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“An Easy Fast?”

Shofar by Alphonse LévyYOM KIPPUR – The 10th of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement.
We read in the Torah: The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial. . . you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Eternal your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin. . . It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath. (Leviticus 23.26-32)

A Day of Fasting.
Yom Kippur, then, is commanded in the Torah as a day of fasting for those who have reached the age of responsibility for the mitzvot – age 13. There are indeed several additional days of fasting in traditional Jewish observance, which came about as Rabbinic injunctions. There is an entire Talmudic Tractate, in fact, devoted to fasts called – Ta’anit – the Fast.

TZOM KAL – “Have an easy fast.”
One of the greetings that we Jews offer each other before a fast day is: TZOM KAL – Have an easy fast. Of course, our intent is to wish each other well on that day, and a general wish for health and strength. On the other hand, it poses an interesting contradiction. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of self-denial, not only regarding the pleasures of eating and drinking, but also of sexual relations, and even wearing leather, a sign of good living. (That is why you might see many Jews in sneakers on Yom Kippur. While we, especially in New York, may associate sneakers with comfort, the intent on this day is actually just the opposite!) So why are we wishing it to be easy for each other? Doesn’t that miss the whole point? When we’re not preoccupied with the preparation of our meals for the day, we are in a better position to focus inward, as we consider our behavior and our relationships during the past year, and make amends with those we have hurt. We are commanded to focus all our powers of concentration inward toward our conscience; outward, toward our relationships with others and our responsibilities in the world; and upward, if you will, toward Heaven, in recognition of that which is infinitely beyond our own individual selves and our own personal concerns. While Jews have never much approved of self-flagellation, we do engage in this day of self-denial in order to plumb the depths of our hearts and spirits, and improve our behavior in the year to come.

Is this the fast that I desire?
Our Haftarah portion for Yom Kippur Morning is taken from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that, while fasting is commanded, it cannot be enough. We cannot fast for a day and think that we have discharged our religious obligations. We have to practice compassion every day of the year, particularly toward those who are less fortunate. Thus the prophet admonishes:

This is the fast that I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke:
To let the oppressed go free;
And break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And you healing spring up quickly….
(Isaiah 58.6-8)

Union Temple Food Drive
In direct response to Isaiah’s admonition, each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened canned and boxed food to the temple this Yom Kippur and donate it to this drive. The drive will extend as well through Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, and all the time in between. There will be food baskets at the temple and when they are filled we will take the collections to the Food Pantry at CHIPS. Thank you for enabling all of us to perform this mitzvah together.
And so, in anticipation of Yom Kippur, I ask you to REMEMBER THE FOOD DRIVE, and for Yom Kippur I wish you a TZOM KAL!

The Shabbat of Blessing, and an additional note

new-moon

New Moon signals Rosh Chodesh

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!

The Anomalies of Jonah

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, illustration to Jonah (portfolio) Gurlitt Verlag, Berlin, 1923 Creator: Jakob Steinhardt, Born Germany, active Germany and Israel, 1887–1968 Data provider: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Provider: Athena View item at: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Rights Reserved - Free Access

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, illustration to Jonah (portfolio) Gurlitt Verlag, Berlin, 1923 Creator: Jakob Steinhardt, Born Germany, active Germany and Israel, 1887–1968 Data provider: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Provider: Athena View item at: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Rights Reserved – Free Access

Our Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon is The Book of Jonah, the annual reading of which will be delightfully delivered by Mike Wolfson, and we look forward to it, as always. Within these four brief chapters, the book delivers an important message, which is central to our observance of these Days of Awe. The following is a brief commentary in our new machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh (p.343).

The Book of Jonah is full of anomalies. Other biblical books contain the words of prophets sent to influence the people of Israel; Jonah is sent, instead, to speak to the people of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch-enemy. Other prophets fear that the people will not believe them; Jonah is afraid that they will believe. Other prophets expend thousands of words to warn or exhort the people without apparent results; Jonah speaks just five Hebrew words (3:4) and achieves instant success. Other prophets stand as exemplars of courage and integrity in a corrupt society; Jonah is a rigid, narrow-minded malcontent who exhibits less compassion and moral concern than the non-Jews around him. Other prophetic books reflect a mood of impassioned solemnity; Jonah is replete with irony and comic elements – animals who fast and wear sackcloth; a prophet who flees in the opposite direction from God’s command; who sleeps through a major storm at sea; who spends three days in the belly of a fish; who frets and fumes when a great city is saved from destruction; and is more attached to a plant than to his fellow human beings.

Why, then, do we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur? Because, despite its farcical elements, it eloquently conveys themes appropriate to the holiest day of the year: universalism – the intrinsic worth of all human beings; our responsibility for one another; God’s compassionate care for all living things; the power of t’shuvah (repentance); and the human capacity for change.

It continues to be my hope and prayer for all of us, that these Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, be filled with meaning and blessing for us and for those close to us. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.