From the pulpit: Messages for the New Year

From the pulpit: Messages for the New Year

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

Like a cloud

I have a memory of a conversation with my brother a number of years ago. I told him it would be really cool if one day I could have one device that would let me access all the media I consume — books, movies, television, music. He scoffed, but now this once farfetched idea is a reality.

We are living in the age of the “cloud,” when some of the things most precious to us — music and movies, texts, tweets, status updates, and all the other tangible evidence of our important relationships — are stored in vast server farms all over the world.

Why is this called “cloud computing”? Apparently the term comes from the way people drew the Internet in diagrams — as a nebulous cloud. Those IT professionals probably were not thinking about the High Holy Day’s Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which describes the fleeting nature of human beings as “a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud.”

The cloud metaphor is fitting for a computer network and a person. Both are flexible, always in motion, difficult to capture and contain. Perhaps this means that computers are becoming more like us, or we are becoming more like computers. I’m not sure which is more frightening.

But in the end a human being is really no different now than at time the Unetaneh Tokef was composed. We are fading clouds, hovering in the sky, full of the information we have retained in life, moved along by the breeze, following a course life has chosen. What will we do next? How will we make the most of the limited time we have until the cloud dissipates? May these Days of Awe bring you answers. Shana tova!

Rabbi Benjamin J. Adler
White Meadow Temple, Rockaway

Renew our spirits

The Days of Awe are especially significant to Humanistic Jews in emphasizing our commitment to a Judaism of continuity and change. We join with Jews across history and around the world in a season of reflection, evaluation, and resolution, fulfilling the timeless mandate to improve the condition of the world by improving ourselves.

As Humanistic Jews, we hold an empirical understanding of nature, insisting that this real world is the only one in which we can find meaning in our past and purpose for our future. How awesome to contemplate the wonders of human creativity, the glory of human love, and the powers of the human mind and will! Even more, to understand the wonders of the natural world, its rich diversity and spectacular structures. Our empiricism elevates our appreciation for these things beyond the mystical amazement of our forebear, David, the psalmist.

As we pass through these Days of Awe as individuals, as a congregation, and as members of a world community, let us renew our spirits with reverence for this world and determination for our tasks in it.

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

New beginnings

THE VERY OPENING of the Torah is an inspiration for this time of year. We come to services looking for something, and that something is coded into the Bible’s first special word.

There are religions that take a harsh view of mistakes. Some philosophical constructs function simply as “a group of suggestions.”

Judaism is that rare blend of strong views on how to make a better world, coupled with a real understanding of the players — human beings! It is accepted that with our frailties we will often not make the mark. It is also accepted that we possess exquisite possibilities — and so Judaism’s bar is set high enough to create a path that helps perfect souls and affects the surrounding world. Judaism’s teachings are strong and directed, its hopes and expectations are high. While the acceptance that people will continually not reach the goals is ever-present, so is continuing to try. All four elements are built into the fabric of Jewish life.

The Torah’s first word, “Bereshit,” — often misrepresented as “In the beginning” — actually means “with beginnings.” It is no mistake that our Jewish family biography, the Torah, starts with this word. We know there will be set-backs, paths that need to be re-mapped — and God, in his opening word to us, tells us he made the world just that way.

It is the very essence of the Jewish New Year that we accept the need and embrace the desire. God has made us fallible but has embedded within us aspirations. And so the Torah and the High Holy Days remind us: This world is one full of new beginnings and new beginnings and new beginnings again.

Shana tova — a sweet, healthy, prosperous New Year

Rabbi Mark Biller
Adath Shalom Synagogue, Morris Plains

Taking stock

THE HIGH HOLY Days come “late” this year, which means that we are not running straight from the summer into the holidays. Those few weeks between Labor Day and Rosh Hashana offered us a wonderful opportunity, as individuals and as a community, to prepare ourselves for our most sacred days in a manner that might not always be available.

The Holy Days are a wonderful time for us to all be together, to look back on the past year and look forward to the year to come. Our lives are so very busy, so very full, and the demands on each of us are so great that carving out time to slow down is more important than ever.

It is that very speed with which time goes by that makes slowing down during the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, all the more important. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, gifts Judaism gives to the world is the Shabbat, for it is a weekly reminder to take stock of time and celebrate all that fills the moments of each day. The period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is an annual Shabbat of sorts, an extended period when we can step a bit outside our normal routine and take stock of the lives we are leading — in Hebrew, Heshbon Hanefesh — and what changes we might want to make.

But that process does not begin on Rosh Hashana. No, throughout Elul, the month leading up to the New Year, there is a long-standing tradition of blowing the shofar after morning prayers and setting time aside to prepare for the Holy Day period.

Wishing all of you throughout the MetroWest community a L’shana tova — a happy, healthy and good New Year.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange

We need to pray

IT’S UNFORTUNATE to want to pray, to want to feel the great spiritual bounty and peace that comes with cultivating and enjoying a prayer life but be unable to do it. It’s unfortunate because the sages who authored the prayers we recite as Jews wanted just that for us. They didn’t want us just to go through the motions of reciting the words they had written.

Don’t get me wrong, the rabbinic sages definitely opted to design the liturgy themselves, rather than have people pray whatever they wanted to pray, precisely because they wanted to define the ideas and concepts they felt we should be praying about. But the very rabbis who crafted the service that we still recite to this day understood quite well that the prayers they composed would be empty and meaningless if the people saying them were not inspired to feel they were in God’s presence.

And it’s unfortunate that it’s so difficult to pray because I believe we do want to pray. We need to pray, we need to express our deepest yearnings, we need to feel that we can live in this world with greater purpose because we have prayed.

How can we address this dilemma? By taking responsibility for our own spiritual practice, by being aware that a mind-body connection is crucial to a meaningful prayer experience, by devoting a significant amount of our prayer life to praying with a community, and by embracing and respecting the traditions of Jewish prayer.

This year, may we each create a ladder that reaches from our soul to God whose rungs are the prayers and meditations that flow from our hearts.

Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange

A coach’s advice

THIS SUMMER, my family and I spent way too much time watching on DVD the five seasons of Friday Night Lights. No, it’s not about lighting Shabbat candles, but about the lives and loves of a small town in west Texas and its high school football team. The message given by the coach to his team, week after week, is: “Clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose.”

And that’s my message to us this holiday season; maybe you can use it as a meditation after lighting Shabbat candles, or maybe it’s something for heshbon hanefesh. This has been a tough year, full of uncertainties, worries, sadness both local and global. So, “clear eyes” — look around, give an honest look at your life and at life in the biggest way, what needs changing and what can you do to bring about those changes? “Full heart” — full of love and forgiveness and acceptance. “Can’t lose” — that’s right, you can’t. Shana tova!

Rabbi Ruth Gais
Chavurat Lamdeinu, Madison

Action and optimism

DO YOU REMEMBER where you were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001? I am sure you remember it in as much detail as I do. Like the assassinations of the 1960s or Pearl Harbor; this day is indelibly etched on our souls.

Even as we have rebuilt over the years, some of us have holes in our families, lost loved ones who will never be replaced. Our narrative and way of living has forever been replaced with a “new normal.”

This tragic anniversary will forever coincide with our holiest days as Jews. Our High Holy Days teach us to remember, yes, but most important, these days teach us about renewal and reconciliation, of mending our relationships and cleaning our slates, of accounting for our souls and believing in the best in ourselves and others. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur blast the shofar to remind us that apathy and inertia are not the Jewish norm, but that action and hope and optimism are the seeds we are encouraged to plant. As Jews, we believe deeply and stubbornly that goodness and kindness are more powerful than cruelty. Committing to a better tomorrow — to making our world a better place — gives us reason to get up in the morning and decide that this decade can be better than the last. Our acts of righteousness give us access to a deeper part of our souls, lending us the opportunity to channel our fears and anxiety to a place of hope and light.

My heart will hurt this season, but equally, it will shine with hope for our future.

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

See and be seen

IN THIS SEASON many of us feel drawn to Jewish places of worship. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have become our pilgrimage festivals, more important that the biblical pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. We come even if we are not that certain about our theological commitments, even if we are not regular attendees during the year. But the primary impulse for many of us is the same as it was centuries ago, when we journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem. We seek to fill a primal need to see and be seen.

Why? Our Torah tells us God explained to Moses that no human can “see God’s face.” At most, we may hope to “see God’s back.” Understanding this imagery may help in understanding ourselves.

When I compare my being in the world to the limited apprehension I may have of God, I realize that I am more hidden from myself than God is. For while I may hope to see God’s back, I cannot hope to see my own face — or back. A mirror will show me only a flat refection of myself, and in reverse! On the other hand, if we choose to show our faces and backs to each other and we choose to see, we can each really see the face and back of the other person. If we are willing to be seen and willing to see, we can help each other to become visible, present.

Like pilgrims of old who climbed the steps to the Temple, we congregate so as to see and be seen, to begin a New Year by seeing and revealing to each other the image of the Holy One of blessing.

Rabbi David Greenstein
Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair

For goodness’ sake

IN HIS BOOK Baseballs, Basketballs and Matzah Balls: What Sports Can Teach Us About the Jewish Holidays…And Vice Versa, Mitchell Smith relates the story of the Olympic swimmer Jeff Rouse, who tried for the Gold Medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Rouse did poorly in those games, and after they were over, he decided to watch a video of his performance. What he saw was someone who was “tense and joyless. He realized that he had been too focused on the goal, and lost sight of why he was a swimmer.” (Baseballs, Basketballs and Matzah Balls, p. 16-17). Four years later, Rouse returned to the Olympics and focused more on simply being present and enjoying swimming. He won the Gold Medal.

How often do we focus on achieving goals as opposed to simply living? Our often necessary focus on results and performing tasks diverts us from being able to live our lives with the bigger picture in mind, the reason we are here.

The Holy Days remind us, when we pray to God to forgive our misdeeds, that the reason we are here is for goodness: to help bring the world to shleimut, wholeness. How do we do that? The prophet Micah has the answer: “To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

If life is a race, then one of the key message of the Holy Days is to always remember why we are racing.

To a year of goodness and wholeness for us all.

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

Bring heaven to earth

ROSH HASHANA is when Adam and Chava, the first man and woman, were created, on the sixth day of the world’s creation. Our Torah teaches that each year the world and all its inhabitants are recreated and endowed with entirely new potentials and strengths.

The Talmud asks a classic question: Why were Adam and Chava created alone? Why didn’t God create masses of people like He created masses of vegetation, heavenly bodies, and animals? The Talmud tells us creation was designed this way to teach us a fundamental lesson: Every person is an entire world, and every deed that each person performs affects the entire world. This thought prompts us to carefully examine how we regard our fellow man, every action we take, and every word we utter.

The shofar blasts — sounded at many pivotal junctures of Jewish history — remind us of our role in bringing the purpose of creation to its fruition, i.e., to make the world into a caring, loving, and Godly place. Every precious soul has a unique and indispensable role to play in achieving this end, a role which complements everyone else’s respective role.

Our Torah emphasizes that no two people look exactly alike because no two people are the same. Each person possesses exclusive spiritual strengths. When each individual brings to light his/her divine potentials, the entire world is filled with a deeper Godly radiance. And this is the purpose of creation: to bring heaven down to earth.

May this year be a year of unprecedented growth, success, and peace for you, your loved ones, a strongly integrated klal Yisrael and the world at large.

Rabbi Asher Herson
Chabad Center of Northwest NJ, Rockaway

Agents of renewal

AT THE NEW Year, Judaism teaches that our lives are in the balance, that our thoughts, words, and deeds are being judged by God. Whether you accept this theology or not, it is cathartic to engage in an honest self-evaluation.

How have we measured up? Are we pulling our weight when it comes to counting the calories and pounds of daily activity that contribute to a stable world? When life is too heavy to bear, what burdens have we lifted from other people?

After searching for honest answers, can we look in the mirror and see that we are at peace in our reflection? I believe the storms of life have pushed us to lose our balance.

There is constant stress from economic hurricanes throughout the world, partisan political typhoons in Congress, heat waves of unemployment, military tornados in Afghanistan, floods of violence in city streets, Middle East tempests, and a pervasive poor climate of dissatisfaction and uncertainty about the future. There is so much imbalance and instability. With so much havoc around us, how do we keep a balanced perspective?

Jews have always been able to adapt, to confront dangerous times and respond to new realities. By turning and changing, we seek to find balance again. It takes personal determination and communal courage to deal with what is and to be effective agents for constructive repair and renewal. Let us “choose life that we may live,” approaching each day as a blessing in the midst of the ravaging storms that knock us off balance. May we make real changes in ourselves and world, securing our footing on solid ground and moving ahead in the coming year. Shana tova!

Rabbi Ronald W. Kaplan
Temple Beth Am, Parsippany

We need each other

LIFE IS ABOUT relationships; every interaction is a relationship of mashpia and mekabel, one gives, and one receives.

When we give tzedaka (righteousness, not charity, which might allow me to feel superior because I’m the giver), the Torah teaches, as much as the poor person needs, we need to give. The receiver allows us to fulfill our mission. The rich person needs the poor person, the teacher needs the students, the employer needs the employees, the parent needs the child. One may feel empowered over another, but God put them where they are to be for each other. As long as the rich feel higher than the poor, the husband above his wife, the boss is the boss — there can be only abuse.

That’s why ahavas Yisroel, love of a fellow, is the mantra of Chabad and the basis of the Torah.

There’s a beautiful parable of a ladder that teaches that God is happier with a person who is on a lower rung whose direction is upward than with a person who may be on a higher rung whose direction is downward. In other words it’s not about your rung but about who you are and the direction you are going.

We must recognize that each of us is created for a unique purpose with a unique mission. I’m either a giver or a receiver. We’re both where God put us, and we will grow and learn from there. Don’t judge others. You want to love God, love His children.

Rabbi Boruch Klar
Lubavitch Center of Essex County, West Orange

Dogma and equality

JUDAISM IS BASED upon questions, not answers. We want to know the essence of things, and that can be accomplished only by asking questions. We understand the importance of answers, but a good answer only raises more questions and ultimately will make obsolete any answer. For that reason, dogma is shunned in Judaism. For that reason, because he established dogma, even Maimonides, perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher, was excommunicated by much of the Jewish world.

Dogma is pernicious. It makes divine matters that culture and science have recognized as clearly false. In our own day we see the danger of dogma in the Koran-based jihad of Islam. We find it in a large segment of the American fundamentalist population, which forbids stem cell research because it violates the fundamentalist idea that human life begins at conception. We find it in the dogmatic beliefs that hinder the fight for equal rights for all people. We find it today in communities that believe that certain religious beliefs define a person as bound for heaven while contrary beliefs damn a person to hell.

We Jews do have one dogma, and that is a belief in one God. Christian, Jew, and Muslim worship that same God. As a consequence of that dogma, we believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God and in the eyes of men and women. On these High Holy Days we reaffirm that idea. For the Jew, the concept that all people are equal before God if practiced would bring and define the Messianic Age.

Rabbi Aaron Kriegel
Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex, Verona

Building blocks

THERE ARE 22 days of mourning from 17 Tammuz to the ninth of Av. There are 22 days of joy from Rosh Hashana to Shemini Atzeret. The days of mourning are to relive the tragedies of old; the days of joy to prepare for the unlimited potential of our future.

The days of yom tov are not all filled with revelry. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are days of awe and offer us a road to fulfillment. On Rosh Hashana we are told of the potential of mankind. On Yom Kippur, we are told to evaluate and overcome the barriers that impede our road to greatness. On Sukkot, we are reminded that to worship God requires an inner joy. We are to rejoice before God and take this gift of life that we are given with special care and love.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro points out that there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet; that we combine letters to make words, to create ideas. Letters are building blocks. Our lives too consist of many building blocks: family, profession, hobbies, and spirituality. We are the product of the way we organize our building blocks in life. Maybe that is why both the tragedy of the three weeks and the days of joy are 22, to show we are the builders of our life. If we build well we create, if not, we must suffer the consequences. Each letter added and subtracted changes the word or fabric of our lives.

Let us build with joy. May we be blessed with a year of meaning, health, peace, and joy for ourselves, our family, our people, and the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Krupka
Congregation Etz Chaim, Livingston

Reminders of home

THESE HIGH HOLY Days will be different for our family. With our oldest off to college, the New Year will see us fragmented. That will be hard for his mother, for me, for him, even for his younger sister.

He asked for assistance in finding a synagogue to attend (he’s in the Bay area). I know the large and active Hillel has services. Why doesn’t he attend there?

At some point he probably will, he responded, but for now he wants to find someplace “that feels like home.”

His words make perfect sense for a college student far away — and for anyone. For all who live by the rhythm of Jewish life, “the holidays” are an emotional time of introspection and remembrances that can be uncomfortable when it comes to our actions and sad when it comes to those we miss.

Who would not want to be “home?”

I knew what my son wanted: someplace with music that would remind him of home, with a minhag that would remind him of home, with an approach that would remind him of home.

And there was something as or even more important: not how he prayed, but with whom he prayed — with other Jews who would be warm and welcoming, with those who are glad they are there — and glad he is there too.

This is a time of year for coming home to what feels familiar, to what puts us at ease, to what embraces us with a sense of feeling embraced. The moment soon arrives when God asks us and we ask ourselves if we have been who we should have been. When that moment arrives — what better place to be?

Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston

The right balance

WE LIVE AT a time of great upheavals, both at home and abroad. Lack of predictability causes stress and worry about what the future might hold. Many plans have to be either altered or abandoned. It is often difficult to alter one’s course in life in order to adapt to unexpected changes.

Over-reliance on predictability, on the other hand, tends to have us take things and blessings for granted (even when comparing our lot with that of starving and oppressed thousands across the globe). The Hebrew word for “nature” is “teva,” which is connected to the verbal root “litbo’a” — “to sink.” This implies that the “predictable” repetitive process of nature tends to obscure the driving Godly force that keeps all in balance, at the very least, and in their very state of existence, according to hasidic thought.

The period of our High Holy Days helps us attain the right balance between overly relying on the predictable and falling apart during upheavals that upset the predictable order of nature. This period shakes and wakes us up from a state of complacency, in the recognition that it is God, king and master of the world, who is the one who ultimately guides our destiny, and He is the one upon whom we have to put our trust and reliance. We can then more easily express gratitude for what we do possess.

May we all be inscribed to a joyous, prosperous, and healthful 5772.

Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic
Congregation Ahavath Zion, Maplewood

‘So Jewish!’

EVERY FRIDAY while visiting a local assisted-living facility with my children, I spend some time with a man named Sam.

Sam is well into his 90s, and the walls of his room are covered with newspaper reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he miraculously survived while he was in the service.

Our visit follows the same routine every week. We chat for a few minutes and share a joke, then I help Sam put on tefillin, and we say the words of the Sh’ma. Sam closes his eyes and prays for the well-being of his loved ones. My children give Sam a piece of hallah, we wish him a good Shabbos, he tells me to send his best to the rebbetzin, and we are on our way.

A few weeks ago, Sam said: “Rabbi, I just want you to know how much your visits mean to me. I’m one of the only Jewish people in this building, and when you come to visit, and we pray together, I feel great, I feel special, I feel so Jewish! This is the highlight of my week!”

As I reflected on Sam’s words, I realized the High Holy Days are a time when we all feel connected, inspired, and to quote Sam, “so Jewish!”

It’s a powerful feeling, something we can experience and enjoy regularly throughout the year. So this year, let us make certain that the “highs” of the holidays stay with us, and on a weekly and even daily basis, let’s incorporate the prayers, teachings, and that special inspiration that make us feel so Jewish!

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

Broken relationships

DURING THE HOLIDAYS, I will touch on the theme of broken relationships and what to do when such relationships, after all efforts, cannot be healed.

I will cite advice from Steve Weitzenkorn, PhD in human behavior: “When you feel negative thoughts seep into your brain, release those detrimental thoughts as quickly as they enter your consciousness, and remind yourself to keep your mind on that which is good, noble, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, constructive, and positive. Your contentment and future depend on it.”

This is pretty sound advice as we approach Yom Kippur, when the words of Kol Nidrei will fill the sanctuary. Our sages well understood that vows get annulled, oaths go unfulfilled, promises get broken, and relationships get damaged. So we utter the words asking God to release us — forgive us — and we focus on the future, on that which is good, noble, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, constructive, and positive.

I don’t necessarily have the absolute answer on how to heal broken relationships, but in a manner similar to Weitzenkorn’s advice, allow me to suggest the ever-important need to foster and grow the relationships that we do have. Be sure to bless one and all with the fervent wish to be sealed in the Book of Life for another year of health and happiness. And, most important, tell those closest to you how much you love them.

Rabbi Mark Mallach
Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield

Embrace tradition

ON THE HIGH Holy Days, religious Jews read from a prayer book, the Mahzor, and portions of the Torah and Prophets (haftara). Secular Humanistic Jews do not pray, but we are interested in exploring humanistic themes in scripture. Take Genesis 21, read on the first day of Rosh Hashana. Here, in a fit of jealousy, Sarah casts Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and their son Ishmael into the desert. Abraham is distressed, but God promises that Ishmael will become the founder of a nation. As the boy is ready to die of thirst, God hears his cries and brings mother and child to water. The boy survives to become the mythical founder of the Arab peoples. Yet in the next chapter, Genesis 22, read on the second day of the holiday, Abraham is eager to fulfill God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, his son through Sarah, until God sends an angel to stay his hand. Secular Humanistic Jews say yes to compassion for the “other” and no to blind obedience to authority.

There are more to Jewish values than these traditional sources, especially in Yiddish literature. I.L. Peretz’s “If Not Higher” is perfectly suited to the occasion. During the Days of Awe, when Selichot prayers of repentance are recited, a skeptical Litvak (Lithuanian Jew) secretly follows a hasidic rebbe to disprove the popular notion that he ascends to heaven. What he discovers is even more awe-inspiring. The rebbe, disguised as a peasant, helps a poor, sick, old woman heat her home. The Litvak then becomes a disciple of the rebbe.

This story too is part of our tradition. Why not embrace it?

Bennett Muraskin
Jewish Cultural School and Society, West Orange

Partnership with God

RECENTLY I SPOTTED a bumper sticker that read, “Relax and let God do the work.” Now, I don’t know the religious affiliation of the owner of the car (although I’m willing to hazard a guess), but my first thought was, “Gee, can I stay in bed all day and things affecting me will simply happen? Somehow jobs and riches and a social life will simply come my way? I can simply do nothing and I will be, well, taken care of (or, perhaps: well taken care of)?”

This concept doesn’t seem to be part of the Protestant Work Ethic, I thought. But with the High Holy Days around the corner, I thought too that this concept certainly doesn’t seem to be Jewish.

We have a partnership with God, and at no time is this more apparent than the first 10 days of Tishrei. God expects that we will do things: smart things, stupid things, compassionate things, hurtful things, productive things, and destructive things. And God anticipates that we will give thanks for the good things and repent over and regret the bad things. And finally, God will be there to hear and consider and even grant our requests for absolution.

But repentance takes effort; we cannot relax and let God do the work. This holiday season, take the time to work with God and strive for atonement, because atonement is surely something that takes work. The results will be worth it, I promise. Shana tova.

Rabbi Simon Rosenbach
Ahavas Sholom, Newark

Repairing broken lives

THIS SUMMER, a group from Temple B’nai Or went to Cordova, Alabama, a small rural town devastated by two tornadoes on April 27. We went to help, but what we got was so much greater than what we gave. Many of the folks there had lost so much, but their faith sustained and motivated them. We were inspired by their work and their words:

Tammy’s home was destroyed and just about everything in it lost. Her family crowded into her father’s house until they could secure their own place. Tammy cried for days for her lost possessions and her new homeless status. It was when she started helping others through their losses that she stop focusing on her own. “When I started volunteering is when I stopped crying,” she said.

When such things happen to us, we feel we are victims of forces we cannot control. But we regain control when we decide how we will respond to whatever has befallen us. Our pain is eased in the act of easing that of others.

After working for hours collecting scrap metal, our efforts netted around $170 at the scrap yard. When someone questioned if that was worth the effort, the yard manager said, “You can’t out-give God.” I think he was saying we should be grateful for everything that is given to us — even the things we work for.

While our faiths were worlds apart, working side by side in the heat of an Alabama August, we found we shared the most profoundly simply religious conviction: We serve God best when we bring wholeness to broken lives and help repair God’s broken world.

Rabbi Donald Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown

The shofar’s marching orders

THE SHOFAR CALLS out to each and every one of us. Its piercing voice is meant to shatter our defenses and the walls we have built to protect ourselves from criticism and challenge. The shofar demands and commands. The shofar calls out and gives us marching orders. From Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the shofar calls us to recognize our faults, to repent, and to seek forgiveness.

By the end of the Yom Kippur, as the sun wanes and the gates are closing, the shofar blast of Ne’ila wakes us up and calls us to act on our newfound insights: Where must we do better in the upcoming year? The shofar sends us off saying, “Go and do better!”

Where can we do better? The Talmud teaches that when we die, each of us will be brought before the heavenly court for judgment and asked four questions (BT Shabbat 31a). These are good questions for the yamim nora’im, these High Holy Days:

Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly?

Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?

Did you work at having children?

Did you help redeem the world?

Notice first that we do not ask of ourselves if we have perfect faith or have performed all the commandments. We must first be concerned with our behavior. To be a Jew, to be a religious person, is to be an ethical person. You cannot be religious without living by a code of proper behavior that goes above and beyond the realm of ritual.

And how will you learn to be a good Jew and therefore an ethical human being? You must study Torah. Have you made it a point to consult the record of our tradition regarding how you should act to give your life meaning and value? Have you given some time to your spiritual needs rather than just your physical and material needs?

Providing for children, bringing children into this world, raising them in love, and educating them — these are all ways through which we can provide for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people. We must make sure that the lessons of Judaism and Torah are passed to the next generation.

If we have met each of the first three challenges, haven’t we helped to bring redemption? Isn’t that enough?! The concept of repairing and redeeming the world connects us to our Judaism and pushes us beyond our own lives to the realm of greater humanity.

May we all be granted the strength and insight to live lives filled with the joy of mitzvot, the blessing of teshuva, and the inspiration that comes from this sacred season.

Rabbi Francine Roston
Congregation Beth El, South Orange

Only in America

OUR SAGES taught that “the fate of all Jews is intertwined with one another.” We take pride when our brothers and sisters engage in acts of “kiddush HaShem,” bringing outside credit to Jewish life. Jewish contributions to our society are documented in the National Museum of American Jewish History, which is fittingly situated in civic space dedicated to The Liberty Bell, The Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights in Philadelphia. Last May was proclaimed by President Obama as our country’s annual Jewish American Heritage Month, to “embrace and celebrate the vast contributions Jewish Americans have made to our country.”

Our tradition urges us to be “makir tov” — to recognize and appreciate those who extend kindness to us. As we mark the first year of the museum and of Jewish American Heritage Month, let us extol the multifold blessings of the United States of America, a country uniquely established upon philo-Semitic foundations:

The colonists identified with the Israelites portrayed in Hebrew Scriptures. They referred to their new land as Canaan. Knowledge of Hebrew became a sign of erudition. Benjamin Franklin proposed a seal symbolizing the new republic in which a heroic Moses lifts his rod to divide the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s — read: King George’s — charioteers are drowning in the waters. When the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI, sent congratulations to President George Washington on his inauguration, he responded in a letter dated Aug. 17, 1790: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell

From fear to faith

THE MORNING PAPERS are filled with frightening news — terrorism, financial instability, global warming, environmental degradation, natural disasters, and people’s baseless hatred for one another. It can feel as if there is an air of fear seeping into our visions of life and the world.

Our people have known fear, insecurity, and instability. Our ancient texts have guided us to find a spiritual path in the face of our fears. Our ancestor Jacob/Yisrael, plagued by his fears in his journey to Haran, dreamed of angels, awakening to exclaim, “How awesome is this place!” He crossed the threshold from fear to faith. We can too.

Rosh Hashana offers us an antidote to our fears. On the “Birthday of the World” we celebrate all the potential for goodness and beauty in this glorious world. We find the presence of our Creator in loving acts of people caring for each other. On Rosh Hashana we have a powerful opportunity to focus on the blessings of our lives and the blessing of life itself.

May the sound of the shofar help us to awaken to affirm life with gratitude and hope. It is from this place of hope that we can find healing from fear and faith in our future that will direct who we are and who we shall become.

Leshana tovah tikateivu — happy New Year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good.

Rabbi Amy Joy Small
Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit

Lost in our losses

“ONE COULD get lost in what is lost,” a friend from New Orleans said after Hurricane Katrina, and I think he was right. The hardest task for a person is to find a route to happiness without sinking in the quicksand of what has already perished — to find a new way without getting lost in what is lost.

For many, the losses of this past year have been quite painful. Some watched pensions evaporate; others lost jobs. Some experienced the death of a beloved spouse. Others endured the disintegration of a marriage they thought would last forever.

And yet, a New Year is about to begin, and we are asked to begin our lives again with it.

Tradition implores us to see that it is possible to start over even in the face of the harshest adversity. Adam and Eve, exiled from Eden, gave birth to a son. Job lost everything he had, but rejoiced again by starting a new family once his afflictions had passed. Noah saw a world destroyed and set about creating a new one.

At Rosh Hashana, we seek a way out of the darkness, and we stumble upon others who are also lost in their losses. By joining hands with them, the light of a new horizon emerges, beckoning us to move forward into life, inspiring us to live again, to smile again, and to sing again, fortified by the love of family, friends, and community and strengthened by the grace of God — one more time.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Spector
Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston

Going forward

RECENTLY I RECALLED that while in college preparing for a final exam, I discovered I had lost all of my class notes. After a period of panic, I somehow survived and passed the exam. Recalling this episode, it dawned on me that what happened to my notes is in fact part of our annual cycle.

As we gather to begin the New Year 5772, everything, every moment of the previous year, is gone, never to be experienced again. There are impressions and memories, but the details are blurred. Our experiences of the past year are imperfect now. Like the lost notes, we cannot hold onto time.

But we can go forward. And that is what the High Holy Day season promises us: new possibilities and new experiences. What we can learn from our past is not to relive our previous experiences but to engage in new opportunities with the possibility of learning and growing and improving on what was.

Rosh Hashana is referred to as Hayom harat olam, translated as “Today is the birthday of the world.” But harah does not mean “was born” but rather “pregnant” or “birthing.” Rosh Hashana is the day on which the potentiality of the world and the new year awaits activation. It is the beginning of the process of new experiences and new opportunities.

So let us accept that all we have lived is gone. While memories and impressions remain, we can’t live there; we can only go forward to meet new challenges and live new experiences. May these opportunities be better than what we have had and may we each be blessed with a healthy and peaceful New Year.

Rabbi Kenneth M. Tarlow
Congregation Beth Torah, Florham Park

Increase connectedness

AS WE STAND on the threshold of the New Year, we look back at where we came from and resolve to advance in a positive direction.

Where have we come from? The picture is mixed. On one hand, we have seen shocking violence of Jew against Jew. On the other hand, Jews have shown extraordinary unity. Jews worldwide are returning to their Jewish roots en masse.

Our sages have taught that Jewish history is one long journey. At the beginning, there was great confusion between good and evil. Over time, the two opposing forces are gradually sorted out until they become clearly distinguishable. As we approach the end point, the good in the world becomes more pure, and so does its opposite. We are very close to the end of this process, when good will finally emerge victorious.

What can we do to advance this process? The prophet Yeshaiyahu stated: Zion will be redeemed with judgment, and its returnees with tzedaka. Tzedaka is a familiar word — it means charity, kindness, righteousness. Certainly, we can all improve in these areas. This is where the judgment comes in: We should judge ourselves. Are we really doing the best we can in the realm of tzedaka?

As we look forward to the New Year, let’s judge ourselves and find ways to increase in our kindness and connectedness to our fellow Jews. That way, we will hasten the victory of goodness, with the coming of our righteous Mashiach, speedily in our days.

Rabbi Yaakov Zirkind
Congregation Ahavath Israel, Morristown

Holiday GPS

HOW TECHNOLOGY has changed the way we live! Just a few years ago I was so excited to have a GPS. No longer would I get lost on family vacations and end up late to communal simhas. Now, my stand-alone GPS is a thing for the Smithsonian; my Droid PDA has an app that allows me to use the GPS function straight off the phone. Life is getting simpler by the day.

But one aspect of the GPS is still complicated. On a recent family vacation, I took the wrong exit since the GPS couldn’t exactly picture the road I was on. Immediately it jumped into action to save the day — “recalculating” it exclaimed — and soon I was sent back on the right road to my destination. The ability of the GPS to know that I was headed in the wrong direction and kicking into “rerouting” mode is a great lesson.

How important and timely a lesson it is when it comes to this special period we are now celebrating. Often in life, we find ourselves on a road that may be leading us away from our desired destination, but may not even realize it. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur serve as our GPS, urging us to recalculate the path we have taken and ensuring that we are not lost forever.

It is this special period of reflection, introspection, and prayer that allows us to correct our ways and change our course so that we ultimately can reach our true goals and destination in life. As we recalculate our relationship with our Creator and our religion, let us merit to truly be blessed with a healthy, sweet, and happy New Year. Ketiva v’hatima tova.

Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler
Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, West Orange

Study partners

AT THIS SEASON, we look back to our past, but only as a prelude toward making a better future. Our task of teshuva consists of reviewing the past year and making amends before we ask for atonement. Yet, what would be the point in redressing our wrongs if we did not intend to do better? The Mishna states, “The one who says, ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for me. I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for me’” — implying an intended repetition of sin after Yom Kippur — “does not receive atonement.” We need to resolve to turn ourselves to a better path.

For 5772, I humbly suggest two actions — study and earnest conversation. We acknowledge that to stay at the forefront of our professional fields, we need to engage in continuing education or professional development. Why shouldn’t Judaism be the same? Just as each year we reread the Torah anew, because we are now different and read the text in a different way, so too the Jewish lessons we may have learned in the past may seem different now.

A time-tested method of Jewish study is in hevruta — with a friend/study partner. As we are challenged in our ideas in respectful and earnest conversation, we continue to grow and learn. The rabbis tell us that when two engage in study together, the Shechina — God’s indwelling presence — is there.

At Temple Sholom, we will begin the first of our three trimesters of Jewish study. Join us, or study in your own community. Find yourself a study partner and seek to improve yourself and our world in 5772. B’hatzl’cha and shana tova.

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

The shofar’s blast

THERE IS A FAMOUS story told by the Baal Shem Tov that helps us understand the power of the shofar’s blasts.

“There was a king who had only one son, whom he adored. Eager to have his heir apparent well prepared for his future role, the king sent him abroad, laden with gold and silver, to enhance his knowledge and gain experience. Unfortunately, the boy was distracted by the wonders of the world, squandering his wealth and gaining neither knowledge nor experience. With the passage of time, he even forgot the language of his father’s country.

“Upon returning to his father’s kingdom, he was unable to communicate with the guards. They did not recognize this destitute young man and had even forgotten that their king had a son. In desperation he cried out.

“Within the palace, the king heard his son’s cries. He ran to the gates of his kingdom and welcomed back his dear son.”

As Jews, it is easy for us to be distracted by life and forget about our Rosh Hashana promises from last year. We forget the “holy language” of prayer and even how to pray. God is our king and the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana are our cries to Him. Just as the king recognized the cries of his son, so too does God hear our pleas and our desire to return to his kingdom, and He embraces us.

May the sounds of the shofar usher in a New Year of joy, good health, prosperity, and peace, and may 5772 be a year of holiness.

Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky
Bris Avrohom and Congregation Shomrei Torah Ohel Yosef Yitzchak, Hillside

Joy and fear at the holidays

THE JEWISH HOLIDAYS are a time of both joy and fear, of both renewal and judgment for the upcoming year. As we stand in judgment, our nature is to turn to those who have always provided strength and security in life, such as one’s parents. However, there comes a time when parents are no longer able to help. I have heard many caregivers of a dying loved one express the wish that one or the other parent were still alive to be a rock during troubled times. In Psalm 27, one of the verses recited reflects the instinctive need for security during a crisis, “While my father and mother have forsaken me, God will gather me in.” (27:9)

The image of standing in judgment is an acute reminder that every year we face the inevitable truth that for some, the past year was not meant to be completed. As such, survivors are struck by a sense of loss during the liturgical points reminding them of the essence of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, namely the renewal for another year for some while the conclusion for others. And yet, hope remains that when we feel forsaken, there is still something to protect us.

Loss changes the fabric of one’s life. It removes the sense of invincibility and security. Yet, while reflecting on Judgment Day, one is also reminded that there will always be a security blanket. The security blanket, God, can be cherished or can be discarded. Either way, the blanket remains, accepting however one feels and reacting to happiness and sadness, joy and fear.

Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner
Chaplain, The Oscar & Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, Somerset

Deepen our love

YOM TERUAH yiheyeh lachem” — “It shall be a day of shofar-sounding for you.” (Numbers 29:1)

The Talmud identifies this verse as the source for the mitzva to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana. A beautiful interpretation of the verse by the Chozeh M’Lublin, “the holy seer of Lublin” (the 18th-century Polish hasidic leader Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz), offers a new insight into the nature of the High Holy Days. The Chozeh suggests that the root of the word “teruah” is from the Hebrew word for friendship, “reiut.” As such, the verse is teaching us that Rosh Hashana is a day that is meant to be used to deepen our love and concern for others, a day dedicated to developing a sense of responsibility toward others. Our prayers throughout the High Holy Day season are not to be focused solely on the needs of family and close friends, but instead we are supposed to pray for the welfare of all of am Yisrael, and for the entire world.

Ten years ago, after the horrific tragedy of 9/11, there was a palpable sense of unity permeating our great country, but unfortunately, a decade later, that feeling has long been banished from the contemporary scene. Perhaps the Days of Awe of 5772 can help us recapture the bonds of friendship and love from those days, to bring the greatest blessing of all: peace.

Shana tova u’m’tuka.

Rabbi Chaim Marcus
Congregation Israel of Springfield

Sanctifying life

AS WE WELCOME the New Year 5772, our liturgy reminds us: “On Rosh Hashana it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” In reality, we have precious little control over the quantity of our lives. Recent world events that have shattered people’s lives tell the story: earthquakes, floods, fires, famine, drought, war, violence. In addition, we all contend regularly with illness, accidents, bad luck.

Thus, the only control we can exert in life is the influence we have over the quality of our daily living. While we cannot determine the length of our days, we can determine how we choose to live.

Our tradition teaches that the sanctification of Jewish life is dependent upon the performance of mitzvot. We read that “the edifice of Jewish living is constructed out of mitzvot.” In other words, as a building is put together one brick at a time, so too is a meaningful life built one mitzva at a time. As Ben Azzai said: “One mitzva brings another in its wake.”

The challenge for us this New Year is to begin performing one mitzva at a time so that we may create a life filled with meaning and purpose regardless of the length of our days.

Shana tova!

Rabbi Randi Musnitsky
Temple Har Shalom, Warren

It’s about returning

ROSH HASHANA is related to one of the Torah’s first stories. When Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, it was not a mere act of disobedience. At that moment, they acted as if God did not matter or even exist. In fact, every sin is a moment like that — a denial of God’s existence! Sin is a moment of extreme spiritual blindness. Thus we realize that teshuva is not simply about apologizing for a mistake or repairing some damage we have done. It is about returning — to belief, faith, and longing for God’s presence in life.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that teshuva flows unnoticed throughout creation. Adam and Eve’s fate was not foretold; they chose to turn away. Many of us do too and feel so far gone we can’t imagine being forgiven. Teshuva feels like the hardest thing in the world, but it is the easiest thing to start. It begins with one step forward in a better direction. Rosh Hashana is the day to take that first step.

We pray that 5772 will be a year of blessing, but these are difficult times in which to feel optimistic. Many of us feel apprehensive about the chances for financial security and peace. As we undertake teshuva, which must begin with the self, we should remember it must not end with the self. Most of us worry that we haven’t enough in our pockets and obsess about the wickedness of others. True redemption begins when we turn that around, worrying about our own sins and about whether our neighbors have enough in their pockets. The path to teshuva leads to a radical outward focus and a new spiritual awareness. May we all find success on that journey.

Rabbi George Nudell
Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains

Embracing humanity

DR. MARTIN LUTHER King Jr. said, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of people and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

Americans like to point out that we are a “religious” people. It is true; America has a high percentage of citizens who describe themselves as religious and faithfully attend church, synagogue, mosque, or meeting house. Yet it is apparent that although we are proud of our devotion to matters of the soul, we are failing miserably in caring for the physical bodies of God’s children. We have more Americans living in poverty than at any time in the last half-century. Over 15 million children go to bed hungry every night.

It is astonishing that the ancient sages chose Isaiah 57-58 for the haftara reading on Yom Kippur. On the most spiritual of days, when we are literally concerned for our souls, the sages remind us to care for the bodies of others. “Surely you should divide your bread with the hungry and bring the moaning poor into your home; when you see the naked, cover them.” (Isaiah 58:7). On a day when we are almost totally absorbed with the self, the sages demand that we embrace all of humanity.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, was reputed to have said, “Most people are concerned with their own bodies and with the souls of others — better to be concerned about your own soul and worry about the physical bodies of others.”

I hope each of us leaves the synagogue on Yom Kippur with a renewed sense of purpose, heeding the words of Isaiah, to care for the poor and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and relieve the oppressed.

Rabbi Doug Sagal
Temple Emanu-El, Westfield

Seize the days

EACH DAY of the Hebrew month of Elul, the days leading up to Rosh Hashana, we blow the shofar in the early morning. The shofar is, in a sense, the Jewish alarm clock, its daily blasts waking us up, reminding us to be alert to the significance of this time of year and to recognize the great obligations and opportunities that are before us.

For us as Jews, this awakening inspires us to partake in the annual exercise of heshbon hanefesh, the very personal assessment of our very souls, considering what type of person we have been over the course of the past year which is fast drawing to a close; what kind of spouse, parent, child, relative, friend, and colleague have we been; what values and principles have we brought to life by our words and deeds; how we can learn from our shortcomings and errors; what is our “action plan” for doing better in the New Year of 5772.

It is a momentous point in our people’s calendar, one not to be ignored, a vital and accessible chance for personal growth.

My hope is that each of us will “seize the days” of this High Holy day season to reflect, review, and ready ourselves to be the best people we can be.

Wishing all a shana tova, a sweet and prosperous New Year.

Rabbi Stuart Saposh
Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, Clark

Time to think

THE PURPOSE of the High Holy Days is to get people to think: about one’s life, purposes, ideals, hopes, and dreams. It is easier not to think. After all, our world is one where thinking is done for us. We are told through ads what to buy, wear, do, eat, and, through propaganda, what to think. Thinking is the hardest work of all.

Throughout the prayer service on these holy days runs the reoccurring theme of life. “Remember us unto life, O King, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, so that we may live worthily for thy sake, O God of life.” The human heart is capable of reflecting on life, its meaning and purpose, because humans, of all God’s creations, are endowed with God’s unique gift — the power to think.

Thought is the cradle wherein human life is nurtured, the seed from which springs every act, every deed. If what we think is central to life, it is important to consider some religious implications of this truth.

This is the message of Rosh Hashana — to arouse us, to sensitize us, so that we feel life’s saving tensions between what we are and what we, as children of God, can become, between the Jewish lives we are leading and the Jewish lives we could and should be living. The blast of the shofar is designed not to reassure us that all is well with us, but to call attention to the many areas that need mending, not to feed us spiritual tranquilizers, but to sound a moral alert and to set a course for reconnection.

As we absorb the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the New Year 5772, may we all use these sensations to force us to reflect — and to think.

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Schwartz
Congregation Adath Israel, Elizabeth

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