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.
Shabbat HaChodesh… This coming Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul – the beginning of the month of Elul. Elul is one of the months that has a two-day Rosh Chodesh; this year, Shabbat, September 3rd is the 30th day of Av and Sunday, September 4th is the first of Elul. Elul, of course, is the last month of the calendar year before Rosh Hashanah. This Rosh Hashanah, the year will change to 5777. But the months of the Hebrew year actually begin in the spring with Nisan, the month of Passover, so Elul is actually the sixth month of the year. If Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh, it is called Shabbat HaChodesh.
The month of Elul… The word itself, “Elul,” comes from the Aramaic for “to search.” It is an appropriate name, considering the season we are about to enter. During Elul we begin searching our hearts, and looking back over our behavior during the past year. Elul is the month during which we begin the process of Teshuvah – Repentance – as we seek to repair the fissures that have occurred in our relationships with other people this past year. This of course should be an ongoing process for us all year-round! Nevertheless, it is during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, that we are specifically commanded to engage in this process. The month of Elul gives us a special opportunity to begin our soul-searching and seeking of rapprochement with other people.
Shabbat of Blessing… Shabbat Mevarchin, the “Shabbat of Blessing,” is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh. Last week was such a Shabbat. On Shabbat Mevarchin we recite the Birkat HaChodesh (Blessing of the Month). With this blessing we announce the day on which the new month will begin, and pray for peace and well-being during the coming month. The practice of reciting this blessing emerged during the Geonic period, around the 9th century C.E. Tishrei is the only month that we do not anticipate with the Birkat HaChodesh of Shabbat Mevarchin. The general explanation for this is that there is such intense build-up to Rosh Hashanah – the 1st of Tishrei – that a special blessing to announce the month is unnecessary. But there is also a nice Chassidic midrash that suggests that it is God who blesses the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, and thus leaves the privilege of blessing all the other months to humans.
The Blessing Itself… The Blessing of the New Month appears below. It expresses the hope that we all have for this month, for every month, and indeed, as we anticipate it, for the New Year as well.
Our God and God of our ancestors,
May the new month bring us goodness and blessing.
May we have long life, peace, prosperity,
A life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine;
A life in which the longings of our hearts are fulfilled for good.
Rosh Chodesh Elul will be this Shabbat and Sunday (1 Elul is on Sunday).
4 additional notes… We have not one, but four additional blessings to mark this month.
Our new student cantor, Benjamin Harris, will be with us for Shabbat services this week. And, we will welcome him formally next week, September 9th. Kabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:30PM as usual, and then Ben will present for us a short program of cantorial art songs, both in Hebrew and Yiddish. A festive Oneg will follow. We hope you will join us next Friday!
We rejoice with Cantor Lauren Phillips, who served so beautifully as our student cantor from 2010-2013. Lauren is getting married this Sunday to Dan Fogelman, a New York– based attorney. Lauren began serving this summer as Senior Cantor of Temple Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. Mazal Tov Lauren!
On Tuesday evening, Steve and I had the thrill of a lifetime as we stood at attention at Citi Field, listening to Cantor Todd Kipnis sing the Star Spangled Banner before the awesome crowd of Mets fans. Todd, of course, served as our student cantor from 2003-2005, and now is the Senior Cantor of Temple Shaarey Tefila of Manhattan. He was stupendous! (By the way, also in the stands with us was Cantor Maria Dubinsky, the Assistant Cantor at Shaarey Tefila, and also former student cantor [2008-2010] at Union Temple. Maria grew up in the FSU, and this was her first baseball game ever!) And, by the way, last year, in May of 2015, Lauren Phillips, who at the time was serving as Senior Cantor of Temple Sinai in Milwaukee, sang the Star Spangled Banner at Miller Park before the Brewers game.
We wish our Temple Musician, Dr. Shinae Kim, our warmest Mazal Tov on becoming an American citizen just yesterday. A wonderful simcha!
All our musicians are awesome!
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.”
In these remaining days before Rosh Hashanah, I offer some thoughts from our new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul). These thoughts are found in the Rosh Hashanah Morning Service, at the very end of the Amidah, during our moment of Silent Prayer. It is a section entitled “Prayer of the Heart.”
• • • • •
Hear the sound of the shofar!
You who are caught up in the daily routine,
losing sight of eternal truth;
you who waste your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save.
In what ways do my heart, mind, and soul need to be awakened by the shofar?
What truly matters to me? What makes me feel that my life is significant?
Am I too often wasting my most precious possession – the minutes, the hours,
the days of my life?
You are everything that we praise You for:
slow to anger, quick to forgive.
Have I been slow to anger? Quick to forgive? What would my loved ones say?
Does anger interfere with my relationships?
Am I impatient at home? Am I intolerant with colleagues and friends?
Avinu Malkeinu, may we taste anew the sweetness of each day.
Renew for us a year of goodness.
Where do I find moments of sweetness and beauty?
As a new year begins, where will I devote my best energies?
How can I bring more goodness to the lives of others?
• • • • •
In this Season of Teshuvah, it is my hope that all of us may turn inward with complete focus and attention, so that we may examine our behavior and motivations over this past year with honesty and courage. May we renew our strength to improve where we have fallen short. And then, may we, with full humility, seek to repair the fissures in our relationships with others, and clear up any misunderstandings. May we have the courage to seek forgiveness where it is appropriate, and grant forgiveness in turn. And may the coming year be for us, for our People, and for all who dwell on Earth, a year of peace.