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.
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.
On a Facebook Jewish Women’s clergy group the other day, someone posted the question, “Are you counting the Omer? Why/why not?”
My response, “No, No. It’s an old custom/ritual that simply doesn’t speak to me…and since my congregants don’t seem to want or care, I am fine not pushing it.”
But others responded more on the positive side. Here are a few excerpts:
“Yes. Every night while I nurse my little guy to sleep. My absolute favorite ritual.”
“Yes, and my kids aged 11 and 14 are participating enthusiastically. It’s a little bit of a return to bedtime ritual for this very grown up teen and preteen!”
“I connect with the idea of counting our days and making each day count. I started a ritual of writing something short about each day.”
“It’s a tradition/obligation that appeals to my sense of order in the universe, and my sense of Jewish cyclical time. So I count.”
“Yes! It’s a really special moment for our family at bedtime. Before I was married, I used it as a time to start a daily prayer practice, even if it was just saying Sh’ma at bedtime at first.”
And there were other responses too.
So it seems like I may be a minority in not practicing this ancient custom (or perhaps there are others who simply didn’t bother to respond). Now to follow my own advice to “always investigate and then make an educated decision,” I decided to explore a bit more about this custom, so I can answer this question for myself, “does the ancient custom of counting the Omer speak to my senses, to perhaps bring me closer to God, to our tradition, and to spirituality?”
But first let me explain what “counting the Omer” actually means and where the custom originates.
Counting the Omer, or Sefirat Ha’Omer in Hebrew, is a verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days (7 weeks), between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, as was first described in Leviticus 23:
15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.
16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to God.
This mitzvah is derived from the Torah commandment to “count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the Omer (the sheaf of the wave, a sacrifice containing an ancient measure of barley), was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Counting of the Omer begins on the second day of Passover (the 16th of Nisan). This year we started on Saturday night when we celebrated 2nd Night Seder.
For some people, the idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which, according to our tradition, was given by God on Mount Sinai at the beginning of the month of Sivan (around the same time as the holiday of Shavuot).
So why am I giving you this spiel today, before 8th Day of Passover when, in the Reform movement, we stop at the 7th Day as written in our Torah? Because like last week, we are taking a detour from the usual Torah reading cycle. Tomorrow, along with all those who do celebrate the 8th day of Passover, we will read an excerpt from the book of Deuteronomy, which contains important information about the way we observe Passover:
Observe the month of Aviv (SPRING)….when God freed you from Egypt. For seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread (MATZAH), bread of distress — for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly — so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live. For seven days no leaven shall be found with you in all your territory (CHAMETZ SEARCH AND BURN).
8 After eating unleavened bread six days, you shall hold a solemn gathering (YIZKOR) for the Lord your God…on the seventh day you shall do no work (A JEWISH HOLY DAY, WHICH IS WHY THE TEMPLE OFFICE IS CLOSED).
The mitzvah of counting the Omer repeats here as well, in the Book of Deuteronomy:
9 And you shall count off seven weeks (OMER); start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.
10 Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks (SHAVUOT) for the Lord your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you.
Since counting the Omer is a Mitzvah, one should always say the Bracha (blessing) to engage in this daily practice:
BA-RUCH A-TAH ADO-NAI
E-LO-HE-NU ME-LECH HA-OLAM
ASHER KID-E-SHA-NU BE-MITZ-VO-TAV
VETZI-VA-NU AL SEFI-RAT HA-OMER.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God,
Sovereign of the Universe,
Who has sanctified us with Mitzvot,
And commanded us to engage in the
Mitzvah of counting of the Omer.
Today is the 8th day of the Omer and to answer my own question from the beginning of this discussion, “does the ancient custom of counting the Omer speak to my senses, to perhaps bring me closer to God, to our tradition, and to spirituality?”
My answer is no. It is not a fulfilling spiritual or creative need that I have—for right now. But ask me again next year, for who knows? Perhaps something within my soul will spark and connect me to the counting of the Omer. But for now, I am content to celebrate Passover at a Seder table with you, my beloved Temple Beth Tikvah congregation, and Le’shana Ha’ba’ah bi’Yershalayim; next year may we go on another trip together to Jerusalem and tour Israel.
Shabbat Shalom and happy Challa eating!
To our beloved Temple Beth Tikvah community:
Dave and I would like to wish each of you and your families a joyful and happy Passover, or in Hebrew: !שמח חג (a happy Chag). I would also like to engage you in one of Passover’s oldest and most encouraged traditions; to pose a couple of questions for your consideration:
- Does Moses’ name appear in the Passover Haggadah?
- If so, why, or if not, why not?
And most of you who know me by now, will probably guess my response, “well, that depends on who you ask….” I will add to my usual response that, “it also depends on in which of the Haggadot (plural for Haggadah) you are looking at” (go ahead, check out your own copy, then your parent’s and/or your grandparent’s copies).
In every Haggadah, at the very end of the recital of the Magid section, we read:
“In every generation, each person is to see him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt…For God did not deliver only our ancestors, but delivered ALL OF US along with them.”
“In every generation each person is to show him or herself…as having personally been a slave and having personally gone forth to freedom”
—Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Hametz Umatza 7:6
“But Where’s Moses?” Asks Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe in one of Chabad’s wonderful online teaching pages.
“In the Haggadah…Moses appears not at all. Why? Are we not leaving out the most important individual in the whole Exodus?!”
Rabbi Yaffe’s answer to his own question goes beyond the “yes” or “no” of Moses’ appearance, or lack of, in the Haggadah. He teaches that the most important point in the Passover story is that our “redemption” did not happen just long ago. Redemption is an ongoing endeavor, continuing throughout every stage in our lives and human history.
“Talking about Moses fixes the Exodus as a point in history. But Passover is not just about what was—it’s about what is, now….”
Thus fixing and associating the Exodus as a triumphant event associated with one extraordinary individual—even Moses himself—contradicts the focus of this holiday. On Passover we focus on our faith and trust in our own individual partnership with God, not in one human being—even an exceptional human like Moses. That is why Moses’ name is omitted from traditional Haggadot.
“Bubbkes!” says David Arnow, PhD in, The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in Redemption (well, he didn’t really say “Bubbkes.” I added it for the “chuckle effect.” He refers to it as the more tactful, “curious myth”). For example, the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah, the oldest surviving illuminated manuscript, includes this verse from Exodus:
“…and when Israel saw the great hand which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in God and in God’s servant Moses” (u’v’Moshe avdo).
What we are to learn from the inclusion of Moses in that Haggadah is that both God (superior entity) and Moses (our human representative), have a hand in our own redemption from Egypt. We can never forget the role of human intervention in any redemptive process, even on the night of the Passover when we celebrate the work of God’s, “strong hand and outstretched arm” (be’yad chazakah u’vizroah netuya).
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, literally means “narrow places.” Mitzrayim was a narrow and confining place for the Israelites. Not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually as well. Thus we each have to consider the gift we are given each year; the opportunity to focus on our own source for confining, narrow mindedness. Every year Passover gives us the power to escape the personal bondage of habit and inclination.
In other words, as I mentioned at the beginning, there is more than “one, true way” to celebrate and interpret our tradition.
At your Seder, whether you use a Haggadah that does mention Moses’ name, or one that doesn’t, I think it is up to each of us to engage our children in conversation and teach one of Passover’s most important messages: that we each get an opportunity to choose to redeem ourselves from unhealthy sources of slavery. From common traps like, “the God of Perfection” (perfect body, perfect SAT scores, and so on), or from the enslavement to bad habits (smoking, overeating, substance abuse, and so on), from enslavement to toxic relationships with other human beings, and from Mitzrayim (my term for worshiping “The God of smartphones”—but that’s a discussion for another teaching…).
My point is that “enslavement” is not a constant in our history. Our ancestors broke free and so can we. The way to examine and free ourselves from slavery is by seeking and finding help. Yes, in days of old we had the “winning duo” of God and Moses; together they brought our ancient people out of slavery in Egypt. So here’s one last Passover question for you:
Who ya gonna call? Who would be your partner, your agent on your own journey to freedom?
And as you sit down to a delicious Seder in your lovely home on Friday evening, keep an eye out for Moses in your Haggadah. If you can’t find him in yours, then drop by my office; I have a whole collection of Haggadot from different parts of the world and from different eras. Moses has to be in at least one of them.
Again, I wish you all Chag Aviv Sa’meach; a happy renewed journey into springtime.
Your loving rabbi,
Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly