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b'shalom rav - rabbi ron shulman's sermons 2022-23 | 5783

Rabbi Ron Shulman's High Holy Day Sermons from 2022 are posted below his more recent sermons.

responding to antisemitism

November 2022 | Heshvan 5783
 
I won’t amplify any recent and vile examples of antisemitic hate, except to say that rising demonstrations of antisemitism need to be every American’s concern. Not only those of us who are Jews.
 
Historically and experientially, from so many corners of the world, we know that when verbal and physical assaults against Jews go unchallenged and are normalized, they lead to even more such attacks on us and on others.
 
I won’t amplify but neither will I ignore what passes for humor on late night television or acceptable public discourse. Too many people lacking context, relationships, or understanding about who Jews are and what Judaism is are susceptible to antisemitic tropes and stereotypes.
 
That’s why, in addition to its being hateful, we call out the antisemitic statements of celebrities and others who garner public attention when they cross, what for us if not everyone, is a real and not imaginary line of propriety.
 
A society that values free speech must hold hate speech accountable. Free speech does not mean immunity from rebuke. We must always respond to someone’s bad ideas and harmful thoughts with better ones.
 
We need to speak positively and affirmatively about Jews and Jewish identity in order to negate stereotypes of “the Jews.” The Jews exist in an historical sense. But, when people talk about “the Jews” outside of any particular historical narrative, they are creating an imagined and, in their minds, nefarious group.
 
Yes, Jews are involved in all sorts of industries. Yes, Jews are present in society and culture. “The Jews” suggests a caricature of antisemitic images. Some people may speak in these terms without having any meaningful relationships with Jewish individuals. Other people may base their perceptions on a bad interaction with someone who is Jewish.
 
We all have positive and negative experiences with all sorts of people. Any generalizations made about a group from any one individual or experience are always inaccurate and must be pointed out and corrected.
 
Let’s also consider among ourselves. If and when we hold someone who speaks hate accountable for their words and the repugnant nature of their ideas, do we do so with an accountability that's only punitive or is there also an accountability that can be educational?
 
I recently met a public-school educator who asked most sincerely. “If or when I say or do something hurtful to you, a hurt I certainly do not intend to inflict, can you allow me the ‘grace and space’ to correct myself?”
 
This is also why we have to pay attention within our own community. How many of our young people, themselves not particularly well versed in the experiences and history of antisemitism, unable to know what they haven’t seen, and unclear about the nasty ideas they hear from public personalities they think they admire, how many of our young people know how to respond, react, or make sense out of the cultural void and media noise that surrounds them?
 
We need to support them and what they may be feeling. More so, we have to help them understand how to discern what they are hearing, what it means, and how to respond or process it. We need to and will do that here at Congregation Beth El and you need to do that at home. We need to support and learn how to do this together.
 
Our children, teens, students, and young adults need to know that we respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage.
 
Beyond all necessary and appropriate security and physical defense efforts, which we take with profound regret and great responsibility, we must positively stand up for who we are and most of all actively live and keep alive our unique privilege to be Jews.
 
Religious scholar and author James Carroll wrote, “Antisemitism is the bug in the software of the West.” An insidious glitch in society making Jews unworthy of moral concern.
 
Yet, it is precisely this moral concern for humanity that animates the fullness and essence of our Jewish heritage and historical experience. What we know is that blatant antisemitism is an indication of an unsettled and ailing society.
 
We can never let the bias and banality of those who hate set the standards of belonging and behaving in this or any society. Our society depends on the sincere consideration of and for every individual. No person loses their own stature by acknowledging the humanity of another person. This is the social standard we demand and strive to represent.
 
In response to and not only in defense against antisemitism, it is our role to motivate and model the conscience and ethics our society needs to regain its ethical equilibrium. That is why I won’t amplify any recent and vile examples of antisemitic hate, except to say that rising demonstrations of antisemitism need to be every American’s concern.
 

© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

cultivate life

Shabbat Bereshit | October 22, 2022
 

 

 
This morning I take a few moments to speak about something you might not expect me to discuss. Though our holiday season is now behind us, for many – though not all - of us, the next High Holiday on our civic calendar is Halloween.
 
I’m not going to speak against candy or costumes, parties or fun. I was always happy taking my children out “trick or treating” when they were young and I delight opening the door of my home to share smiles and candy with the children in my neighborhood. It’s especially funny when children who recognize me when I open the door ask if I recognize them, as if I can see faces through their masks.
 
After my father took me and my sisters out to “trick or treat” when we were young, he asked us to join him in opening the door for the older children who came to our house for candy. We would open the door and they would all scream, “trick or treat.”
 
My father would pause, try to get a sense of the group, and answer, “trick.” They looked at him quizzically. “Don’t’ you have any candy for us?” “You gave me a choice,” he would reply. “I chose trick instead of treat.” Once sure by the confused look on their faces that they did not understand the implied meanness or “threat” in their request, he gave everyone candy.
 
Still reminiscing. Many years ago, my good friend Rabbi Ed Feinstein and I used to conduct Jewish educational point-counterpoint conversations with the middle and high school students we taught. Ed would say, “only on Halloween do we pretend we are a neighborhood again. Families from disparate backgrounds share common civic values and trust one another enough to open their doors to strangers.”
 
I liked Rabbi Feinstein’s nostalgia for the neighborhood of his youth, but retorted, “for too many people, Halloween is about making people afraid, tricking and scaring people, and celebrating death.” That was what my father was trying to point out in his awkward Dad way.
 
Ours is a cynically violent society. We live with more than enough that frightens us for real. We don’t need make believe to reinforce the horrors of any given days’ news.
 
I know there’s such a thing as the “joy of fear.” I know Haunted Houses are fun, roller coasters are a thrill, and horror movies a classic genre. We just have to be clear about which fear is of fantasy and which dread is too much a part of our reality.
 
Respecting the different religious and cultural traditions of other groups, aware of the ancient Pagan and old-world church origins of Halloween and looking out at the world through a different lens, the point I make is about Jewish values. We cultivate life. We don’t venerate death.
 
וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ 
“And God saw all that had been made and found it very good.” Human beings live, created as God’s moral image of goodness in the world. Present to cultivate life for all that exists. “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
 
Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God beholds the fullness of the created world as we read in the Genesis creation myth this morning, God declares it very good, tov me’od. But some commentators translate me’od as mostly, not very. Suggesting even what is evil can be used for good purposes.
 
Years ago, I sympathized with Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s point when we taught our students about being good neighbors. I still do. He understood my counterpoint, as well. All of us worry when cruelty is normalized and making people afraid is a goal too many pursue.
 
Years ago, Ed reflected. “So, we canvassed the neighborhood, and dragged home bags full of candies. And after three or four candy bars the kids went to bed, to dream of a warm and loving community, where homes are open, kids are cared for, and everyone dresses up to have a good time. When they finally fell asleep, my wife and I dumped out all the candy on the kitchen table, to inspect each and every piece for needle marks and razor blades and the pernicious, poisonous tampering of some sick mind. God help us.”
 
This is my point. Let’s be sure we inoculate our children before they go out to have fun on Halloween. Let’s speak of confidence not fear. Let’s speak of helping not harming. Let’s speak of giving not only receiving. Let’s speak of make believe and of what we don’t and actually do believe. Let’s help everyone to feel and be safe not insecure.
 
The Torah teaches us that life is born out of light, that darkness gives way to light, and that being created in God’s image our lives and our world have the potential to be tov me’od, mostly good or even very good.
 
Let’s seek the promise of life’s goodness every day so that after the costumes come off and the candy is eaten our and our children’s spirits remain hopeful and all of our souls cultivate life.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
 

high holy day sermons 2022 | 5783

In my High Holy Day sermons this year, I sought inspiration and understanding for who we are and the circumstances in which we live. I’m gratified by the responses to my thoughts and look forward to on-going conversations. My sermons follow below in this order.
On Yom Kippur, I sought to put our lives and Zionism in “Context.”
On Kol Nidre Eve, I thought about what we believe, declaring, "Faith is Not Fact."
On the First Day of Rosh HaShanah, I encouraged us toward "Inspired (Jewish) Living.”
On the Second Day of Rosh HaShanah, I reflected about “Giving Time Meaning.”
On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I urged us to “Take the High Road.”
 

context

Yom Kippur Sermon 2022 | 5783
 

 

 
Izzy is a modest, simple man. Going to sleep after Yom Kippur one fateful year, Izzy has a dream. In his dream God says to him, “Izzy, yours is a modest and good life. Be proud of who you are and how you live. In this New Year, I want you to have one thing new. What would you like?”
 
(Now remember, this is a story. Do not approach God as if a genie granting wishes. Do not imagine God hurts you, either. That’s neither what Judaism believes nor how the world works! I just want to be clear on this point before I continue the story.)
 
In his dream, Izzy hears himself answer God. “You know what I would like God? I would like to buy something expensive that I can’t normally afford, especially before the cold of winter.”
 
As Izzy wakes up from his dream, it seems it was just a dream. God doesn’t answer such requests. Just as Izzy is about to go about his day, an Amazon delivery truck pulls up to his house and drops off a large box. He opens the box and finds inside a cashmere overcoat, hat, and designer sunglasses. “Wow,” he exclaims.
 
Anxious to show off his new apparel, Izzy puts on the coat, the hat, and the glasses and heads for the door. He walks out of his house and starts to cross the street. Suddenly, as it was turning around, that same Amazon truck speeds up and knocks Izzy down. Lying on the street bruised but okay, Izzy calls out to God. “How could you let this happen? Didn’t you just send me this new coat, hat and sunglasses?”
 
Izzy hears a voice from on high, a sound just like the voice of God he heard in his dream. “Izzy, that was you? I didn’t recognize you!”
 
We get that. A change in someone’s more familiar appearance surprises us. Sometimes we don’t recognize people we associate with one place when we meet them in another. More than once I’ve received a quizzical glance in the grocery store or out and about. Occasionally, we pass quiet judgment or express curious surprise. “What are they doing here?” Or worse, “Why are they here?”
 
Honestly, most of us recognize very little about the people we are here with today. Outside of family and genuine friends, in this space we are a community of acquaintances, familiar faces, volunteers who work together on various pursuits, new participants, welcome visitors, and folks we haven’t met yet.
 
In personal reality, we are each about much more than whatever small aspects of our personalities, interests, capacities, appearances, and life routines we display here. Outside of observing Yom Kippur together, which is our bond this sacred day, another time we need to find the opportunities to grow closer and better known to one another.
 
The same is true about our relationships with Judaism and our precious Jewish heritage. On Yom Kippur Judaism appears to be about atonement, forgiveness, spiritual, personal, and moral growth. The Mahzor presents us images of a judging, forgiving, loving, and compassionate God.
 
Adonai, Adonai, El rahum v’hanun…Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”
 
Taken out of context these Torah words we recite comfort and assure us. They symbolize the Divine promise of kindness and forgiveness on this day of atonement and introspection. Let me remind you. It is always dangerous to take words, people, or memories out of context. When the Torah portrays God describing these Divine attributes to Moses, this is how the full text reads.
 
“Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mt. Sinai. The Eternal God passed before him and proclaimed: Eternal God, Eternal God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin and granting pardon; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children upon the third and fourth generations.
 
More difficult and challenging images from ancient days than what the rabbis wanted us to read in the Mahzor today. They pulled the image they preferred out of its original context. We recognize the promise of love and forgiveness. We’re put off by the words of retribution in the original text.
 
The Prophet Ezekiel was too. He declares a different belief, the one the Talmudic rabbis use to explain their theological editing. “As I live, declares the Eternal God, this proverb shall no longer be current among Israel. The person who sins, only he is responsible.”
 
Judaism is a full, varied, and multi-faceted religious history and tradition. An inheritance we each receive while appreciating, understanding, or even believing only some or much of a larger, dynamic whole. Each of us interpreting, determining, and exploring. All of us welcome to be part of the evolving, enduring, and ever fascinating Jewish conversation that gives context, content, and consequence to our lives.
 
Some of us entered into today with an instinct for and an understanding about what we are here to do. Others of us entered into today sincerely to participate and be present, but with less comfort in or feel for the larger context of our Jewish ritual and religious tradition.
 
It’s only natural. We each live in the circumstances and influences of our lives. Our personal contexts evolve or broaden slowly, over time, as we discover more, respond to situations, fulfill curiosities and interests, decide to leave things, or even people, behind, or act on a personal desire to change.
 
Like a child leaving home, off to college or elsewhere, poised, excited, yet nervous about living in their newfound independence, opportunities, and responsibilities.
 
Like all of us grieving the loss of a cherished love and precious personality in our lives who somehow over time find resilience in our memories and the renewal of our days.
 
Like a couple who start to build their life together.
 
Like an individual who decides to make a change in his or her position or location.
 
Like someone who breaks a bad habit, makes a healthier choice, or honestly improves on a personal weakness.
 
Like anyone who starts out again, starts over again, or strives to alter aspects of his or her life again.
 
Like the person who picks up a new hobby, masters a new skill, learns a new subject, or thinks about a new idea.
 
Like all of us who at one time or another have to react to a thrilling prospect or a devasting incident.
 
Like receiving an unwanted diagnosis or being relieved by a desired outcome.
 
Like all that fills our days with purpose, activity, relationships, and yearnings.
 
We live our lives in the contexts of who and what we know, all that we may choose, and in response to what we cannot control.
 
Which is why living out of context is not natural and being honest about the contexts in which we live is so vital. When we understand ourselves and our environments, we see even more promise and possibility for being and becoming who we truly are, our authentic selves.
 
This is our personal quest and goal on Yom Kippur. To grow toward the fullest dignity of our real and authentic place and purpose in life. “U’t-kableinu bi’teshuvah shelmah…Accept us fully when we turn,” we ask of God among our prayers today.
 
This is also our people’s quest and goal in the world. To exist in the fullest dignity of our real and authentic place and purpose. “U’vkhen tein kavod l’amekha…Bestow honor among Your people,” we ask of God many times today.
 
Like Abraham heeding God’s command to journey from everything familiar to a new, unknown land and life. Like Moses leading the Children of Israel out from the painful realities of their enslavement toward a new vision of freedom in that new land promised to them, Abraham’s descendants.
 
It’s all about context. Though there is a universal reality to the experience of being human, meaning and significance come from our particular identities and experiences. If we are not each unique, the world has no need for our personal gifts and talents.
 
Out of context we are inauthentic. We have no wisdom or vision to share with the larger world. We have less with which to build relationships with a variety of people. If we are not distinctive as a group, we don’t have a story to tell out of our particular historical context.
 
Which is why it can be difficult to be a Zionist in an environment where so many others do not understand the context of Zionism, Israel, and the Jewish religious and historical experience. Yet, in this joyous 75th year of Israel’s independence we must understand that past in order to represent Zionism effectively and celebrate Israel proudly now.
 
Zionism, though always a religious tenant of Judaism, became a political and cultural expression of Jewish identity when the 19th century emancipation of western European Jews brought them social acculturation and intellectual exploration along with spreading assimilation and antisemitic humiliation.
 
As Theodor Herzl wrote in 1896, “We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves into the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still denounced as strangers. ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.”
 
Today Israel is more than a living reality. It is a reality in which, and around which, we the Jewish people live. The Jewish State of Israel is our place of fulfillment and destiny, not only an address of care or concern.
 
Too often, however, too many American Jews condition their feelings for Israel. They wrongly think the way to disagree is to disavow. No. The mutually responsible way to disagree if you must is first to care and then to engage. Just like they do in Israel. Just like we do here as American citizens who debate the dilemmas of our American nation. We disagree. We don’t disavow. Though we have to remember and remind others. America’s and Israel’s social and demographic contexts are very different.
 
Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I learned that to be a Zionist is to be an idealist and a realist. It is to be thoughtful, educated, and aware of where Israel achieves, where Israel may fall short, and most of all why Israel matters.
 
I learned this from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, whom I had the privilege to meet in his Tel Aviv home. He urged me to finish high school and come back to Israel to live. I promised him I would consider it, which through the years I did. What else could I do?
 
As Ben-Gurion taught, Israel is more than a country, more than our people’s historic homeland. Israel’s independence requires no one’s permission. We who are the people of Israel have given of our vision and experience to all of humanity and in return have earned our secure and historic place within the community of nations. A place we have made because it has never been given. A place we secure because no one else will.
 
Our children and grandchildren, especially our college students, need our support in understanding Ben-Gurion’s message. The more contemporary context of their lives cannot know what we witnessed, what we know to be true, what history itself confirms. In so many ways, it’s on us to teach and inspire the next generation from our different life contexts.
 
Many college campuses today are rife with anti-Zionist and antisemitic campaigns and hate filled rhetoric and images that demonize and delegitimize Israel, often coordinated internationally by Israel’s enemies. Is it not morally ironic, and completely hypocritical, that those who denigrate Israel about human rights themselves discriminate against Jews, Israel, and our rights?
 
Such bias misunderstands the complicated political issues of nationality and sovereignty in the Middle East. We all genuinely grieve the loss, pain, and human suffering. We feel it for each IDF soldier and Israeli citizen when they are killed or wounded and for his or her family. We feel it for all innocent Palestinian families who mourn their losses of children and loved ones. Through the lens of our people’s story and moral memory, we see cause and effect, goodness and hatred. We see narratives and context for an intractable conflict. Apparently, many others don’t.
 
Our Jewish college students who do understand this, themselves sensitive to injustice in our society and throughout the world, find it challenging to contextualize and vocalize support for Israel. Living our Jewish identities on or off campus requires knowledge, passion, and confidence. It should not require our students’ or our courage in this land at this time.
 
That’s why you and I work to create the context for a vibrant, living Judaism here where we live. To be a Zionist today also means to be an advocate for a community of engaged and educated American Jews.
 
Taken as a whole, our synagogue community is a microcosm of the Jewish people. Our synagogue campus is our Israel, our spiritual center, our Jewish address. In this context we share in the fullness of Jewish authenticity and the evolving, enduring, and ever fascinating Jewish conversation that sets out a vision for our world and imparts significance to our lives.
 
In the unique context and personal places of your life, what is your private conversation about the authentic you? What promise and possibility for being and becoming who you truly are is on your mind this sacred day?
 
Izzy may have changed his appearance, but when he did, did he change himself? Ezekiel and the rabbis may have changed the way we perceive God’s attributes, but when they did, did they change the mystery of God’s nature? We may, and at times we should, change aspects of our lives’ contexts. But when we do so, are we sustaining or discovering our authentic selves?
 
At all times and in every context, as individuals, as Zionists, and as Jews we are unique. Striving to grow, to refine, and to improve to be sure, but always content and confident being who we are.
 
In this New Year, may God recognize and accept you for who you are. May all who know you recognize and accept you for who you are. May you, too, recognize and accept who you are, realizing in the context of everyday meaning, purpose, and the blessings of life.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

faith is not fact

Kol Nidre Sermon 2022|5783
 

 

 
It is beautifully precious that we are here this evening. Truly. We feel called by our tradition. We honor our memories. We live out our Jewish lifestyles. We demonstrate our religious or spiritual feelings being present tonight in a community of our people.
 
Here in our synagogue community, we manifest God’s presence through the ritual we enact together and in the prayerful thoughts we each know in our hearts. Like few other places in our lives, this is a space in which we take seriously the ideas of Judaism. We explore. We engage.
 
We immerse ourselves in the on-going philosophical and theological conversation that is Jewish interpretation. Here we don’t simplify. Rather, we amplify. Our desire is understanding. Our goal is meaning.
 
Here we are resolved that even more of life’s blessings, goodness, and purpose may be ours to discover as we observe the unique sanctity of Yom Kippur. It is beautifully precious that we are here this evening. Thank you.
 
I wonder, though, if there isn’t another reason some of us choose to be here. Our faith. Or more precisely stated in Hebrew, emunah. We are here because we trust in the religious beliefs and ideals, visions and dreams of Judaism. Concepts cherished by the Jewish people through the ages and taught in the name of God.
 
We translate emunah as faith. But faith is an English term. It’s not really a Jewish concept. The word faith comes to us from Christian translations of the Bible. In Greek or Latin faith meant loyalty. Translated into English, loyalty became belief.
 
The Hebrew term means trust. Emunah is the conviction we demonstrate by being here tonight. We express belief in God less by what we imagine and more by what we come to know. Less by what we profess and more by what we do.
 
This emunah, this religious trust in what we know, allows us to hold to some common beliefs because of shared experiences and memories. When we speak of faith in God, this is what we mean. Not things we imagine, but experienced individual and collective truths on which we depend. Emunah is trust.
 
The first time the word emunah appears in the Torah, it describes Moses’ hands as trustworthy or steady, “vayehi yadav emunah,” as Moses raises them up to lead Israel.
 
We develop such emunah, such trust, through communication. As Moses signals to Israel their direction, so must we hear each other and talk with one another at home and in community. We trust when we understand.
 
At the Torah’s end, Moses describes God as, “El emunah,” a trustworthy God, “v’ein avel,” never false, but truly reliable.
 
We develop such emunah, such trust, through relationships. As Moses teaches Israel to see God as a dependable source for inspiration on their journey, so do we have to be present for each other. We trust the people we like, whom we know.
 
The prophet Jeremiah speaks about people who do justice and are m’vakesh emunah, those who seek integrity.
 
We develop such emunah, such trust, through integrity. As Jeremiah demands that people hold themselves up to a high and proper standard, so do we have to be trustworthy and honest with ourselves and all of the people in our lives.
 
Finally, in rabbinic usage, a person who was amanah was someone upon whose word or signature you could rely.
 
Trust develops in relationships. It grows out of situations we’ve been in. It reflects memories we hold, perceptions we carry, and the gut instincts we rely on. As a result, it’s only natural, in some we trust more than others. In us some trust more or less.
 
Here are four words for you to remember all of this by. These words are for me a religious refrain. You may have heard them before. You’ll definitely hear them again.
 
Faith Is Not Fact.
 
Faith is the measure of my ideals. It is the way I believe things ought to be. Quite often the facts with which I live demonstrate a different reality. The essential purpose of my faith is to bring its truths to bear on the facts I know. The goal of my faith is to draw those facts I know closer to the ideal vision of God's presence in which I believe.
 
Naturally, we speculate about what we don’t know for sure. Our curiosities and sense of wonder or worry take over. Our powers of imagination are significant. How often do we conjure up things not in evidence because we need to fill the information void?
 
When we don’t know what someone said about us, when we are in an uncomfortable situation, we guess. We tell ourselves what others are thinking. We convince ourselves that things will be all right, or worse, that there’s a problem. We analyze why someone said or did what they did. We suggest what an author or artist intended. We try to figure out why the coach called that play.
 
Some of our beliefs are rooted in experience. Other beliefs are ideas we imagine or hope. Faith isn’t about the known or the unknown knowable. Faith is about that which is unknowable but believed.
 
Many years ago, I was the guest teacher in a high school comparative religions course. Each semester the teacher asked me to answer questions about Judaism. He also asked me to present one particular idea about all religion that matters to me. So, every semester I would explain to the students that faith is not fact.
 
We spoke about the Bible, how it is not a record of what actually occurred, but rather a religious memory of meaning not facts. What matters, for example, is not how Israel left Egypt but what that narrative means for our lives and our world.
 
We spoke our different ancestors’ memories and beliefs through the ages, the insights and wisdom of their experiences we grow to respect help us to seek the same from our own. We recognize that every individual, every family, every community, and every group, nation, or people carries their own particular and unique memories. That’s why different people around the world have different beliefs about God.
 
That is also why we share our beliefs in congregation and community. Together we can hold to some common beliefs as Jews and have a forum for asking our many questions. Our history and our tradition provide us with both the vocabulary and the responsibility for defining and discussing what we believe.
 
We discussed the vocabulary of human characteristics we apply to God. We ascribe to God sensations we know. It is the only foundation for faith we have. Yet, in attempting to describe the eternal in temporal terms we create the ultimate paradox. We forget that our words are symbols bearing no resemblance in life to the mystery of God’s reality. God’s realm is the intangible, of soul and spirit, not the corporeal of body and matter with which we live.
 
We also spoke about faith having its limits. Ethics, conscience, history, common sense, human decency, science, these are all checks on the purposes and meanings we ascribe to what we believe.
 
As the Orthodox scholar Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz explained many years ago, “I cannot overlook the fact that, no matter how strongly I believe it, it is still only my personal belief.”
 
We wondered how many conflicts between individuals, within families or between peoples and nations would be more easily resolved if this humility attached to what everyone believes. Whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of the whole truth. Faith is the confidence to live our ideals. Faith is not fact.
 
At the end of every semester the students had to take a final exam that included this question. “Who said, ‘Faith is not fact?’ Answer choices were Moses, Jesus, Buddha, or Rabbi Shulman. My mother was so proud!
 
This sacred evening, I want you to understand. Faith is a grounded idealism. Faith lifts us up. Faith inspires us. It touches our hearts because it informs our minds. Faith is the courage to live according to the right in which we believe.
 
If tomorrow we discover a fact or situation contradictory to the tradition as we have it, our beliefs will endure while our understanding of their origin may grow and change. This emunah, this religious trust in what we know and hope for keeps us engaged and involved in the on-going discovery of what it means to be Jewish and the reality of being human.
 
Our religious beliefs cannot be used to justify either our prejudices or our preferences. Belief in God is a challenge to our baser instincts. Faith enlightens our conscience. Reflecting about God ought to inspire us, or possibly perplex us. But it shouldn’t diminish our character or our sensitivity toward others, even those others with whom we differ profoundly.
 
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “Intellectual honesty is one of the supreme goals of philosophy of religion…Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”
 
I’m arguing for faith’s limits, that beyond the Bible’s stories God is reflected in what ought to be, in how we can do better or different, not only when we want to confirm for ourselves what has come to be, or what we think.
 
So, how do we decide what to believe, in what we trust?
 
We may glean insights about God from our people’s religious history, from our parents and their perspectives, or from others we meet in life. Still, it is only through our own experiences, from what makes sense to us, from what inspires us, that God becomes real to us.
 
Belief in God emerges out of personal experience, not professed philosophy. Other insights we may come to are concepts we imagine or hope, but as faith are not fact. Thinking about God is confronting that which is unknowable but from our individual vantage points believable. Seeking sources of meaning in ideas and ideals as we each make our way through the challenges and complexities of life.
 
The experiences we each collect in life are different. And whatever truths or values our experiences may teach us or lead us to, we are each privileged to glimpse but a small aspect of any greater truth.
 
Faith is not fact. I’ve been thinking about and teaching this idea for many years. If more people in the world, and certainly in the world of religion, could make this same assertion about what they believe, I believe the result would be a shared vision for more human dignity and goodness in the world.
 
Take this to heart. Every time you celebrate a sacred moment, light a candle for Shabbat or a holiday, every time you make Kiddush over wine, every act of tzedakah, every gesture of kindness and compassion, every time you enter the synagogue to pray, to learn, and to connect, every conscious expression of your Jewish self is a demonstration of hope and emunah, an act that celebrates human dignity and goodness.
 
Says the Psalm for these Days of Awe: “Mine is the faith, mine is the trust, lulei he’e-manti lir-ot b’tuv Adonai, that I surely shall see the Eternal God’s goodness in the land of the living.”
 
Faith is not fact. Faith leads us to the truths that matter most in life. Faith is not fact. Faith is trust, emunah, and the confidence to live our ideals.
 
G’mar Hatimah Tovah!
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

inspired (jewish) living

Rosh HaShanah I Sermon 2022 | 5783
 

 

 
Talmudic wisdom suggests a rabbi should be in a joyful mood before he begins his sermon but overcome with awe once he begins to speak. It seems that the ancient sage Rabbah would attempt to say something humorous before teaching so those listening to him would share in both his happy and reverent moods.
 
So, here goes! Many years ago, my wife Robin and I had the occasion to travel to a family wedding. Robin was having trouble on the airline’s website so she called the airline to speak with an operator in order to make reservations. Over the phone she explained to the clerk that she would be traveling ahead on Thursday and, because of my work, I would be joining her late Saturday evening. “My husband needs to travel on Saturday night, after the sun has set,” Robin explained. “Why?” inquired the operator. “Is he a vampire?” “No,” replied Robin in an upbeat voice, “Just a rabbi.”
 
My mood is upbeat today. I hope yours is, too. As we begin the new Jewish year, what could possibly upset us? This is my message today. We cannot let what’s wrong deter us from pursuing what’s right.
 
Jewish lore imagines God and Abraham in conversation just as Abraham looks up and sees a ram stuck in the bushes nearby to replace his son Isaac whom he has infamously bound on a sacrificial altar. “The Holy One, blessed be God, said to Abraham, ‘In the future your descendants will also be entangled in troubles and they too will be redeemed by the horn of a ram.’”
 
After we sound that ram’s horn, the shofar, we declare our redemption. HaYom harat olam! Today our world is created anew!
 
Though so much may disturb and distress us in the worlds of our nation, our people, and nature, or upset and challenge us in the worlds of our personal lives, families, and friends, all of which matters and none of which do I dismiss or disregard, on this day which symbolically marks the world’s re-creation it is the awesome gift and wonder of our lives, the profound and meaningful purposes of our days that must inspire us.
 
We re-create the worlds of our experience by raising ourselves up to imagine rather than despair, to hope not to worry, to reach for more not settle for less. This is our greatest challenge and need. I know some of what upsets you and me. My quest now is to discover what inspires us.
 
Jewish tradition imagines we are to answer this question at the end of our days. I want to answer it today. “Tzapita l’yeshua - Did you hope for better days? For redemption?” Did you dream and imagine what could be or merely complain about and accept what is?
 
Ours is not just to watch, wallow, and wait for things to get better. Rather it is up to us to elevate our sights, raise our expectations, and live in the world that is as we believe it ought to be. To live on every day we are blessed to greet with hope, determination, and moral clarity.
 
That’s what we do during this sacred season. We strive to go higher and higher. For our sake, and for the sake of our society, we must live inspired lives.
 
Indeed, raising our sights, looking upward, above the Ark in every synagogue hangs an Eternal Light, a Ner Tamid. We derive this symbol from words of Torah directed to Aaron, the Ancient Israelite High Priest. He was to kindle and elevate an Eternal Light, l’ha’a lot ner tamid, a lamp in front of the curtain hiding the tablets of the covenant in the Mishkan.
 
About this symbol, Jewish tradition understands the light of God’s presence to be a light of inspiration and holiness, shining into our hearts and our souls the enduring values of goodness, of love, and of hope. It is among our most inspiring symbols. The lights of sanctuary, of Shabbat and festival, the lights of memory and mourning all touch us deeply, and move us to remember, to honor, to celebrate, and to rejoice.
 
Light reflecting God’s presence illuminates our way and brightens the darkness of any personal or emotional night. We need such light, such inspiration in our lives.
 
We know what amuses us. We know what makes us sad. We see and hear so much that is crass, vulgar, or disheartening. But what elevates us? What motivates us? What inspires us?
 
Most often, I’m inspired by other people. People who challenge themselves, who rise above and overcome, who reach out to others, who live by their principles, who do what is right, and who accept responsibility for what they did wrong.
 
I can think of role models who encouraged my own life’s path. I can bring to mind the impressive, compassionate, and brave acts of others. A person’s goodness, kindness, and love compel my own.
 
Ideas also elevate our hearts and our minds. They are a potent source of motivation and meaning. Simple or profound, various thoughts move us and cause us to reflect. Memories, sacred texts, music and art, exploration, curiosity, and even athletics; there is much to inspire us if we seek it out. We thrill in nature’s wonders and humanity’s creativity. Family and community, too, become sources of inspiration, especially as we derive some of our values from our association with others.
 
Our goal is to find sources of inspiration for our lives. That’s why we’re here.
 
We seek this inspiration because in our more somber mood, you and I are wary. Weary too. The culture in which we live is morally sick. Our society is ailing. The symptoms are all too evident and widespread. We are numbed by violence and the murder of school children, incivility and lying, division and derision, distrust and deception, hatred and racism, economic instability and social inequity.
 
From our aspirational place of higher hopes, we look down at these realities. We’re not alone. Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig describes our moral decline this way. “American life isn’t about what is good but is rather about nothing at all.”
 
If life is about nothing, if no sense of purpose or meaning inspires, people despair. They make excuses. They lose trust. They deny reality. They cast blame.
 
Earlier I said, we cannot let what’s wrong deter us from pursuing what’s right. My focus today is on the sources of our inspiration not our frustration. In the what’s wrong category, however, I make this one exception because of its special resonance with us in synagogue and its larger relevance to so much else upsetting us.
 
Over the summer, two men were sitting outside on the patio of True Foods at the UTC Mall waiting for their lunch order. Apparently these two friends were Jewish because while sitting there they were subjected to a hateful and bizarre antisemitic tirade.
 
A man cast blame. Recording his own vile attack he screamed among other ugly things, “The Goyim are starting to wake up. You guys have your own ethnostate. You guys are trying to dismantle our civilization.” After they threatened to call the police, he told them “Call your Shabbos Goys.” Then he stopped filming and posted his hatred to Twitter.
 
No one was physically hurt. Recently there have been many more and worse antisemitic incidents in this country and around the world. Even so, watching this video was disturbing. Didn’t recognize either of the men. I assume they’re not here with us. Also, not sure how their attacker knew they were Jewish. I showed the video to Robin who asked what I would do in that situation. A question I’ll come back to in a moment.
 
Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Walter Russell Mead explains the larger significance of this and every other antisemitic episode. “The rise of antisemitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure. It is a leading indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and of a diminished capacity to understand the modern world and to thrive in it. Societies that tolerate antisemitism take a fateful step toward the loss of both freedom and prosperity.”
 
If so, then we Jews represent the exact opposite of an antisemite’s screed. How we present ourselves to the world must imagine a future bigots can’t see. A future in which human decency and goodness thrive. A future in which Jewish life is dynamic and engaging, a demonstration of personal meaning and common purpose. We must respond to hatred with pride.
 
If I were the target of that man’s disgusting words at UTC, assuming I felt safe and before or after calling the police, I hope I would have said to him something like this. “Thanks for the reminder. I’m always proud to be a Jew. I only wish you knew what the hell you were talking about so you could be proud to be you, too.”
 
We respond to others’ ignorant and hideous hatred for us from a posture of confidence, conviction, and pride. We are not Jewish because they hate us. We are Jewish because we love the values and ideals of our people’s historic and enduring heritage. Beyond all necessary and appropriate security and physical defense efforts, which we take with profound regret and great responsibility, we must positively stand up for who we are and most of all actively live and keep alive our unique privilege to be Jews.
 
We Jews endure because belonging to a people, transcendent of borders, boundaries, races, and nations provides us with our optimistic outlook. A worldview of hope and visions of daily, weekly, seasonal meaning. For our sake, and for the sake of our people, we must live inspired Jewish lives.
 
Which means it’s time to come home, to renew and rebuild our communal bond as a synagogue family. We cannot live truly inspired Jewish lives alone. Together we inspire each other with our presence and our caring.
 
As it has always been. “I make this covenant not with you alone,” God’s voice through Moses’ words tells our ancient Israelite ancestors standing at Mt Sinai. “I make this covenant not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”
 
It is of us, later generations unknowable once upon a time, that this verse speaks. We Jews are a group bound by covenants of history and fate, collective memories and cherished faith. The Jewish people’s covenant with each other and God is a transcendent, imperceptible, inspirational pull we feel at those moments in our lives when connecting to Jews and Jewish tradition is important to us.
 
The Jewish people’s covenant must be more compelling and inspiring to us than our proper concerns about antisemitism. As the late Rabbi David Hartman said about the Holocaust and Zionism, “We will mourn forever because of the memory of Auschwitz. We will build a healthy new society because of the memory of Sinai.”
 
As you and I emerge from the shadows of pandemic darkness and disruption, we step up into a new year’s light of hope and resolve, climbing higher and higher toward the visions and ideals in which we believe and by which we must live.
 
Here’s what I encourage you to do this year, more than hope for better days. For our sake, and for the sake of our society, we must live inspired lives.
 
We must step up and into the light of God’s inspiration. Living inspired lives means living with personal resolve. Easier said than done, as we all understand.
 
Begin by paying attention to the people who represent the decency and honesty you value instead of those whose noise and news diverts your attention from what’s right to what’s wrong. Step up higher by consciously speaking honestly yourself and acting with personal integrity. Step up still higher by caring. Be kind and be good. Expect kindness and decency. Don’t settle for less than the highest possible demonstration of your character and values.
 
Here’s what I else encourage you to do this year. I know it’s cliché for a rabbi to ask a congregation to be present and involved, which is not really my style. But, after 31 pandemic months thus far, we all need the meaning and connections at the heart of synagogue and Jewish life.
 
It’s time to come home, to renew and rebuild our communal bond as a synagogue family. I encourage you to commit yourself anew to honoring our people’s eternal covenant. For our sake, and for the sake of our people, we must live inspired Jewish lives.
 
Begin by becoming part of our volunteer community. We need your talent and your insights to imagine and create our shared future. Step up higher by becoming part of our caring community. We are devoted to God by caring for one another other through ailments and anxiousness and being present to one another at happy and sad times.
 
Step up still higher by becoming part of our learning community. Find inspiration in Jewish texts and ideas, in questions and exploration, through discussion and debate. Step up even higher by becoming part of our Shabbat community. The most sacred and inspiring symbol our people’s historic covenant is Shabbat. A day of light and gladness we set aside each week to reconnect with our Jewish community, to rejoice in our Jewish identities, to root our days in the wisdom and meanings of Torah and Jewish tradition, and to renew in shared Jewish celebration.
 
I conclude with an abridged version of Y. L Peretz’ famous Yiddish folk tale. Early every Friday morning during the weeks before the High Holy Days, the rabbi of Nemirov would vanish. He was nowhere to be seen, neither in the synagogue nor in the study house, nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. Where could the rabbi be? The towns folk believed the rabbi of Nemirov ascended to heaven during the days before Rosh HaShanah. Afterall, a rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe.
 
One week a man from another town came to visit. When asked where he thought the missing rabbi was, he laughed. “That’s not my business,” he said shrugging. Yet all the while he was scheming to find out. One Thursday night, right after the evening prayers, the visitor steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits.
 
Early the next morning the rabbi arises. He dresses in peasant clothes. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope. The rabbi leaves and his unseen visitor follows him. On the way the rabbi stops to make a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket.
 
Next the rabbi stops at a back street besides a small, broken-down shack and knocks at the window. "Who is there?" asks the frightened voice of a sick woman. "Vassil," the rabbi answers. “I see you are cold. "I’ll kindle a fire," explains the rabbi as he enters.
 
As the rabbi puts the wood into the oven he recites, in a groan, the first portion of the morning prayers. As he kindles the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recites, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the prayers. When the fire was set, he recites the third portion, and shuts the stove.
 
The man from out of town who saw all this became a disciple of the rabbi. And ever after, when another disciple tells how the rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven during the days before Rosh HaShanah, the man does not laugh. He only adds quietly, "If not higher."
 
That’s what we all can do during and after this sacred season. Realize this. As our children and grandchildren grow, as we ourselves continue to age and engage, as we put ourselves out into the world every New Year and each new day, we hope and pray that people are decent and kind, honest and good.
 
Which is why my message today is the challenge of our times. We must strive to go higher and higher, bringing warmth where there is cold, light where there is dark, and inspiration where it’s needed most. In this New Year, let each one of us step up even more than we have before, if not higher.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

giving time meaning

Rosh HaShanah II Study Sermon 2022 | 5783
 

 

 
I note at the start of this New Year that I have now served here at Congregation Beth El for five years, this being our sixth High Holy Day season together. Funny though, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. Time flies when you’re having fun! Two and one-half years in our previously normal world followed by two and one-half years in our new normal COVID world.
 
Above and beyond COVID, we live in tough times, at least so it seems. Yet, for all that worries and concerns us, let’s not lose perspective. When in human history have people not lived in tough times? Through the ages, wars and persecution, disease and suffering, financial ruin and political unrest are sadly more constants than exceptions. And, for all that challenges us now, we live in relative comfort as a measure of human experience. Though, we certainly understand this is not universally true neither at home nor abroad.
 
Still, on this second day of a New Year, a new moment, a new beginning, a new opportunity to hope and to strive, let’s not focus on whatever may be the difficulty of our days. Instead, against the backdrop of all that is challenging, let’s focus on the purpose and meaning toward which we live our days.
 
In his book, The Chosen, Chaim Potok puts these words into the mouth of Dr. David Malter who explains to his son Reuven: “Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So, we may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?”
 
Dr. Malter continues. “I learned a long time ago, that the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. The span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so that its quality is immeasurable, though its quantity may be insignificant. A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest I want to be worthy of rest, when I am no longer here.”
 
Let me ask you a simple question. What time is it? You can answer in different ways. It’s time to listen to the rabbi’s sermon. Or simply, it’s 11:15 a.m. Now let me ask, what day is it? Again, you can answer me in different ways. It’s September 27, 2022, or 2 Tishrei 5783, or it’s the second day of Rosh HaShanah, or it’s Tuesday, or it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s birthday.
 
Why do I ask? Why do we care? Well, basically because we have things to do, places to be, and people to see so we want to know when and where we and they are. Reflectively, maybe we want to think about our fleeting relationship with time. Afterall, time can be wasted, kept, spent, saved, killed, lost, and longed for.
 
Only a Minute: I have only just a minute. Only sixty seconds in it. Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it. But it’s up to me to use it. Give account if I abuse it. Answer for it if I lose it. Just a tiny little minute. But eternity is in it!”
 
Today, I want to add a spiritual dimension to our awareness of time. We mark and measure time because we are mortal, finite and physical human beings. Consider that we feel the rush of time more as we grow older. Our sense of time’s speed comes from having experienced more with every passing year. Time seems to pass more quickly closer to the end rather than the beginning of what we are doing. As a result, each day we live becomes more precious than the one before it. All that we do becomes more pressing and significant. Everything we hope for becomes more heartfelt and sincere.
 
Judaism is a religion of time. Teaches Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “There is much enthusiasm for the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean God’s presence in space rather than time, in nature rather than in history; as if God were a thing, not a spirit.”
 
Judaism teaches that we meet God in time. We do not find God wherever we may be. We sense God’s presence whenever we are living out our days with intention, moral vision, and ritual celebration.
 
The four Hebrew letters Yud hey vav hey, represent God in time and existence, was (hayah), is (hoveh), and will be (yihiyeh). We best translate Adonai, “My Lord” as we symbolically pronounce those four Hebrew letters as “Eternal God.”
 
Norma, a woman I knew who helped prepare food for Jewish events and celebrations came to me one day after the food was prepared and ready to be served. Norma had one very important question. What time should she put out the meal? Typically, the answer came back, “Be ready to eat at noon-ish, or two-ish, or six-ish.” Unhappy with these imprecise times, Norma once asked, “Is this how you tell time because you’re Jewish?”
 
Actually, for we who are Jewish, it is the calendar’s pattern and sacred dates through which we tell time daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, and annually. The Jewish calendar reminds us to prioritize who and what are vital to our sense of meaning and fulfillment. It directs our attention to our intentions, and not toward whatever the larger world imposes on us.
 
Even as we endured a pandemic, we celebrated Shabbat and holidays up to and including this third “not yet fully normal” Rosh HaShanah. At all times, the Jewish calendar is a celebration of history, a vision of destiny, and an expression of identity.
 
The courage and dedication to Jewish identity we frivolously celebrate on Purim is a set up for Passover. Then we get serious about what it means to believe in God and to represent God in the world. Freedom, human equality and dignity along with social justice are the ethical demands of our monotheistic religious tradition.
 
Gratitude for all that sustains our lives in God’s world is the reason for our daily counting of the Omer. Tempered by the sadness of mourning the generation of the Shoah and enhanced as we rejoice in the creation of the State of Israel, our Omer season of blessing and history anticipates Shavuot. We receive Torah, the revelation of God’s presence in our lives. The substance of Jewish purpose. The wisdom of Judaism.
 
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur celebrate the moral me. You and I measure the character of our lives and the merit of our choices in order to earn the gift of our lives. Sukkot brings us back to Passover and Shavuot. Dwelling in our Sukkot, we celebrate life as a journey from beginning to arrival, from slavery to freedom, from personal constraint to moral responsibility. We strive to care for one another and our natural environment. Hanukkah is a partner holiday to Purim. Courage, dedication to Jewish identity, and devotion to the light of God’s presence in our lives through ritual and learning. Last but not least, Shabbat, our weekly respite for joy and renewal celebrating God’s creative and redemptive presence in the world.
 
Mishnah Rosh HaShanah teaches us there are four overlapping calendars by which we organize our social lives: one for kings and festivals, one for tithes, one for the years, and one for the trees.
 
Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1 declares: “There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for Festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals - Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Simon° say, On the first of Tishri is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical Years, for Jubilee Years, for planting, and for vegetables; and on the first of Shevat is the New Year for Trees, according to the view of the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel say, On the fifteen the thereof.”
 
We live in concentric cycles of time. Our personal, professional, family, national, religious, academic, sports, and family calendars overlap. Each season and every time frame beg us to divide our attention, to choose our priorities. Which calendar has ultimate authority over our days, over our time?
 
What are your markers of time and moment? What occasions of celebration, attainment, memory, or change do you mark and remember? Are they yours alone? If not, with whom do you share them?
 
Jewish tradition contrasts the routine and ordinary experiences of our lives with those occasions that are profound, unique, or sacred. In order to enter into the sacred seasons of the Jewish calendar we must first discover the personal milestones and memories of our own lives. Even then, the decision to celebrate or consecrate the times of our lives remains ours.
 
Talmud Yerushalmi observes: “When the earthly court decrees that today is Rosh HaShanah, God says to the ministering angels, ‘Prepare the trial platform. Ready the defenders and the clerks. The earthly court has declared today to be Rosh HaShanah.’ If the witnesses to the new month tarried, so Tishrei could not be declared, or if the court added a day to the month of Elul, God announces to the angels: ‘Remove the platform. Dismiss the defenders and the clerks. The earthly court has decreed that Rosh HaShanah is not until tomorrow.’”
 
The rabbis are teaching what they believed. It is Rosh HaShanah when we say so. If we’re not set, God waits!  (Which given all that we confront this year may explain why our holiday is “late.” Who had time to prepare?) Our ancient sages did not believe that humanity controls fate or nature. They most certainly saw their authority and our opportunity in controlling and establishing the calendar, designing and determining the purpose of our days.
 
Rosh HaShanah is not sacred because of some Divine decree, but because of our own decision to pause, break from routine, and live these days as days of awe, gratitude, perspective, and value.
 
There is so much about the world and our lives over which we are not able to exercise authority or control. So much that we might make different if only we could. For all of our strength and ability, for all of our achievement and prowess, so much that lies beyond the grasp of our prayer and our efforts. We cannot control what happens to us. That is why we must control the calendar. What we do with our days, how we respond and react to what may occur, how we mark and define the significance of our lives is absolutely ours to determine.
 
The days, weeks, months, years, and seasons of our lives are not significant by themselves. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what give time its meaning. Marking the holidays and values of the Jewish calendar leads us to recurring and enduring moments and memories of meaning.
 
When the Hasidic master, Reb Yitzchak Ya’akov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books, one his Kiddush cup, another his tallit. There remained one humble Hasid. To him was given the Rebbe’s clock.
 
On his way home, the Hasid stopped at an inn. When he discovered he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe’s clock as payment. The innkeeper installed the clock in one of the rooms.
 
A year later, another of the Rebbe’s Hasidim passed by and stayed at the inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the restless footsteps of the Hasid pacing the floor.
 
In the morning, the Hasid confronted the innkeeper: “The clock, where did you get the clock?” The innkeeper related the story.
 
“I knew it!” responded the Hasid. “This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past; they measure us from where we’ve come. This clocks ticks toward the future. Every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before redemption can be realized.”
 
Judaism is a religion of time. The days, weeks, months, years, and seasons of our lives are not significant by themselves. What we do, who we do it with, and how we live our days are what give time, and therefore our lives, meaning.
 
We best get to it. The clock is ticking.
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

tAke the high road

Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2022 | 5783
 

 

 
I miss sending and receiving Jewish New Year cards. Remember those ancient days before email when it was somewhat customary to send greeting cards to family and friends in honor of the New Year?
 
The cards I recall were often colorful, thoughtful, and helped to set a mood of personal connections and warm feelings before the holidays. They were also quite a project, at least in our house. Each one hand addressed and personalized with a note inside. Since no one can read my handwriting, l acknowledge Robin may not agree with me!
 
The card Avi, Michael, and I sent all of you offered wishes for this New Year.
May you find inspiration, hope, and happiness in this New Year.
May you be able to share life’s blessings with others.
May you demonstrate pride in being Jewish and joy in celebrating Jewish life.
May it be for you and yours, and for our Congregation Beth El synagogue family,
a sweet and good New Year. L’Shanah Tovah!
 
As we gather this evening to begin our holiday, our hopes run even deeper. We pray this New Year may bring us goodness and gladness, strength for what challenges us, stamina for what we must still endure, success in our strivings, and peace for our lives and our world.
 
These annual greetings reflect rather lofty goals. I’m not sure we expect them to come true as much as we wish they could. Which is why gathering together to welcome a New Year, we seek to raise our sights higher and higher, L’eyla u’l’eyla. Let our purpose this year be inspiration. May we elevate our spirits and renew our souls. May we lift ourselves up as we begin a New Year for our lives and our experience of this world.
 
A simple custom and ritual practice mark our goal. During the year, whenever we recite a version of Kaddish, we say: “Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, May God’s name be acknowledged and praised, l’eyla, higher above all that is praised.”
 
Whenever we recite a version of Kaddish during the High Holy Day season, we say: “Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, May God’s name be acknowledged and praised, l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher above all that is praised.”
 
We strive to reach even higher heights of spiritual wonder and gratitude. We want to mean our lofty goals for goodness in a New Year and commit ourselves to striving ever up toward achieving them.
 
Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh, l'alam u-l'almei 'almaya… Yitbarakh v'yishtabah, v'yitpa'ar v'yitromam v'yitnasei v'yit-hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit-halal sh'mei d'kudsha, b'rikh hu, l'eyla (u’l’eyla mikol) min kol birkhata v'shirata, tushb'hata v'nehemata, da-amiran b'alma, (v'imru, Amen.)   
 
Doubling the word l’eyla, higher, to read l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher, poses a quaint but meaningful challenge to the construction of the Kaddish prayer. You see, the poetic and imaginative students of our liturgy imagine that the 28 words in this second paragraph of the Kaddish correspond to the 28 experiences that fulfill a person’s lifetime according to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes or Kohelet.
 
You’ll recognize the poetry. “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. (1) A time to for being born, (2) and a time for dying; (3) A time for planting, (4) and a time for reaping; (5) A time for killing, (6) and a time to healing; (7) A time for tearing down, (8) and a time for building up; (9) A time for crying, (10) and a time for laughing; (11) A time for mourning, (12) and a time for dancing; (13) A time for scattering stones, (14) and a time for gathering stones; (15) A time for embracing, (16) a time for shunning embraces; (17) A time for seeking, (18) and a time for losing; (19) A time for keeping, (20) and a time for sending away; (21) A time for ripping, (22) and a time for sewing; (23) A time for silence, (24) and a time for speaking; (25) A time for loving, (26) a time for hating; (27) a time of war, (28) and a time of peace.”
By adding the second l’eyla, we are out of sync with the poem. We now have an Aramaic paragraph of 29 words. What to do? We subtract another word, of course. Instead of saying l’eyla min kol, higher above all, we grammatically contract min kol into mikol - l’eyla u’l’eyla mikol, and we’re back at 28 words.
 
More than balancing the symbolism of our words, praising God in the words of Kaddish we’re actually making a significant statement about the experiences of our lives. In the circumstances and experiences of our days, and in this New Year, we can always strive to be better, to become more, to transcend ourselves as we make connections, strengthen relationships, and seek meaning. In God’s name, we can reach up and rise up.
 
Especially when it’s easier or even more natural not to. Famous tales about the 19th century Lithuanian teacher of musar, ethics, Rabbi Israel Salanter reflect this spirit.
 
One Erev Rosh HaShanah, a group of congregants were out looking for their rabbi because in a crowded synagogue they noticed he was not with them. After a long search, they found Rabbi Salanter in a small, dimly lit house.
 
The rabbi was rocking a baby to sleep as he recited the Ma’ariv prayers. The congregants were utterly puzzled and asked him, “What are you doing here?”
 
The rabbi responded, “I was on my way to the synagogue when I passed this house and heard a baby’s cries. I supposed the family had gone to pray and had left the baby alone. So, I went in to take care of the child.”
 
Another tale reflects a different form of compassion. When asked why the rabbi used so little water to ritually wash his hands before a meal when the custom was to use as much water as possible, he explained. “I know that it is a mitzvah to use a lot of water, but the poor attendant has to bring in the water from the well outside, even in the bitter cold. I do not desire to be so pious at the expense of the poor attendant’s hard work.”
 
Be it musar – ethics, or morality or conscience, there’s a way I always tell people to carry themselves in life. It’s the path of sensitivity and dignity. It’s the journey of self-respect and regard for others. It’s the way of compassion and understanding. Whatever may be the difficulties you confront in your relationships with others or in your efforts to contribute, take the high road.
 
Life is complicated. We confront tensions and challenges in our relationships and efforts every day. It’s how we respond to our problems that demands our attention.
 
“Take the high road,” is always my response. Never let someone else’s behavior bring down your own. Be the one more gracious and compassionate. Be the one who takes every extra step you can. Don’t wait for someone else to do what you ought to do now.
 
Mark Twain once remarked that to act morally is noble, but to talk about acting morally is also noble - and a lot less trouble. Funny, yes, but misleading. What good is it to be right and alone? What purpose is achieved by standing your ground all by yourself?
 
Does it sound so complicated? “Take the high road?” I’m always sad that it seems to be easier said than done. Remember this each time you hear the Kaddish refrain, l’eyla u’l’eyla, higher and higher. It’s not just a liturgical formula.
 
It’s the road to take in life. It’s the road to dignity and character. It’s the road to self-respect and regard for others. It’s the road to compassion and understanding.  It’s the road to inspiration and hope. Whatever may be the detours you confront traveling your way through these busy and challenging days, to get where you’re going take the high road.
 
As we welcome a New Year this evening, let us begin to raise our sights higher and higher, l’eyla u’leyla. Let’s make our purpose this year inspiration. May we elevate our spirits and renew our souls. May we lift ourselves up as we begin a New Year for our lives and our experience of this world.
 
And if you find this message printed on a Jewish New Year greeting card, please send it my way! L’Shanah Tovah!
 
© 2022 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman

 

Fri, December 2 2022 8 Kislev 5783