5777 / 2016 Rosh Hashanah Messages

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

We Come Together

Happy New Year! We gather once again. Here we are! I see members, guests, previous members and students. Some of you I know personally others not as yet. What brings us here? Yes it is Rosh Hashanah but what compels our attendance. Other annual events in the life of a congregation don’t garner the same level of attendance. Not Yahrzeit observances, not Adult Education offerings, not even 50th Anniversary Celebrations. With little advertising and even less coercion the High Holidays always get attendance. As if being drawn by some ancient call we come together.

What compels; this I do not know. I do know that what compels one person isn’t necessarily the same for another.  Some are here to celebrate the New Year. Others are here because they wish to make amends for wrongs committed. Some are here to remember friends and family that have passed on. Others are here to see the community in its entirety. Some for the liturgy while others for the outstanding music.

When I was young the holiday season was quite an event. The synagogue was packed sometimes to overflowing. For many in the community it was a time to see and a time to be seen. Everyone was in their finest attire. Men in suits, the youth in either shirts and ties with  sport jackets or in brand new dresses and skirts, ladies in stunning dresses, jewelry and occasionally in fur. It was quite the display of fall fashion.

Some took umbrage with the display of elegance saying, “They’re here only to show off.” Occasionally justifying their own decision not to attend High Holiday worship on the basis of the vanity of those who did.

Who I am to judge what compels anyone to be here tonight? I rejoice because you are here. And it matters not the reason.

We call ourselves “Am Yisrael,” the people of Israel not “Dat Yisrael,” the religion of Israel. A sense of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews. On an everyday level, this focus on peoplehood is realized into an emphasis on the community as the primary, often the only, organizing structure of Jewish life. Wherever Jews live, we have built synagogues, established communal organizations and have created systems of communal communication and governance.

Talmud states: A talmid chacham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these ten things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three, a synagogue, a bath house, a bathroom, a doctor, a craftsperson, and blood-letter, a shochet (a butcher) and a teacher of children. Sanhedrin 17b

In order to be a suitable place to live a community must provide for all of its members spiritual and physical needs. A beit din to insure that a community is not overwhelmed by crime, tzedakah to prevent members of the community from falling into poverty, a synagogue offers a place to pray, study and shelter community gatherings, a bathhouse, bathroom, doctor, craftsperson, blood-letter and butcher to provide for the physical needs of the community. And a teacher to ensure that the next generation is well versed in Jewish tradition and to be prepared to eventually assume leadership in the community.

Since the first century much of Jewish life has focused around the synagogue. In addition to being a place of prayer synagogues are the site of lifecycle events celebrating births, weddings, and b’nai mitzvah.

When I consider the programs and services Temple Sinai provides to not only our members but the greater community as well I am overwhelmed. Blood drives, Christmas food deliveries on behalf of Meals On Wheels, hosting meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Partners in Adventure and Al Anon, providing space for David Zuckerman’s summer and winter CSA, our Chavurah Committee providing food to families unable to cook. And of course our ongoing activities: Worship services, Religious School, Preschool, Story Hour, Adult Education, providing educational opportunities to those interested in conversion, our Brotherhood and Sisterhood, Young Judaea, Class dinners before Sabbath eve worship, the various committees that run our cemeteries, maintain our building and grounds, who add spirituality to our community and maintain our finances. All this with a membership of 170 and a full time staff of 2 and a part-time staff of 3 not including our fabulous teaching staff. Thanks to all who make our congregation a place of caring, learning and growing.

Jewish texts treat participation in communal affairs not as an option, but as a religious obligation.

In Mishnah’s Pirkei Avot Rabbi Hillel states, “Separate not yourself from the congregation…”

A Midrash likens removing oneself from the community  to destroying the world. I share the Midrash:

“With justice, a king sustains the earth, but a fraudulent (terumot) person destroys it. (Proverbs 29). What does this verse mean? With the justice that the king does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one makes oneself like terumah (portion of produce that is set aside as an offering), set aside in the corner of the house, and says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine without this, this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of the fraudulent person destroys the world.”

“There is a story about Rav Assi, that when he was dying, his nephew entered and found him crying. He said to him, Why are you crying? Is there any Torah that you did not study and teach to others? Look-your students sit before you. Are there any acts of lovingkindness that you did not do? Furthermore, despite your stature you stayed far from disputes and did not allow yourself to be appointed over the affairs of the community.

Rav Assi replied, My son, this is why I am crying. What if I am asked to account for the fact that I was able to arbitrate disputes among the people of Israel and I did not? Thus this is the meaning of the fraudulent person who destroys the world. Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mishpatim 2

The Jewish community faces enormous challenges in today’s world particularly here in Vermont. An aging population and a low population growth rate, factors we have little or no control to change, are stressing the very foundation of our Jewish community. We are doing well now but now is no guarantee for tomorrow.

In this Temple we do outstanding work much of it I’ve already shared. Imagine how much more we could be capable of doing with your help. Bask in a moment of what ifs. More programming particularly in areas of outreach. Reaching out to the twenty and thirty year olds. Creating a synagogue experience without walls. Experiencing God through nature. I’m sure you have your own what ifs as well.

But now I need to share a reality that saddens me greatly. Somehow people have developed the idea that membership only has meaning or value when it provides something tangible or of importance directly to the member. In a letter of resignation I will often read, “We don’t get anything out of Temple at this stage of our lives. Or I don’t participate enough to warrant being a member. Or we can no longer justify the expense.” 

I am not so arrogant as to suggest that Temple is a perfect institution, it is not. At times we fail to address issues of importance. But I can say with absolute certainty we are always open to your suggestions and your personal involvement. Share and you will be heard. If you don’t see it or if you see it and don’t like it let us know.

However there is something more compelling that needs to be said. Once again according to Mishnah’s Pirkei Avot:

“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2) Torah represents law and study. Avodah refers to worship. And gemilut hasadim means acts of lovingkindness. Gemilut Hasadim is held in higher regard than even Tzedakah because Tzedakah is done as an obligation whereas Gemilut Hasadim is done out of love. Moreover Gemilut Hasadim can be done for both rich and poor. Gemilut Hasadim reminds us that often being a part of community requires us to put community before self.

While I sincerely hope that this congregation can be a source of spirituality and growth for all of its membership even when it may fail to do so is not license to forget the needs of others.

Years ago, well before this wonderful building existed, I solicited a woman for membership. I asked her to join. She replied, I will join once you have built a synagogue, I don’t want to pray in a church. I rejoined if you don’t join we will never have a building of our own. She joined.

True love is more than attending to the needs of oneself. Community before self is a form of Gemilut Hasadim.

One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”

God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The man said, “I don’t understand.”

God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves…

Sometimes, thinking of our personal gratification, we tend to forget our interdependence with everyone and everything around us. As the parable makes it clear, not to help our fellow human beings simply means harming our very selves, since we are all connected on a very deep level.

Dalai Lama teaches:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 

Heroes of the Jewish People

Morning Rosh Hashanah 5777

The expression: “May you live in interesting times,” is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but is neither Chinese nor ancient. But what is unquestionable is the fact we are living in interesting times.

The world lost two incredibly interesting human beings in the past four months. Elie Wiesel died in July and Shimon Peres just over a week ago.

Elie Wiesel, born in Romania in 1928, was a Holocaust survivor, author, human rights activist and moralist. My first encounter with Mr. Wiesel occurred when I was in Middle School when my English teacher assigned us to read Night, a personal account of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience. It was my first significant encounter with the horror of Jewish genocide. Given our approximate ages I being 14 when I read the book and Wiesel 15, at the time of his imprisonment by the Germans and his subsequent deportation to Auschwitz it was easy to identify with the protagonist. The Germans killed Wiesel’s mother, father and sister, his two older sisters survived the war. In April 0f 1945 Wiesel’s camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army.

After the war Wiesel moved to France, learned French and studied at the Sorbonne. He heard lectures by Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre. At 19 he began working as a journalist writing in French and Hebrew for French and Israeli papers. In 1946 after the Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem he tried unsuccessfully to join the underground movement.

For years Wiesel refused to write about the war or to share any personal experiences. This, of course,  was not unusual for many who had survived the war. After a decade Wiesel started to write about his war experience. He first wrote And the World Remained Silent, a 900 page memoir in Yiddish. From that work he published an abridged version called La Nuit in 1955. It was translated into English as Night in 1960. Night was eventually translated into 30 different languages and ten million copies were sold in the United States alone.

Elie Wiesel’s accomplishments are numerous, he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, Chairman for the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, involved in the building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, he co-founded Moment Magazine with Leonard Fein, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recipient of the Nobel Prize and the list goes on and on.

More than the awards, more than the accolades Wiesel was a ferocious defender of human rights. While an adamant Zionist and defender of Israel, Wiesel spoke out against unjust governments and human suffering. He spoke out about the plight of Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews, the victims of South African apartheid, the disappeared in Argentina during the Military Junta, the genocide of Bosnians, the Kurds, the aboriginals in Nicaragua and the crisis in Darfur.

In July 2009, Wiesel announced his support for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. He said, “Wherever minorities are being persecuted we must raise our voices in protest…the Tamil people are being disenfranchised and victimized by the Sri Lankan authorities. This injustice must stop. The Tamil people must be allowed to live in peace and flourish in their homeland.”

According to Wiesel, “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”

Some years ago I had the honor of hearing Elie Wiesel at the University of Vermont. He had been invited to speak by the University of Vermont Hillel. I don’t recall his entire speech but I do recall one point he felt very passionate about. He shared with his audience, mostly UVM students, that the highest members of the Nazi Party were for the most part college educated. How could it be, Wiesel postulated, that college educated people who were required to study the humanities, poetry, literature, art, the social sciences, and religion had perpetrated such an evil upon the world?

Wiesel possessed a talent which enabled him to probe the hidden recesses of the human heart. To see evil and to see beauty. To ask the moral questions that many of us would never have considered. He was for our time the moral compass for a world that has lost its way. For him every life is precious. And every life has the inalienable right of being respected and protected.

In Elie Wiesel’s own words:

“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Sometime in the 1990’s I was on a rabbinic mission to Israel and Turkey. The group consisted of about 15 Reform rabbis from all around the United States. Like all trips to Israel too much is planned so you go from early morning to late in the night. Near the end of our visit in Israel we met with Shimon Peres. We met in a small conference room around a long rectangular table. Mr. Peres shared a similar characteristic with Mr. Wiesel. Both men spoke very slowly as if each word uttered needed to be highly crafted and considered well.

Peres represented the last of his generation. Born in Poland in 1923 he was schooled in Polish, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, French and English. In 1932 his father moved to Tel Aviv in British controlled Palestine. In 1934 at the age of eleven Shimon and the rest of his immediate family moved to Tel Aviv to be reunited with his father. In Tel Aviv he attended high school but at 15 years of age he transferred to Ben Shemen agricultural school and lived on Kibbutz Geva. (Just as an aside I taught English at the Ben Shemen School.) At twenty years of age he began his involvement in Israeli politics.

Peres’ career in political life spanned seven decades. He served as Prime Minister three times (one of the three being an interim Prime Minister), Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Defense (the youngest person to hold this position at the age of 29), a member of the Knesset, Minister of Immigrant and Absorption, Minister of Transportation and Communications, Minister of Information, Minister of Defense, Chairman of the Labor Party and President of the State of Israel.

Besides the offices he held he accomplished wondrous things: he worked to create the nuclear power plant in Dimona, Israel and established Israel’s nuclear defense capabilities, he promoted the development of the internet,  he negotiated a military trade agreement with President Kennedy (which was the first time the United States sold military hardware to Israel), he was one of the architects of the Oslo Agreement which subsequently earned him a Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. In his later years Shimon Peres developed an obsessive fascination with nanotechnology and brain research. He believed that brain research would be the key to a better and more peaceful future. He launched his own nanotechnology investment fund in 2003. And shortly before his death this year he founded the Israel Innovation Center in the Arab neighborhood of Ajami, Jaffa, The center aims to encourage young people from around the world to be inspired by technology. As construction began on the center Peres said, “We will prove that innovation has no limits and no barriers, Innovation enables dialogue between nations and between people. It will enable all young people-Jews, Muslims and Christians, to engage in science and technology equally.”

In world that so often takes Israel to task eighty nations were represented at Shimon Peres’ funeral. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin said of him, “I was extremely lucky to have met this extraordinary many times. And every time I admired his courage, patriotism, wisdom, vision and ability.” President Barack Obama said, “I will always be grateful that I was able to call Shimon my friend.” The President of China, Xi Jinping said, “His death is the loss of an old friend for China.” The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee said, “Peres would be remembered as a steadfast friend of India.”

In 2011 Shimon Peres shared, “Sometimes people ask me, What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime? So I reply that there was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, the picture I will paint tomorrow. That is also my answer.”

May his words be our inspiration in the New Year.



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