Erev Tov and Shanah Tovah!
Exactly a year ago, I was standing right here, on this bimah, nervous and excited, worried and ecstatic with joy, and yes, shvitzing as usual. I remember asking myself, “What is this New Year, 5777, going to look like? What are the goals that I would like to accomplish personally, as well as professionally with my new congregation, in both my spiritual and material homes? I also wished that my Ima and Abba were here with me to witness and be a part of this new spiritual journey we have all embarked on, together. And tonight, I am glad to report that my Ima and Abbah, Rivka and Itzik are indeed with us to share the beginning of this Jewish New Year 5778.
According to our ancient tradition, starting this evening, on Erev Rosh Ha’Shana, the end of the Hebrew month of Elul and the start of Tishrei, we begin a self-examination process called aseret yemei teshuva, the ten days of inwardly turning and returning as we spiritually transition from the passing year, to create a clean slate, in preparation for this Jewish New Year.
Tichleh shanah u’klaloteha, tachel shanah u’vir’choteha says the Talmud in Mishna Brachot, “There ends a year and its blights and a new one begins with its blessings.”
In Aramaic, “Elul” is the name of the last Hebrew month. It means “to search.” “Tishrei” is the name of the first Hebrew month, and it means “to begin.” How befitting, while we search within our hearts and souls contemplating the past year, we also prepare ourselves to begin the coming year, it’s like and annual reboot! Hatchalot Chadashot (new beginnings).
For me, it’s been an amazing year of growth through introspection, and self-evaluation. Like everyone else, I have slipped here and there, but I have tried to the best of my ability to follow up with a Tikkun, an amending, of any errors. It’s been a year of hopes, disappointments, triumphs, and everything else that‘s part of the life of your crazy, hot-blooded-Israeli-momma of a rabbi.
Wow. It’s been a year already.
We’ve said a fond farewell to our beloved Ellen Goldin, who passed the Educator’s torch with a warm welcome to Marian Gorewitz Kleinman. We thanked our outgoing president Janice Paul for outstanding service for the past three years, and welcomed Joan Gottlieb who we wish a wonderfully rewarding next two years. And through it all, our one and only amazing Cantor Emeritus Charles Romalis is still here with us, as he has been here for the past nearly 52 years. How incredible is that?!
In looking back over the past year, my major Cheshbon Ha’nefesh (taking inventory while soul-searching), has been about whether I have served you properly, my beloved congregants: Have I done right by you, Temple Beth Tikvah’s community of awesome individuals? Have I disappointed or hurt anyone unknowingly? Have I been patient enough and been available to really listen enough? Have I made decisions that brought us closer toward healing and wholesome growth?
As I have considered these questions, as your new rabbi, I have looked back on the personal and professional goals that I set for myself, and for us as a congregation in transition.
Gratefully, I have achieved some of my personal goals. Dave and I are so very happy in our new home in Pines Lake, with our new friends, and our healthy dogs. “Tfu tfu tfu,” as my Ima always says. I’ve also gone back to exercising and to eating a much healthier diet. And life in general is really, really – tfu tfu tfu – good! As for my congregational and professional life, I chose three sets of goals to work on, which I want to review with you now.
My first set of goals had to do with the Ritual Committee:
We made many changes thanks to a highly functional, vibrant, fun, and committed group of individuals chaired by Bruce Skolnick with the help of his wife Kerry. Meeting at least than once a month, the Ritual Committee discusses ways to enrich the spiritual lives of all our congregants, of all ages.
As a result, tomorrow morning, for the first time in Temple Beth Tikvah’s history, our children are going to have a full High Holy Day experience, joined by their families and friends — a whole-family experience of Rosh Ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur services. Moreover, our Committee also worked hard on replacing Temple Beth Tikvah’s former prayer books. Although the new siddur, Mishkan Tefila, has taken some getting used to, the idea of joining the rest of the Reform Movement’s usage of this magnificently creative book, seems now to have settled nicely into the hearts and spiritual lives of most of our members.
My second set of goals had to do with technology:
Coming from Silicon Valley, I was quite astonished to realize that our office was still using a pen and paper calendaring system, as well as a website sorely in need of modernization. I am happy to report that our Temple’s staff now mostly stays in synch via web-based calendaring, and you can find all the Temple’s news and information on a dynamic re-designed website. The website came about from the efforts of many people. Thanks go out to the hubbitzen Dave Simerly, Lee Weisberger, Ken Lang, Joan Gottlieb, Harvey The Torah Hendler, Jay Stack, and everyone else who has done such good work on this.
My third set of goals and perhaps THE most challenging was to create a new Bar and Bat Mitzvah Program, including weaning our students from their dependence on using transliterated Hebrew text. Thanks to Ellen Goldin and Cantor Romalis, together, we created a highly comprehensive Bar/Bat Mitzvah Handbook, which details the specific process of this important life cycle event, a highlight of our thirteen year olds’ Jewish experience. We are so excited that our Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program, together with our new Siddur Mishkan Tefila, will be initiated in November with the Bat Mitzvah of Riley Hiller, our first seventh grader to become a Bat Mitzvah this year.
While looking back at what we accomplished together this past year, I want us to also note that sometimes not achieving the goals we set out to achieve is okay. As we each look back on this past year, we have to remember to be compassionate towards ourselves when we perceive that we have not met all the goals we set out for ourselves — because sometimes that leads us to grow in unexpected new directions.
To illustrate this let me tell you a short well-known Chassidic story:
Shloymeh Vasserman lived in the old Polish town of Mojzits. Shloymeh and his wife Feigie owned a small but flourishing business of water-drawing and delivering, from the brook of fresh water just outside their town. Four days a week, the couple would deliver water to all the other Mojzits families.
For his business Shloymeh used two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole, which he carried across his neck. Every morning Shloymeh would pray Shacharit, thank God for the blessings in his life, then embark on his way down to the brook, to fill up the pots. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the brook to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
This went on daily, with Shloymeh delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his clients. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to Shloymeh one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.” Shloymeh said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you’ve watered them. For two years, I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to bring to my wife Faigaleh, who would welcome me with arms wide open and a big smile on her face. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be any flowers to brighten my wife’s day, and bring beauty to our home.”
This story teaches us about the concepts of “perfection” on the one hand and “failure” on the other, and all the possibilities that lie in between those two polarities. While we must set goals so we can continue to live a meaningful life, we must also remember that sometimes success is measured by unforeseen consequences.
Many of us have examples of setting goals that resulted in a different outcome than expected. Our Sages said: “We have no understanding of the energy that God planted within our souls. Therefore, God has to test us to bring forth those treasures that are buried deep within ourselves and make us unique.” In other words, God sees the greatness and gifts within us. Our job in this lifetime is to uncover those gifts and use them, in order to manifest that greatness.
Our congregation has gone through a shift and needs to focus itself on revival. We have to continue to let go of the stale in order to bring about renewal. Thus, we need to explore how we relate to these topics now— What do we still want to hold onto? What do we need to let go of? How do we re-focus on what is still relevant and how do we let go of what no longer serves us or our community?
For me, one of the greatest challenges has been the idea of “disappointing.” I can’t stand that I may have hurt people by not calling them, or wishing them well on time. It hurts me to know that someone may have felt left out, uncared for, unnoticed or ignored.
One of my goals for this year is to try to reach out to everyone.
Some wonderful people at Temple Beth Tikvah have been my God-sent angels. The word angel means not only a higher being, but also a messenger. My angels, my messengers, have been whispering in my ear of those in need of extra TLC, a hug, a phone call, or a visit from their rabbi. So beloved congregants of mine, be my angels and help me achieve this year’s goal. Tell me about yourself, or someone you’ve heard about, and what it is I can do to help.
So while I have all of you here with me this evening, and before you fall asleep, because it’s getting to be bedtime – I will ask you to consider why have you chosen to be with us here, at TBT to celebrate a new year of goal-setting and opportunities, a new year of spiritual engagements? Could it be that because, although we are not perfect, we do have the highest of intentions, willingness and guts to grow, and that we strive to be better than we have ever been?
Like the broken pot in the story, you may be frustrated sometimes, because our actions do not appear to produce a desirable outcome, immediately. But please remember that every action may result in unexpected new growth that we can all enjoy together.
Because you chose to be here with us this evening, I will say this to each and all of you: Temple Beth Tikvah has been around for the past sixty years and we will continue to grow together. Some of us will never be fully satisfied, or fully understand why our leadership chose to do this, or that, or the other thing. However, through your participation and your continued support, financially and spiritually, you will help us to set our goals and achieve them. Your support will be the water that will make fresh flowers, our next generation of Jews, grow and thrive.
I will end here with a prayer for this new year: “God, we thank You for today. Thank You for the inspiration You give us to dream, and to set goals for ourselves. We pray for all of us: women, men, and children to have goals and dreams that we desire to see happen. We realize we are not guaranteed a “certain tomorrow,” but setting goals gives us the motivation to live out each day purposefully and with direction.
Help us to accomplish our needs in order to move on, and accomplish even more in this lifetime. We have so much to offer to our family, friends, community as well as people in general. Help us to spiritually grow however we need to find our purpose.
Open Your Gates for us, Adonai, we ask that you open them wide. Help us set our goals, personally and communally, and then equip us with Your wisdom to fulfill them. Fill our hearts and minds with your awesome purpose, and inspire our lives with your many blessings.
Shanah Tovah to everyone: here is to a year filled with the blessing of doing what is right and what is good. Ken yehi ratzon, may this be our, and God’s will, as we work towards achieving our goals, together.
Our Choir now will join together in singing Pitchu Li, Open the Gates for Us, on p. 267 in the Machzor.
June 15th is going to be very special!
During Erev Shabbat Services, we will be honoring YOU – our TBT volunteers -with individual recognition.
We want to recognize your energy, creativity and generosity of time. We want to express our gratitude for your participation in providing one or more of the many religious, social, cultural, and educational programs TBT offers and for your dedication to maintaining our Jewish community.
Please attend services on Friday, June 15th, so we can recognize each of you and express our thanks.
Erev Shabbat services begin at 7:30 pm with an Oneg Shabbat immediately following.
Memorial Day may not be a Jewish holiday per se, but the concept of remembering and honoring our brave military people who risk, and sometimes give, their lives in service to the rest of us is certainly a Jewish value.
I’d like to invite you to join our congregation this evening, Friday 5/25/18 at 6:00 pm, as we offer a special prayer in honor of our fallen soldiers, by the open ark.
I’ll add here Rabbi Dr. Laurence Milder’s prayer, which I find very powerful:
We are united this day in a solemn act of gratitude: to those who have served in our nation’s defense, to those who have risked their personal safety to save the lives of others, and above all to those who have died serving this country. Their sacrifices are forever remembered by us and by our children for generations to come. We do not forget.
Our hearts go out to those serving today in our armed forces, and to their families. In all our many faiths, we are united in this: our prayers are with those who serve our country today. We ask God that they may return speedily and in good health and safety to their loved ones.
And may God grant each of us the wisdom to uphold this nation’s virtues, that it may continue to serve as a beacon of liberty and harmony between peoples, for all the world to see. Amen.
While writing this sermon, I had in mind our 4th Graders who co-lead the service with the guidance of their teachers, Ms. Beth Julie, and our educator, Ms. Marian Kleinman. They did such an amazing job: everyone’s faces were beaming with sheer nachas! We engaged in lovely conversation, some of our students shared their thoughts and feelings about “treating animals with kindness,” and how our own animals sometimes treat us when we need them.
I am sure you have heard me say in the past how essential it is to be kind to one another. We always talk about how important it is for each of us to see each individual human as a unique being who carries inside him or herself a beacon of light, a sparkle of God, which is called a נשמה, a soul.
From very early age we are taught: “Whatever is unpleasant to you – do not inflict, or do onto others!” We are reminded over and over how important it is to treat other beings the way that we would want to be treated.
But what happens when that other is not a person but an animal? A goat for example, a horse, a cow, or a dog?
In one short sentence appearing in this week’s portion, Parshat Emor, the Torah states the appropriate relationship between us, humans, and animals—yes, even those animals that some people eat. The verse is:
“And whether it be cow or a lamb, you shall not kill it and its offspring, both in one day.” (Leviticus 22: 28)
What is the meaning of this command and what does it come to teach us? Why should the animal and offspring relationship be mentioned in the Torah?
The simple answer is that God created the animal kingdom in a very balanced way and we are not to disturb it: we have to learn how to respect nature’s order. Certain animals are food for other animals, for example: mosquitoes are food for lizards, and lizards are food for birds of prey. A chicken will never eat a mouse and a cat will never consciously eat a mosquito.
The world of animals is conducted in a consistent balance that we must respect and leave undisturbed and the animals unharmed—ultimately, by doing so, we avoid harming ourselves. The key word is balance.
We must remember that keeping the balance and respecting all living creatures and their place in this amazingly complex and brilliant world of ours is essential for human survival. The genius of our tradition is reflected in Emor: it teaches us reverence, sensitivity, and laws about Judaism’s appreciation of the role of animals in our lives.
One of my all times favorite quotes about animals’ place in our world was written by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard scientist of languages, who studied animal cognition, focusing on “Alex,” a magnificent African Gray parrot. She wrote in her book Alex and Me that,
“…animals teach us the meaning of ‘oneness.’ There is just one Creation, One Nature, one good, full, complete idea, made up of individuals of all shapes and designs, all expressing their oneness with One God. We are not different because we look different, but we all reflect the eternal beauty and intelligence of One Creation in our own peculiar way. It’s what make up the whole—this textured fabric of thought and existence.” (Alex And Me, Irene Pepperberg)
Children, I want to ask you two questions:
Lastly I wanted to sing a very special song, which I learned quite a few years ago. I used to sing it to all my children of all ages, year one through 90, as well to all doggies who came for Paws Shabbat; a wonderful celebration of our 4 legged friends that we did in San Jose, CA. Let me know think about it:
“God and Dog” by Wendy Francisco
Simple spelling, g.o.d.
Same word backwards, d.o.g.
They would stay with me all day;
I’m the one who walks away.
But both of them just wait for me,
and dance at my return with glee.
Both love me no matter what
Divine God and canine mutt.
I take it hard each time I fail,
but God forgives, dog wags his tail.
God thought up and made the dog;
Dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now;
It’s everywhere, Amen, Bow-wow.
I look up and I see God;
I look down and see my dog.
And in my human frailty,
I can’t match their love for me.
🐾🐾🐾🐾🐾 Rabbi Meeka 🐾🐾🐾🐾🐾
This past week’s short sermon catered to our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders who participated in leading the service (they did such a beautiful job BTW), as well as their families. It is written in a way that I could actually engage all in a conversation following this short story, which I borrowed from JPS’ B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary. The idea of “scapegoating” and where this term actually comes from is a repeating topic that comes up at different times throughout the year.
It’s also a great topic for an entire sermon for Yom Kippur!
I encourage you to think about the questions presented at the conclusion: is there anyone you’ve ever scapegoated? If so, it’s never too late or too soon to ask to be forgiven. Or, forgive, if you were the one to carry on your shoulders the blame for other people’s mishaps.
Ryan was chosen for playing the main character in his prestigious middle-school musical, and, during his solo – his voice cracked, funny sounds came out of his throat, and everyone in the audience were laughing hysterically.
Right after the play, Ryan’s fellow classmates scolded him. “You messed up the whole show for us!” Of course, Ryan’s classmate Derek missed his cue, and Jordan forgot one of her lines. Matthew forgot to wear his special shirt, and Ava simply came on stage at the wrong cue. But those mess-ups don’t matter, because Ryan was the one who messed up the musical. Everyone blamed Ryan, including the musical’s conductor.
Blaming someone for the failure of “everything” is called “scapegoating” – putting all the blame on something or someone else. And this very concept, the idea of placing all the burden of blame on one scapegoat actually comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Achrei Mot.
In old biblical days, the High Priest would take two goats and cast something similar to dice. According to the way the dice fell, the High Priest would know which goat to sacrifice to God, and which one of the goats would be sent into the wilderness, carrying all the bad deeds of all the Israelites with it.
The terrified goat would run away, or “escape” for her life into the wilderness, which is how the term “scapegoating” came to be. Now. don’t be fooled into thinking that “scapegoating” happened only in days of old! Scapegoating still happens here and now, all the time:
We, Jews, have been the scapegoats for so many centuries, basically since we became a People: we have been blamed for economic distress, capitalism, atheism, the media, bad movies, problems in the Middle East, and the list of examples, of course, goes on and on.
“In some ways” wrote Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the President of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “we have completely misunderstood the ancient scapegoat ritual. It’s not that we are blaming the goat for our sins.”
Not at all! After all, how can a leaf-eating, cute and sweet natured goat be blamed for someone’s inability to keep their hands to themselves, or tongues from spreading lashon ha’ra (speaking evil of someone else) who doesn’t deserve it?
Rabbi Hirschfield continues, “The success of the scapegoating ritual really depends on the individuals’ willingness to take responsibility for the wrongs they have done – just the opposite of the way we usually think about making a scapegoat of someone.”
So what’s the lesson here? Take responsibility for your own failings, or misdeeds. Don’t blame others. And don’t even bother looking for a goat to carry your sins away, because I don’t think we have too many of those here in Wayne, right? ☺
This week holds a very powerful place in the heart of almost every Israeli: it is the week between the Holocaust Memorial, Yom Ha’Shoa, and Yom Ha’Zikaron, Memorial Day for slain Israeli soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Both commemoration days, exactly one week apart from each other, are meant for us to be still and contemplate the most unimaginable part of both our collective and individual history, the inconceivable tragedies of lost lives.
Coincidentally or not, one of the subjects discussed in the Torah portion of this Shabbat—Parshat Shmini in Leviticus—also discusses an unimaginably painful, tragic loss.
Parshat Shmini, which literally means “the eighth,” tells us that on the eighth day following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons began to officiate as Kohanim (Priests). An outburst of God’s powerful fire consumes the offerings on the altar and a Divine Presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary.
But for some unclear reason, Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a, “strange, alien fire before God” (Levit. 10:1), for which God had not commanded them, and both brothers died as they were consumed by their fire. According to the Torah, God then sent a message to Aaron through Moses saying:
“Bi’kro’vai E’kadesh, ve’al p’nei khol ha’am e’ka’ved; I shall show myself as holy to those who are near me—but I will show no mercy to everyone else.” (10:3).
And then we read that, “Va’yidom Aharon; and Aaron was silent [in the face of this tragedy].” (10:3). Aharon, a grieving father, responded with profound, stunned, shattered and shocked silence. He did not protest, blame, nor revolt against God’s action. Aharon responded with complete and utter silence.
The reality is that such loss cannot be explained. Not even by our sages. Even Cha’zal, the most sophisticated Talmudic commentators of all time, have struggled to interpret this bizarre incident for many centuries. Though there is speculation of God’s possible reasons for destroying Aharon’s two sons, still, sometimes such incidents cannot be explained by the power of reason.
This past Wednesday, for those of you who joined a Community Holocaust Memorial in one of our local Jewish centers, you probably became aware that Holocaust survivors still around to tell their stories are dwindling in numbers; they are among the last of that generation.
In Israel, “Holocaust Memorial” is called Yom Ha’Shoah Ve’Hagvura, which actually translates to “Day of Catastrophe and of Bravery,” not just Holocaust Memorial. We give voice and we remember the unimaginable loss of millions of innocent lives, along with the bravery of those who dared to rise in an attempt to defend themselves against the Nazis during WWII.
And each year at 11am on the morning of Yom Ha’Shoah, all of Israel stops and stands still for one whole minute, in silence, while heart piercing sirens wail all across the land. No one moves, no one speaks, everyone is still and silent.
The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) has declared that Next Wednesday, the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Iyar, is another Memorial Day. A day to remember those who lost their lives in the struggle to establish the State of Israel. Each year we commemorate all personnel who were killed during their active duty in Israel’s military.
Immediately a day after that, on the 4th of Iyar, Israelis will celebrate Yom Ha’Atsmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence. Joining these two days together, a week after the Holocaust Memorial, conveys a simple yet powerful message: all Israelis owe our independence and the very existence of our Jewish state to all those who sacrificed their lives so we can be free in our land.
Unlike Aharon’s reaction in the face of his personal tragedy of losing two sons, Yom Ha’Shoa reminds us that we must never be silent. We must continue to teach our children and their children of the tragic sacrifice of millions of lives. Never again, we must never be silent. But we do stand in silence as a sign of sheer grief.
Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day, reminds us that our freedom was not served to us on a silver platter. Many, many lives were sacrificed to allow us to, “lihyot am chofshi be’artzenu; to be a free People in our land; be’eretz Tzion, vi’Yrushalyim; in the Land of Israel and in Jerusalem.” And so for 24 hours (from sunset to sunset) all places of public entertainment (theaters, cinemas, nightclubs, and so on), are closed for business. And Israelis, to never again be silent in the face of tragedy, express the grief of our loss with the wail of very loud and powerful sirens throughout the country twice, during which all activity comes to a halt to remember, “never again.”
In the face of her own tragic loss of a son, the American author Blu Greenberg wrote a very painful-to-read essay titled, “The Deepest Response of Love:”
“[During Shiva in our house,] most people understood at the deepest level that there was nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. And we ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of [this loss]. Aaron’s response is the most profound human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly, or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to [relieve] the pain and loss of those who love them.”—The Deepest Response of Love, www.myjewishlearning.com
Our tradition, which is so beautifully turned to the needs of the mourners among us, teaches that there is a, “time for everything that happens under heaven: a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. A time to be quiet, and a time to speak.”
Aharon was stricken with silence in Parshat Shmini. We commemorate Holocaust and Israel’s Yom Ha’zikaron with moments of silence, but we also tell our stories and teach future generations, as was commented to us in our Torah thousands of years ago. As Ellie Wiesel wrote:
There is only Silence
The silence of Job.
The silence of the six million.
The silence of Memory
Let us remember them as we link our silences.