Note: This is the second installment of New Year’s messages from area religious leaders; the next group of messages will appear in the Sept. 26 edition.
A prayer for boredom
THE TERM “prayer book” is ironic. Prayer is heartfelt and spontaneous; a book is pre-set. Year round we shed all pretenses of spontaneity in prayer. We use a siddur, which translates as the “Order.” Prayer for 362 days a year is ordered and predictable. A spiritually electric prayer experience is a novelty, to put it gently. To complicate matters, the prayer book we use over the High Holidays — three days a year — is called a Machzor. This comes from the word to return, or to circle back.
So, prayer is ordered, predictable, and cyclical. Writing this missive makes me sleepy. I can only imagine how you’re feeling. But before you donate your Machzor and siddur to the local synagogue, consider this: That’s the whole point of prayer and community and holidays and Judaism and life. What if we took away the reliable, the trusted, the rock, the root, the ritual? We would flail and we would fail to become. In physical terms, the friction created by life and each other help prevent perpetual motion.
We pray with you and your families for a reliable, maybe even a boring, year. Shanah tovah um’tukah.
Rabbi Menashe East
Mount Freedom Jewish Center, Randolph
Stand together as community
BEFORE WE GET to the Kol Nidrei — arguably the best-known prayer of the High Holiday season — the prayer leader chants an introductory prayer, B’y’shivah Shel Ma’alah. This prayer is recited not once, not twice, but three times. So, what does this prayer mean? It seeks to remind us that as we come together on the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, we as a community agree to pray together with those who have transgressed. In other words, we should welcome all who wish to be a part of our community — even if we think that they are headed down the wrong path.
Ironically, the word for transgressors — avaryanim — comes from the same root that gives us the word “Hebrew.” It is part of our identity. This prayer reminds us that no one is perfect. It reminds us that we don’t agree with each and every member of our community all the time.
As we come together to welcome in the new year of 5780, it is my fervent wish that we can extend that sentiment beyond the one day of Yom Kippur, that we can stand together as a community despite our differences and disagreements in order to meet the challenges we face. L’shanah tovah!
Rabbi Avi Friedman
Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit JCC
Virtue of resilience
IF TRUTH BE told, we all have grave concerns, dread, and trepidation about the state of the world in which we live. While the new Jewish year 5780 brings opportunity for new possibilities and hopes, we nevertheless find ourselves preoccupied with communal and personal worries. Regrettably, we are unable to be sheltered from the hard truths of the world nor shielded from the unimaginable scenes of pain that have become so commonplace.
Yet, as benefactors of Jewish teaching, we need to know that where there is darkness, there eventually will be light. Our tradition imparts emphatically this message for all times: The darkness of despair is never to replace the light of hope. It is my heartfelt belief that life is now throwing far too many punches at us to live without the desire and ability to fight back.
Thus, my prayer for the new year is that each of us can rediscover the Jewish practice of resilience. Resilience is not something we are born with; rather, it is a skill we can learn and cultivate. It is not the equivalent to “overcoming” or “bouncing back.” Instead it is a virtue that helps us to move through the hardship. The pitfalls of life are inescapable, but how we deal with the repercussions is up to us.
These High Holidays beckon us to “choose life.” May we be blessed with a resilient spirit in order to choose wisely!
Rabbi Randi Musnitsky
Temple Har Shalom, Warren
The power to change
A STORY IS told of a young child who called out to God because the world felt broken, and the child wanted to know if God would send someone to heal this world. God replied: I did send someone. I sent you!
The days leading up to Rosh HaShanah are reserved for an accounting of the soul. We are asked to reflect on ourselves and on the soul of society. But we are also told in our High Holiday liturgy that we have the power to change. Through our continual wrestling of a relationship with the Divine, through our attempts to repent for past transgressions and return to a better version of ourselves, and through action, we can change this world, and we can change our perspectives of this world and of ourselves.
When the world seems dark, it is easy to feel hopeless, but the beauty of this season is that it is full of hope. A new year is a new opportunity, a renewed hope that this year will be different. This year, we will be the best version of ourselves. The greatest gift the Jewish people gave to the world was the eternal optimism of hope. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, and even after seemingly giving up, they were able to rise up against tyranny, and God took them out of slavery to begin a new life full of freedom.
This season allows us to hope again. May the new year ahead be full of hope for a better year. On behalf of all of us at Congregation Beth El, may your new year be sweet and meaningful. We hope at Beth El you’ll be reminded that — through prayer, learning, action, and self-examination — God did send someone to make a change. God sent you.
Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
Congregation Beth El, South Orange
Circle of belonging
WHEN WE ASK someone, “Do you belong to a synagogue?” what we usually mean is: “Are you a member?” “Do you pay dues?” But belonging is much more than that. Congregation Beth Hatikvah chose “belonging” as our theme for the coming year because we believe most people yearn for connection and community. As one of our members remarked, long ago human survival depended on belonging, and in some sense it still does. Over the summer, as we discussed “belonging,” another member pointed out that the word “longing” is embedded in “belonging.” It seems to be part of our DNA to have a deep need and longing to connect with others.
For Jews, the idea of belonging is expressed by covenant. A covenantal community recognizes that our relationships with others and with God are not just about filling our individual needs. Belonging means we need each other and are responsible for each other. Belonging, at its best, gives us the strength and security and connection to be able to turn outward and include more people in our definition of belonging.
The danger arises when we divide the world into those who belong and those who do not. For most of our history, Jews lived in lands where we did not belong, and we know too well the dangers that arise when groups of people are excluded.
There was a time in human history when people survived by banding together in tribes. Belonging meant food, warmth, and protection. We live in a different world now. If we are going to survive, we need to create covenantal communities in which each of us contributes to the good of all. If we are going to survive, we must use the strength and security we feel within the bonds of family and community to continuously widen our circle of belonging.
Rabbi Hannah Orden
Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit
WE ARE ABOUT to enter the Jewish year 5780. It is always exciting to begin a new year because we view this season as an opportunity to start a new job or activity, rebuild relationships, and work on our resolutions.
It is surely a bittersweet time as we eagerly look forward into the unknown while also looking back, perhaps feeling somewhat sad to let go of the things we can no longer continue in the months before us.
It is best if we look to the future year with sincere optimism, using the holiday as the basis for a happy new year. While we cannot influence everything that happens in our lives, what we can do is believe in our own power to work on those things that we can change and to reshape our direction.
As we are doing teshuvah this Yom Kippur, we are opening our hearts and souls to all the exciting new possibilities that we will face.
May the year 5780 bring out only the good that is within us, and may we be blessed by love, health, and peace — because those are truly the riches we all seek.
Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak
Temple Shalom, Succasunna
Why be Jewish?
THE SOCIOLOGIST PETER Berger wrote, “The modern individual…lives in a world of choice, in sharp contrast with the world of fate inhabited by traditional man. Modern men and women must choose in innumerable situations of everyday life….”
In today’s environment of multiple options, the fastest-growing religious denomination in American life is “None” — “None of the above.” Its members say, “I identify with no one specific religion.” Some Jews ask, “Why be Jewish?” “What’s in it for me?”
To answer, let’s examine the wisdom of Jewish historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who defined three categories of identity: “Head Jews,” “Heart Jews,” and “Hand Jews.”
Head Jews are cerebral; they find meaning and fulfillment via books, ideas, discussions, and the probing of issues. Heart Jews seek serenity via holiness, spirituality, ritual, and prayer, routes to intimacy with God. Hand Jews are best inspired by communal, political, or philanthropic acts that transform the lives of individuals and society.
This breakdown is not cut-and-dried! We all have pieces of Head, Heart, and Hand within our individual Jewish identity. Yet each of us has a dominant mode — intellectual, spiritual, or communal. Being Jewish is an immense blessing, offering us the opportunity to continually sample and savor those Head, Heart, and Hand qualities that best meet our personal needs.
I have known folks who are mitzvah heroes (Hand Jews), gaining “a helper’s high” in performing deeds of loving-kindness toward others in need. I have encountered renowned scholars and thinkers and teachers and communicators (Head Jews), whose fulfillment stems from being nourished by the wisdom of our heritage. I also have admired spiritual giants (Heart Jews), whose powerful soulfulness emanates from their being and brings others to feel imbued momentarily with a touch of divinity.
Why be Jewish? Being a Jew is profoundly enriching for the vast majority of Jewish people.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell