Thursday, September 14, 2023

In This Moment: The Birthday of Worlds; Do Repentance, Prayer and Charity Avert the Severe Decree?


A Star is Born...Literally

Hayom Harat Olam: Today is the Birthday of the Cosmos

The glittering landscape of a newborn star.

From the Webb telescope. Photo by NASA

And this news story, from the BBC, just yesterday:

Tantalizing sign of possible life on faraway world

Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope may have discovered tentative evidence of a sign of life on a faraway planet. It may have detected a molecule called dimethyl sulphide (DMS). On Earth, at least, this is only produced by life. The researchers stress that the detection on the planet 120 light years away is "not robust" and more data is needed to confirm its presence. Researchers have also detected methane and CO2 in the planet's atmosphere. Detection of these gases could mean the planet, named K2-18b, has a water ocean.Prof Nikku Madhusudhan, of the University of Cambridge, who led the research, told BBC News that his entire team were ''shocked'' when they saw the results. "On Earth, DMS is only produced by life. The bulk of it in Earth's atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments," he said.

Today is the birthday of the world....

But which one?

In This Moment

Unetane Tokef: Some Reflections

As we approach that most sacred of times, and the prayer that has come to embody the essence of the day, take a look at these thoughts - perhaps bring them along.

Warm wishes to you and yours for a sweet new year, and many more to come.


We'll start with my take:

In Israel, go into a supermarket and you'll see a version of this prayer everywhere. Not exactly Unetane Tokef; but Pag Tokef. A pag tokef is an expiration date. This prayer reminds us that we all have one. We sit there on the shelf, waiting to be summoned to the task at hand, not wanting to spoil or go stale.

Most of us don't know when our pag tokef is. Steve Jobs knew. Jobs died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. But as early as 2005, he could tell a goup of students at Stanford, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Each of us is one day closer to that expiration date than we were when we woke up yesterday, one hour closer than when we began musaf. The High Holidays, more than anything else, are designed to remind us of that simple, clear fact. Rabbi Eliezer stated that we should repent one day before our death. “Does then one know on what day he will die?" his students asked. "All the more reason they should repent today, lest they die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a). 

We should examine our deeds every single day – because every day could be our pag tokef, our expiration date. 

...Unetane Tokef is a call to arms against determinism. It is a call to live with dignity and compassion for however many days we have left. It is a call not to be preoccupied by the precise date of our death, but always to have awareness that it could be any day. 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, 2012


Unetaneh toqef is to Rosh Hashanah what Lekhah dodi is to Shabbat. Both poems capture the spirit of the day more memorably than the classical Rabbinic liturgy. Indeed, they have come to epitomize what their respective day has come to mean. Just as Lekhah dodi provides the imagery for transforming Shabbat into a rendezvous between God and Israel, so Unetaneh Toqef provides the imagery for transforming Rosh Hashanah into a trial between God and humanity..... While our judgement is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah, it is not sealed until Yom Kippur because Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah can help us change our outcome. Moreover, they provide the resilience to bear the ups and downs of life. Repentence works on our relationship with the self (mind), prayer works on our relationship with G-d (tongue), and charity works on our relationship with others (hand). Having a good relationship with all of these helps us overcome adversity.

Rabbi Reuven Kimelman

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. At that moment, I realize that not all of us will be here next year. These people — congregants, friends, family — it is a sad but inescapable fact that some will die over the course of the coming year. Our lives are a gift. We perform teshuvah not to appease a distant and invisible Deity, but rather to remind us of our value to one another and strengthen our relationships with each other. We give tzedakah to better the lives of those around us. And we engage in prayer to further develop the bonds of our connection to Judaism and our community. Our job is not to temporarily put on our best behavior in order to convince God to let us live for another year. Instead, we acknowledge that our time here on earth is limited and our lives tenuous. The true and vital message of Unetaneh Tokef requires us to ask ourselves not who shall live, but how shall we live?

Cantor Matt Axelrod

The Talmud originally taught that when we pray, and do Teshuva and Tzedakah (charity), during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we actually succeed in having the Divine decree against us torn up - ma’akirin et ha-gezerah. The terrible things we did are as if they never happened, and their consequences won’t happen either.

But do prayer, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah actually change our fate? The rabbis who came along later realized that of course they do not. The real change is in the way we perceive the world. So they changed the language of the prayer accordingly. Now we say, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-at ha-gezerah. The act of Teshuvah is no longer seen as ripping up the evil decree. Now it transforms the evil of the decree. Teshuvah doesn’t change what happens, and it doesn’t change the way we are. It merely changes the way we see these things. We no longer see things as evil, we simply see them as they are, and that makes all the difference.

Rabbi Alan Lew

Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are to the harsh decree like rehab is to an addiction; they don’t eliminate the issue, but teach us how to live with it. They are also like rain falling over the years after a volcanic eruption - they turn the barren landscape into a foundation for life.

Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig

 We reach within (Teshuvah), we reach beyond (Tefillah), and we reach toward others (Tzedakah). Through repentance, prayer, and charity we learn, and then we teach, the great lessons that come from adversity.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar

We are all born with predispositions - to alcoholism, to weight gain, to anger - but we have it within our power to reshape, although not totally alter, our fate.

Rabbi Avi Weiss

We can be kinder, more forgiving, more generous. We may not be able to make our lives longer, but we can make them better, less bitter, more loving. We may find ourselves facing unintended circumstances, confronting situations not of our making. Those circumstances aren’t inherently meaningful, but can give them purpose.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

Rabbi Joseph Meszler incorporated the Serenity Prayer into the Unetane Tokef for the High Holidays:

For the things we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,

For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,

For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.

Reuven Kimelman's Translation

On Rosh Hashanah it is recorded 

But on the fast of Kippur it is sealed

[see B. Rosh Hashanah 16a]

How many shall pass on [see Psalm 104:9a]

and how many shall come into being [see Psalm 104:30a].

who shall live and who shall die [B. Rosh Hashanah 16b),

who shall reach his end and who shall not: 

who by fire and who by flood [see Psalm 66:12a],

who by war and who by beast [see Leviticus 26:6],

who by starvation and who by dehydration[see Jeremiah 15:2-5

who by shattering events[2] and who by plague,

who by choking and who by pelting,

who shall be at rest and who restless,

who shall be tranquil and who tormented,

who shall be at ease and who at dis-ease, 

who shall wax rich and who shall wane poor,    

who shall have an upturn and who a downturn.

But teshuvahtefillah and tzedakah 

remove the harshness/hardship of the decree.

...One’s origin - from dust; his end - to dust [see Genesis 3:19b].

At the risk of his life he earns his bread 

[see Lamentations 5:9].

(In Scripture, life) is said to be 

Like a shard – shattered [see Leviticus 6:21]

like grass – withering [Isaiah 40:7]

like a flower – wilting [Isaiah 40:7, see Psalm 103:14] 

like a shadow – passing [Psalm 144:4b]

like a cloud – fading  [Job. 7:9],

like a breeze – fleeting [see Isaiah 40:7]

like dust – flittering [see Isaiah 5:24a]

like a dream – flying off [Job 20:8].

But You are king everlasting God.

Leonard Cohen's Version

  • Unetaneh Tokef: Do We Control our Fate? (MJL) - At that moment, I realize that not all of us will be here next year. These people — congregants, friends, family — it is a sad but inescapable fact that some will die over the course of the coming year. Our lives are a gift. We perform teshuvah not to appease a distant and invisible Deity, but rather to remind us of our value to one another and strengthen our relationships with each other. We give tzedakah to better the lives of those around us. And we engage in prayer to further develop the bonds of our connection to Judaism and our community. Our job is not to temporarily put on our best behavior in order to convince God to let us live for another year. Instead, we acknowledge that our time here on earth is limited and our lives tenuous. The true and vital message of Unetaneh Tokef requires us to ask ourselves not who shall live, but how shall we live?

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, some reminders and requests from the rabbi (i.e me)

1) As in prior years, we will be live streaming. There is nothing like being here, but we are delighted to bring the joy to everyone looking for our support. Please arrange to get the password to tap into our service if you can’t be here live.  

2) Once again, we are collecting food for Person to Person. Please take a bag home and fill it, bringing it back over the coming days.

3) Once you are settled into your seats, please look around and if you notice someone sitting alone or looking lost, PLEASE go up to that person, show them what page we're on, wish a happy new year, and smile. We call this "radical hospitality," and we've gotten much better at it, but sometimes we get all caught up on being guests when in fact all of us are hosts. This is your place! 

4) Plan to be here on second day Rosh Hashanah, which will be on Sunday. Our attendance has been growing every year, and it's a great time to really settle in to a more relaxed service with great music, hear the shofar for the first time, and take in part two of the sermon cycle.

5) Plan to get here as early as you can in the morning. On both Rosh Hashanah days, I'll be leading the morning service, which brings me back to my first High Holidays gig (at age 16) as a "Ba'al Shacharit" at an overflow service in my home shul. Please don't rush for the doors as the service nears its conclusion. I know the shuttles are inconvenient but think of the wait as an added opportunity to wish more people a sweet year. 

6) Please turn off electronic devices - this is both for adults and kids. I love those items as much as anyone and I'm also as dependent on them as you are. But there comes a time when simply living requires living simply. No need for Facebook while we face the Book. But once the holiday is behind us, feel free to post and tweet (X?) away how wonderful it was to be at TBE, and share what you gained from the experience!

7) TBE has long been egalitarian, but equal opportunity is not enough. Since the day I arrived, nearly every Bat Mitzvah has worn a tallit. I think it's time to see more of those tallitot being worn by women on the High Holidays. If you have one, bring it and if you don't, use one of ours. There is no greater statement of Jewish pride than to wear a tallit. Plus, it feels cool and empowering, a sense of ownership and humility at the same time and a profound connection with God and our own ancestors. If it's the first time, all the better. I would love to see a sea of tallitot standing before me.

8) Tashlich always provides a welcome change to get outdoors after a long day of praying and eating. When the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Shabbat, it is typically delayed until the second day. Given that we don’t have our family service on the second day (I still encourage people to come, for one thing, to hear the shofar, which is not used on Shabbat), we will leave materials on our info table for people to do Tashlich on their own. You can also download the materials found here.

9) Smile a little. Maybe even a lot. You'll be amazed at how much a thousand smiles can illuminate and energize a room. Despite the craziness of things right now, there is so much for each of us to be grateful for.

10) Since I arrived at Temple Beth El in 1987, I’ve delivered a total of 134 High Holiday sermons. Four to go. And if you are already feeling nostalgic, you can read / watch / hear most of them here.

See also:

  • When Rosh Hashanah Falls on Shabbat (MJL) - Jewish law requires that the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah at least 30 times (Rosh Hashanah 34a), although many communities sound the shofar as many as 100 times on each day of Rosh Hashanah. But when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, the shofar isn’t blown in most Ashkenazi congregations. According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 24b), this practice dates back to Temple times, when the shofar wasn’t blown on Shabbat. The rabbis explain that the talmudic sages instituted this prohibition not because the actual blowing of the shofar breaks Shabbat, but out of fear that a shofar blower might accidentally violate Shabbat by carrying the shofar beyond the permissible area. If the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, Ashkenazi Jews do Tashlich on the second day. Sephardi Jews, as well as some non-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, perform Tashlich on the first day, even on Shabbat. Rosh Hashanah will coincide with Shabbat in the coming years: 2023, 2026, 2027, 2030, 2033, 2040.

Recommended Reading

Today's Israeli Front Pages

Yediot Achronot

Ha'aretz (English)

Jerusalem Post

  • A webinar , "Diaspora Jews: Time to Take a Stand!"with Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis, and Matti Friedman. Hosted by Amanda Borschel-Dan. Co-sponsored by The Times of Israel and SOS - Save Our Shared Home. See also: American Rabbis, Tell Your Congregants: The Israel You Knew Is a Relic of the Past (Ha'aretz) Rabbis pretending everything is normal would be doing a disservice to the people who look up to them...These are not normal times. Israel is undergoing a formative, defining confrontation over its very identity. You are part of it, not a distant cousin who casually pays attention and is paralyzed by risk-averseness. This is not the usual déjà vu-type Israeli political crisis or impasse that Diaspora Jews can stay out of because “we don’t send our kids to the military and we don’t live there.” ...This is the real thing. Sanctimoniously bemoaning the lack of “unity” and preaching about the perils of “divisiveness” as we enter a new year “as one” is disingenuous. There are no talmudic dialectics at work here, no moral equivocation. This government is all about excluding you and your community, rabbi.

  • Haaretz Exclusive | Thomas L. Friedman: The Thread Connecting Trump, Putin and Netanyahu (Ha'aretz) - Israel's democracy-defense movement is one of the most remarkable, authentic, vibrant and important democracy movements I've ever covered. But Americans don't fully appreciate its unique power – and how confronting Netanyahu connects to the struggle against Trump and Putin.....On November 4, 2022, immediately after the last Israeli election, I wrote a column explaining the implications to my readers. My worst fears were all contained in the headline: “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” It was meant to shock Americans into understanding just how radical and far right some members of this newly elected Israeli government were. As I privately warned my Jewish friends about the Religious Zionism party in the ruling coalition and some of the fringe Likudniks brought to power: “You did not go to Camp Ramah with these people. Your family did not vacation in the Catskills with these people. Your parents did not meet these people on their last UJA tour to Israel. They are to the right of the far right. But now they have positions of real and central power.” ... I basically only write about three subjects these days: Donald Trump, Ukraine and Israel. My view is that if America goes for Trump again, Ukraine goes Putin and Israel goes autocratic, the world I want to leave to my new grandson won’t be there for him. Israel will be dominated by a cocktail of far-right Jewish religious nationalists, Jewish supremacists and ultra-Orthodox Jews, uncommitted to democracy. The European Union will be threatened by Russian religious-nationalists from the outside – uncommitted to democracy – and their own, often pro-Putin, antisemitic nationalists from the inside – uncommitted to democracy. And America will be threatened by a Trump cult of nationalists, isolationists and white supremacists uncommitted to the peaceful transfer of power

  • Orthodox Union certifies Israeli brand of lab-grown meat as kosher — but not pareve (JTA) - Obtaining kosher certification for lab-grown meat is complicated because the process of cultivating meat from stem cells requires the use of living animals — and kosher law bars the consumption of any part of a living animal. Founded in 2015, SuperMeat’s lab-grown poultry avoids this dilemma by acquiring stem cells from eggs rather than from the living birds themselves. And because the eggs are at an early stage of fertilization, there’s no concern that blood will end up in the product, which would also be prohibited by Jewish law.

  1. The immense stress of the job: 56%
  2. I feel lonely and isolated: 43%
  3. Current political divisions: 38%
  4. I am unhappy with the effect this role has had on my family: 29%
  5. I am not optimistic about the future of my church: 29%

I can relate to all of these, but in particular, the top two are the ones that figured heavily into my decision. Being a pastor is like being a parent. You can imagine what it’s like to have a child, but until you are in the role, you cannot fully appreciate what it’s like to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a life 24/7. The same is true for being a pastor. You think you know what to expect, but the lived experience is very different from your imaginings of what it will be.

Above: A High Holiday message by Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, on behalf of thre Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Tuchman, who addressed our congregation on Pride Shabbat, will be teaching a three-session mini-course for us this coming November. Stay tuned!

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350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 |
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