Thursday, October 24, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram for October 25: Trees of Life: Biblical, Institutional, Sacred; Share Your Anti-Semitism Fears


  Sukkot was so special at TBE. Featured above: scenes from Sukkah Hop, Hebrew School Sukkah visits, and 7th and 8th graders enjoying the holiday.

Shabbat Shalom

This weekend marks the one year anniversary since the terror attack on the Tree of Life synagogue.  We'll join with congregations worldwide in marking this anniversary with "Show up for Shabbat" services on Friday night (with Beth Styles) and our first Shabbat-in-the-Round service on Shabbat morning (and welcome to S-in-the-R, Cantor Debbie Katcho-Gray). Also,TBE's Lauren Redniss will speak at Sisterhood's Membership Breakfast on Sunday.  With all that's happening this weekend, don't forget that next weekend will be spectacular, featuring appearances by Neshama Carlebach on Friday and Saturday nights, Nov. 1 and 2, and scholar in residence Stephen Berk on the Jews of Cuba on Sunday morning, Nov. 3.

Last Friday we heard from Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America, who is coordinating the landmark federal lawsuit against the perpetrators of the 2017 violence in Charlottesville.  The conversation was vigorous and supportive and many of the hundred or so who were there wanted more information on how we can help.  Go to to find out more about the case and also to donate.

A special mazal tov to TBE congregant Lynn Vallency Cohen, who has just published her first book:  To the Editor:  a Curated Collection of Letters and Opinion Pieces. The book is a selective compilation of her letters and opinion writings on the arts, the environment, historic preservation, parenting and politics.  All have appeared in newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle, the Stamford Advocate and The New York Times from 2006 to 2019. To explore the book further, the link is:

Mazal tov to Lynn!

Genesis's Tree of Life
In this week's portion of Bereisheet, we return to the story of Creation. Standing smack in the middle of the Garden of Eden is the Tree of Life, along with its sibling, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to the traditional commentator Radak (see lots of fascinating commentaries about the Tree of Life here), "The reason it was dead in the center is that if you want to protect something carefully you place it in the center where it is surrounded, i.e. protected, from all sides equally. A human being's heart, lung, liver, the most precious organs, are surrounded by all manner of protective bone, flesh, and other tissue. These all act like a wall protecting the interior organs from injury."

Such has become the case with all synagogues, not just Pittsburgh's, since the attack on that Tree of Life.  Added rings of security have fast become a given, rather than an option, at American synagogues, as they have been in Europe for decades.  And yet this new reality has not chased people away; it's only caused us to treasure our houses of worship - and the people within them - all the more.

Pittsburgh's Tree of Life

Past TBE president and Pittsburgh native Sylvan Pomerantz shares this photo
taken from a historical retrospective on the Tree of Life synagogue done by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.  Sylvan notes that "the twin brothers in this photo had their bar mitzvah a week before mine. The boy in front is blind. They are being blessed by Rabbi Halpern and Cantor Silverman."

If you missed the 60 Minutes feature on Tree of Life this week, I highly recommend it.  The anguish felt by each member of the three congregations housed there can be felt by every American Jew - and each of the congregations has taken a different posture in how they are responding. You can watch it here.

Meanwhile, this week saw important new revelations on anti-Semitism in America.  The Anti-Defamation League released news indicating that the number of incidents against Jews and Jewish targets in the United States reached 780 in just the first half of this year.  Also, at least a dozen white supremacists have been arrested for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community in the year since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue.  

The AJC also released a landmark survey on anti-Semitism, indicating that Nearly nine out of every ten American Jews (88%) believe antisemitism is a problem in America today and over eight in ten (84%) say it has increased over the past five years, including a plurality-43%-who say it has increased a lot. Concern about antisemitism cuts across differences of age, party affiliation, and religious identification.  See the survey's home page and check out these two troubling responses from the survey:

How Are You Coping?

Some of you might remember Jodi Rudoren, former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times and new editor of the Forward.  She was our Hoffman Lecture speaker a couple of years ago.  Anyway, she has asked rabbis to pass a request along to their congregations:
We're trying to do something (sort of) similar today off the AJC survey, and could use your help. As I'm sure you saw, the survey included the striking finding that 1 in 4 American Jews are avoiding events or places out of fear, and 31% avoiding displaying symbols of their Judaism. We want to hear the human stories behind those numbers.

We created this Google form this Google form to gather individuals' experiences, and will publish some of the responses soon. It would be terrific if you would share the form with your congregations/organizations, via Facebook groups, email lists, or whatever other means you have. 
So if you have something to share, share it with the world...and let me know about it too! I may share some of your replies at services on Friday night (anonymously if you prefer).

Below is the historic front page from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that featured the Mourner's Kaddish in Hebrew font.

TBE's Fallen "Tree of Life"

On Monday morning shortly after 11, we had just completed Yizkor prayers and the Torah scrolls had been returned to the ark, complete with the chanting of "Etz Hayyim Hee," ("It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it," and I descended from the bima to speak to those assembled - when suddenly I heard a thud behind me and saw anguish on the faces of the congregation.  I turned around to discover that one of our sacred scrolls had fallen.

I rushed up to the ark, checked it over, kissed it and secured it into its perch and the service went on.  There was no significant damage, fortunately - aside from the lasting trauma of having witnessed it.  As the service drew to a close, we processed what we had seen.

In all my years at TBE, we've been fortunate, I suppose, that this has never happened.  It's one of those things that we discuss hypothetically with b'nai mitzvah students, just so they will be extra careful.  We talk about how Torah scrolls are like people - we bury them rather than discard them when they can no longer be used.  We kiss them all the time. We hear stories of people rushing into fires to save their scared scrolls.  But one had never fallen before.

When I turned around, what I saw will be seared into my mind forever: the scroll, face down on the floor, with its mantle raised in the back, appeared strangely lifeless.  I say "strangely," because of course it's not alive...but here it looked...dead,like a murder victim with chalk around it at the scene of the crime.  The shock triggered a response of empathy, loss and deep sadness, and the collective memory of so many sacred scrolls thrown far more violently from their arks.  It was a moment of existential dread.   

And yet, we all needed to move on and figure out what to do next.  I made it clear to the congregation that this was not a curse or an omen, that we would face no divine  punishment, and that Jewish tradition offers remedies that could help to repair the damage and make it right - and help repair our damaged world at the same time.

Fasting for forty days, from sunrise to sunset, is a commonly cited remedy.  In some cases (such as with this L.A. congregation), having forty different people each fast for one day is another option.  But on Monday I proposed something different.  Let's have at least forty people in the congregation donate the monetary equivalent of one day's worth of meals to a recognized charity fighting hunger and poverty in Stamford, America, Israel and throughout the world.

Around 850 million people around the world go hungry every day, according to a 2017 study by the United Nations.  So let us turn our trauma into a hungry family's blessing.

Between now and next week, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed below - or another one of your choice that addresses hunger - and let me know when you have done it.  We can go beyond forty donations, naturally (and I hope we will), but we need at least forty to put things in balance again.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, October 18, 2019

Older and Smarter? Honoring our Music Makers, Charlottesville Suit, New Pew Stats, Shabbat-O-Gram


As the festival nears its conclusion, we have a very busy weekend ahead of us.

On Friday evening we will hear from Amy Spitalnick, Executive Director of Integrity First for America, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to holding those accountable who threaten longstanding principles of our democracy - including our country's commitment to civil rights and equal justice. Most notably, IFA is the organization supporting Sines v. Kessler, the lawsuit filed by a coalition of Charlottesville community members against the Nazis and white supremacists responsible for the violence.  She will speak at the conclusion of services, to be led this week by myself and Katie Kaplan.

Speaking of Katie Kaplan, she and Beth Styles will be our honorees at Monday evening's (6:30) Simhat Torah services.  Here's your chance to thank them for stepping up to bringing such joy and deep resonance to our recent High Holiday services.  People are still buzzing about the music from this past High Holidays.  Simhat Torah is also a chance to celebrate the Torah, with song, dance and - of course - candy.  It's not just for kids!  Katie will be co-leading that service with me.  Also join us for Sukkot/Shabbat services on Sat. morning, when we read the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) and on Monday morning at 9:30 for Sh'mini Atzeret and Yizkor.  Yizkor will begin at about 10:30.  if you can't make it, here are some Yizkor prayers you can do at home.  A reminder that our office is closed for the conclusion of the festival on Monday and Tuesday.  Don't expect email or phone replies on those two days.

For kids and parents, this Shabbat morning features two (count 'em, two!) special events, Shabbabimbam for pre-schoolers and "Kids in the Round," a Shabbat service for slightly older kids (see the flyer). And we'll all come together with the main service for lunch afterwards.

Also this weekend, Sukkot highlights include an eighth grade Sukkah N'Smores at my sukkah on Sat night, while the Men's Club is chowing down on Steak and Scotch at the temple, a Men's Club breakfast and ICRF speaker on Sunday morning, and then on Sunday from noon to 1:30, join us next door at our annual Open House and Sukkah Hop at the Hammermans.  

The beat goes on next weekend.  Next Friday night, the 25th (and also the next morning, which will be our first Shabbat-in-the-Round for this season, we'll commemorate the anniversary of the Pittsburgh pogrom by joining Jews across the world for the second annual "Show Up For Shabbat."  See the flyer at the bottom.  And the weekend after that, we'll celebrate with Neshama Carlebach and learn about the Jews of Cuba from scholar in residence Stephen Berk.   And so much more to come!

Person-to-Person Food Drive


We are grateful to all who contributed to our Person-to-Person food drive this year, as well as to those who stocked the shelves - and especially to Ken and Amy Temple, who have coordinated this project for many years.  Ken received this letter of thanks from Person-to-Person this week:

Hi Ken,
Sincere thanks for once again leading this momentous food drive. It was a great day and I know I always feel a great sense of satisfaction as we close up after sorting. It's been a great pleasure working with you and everyone at Temple Beth El. And while your participation in organizing will be missed I'm sure you have left the drive in capable hands with Sharon and I look forward to continuing our mission with her.
As I shared Sunday, the High Holy Drive is our second biggest drive next to the Postal Food Drive.  So, as you probably know, by Polly's count, this season Temple Beth El delivered 550 bags and after Sukkot and all the other Temples are finished we expect a total of well over 1,000 bags or 10,000 lbs. of food! The pantry is bursting at the seems and you should all be very proud in knowing that you are helping hundreds of families in their everyday struggle to stability in a very expensive part of the country.
As you know P2P is a community supported agency and your partnership in this mission is invaluable. So, on behalf of P2P, please extend a big, heartfelt thank you to everyone at Temple Beth El for their love and generosity in food donations and time sorting!
We look forward to working with you in the fight against hunger!
Rick Nixon
Manager, Food/Stamford Warehouse/Mobile Food Pantry
Person-to-Person - 50 Years of Transforming Lives
An update on America's changing religious landscape


The pollsters at Pew continue to monitor the rapid changes taking place among religious groups in America.  This week, a significant new study  showed the decline of the percentage of Americans who are Christians is continuing at a rapid pace.  65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, those who classify themselves as having no particular religion (the "nones") are continuing to grow in number, now nearly passing the number of Catholics.

Meanwhile, according to the survey, the share of U.S. adults who identify with non-Christian faiths has ticked up slightly, from 5% in 2009 to 7% today. This includes a steady 2% of Americans who are Jewish, along with 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu, and 3% who identify with other faiths (including, for example, people who say they abide by their own personal religious beliefs and people who describe themselves as "spiritual").

Also, the number of those who attend church regularly is declining (see chart above).  Today, 17% of Americans say they never attend religious services, up from 11% a decade ago. Over the past decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month has dropped by 7 percentage points, falling from 52 to 45 percent.  

Tell you what - if we can get 45 percent of our congregation to come to services once or twice a month, I'll be one very happy rabbi! I am happy to say that our service attendance, much like our membership, has grown over the past several years, and attendance this summer and fall has been terrific.

There's a lot to digest in this new study about the shifting spiritual practices of Americans.

Young and Smart vs Old and Wise

Are we better off with an 78-year-old president or a 37-year-old one?  These are very real questions that people are asking these days.  Of course, no one should generalize about these matters - every individual ages differently.  But the question is one that is very relevant this week of Sukkot, as Jews around the world read the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

I recently read a provocative article on the subject by Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic, entitled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think." You can read it here.

Brooks writes that according to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.

Decline soon after 50? Oy.

He adds: "Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern....Poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer. When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70. (Some nonfiction writers-especially historians-peak later.)"

On the other hand, wisdom, according to Brooks, increases even as mental acuity falls.  "There are many exceptions," he writes, "but the most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best synthesizers and explainers of complicated ideas-that is, the best teachers-tend to be in their mid-60s or older, some of them well into their 80s."  He cites a number of Buddhist and Hindu sources on wisdom to make that point.  

Jewish sources concur with what he shares of Eastern religions - like this passage from the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:24), which, at a time when lifespans were compressed, the aged were respected for their life experience.
He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud; the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel; the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.

The book of Kohelet is the product of an entire genre of biblical and post biblical material known as "Wisdom Literature."  For its author, the specter of death colors all of life. Death for Kohelet is contradictory, to be both welcomed and feared; but as one ages, death's proximity vastly increases wisdom.  Kohelet adopts the perspective that youth is wasted on the young, on those who have not yet learned to appreciate those fleeting moments of peak strength.

ח  כִּי אִם-שָׁנִים הַרְבֵּה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם, בְּכֻלָּם יִשְׂמָח; וְיִזְכֹּר אֶת-יְמֵי הַחֹשֶׁךְ, כִּי-הַרְבֵּה יִהְיוּ כָּל-שֶׁבָּא הָבֶל.11:8 For if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
ט  שְׂמַח בָּחוּר בְּיַלְדוּתֶיךָ, וִיטִיבְךָ לִבְּךָ בִּימֵי בְחוּרוֹתֶיךָ, וְהַלֵּךְ בְּדַרְכֵי לִבְּךָ, וּבְמַרְאֵי עֵינֶיךָ; וְדָע, כִּי עַל-כָּל-אֵלֶּה יְבִיאֲךָ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט.9 Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
י  וְהָסֵר כַּעַס מִלִּבֶּךָ, וְהַעֲבֵר רָעָה מִבְּשָׂרֶךָ:  כִּי-הַיַּלְדוּת וְהַשַּׁחֲרוּת, הָבֶל.10 Therefore remove vexation from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh; for childhood and youth are vanity.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a founder of neo-hasidism and Jewish renewal, wrote extensively on "Age-ing and "Sage-ing."  To hear him speak of spiritual eldering is to hear a modern version of Kohelet.  In this excerpt, he speaks of how each human being is put here to share one insight, harvest it, and pass it on.  Old age is not a time of diminishing capability, but of cultivating new spiritual and intellectual opportunities.  

Rabbi Zalman Schachter: Spiritual Eldering (excerpt) -- A Thinking Allowed DVD w/ Jeffrey Mishlove
Rabbi Zalman Schachter: Spiritual Eldering (excerpt) -- A Thinking Allowed DVD w/ Jeffrey Mishlove

Kohelet teaches that life is short - that to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.  Israel's great poet Yehuda Amichai begs to differ, suggesting that life is too short for the Kohelet's allotted seasons to be distinct, that the time to wail and the time to dance can and often do overlap.  From this poem (below), we learn that we don't have the luxury of waiting for wisdom to arrive in our old age, and youth passes too quickly to give in to declining mental acuity.  We can be smart and wise - and chew gum simultaneously.  The brain, at any age, can multitask.  There is time for everything, if we put our minds to it.  

Perhaps the reason there are few best sellers written by people in their 70s has nothing to do with brainpower, and more to do with the rampant ageism of publishers.

Yehuda Amichai - A Man In His Life

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 to 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.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.
Hag Samayach (Happy Holiday)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Rabbi Gerry Ginsburg Sermon for First Night of Rosh Hashanah

It is so good to be back at my home, Temple Beth El, and as a rabbi, and speaking here again at Rosh HaShannah services.  It’s been a long journey, seven years since I started rabbinical school, including the last four years when I was a student rabbi in Port Chester, NY, Milford, CT and Glens Falls, NY.

It is good to be home.

I went to rabbinical school a little bit later in life than some, but all of the lessons I learned in my business and  personal life prior to the academy only helped, hopefully, to make me a better rabbi now. 

There were several very special events in my life this past year, you might call them super events. First, in February, I was at the Super Bowl in Atlanta, with my New England Patriots playing the Los Angeles Rams.  You probably know the result of the game, but that is not the reason I am mentioning it.

 I mention it because it was really a super weekend with my son, Sam, who is now 33 years old.  We spent four full days together talking, getting to know each other even better, taking in Atlanta, eating and, yes, seeing a football game.  For those wondering if I also take my daughter, Ruth, to football games, the answer is yes.  We have gone to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, together, on many occasions.

For those of you who have never spent a long weekend with your adult child, I would encourage you to do it.  Sam and I  had the wonderful city of Atlanta as our backdrop and were able to spend some very super, quality time together.

The second event is one which I truthfully only remember in bits and pieces. I was present, but it was really hard to concentrate on the event. It was such an incredible day, one that I could not plan for, but rather just had to experience.  

That was my rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion,  which many friends and relatives attended, including many from Temple Beth El, and a post-ceremony party.  That ceremony capped those long years of studying everything from Genesis to the philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel, from the book of Job to the mystical book Sefer HaYitzera, from Biblical and Modern Hebrew to Pastoral Counseling.  I almost cannot remember the ordination as it was a very deep and mystical experience for me. I am very fortunate to have a video, so I can clearly re-live it.
That day was certainly not the end to my path of Jewish study, far from it, but it was a very significant point along the path.

Certainly after such stress, I needed vacation, and spent two weeks this summer in the Berkshires, which is a very special place for my wife, Fran, and me.  We get to relax, spread out in our summer place, while packing our schedules with too many concerts at Tanglewood and plays in Pittsfield and Williamstown. We see more and do more in those two weeks, I think, than we do the remainder of the year. 

I don’t think I’m unusual in that most everything I see, I see through a special lens, for me a rabbinic lens. Our experiences form our opinions and views.   This is true for everyone, teachers, lawyers, doctors and … rabbis.  So as I go to plays I view a lot of what happens on stage through my Jewish experience.

One of the plays we saw was Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. While I suppose someone could watch  that and prepare a sermon on the beginning of the world, I  will not even try.  The play combines the story of creation with the end of the world, so I will let you see that on your own, and create your own talk.

But two plays made profound impressions on me, impressions which resound with me as we start the Yammim Noraim, these High Holydays. 

Both are plays we saw at The Williamstown Theater Festival. They are the classic Ibsen play, Ghosts, and a new American play, Before the Meeting.

Some  may claim that there are supernatural characters on the stage during Ghosts, such as Caspar the Ghost of the old cartoon series, or the bloody head warning Macbeth of the return of Macduff.  But I don’t see that.

I see the ghosts as allegories, explanations on  how lives were lived.  In Ghosts, the wife, Mrs. Alving, the  matriarch, specifically kept her son, Oswald, away from the details of her late husband’s life.  She sent him to boarding school at the age of seven so he would not learn of his father’s errant ways.  Now, with her adult son’s return home from living apart for many years, she still tries her best to keep all of the details from him, until it is impossible not to tell him.

She is far from the only blemished fruit in this play.  Her son Oswald falls in love with the young woman who is the maid at his mother’s house, only to shockingly discover that she is his sister. And this play is Danish, not Greek. The maid, Regina, flees that house in a huff, never to see Oswald again. 

One of the central characters with his own checkered past is a  priest, Pastor Mendes, from a nearby town.  He was in love with Mrs. Alving many years ago, and I think some of that feeling is still within him.  He’s in charge of the local orphanage which is scheduled to receive a large donation from the Alving family.

Before the Meeting, by Adam Bock,  is a new play which describes what occurs before the daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Every day, Gail and the regular members of her early morning group set up for their meeting in the exact same way: Nicole makes the coffee, Gail arranges the chairs, and Ron complains. And I don’t think he is even Jewish!

As they forge a path toward sobriety and well-being, they come to rely on the routine and on each other. But when Gail’s estranged granddaughter reopens old family wounds, Gail knows it will take more than coffee, chairs, and companionship to keep her life from falling apart. Each one of the characters hides things from their past from their close friends. 

Gail is, if you will, the crew chief.  She has a long soliloquy in which she shares the mistakes in her life, her mistakes on raising her daughter, and the very serious error in planning to get  together with her granddaughter, without the mother knowing. 

While this is not real life, it is real life imagined as a play.  The characters in Ghosts are of Danish stock and live in Denmark.  Before the Meeting is set somewhere in the United States and its cast of characters are all middle or lower middle class, who have never been to Denmark.
But what these people all share, regardless of where they live, their upbringing, place in society, or family status is that they have all made mistakes in their lives.  Serious mistakes, ordinary mistakes, mistakes which they did not know were mistakes at first.  Let me say this in a slightly different way – they missed the mark.  And, many of them, to their credit, tried to atone for their sins. 

For this is the way of the world.  This is the human experience. People sin, people make mistakes, people sometimes do not care about the feelings of their friends and relatives. 
It’s up to the theater critics to review the play and understand the playwright’s resolution of their sins. Do they veer off the path repeatedly? Do they atone at all, are they sorry for what they have done, do they learn from their mistakes? 
 Jews are taught that one can atone for one’s sins up until one’s last day on earth. It’s never too late to start.

My constant companion in the month of Elul was the book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l.  He asks, “Will we let in the truth we have been walling out all year long and let this truth help us to stop making the same mistakes again and again?  Will we let this moment of consciousness help us break the unconscious momentum of our lives?  Will we move from a state of siege to a state of openness, to a state of truthfulness, especially with ourselves?”

Every day we open our prayers with the words:
אֱלהַי. נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהורָה הִיא

The soul that you have given me, Adonai, is pure.  We start with that pureness, that almost angelic sense of being, and life happens.  There is always the yetzer harah and yetzer hatov around us; the evil inclination and the good inclination.  We could not exist without both, for things like creativity come from a mixture of evil and good, and creativity is vitally important in our lives.

But it’s all about balance, it’s all about keeping everything in check.  It is possible for us to be too good, I suppose, but it is very easy to be too bad, to let that evilness take over the balance.

And it’s not that we mean to live our lives outside of purity, outside of balance.  But things happen.  Sometimes willingly but often times unwillingly or unconsciously.  The next few days will be spent with the Al Chet prayers; for the sin we have sinned against You knowingly or unknowingly.

Atone.  It is a word which was used first in English in the late 16th century, meaning to "be in harmony, agree, be in accordance,". Think of the word atone  as a combination of the words at and one.  At One. The meaning to  "make up for errors or deficiencies" and that of "make reparations" are from the 17th century. If you are at one, your are at peace with yourself and your life.

But that is the English.  In Hebrew the concept has been taught since the time of the Bible, Shuva … return.  The opening line from this Shabbat’s Haftarah from Hosea hits the nail on the head: 
שׁ֚וּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד השם אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֥י כָשַׁ֖לְתָּ בַּעֲוֺנֶֽךָ׃

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, For you have fallen because of your sin.
For the act of returning is the act of atonement.
And the act of returning is, indeed, a good thing. 

Sin and repentance are part of this human condition. 

“The Torah stresses the essential duality of human nature: we’re usually ruled by nature and submit to its imperatives, but we also can shape our own futures through acts of will and intelligence,” wrote Jewish demographer Gary Rubin. “From its very beginning, the Torah sets forth both possibilities. How we turn out is largely up to each of us.”

In a play, it is possible to develop characters who do not sin or sin continuously.  For us, life is somewhere in between. 

Consider this:

The movie Casualties of War  by David Rabe tells the story of a squad of soldiers which fought in the Vietnam War. It is based  on a true story.  While there the soldiers both saw and participated in some terrible crimes. One of their crimes was to abduct and rape a young Vietnamese girl. The lead role in the film is played by Michael J. Fox. He takes on the character of Private Erikson, a soldier who is part of the squad but did not join in the abduction and rape.

As he struggles with what happened, he says to the other men in his squad, “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we’re acting like we can do anything we want, as though it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m thinking it’s just the opposite. Because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we have to be extra careful what we do. Because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more than we ever know.”

As his character said: Maybe it matters more than we ever know.

It matters more than we ever know because life is so complex, so inter-related.  What we do affects us, but also others, and impacts their lives and relationships.  We need to be honest and upfront and always do our best.

Do we have time to help those less fortunate by giving and serving meals to the needy?  By donating to our Kol Nidre food drive? By helping tutor those who do not speak English? By picking up trash we find at the curbside? Can we volunteer our time in any one of thousands of ways in Stamford and in our region? Our answer has to be yes. We are citizens of this earth and must help to make it a better place.  This is tikkun olam.

We need to work at our jobs and in our households to nourish and protect our families.  But we also know that we are not alone on earth, that we are part of a large global family.  That includes Ibsen’s Danish characters and those people at the AA meeting working their way out of alcoholism and other family problems.

One of my favorite Chasidic rebbes is Nachman of Bretzlav, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  In his short life he wrote many volumes of philosophy.  On repentence he said:

“The greatest revelation of God’s glory comes when those who are furthest of all from Him draw closer; then His Name is exalted and honored above and below. It is a duty for everyone to make efforts to draw people closer to God. And no one should say, “How can I come closer to God seeing that I am so removed from Him because of my wrongdoing?” On the contrary, the further away a person is, the more God’s glory is exalted through Him when he makes an effort to return and draw close.”

This is the lesson of the High Holydays, these ten days of Repentance.  No matter who we are, no matter how far we have strayed, we can return.  And, many of us, I believe, have not strayed that far.  We are in need of fine tuning, in need of getting our lives closer to that bullseye and hitting that mark.

This holiday is also a time to be with family and friends, in addition to prayer. Be with them.  Talk with them. Enjoy them.  Draw closer to them. Let this Rosh HaShannah be your best ever. 

On behalf of me and my family, my wife Fran, and my children Ruth and Sam, and their partners Kim and Rae, I want to wish you Shannah Tovah u’Metukah, a very happy and very sweet New Year, filled with much love and peace.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon.