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A Confluence of Emotions

Shimon Peres, President of Israel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009. CC 2.0 by World Economic Forum. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

Shimon Peres, President of Israel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009. CC 2.0 by World Economic Forum. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

As happens sometimes in the natural course of events, we are dealing with two ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time.

First, we join with the rest of the Jewish community, and the world community as a whole, in expressing our profound sadness at the loss of Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l. Of the founders of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres was the last. The town in Poland in which he was born disappeared, as did many in his family, during the Shoah. He left when he was a teenager, and threw himself into the building of his new home, the national home for the Jewish People. He served in the Israel Defense Force, which he himself helped to build. He held virtually every public office that exists in Israel, including two terms as Prime Minister. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and accolades on the world stage too numerous to mention. While he led his people in war, he also became a pursuer of peace. His ultimate aspiration was for the peoples of the Middle East to live side by side in peace, security, and mutual respect. He was a friend to the Reform Movement, and in fact his daughter Tzviah and her family are members of Kehillat Beit Daniel, the largest Reform congregation in Tel Aviv.

Of all my memories of Shimon Peres, perhaps the one that has affected me most profoundly is of a speech he gave to a large Jewish group out on Eastern Long Island. He concluded his remarks with the following midrash. I believe it encapsulates the extraordinary humanitarianism of the man.

A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over, and the day has begun?” One student said, “When we can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, the day begun.”

Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

But now, as I am certain President Peres would have wanted, we also turn to the Days of Awe, which are virtually upon us. As we move into our New Year on Sunday Evening and Monday, Rosh Hashanah, I know that I speak for the entire staff and leadership of Union Temple in wishing all of you, and your families and friends, good health, much sweetness, and all good things in the New Year of 5777. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.

The Blessing, The Curse, The Vote

Vote!

Vote!

Our Torah portion describes a public ceremony that was to be carried out as soon as the Israelites crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. In the city of Shechem (the modern city of Nablus) there are two mountains that slope down into a crossroads. The ceremony was to take place on those two mountains. From Mount Gerizim, slightly to the north, six of the tribes were to pronounce a series of blessings. From Mount Ebal, slightly to the south, six were to pronounce a series of curses. The message of the blessings and curses was simple: follow God’s laws, and you will be blessed; transgress them, and you will be cursed. Long life, well-being, abundance, and peace were the blessings; drought, starvation, war and death were the curses. Pretty straight-forward, within the mindset of the ancient world.

It is fortuitous that these concluding chapters of the Torah fall within our yearly reading cycle just as we are preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe – the Season of Repentance. We understand that in large measure we are all vulnerable against the forces of nature. Nevertheless, again, and yet again, we are reminded that within the realm of our own behavior, we have a choice over the decisions and actions that are within our control. As we enter this holy season, we are charged with the responsibility to reassess our behavior during the past year, and focus ourselves on doing better in the next one.

This year in particular we are in the midst of extraordinarily consequential deliberations regarding the choices we will make in our upcoming national election. Yes, some of us may actually view one candidate or another as a blessing or a curse. But the blessing that we actually DO possess in the United States is at least the ability to make our voice heard, and that is in the voting booth. This is one area that IS within our control. It is not only a blessing of democracy, in my view, it is our sacred responsibility as Americans.

Please. . . If you are registered, please make sure to get out on Tuesday, November 8, and vote. If there is any question about registration, please read this and send it to everyone you know.

This is one blessing or curse that is squarely within our own control.

Inside High Holy Day Hebrew

Open Gate. Courtesy Dave Catchpole CC Flickr.

Open Gate. Courtesy Dave Catchpole CC Flickr.

On Rosh Hashanah we greet each other with “L’shanah Tovah” – “A good year.” The more formal expression is “L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu” – “A good year, and may you be inscribed and sealed (for blessing in the Book of Life).” The traditional imagery of the High Holy Days is of the Almighty sitting up in the Heavenly Court, writing (from the root k-t-v) in a big book, the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah, our names are written in there, along with what lies in store for us in the year ahead. During the Ten Days of Repentance – these very days – we have a chance to alter an ominous decree with the sincerity and conscientiousness of our teshuvah – the amends we make, one with the other, and with God. Then on Yom Kippur, according to this imagery, God makes the final decision, and seals (from the root ch-t-m) our fate, and as the sun sets, the big book closes. Along with the big book goes the image of the Heavenly Gates, which also close as the sun sets. These are the Gates of Repentance – sha’arei teshuvah. The final service of Yom Kippur, Ne’ilah, features this image most prominently, using the term “lin’ol,” meaning “to lock.” (Sandals in Hebrew are “na’alayim” because they close by locking.)

Thus, given this imagery, the correct phrase with which we ought to greet each other on Yom Kippur is “G’mar Chatimah Tovah” – “May your seal ultimately be for good.” And, if we’re a bit weary from all the fasting, many of us shorten it with “G’mar Tov.”

Regardless of how literally or figuratively we look at this imagery, the principle is the same for all of us. Our responsibility during these Days of Awe is to seek rapprochement, one with the other, and return to our relationship with God and with our Jewish tradition. But we also learn that while this is the time set aside for this rapprochement, we should carry this with us throughout the year as well. Even given the imagery of the closing book and the closing gates, “The Gates of Repentance are always open” (Lamentations Rabba 3:43). So it is with this expression of hopefulness and optimism that I wish all of you not only a “Tzom Kal,” – “and easy fast” – but also “G’mar Chatimah Tovah.”