Rosh Hashana Sermon for 5775

Sermon delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5775 at Oheb Shalom Congregation.


A new year has begun and, in keeping with tradition, we have gathered together to celebrate the occasion and to pray as a congregation. The prayer book asks that we pray about sin and forgiveness, about personal growth and change and about getting another chance to dedicate our lives to righteousness and goodness.

But our hearts tell us to pray about something else. We pray for the people dear to us, for good health, we pray about the frailty of life and our own mortality. If we dig deeply enough into our souls, we also pray about finding ways to solve the problems of the world. And perhaps we reserve special prayers for the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, prayers about the painful and violent struggle between the descendants of Abraham over who has the right to live in the Land. This year, especially, we need to pray about Israel and her people, about the dangers and fear Israel faces, and how to protect the Jewish State.

Fear…it is among the deepest of all human emotions. We become afraid of things we cannot control and that rob us of our peace of mind. We fear that which has happened to us in the past and that which has yet to happen. We fear things that are real and tangible, and we fear that which we can’t see or touch. At times our fears are justified, and at times they are unfounded. In all of its manifestations, fear has the power to consume us. The Bible gives voice to our fears, perhaps more intensively at this season of the year than at any other time. In Psalm 27, the psalm of the penitential season, we read these words:

Adonai ori ve-yishi, mimi ira
Adonai ma-oz chayai, mimi efchad?
God is my light and my help, whom shall I fear
God is the strength of my life, whom shall I dread?

The author of the psalm gives expression to his fears that he will succumb to the power of his enemies. He continues:

Should an army be arrayed against me, I would not fear. Should war beset me, still would I be confident. O Lord, do not hide Yourself from me. Turn not in anger away from your servant.

The author is afraid of something, and he expresses his fears in poetry. It is for this reason that Psalm 27 is recited at this time of the year, for it mirrors the fears and apprehensions that we may be feeling as we face God on these Holy Days.

I want to talk about fear today, but not about our personal fears of the future and how we might confront them. I want to talk about the fear that those who love the State of Israel and her people may be feeling, and what we can do about it.

The Talmud contains an intriguing passage about fear that says the following: “Our Rabbis taught: there are five instances of fear cast by the weak over the strong—the fear of the mafgia over the lion; the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant; the fear of the spider upon the scorpion; the fear of the swallow upon the eagle; and the fear of the kilbit over the Leviathan.” The passage clearly needs explanation and interpretation, and these five instances of the fear of the weak cast upon the strong has something to say to us about the fears experienced by those who love and care for Israel.

The first instance of fear cast by the weak over the strong is the fear of the mafgia over the lion. The mafgia, according to the medieval scholar Rashi, is a tiny beast that has an exceedingly powerful cry. When the mafgia screams, the lion fears that a great beast, much larger and stronger than itself, is coming to challenge him. In actuality, the lion has nothing to be afraid of but he doesn’t know it—he has been “psyched out.” The lion’s fear of the mafgia is not a fear of anything real; it is a fear of fear itself. But the mafgia’s scream has a real effect, for it prevents the lion from doing what comes naturally to him and living life normally.

The second fear is that of the mosquito upon the elephant. Why should an elephant ever be afraid of a mosquito? Because, again according to Rashi, the mosquito can get up the elephant’s trunk and, since it cannot be dislodged, it will drive the elephant crazy. The fear of the mosquito upon the elephant is real indeed, for it reflects the disturbance that a small creature can bring upon a larger one. There is no extensive or lasting damage to the body of the elephant, but there is nonetheless great disruption to its sanity and its daily life.

The third fear mentioned in the Talmud is the fear of the spider upon the scorpion. Now, a scorpion is a deadly creature and is larger than a spider, so why does it fear the spider? Because certain spiders, by injecting poison, can kill a scorpion. To what fear is this analogy? To the fear that perhaps someday we will not be able to defend ourselves against those who wish to harm us.

For much of the summer, Israelis endured the screams of sirens warning of incoming missiles. Most of the missiles missed their targets, and a large number of them were intercepted midair by Israel’s Iron Dome system. A small number of them landed, and an even smaller number caused damage to property and even loss of life. Daily life was disrupted each day as millions of people scrambled to safety in bomb shelters. And there was the scream of threats made by terrorists who inhabit a tiny sliver of land on Israel’s southern border.

Are these terrorists not examples of the screams of a small beast trying to disrupt daily life for the lion, the disturbance caused by a mosquito crawling up an elephant’s trunk, the poisonous spider attacking the scorpion? Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, the Israeli author and journalist, in a column appearing in The Times of Israel just a few days ago, wrote about the fears he feels as the New Year dawns: He writes, “I am fearful for the future of Israel in a region that is turning mad. Fearful for an Israel surrounded by Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Qeida on its borders and Islamic State moving toward the Jordanian border, and with a nuclear Iran becoming more of a reality with every passing day, even as the West negotiates and delays.” The threats facing Israel are real, and cause fear.

The fourth fear mentioned in the Talmud is the fear of the swallow upon the eagle. Again, Rashi is helpful, for he explains that the swallow creeps underneath the wings of the eagle and hinders it from spreading its wings. In other words, the eagle cannot soar to its usual heights. To what is this fear compared? To the fear that Israel will be forced to make choices that will prevent her from soaring to the highest levels of moral achievement, a moral identity that lies at the very core of her being.

In a speech in memory of Holocaust victims delivered a month ago at Platform 17 in Berlin, Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister and the chairman of the Yesh Aid party, made these comments: “The Holocaust placed before Israel and, I would add, before all Jews, a dual challenge. On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world. Our security must forever be in our hands alone.” “But,” he continued, “On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is okay, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.”

Lapid’s words resonate with me. The State of Israel, indeed, all Jewish people, have an obligation not only to protect ourselves, we have an obligation to live by a high moral standard. One of the ugly, disheartening aspects of the war with Gaza was the death of so many Palestinian civilians. Israel never intentionally kills civilians, and when it happens it’s never a cause for celebration or joy. Israel’s military and political leaders are guided by the spirit of Jewish tradition, by the teachings of the Torah that tell us that it is a sin to rejoice over the downfall of our enemies. In Israel, the death of innocents evokes a sense of remorse, feelings of regret. The murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year old Palestinian killed by Jewish Israelis out of revenge for the murder of three teenagers near Hebron, triggered, for the vast majority of the Israeli public, an expression of national shame and soul searching. The fear that we will have to do things out of self-preservation that are a compromise of our moral standards is a real fear.

The fifth instance of fear cast by the weak over the strong is that of the kilbit over the Leviathan. The kilbit is identified as a small fish and the Leviathan is a whale from Jewish folklore associated with the messianic era. According to the Talmud, the Leviathan, a huge animal, fears the tiny kilbit because it can kill it. To what is this fear analogous? It is analogous to the fear that we will lose hope of a better future, symbolized by the coming of the Messiah.

Israel would like to welcome a better future not only for its people but also for the region. Open borders, travel and tourism, diplomatic ties and increased trade are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, one of the symbols that the Zionist dream can be fulfilled, a sign that the Messiah had finally come. Along with its human victims, the past summer has dealt a blow to that dream of a better world, one in which Israel and her neighbors can relax their military posture, invest in building a better life for their citizens and not in guns and tanks. Israel dreams of a future in which her Arab neighbors might teach their children about the great spiritual achievements of Judaism and how our people have enriched the world, a Middle East in which mutual respect, admiration and trust would replace hostility, manipulation, provocation and war. The fear that the kilbit casts over the Leviathan is the fear that such a dream is impossible, the fear that Israel is doomed to guarded isolation for generations to come. And we who love Israel share that dream—it is our fear too.

There you have it—five fears of the weak cast upon the strong. Now, before I go on I want to say clearly that I don’t mean to suggest that all Arabs are weak and all Jews are mighty and strong. The metaphor offered by the Talmud is not perfect, but it does help us to give expression to the fears that we might say Israel, and those who love and care for Israel, feel. Is there anything that can save us from fear, or must we face a lifetime of being afraid. There are no perfect solutions, and in some ways living with fear is built into our DNA as a people. But that said, how do we cope with it?

The answer comes to us from Psalm 27, the psalm I quoted earlier. First, it tells us:

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai…I wish to dwell in God’s sanctuary all the days of my life.

In other words, the author wishes to not be alone but to cling to a community. Who among us has not seen his fears calmed by the presence of family and friends. Not only is there strength in coming together as a community, there is self-confidence. Our fears abate when we are with others. As a community, we not only pray and talk together, we can unite in action that can be of help to Israel.

Then, the author then turns to perhaps an even greater antidote than community… it stretches beyond the confines of time and space and can have a more lasting effect:

Kavey el adonai chazak, ve-ya’ametz libecha…kavey el adonai- Trust in God and be strong…take courage and hope in God.

The author of the psalm tells us that the antidote to fear is hope. Indeed, hope is one of the great gifts that God gives each human being. Just as we have the power to love, to empathize with the brokenhearted and to feel joy, we have the power to hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today and that it will bring us one step closer to the fulfillment of our dreams. Hope has always accompanied the Jewish people in our travels through the world and sustained us in times of difficulty.

In the face of fear, we dare to hope. We dare to hope that old antagonisms will end and that the extremists among our Arab neighbors will come to understand that violence will not solve the conflict over who should control what portion of the land that God promised to Abraham. We dare to hope that Israelis will be able to offer their gifts of the mind and the heart to help build and develop the Middle East and the world, and that those gifts will be accepted in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. We dare to hope, in the words of the Prophet Micah, that each person shall sit under his own vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

My friends, hope has been our companion for as long as we have journeyed on this earth. Indeed, it is the national anthem of the Jewish people:

Kol od ba-leivav penima, nefesh yehudi homiyah…As long as true Jewish hearts yet beat…u-lefa’atei mizrach kadima, ayin le-tsion tsofia…And Jewish eyes turn longingly Eastward…od lo ovda tikvateinu, hatikva bat shenot alpayim…Our hope of two thousand years is not lost…lihyot am chofshi be-artseinu, eretz tsion veyerushalayim… To be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

As the New Year dawns may hope conquer our fears. And may we be blessed with a world at peace.

How to Apologize, and Mean It

I’ve always taught my children that the words “I’m sorry” should never be followed by the words “but” or “if.” A person shouldn’t say “I’m sorry, but…” since whatever comes after the “but” would amount to a nullification of the apology, a justification for whatever wrong that was done. And, similarly, a person shouldn’t say “I’m sorry if…” since whatever comes after the “if” makes the apology into a conditional statement in which the person who offers it isn’t sure they should be apologizing in the first place. Often we use the words “I’m sorry” casually and without meaning, sometimes even sarcastically, often as a catch phrase when we are hurried or not being mindful about how we’re interacting with others. But to offer an apology, to say “I’m sorry,” should be a powerful, intentional expression that results from a process of inner decision making.

The word apology comes from the Greek “apologos,” meaning to give an account of an event. In English, it is understood to mean a speech in defense of one’s actions, a justification for what one has done. Neither definition of the word rises to the level of the Jewish understanding of apologizing, an understanding that we encounter at this season of the year, the season of repentance, the time for expressing regret.

From the Jewish perspective, an apology is only one part of a larger process of seeking forgiveness for what we have done wrong. The Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204, Spain and Egypt) wrote that embracing what we have done wrong involves four steps. First, we must recognize the wrong we have committed and stop doing it. Second, we must confess what we have done (some sages teach that one must confess in public, though others say this is not necessary as it is so potentially embarrassing that people would rather not confess at all). Third, we must regret what we have done, which involves viewing it as a negative act and one that was potentially harmful. Finally, we must determine never to repeat the action. All of these steps are a necessary prelude to asking for forgiveness, whether from another person or from God.

Judaism thus views an apology not as an accounting or defense for what we have done, not as “I’m sorry but.” Rather, our religious tradition views an apology as a sincere statement made to another person in the context of asking for forgiveness. It is a genuine acceptance of responsibility for our actions, an expression of remorse and regret. It is the culmination of the Rambam’s process of coming to terms with the negative things we have done and understanding and accepting the impact they have had on others.

We’re now entering the season of repentance. We are called on to examine our lives with an open mind and an open heart, and make an accounting of what we have done in the year gone by. If we approach these moments with sincerity, we will be able to face whatever negative things what we have done, come to regret them, and resolve never to do them again.

Then, and only then, will be able to say “I’m sorry” and mean it.

Train_of_Life I invite you to be with us as the High Holiday season begins in earnest. This Saturday night, September 20, you are invited to view “Train of Life,” a fascinating movie set in Holocaust-era Poland, and share in a wonderfully spiritual service filled with prayer and music.

The movie will begin at 8:30 PM and the service will start at 10:30 PM.

The Meaning of Faith

At nearly every funeral at which I officiate, I recite these words, composed by Rabbi Alvin Fine, a rabbi in San Francisco who died in 1999:

“Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity and youth to age;
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and, often, back again;
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion and grief to understanding,
From fear to faith. From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead: We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage, made stage by stage…
To life everlasting.”

The poem captures for me the idea that life is a journey and that the obstacles we face can be overcome. Each pairing seems to resonate, but I’ve always been puzzled by the line that says that life is a journey “from fear to faith.” How does one journey from fear to a place of confidence, toward faith?

Faith is often elusive and hard to come by. When asked if we believe in God, we may have a ready answer but may find it hard to articulate what those beliefs are. And our faith is often challenged by events in the world that leave us bewildered and confused. We want to believe that the world is a good and decent place, that good people are rewarded with a good and honored life and that evil is either thwarted or punished. But what we see happening around us does not support that conclusion. We Jews may especially find it hard to believe in a world in which goodness triumphs, given what we’ve experienced in our history, especially in the middle of the 20th century.

The answer that Judaism offers us, I believe, is that our faith need be neither perfect nor complete. The door is open to us to question, to have doubts, to wonder, openly or privately, about how the world works and even whether or not God is watching over us and protecting us. We are encouraged to journey from fear of chaos, of the unknown, of terror and evil, toward an inclination to believe in the potential goodness of the world. Some have called such faith “mature,” a faith based not on fairy tale images of a God who rescues us whenever we are in trouble, but a faith based on a realistic view of the world and secured by an unshakable hope that it can be better.

We just marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11, a day of painful memory and solemn reflection for those who lost loved ones on that tragic day, and for our nation as well. Many are left wondering whether we have made progress since the day that terrorists expressed their hatred for America and western values by killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. Is faith in a world of goodness justified?

A well-known expression of faith is captured by the words of Ani Ma’amin, which we often sing when we commemorate Yom HaShoah: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he should tarry, I will still believe.” Perfect faith? Is there such a thing? Can any of us justify having perfect faith that all will be well, that our good intentions and actions will be worthwhile and honored? Instead, I prefer to understand the phrase “perfect faith”—emunah sheleyma—as “wholehearted faith” (the word “sheleyma” is related to shalom, meaning whole). I believe with wholehearted faith in the goodness of the world. I hold this belief not because I have solid evidence that all evil acts will be punished, but because faith that the world can be a place of goodness keeps me focused on helping to build such a world. I believe, with wholehearted faith, that good people can triumph and create a world that pleases God.

May the victims of 9/11 rest in peace, and may we all have faith in the potential goodness of the world.

Remembering Not to Forget

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite places to visit and my family and I had a blast visiting all kinds of sites over the Labor Day weekend. We toured places we had never seen, like Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Virginia, we saw the monuments on the National Mall, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where numerous artifacts from our nation’s history, like the table and chairs used by Generals Grant and Lee to sign the surrender papers at the courthouse in Appomattox, are on display. We also went to Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and Petersen House across the street where he died the following morning. I reveled in touring these sites, probably because I enjoy seeing the substance of history. As we stood in Ford’s Theater, I kept remarking to my children, “Do you realize that this is the actual place where Lincoln was assassinated? This is the actual place!” (noting my glee, they quickly began to mock me every time I made that comment throughout our visit).

The problem is, Ford’s Theater isn’t really the actual place that Lincoln was shot. As we were exiting the building, I stopped to listen to one of the guides explain that following Lincoln’s death, the people of Washington were so distraught about what happened there that John Ford, the owner of the theater, couldn’t reopen his theater. He received permission from the Federal government to put on a show in the summer of 1865, three months after Lincoln’s death, but on the night the show was supposed to open an anonymous letter was received at the theater threatening to burn down the building. Eventually, the government took it over and converted it into an office building until it was refurbished as a museum in the middle of the 20th century. Everything in the theater is a recreation, with the exception of one of the chairs in the presidential box from which Lincoln watched Our American Cousin with his wife and the Rathbones. It seems that the people of Washington, and perhaps the entire country, couldn’t tolerate being reminded each day of such a painful moment in the life of the nation, or for them personally.

History is not solely a subject taught in classrooms, it pulsates with life lessons that are meant to deepen and enrich our lives. From the history of Ford’s Theater, we learn that memory can be painful and cast a shadow over us. Why would we want to be reminded of something painful or hurtful? Who would want to continually encounter the evidence of something that stirs up bad feelings? Ironically, the Torah asks that we do just that in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteromy 25:17-19)

In puzzling language, the passage commands us to not forget to keep alive the memory of barbarians—the tribe of Amalek—who assaulted and terrorized our ancestors ages ago. We’re told to “blot out the memory” of Amalek, an apparent ritual that can be performed only if we force ourselves to remember the evil they committed.

Why would anyone want to do that? Perhaps the answer is that our memories shouldn’t be selective. It may be less emotionally taxing to avoid remembering painful things, but one we start choosing our memories we cut off a large repertoire of our experience. Remembering something painful may also remind us of our strength to persevere, to survive and to grow from difficult experiences in our lives. Allowing ourselves to remember unconditionally affirms that we possess a wide gamut of emotions that make us fully human.

And that’s something worth remembering.