A ROSH HASHANAH MESSAGE

One of the most powerful prayers in the High Holiday liturgy is B’Rosh Hashanah, which describes in traditional language our fate for the coming year: “On Rosh Hashanah the decision is made and on Yom Kippur that decision is finalized.”

What follows is a laundry list of sorts: who shall live and who shall die; who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who will be strangled and who will be stoned; who will be at peace and who will be troubled; who will be serene and who will be disturbed; who will be tranquil and who will be tormented; who will be impoverished and who will be enriched; who will be brought low and who will be raised up.

These words resonate for us today even as they did for our ancestors a thousand years or so ago as we think about:

The still uncounted numbers of victims of Hurricane Dorian.

The three million people who die each year from lack of vaccinations.

The twin scourges of hunger and thirst which cause untold suffering and countless deaths.

The 1.3 billion people worldwide living in extreme poverty.

The eight richest men in the world who hold half of the world’s total wealth.

Those who died by fire, whether on a ship, in a home or in a forest fire.

Those who are tormented by the pain of mental illness.

Those who are able to rise above their problems and succeed.

What will the year to come hold in store for us? None of us can know for sure. But we can be assured of this: we are given a lifeline, one which says, “u’t’shuvah, u’t’filah u’tz’dakah ma-avirin et ro-a ha-g’zeirah - through sincere repentance, authentic prayer and heartfelt deeds of lovingkindness, we have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.”

May our prayers during this holiest of seasons be pleasing to God, may they be pleasing to us and may they inspire us to live a better life in the year to come than we did in this year just ended.

Shana tova u’m’tukah - A good and sweet New Year to you and all those whom you hold dear!


remembering 9/11

Can it be that eighteen years have passed since the horrific events of September 11, 2001?

Our world was changed that day - and not for the better.

As we pause to reflect, it’s imperative we remember that what happened that fateful day does not define who we are as a nation and as a people. Our spirits were not crushed, our will was not diminished. Those who died did not die in vain; their tragic deaths were the impetus for a renewed sense of purpose, for an ever stronger commitment to the cause of freedom.

The following prayer, written in the aftermath of 9/11 by Rabbi Matt Friedman, sums up what we felt then and what we should continue to feel now:

For those who went into danger, we give thanks.

For those who remained behind with the infirm and the injured, we give thanks.

For those who thought of others first, we give thanks.

For those who offered comfort to others, we give thanks.

For moments of unknown, grant us courage.

In times of fear, grant us courage.

When called upon to stand for the rights of others, grant us courage.

When others call for our destruction, grant us courage.

When the enemies of freedom lash out, bless us with Your peace.

When the darkness of hatred descends, bless us with Your peace.

When we feel the urge to trample and destroy, bless us with Your peace.

When we look to the future of Your universe, bless us with Your peace.

Amen.

And the seasons, they go 'round and 'round...

Waking up this morning to a brisk fifty-two degree reading on the thermometer was a reminder that the dog days of summer are quickly coming to a close, that soon a new school year will begin and that not long thereafter, a New Year will be upon us.

My wife Randi likes to say that summer isn’t over until the onset of Rosh Hashanah, whether it comes “late” as it does this year, or as “early” as Labor Day weekend, which it did way back in 1978. She feels fortunate to have an additional month of summer to enjoy this year. And let’s not forget that summer doesn’t “officially” end until September 23.

Of course, Rosh Hashanah is never early or late; it comes right on time, on the first day of Tishri. And lest we lose track of time and forget that it’s coming, we have a reminder each weekday morning during the month of Elul, which begins this coming Shabbat. Each morning service ends with the sounding of the Shofar. It is literally a wake-up call to us to begin the process of self-examination which should begin now and conclude on Yom Kippur.

If you think about it, it takes us a whole year to do all of the many things we shouldn’t have done. What makes us think we can go to shul for three days, beat our hearts as we recite Ashamnu and believe that we’ve made it all better? Common sense should tell us that those few days just aren’t enough. That’s precisely why we’re given a whole month to prepare to ask for forgiveness.

And by the way, the Penitential Season doesn’t end with Yom Kippur…but that’s a topic for another day!

MODEH ANI L'FANECHA

Every morning, we begin our day by thanking God for another day of life. We say Modeh ani l’fanecha, thank you God for restoring my soul to me. Thank you for the precious opportunity to live a worthy life, a life of purpose, a life of fulfillment.

But how many of us take our lives for granted? We wake up and go about our daily business without giving a second thought to the priceless gift that is our lives. We don’t realize how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy another day in our world.

Sadly, for many of us, it takes some catastrophic event to shake us from our sense of complacency. Perhaps it is the onset of an illness, or the loss of employment, or God forbid, the death of a loved one. Or perhaps, on a more global level, it is a mass shooting, a deadly flood or some other natural disaster.

My wife Randi and I had a Modeh ani l’fanecha moment last week when we were vacationing near San Diego. We were at South Ponto Beach in Encinitas last Friday, not more than five hundred yards or so from the site of the cliff collapse which tragically took the lives of three women. We had walked that section of the beach less than an hour beforehand. Though we did not witness the collapse, we saw firsthand the aftermath: beach patrol and emergency vehicles racing along the shoreline to the scene of the collapse; paramedics performing cpr on one of the victims; medevac helicopters and more.

We were both shaken when we realized the extent of what had happened. As the story developed and we learned more details, we realized with horror that it very well could have been us who were the victims of that horrific tragedy.

It was a wake-up call for both of us. I will be the first to admit that too often, I take life for granted. Those few words, modeh ani l’fanecha, which only take a few seconds to recite, I leave unsaid.

And yet, life is too precious, and those few words too important to ignore.

Let’s all agree that it shouldn’t take a life-shattering event to make us appreciate our own lives, and let’s all resolve to be more thankful.

A Common Theme

I’ve just finished reading a book entitled One Community, One Week, Many Faiths, a compilation of essays on different houses of worship in Lansing, Michigan by journalism students at Michigan State University.

(Disclaimer: My brother Eric is Chair of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at MSU and the professor who conceived the idea of a student-written collection describing the diverse congregations of many faiths that are found in Lansing.)

While there are many areas of commonality among the congregations represented, including: nurturing a warm and inclusive atmosphere; outreach to those in need; the importance of religious education; and more, one theme in particular was emphasized in almost every house of worship: the importance of music as integral to the worship experience.

Whether it be through a jazz band, handbell choir, the singing of hymns, an organ, an adult choir or pre-recorded meditative music, virtually every congregation incorporates music into its services, not as an adjunct, but as a vital component. As one choir member put it, “We came to hear God talk to us through His music.” In another church, “one can feel the power of music strongly.” And a local rabbi stated, “If the words in the prayerbook don’t touch your heart, sometimes music can do it.”

In the Chasidic tradition, music is given greater emphasis than words. As the Tsadik of Kuzmir said, “One nigun can express more than a thousand words.”

For me, music is what it’s all about. The music of t’filah - prayer and of shira - song. The music of the “Golden Age of Chazzanut” and of the most contemporary composers of Jewish music. We’ve got it all - and I love it all!

Learning How To Listen

This week’s Torah portion, Korach, describes a very disturbing incident in which Korach challenges Moses’ leadership of the Israelite people. His challenge is met with punishment from God, as Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth (which, incidentally, may be the first recorded instance of a sinkhole!)

A closer reading of the text indicates that while Moses may have heard what Korach was saying, he wasn’t listening to Korach’s concerns. Moses simply instructs Korach with what he should do so that God could determine the rightful leader of the Israelites.

There’s an important lesson to be learned here: hearing is one thing, but truly listening is something else entirely. When we listen to what another person has to say, with intent and with focus, we have a better chance of understanding his or her perspective. Had Moses been able to listen to Korach and to engage in a constructive dialogue, perhaps the tragic ending for Korach and his followers could have been avoided.

And the lesson for us? Be a good listener. Be empathetic. Be understanding. And be a better person for it.

T'FILAT HADERECH

In Jewish tradition, when someone begins a new journey, he or she asks God for protection through T’filat Haderech - The Traveler’s Prayer. This prayer asks for God to watch over us, to protect us, and to save us from any misfortune we might encounter.

What is a journey? In the most literal sense, it is a trip, a voyage, a flight from one destination to another. In a larger sense, it can be a new beginning: a new direction in life, a new career path, a new way of thinking. Starting something new can be exciting, but it can also be frightening - a fear of the unknown.

So it makes sense that when one travels, in whatever way and by whatever means, he or she would want to feel reassured that God’s presence is there to provide a measure of security and comfort during what could be an uncertain road ahead.

This is my T’filat Haderech moment as I begin a new chapter in my life as a cantor, as a teacher, and as a Jew. There are so many of us in the community who are searching for meaning in our lives - for meaning as members of humanity and as members of the Jewish people.

My hope is that through my music, my teaching, my pastoral skills and my spirituality, I can add an important dimension to the life you seek.

Let’s walk that path together!