The following are responses to an invitation from New Jersey Jewish News to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages.
The merit of charity
KING SOLOMON proclaimed tzedaka (charity) “saves from death” (Proverbs 10:2). Charity relieves the recipient and preserves his life and the life of the giver.
“If there will be a destitute person among you…you shall not harden your heart or close your hand…rather you shall open your hand to him….” (Deuteronomy 15:7)
Why the double language?
The Torah teaches us that at least two decision-making processes go on in a person: the conscious mind and the sub-conscious or the force of habit of the body, so that even after the mind has consciously decided to act, the body, through lack of follow-up or laziness, can negate the decision.
To give charity a person has to overcome two barriers: that of the mind — “I work hard for my money; this guy is lazy, otherwise he would have found a job. Let him earn his own living” — and that of the body which, out of habit, does not want to part with wealth and resists the effort of the physical act of giving.
Maimonides states in the “Laws of Gifts to the Poor” 10:1: We are obligated to be careful with the command to give tzedaka more than any other positive commandment.
He provides us with the following three reasons:
• Charity is a sign of a righteous individual, a descendant of Abraham (in Hebrew the words tzadik and tzedaka have the same root as tzedek, or righteousness).
• Judaism survives through the merit of charity.
• The Jewish people will be redeemed from exile through the merit of charity.
At the time of the High Holy Days, let us make sure to fulfill our charitable obligations to those in need.
Rabbi David Bassous
Congregation Etz Ahaim, Highland Park
FOR THE LAST couple of weeks I’ve had the song “Get Happy” by Ted L. Koehler and Harold Arlen stuck in my head. Part of first verse goes: “Sing Hallelujah, c’mon get happy/ Get ready for the Judgment Day.”
Now, I have a feeling that the Judgment Day they wrote about is not Yom Kippur. Very rarely does one get dressed singing, “Shout Hallelujah; it’s time for Kol Nidrei.” We should, but we don’t.
The truth is that many of us have a hard time with the High Holy Days, and that difficulty has nothing to do with fasting or the length of the service or even the length of the rabbi’s sermon. It has to do with facing our inner selves. It has to do with teshuva.
Teshuva (otherwise known as repentance) is really about making two different types of return. One is a returning to God; the other is a returning to a vision you had of yourself before a sin was committed. However, it’s hard to change and it’s easy to let the opportunity pass by. Yet, if we choose to engage in teshuva, then we have the ability to return to who we long to be.
Lamentations 5:21 states, “Restore us to Yourself, Adonai, and let us return; renew our days as of old.” May we each of us achieve this returning so that one day we may all sing, “Hallelujah, it’s erev Yom Kippur.”
Rabbi Philip N. Bazeley
Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick
Awake to the shofar
THE GREAT MEDIEVAL Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides wrote that the sound of the Rosh Hashana shofar says to us: “Wake up, you sleepers, from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return in penitence.”
Like a modern-day alarm clock, the piercing sound of the shofar is meant to awaken us, to jar us from our reticence, and to remind us that this is the time of year to change direction and seek repentance and wholeness in our lives.
The shofar is traditionally made from a ram’s horn to recall the ram sacrificed in place of Isaac on Mount Moriah. It can be formed from the horns of other kosher animals, including a goat or sheep, but not from the horn of a bull, which is linked in our Jewish memory to the sin of the Golden Calf. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted the bent shape of the shofar, which, he taught, is in conformity with the contrite mood of the day.
On this Rosh Hashana, as we gather to welcome in the new year of 5774, let us pay special attention to the sounds of the tekiah, shevarim, teruah, and the tekiah gedolah. May they arise within us the desire to turn toward the good in all aspects of our lives.
Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer
Temple B’nai Shalom, East Brunswick
Not easy being green
A COLLEAGUE OF mine recently faced a dilemma. His bat mitzva student is vegan, and she is troubled by the fact that the Torah, the shofar, the tefillin — in short all ceremonial and religious items — traditionally require the use of an animal part.
Would this young woman eschew football because of the pigskin? Baseball (possibly the ball itself and definitely the glove are leather)? What about music — a violin has strings made of catgut and a bow made of horsehair. Drums are made of animal skin stretched over the top and tied with leather thongs. I myself am a clarinetist; the finest clarinets use sharkskin at the to eliminate clicking noises.
And what about testing animals for cosmetic purposes or the medical testing on animals we’ve come to regard as a necessity for the prolongation of human life.
Would she realize the impossibility of an existence entirely free of animal use?
When I moved from New York to New Jersey and we did not yet have a place to live, our furniture was put in storage. When I called the mover about redeeming it, he was having a bad day and exploded on the phone. He soon apologized and as a kind of atonement he offered me an unclaimed prefabricated bookcase. But when I looked at the back of the case I saw to my chagrin, “Made in Brazil.” The particleboard possibly came from the endangered rainforest.
Kermit the Frog said it best: “It is not easy being green!” I’m reminded of Sam Katz, a Jewish chemist at West Virginia University who quipped, “Vegetarians are the cruelest people. What chance does a carrot have? It just sits there and you pull it up by its roots. At least a cow can run away!”
Rabbi Cantor Sam Josephson
Jewish Congregation of Clearbrook, Monroe Township
Giving good weight
A BAKER BOUGHT most of the ingredients he used from a local farmer he had been doing business with for many years. They had been doing business for so long, they had developed a close friendship. They got together for birthdays, anniversaries, b’nei mitzva, and other simhas.
One day, the baker began to suspect that the pound packages of butter he was getting from the farmer might not really be a pound. The baker wanted to make sure, so he started to weigh the butter after the next few deliveries. As suspected, he found that the butter was a bit underweight. The baker got so angry that he hauled the farmer into court to answer for his fraud.
“What kind of scale do you use?” the judge asked the farmer.
“I don’t have a scale, your honor,” the farmer replied.
“Then how can you weigh the butter that you sell?”
“It’s quite simple,” the farmer said. “I have balances, and I use the one-pound loaf I buy from the baker as the counterweight.”
There is an old saying that goes like this: “If you point your finger at someone else, there are three more pointing right back at you.” As in the case of the farmer and the baker, even when we are right, being judgmental usually does not end well. This is something we should remember when we face the only true Judge this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Eli B. Perlman, spiritual leader
Congregation Beit Shalom, Monroe Township
Response to suffering
IN JUDAISM, the question of evil and suffering is expressed in the statement: “Tzadik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo,” a righteous person, and bad comes to him, a wicked person and good comes to him. Why do righteous people suffer, while the “wicked” seemingly do not?
Rav Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik says we cannot comprehend the nature of evil, because we do not have the full understanding of the world. He writes: “Judaism…understood that evil could not be blurred or camouflaged, and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility, nor enable him to grasp the existential mystery.”
The Jewish aim is to transition from a fated life, to a destined life. In “fated lives,” evil happens to us. In a life of destiny, we do not focus on the tragedy. “What must the sufferer do, so that he may live through his suffering?” asks the man of destiny. “We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but rather about the path wherein man shall take when suffering strikes,” says the Rav.
The Rav tells us that according to Halacha, “Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit…to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons. In a word, the function of suffering is to mend that which is flawed in an individual’s personality. The Halacha teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.” The individual who suffers and keeps his religious faith has the obligation to respond in a positive fashion to repair the world.
Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg
Congregation Beth El, Edison
Instrument of repentance
ROSH HASHANA’S most recognizable symbol is the shofar, so much so that it is called Yom T’ruah — the Day of the Shofar Call. It is a call that pierces the soul and reminds us of what we need to do, deep inside, to make amends for the coming year.
Ideally, the shofar should come from a ram. Rams can be hard to come by, however. Thus, the rabbis said that we could make a shofar from the horn of any kosher animal, aside from a cow. But what happens if there are no kosher horns available? The rabbis answer, even the horn of a nonkosher animal can serve as a shofar! Ultimately, the instrument of teshuva — of repentance — can come from almost any source.
Pay attention — look to those around you, regardless of whether they are inside or outside your immediate community. Inspiration, learning, and growth can come from encounters with anyone and everyone, rams or otherwise!
May this High Holy Day season be one of growth and development for you and yours.
We at Temple Emanu-El of Edison wish you a Shana tova u’m’tuka, a sweet and wonderful New Year.
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg
Temple Emanu-El, Edison
Equality the best of our teaching
WE AS A people have always prayed for peace, yet peace is as elusive as ever.
Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the peace table. Civil war is waging in Syria, and the racial divide in this country has again been brought to our attention by the Zimmerman trial. We as a nation have not really solved as yet the legacy of our sordid racial past.
As we gather to commemorate our New Year, a question is put to us: Do we as Jews have anything to add to the dialogue on race in America?
Unfortunately we know too well that there are Jews who harbor prejudice in their minds and hearts. But the Jew by faith and fate should be different. If we look only at our own experience as a people we know full well how people can judge us as group by the actions of one bad actor.
When our people first came to these shores did we not have murder, robbery, and extortion committed by so many of our own that a police commissioner of New York could say that most of the crime was committed by Jews! The doors to worldly success were closed to us and only when they opened did we succeed .
Our rabbis teach us that Adam was created alone so no one could say their ancestry is better than anyone else’s. Equality of all people is part and parcel of the best of our teaching.
May peace and harmony dwell in our midst and may the New Year bring the manifold blessings of God to all.
Rabbi Eugene A. Wernick
Congregation Beth Ohr, Old Bridge