“Thinking About Sin Anew” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

A number of years ago, before there were memes, an email went viral among rabbis right before Rosh Hashanah, as it related to the ritual of Tashlikh, when we throw bread into the water as we symbolically rid ourselves of our sins.  In response to queries from people wondering what kind of bread to use, the following recommendations were offered:

For ordinary sins – white bread

For exotic sins – French or Italian bread

For dark sins – Pumpernickel

For complex sins – Multi-grain

For truly warped sins – Pretzels

For sins of indecision – Waffles

For sins committed in haste – Matzah

For substance abuse – Poppy

For committing arson – Toast

For being ill-tempered – Sourdough

For silliness – Nut Bread

For not giving full value – Short bread

For political chauvinism – Yankee Doodles

For excessive use of irony – Rye Bread

For continual bad jokes – Corn Bread

For hardening our hearts – Jelly Doughnuts


It ends with the prayer:  May you not run out of bread.   It is a given that we will never run out of sins!

“Sin.”  Not a very comfortable word for many of us; some say if feels very Christian; Original Sin is not something we believe in.  Sin conveys “bad;” it is laden with guilt.  Can sinners really change?

But sin is a very Jewish concept, as we are reminded each year on Yom Kippur.    The Jewish understanding of sin can be derived from the common Hebrew word for sin, Cheit, which is also the word for arrow, thus conveying the notion that when we sin, when we do something wrong, we have missed the mark.  It is our actions that our wrong, not the essence of our being.  Our challenge is to correct our aim, to strive to be better.

Sin is part of our humanity.    We cannot have Yom Kippur without sinners.  Though Mishkan Hanefesh softens the translation of the introduction to Kol Nidrei by saying “Let none be excluded from our community of prayer,” the literal translation of the Hebrew is “we hold it lawful to pray with those who have transgressed.”  We don’t exclude those who have erred because we, too, are among them; in fact, we need to invite sinners in.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, a leading rabbinic scholar of the 13th century, added these words into the prayer to incorporate the Talmudic teaching that “A public fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is no fast; see, the odor of galbanum is unpleasant and yet it was included in the spices for the incense [in the Temple].” [i]

Judaism teaches us that we are not stuck in our sinful behavior; we can change at any point in time, but we focus on that process and potential during these Days of Awe which now move toward their climactic ending with Yom Kippur.  The urgency is great, for with the setting sun tomorrow, the gates of repentance will close.

The first step in true repentance is to confront the realities of our sins and acknowledge our failings; only then can we move beyond them and make the repairs necessary for teshuvah. 

We are about to begin the section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that engages us in this process:  the Vidui.  When I decided that the Vidui would be the focus of my remarks this evening, I thought it would make the most sense to speak now rather than in the usual sermon spot later on in the service, in the hopes of deepening your experience of this powerful section of the liturgy.  I invite you to follow along in the mahzor, beginning on 82.

Vidui:  The translation here as Confession, though correct, misses an element that is conveyed in the more literal meaning of the term:  Declaration.  Teshuvah demands that one must first articulate one’s sin.  Such declaration has always been part of Judaism.  In ancient days, if one committed a sin, one brought an offering and making a public declaration of one’s sin was part of that offering.  Following the destruction of the second temple and the end of the sacrificial cult, confessional prayers developed to replace these sacrificial offerings.  In time, the practice moved from enumerating aloud – declaring—one’s personal sins to reciting a fixed list of sins as part of the communal liturgy, followed by an opportunity for private confessional where, presumably, one would declare one’s actual sins.

What is the nature of these declarations and what do they teach us about real confession?

If we look at the opening, what is called the Vidui Zuta, the short confessional, the most important phrase of this plea to God is the last three Hebrew words – aval anachnu chatanu, translated here as “We have done wrong.”  The way that the text is translated here, the main point of this phrase is somewhat obscured.  The most important word is aval.  A common word in modern Hebrew, it means “but”.  Aval appears only twice in the Torah where it is understood to mean “in truth.”  Verily, indeed, in other words:  In truth, we admit — we have sinned, we have done wrong.  (In this translation, “In truth” is in the line above.)

A story is told in the Talmud by Samuel’s student, Bar Hamdudi, who reports of his teacher: “I was standing before Samuel, and he was seated. When the prayer leader arrived at the phrase ‘But we have sinned [Aval Anachnua Chatanu] Samuel stood up.  We learn that this is the essence of confession.”[ii]

Aval is the turning point in our teshuvah, when we can admit and recognize our sins, even if that means bringing up things we have buried long ago.  It is only when we own our mistakes, when we stop kidding ourselves, when we no longer blame others, when we recognize what might be some ugly truths, it is only then that the real process of repentance can begin.  Vidui as declaration; we need to hear ourselves say the words:  aval anachnu hatanu; in truth, we have sinned.   These words are so important that some have taught, including Maimonides, that if one says them with sincerity and the commitment not to repeat the sin, no further confessional is necessary.

Nonetheless, the confessional continues with the Ashamnu, or our Alphabet of Woe as it was referred to in the Gates of Repentance.  For non-Hebrew readers—each word of this litany of sins begins with the successive letter of the alphabet, beginning with the aleph and ending with taf (or from A to Z as we would say in English).  Perhaps this was simply a creative exercise by the liturgist; more, it is understood as conveying a sense of completeness regarding our list of sins, encouraging us to try our best to remember all – each and every one—of our sins this past year.

This sense of the need to take responsibility for our sins is further emphasized in the section of the liturgy between the Ashamnu and the Long Vidui, known as the Al Chet.  “What can we say before You, Eternal One” we ask; nothing is concealed from You, You know the secrets of the human heart.”  What point then to our confession if God knows all of our sins?  God does not need our confession, but we do.  Just as when Adam hid after discovering his nakedness and God asks, “Ayeka, Where are you?”  Does God not know?  Rather, it is Adam who must take responsibility for his actions.  By declaring our sins, we begin to take responsibility for them.  And the secrets God knows, well, they may be sins that we are not yet able to own, secrets buried so deep within that we are not yet fully aware of them, but as we open our hearts in this communal confessional, we may be able to begin to explore them.

It is not only the aval that is unusual in the phrase aval anachnu hatanu.  A moment of Hebrew grammar:  the nu at the end of hatanu means we have sinned; anachnu means we.  Why this double emphasis on we?  Dr. Larry Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy at HUC-JIR, teaches that it emphasizes this sense of ownership of our sins: “It is we who have sinned.”[iii]  At the same time, the first person plural sets the tone for the entire public confessional, a tone that has challenged many throughout the ages:  ashamnu, WE are guilty; al heit shechatanu, for the sin that WE have sinned.  Why am I confessing to sins I have never committed?  What kind of confessional is that?

We recite this confessional in the language of “We” because we are part of the Jewish people – past, present and future – and that comes with both responsibilities and with benefits.

The notion of collective responsibility is ancient within Judaism. Time and again in the Torah we are told of the blessings we would receive for doing what’s right and the curses that would befall us if we are not.  Even as Moses speaks to the entire people of this responsibility, his language directs his message to each individual Israelite.  As you will hear in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading:  Moses gathers all the people to reaffirm their entrance into the covenant.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you (plural) this day:  I have put before you (singular) life and death; blessing and curse.  Choose life that you and your offspring will live.”  (Deut. 30:19)  We are held accountable for our own actions and for the actions of the community as a whole.

Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code in Leviticus underscores this responsibility when it commands:  Hocheach tokiach – you shall surely rebuke your fellow.”  Later, the Talmudic sages developed the principle Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh lazeh, all Israel is bound up with/responsible for one another.  They said further, “whoever can stop others within one’s community from sinning, but does not, is held responsible for what those others do.”[iv]  We are culpable if we are witness to others doing wrong and don’t do anything to stop them or counter their behaviors.  As a people, we know too well the ramifications of being silent bystanders to wrongdoing.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Orthodox rabbi of the 20th century, philosopher and social activist, when protesting against the Vietnam war said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”   Al Cheit she chantanu, for the sin that we have committed.

The way in which we act as individuals does impact our community and all members of that community bear the consequences of those actions, as Dr. Ellen Umansky, professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University teaches:

“… a community that tolerates or condones sexual immorality, financial dishonesty, family violence, indifference to those in need, a disrespect for the rights of others, and so on will not only be cursed but ultimately will be destroyed, if not by God, then by its members.  Indifference breeds indifference, violence breeds violence, and hatred breeds hatred.  When we recite the words of Al Chet, we ask God to forgive us for the sins that we have knowingly committed, individually or communally, recognizing that what we do, and choose not to do, has an impact on others.  In the end, how we think, speak and act shapes not only our life but also the communities and societies of which we are members.”[v]

On the positive side, by standing with community to publicly confess sins, whether we actually committed those sins or not, we offer great support to one another.


By joining our voices together, we avoid shaming individuals who may have committed any of the listed sins.  Not only that, by standing in solidarity with them, we say that no one is perfect, and we can give others the strength to take ownership of their sins and undertake the difficult work of repentance.  Hearing others confess may even give us the strength to face those sins that lay buried deep within.

The great Orthodox scholar and thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing about the difference between individual and communal confession taught, “When the individual confesses, he does so from a state of …despair… In contrast, Knesset Israel confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally.”  “That may explain,” he continues, “why in some Jewish communities it is customary to since the Al Cheit .. in a heartwarming melody.”[vi] There is strength in numbers and in community.

Soloveitchik’s teaching helps to address the disconnect I’ve always felt between the words of the Ashamnu and the upbeat tone of the folk melody that we sing.  Even as we take confession of our sins seriously, our burden feels a little lighter knowing that we are not on this journey alone.

Then we get to the litany of sins that is the Al Chet.  If you are looking in the mahzor, you will note that on the right side of the page is the traditional prayer (though shortened) and, on the left side, are more contemporary interpretations.   But their themes are similar and notable for what they are not about.  Though they are all framed in the language of “For the sin that we have committed against You (God) they do not seem to address what we might think of as sins against God:  ritual infractions, taking God’s name in vain, violating Shabbat, etc. Rather, almost all declarations address our failings in our interactions with other people.  In other words, we wrong God by wronging others.

As we utter these words of confession, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet, some of us will beat our chests with each declaration of sin.  Why?  If you ask three people, you’ll probably get more than three different answers:

Self-flagellation, I’m beating myself up for what I did wrong;

To show that I’m sorry;

To help me focus on each sin;

To knock the bad things out of me so that I can begin anew with a clean slate;

I don’t know – it’s what I grew up with and it feels right.

I found the following interpretations to be helpful in offering new meaning to this ritual:

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a Reform rabbi and disciple of the Hassidic masters, views confessional on Yom Kippur as an opportunity to examine the bad things we have done, not to excise the evil, but to try to discover its deepest motivation and seek out the good that is buried deep within – the good that had initially motivated us, but got lost somewhere in the process.  Losing our temper because we really are impatient for others to do what is right; interfering too much in our children’s lives because we just want them to succeed and to do well; chastising others because we are afraid to confront our own wrongs.  We must take responsibility for the evil, regret what we did, take ownership of and accept the behavior, then we can make amends and move on.  In accepting these failings as part of ourselves, we don’t beat ourselves up during the Al Chet and the Ashamnu, we hold ourselves and cry.[vii]

Dr.Ron Wolfson, renown educator in the Conservative movement, views beating the chest differently. He thinks of it as “percussing the heart” as when a musician beats a drum or a doctor percusses the abdomen during a physical.  “Beating my chest,” writes Wolfson, “reminds me that I cannot reach a state of spiritual cleanliness for the new year without experiencing the most difficult forgiveness of all—forgiving myself.  I beat my chest as a reminder that I must stop beating myself up over the ways I’ve missed the mark.  I have to recognize my mistakes, my shortcomings, but I must forgive myself before I can ever hope to forgive others.  I must forgive myself before I can ask for forgiveness from others – including God.

Percussing the heart is another innovation of the rabbis to awaken us from our spiritual slumber.  Just as the piercing sounds of the shofar are a clarion call to action, the beating of the chest emphasizes the importance, the seriousness, of our confessional prayers.  Percussing the heart is the alarm clock for the soul.”[viii]

With these thoughts in mind, we turn now to the first of our confessional prayers.  We will repeat them in tomorrow morning’s service, in the afternoon and finally in Neilah as the liturgy builds towards the final promises of God’s forgiveness.

I hope that my teaching tonight will deepen your experience of these confessional prayers and bring your intention to different aspects of them in each service, as you direct your heart to your own confessions.  May we each find the strength to take ownership of our failings and shortcomings and make the sincere commitment to strive to be better.  Whether we choose to beat our chests, or hold our hearts, may these prayers help us to us awaken our souls.  May we find strength, comfort and support in standing together.

In its creative approach to this challenging liturgy, Mishkan HaNefesh adds a section called “For Acts of Healing and Repair” to focus on our positive actions in addition to our failings.  Indeed, too much negative (remembering only the “I am but dust and ashes”) is not good for us; it is important to remember the positive, to remember the good that we have done as well as our shortcomings.

At the same time, the process of repentance demands that we take ownership of our sins and failings as a precursor to atoning for them.  While there are times when we should also recognize the good that we have done, sometimes we try to hide behind the good in order to avoid accepting the times that have done wrong, where we have missed the mark.   Tonight, I invite you to focus your attention on the challenging task of addressing our sins, collectively and individually.  Therefore, we will not read aloud the page “For acts of healing and repair,” though you are welcome to do so as part of your private confessional.  Let us begin.

[i]  Babylonian Talmud, K’ritot 6b

[ii]  Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 87b

[iii] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, We have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2012), p. 10

[iv]  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b

[v]  Hoffman, p. 234

[vi] Lecture by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, “Five Minutes, Five Questions” at HUC-JIR, Feb. 22, 2012

[vii] Hoffman, p. 195

[viii] Ibid., p. 241



“The Leopard in the Temple” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

Imagine the scene:  It is the late 8th century, BCE.  The people of Judah are gathered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur.  The high priest is officiating at the ancient sacrificial rite,confessing his sins and the sins of the people over the scapegoat and over the goat to be sacrificed to Adonai.

In the midst of this solemnity, in bursts Isaiah ben Amoz, the prophet, who disrupts the worship; his words cry out like the sound of the shofar as in his rage he voices God’s anger with their Israelites:

“Tell My people their transgression, and the House of Jacob their sin.

Yes, they seek Me daily,

As though eager to learn My ways —

as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not abandoned God’s


They say, ‘Why did we fast, and You do not see it?

afflict ourselves, and You do not know it?’

Because even on your fast day you think only of desire,

While oppressing all who work for you…

Is this the fast I desire?

A day to afflict body and soul?…

Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?

Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?….

If you remove the chains of oppression,

the menacing hand, the malicious word;

if you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the suffering

then shall your light shine through the darkness

and your night become as bright as noon…”[i]

Isaiah decries the hypocrisy of those who could think that their prayers and fasting on this day would be pleasing to God when on other days they ignore the cause of the poor and the stranger; he chastises the wealthy who prostrate themselves in prayer but commit fraud in the marketplace, and he calls out the corrupt priests, the religious leaders, who defile the holy temple by keeping for themselves the people’s contributions meant for the sanctuary.

“The offerings of those who act in this way are repugnant to the God of Israel who upholds the cause of the orphan, the poor, the widow and the stranger,” cries the prophet; God rejects the offerings of those who do not act with justice towards one another.

Imagine the response of the Israelites sitting in Temple that day!

In a short story, Franz Kafka envisioned the moment: “One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later,” Kafka wrote, “it had become part of the liturgy.”[ii]   And, now, we sit passively listening to his words.

Imagine if Isaiah stormed in here today.  What might he say to us?

“Is this the fast I desire, when my earth is in danger?”

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!  (words of Greta Thunberg, 16-year old Swedish climate activist)[iii]

“Is this the fast I desire, when my children are dying?”

Every day 100 Americans are killed with guns.[iv] There have been more mass shootings in America this year than days of the week; as of Oct 8th, the 281st day of the year, there have been 325 mass shootings.[v]

“When politicians send their thoughts and prayers with no action, we say: No more” (words of David Hogg, student activist from Mary Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL)[vi]

“Is this the fast I desire, when the voice of the stranger cries out to Me?”

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” (words of a 12-year-old boy)[vii]

The words of Isaiah cry out to us as they did to the Israelites over 2800 years ago:  we sit in here praying and fasting, but what are we doing to alleviate suffering out there?   To protect the earth? To save lives?  To care for the stranger?

Our prayers and fasting this day in synagogue are empty if they are not accompanied by actions that lead toward a more just world outside of these walls.  Rituals are empty if they are not matched by our actions in our secular lives.  One cannot make a separation between ritual and ethical; Judaism demands that we do both.   Furthermore, it is not enough to “do no harm;” a religious Jew must act with compassion to alleviate suffering.

I appreciate that some people may be uncomfortable with my raising social issues like gun control, refugees or climate change on this holy day and would prefer to hear something more “spiritual.”  Yet, that is precisely Isaiah’s message – justice is spiritual.  It is one of the reasons why the Talmud teaches that “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[viii] Yes, we come into a sanctuary for respite from the daily grind, and we seek solace in our prayers, in our music, in moments for private reflection, in community.  But the windows remind us that we are part of the world; through windows we can look to the heavens, but through windows we also allow the outside world in.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.  The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision”[ix]

Heschel, a true disciple of the ancient prophets, lived out his words.  He was a trail blazer, not only within the Orthodox Jewish world but for the larger Jewish community, as he joined hands with other faith leaders and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Reflecting on his participation in the march in Selma, Heschel wrote, “For many of us, the march… was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”[x]

In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code reminds us that holiness is found when we are fair in our business practices and deal honestly with one another, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, when we are responsible for one another, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

If we do not address the ways in which we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.

Current demographics of the Jewish community attest to this reality as we learned from the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.  Two of the top three answers to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish” were leading an ethical and moral life and working for justice/equality. (The top reason was “remembering the Holocaust” which generally translates to a concern to fight against antisemitism, hatred and discrimination.)  While working for a just society was a high priority for the majority of Jews, commitments to synagogue, measured by membership or service attendance was much lower.   22% of the Jewish community falls into the category of “nones” meaning they are either secular, cultural or Jews of no religion.    Among millennials, only 32% see themselves as Jews by religion, though the vast majority have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  And their sense of what means to be a Jew mirrors the average; social justice is essential to millennial’s Jewish identity while prayer and synagogue are virtually meaningless.[xi]

If we want to be relevant to the younger generation, civic engagement and social activism offer a powerful gateway into Jewish life.

This is, indeed, an overwhelming time in our nation and in the world; there are so many issues that call for our attention that we don’t know where to turn first; with so much coming at us, we can be completely paralyzed into inaction.  At such times, let us remember the teaching of R. Tarfon: You are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.[xii]

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories:   a man was walking on the beach one morning and was shocked at how the beach was just filled with starfish, washed up during high tide.  In the distance, he saw another man who kept bending down and standing up.  As he got closer, he saw that the man was bending down to pick up a starfish, standing up to throw it back into the ocean, then repeating his action over and over.  The man walking on the beach caught up to the one throwing in the starfish and said to him: “You can’t possibly think you can return all of the starfish to the ocean; the beach is just riddled with them. What difference can you make?”  The man didn’t stop what he was doing.  As he bent down to pick up a starfish, he looked at the man, threw the starfish into the ocean and replied, “Made a difference to that one!”

Each act of justice we do, makes a difference to “that one.”  As the Talmud teaches, “If you save a life, you save a world.”[xiii]

I had thought about focusing my remarks today on a particular issue, but there are too many from which to choose and no way to raise up one over another.  We all have to act on what it is that we are passionate about.

Instead, I want to talk with you about a process for taking action, a process of civic engagement by which our Social Action committee hopes to galvanize this congregation into deeper and more effective efforts to respond to Isaiah’s call and address inequities and injustice today.  Civic engagement, as defined by Thomas Ehrlich, editor of Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, means “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make the difference.  It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes.”[xiv]

Civic engagement, though it may involve political processes to change local, state or federal policies, is non-partisan.

A parable may help explain what I mean:  A villager walking by the river sees a person in the water thrashing about and, without even stopping to think, jumps in and saves that person from drowning.  The incident becomes known in the village and the good citizen is highly praised for her courage and quick action.  It happens again and soon a schedule of lifeguards is established; every few days another villager is hailed as a hero after pulling another stranger from the river.  As more and more resources are devoted to these rescues, someone finally stands up and says, “Maybe we should travel upstream and see why so many people are falling in the river.”

Vassar Temple, as with many synagogues, churches, mosques and other religious institutions, has many good hands on projects run by our Social Action Committee under the leadership of Marian Schwartz that play a vital role in positively impacting the lives of those in this community who are suffering, whether it is providing hot meals to the hungry at Lunch Box, collecting food to fill the shelves of food pantries, supporting underprivileged children by providing school supplies or volunteering to help at the library at the Morse school – and the list goes on.

Our Board recently approved our participation in a community solar project, under the umbrella of DCIC, that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and will promote the development of green infrastructure and jobs in our region. You will be hearing more about this exciting project in future bulletin articles and we will all have the opportunity to participate as residential customers.

Actions like these are important; like the lifeguards in the parable, they save lives.  But until we travel upstream and address the deeper causes of these problems, people will keep falling into the river and some will drown.

I first heard this parable in a course I took through JOIN for Justice, the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network, that applies the principles of community organizing to social justice work.  The Vassar Temple Social Justice Team, under the leadership of Howard Susser, will be introducing this community organizing approach to our congregation this year.  Successful in many synagogues and churches throughout the country, community organizing is a grass roots approach that will enable us to determine where best to focus our energies for civic engagement as a synagogue.

Now, I know that we are accustomed to a different approach.  Generally, Temple leadership through its committees decides on the issues or organizations to support.  And a small, but very dedicated group of people, will step up and get involved.

The community organizing approach is different, more grass roots.  If we are to engage more people in this sacred work of tikun olam, we first need to learn what is important to us, what is it that will motivate our involvement.  So we ask, “What are you worried about?”  A favorite question of community organizing is “what keeps you up at night?”  By listening to one another, sharing our stories, we build relationships around common bonds that will lead us to towards more effective engagement.

Thus, we will begin by conducting listening campaigns.  Note I said: “listening campaigns”.  They involve active listening – really hearing what someone else is saying without jumping to defend your position or offering solutions.  The social just team is reaching out to potential leaders for such an effort who will then facilitate house meetings – gatherings of about a dozen congregants who will engage in one-on-one conversations to learn about one another and each other’s concerns.

This social just team will be trained by the Senior Organizer of RAC-NY, formerly the Reform Jewish Voice, a locally-led network of Reform Jewish communities working together to build a more just and merciful New York State.  This training has nothing to do with any issue; it is training in the community organizing approach to justice work.  The issue or issues that we take on will emerge from these house meetings.  Each of you will have the opportunity to participate and let your voice be heard – and listen to others.

We recognize that we are certainly not of one voice in this congregation on any issue.  Yes, we are democrats, republicans and independents.  We are progressives and we are conservatives.  We are undecideds; and some are not defined by category or label.  This is an opportunity to meet across those divides, to listen to one another and see where the energies and interests coalesce.

Once an issue is decided upon, a program of education will follow:  to learn more about that issue, to seek out partners with whom we can collaborate since there is much greater strength in numbers, and to determine steps for action.

Two examples of Reform congregations that went upstream, to the source of the problems in their communities, conducted listening campaigns and decided on actions that positively impacted their communities:

After Sandy Hook, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA joined with other Boston-area congregations to lobby for a gun violence reduction bill.  Four of the five key provisions they proposed were included in a bill that became Massachusetts law in 2014.  The next year, local police officers pointed to specific cases where lives were saved because of that bill.

Members of Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, NC actively engaged in volunteering with different agencies that served the homeless and poor.  In an effort to help get to the root of the problems, the temple board passed a resolution encouraging the temple, its leaders and members to speak out on homelessness and affordable housing in the community.  This public position led to collaboration with a group of churches that resulted in a $20 million public/private endowment to fund families on a path from homelessness to financial independence.  In its third year, the endowment was subsidizing rent and arranging for supportive services for 99 families.[xv]

We do not enter into this process to promote any particular issue or action; our path will emerge from the process itself, one that will be as broad as is the participation of the temple membership.  We invite you to travel with us upstream as we strive to build a more just world.

Obviously, this will not be a quick or short-term process; effective change takes time and patience.  We are just at the beginning of this effort.  You can read more about it in the November bulletin and announcements about next steps will emerge in the course of the year.  Even as the social justice team is working on this project, our social action committee will continue to guide our civic engagement through the many important on-going projects.  (The next one is the CROP Walk — and if you haven’t yet signed up to walk to help fight hunger in Dutchess County on Oct. 20th, it’s not too late. Or you can support any of the Vassar Temple Team walkers, including your rabbi!)

Judaism has always been a religion of hope with an unwavering belief in the possibility of redemption.  Yes, Isaiah chastised the people for their sins, but he always held before them the promise of God’s forgiveness, if they but change their ways.

There are numerous times in the Bible when people respond to God or to one another with the expression, Hineni, Here I am here.  It was Abraham’s response to God’s call and to his son, Isaac; Hineini is an affirmation of one’s presence, one’s willingness to serve.  There is one time that God responds with that same phrase, and it is in our Haftarah, in the words of Isaiah:

“Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

Then shall your light burst forth like the dawn,

and your wounds shall quickly heal,

your Righteous One leading the way before you

the Presence of Adonai guarding you from behind.

Then when you call, Adonai will answer,

and, when you cry, Adonai will respond, Hineini.”[xvi]


May it be so.

[i] Isaiah 58:1-8

[ii] https://theshalomcenter.org/franz-kafka-leopard-yom-kippur

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-to-world-leaders-how-dare-you-you-have-stolen-my-dreams-and-my-childhood-video

[iv] https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/

[v] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/

[vi] https://www.bustle.com/p/7-videos-of-parkland-survivors-speeches-that-will-inspire-you-to-keep-up-the-fight-15944443

[vii] “For These Things Do I Weep “Voices of Exiles and Refugees, Past and Present, Tisha B’Av Service, August 10, 2019, Woodstock Jewish Congregation

[viii] BT Berakhot 34b

[ix] Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, Recharging Judaism, p. 55

[x] Rabbi Seth Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, p. 52

[xi] Schindler, p. 56-60

[xii] Pirkei Avot 2:16

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

[xiv] Thomas Ehrlich, Ed.,Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Preface, page vi

[xv] Schindler, pp 7-8

[xvi] Isaiah 58:6-9

“Responding to the New Antisemtism: A sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780″

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאוד והעקר לא לפחד כלל

 “The whole world is but a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

I have clung to these words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav many times in recent years, but no more strongly than I did on Oct. 27th of last year, when 11 Jews were gunned down in prayer simply for being Jewish.  Just as the peace of that Shabbat morning was shattered by gunfire, so was any remnant of a sense of security that we Jews have had in the United States.

We’ve witnessed antisemitic attacks in France and we said, “can’t happen here.”  We see the rise of antisemitism among government leaders in Britain, and we say, “can’t happen here.”  Even as we’ve heard about the increase in antisemitic incidents in the US in recent years, we brushed them off as acts of troubled individuals, we painted over swastikas and we moved on.

Then Charlottesville happened and we were awakened to the truth of the growth of White Supremacism here, the Goldeneh Medinah, the land in which many of our grandparents or great grandparents sought refuge from pogroms, from the Czar’s army, from the Nazis.

Then came Pittsburgh and then Poway … and a new reality set in and with it came new synagogue security procedures, locked doors, “run, hide, fight drills,” all part of the brave new world that is America (certainly until our leaders can find a way to control the gun epidemic that plagues us).

Holocaust historian, Deborah Lipstadt concludes the introduction to her latest book, Antisemitism Here and Now, published in 2019 but written before Pittsburgh, with the following prescient statement:  “Sadly, given the unending saga that is antisemitism, I feel comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemtism that should have been part of the narrative.[i]

Indeed, antisemitism is an “unending saga,” persisting for thousands of years, morphing in different forms from its religious origins, to race-based prejudice to its social and political manifestations.  Jews have been the scapegoat at various points across the centuries, conspiracy theories abound and resurface, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will not disappear.

Those of you who are long term Poughkeepsie area residents have witnessed first hand the changes that have taken place since the days when Jews were barred from social clubs and from practicing medicine in certain hospitals.  Today, Jews stand proudly in leadership positions in this community and in our government.  While we have not been immune from antisemitic incidents over the years, thankfully they have not been of a violent nature.

Jews in America now find ourselves in a rather unique situation.  According to a Pew research study from 2017, Americans express warm feelings toward Jews, with half of U.S. adults rating them the highest of all religious groups.[ii]  Unfortunately, Jews also scored highest in hate crimes. According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith… [and] the number of incidents last year remained at near-historic levels.[iii]

Events since last Rosh Hashanah have brought to the surface new dimensions to antisemtisim.  We are being battered by forces on the extreme left as well as on the extreme right such that physically and politically, nowhere feels safe.  Antisemitism on the right emanates from the White Supremacists and all those who would fan their flames of hatred, and has led to horrific loss of life, so it appears to be the greater danger.  But Antisemitism on the left, perhaps more insidious, presents a different kind of danger not only to the Jewish community but to our nation as a whole.

Before Pittsburgh and El Paso shared the common bond of hate crimes, Lipstadt wrote about the fundamental connection between antisemitism and racism:

“.. the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic and multicultural society.  It is axiomatic that if Jews are being targeted with hateful rhetoric and prejudice, other minorities should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with Jews.  And, conversely, if other minority groups are being targeted with hatred and prejudice, Jews should not feel immune… Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities…. the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss.  No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism — or any other form of hatred.”[iv]

There is a hate that is corrupting American society, with rhetoric that only serves to exacerbate the situation while the freedom of the internet fuels the flames.

The racism and antisemitism that have been brought to the surface in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and El Paso have been festering for decades.  In an article entitled, Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism, Eric Ward, a long time civil rights strategist, explains that

White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s supposedly dispossessed White people of their very nation. The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology…

Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils….

[Antisemtism is] the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.

[it] positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism. … at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.[v]

This background helps us to understand the hateful chant of the white supremacists in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” They are motivated by the fear of losing their supremacy to those they see as inferior.

In an ironic twist that is part of this “new” antisemitism, some months after the events in Charlottesville,  the Jewish Leadership Council of UVA was denied membership in the Minority Rights Coalition, an organization formed in the aftermath of the events to support minorities on campus and to fight white supremacy in Charlottesville, because the Council included a Zionist group. In response to protest from students and alumni, the MRC offered the group a couple of options, including joining without the Zionist group, but the JLC stood firm: “We recognize that the Israel-Palestine Conflict is complicated and heavily debated… We deeply understand the need for dialogue surrounding this complex issue, but at the same time we cannot and will not apologize for our right to support a Jewish homeland.”  The two groups pledged to continue the dialogue.

This frustrating experience brings together two dominant themes of antisemitism on the left that are repeated across college campuses, came to a head in the Women’s March in January and have even become political fodder.

The first element is that within many progressive groups, Jews are not viewed as a minority, subject to prejudice and attack. Bari Weiss, a NY Times columnist who grew up at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, explains in her recently released book, How to Fight Antisemitism, that in the progressive camp, victimhood confers a sense of moral purity.  The more one is a victim, the greater is one’s claim to truth and morality.[vi]  In this world, Jews are perceived of as white, privileged and successful (of course this claim disregards the approximately 1 million Jews of color in America, comprising about 12-15% of American Jews).[vii]  In this hierarchy Jews are near the bottom rung of the ladder.  Such thinking blinds progressives to the genuine attacks that have been made against Jews throughout the ages.

Unfortunately, as with the case of the students at UVA, it also limits our participation in the coalition building that is so necessary to counter the forces of hate that are attacking all minorities.  Such was the case this year with the Women’s March in NYC where antisemtism diluted the power and message of the march.   Among various criticisms about the leadership of the march were charges of antisemitism: Jews were not originally included in the list of minority groups; two of the key leaders, Linda Sasour and Tamika Mallory, made numerous antisemitic statements; and Mallory refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan for his virulent antisemitism.  In response, a group broke away and formed an alternative march.

Synagogues and other Jewish groups were torn about what to do.  Just days before the march, two rabbis who had worked with Sasour previously convened a meeting of 13 rabbis with Sasour and Mallory to see if they could reach an understanding.  After some very honest, forthright and painful conversations, most rabbis present signed a letter recognizing the dangers of division between Jews and people of color especially in enabling White Supremacists, appreciating the power and potential in a “multi-racial, multi-faith, women-led movement that is the ideal of the Women’s March,” and calling for on-going dialogue and for attendance at the march to support Jewish women of color who had asked for that support.

Responses varied:  some chose to participate in the official Women’s March, others joined the alternative march, others attended a Unity Rally and some congregations did nothing.  One attendee at that meeting, Rabbi Felicia Sol from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, was asked if she felt that Sasour and Mallory had really heard their concerns. “Good question,” she answered, but then added, “I’m not willing to walk away. The injustices are too pernicious, the work is too great to break from this inspiring, agitated country of women who are rising up to work toward change…. If I’m not in relationships with Tamika or Linda, then what hope do we have about changing their hearts and minds?”[viii]

Earlier this month, the Women’s March announced that Sasour and Mallory had stepped down from the Board.  One of the new Board members is Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group. While charges of antisemitism are already surfacing regarding other new members, one can only hope that Green’s presence will have some ameliorating effect.

There is no one or easy answer when it comes to participation in such partnerships, where the overall mission is positive and aligns with our values and where divisions only undermine our efforts at combating hate.  Even as we must speak out against antisemitism wherever we see it, so too must we strive to engage in honest dialogue that seeks understanding of and appreciation for the other’s pain, through which we can find common ground and optimize the strength that can exist in partnership.

The other element of antisemitism within progressive groups is around Israel.  Progressive ideology that favors victimhood tends to see Israel only as oppressor and Palestinians only as victims, thus Students for Justice in Palestine is welcome in the Minority Rights Coalition at UVA but not the Students for Israel group.  As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues with no end in sight, this victimhood ideology will only get stronger.  Sorely lacking is any nuanced view or discussion that distinguishes between the right of Israel to exist and policies of the Israeli government.   In part, it is hard to blame college students when they don’t see such conversation modeled in society at large – not even within the Jewish community, let alone in the halls of Congress or the White House.  Instead of demonstrating the diversity of views within the Jewish community and the fact that the vast majority support a two-state solution, the loudest voices brand any critique of current policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionist and antisemitic.

As Lipstadt cautions, “we must carefully differentiate between campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state.  [such as BDS] There is a vast difference between being opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and being an antisemite.  Those of us who want to fight this scourge do ourselves no favor if we automatically brand ideas with which we disagree “antisemitic.”[ix]

These two manifestations of antisemitism in America, from the extreme right and the extreme left, converged in a rather surreal moment this summer when the President used charges of antisemitism and being anti-Israel against four congresswomen as a political tool for his advancement.  As a Jew I felt used.   It is the worst of chutzpah and the height of hypocrisy for this president who refused to condemn the white supremacists of Charlottesville, or David Duke, the KKK or other avowedly antisemities and racists among his supporters, and even worse who has amplified their messages by tweeting them and posting them on social media, to make such claims.

After the rally in North Carolina and the furor that erupted, Montana Senator Steve Daines, proclaiming his solidarity with the President, tweeted, “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.”  In an open letter written in response to Daines, the Montana Association of Rabbis wrote, “We refuse to allow the real threat of anti-Semitism to be weaponized and exploited by those who themselves share a large part of the responsibility for the rise of white nationalist and anti-Semitic violence in this country.”[x]

Thankfully, the President’s outrageous attempt to sow divisions among democrats by charging Jews who vote for a Democrat as being “disloyal to the Jewish people and… very disloyal to Israel,” were roundly condemned.

So here we are — caught in the middle, like a tennis ball going back and forth, each side denying its own prejudice and casting aspersions across the divide.

What do we do about it?

First, we have to be realistic and keep our communities safe.  Under the leadership of our President Alan Kaflowitz, we have expanded our safety procedures.  While it saddens us not to have our doors physically open all the time, we will continue to be an open and welcoming congregation, but we have to smart and safe.  Doors are locked 15 minutes after services or a program begins.  But not to worry, ring the bell and a greeter will come and open the door for you.   Just as we have a security guard here during the holy days, so do we have someone for outdoor events such as Picnic Shabbat.  Other times, our own temple members lend a hand by being a presence, watching the door while an activity goes on.

We have to continue to build and strengthen relationships with others who share our values and believe in preserving the diversity that is America.   Let us hold up all who stood with us after Pittsburgh; let us recognize the good work of the Muslim community there that raised over $200,000 to help.  Let us stand in solidarity with all who suffer attacks of hate, just as many of us went to the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association in Wappingers for prayer after the shooting in New Zealand.

Even more important than standing with others in time of crisis, we need to build bridges of understanding and common purpose at all times.  It is wonderful that we will be strengthening our relationship with the mosque in Wappingers by partnering in preparing and serving food to the hungry at Lunch Box each month.

I would love to see these efforts expanded to include dialogue with African American churches and groups, with Christian groups.  I don’t have a plan yet, but I have had preliminary conversations about how the DCIC can help to foster greater connections between its constituent groups.

We can also fight hate through our American judicial system.  Integrity First America, a non-profit organization, acting on behalf of a diverse coalition of Charlottesville community members who were injured in the protests in 2017, is bringing a civil lawsuit against the two dozen neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hate groups responsible.  Sines v. Kessler is the first such suit to take on the white nationalist leadership responsible for the escalating violence in our country.  It has the potential to bankrupt and dismantle the groups and the individuals responsible.  And, as the IFA materials state, “It sends a clear message:  violent hate has no place here.”   I encourage you to visit the IFA website where you can sign your name in support of the Charlottesville victims and, if you choose, donate to support this landmark lawsuit.

Even as we fight hate in the courts, we need to combat hate in our communities and in our daily encounters.  If you haven’t yet put up a sign that says “Hate has no home here” I urge you to do; it sends an important message about what we value and what we demand in our community and in our country.

Ultimately, in addition to what we do, it is the words that we speak that can incite hate or quell it.  Words matter, especially in our public discourse.  We need words that condemn racism, antisemitism and hatred rather than inflame; words that build up rather than break down; words that unite rather than separate.

We, Jews, have been victims of words that mobilized forces of human evil beyond imagination.  A plaque towards the end of the Auschwitz exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum caught my attention during our recent trip; it is a quote from the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, dated this year:

“…The words of hatred poison the imagination and stupefy consciousness.  Maybe this is why so many remain silent while confronted with evil….The words of hatred create hatred.  The words of dehumanization dehumanize.  The words of menace increase the threat. We have already started paying for this.  Raphael Esrail [a survivor] wrote: “the camp is not just a memory.  For the majority of us, its reality is omnipresent in our everyday life.”  I have never heard a more terrible warning. The warning against our own words.”

The last section of Deborah Lipstadt’s book is entitled “Oy versus Joy:  Rejecting Victimhood.”  This is the final message with which I want to leave you on this Rosh Hashanah.  One can look at Jewish history through the eyes of “oy,” focusing only on the suffering we have endured throughout the ages, seeing enemies everywhere.  If that is the lens through which we continue to live our lives, however, then ultimately Judaism will be lost and devoid of meaning.  Seeing ourselves as perennial victims, says Lipstadt, means we “cede to the oppressor control over one’s destiny.  It leaves many Jews … aware of what it to be against but not what to be for.”[xi]  Our best response to antisemites is to live proudly and with joy as Jews, to strengthen and enrich our communities and congregations, and to be engaged in and engage future generations in a Judaism that is vibrant, relevant and hopeful for tomorrow.

As we begin the year 5780, let us take the necessary measures to keep us safe, let us reach out to others and join in partnerships that will lift up our world and let us celebrate this ancient religion that is ours and through which we can add meaning and purpose to our lives.  Together we can build a better world (lead into song: Olam Hesed Yibaneh).

[i] Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, p. xii

[ii] https://www.pewforum.org/2017/02/15/americans-express-increasingly-warm-feelings-toward-religious-groups/

[iii] https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/anti-semitic-incidents-remained-at-near-historic-levels-in-2018-assaults]

[iv] Lipstadt, p. xi

[v] Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” The Public Eye, Summer 2017, published by Political Research Associates

[vi] Interview with Bari Weiss, The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, Sept. 17, 2019, https://www.wnyc.org/story/anti-semitism-city/

[vii] https://forward.com/news/national/425129/jews-of-color-survey-jewish-population

[viii] https://forward.com/news/national/417618/rabbis-womens-march-secret-meeting-sarsour-mallory/

[ix] Lipstadt, p.205-6

[x] Michelle Goldberg, Defenders of a Racist President Use Jews as Human Shields, New York Times, July 19, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/opinion/trump-ilhan-omar.html

[xi] Lipstadt, p. 240.

“Unpacking Our Boxes” A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780


As many of you know, my husband and I moved into a beautiful home this summer.  This is now the 4th move in our 30 year marriage and the most unusual.  Since we haven’t yet sold our house on Long Island yet, we can’t empty it out, so we’re moving in stages.  Brings new meaning to the term “staging a house.”   Each week I pack up more boxes, load up the car and then unpack the boxes here.


Spending so much time packing and unpacking boxes has given me the chance to contemplate the nature of all those boxes and the contents they hold.  It occurs to me that they into three categories:


The first I’ll call “Attic boxes.”   These are the never used wedding presents, no longer listened to record albums, slightly worn out kitchen items that might possibly be used again or are good as a back up and other paraphernalia that we don’t like and don’t use, but which we certainly wouldn’t throw out because “you never know!”  We promise ourselves that we will go through them one day and get rid of stuff, but we never do and when we do move we don’t have the time and so we often end up moving them from attic to attic.  Attic boxes collect dust, take up space and are worthless to the owner, though they might have value to someone else.  (Temple rummage sales love attic boxes!)


Of course, not all boxes are dust collectors. The second kind of boxes are filled with items that are worthless to the outsider but invaluable to the owner.   I’ll call them “Sentimental boxes.”  They contain objects of memorabilia: old school papers, children’s art creations, one-of-a-kind photographs.  I confess:  I have plastic storage boxes of all the birthday and anniversary cards I’ve received ever since my kids could draw.  I never look through them, but I know they’re there.  I can’t throw them away, either.  Such items are among our most precious possessions. They are irreplaceable and serve as a link to and reminder of some of the most wonderful moments of our lives and to people we love.  Yet, as poignant as it can be to look through sentimental boxes, we tend to keep their contents packed away, taking them out only on the rarest of occasions, maybe only when we move.

Eventually, we tear ourselves away from the sentimental boxes and we turn to the majority of our boxes, the ones I’ll call “Basic Boxes” because they are filled with the basics of our lives: our material possessions, items on which both we and the outside world can place a value. Basic boxes tend to get overwhelming because, no matter how much we try to pare down our closets before we pack, we always seem to have more than expected. Maybe you’ve done the Marie Kondone, “keep only what brings you joy,” but I haven’t.  Depending on the size of one’s new home, choices may have to be made.


At this season each year, the holy days call us to undergo a spiritual inventory; we call it heshbon hanefesh, literally an accounting of our souls.  We review our lives, reflecting on past deeds as we also look ahead; we consider what we did wrong and, hopefully, what we did right; and we commit ourselves to trying to be better.  We open the contents of our metaphorical “boxes” – decide what to keep, what needs to be discarded, and what should be taken out and reviewed more often.


So, let’s see what’s in our boxes.


For most of us, the thought of going through attic boxes brings a heavy sigh and an immediate desire to run and do almost anything else. Going through real attic boxes is drudge work, requiring us to go through stuff that we have put off dealing with for years. Going through our metaphorical attic boxes is way more challenging.  Their contents cannot simply be thrown away.  Opening these boxes requires real soul searching and confronting someone or some issue that we have been avoiding, often for a long time.  Ridding ourselves of these boxes demands that we do something quite challenging:  letting go of grudges and forgiving.


Forgiveness is such an important value in Judaism that we devote our holiest time of the year to it. The Ten Days of Repentance are meant to be a time of asking and granting forgiveness. One of the basic principles of these Yamim Noraim is that we will not be granted atonement for the sins we have committed against another person unless and until we appease that person. Therefore, when someone does turn to us to make amends, we the wronged party actually hold their destiny in our hands. When we withhold our forgiveness, for the sake of pride, the need to be right or the desire simply to be the victim, we are merciless, say the rabbis, and we become the sinner. In doing so, we don’t punish the other person as much as we punish ourselves.


One of the great sages of the second century, Rabbi Gamliel, taught that the human ability to be merciful is so important that God’ s mercy is dependent upon it : “If you are merciful, then God will be merciful towards you and if you are not merciful, God will not be merciful towards you.” (Sifra 89a) Our prayers during these Days of Awe are directed towards gaining God’s mercy. The rabbis envisioned God in the heavenly court as the Divine Judge, sitting on one of two thrones: the Throne of Judgment or the Throne of Mercy.   Sounding the shofar is our plea, urging God to move from Judgment to Mercy when judging us.  Rabbi Gamliel’s words remind us that those prayers are ineffective unless we are first merciful in our judgment of others.

One of the most difficult funerals at which I have officiated was that of a 28 year old woman who committed suicide. This young woman had been troubled since childhood and, despite attempts by loved ones to reach out to her, she could never quite get her life together. It was very sad to listen to the distress of the family as they talked about her life and tried to understand her death. Although most everyone at my meeting with them had something to add, I noticed that her sister was silent and withdrawn. In spending time with their mother, I came to learn that the two sisters often fought and recently had had a major falling out. Shortly before her death, the deceased had tried to reach out to her sister, who, reluctantly, had only just begun to accept her advances when the young woman took her life. No wonder she was so withdrawn. Certainly, everyone who is close to someone who commits suicide feels a sense of guilt and wonders, “Could I have done more to stop her?” In the sister’s case, I imagine that her guilt and sense of loss of what might have been were even more profound.


I marvel at how often it seems to take the finite nature of death to teach us important lessons of life. The shofar calls out to us with the same message: now is the time, not only to ask for forgiveness, but to be merciful in granting forgiveness to those who turn to us.  Sometimes, that involves accepting someone’s limitations and recognizing that they may be doing the best that they can.  The rabbinic sages teach this message in the following midrash:  a prince runs away from the palace and doesn’t feel he can go back home.  His father the king sends him a message:  come back as far as you can, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.  That is the message God conveys to us through the prophet Malachi, “Return to Me and I will return to You.”


It takes so much energy to hold a grudge, to maintain anger; how much lighter we would feel if we could just let it go.  We can put that energy to much better use in rebuilding a fractured relationship.


Having gotten rid of our useless stuff, we can turn to that which is most valuable to us.  While everyone’s sentimental boxes are different, their contents tend to fall into two categories:  those that remind us of people we love, both living and deceased; and those that praise our accomplishments.

Ironically, as important as these items are to us, we rarely look at or use them.  For too many of us, our feelings are like those boxes; we keep them packed away, hesitant to share them with others. As we learned from so much tragedy this year, life is precious, but it could be taken away at any moment. The words “I love you” or “I am proud of you” ought not be reserved for birthdays, graduations or other special moments; they can and should be intertwined with our daily lives. Likewise, feelings of anger or disappointment should be shared and worked through, rather than internalized to fester over time and erupt when least expected or, as in the case of the sister of the woman who committed suicide, never worked through at all.  As we begin a new year, we are reminded not to take our dear ones for granted or to let the knowledge of our love be assumed.


Perhaps like many of you, in addition to family memorabilia, I’ve held onto items from my professional career.  Among the most precious are thank you notes expressing ways in which I positively impacted someone’s life (often unknown to me).  Once in a while, when things are particularly overwhelming or when it seems that I’m doing everything wrong, I have turned to those notes and found solace. They have helped me to put those gray days in proper perspective.


While we all know people who benefit by some letters of a different nature to deflate an overly enlarged ego, the vast majority of us tend to be far too self-critical and could benefit by some praise on occasion. One of the great early Hassidic Masters, Rabbi Simha Bunam, taught his disciples an important lesson for maintaining a proper perspective: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his need. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,” and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”  For too many of us, the “dust and ashes” is the easy part; stresses at home, pressures in the office, failures that are part of life – – all these remind us of our limitations. Remembering that “the world was created for my sake” is more difficult. Making those sentimental boxes more accessible, keeping a file of those special thank you notes and commendations on hand, are good sources of affirmation of our strengths and self-worth.


Even more important, we can be that affirmation for others.  Why does it seem that words of criticism come more easily from our lips than do words of praise? Positive reinforcement is not only a good means for discipling a child; it is an appropriate way to respond to others at all times. Do we remember to praise a secretary for a job well done or only critique him when something goes wrong? Do we commend our partner for a good meal or for fixing a broken sink or do we only complain when she is late or a chore is forgotten, while taking the rest for granted? We would help those we love and those with whom we work if we remembered the thank you notes in our files and gave them, in word or deed, more often to others.


Finally, we get to our basic boxes, the bulk of our material possessions. One of the more common problems with basic boxes is that we generally have more than we think we do. I call it the “How did we get so much stuff?” phenomenon.  A similar process takes place in our lives. We go through each day fulfilling various obligations to home, to work, to community, to others. For so many of us, our days are overflowing with appointments, things we need to do. We calendar in kids’ and grandkids’ soccer games, business trips, visits to aging parents, even making “dates” with our spouses so we’re almost sure to have some quality time together.   We do our best to keep up the juggling act, unaware that we’re even doing it, because if we stopped to think about it, everything might fall apart. Most of us go along fine, until there’s a crisis in our system: a family member becomes seriously ill, an emergency at work, our marriage suddenly feels lost.  Once a year, Jewish tradition offers us the opportunity, without a crisis atmosphere, to regain perspective on our lives, to rethink our priorities and to begin making positive changes.


Twenty-three years ago on this day, I gave a sermon to my congregation about the need to be more present for our families — and I shared my own challenges balancing career and family.  I also announced that, after ten years with the congregation, with the strong support of the temple leadership, I was cutting back to three-quarters time to be able to be more present to my family.  It was a compromise that enabled me to continue my work as a rabbi which was and is central to my identity while also being present for and with my family, also central to my identity.


Certainly, some progress has been made in the two decades since then in terms of things like family leave, but on a daily basis it doesn’t seem that our society has improved all that much in terms of life balance.   The advent of technology was supposed to help us in this quest, making us far more efficient in using and allocating our time.  Our electronic devices certainly do help to make us more efficient in many ways, but they haven’t given us more free time; in fact, they make us available all the time.  Some companies make it clear that they expect their employees to reply to emails at all hours of the night.   A recent study found that the mere “expectation of availability” during non-working hours can cause anxiety and stress.  A researcher noted: “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”[1]


And yet, even when we have time together, too often we are not really together – we may physically be in the same space, but we’re all on our devices, “together but apart.”


Some of you may remember Sen. Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts.  Back in the early 80s, he was a rising star on Capitol Hill, often spoken of as a future presidential candidate.  At the age of 43 he was diagnosed with cancer and forced to undergo deep personal reflection about how wanted to spend his remaining time on this earth.  He chose family over the senate, foregoing the opportunity to try to help shape the nation to more directly help shape the lives of his children and to experience the joy of being with his family for as much time as he could.  A friend sent him a note congratulating him on getting his priorities right and included what has now become a well-known expression (generally attributed to Tsongas himself):  “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.”


Now is the time to make those hard decisions, to set our priorities, even if it means discarding or temporarily setting aside certain things, creating tech free time zones (in Judaism, we call it Shabbat), or learning when to say “no” – so that we can yes to achieving the balance that will bring the most meaning to our lives.


I wish I could say that our boxes are all unpacked, but I know there are more to come.  We are slowing growing into our new home and our new life.  After almost 30 years of marriage, we have begun a new journey together and our hearts are filled with excitement, anticipation and anxiety. It is also the start of a new year, filled with promise.


This weekend we finally put up the mezuzot. Now it really feels like a home. After affixing the mezuzah we say the shehechiyanu – We thank you, Source of life, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for enabling us to reach this wonderful moment, this season of renewal; for giving us loved ones who are so dear to our lives; and for the ability that you have implanted within each of us to forgive, to change and to grow. May we make this new year, indeed, a new beginning and create within our lives a sense of balance, a sense of wholeness and a sense of peace. Amen.



[1] https://www.biospace.com/article/do-you-check-your-email-after-work-hours-new-study-says-simply-thinking-about-it-could-be-harmful/