew R. Sklarz
Temple Beth Am, Parsippany
Hear our voice
THE YAMIM NORA’IM (Days of Awe) is a time to rejoice in new possibilities for the year ahead as we simultaneously re-point and recalibrate our own spiritual lives.
Of all the prayers of the Yamim Nora’im liturgy, Sh’ma Koleinu beckons me with the strongest call. It opens with our anxious hope that God is listening, and it closes with the certainty and affirmation that God is “Shomea tefillah,” the One who hears our prayers and will respond. The words of Sh’ma Koleinu also remind me that as God’s partners in the repair of the world, we must also hear the prayers of others and respond.
I offer here my personal Sh’ma Koleinu:
Source of All Life: Hear our voice, our clumsy attempts to express the deepest intentions of our heart.
We are so small next to You! We are often unable to express ourselves gracefully. Our attempts to speak to you, to share our feelings with You, become a jumble of words and feelings. They often come out as awkward combinations of thoughts and pleas. But, Source of All, know that these sounds are our holy offerings that we humbly bring to your altar, as we long to be with You.
Eternal Presence: Hear us, receive our voice. We stand before You today to serve You in earnest. Do not send us away with empty hands and empty hearts. For You are the One who receives the wordless prayers that live in the deepest recesses of our hearts. Please give us the gift of accepting our prayer.
As we each pray Sh’ma Koleinu this year, may we all listen, may we all hear and be aware of each voice, each sound around us. May we hear and heed the cries of others in need. L’shanah tovah.
Rabbi Debra Smith
Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation, Succasunna