Messages from Rabbi Edery
Shanah Tovah! A Good New Year.
This is a very special time of the year: we celebrate the High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kipur – and then also Sucot and Simkhat Torah. This is the time of the year when most Jews get together, with family and friends, and also when most people will be at synagogue for services. At the synagogue, you will hear plenty from our texts and from the rabbi about the meanings and significance of these days with all their symbols and rituals. In this short message, I want to just briefly present some core themes of these days:
1. A New Year is a great reason for us to celebrate, meet friends, eat and drink – l’echayim!, may we enjoy many more years together. Now, wouldn’t it be great if this year’s celebration finds us not just one-year-older than last year, but also one-year-better than last year? This is why Rosh Hashanah (New Year day) comes together with Yom Kipur (Day of Atonement): to encourage us to think, and decide, and plan how we are going to use this new year to do a few new things, to improve ourselves in a few ways, to commit to a couple of good causes.
2. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva – one of the greatest sages and leaders of ancient Israel and of our traditional sources- was an illiterate shepherd still in his 40’s. Only then he realized there was vast knowledge to be learned to enrich his life, which he was missing. Then, against what most people told him, he believed that regardless of his age and of his past, he could become a scholar and acquire knowledge if he decided and was determined to do it. And so he did; and “Akiva the illiterate shepherd” became the great Rabbi Akiva who is remembered by our tradition (and by you and me right now) even 1,900 years after his death. The Jewish New Year is not just a new number in the calendar: it is a window opened, an opportunity we are given to take a time-out, think deeply about what we are doing and where we are going and how we are spending our energies, and decide that we want to include meaningful goals and worthy causes into our weekly routines.
3. Looking at children from one Rosh Hashanah to the next, you can easily tell how time has passed. The same is true for congregations. Beth Shalom is growing, becoming an ever more active, more engaging, and more inspiring place for adults, seniors and children to explore their heritage, to learn from their own culture, and to enjoy the richness of Jewish traditional life. As we grow, the opportunities for you to be part of our congregation, to be involved in rewarding and meaningful endeavors, and to create new and stronger relationships –these are growing too.
I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a very happy new year, and I hope to see you next year one-year-older and also one-year-happier to be in Beth Shalom, one-year-more involved in Jewish life, one-year-more satisfied from the contribution you make to improve yourself, your family, your congregation, and your community.
A Rosh HaShanah Exercise: Balancing our Priorities
Can you be in two places at the same time? It turns out to be, that what we think is the obvious answer is not the correct answer. Those who study quantum physics have a lot to say about how an object may be in two places at the same time, but I am referring to other kind of phenomena, closer and more familiar to us: Jews. Indeed, if you are a Jew, and especially if you are an American Jew, you are not only in two different places, but you are moving in two different and opposing directions at the same time.
For decades we have been told about ‘the Big Picture’ of Judaism in America: how many Jews among us are not to be found within the Jewish community, not in the synagogues, congregations, JCC’s, or any Jewish framework. They are simply outside of the Jewish world. Many demographic studies and statistics showed this picture time and again. On the basis of this, many dire projections and predictions have been made, pointing to a very near future in which American Jews are a diminishing and vanishing community.
And yet, those same studies and statistics show that there are many Jews among us who are firmly engaged with Jewish life, and they continue to thrive, build, expand their institutions, and create new ones. In addition to their vitality and success, they constitute the most vibrant and active Jewish community of the world, a community that influences Jews everywhere and that is a model for what others want and try to accomplish. The many of us who are involved in this or in that way with Jewish life, we are well inside the Jewish world, and we continue to grow. The Big Picture shows this too.
This is the paradox of our situation: as American Jews, we are in great numbers outside Jewish life, and also in great numbers we are very involved within it. There is a trend in which we move away from Jewish tradition and Jewish life, which dilutes Jewish identity in two or three generations. And at the same time, there is a trend in which we recover our tradition and identity, and have an unprecedented growth in Jewish knowledge, Jewish studies, Jewish culture, and religious life, and activism. Both are happening now, at the same time. Both are happening around us, and we can see both realities within our own community, and quite often also within our own families.
So, are we supposed to be encouraged or discouraged by these facts? Are we supposed to be alarmed and worried about the trend outwards, or happy and satisfied because of the vitality within us? And, when we do things as a congregation and as individuals, should we focus on reaching out to those who are drifting away from Judaism, or should we focus on strengthening and nurturing those who are motivated and interested with being Jewish?
Trying to answer this, and define our priorities, we encounter many good arguments for each concern. Isn’t the future of the Jewish people depending on our ability to reduce assimilation, and reach out to Jews before we completely loose them? On the other hand, isn’t the best way to ensure the future of our people and culture to invest all our energies in those who are involved in Jewish life, and who will carry it forward and transmit it to the next generations? There is a strong case for Out-reach, and there is a strong case for In-reach.
There are people and organizations which devote their efforts to do Outreach – since they see this as the number one priority. One of these organizations will give Beth Shalom a subsidy for a program we will be running in the Spring. They will do so as long as we focus on those who are not within, but outside our congregation. Another organization will give us a subsidy and resources, if the focus of our program is to develop our own existing member’s knowledge and involvement. Just as some want us to focus on Out-reach, some want us to focus on In-reach.
As you probably expect me to say by now, I think we must and can do both. While at times it happens that in our efforts to do one we disrupt the other, we can’t ignore any of these two realities, and we must address them both.
When we as a congregation engage in Outreach (through specific programs, and through dedicating efforts and energies towards those who are not members), those who want us to focus on In-reach feel strongly that we are missing the mark. And the reverse also happens: when our efforts and programs prioritize our members over those who are not integral part of our congregation, those who want us to focus on Out-reach feel that we miss the mark. Each side points to a pressing issue, and to a Big Picture situation we must address. And while each one is right – in fact, we have two Big-Pictures, and we must care and do for both, at times prioritizing one, and at times the other.
Awareness of these two realities and sets of needs informs every decision I make as a Rabbi, and is present in all areas of our congregation: it informs our ritual practices and policies, what we offer and require of our school students and their families, how we celebrate the lifecycle, and how we manage our finances. It is no exaggeration to say that these are two concerns that guide us in everything we do. These concerns are reflected and enshrined in the vision and mission of Beth Shalom; we put this in practice and address these issues each time we open our programs to non-members, or when we offer services only to members, and especially when we find creative ways of combining both concerns and goals.
On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are called to review our actions, and balance them on a scale, to see what we may be missing. As I look at what we do in Beth Shalom over the course of the year, I see that we engage quite much in welcoming and reaching out to those who are not members, while still making sure that each Beth Shalom member is offered good and enriching experiences of Jewish living, which will carry each one and our people forward.
In Beth Shalom we have taken and will take many opportunities to do our congregational balancing of our priorities. Now is time for each one of us to do this as individuals, as we approach the High Holy Days.
Shetitkhadesh aleinu Shanah Tovah Umtukah!
May a sweet and good year be renewed for all of us!
Counting the days, or making the days count?
The Hebrew calendar month of Tishrei, which oscillates between September and October, is called in the Bible “the month of the mighty in festivals”. Having just celebrated Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukot within just a couple of weeks, we can still appreciate this 3,000 year old name. In Biblical times, people would celebrate the holidays in ways similar to ours; but in our celebration there are elements they did not have – such as the synagogue and our prayer book. And they didn’t have any Rabbis either yet, so they probably did not hear many sermons (for better and for worse).
In our Holidays season, in a very short time we get an exposure to many texts, prayers, meditations, teachings, speeches, ideas. Hopefully, they spark our own thoughts and feelings, and inspire our minds and hearts as we begin a new year of activity – then would these intense days of reflection have accomplished their true purpose.
These are some of the key ideas that stayed with me after this season of holy days:
- We all confront fundamental challenges in life: build a family and support it, succeed in our work and career. This is enough of a challenge and task, but we can still aim higher: to leave our mark, to do things that have lasting effects, to make a difference in someone’s life and in our community. Just as our father Abraham did 3,800 years ago, charting a spiritual course for us, we can move from ‘seeking success’ to ‘seeking significance’.
- Who we are – our history, our genes, our identity – is life and God’s gift to us; who we become – our values, our qualities, our virtues- is our gift to life.
- A Jewish community, our congregation, is much more than a gathering place for people of common origins. It is a the place where people with the same vision get together to make it real; it is where we join to live enriched by each other’s presence and support, and be inspired by our shared ideals.
- What does being Jewish mean? “A Jew is that person I want to become” (after American Jewish writer Leon Wieseltier).
- Whether we were born in a religious home or not, into a Jewish family or not, we all still have the same choice before us: do we personally embrace Jewish tradition, and its message of social responsibility, ethical requirements, and commitment to and love of our people and our values?
- Our personal values and beliefs, however deeply held, become really significant when we have definite and regular times and places where we act on them. Our congregation is such a place, and we seek to create and provide many of those times: through education, Mitzvah projects, celebrations, being there for each other, engaging in Tikun Olam.
In our holy days we were invited to review our personal values, to consider Judaism’s message to us, and then to set our priorities by making meaningful choices. The new year has began, and now is the time to act.
I hope this year we will be inspired and encouraged to give our personal values and our traditional ideals an important place in our weekly schedule, in our homes, and in our community.
May this year bring us blessings, and may we follow our ancient command “to be a blessing”.