High Holy Day Message from Rav Julius

As we approach the Days of Awe next week, and particularly Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to share some thoughts on what our holiday prayer services will look like (and you will find the detailed schedule of services in the Weekly Announcements and online)

Monday morning, Sept. 30.

First day services will begin at 9:00 am, and I’d like to make a special request that you try to arrive for the opening bell, at least on one of the High Holy Days.  Mike Gere has traditionally led that portion of the service every year, and perhaps you’d like to honor him with your presence this year.

–As we enter what appears to be the next election cycle, my sermon will be in the form of a ‘Campaign Promise’ in which I outline a journey that I would like to take you, including a “new Judaism” that I would like to formally begin to introduce you to.   For those of you for whom my remarks have counted in the past, this may be the most important message that I impart to you in my years at Beth Jacob. I hope that you will make an extra effort to hear my remarks, and that you consider inviting any relatives or friends for whom Judaism has not been as rewarding as they would like (wonder how many don’t fit into that category).

–And following that I will be joining our High Holy Day Hazzan, Rabbi Mark Novak, to lead you through the Musaf service, that in part will be a continuation of the message of my sermon.  Like yourselves, I’ve not had a High Holy Day experience with our new High Holy Day Hazzan. But in working with him over the last couple of months I have been very impressed with his approach to prayer. While we will not have a separate formal discussion, the comments shared from the Bimah during the service will hopefully initiate internal discussions within each of you. And weather permitting, a short Tashlich ceremony to follow.

Tuesday morning, Oct. 1.

–Again, we start at 9:00 am, and the defining aspect of this service is the continuation of a practice that we began 2-3 years ago: “Mussaf in Shacharit” in which we substitute the Musaf Amidah for the Shacharit Amidah, with a net result that you hear the Hazzan much earlier in the morning, and the service will end earlier.

–In addition, we will have a traditional Torah study session, that will begin about 11:00 am.

And Ellen and I wish all of you Shana Tovah U’Metukah!


Torah Study

At a time when the relationship between the liberal Jewish community in the United States is increasingly at odds with the governing institutions in Israel, for our Shabbat morning Torah study, we will examine the issue of the ‘sanctity’ of the land of Israel. 

Minutes of Torah

This week’s parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, when our thoughts are being directed toward teshuvah, or repentance. Yet, within Torah, there are different concepts of teshuvah — each of which is necessary for its understanding.

The popular form of teshuvah comes from Maimonides, who sees its origin in the Temple and its sacrifices, specifically those brought for transgressions. Part of the rite for such offerings was a verbal confession on the part of the wrongdoer, consisting of the following:

–an acknowledgement that one did wrong,

–remorse, and

–a determination not to repeat the offense.

But if teshuvah is linked to the sacrifices, what replaced it once the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial system came to an end? Or for that matter, how was it practiced outside Israel even when the Temple stood?

Nachmanides sought to answer those questions by referencing this week’s parasha. After setting out the disastrous consequences that will befall Israel when they feel to heed the Covenant, Moses prophesies the future that will follow such hard times, namely that God and Israel will renew their relationship. He then concludes with the following verse:

 “For this command which I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”

Torah does not identify “this command”, but Nachmanides identifies it as teshuvah.  He derives it from the fact that the 10-verse passage just before this commandment includes seven different variations on the Hebrew verb lashuv, the root of the noun teshuvah. Torah often repeats a word several times to emphasize its significance, and here it does so with the verb forming the word teshuvah.  

For Nachmanides, sin and repentance are part of the broader sweep of Jewish history. They belong to the world of the prophet, the figure who warned the people that wrongdoing would lead to defeat and exile; but who, when the exile eventually occurred, summoned the people back. Every individual act of teshuvah recapitulates, in some way, a pattern of this return. Teshuvah in this sense is less atonement than homecoming. Teshuvah is associated with behavioral change and leads to healing, mercy, forgiveness and restoration.

It also helps explain our bewildered state when we commit a sin. In Torah,  one of the words used for sin — averah, means “to be in a place one should not be.” This helps explain why the deepest punishment for sin in the Torah is exile from our normal surroundings. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden. Similarly, throughout the Days of Awe we say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Since a sin puts us in a place that we should not be, its consequence is that the one who performs it finds himself in ‘exile,’ actual or metaphorical, meaning, not in comfortable surroundings. Sin alienates; it distances us from God, and the result is that we are distanced from where we ought to be, where we belong. We become aliens, strangers.

The Maimonidean approach to teshuvah, dominated by sin and punishment, dictated our actions for nearly two thousand years. However, in the course of the twentieth century, that changed. Jews ‘returned.’ The state of Israel was reborn. The promise of the prophets came true.

Yet the word teshuvah in the sense meant by Nachmanides has not yet been fully realized. There has been a physical homecoming to the land, but not yet a spiritual homecoming to the faith. That challenge rests with us, our contemporaries and our children. How it will happen, we do not know. But that it will happen, we do know, for we have God’s promise: that the faith of Israel will be reborn just as its land and state have been. May we live to see it, and work to be part of it.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova U’Metkah – May you have a sweet, happy and healthy New Year!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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