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‘Shana Tova’ from area rabbis and religious leaders
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‘Shana Tova’ from area rabbis and religious leaders

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

Centennial celebration

5774 IS A special year for Temple Sholom. This year, we mark our centennial, beginning with the celebration of our 100th High Holy Days in September, featuring an exhibit at the Plainfield Library, Founders’ Shabbat, and a gala dinner in November. One hundred years ago, a few families in Plainfield met together with the idea of forming a liberal congregation for themselves and other like-minded individuals. This year, we mark that bold undertaking with a ground breaking of our own. In August, construction began on our new home in Scotch Plains, where we hope to celebrate our 101st High Holy Days.

This New Year, we mark the completion of the first cycle of our congregation-wide rotating curriculum. We have divided each year into three trimesters, with a subject for each trimester — studied in our Religious School, our Family Track program, our Lifelong Learning, and in sermons and our bulletin. We begin this year with a study of the Jewish calendar and will continue as we study the K’tuvim, the third section of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Writings, as well as a trimester on Israel. Next year we begin the cycle again, with the history of the Biblical Period, the book of Genesis, and different theologies.

We celebrate together, we study together, we share joys and sorrows. In 5774, we wish all of the members of our community a year of peace and joy, of celebration and renewal, of learning and personal fulfillment. L’shana tova u’metuka — a good and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham
Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood

***

Change of place

5773 WAS A year of highs and lows for the White Meadow Temple community. Superstorm Sandy damaged a significant portion of our roof, ruined the pews in our sanctuary, and rendered some of our siddurim unusable. We were forced out of our shul for a Shabbat while we were without power.

But we also celebrated our 60th anniversary, noting that back at the beginning, members celebrated the High Holy Days in an unfinished sanctuary with tarps instead of walls. Sixty years later we had solid walls but a tarp over our roof.

In the midst of the chaos, I knew we would rebuild and that we would be a stronger and better community for it. I am proud of how our community came together to respond to the challenges we faced, and now, for the High Holy Days 5774, we are celebrating with beautiful new pews, carpet, and refurbished furniture.

Our new rows are at an angle to the bima, which we hope will result in a more intimate and engaging experience at services. Regular shul-goers have their makom kavua, their set place. How will the new pews affect that? Will they have a different view of the bima and of their friends? Will they change seats? There is a saying: “Shinui makom, shinui mazal,” “Change your place, change your luck.”

Perhaps it is all about perspective. When you change your position, you look at things in a different way, hopefully in a more positive light. That is what we aim for at this time of year.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Adler
White Meadow Temple, Rockaway

***

Most important lesson

FIVE THOUSAND seven hundred and seventy-four years is a long time. During the Days of Awe, Humanistic Jews celebrate our connection to the deep well of the Jewish past. Our mythical ancestors and the ancient stories of our literature lead us to contemplate the meaning of our history.

Humanistic Jews celebrate recent events and experiences, too. We know that, just as Judaism has a distant past, it also has a vibrant recent history. The first definition of Humanistic Judaism, developed by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, is 50 years old. Our congregation is only 15. Our forms and styles of ritual and belief change, just as our ancestors’ did. The perspective of thousands of years shows us that recent, even contemporary, events and philosophies have meaning and value that cannot always be found in their precursors.

Our annual message this year is to heed the lessons of the recent past as well, so that we may make the most of our opportunities to influence the future for good in the coming year. As Rabbi Wine wrote:

“Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur open our Jewish year with the most important lesson of Jewish history. Human dignity is not the gift of destiny. It is a human achievement, requiring courage and human self-reliance…. [W]e reconcile ourselves with the men and women who share our struggle and who offer us the only realistic support we can expect.”

L’shana tova.

Rob Agree
Ceremonial leader, Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Morris County

***

It’s OK to ask

RECENTLY, A FRIEND approached me with a question:

“Rabbi,” he asked, “Since God loves us and knows all our thoughts, and He also knows all our needs, why should we have to come to shul to pray and ask for a good year, a sweet year, a year filled with blessing for ourselves and our loved ones. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for God to fill all our needs (not to be greedy now) all by Himself, not to mention that He has a support staff of so many angels in Heaven?”

As I pondered a response, I was reminded of an article I read about a survey done by a major Jewish organization. They reached out to people who had the means to support worthy causes yet did not contribute. When asked why they had not, the potential donors overwhelmingly answered that they were never asked directly; they assumed their donation was either not needed or appreciated.

While we cannot ascribe such emotions to God, we can understand His motivation to make us work for our needs. Indeed, one of the Torah’s 613 commandments is to pray to God directly every day, not only to thank Him for what we have, but to directly ask for what we need, big or small. The act of prayer humbles us and establishes a personal, direct connection between us mortals and God.

The first Chabad Rebbe writes that since we make a blessing using God’s name thanking him for hearing our pleas, obviously God does so, too, since He wouldn’t want us to be guilty of using His name in vain.

Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky
Chai Center-Shul at Short Hills

***

Across the lines

I RECENTLY HAD the privilege of spending the day with over 100 colleagues at the AIPAC National Rabbinic Symposium in Washington. Israeli Amb. Michael Oren was asked what message he wants us to bring to our communities at the start of 5774. His response: “I would love for each of you to speak about the importance of klal Yisrael — Jewish connection and peoplehood.” Later, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic observed that it is time for people in our community who normally don’t talk with one another to sit down and talk with one another. The message was clear: If we are to build a future for the Jewish people we need to renew our communal connections.

I was struck that I, a Reform rabbi, had spent the day with Rabbi Elie Mischel, an Orthodox rabbi from West Orange, and rode the train home with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi from Park Avenue Synagogue. It is far too rare that I have the opportunity to sit with rabbinic colleagues from other movements. But my day had been spent doing exactly what Amb. Oren had called upon us to do. And it is one of the commitments that I am bringing to this New Year.

In this New Year we need to renew our connections to one another, beginning within our synagogues and extending to those who are not part of a synagogue community. We also need to renew the connections between synagogue communities across movement lines and to renew our connection to Israel.

In this New Year, may we work together to accomplish these goals; our communal future depends upon it.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange

***

Righteous anger

WHAT MAKES YOU angry? Are you angry that there are people in our world who are starving? Are you angry at the abuse of our planet and the destruction of our natural resources? Are you angry at violence committed against religious minorities, at displays of hatred and racism? Are you angry that not enough resources are available for education, or for research into the treatment and cure of deadly diseases? If these things, and others like them, make you angry, then good. For the Talmud teaches that we are judged by the righteousness of our anger and the problems in our world that we direct it toward.

We all experience and express anger. The Rambam taught that the person who never experiences anger is like a corpse. But he also wrote that mastering our anger enables us to take it out and use it, like a tool, when it is appropriate and necessary. Mastering our anger implies that we remain in charge of how our anger is expressed and used.

The New Year beckons us to contemplate the content of our lives and consider what makes us angry. We ought to control the times that we express petty, destructive anger. Getting angry for petty reasons, like taking someone’s parking place or turn in line, being made to wait on hold for too long, or not receiving goods from a merchant when promised, is destructive. But if we are not sufficiently angry at the injustice and unfairness that too often define our world, we should strive to direct our anger at those problems.

Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange

***

True wealth

I WANT you to have 16 kids.

Gotcha. That’s a bit steep. But really, more than two. Let’s be truthful: Happiness is not in a mansion filled with gold and silver. Happiness is in a house full of kids.

I know, I know. It takes effort. A lot of effort. It takes your life over, and it should. But, hey — do you have a more worthwhile investment?

So do it. Do it the right way. Do it the Jewish way. You could find out how, it’s not hard. And in the end it will all pay off with joy and naches — true wealth.

Past this stage? Our sages say: “He who teaches a child Torah, it is as if he has given birth to him.” Sixteen kids? Try thousands.

Who wants to be a millionaire?

A happy and fruitful year to us all!

Rabbi Mendel Dubov
Chabad of Sussex County, Sparta

***

Keep moving

THE HIGHLIGHT phrase of our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur service is the call for us to repent, pray, and give charity. These three measures will cause the evil decree to pass. The evil decree will pass? We don’t want the decree to pass like the stomach flu; we want the decree erased, eliminated, and gone for good.

But that’s not the Jewish way. In our traditional practice of repentance, we repent for our mistakes from the year that passed, 5773 in our case. But we also repent for sins from years prior. We can be revisited by a past indiscretion or graced by a forgotten kindness. We are never fully through with our errors, and we are never fully done with our repairs. We are all works in progress.

Abraham and Sarah gave us that distinction. Perhaps that’s why they are the focus of our Rosh Hashana Torah readings. They were Ivri’im, Hebrews. To be an Ivri is to be someone who passes. Abraham, following a mission from God, passed from Aram to Canaan. His mission began with Lech Lecha, Go. The journey itself was his transformative act; he went from passive to passing.

I find this incredibly empowering. Our tradition does not want us to be mouth-breathing automatons; we are not expected to live like saints, and we cannot wallow in our failures. Our best hope is to pass over, to move, to make the journey, to be spontaneous. We are Ivri’im. Do we think we can stand still?

Shana tova — a sweet, Happy New Year.

Rabbi Menashe East
Mount Freedom Jewish Center, Randolph

***

When the call comes

DOING TESHUVA (repentance) is challenging. Every year we struggle to get back on the paths of our lives. Jewish tradition impresses upon us that this process takes time and effort. We start in our quest with the seven haftarot and increase our efforts during the month of Elul.

Our strongest push comes during the 10 days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. We limit distractions in our lives to create a Shana Tova. Knowing this challenge, the All-Merciful One, we believe, grants us an extension until Hoshana Rabba.

Ma Nishtana? Why is this year different? Even rabbis who tell us that Rosh Hashana is neither early nor late, that it always falls on the first and second of Tishrei, are less adamant this year when Selihot precedes Labor Day.

So how can we “awake from our lethargy” while we are still focused on our last trips to the shore?

In this season as we prepare for our High Holy Days, our phones ring: robo-calls for a primary. Many regard the calls as annoying, because — they are; however, they ask us to focus, decide, and act in what is our civic duty. The election season will continue into November, and so will the phone calls. When the phone rings, let it be a reminder to focus, decide, and act, not only in our duty at the voting booth, but to focus, to decide, and to act upon our ethical duty to do teshuva.

Rabbi Mark Finkel
Pine Brook Jewish Center, Montville

***

New beginnings

THE HIGH HOLY Day Mahzor tells us “Hayom harat olam — Today, the world is born.” Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is a time of new beginnings. This is particularly true in our congregation. We have a new sanctuary, a new school wing, and a new name. Though many have known us as the Summit JCC for many years, we have added the name Congregation Ohr Shalom — the light of peace. We are both 85 years old AND brand new. This change fits perfectly with our identity. When we merge the traditional with the modern, we have a chance to experience the great sense of shalom that Judaism has to offer. Please feel free to be a part of our new — but traditional — beginning.

L’shana tova! 

Rabbi Avi Friedman
Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit JCC

***

Gateway to God

WHEN WE WERE children, we were taught in religious school and at home that God is in heaven, that God exists above us and outside us.

Ever since, as adults, we look to experience God’s reality either outside ourselves in a miraculous face-to-face conversation, or above ourselves in some supernatural event. As a result, many of us have been sorely disappointed. Many of us have never had such experiences. We don’t feel God’s presence in our lives anywhere. We conclude that God isn’t really there. We become agnostics and atheists.

The cause of our disappointment is that we’ve been taught to look for God in the hardest place, not the easiest. The reality of God’s existence is best known to us not from outside ourselves, but from within ourselves.

“Lecha amar libi. Bakshu fanai et panecha Adonai avakeish.” “On your behalf, my heart said, ‘Seek my presence. Your presence, Adonai, I do seek.’” (Psalm 27:8)

Your heart is a gateway to God. Your heart has always been a gateway to God but no one ever told you. When you feel love, that is God. When you feel compassion and empathy, that’s God. When you feel your heart bursting to fight injustice, to fight some wrong, that’s God. When you feel the pangs of conscience stirring within you, that’s God.

If you love, you know that God is real!

Rabbi Stuart Gershon
Temple Sinai, Summit

***

Struggle of our souls

PROBABLY AS CHILDREN, we all fell in love with a hobby that might still remind us about what is pure and sweet about the world. Mine was/is baseball.

Baseball reminds me of days I would go out from sunrise to sunset to pitch, catch, hit, and throw and brings me back to the first time I walked into a major league stadium; I can still see and taste and smell and feel every part of that first game.

I am well over four decades from those days, but this summer I feel the sting from the loss of that innocence. The game has been corrupt for years, but this summer more major leaguers were suspended from the game than since the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919. They are scoundrels who are stealing the innocence our children deserve.

We all have to decide whom to vote for and invest with, and what teams to support. But engaging in that debate will not do nearly as much good as looking in the mirror. During the High Holy Days, we are asked to examine our deeds. This is the perfect time to turn away from media debates and look instead at the struggle of our souls.

The call of the season is to present our most authentic self to ourselves and the world. The sound of the shofar reminds us that we don’t have to hide. We are beautiful human beings, despite, or even because of, our flaws. By gravitating toward our inner truth, we have a better shot at telling the truth to ourselves and others.

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills

***

Getting ready

FINALIZE PLANS with the extended family? Check. Plan the menu? Check. Order the meat? Check. Clean the house? Check. Find something for the kids to wear to services? Check. Run around until you’re too exhausted to lift your head? Check.

Every year it seems like we run around for weeks trying to get ourselves, our homes, and our children ready. We spend so much time arranging our lives and mobilizing our families, all in anticipation of the High Holy Days. But what is it that we are getting ready for?

For many of us, these holidays are about family, about generations coming together to celebrate, to be in synagogue together, and to eat (yes, there’s almost always food involved). As a rabbi, I am moved every year when I see the multi-generational families sitting together, kibbitzing together, and yes, even praying together.

The holidays are certainly about being together with loved ones, but there is another theme as well. In the midst of all of the cooking and cleaning, let’s find the time to prepare ourselves as well.

Whatever your theology, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are fecund with meaning. These three days are a celebration of the creation of the world and our role within it. It is a perfect time to take what the rabbis called a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls or of our lives.

As we get ready for the High Holy Days, let’s take the time to not only dress ourselves beautifully on the outside, but beautify ourselves on the inside.

May it be a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year for us all.

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, Cranford

***

Choose hope

CONGREGATION SHOMREI Emunah in Montclair joins everyone, everywhere in praying during this season for a Shana Tova U’m’tuka — A Sweet and Good New Year. There are so many ways that we hope this year will be sweet and good, spiritually and materially, personally and collectively. Of course, peace and health are high up on our list.

The truth is that traditionally we pray for a good year every day. The “prayer for the year” is especially beautiful in the version recited by the Oriental Jewish community. One part of the prayer that moves me is the part I would translate this way: “Make it possible this year to sustain our hopes for goodness and for a result of peace.”

It is so important to hope! We cannot accomplish what we believe in without hope. But there are many things that can sap our ability to hope. We cannot always control those people and events. But we can seek to take control of ourselves. For the danger is not only from the outside; it is also within. We need to avoid the temptation that we ourselves will engage in actions and attitudes that are self-defeating and self-destructive. Hope is endangered by pride, anger, fear, and hatred. True hope defeats those attitudes and eschews actions that derive from them. True hope is sustained and supported by open-heartedness and generosity of spirit. The choice is ours.

May this year be a year in which it will be possible to sustain our ability to hope for goodness and for a result of peace.

Rabbi David Greenstein
Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair

***

A hasidic tale

IN TEARS, a man once confessed a sin to the Rabbi of Apt and told him how he had atoned for it. The tzadik laughed. The man went on to tell what more he intended to do to atone for his sin, and the rabbi went on laughing. The man wanted to continue, but the laughter robbed him of his power to speak. He stared at the tzadik in horror. And then his soul held its breath, and he heard a voice deep within. He realized how trivial all his fuss about atoning had been, and he turned to God (Day by Day, Chaim Stern).

The Days of Awe focus our attention on the rituals and prayers of repentance and atonement. We fast on Yom Kippur. We recite the Viddui (confessional prayers). We symbolically cast our sins into the water at Tashlich. We ask forgiveness from those whom we have wronged or offended.

The Rabbi of Apt teaches us that as crucial as all these actions are, nothing can substitute for our inner turning to God. Instead of focusing on atonement per se, we enhance our Holy Day experience by focusing on our connection to God.

If we recite our prayers and perform our rituals by rote, without kavana (intention), they will do us little good. But when we perform the acts of atonement wholeheartedly, we cannot help but be motivated to improve our relationships with others and to attain forgiveness from those whom we have harmed.

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

***

Force of hazaka

THERE IS A particular significance to the way Rosh Hashana falls out this year. The special feature is that the two days of Rosh Hashana occur on Thursday and Friday, leading directly into the holy Shabbos. Thus, we have three consecutive days filled with holiness.

The Rebbe spoke about this particular situation. He explained that there is a well-known principle in our holy Torah: “What is repeated three times acquires the force of hazaka (permanence).” The term is derived from the word hozek, strength, and carries an assured presumption that having occurred three times, it will take hold and continue the same way.

If this principle applies to non-obligatory matters, it is certainly true in regard to matters of holiness that already have the quality of everlasting Torah endurance, where each action has a lasting and perpetual impact.

How much more so in the case of Rosh Hashana, which is designated the head (rosh) of the year, not just the “beginning.” Just as the head directs all the organs of the body so Rosh Hashana directs and animates each and every day of the year in all particulars of the daily life.

Hence, it is understandable that since there is a hazaka in the state of holiness mentioned above, it exercises a strong influence on the entire year, so that all one’s activities are carried out under the strong influence of the sublime holiness of the first three days of the year.

May 5774 be a year of holiness for all of us and may we merit seeing the coming of Moshiach.

Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky
Executive director of Bris Avrohom, Congregation Shomrei Torah Ohel Yosef Yitzchak, Hillside

***

Resolve to improve

THE HIGH HOLY Days: an opportunity for growth, inspiration, and renewal. 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, our mission is to strengthen Jewish pride and observance by providing educational, religious, and social activities to all regardless of affiliation.

Chabad synagogue services include people from all walks of life coming together with joy and unity. Our services are traditional and upbeat. Our shul is a family, with members of all ages and backgrounds exploring their Jewish roots, learning, and achieving personal spiritual advances.

Join us this year for the High Holy Days. At 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 keeps the children excited about coming to synagogue services.

We look forward to personally greeting you.

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 from God

SOME OF US come to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. Will the gates of heaven close and leave us out? What kind of year is in store for our families and friends? Hasidic philosophy teaches that we come before the King on Rosh Hashana and blow the shofar to proclaim Him king, and this is the essence of the day, more so than repentance.

But He is “Our Father, Our King” and loves us like a parent loves a child; there is no love greater than this. When the gates close on Yom Kippur, they don’t shut us out; rather they close around us like an arm that embraces us. When praying to the highest level of your soul on Yom Kippur, you must experience joy, not trepidation.

In many synagogues, we dance as the Yom Kippur service ends because a wondrous unity with the Creator has been made. After Yom Kippur we immediately begin to build the sukka. A sukka is an embrace from God. The joy of the relationships we have achieved on Yom Kippur culminates in the joy of Sukkot when God embraces us. Yes, He is our King, and we need to understand what that means; sometimes the love is tough love, but He is “Our Father, Our King” and loves us like a parent loves a child.

Rabbi Boruch Klar
Lubavitch Center of Essex County, West Orange

***

Reach out to the disconnected

A CUSTOM prevalent in many shuls that for Shaharit on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is that the hazan begins the service by singing the word “Hamelech” in an elongated fashion. What is unusual is that he begins by singing that word from his seat. Only after completion of that word does he ascend to the bima.

I once heard a beautiful interpretation of this custom. One must realize that every Jew, no matter where he or she is on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, even if it is somewhere far away from “home base,” can always call out to our Father, our King — Hamelech!

Perhaps it should be time for us to sharpen our focus and shower attention upon those who have lost their connection and their direction. Let us reach out to them and say there is always room for you in our synagogues and around our Shabbat and holiday tables. There are simply no extra Jews, and we can ill afford to cast any away.

So while you may be firmly rooted and comfortable with where you stand with your maker, think of those who may be disenfranchised and disillusioned with that which is so basic and axiomatic for you. Help a fellow Jew call out to his lost Father.

Wishing you a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year.

Rabbi E. Samuel Klibanoff
Congregation Etz Chaim, Livingston

***

One community, one family

I GREW UP in a small town with a small Jewish community. Until I was nine or 10 I thought all those Jews were members of my family — literally. These were the people my parents socialized with; this was the loving milieu into which I was born. It was warm, natural, and it felt like family. And as far as I was concerned, it was.

Later on, I realized it was not so simple. These Jews were drawn together by the desire to promote Jewish life in the Corn Belt and by all those things they shared: common background, culture, interests, and concerns. I understand that my youthful perception was factually incorrect, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that, as a young kid, it felt like family — and it was wonderful.

Today I serve a congregation with five times the number of Jews as were in my home town. Within five miles of my congregation are five times the number of Jews within 100 miles of my home town. Both literally and figuratively, I’m not in Kansas anymore.

But when Jewish life is successful — no matter where — it is successful because it feels like family. Small towns or big cities, summer camps or synagogues, JCCs or Hillels — when we show kindness and connection to our fellow Jews, we take part in the creation of the kind of a community that feels like family.

May the year ahead be one of peace and prosperity, good health and communal well-being, and may we have a sense that our family has more members than we could ever possibly know.

Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Temple B’nai Abraham
Livingston

***

The critical point

“GOD’S EYES are in [the Land of Israel] from the beginning of the year till the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11:12) This wording implies that every new year is independent of the prior or successive year. For starting each Rosh Hashanah, a new divine “light” starts to shine for that year only and is inclusive of all events that will transpire in the course of that year. Thus, regardless of the world upheavals that have transpired and are still transpiring this year — next year has the potential of great turn-arounds, especially in regard to Israel, the Holy Land.

So far, the connection of the founders of modern Israel to the land remains fragile and ambiguous, resulting in the 60-year unresolved problem. The critical point missing is this: For 3,300 years Jews lived with the conviction that the Creator of the world designated one piece of earth for them, as stated hundreds of times in the Bible. This, and only this, is the moral justification for a Jewish presence in the Holy Land. There are three billion people in the world who believe in the Bible, who live with the Bible, and who quote the Bible. The world is waiting for Israel to treat the Land the way Israel should be treated, i.e. as God’s personal gift to the Jewish people. When this great turn-around occurs, and only then, will we start to see great process in all respects.

Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic
Congregation Ahavath Zion, Maplewood

***

Glimpses of the divine

WITH ONLY one more shofar blast this year, let us look back on the liturgical themes surrounding the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana and find meaning during and beyond the Days of Awe.

• Malhuyot, The Majesty of the World Around Us: The Malhuyot liturgy reinforces our notion of God’s sovereignty in the world and in our lives. Beyond this, we are also reminded to appreciate God’s creation through the beauty of nature, the kindnesses we witness, and the love we feel toward others.

• Zihronot, Connect to Our Past, Build Our Future: Zihronot reminds us that God has remembered all that we have done and, in turn, we will always remember God’s actions on our behalf and on behalf of the entire world. The idea of remembrance also teaches us to recall the struggles and triumphs of our ancestors and to connect with lessons taught by our own family members who have passed on.

• Shofarot, Make Some Noise: The blasts of the shofar bring to mind the thunder and frenzy as we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, these blasts also serve as a wake-up call, encouraging us to help make this world a better place through our words and our actions.

As we enter the year 5774, may we strive to always be on the lookout for glimpses of the divine, to constantly be learning from our past, and actively be trying to leave our mark on the world. Wishing you all a healthy, peaceful, and sweet New Year.

Rabbi Josh Leighton
Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon

***

Recalibrate our lives

THE HIGH HOLY Days are a time when we come together as community and as individuals to once again take stock of where we have been, and where we would like to go. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The choice is not between faith and deeds, for it is by our deeds we express our faith to make it real in the life of others and the world.” Elul and Tishrei are a time for us to reflect on both our faith and our deeds.

Our faith, at this time of year, draws us toward the divine attributes of compassion, love, justice, and forgiveness. As we seek them out from the Holy One of Blessing, so too do we strive to live out those values through our actions. We forgive those who have hurt us, we draw close to the ones we love, and we show compassion for those who are in need. Rabbi Sacks challenges us to remember that the words of our prayers and meditations of hearts must lead us to action today and throughout the year.

This is the time of year when we have been gifted with the chance to pause, take a deep breath, and recalibrate our lives in the hopes that the New Year will bring us a renewed sense of purpose, as we do our best to live our lives with purpose and meaning. From the entire Temple Emanu-El family, we wish everyone a sweet and healthy New Year!

Rabbi Greg Litcofsky
Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, Livingston

***

For all mankind

THE PHONE RANG in my office last week: “Hello, is this Catholic Charities?” an elderly woman asked.

“No, we’re a Jewish organization; is there something we can do for you?” I replied.

“But we aren’t Jewish!” she exclaimed.

“I’m a human being, and we try to help fellow human beings in any we can,” I responded.

The woman then proceeded to explain that she had fallen and broken her hip while visiting family here in New Jersey, and she was wondering if we had a wheelchair she could borrow for a few months.

Fortunately, I had received a donation of various medical supplies a few months before, and within the hour, the woman had a wheelchair delivered to her door.

This encounter got me thinking a little, about perceptions some people may have that religions only help their own, a perception that we, the Jewish community, continue to change each and every day.

In the Rosh Hashana Mahzor we read, “Hayom haras olam — Today is the day of the world’s creation.” Rosh Hashana is not only the Jewish New Year; it is the anniversary of creation, and by extension, the New Year for all of mankind.

The New Year is therefore a most fitting time for us to reflect on the wonderful opportunity that we are given every day to truly be “a light upon the nations” by reaching out to all those who may be in need.

May the New Year be filled with true and everlasting peace for all of Israel, and all of mankind.

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

***

Despite the obstacles

SO, WHAT does davka mean? Remember the movie The Bucket List? Remember the scene where Morgan Freeman’s character asks two questions of Jack Nicholson’s character? First, he asks: Have you found joy in your life? And then he asks: Has your life brought joy to others?

In a few minutes we will recite the Yizkor service. In anticipation, I have two questions for you: Davka, have you found joy in your life? And, davka, has your life brought joy to others? I leave it up to you to recall all those times that you or someone you loved or knew kept going on despite the obstacles along life’s path — davka. How many times despite our sorrows, davka, have we managed to find and give joy once again?

It is my prayer and hope that we all, davka, become teachers of this message. It is the message that Gurit Kadman well understood when in 1944 she organized the first Kibbutz Dalia Israeli Folk Dance Festival against the backdrop of the smoldering crematoria in Europe. And, it is the message that David Linn well understood when he turned 40 and danced his late wife’s Happy 40th Birthday Dance.

And, it is the message that davka we all must understand and then try to go on, and try to find and give joy once again!

Rabbi Mark Mallach
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield

***

Love one another

THERE IS A moving story about an old Jewish woman, an individual all alone in the world, who prays a little bit longer than everyone else in the congregation during Rosh Hashana services. When she turns around after completing her prayers, she sees that the synagogue has already emptied out. With no one left to wish the customary greeting of “a sweet New Year,” the old lady trudges up to the Holy Ark, and says out loud, “God, you’re the only one still here, but what should I wish for You this year? You are the master of the universe! But there’s one thing I can wish for You: nachas fun di kinder — joy and pleasure from Your children. That’s the only thing I can wish for you; everything else you already have.”

This story helps us understand a famous teaching from the Midrash that the prophet Elijah declared in the name of the Almighty, that what God truly desires from his nation is that they respect each other and love one another, thereby bringing these beautiful qualities into the world. This is an ideal that we must strive to implement, not God, and thus, this is what the old woman wishes the Almighty. It is the only thing He lacks.

May we bring that old Jewish woman’s wish to fruition in 5774 by contributing to a spirit of benevolence and blessing, caring and compassion, of love and respect, to inundate the world.

Shana tova to all.

Rabbi Chaim Marcus
Congregation Israel of Springfield, Springfield

***

A lesson to remember

ABOUT 200 YEARS ago, on a regular weekday afternoon in the middle of winter, the great hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, sent word to all the Jews of Berditchev to gather at the town’s synagogue. At the scheduled time, people filed into the synagogue nervously. Generally, when the rabbi called the people together in this way, it meant that the Jewish community was in danger.

When everyone was seated, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak walked to the middle of the synagogue, banged on the bima, and cried out: “Jews — remember that there is a God in this world!” And with that, he sat down. That was it!

Rosh Hashana is an extraordinarily busy holiday, packed with hours of prayer, speeches, family time, and — last but not least — food. I find the two days of Rosh Hashana to be the most exhausting days of the year. And so it’s possible to miss the essence of Rosh Hashana: remembering that there is a God in the world.

Speeches, the shofar, and even our prayers are, fundamentally, a means to an end; they are merely ways of making us aware that our Father who loves us and determines our fate is here among us. We may believe that God exists and is present in this world, but on Rosh Hashana, we seek to experience His presence.

And so the cry of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev resonates loudly in our own time: “Jews — remember that there is a God in this world!”

Shana tova!

Rabbi Elie Mischel
Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, Livingston

***

Justice for all

THIS NEW YEAR brings a renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry. It has been 46 years since the Six-Day War, and since then Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under Israeli rule. This situation is untenable from both a moral and legal perspective. A solution must be found that grants national independence to the Palestinians while providing security for Israel. Giving up all or most of the settlements, accepting East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state, and providing compensation and limited repatriation to Palestinian refugees is a small price to pay for a lasting peace. Other “solutions” that propose annexations of Palestinian territory or very limited sovereignty will never work because they would perpetuate injustice. Of course, the Palestinian side must show its good faith by renouncing terrorism, but Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated to make most of the concessions.

By making their voices heard through organizations like J Street, American Jews can demonstrate their commitment to tikun olam, which in this context means justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Bennett Muraskin
Jewish Cultural School and Society

***

Make time count

THERE IS A LINE in my head — “Now people live from day to day, but they do not count the time/ They don’t see the days slipping by, and neither do I” — from a song by James Taylor, Anywhere Like Heaven.

On Rosh Hashana we come to shul to seek God or spirituality or connection with community, to think about the year that has just passed and the year that’s about to start. But we don’t necessarily come on Rosh Hashana to think about eternity, about final messages. We return on Yom Kippur and fast and think we are fasting to send a message to God. But really, we celebrate these days to send a message to ourselves,

The people who live from day to day — they’re us, we are the ones who from live from day to day and don’t see the days slipping by. And then God gives us this gift, Rosh Hashana, which says to us: stop, take time out of your lives, focus. These are the days to remind us that time is slipping by faster than we think.

Judaism has an answer to James Taylor’s lament. It is found in Psalm 90: Limnot yameinu ken hoda. It reminds us that since our time is in fact limited and no one knows what today will bring, says the psalm, “teach us to number our days,” that we have to live from day to day, counting time and not letting the days slip by.

If I could, I would rewrite James Taylor’s words: “Now people, let’s live from day to day and let’s learn to make time count. Let’s not let the days go slipping by.”

Rabbi David Nesson
Morristown Jewish Center

***

Aim for better

THERE ONCE WAS a king who came across a row of targets in a field. Each had an arrow in it, and each arrow had hit a bull’s-eye. The king just had to find the archer whose aim was so flawless. He would make him a palace guard.

A farmer heard the king’s desire and brought him to a house at the edge of the village. When the king knocked on the door, he found a little Jewish man. “May I help you, your highness?” he asked.

“Point me to the archer whose aim is so true he hits the center of the target every time!” the king demanded.

“The targets out in the field?” the little man asked. “Those would be mine.”

The king was suspicious. “Show me how you do this!” he demanded. The man took his bow and arrow and a leather bag and brought the king to the field. He shot an arrow at a bale of hay, and when the arrow landed, he took paint from his bag and painted a target with the arrow at the center.

We do this in our lives: We place an object at the center of our attention and make that our deepest wish. But God has other targets to aim for in life, ones that are harder to put at the center. They are compassion and generosity, kindness and forgiveness, piety and observance. We shoot the arrows of life and sometimes we miss the target, and we sin. We miss opportunities for holiness.

It is time to stop painting targets around our selfish desires and to aim, instead, for better goals.

L’shana tova! May this be a year of great and holy accomplishments!

Rabbi George Nudell
Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains

***

Timing is everything

ROSH HASHANA can fall on the Gregorian calendar any time from Sept. 5 (which is the case this year) to Oct. 5. When the holiday falls toward those ends of the spectrum, it is common for us to hear somebody say, “The holidays are early (or late) this year,” and for somebody else to respond, “No, the holidays are right on time: They are on the first of Tishrei.”

Well, of course the High Holy Days are arriving right on time. Nevertheless, they are indeed as early this year as they can astronomically be, and the concept of something being right on time and simultaneously early (or late) might make our heads spin, but that concept, like the holidays themselves, provides a chance for reflection.

Although we should arise every day thanking God for God’s bounty and thinking about our flaws and sins and seeking God’s forgiveness, most of us do not. We wait until the High Holy Days, and then cram all of these thoughts into one three-day period that stretches over 10 days.

They say that timing is everything. The timing of the holidays this year, however, gives us a chance to reflect that, while timing may be everything, it is never too late or too early to think about our relationship to God. Because whenever we contemplate our relationship to God, and especially the way that we have erred, those thoughts, like the yamim nora’im, whether they are early or late, are right on time.

I am attaching my High Holy Day message on behalf of Please note that I am not yet an ordained rabbi, and the title I use at the shul is.

Spiritual leader Simon Rosenbach
Congregation Ahavas Sholom, Newark

***

God is calling

THIS IS THE time of year when we hear the shofar’s traditional call and ask ourselves if God really calls to us in our lives. When we put ourselves in front of a screen for most of the day and attach ourselves to a “smart” phone in the other waking hours, how are we to find God in our world — in nature or in our fellow human beings? We have extinguished the ancient “sacred fires” and made our worlds so noisy that we cannot hear the still, small voice of God’s presence calling out to us.

This past summer many of us climbed mountains, hiked trails, fished and sailed waters, or went boating. We stood on a beach or in a field or on our patios and watched the waves or stars or fireflies. Some of us witnessed bears and bison, glaciers or glassy streams. Whether we experienced the grandeur of creation and were inspired by the realization of an awesome presence in the world or were shaken by vulnerability in the face of the powerful forces of nature, in those moments we knew from experience that there is a force outside of ourselves that is greater than humanity, beyond our comprehension yet within our grasp.

During these great Holy Days of 5774, let us listen for God’s voice calling out to us in the sacred noise and in the silence. As we gather in sanctuaries and meeting halls, in congregations, havurot and family circles, let us listen for the Divine Presence in the prayers, Torah teaching, and sacred interactions. God is calling. Are you listening?!

Rabbi Francine Roston
Congregation Beth El, South Orange

***

‘Runging’ in the New Year!

SO YOU MAY have been wondering: What has God been doing for the past 5,773 years and 358 days? According to a strange midrash, God has been doing only one thing — making ladders!

Remember Jacob’s dream? A ladder reaching up to heaven! When we encountered the story, my 10-year-old students asked me a question I couldn’t answer: Why didn’t Jacob climb up? Why was he satisfied to remain down at the foot? The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger) wrote that it became the obligation of Jacob’s descendants, the Jewish people, to climb the ladder of dreams.

In other words, we each have our own ladder, the ladder of our own potential, our own expansive, realized self. Your ladder — your own spiritual destiny, the blessing you were meant to bring to the world — was created at the very beginning, awaiting you to make the climb; your path is as unique, as surprising, as filled with wonder as are you yourself!

But before you begin the climb, remember the three rules for ladders:

• Never skip a rung; every step is meant to bring you higher.

• Never stay too long on any one rung; for a ladder is meant for climbing, not standing.

• When you climb a ladder, always keep your eyes focused on the top.

May this year bring you ever closer to the apex of the ladder of fulfillment, health, joy, and abundance: L’shana tova!

Rabbi Moshe Rudin
Congregation Adath Shalom, Morris Plains

***

How to forgive

AS A CONGREGATIONAL rabbi, I am asked quite often about the “sticky” matters relating to forgiveness. In my tradition, we are obligated to forgive those who genuinely seek our pardon, who acknowledge the wrongs they have committed against us. In turn, we are commanded to ask pardon of those whom we have wronged, and if applicable, make restitution.

But it is my experience that the majority of people are troubled not by those who honestly and openly seek our forgiveness, but by those who refuse to acknowledge any harm they may have caused, indeed, are often quite oblivious to the pain that they have inflicted. Over the years, I have been asked by troubled people, “Rabbi, how do I forgive my sisterneighborbest friend when shehe won’t even acknowledge they have wronged me?” Even worse, too many people are burdened by feelings of anger and resentment that keep them from living less troubled lives.

I have tried to explain that if a person simply refuses to acknowledge a wrong they have caused, we cannot “forgive” in the classic Jewish sense, for forgiveness requires atonement. However, we can forgive in the psychologically healthy sense, in that we learn to live with the knowledge that this person is not who we thought they were, that they have indeed harmed us, and that our relationship has diminished. Even if we are required by circumstances to maintain some connection with them, we should do so with the liberating understanding that the previous understanding of our relationship is no longer valid. We allow the anger and resentment to be replaced by wisdom and experience.

Rabbi Doug Sagal
Temple Emanu-El, Westfield

***

The centrality of faith

THERE IS A story entitled “To Build a Fire,” written by Jack London. The protagonist finds himself in a vast snow field. He knows that if he cannot light his one remaining match, he will die. This story has application to Jewish life and tradition.

The Jewish people have one indispensable match: faith/religion/God. That is our ner tamid, our eternal light. The High Holy Days come to remind us that without our “match” of faith, everything on the Jewish tree ultimately will wither and die.

Why? First, religion/faith/God are necessary because human beings have an intuitive sense that there is a reality greater than the mundane, material, physical world around us. Second, connecting to God, to ethical monotheism, provides us with a moral anchor to guide our lives. Third, religion provides us with a special way of putting life into a meaningful perspective. Fourth, religion complements the tools of science, offering insight not into how things happen in our physical world, but why.

In searching for faith, we must recognize that the voice of God is different from a human voice. It is the sound of “silence,” of our conscience, our soul, the spark of divinity within us. Yet we live in a world of very little silence amid constant beeps, buzzes, and rings. To hear God in the silence, we need a tuning fork in our soul. We have to be able to truly listen, if even for a moment, to hear what God is saying to us when God calls. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, becoming attuned to the ineffable “can help us develop the capacity to see through to sacred space.”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex, Caldwell

***

Trap door to nowhere

THE INTERIOR OF the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, which this year marks its 250th anniversary, contains a unique architectural feature. On the bima, just in front of the prayer leader’s podium, there is a trap door built into the floor. Such doors were a common feature of synagogues during the Inquisition, when Jews would often have to disperse at a moment’s notice and flee from their persecutors through secret escape tunnels.

When the Touro Synagogue was constructed, there was no real fear of persecution, and yet the trap door, without any tunnel, was still included in the floor plan. Blessed to live in liberty, the Jews of Newport no longer needed an emergency exit, but they never forgot the times when their ancestors did.

This trap door to nowhere also conveys a more personal message for each of us at this season. So often in our lives we search for unnecessary escape routes. We daydream of how we might extricate ourselves from all sorts of circumstances without understanding that we are surrounded by more blessings than we realize. We fail to see that the trap door we think we need so desperately will not really take us anyplace better.

Hayom, today, we have already crossed the threshold. No other escape doors need to open. Let us rejoice right where we are, in our beautiful synagogue, in our wonderful country, in this vibrant life that now enters gently into the light of a brand new year.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Spector
Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston

***

Right on time

THE HIGH Holy Days are “early” this year, arriving so soon after Labor Day. The challenge is to adequately prepare, as there is an intensity of emotion and spirit that is required for a proper transition to the Days of Awe. The liturgy of the month of Elul does help with the inclusion of Psalm 27 and with the daily blasts of the shofar. Worth pondering, as well, is the assertion of the Mahzor that repentance, prayer, and righteousness have the power to transform our destiny. We may still be busy unpacking from summer vacations, but with the proper measure of introspection, intention, and kindness we will be ready for the holidays. They appear to be early, but they are really just right on time. On the evening of Sept. 4, the new month of Tishrei will have arrived, and with it our New Year. May it be one of good health, happiness, and peace.

Cantor Steven Stern
Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, Clark

***

Being better

THERE IS a hasidic tale told about Reb Zusya, a learned and pious Jew who lived in a shtetl and spent his whole life trying to be a good person. He was an observant man and always tried to treat others with respect and dignity.

When he died, Reb Zusya knew he would have to give an accounting of his life to God. This realization concerned him very much. The more he thought about his life, the more he felt that, perhaps, he had not done enough; perhaps, he had not accomplished much at all. He began imagining that God would ask him, “Reb Zusya, why weren’t you more like Abraham, like Moses, like David?” Reb Zusya became very nervous and afraid.

When he appeared before God, he was very surprised when God asked simply, “Reb Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?”

This is the essential message of these High Holy Days. This season of the year does not challenge us because we are not like someone else. Rather, each of us is bidden to review his/her life during the past year and ask himself/herself: “Was I the best I could have been? Was I true to myself? Did I live up to my potential?” All of this leading to the question, “How can I be better and do better during the coming year?”

May we each be blessed with a healthy and peaceful New Year.

Rabbi Kenneth M. Tarlow
Congregation Beth Torah, Florham Park

***

Believe the unbelievable

AS ROSH HASHANA comes barreling down upon us “early” this year, we are reminded that life does not wait for our convenience. Judaism is complete with steady reminders of reality and opportunities to get a better grip on our fleeting moments on earth. The sun is setting; it is time for Shabbat to begin. The stars are not yet out; let Shabbat linger a bit longer.

The world pulls us in so many directions that we often feel that life is out of our control. Our involvements and hopes drive us to fill our days with commitments that diminish our freedom. Judaism — God, Torah, and Israel — offers a life of meaning and tools to expect the unexpected.

The sorrow of death is confidently met with the funeral rites, shiva home, and support during a time of Kaddish. The joy of birth is transformed into entry into a live of covenant, the gift of a name’s legacy, and the gathering of friends and family. Early adulthood is challenged by the responsibility of synagogue leadership, Torah mastery, and thoughtful teaching in a credible bar/bat mitzva celebration. Daily minyan focuses our days into assertions that today is a gift, with a purpose, and the belief I have the time and will to pursue it.

And our religion gives us hope. Those who have gone before us are not gone forever, and life is more than it seems. We are given permission to believe the unbelievable and pray for eternal love.

Come be part of a loving synagogue this year. Learn to expect the unexpected, believe the unbelievable, and live the life of meaning and purpose.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin
B’nai Shalom, West Orange

***

No appointment necessary

AS I WRITE this, we are are in the month of Elul, which comes right before the High Holy Days and is a time to prepare for them. The name of the month, Elul, is an acronym for the Hebrew words “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” which means “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.” This verse represents the devotion of the Jews to God, and God’s reciprocal devotion to the Jews. It corresponds to the two main themes of Elul: We express our devotion to God by making a thorough evaluation of our spiritual condition and of the quality of our relationship with God. God expresses His devotion to us by responding to our advances in a kindly manner.

Though God is always kind to us, He shows a special closeness in Elul. An analogy is given of a king who spends all his time in his palace, but one month in the year he goes out to view the condition of his subjects and evaluate their needs. Although during the year, a person must make an appointment to see the king, during this month, the king is much more approachable — no appointment is necessary.

Similarly, God is very approachable to us during Elul; we need only reach out to Him, and we are guaranteed a compassionate and loving response.

May God grant all Jews a happy and sweet New Year, and may He soon let us see His closeness to us in the true and complete redemption.

Rabbi Yaakov Zirkind
Congregation Ahavath Yisrael, Morristown

 

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