Rosh Hashana’s Messages Aren’t “Mixed,” Life Is. #BlogElul #HHDs

Cross-posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like. Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon from Friday, September 30th.

News flash! Extra, extra, read all about it! High Holy Day services are boring!

That’s what my social media feeds start to look like every year around this time. I find this especially amusing, since about 60% of my network of friends are some kind of Jewish professional or a lay leader in a synagogue. There’s always an article about the pitfalls of our holiest days of the year, how we can change them, why we should put up with them, or why we should ignore them altogether.

This year, the headline was particularly dramatic. Jay Michaelson, who spoke at our Shabbaton last year, published an article in the Forward under the title, “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashana This Year.”

But honestly, for all of its click-bait sensationalism, there isn’t much new or controversial about what Michaelson is saying. Here are his arguments:

  • The High Holy Days have become a performance, both by the spiritual leaders of congregations, and by participants who have made these services into “the Fashion Week of Jewish life.”
  • The complicated theology and the guilt-inducing messages of the High Holy Days can be off-putting when taken out of the context of the rest of the Jewish calendar.
  • Rosh Hashana in particular sends a “mixed message,” in that is presented both as the joyous Birthday of the World and the terror-inducing Day of Judgment.

I don’t disagree with Michaelson’s arguments. I’m grateful we have Shabbat every week and High Holy Days only twice a year! Expectations and anxieties run high on these High Holy Days, and sometimes it does feel like we are putting on a show. The preparation can be very stressful for our staff, our volunteers, and our members. I never see people fighting over seats or parking spaces on Shavuot. If I could get rid of all that stress for our community (and, to be perfectly honest, for myself), I would.

As far as context is concerned, I’ve often wished that as many people would join us for Purim as do for Yom Kippur. The message of Rosh Hashana’s grim language is an important one: that our lives are finite, and that we must consider each action as if these were our last days on earth. But taken by themselves, the ideas of the Book of Life, the Day of Judgment, and the Throne of Glory can be harsh and unsettling.

The High Holy Days are supposed to be a part of a “balanced breakfast,” as the cereal commercials used to say. We can no more live on celebration alone than we could live only on a diet Fruity Pebbles. Conversely, we can no more live on repentance alone than we could live only on Bran Flakes. Our cycle of Jewish holidays is supposed to mirror the ups and downs of any given year, and of any given life. That’s one reason why, just four days after the solemn Day of Atonement, we have an eight-day celebration of the harvest. So while I agree with Michaelson that one shouldn’t only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, we’d be missing out on some pretty important spiritual nutrients if we skipped them altogether.

Which leads me to the argument I found most troubling: that Rosh Hashana contradicts itself by being both the solemn beginning of the Days of Awe and the joyous Birthday of the World. “The day itself is confused,” Michaelson writes, “an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? …which is it, a funeral or a quincanera?”

The answer is, it’s both. And I don’t think that’s contradictory at all.

I don’t have to tell you that life is complicated. How many of us have had a birthday where we didn’t experience both the joy of celebrating with friends and family, and the anxiety standing alone in front of the bathroom mirror, counting wrinkles, hunting for gray hairs, wondering if we can accept, and embrace, who we are becoming? How many of us have celebrated a holiday or a simcha without shedding a tear over the people who are not celebrating with us anymore, or without wondering who might not be in the family photograph next year? And how many of us have been to a funeral where nobody laughed telling a story about the very person they were mourning?

Tomorrow night, I’ll officiate at the last wedding of 5776. Weddings always seem beautiful and romantic from a distance, but from where I’m standing, there is none without complications. Weddings are not unlike the High Holy Days, with their high production value, and the heightened stress levels that comes with that. The couple, their family and friends, bring all of their drama and baggage to this major turning point in their lives. There are people missing and people not speaking, people who wish they could be there and people who wish they could be anywhere else.

Even at the most joyous, uncomplicated union of two people in love from two families that get along great, we don’t let ourselves slip into pure happiness. We shatter a glass, some say to remind ourselves of the destruction of the Temple, others suggest that it wards off evil spirits, demonstrates the groom’s virility, or keeps the guests from getting too rowdy. But the shattered glass also reminds us that, even in one of life’s peak moments, we never leave behind our brokenness. But it also reminds us that our brokenness doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy.

One of my favorite poems, by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehudah Amichai, tells us that:

“A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.


A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.”


Life is a mixed bag.

This is true of being Jewish, but also of being human. We often need, as the poem suggests, “to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” There is no holiday, no life-cycle, not even any ordinary day, that contains only frivolity or only solemnity. We must have faith that we as human beings have the capacity to hold both joy and sadness in our hearts, because we continue to do so, every single day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat, Nitzavim, which we will also read on Yom Kippur, warns, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:15, 19). This is presented to us as a choice, a reward or punishment for adhering, or not adhering, to the commandments. But in many ways the dichotomy is false: in any full life, we will have both life and death, both prosperity and adversity, both blessings and curses. They don’t fit into neat little compartments, and often, we experience them simultaneously. The blessing is that these experiences and emotions can balance, and even enhance one another. Our sadness is what makes it possible for us to recognize joy. And our joy is what sustains us through times of despair. This complexity what makes our lives rich and full and meaningful.

What better way to usher in a new year than by acknowledging that?

On our last Shabbat of 5776, I wish all of us a rich, full, and meaningful New Year. May our joy be enough to counterbalance our sadness, and may our sadness carve out space for us to fill with joy.

Here’s another response to Michaelson’s article, and a reflection on how we can make High Holy Day services better.


Linda Cantor Honored with 2016 Arnold Award

Linda Cantor, 2016 Arnold Award Recipient

Linda Cantor’s Words:
Thank you for selecting me as the recipient of the 2016 Rabbi Stephen Arnold award. I am both honored and humbled to be following in the steps of the previous recipients of this service award. Receiving the Rabbi Arnold award is particularly meaningful to me because, although our roles were different, we arrived at Vassar Temple at the same time .

Our family has been members of Vassar Temple for the past forty years. From the beginning Vassar temple has been and continues to be a very welcoming place, a place where my young diverse family was accepted and encouraged to participate fully. One’s skin color, religion of birth, income , gender or sexual orientation or political views do not matter. Anyone who wants to be involved in Temple Life is encouraged to take an active role.

We continue to be encouraged to explore and deepen our spiritual life, look at our connections to G-d and the universe and find ways to make prayer meaningful. Some of us find those connections just sitting quietly, others by raising their voices in song together, others by chanting one line of a prayer over and over, and others by going out in nature as Rabbi Nachman and talking directly to G-d. We use masculine, feminine and gender neutral language. We are encouraged to speak from our hearts using the words of the prayer book or the words that come through our souls or no words and simply be present. Each individual’s has been nurtured at Vassar Temple.

I am particularly struck during this season of Tshuvah, of Return at how Vassar Temple has provided a container for us to be part of and contribute to our community in ways that are meaningful, that reflect who we are. May each of us ,in our own way do the work of Elul , the work of return that will enable us to be open hearted, life affirming loving members of our family, our circle of friends, our Temple Community and the wider world.

Ken yhe ratzon
Thank you again for this honor.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Opening Remarks:

Every congregation is composed of Litvaks and Hasids. This is the Jewish equivalent of left-brain and right-brain. A Litvak is most interested in learning the facts and adhering to the letter of the law. Hasids are the ones who pay attention to the life of the spirit, and make it their life’s work to infuse joy and meaning into Jewish practice. In the 19th century this was illustrated by the Litvak studying Talmud and the Hasid going outside to hug trees. The Litvak clung to tradition and the Hasid advocated change. The Litvak nurtured a healthy skepticism while the Hasid was wildly optimistic. Each brings their own gifts to the modern synagogue, where we need both continuity and change, both joy and solemnity. In the organized Jewish world, we tend towards the Litvaks side.

In Linda Cantor, our community has the blessing of a Hasid, with just a dash of Litvak in her. Linda brings a deep, spiritual dimension to everything she encounters: teaching the rest of us Litvaks meditation and bringing her energy and joy to our prayer and our learning. But Linda also brings a sense of commitment and determination to everything she does, making sure things get done, and get done right, as only a Litvak can do.

Linda has brought her dual personalities to our Adult Education Program, our Ritual Committee and our Nachamu committee. She has been instrumental in planning our Shabbatonim and the annual Fannie Berlin lecture, finding inspiring speakers and often teaching sessions herself when she was able. Linda was a founding davenner in our New Paths service. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Linda is currently making to our synagogue is the groundbreaking Wise Aging Program. Together with Debbie Golomb, Linda has been helping people to navigate the third chapter of their lives from both a practical and a spiritual standpoint. Linda is able to have conversations with people that others might find uncomfortable to start, about how we live our lives spiritually and what we are doing to grow.

Linda has been particularly supportive and nurturing to me during my first year at Vassar Temple, helping me with various projects, and encouraging me to nurture my inner Hasid as well with classes at Omega and workshops with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. I’m grateful to her for helping me to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember why we do what we do.

Hasid comes from the same root as the word hesed which means loving-kindness. This word, too, is embodied in Linda Cantor. She always has a kind smile and a gentle word for everyone, which is a rare thing in this day and age. I am delighted that she is being honored tonight, and I wish her yishar kochech, continued strength, as she goes forward. It is appropriate that we honor Linda with this blessing on the night of Selichot. As the Book of Life opens, we pray that you will be written and sealed for an incredible year of spiritual growth and development, enjoying your children and grandchildren, and sharing your beautiful gifts with all of us Litvaks.

And now I’d like to share a few words from Rabbi Arnold himself.

Rabbi Stephen Arnold’s Letter to Linda and the Vassar Temple Congregation
To Honor Our Friend and Teacher, Linda Cantor

Shabbat shalom, dear friends. Cecile and I wish you all a Shana Tova uM’tuka — a Good and a Sweet New Year.

And while we’re talking about goodness and sweetness, how about our well deserved honoree, Linda Cantor? Could we want to know anyone more gooder, more sweeter? Look at her. Such a warm smile — a shayneh punim (kinehora). Such an inquiring mind. Such a freshly scrubbed soul.

In days of yore, even while devoting great energy to the care and feeding of Daniel, Laura, Andrew and Richard, and to the students in her classroom, Linda was exploring the life of the spirit. In the early 90’s, I discovered Elat Chayyim Retreat Center and began finding new paths to my own spirituality. Linda was already involved there; and she’s still discovering new paths to explore.

Some folks find a life of inner contemplation so satisfying that they become quite self-involved. They detach themselves from the rest of us, preferring a private love affair with God. Not so with Linda. The deeper she searches within, the more broadly she looks around her for causes or individuals who need her commitment and energy. Our Vassar Temple community is greatly blessed to be so high on Linda’s priority list.

So, as we say up here in Red Sox Nation, I think it’s “wicked cool” that you’ve honored me by presenting the Arnold Award to my friend and teacher, Linda Cantor. I hope you folks will join her in spreading around more goodness and sweetness in our New Year.

Stephen Arnold, Rabbi Emeritus

Toran Study Notes 9-24-16

September 24, 2016

Page 1353

RB: This is all leading up to the entry into the promised land. It is a statement of blessings and curses; essentially a list of “dos and don’ts.” See “Gleanings” on page 1364. “Jewish tradition has held that at one time or another all the curses of Deuteronomy 28 were fulfilled; still Israel survived because it never totally forgot its God.”

We as a community will be repenting on Yom Kippur in anticipation of the rain of sorrow and then the harvest of reward.

27:11 Thereupon Moses charged the people… curses and blessings. Sets forth who whall stand on the mountain when the blessings are spoken and on a separate mountain for the curses. Note that Reuben winds up with curses. There is also a distinction between children of the wives and the children of the handmaids. There is favoritism here. See Genesis 30 on page 199 – It is not entirely clear but none of the handmaid’s children appear to be on the blessing side. We have a diverse range of curses – but in general they are things that you do in secret. The stranger, the fatherless. The widow… they have no protector. Note that the curses are warnings of divine punishment. Note also that this is a ritualistic portion where there are responses of “say amen” whereas that required respnose does not appear in the blessings – which it is assumed are agreed to. Nor is it required for the more horrific curses. The “strangers” here are people who have already present and have been integrated into the society. They are permanent residents as distinguished from foreigners. There are no converts at the time of this writing. Recall that Ruth was told to go back to her people and “their god.” She adhered to her husband’s religion while she was with him.

28:1 Now if you obey the Eternal your God… blessing will flow from your obedience. The problem is how do you explain when bad things happen? The Hasidim would ascribe all problems to our collective failure to be faithful to the details of the commandments. The Holocaust was ascribed to Reform Judaism by the hyper-conservative. Note that all of the blessings appear to be outcomes. The result of the blessings are children and fruitful land, military security etc.

16 Curses that are the obverse of the blessings. But more graphic… the Egyptian inflammation…madness and dismay…constantly be abused and robbed…  But does one violation bring down all of the curses?  PC There is a fundamental problem with this entire discussion. Here the Eternal is responsible for everything – which to some degree appears to absolve the individual from personal responsibility. Punishment comes from God rather than the community. SF There was a shift in rabbinic Judaism from collective to individual responsibility – but we can contaminate the group. The thrust of the responsibility is individual. LL There is a good deal of philosophy here. See:

30: More curses. If you pay the bride price…another man shall enjoy her. …you shall be a consternation, a proverb… LL Very poetic curses. Who is “you” here? It moves between the individual and the group. Individual and collective punishments. “You” Israel as a nation perhaps? LL Although terrible things are described here they are nevertheless couched in poetry. Much of art is a contemplation of the horror of life. More recently see the work of Francis Bacon.

49 The Eternal shall bring a nation against you… a ruthless nation… that will bring you to ruin. RB This is when we stop being human. LL It is a descent into hell!  Again, a favorite subject of artist in the Middle Ages. This plays out in Lamentations when the Temple was destroyed.

58 If you fail to observe faithfully…the Eternal shall delight in throwing you out. The Eternal will scatter you with all the other people of the earth… but you shall find no peace… the life you face…return to Egypt but no one will buy you as a slave. LL This seems to be almost a premonition of the diaspora and the Holocaust. Some of this may already have occurred with the invasion of the Babylonians and the exile. SF I come away from this with a feeling of deep divine compassion as the underlying theme. God suffers with us. These are warnings but God wants the best for us.  LL this is a conversation that continues to this day. RB Why do bad things happen? This is very early in the development of the theology of Judaism. Here we have a description of the lowest possible state of humanity rendered with particularity for dramatic effect. AdrianF There will always be a remnant that survives.

Torah Study Notes 9-3-16

September 3, 2016
Page 1269
Deuteronomy 15:1 Rabbi Berkowitz – These passages are slightly internally contradictory but in an interesting way. Why do we help the poor? AF: To help the economics of the community at large. SF we are doing god’s work. They have less than they need and we have more than we need. Altruism sometimes seems to be based on self-seeking. LL: There seems to be a hive mentality here. Seeking a benefit – even to the community – is not true altruism. RB: In ancient times there was a cyclical nature to prosperity depending on the season and harvest. Charity is a form of justice but there is a distinction. Tzedakah is justice – correcting imbalances so that everyone has a fair shot.
15:1 Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts… You cannot charge your kinsman interest only the foreigners. See Brotherhood or Otherhood by Nelson: re the economics of giving. In this context a loan is a philanthropic act. There is a slight possibility of being paid back and no interest. This had a ritual rather than a commercial premise. If you take care to head this instruction… all these promises are contingent. Obviously, they were eventually dominated by other nations and there was poverty, ergo they did not obey the instructions. Or more properly these statements are aspirational – what could be.
15:7 If there is a needy person among you…RB: The suggestion here is that it is more empowering to lend money than to give it. As we move further to the right in the Jewish community there is less of a tendency to be charitable. Maimonides said that the highest level of giving is a loan. It is the “teach a man to fish” argument. LL: What about the Chasidic Rabbi who recently donated his kidney to a stranger? He who saves a life saves the world is his Talmudic reference. A rabbinic loophole was the creation of document that said the loan would not be remitted after seven years. See footnote on page 1270. “Give readily and have no regrets.” The rabbis have extensive discussion about what is “sufficient” for ones needs. Does it mean restoring you to the life style to which you have become accustomed? HF: There was a Hebrew Free Loan Society.
15:12 If a fellow Hebrew man is sold to you… kin gets freed after six years but the foreigner can be held in perpetuity. There are three phrases of note here: There shall be no needy, a goal, we shall give loans to the needy and you shall meet the need of the needy, There is a contradiction here with the injunction to free slaves on the Jubilee Year – tradition interprets “in perpetuity” as “until the Jubilee.”
See Essay Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Literature by Hallo on page 1148. See also the reference to the tithe to the poor on page 1280.