Elijah’s Role on Yom Kippur

Many are aware that that the Prophet Elijah is the symbol of our hope that we can make the world a better place! That is why we invite Elijah to join us at our Passover Seders and at the close of each Shabbat during Havdalah, our ceremony of separation from our weekly day of spiritual refreshment.
Fewer people, though, are familiar with the direct reference to the hope Elijah represents for all humanity at the close of Yom Kippur. I hope this brief essay helps to make that connection.
To all who observe this most sacred day of the Jewish year I wish a most meaningful period of introspection and to those who are able an easy fast.

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

It is for good reason that Jews close Yom Kippur — just before the blowing of the shofar with the triumphant cry from the wonderful passage (First Kings,chapter 19) in which Elijah vanquishes the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel:  “Adonai Hoo Ha Elohim!  The Eternal One (alone) is God!”  We chant it seven times before we hear the shofar (the ONLY time all day we hear the shofar on Yom Kippur) to signify the end of the most solemn holy day in our calendar.

Sadly, most Jews have no idea of this connection, but it is crucial!   King Ahab and (even more so) Queen Jezebel (a name known as a synonym for wickedness even for people who never read the Bible) had corrupted Israelite worship by setting up Ba’al and its prophets as their favored cultic practice.  They vowed to kill Elijah who was the champion of the one true…

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A Yom Kippur Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge Speaks Directly to Us

Whether you prefer the 1843 book or any of the many movie versions made since, there is no question that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic.

Despite the season for which Dickens wrote it, A Christmas Carol is a Yom Kippur story if there ever was one.

As a small child, I lived to hear Ebenezer Scrooge say, “Bah! Humbug!” Only when I was a bit older did I start to appreciate the drama that unfolds after the first commercial.

Scrooge spends a restless night marked by four fateful encounters.

The first is with the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. In life, Marley was Scrooge’s tight-fisted clone. In death, he walks about chained to his account books, wailing in misery.

The frightened Scrooge cries out to Marley: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!”

“Business!” answers Marley. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, benevolence, forbearance. These were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The Hassidic rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who died in 1810, two years before Charles Dickens was born, expressed Marley’s admonition to Scrooge in another way. Once, he saw a man hurrying down the street looking neither to the right or the left.

“Why are you hurrying so,” the rabbi inquired?

“I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man answered.

“And how do you know,” the rabbi continued, “that your livelihood is in front of you? Perhaps it is behind you, and you are running away from it.”

Such was Marley’s message to Scrooge:

You are running away from your livelihood, but “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.” As Marley leaves, he promises Scrooge that the spirits of his past, present, and future will visit him.

The ghost of his past allows Scrooge to see the hurt people inflicted on him that turned his life in its miserable direction. He sees himself as a boy in school, sitting alone during the winter recess, in his words, “a solitary child … neglected by his friends.”

Then Scrooge sees himself as a young apprentice to kindly Mr. Fezziwig and remembers, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

In his dream of the present, Scrooge learns from his nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that vast riches do not provide happiness, nor does their absence preclude it. In Bob’s ailing son, Tiny Tim, Scrooge sees opportunities to act righteously that he has spurned for so long.

Scrooge’s final lesson allows him to look into the future, to see how people scorn him after he is gone.

Yom Kippur asks us to experience a night like Scrooge’s Christmas Eve.

We need to hear and heed the lesson: Humanity is my business…charity, forbearance, mercy, and benevolence. These are all my business. We need to remember those who treat us kindly. We also need to ponder: Will our death cause sadness or occasion relief?

“Spirit,” cried Scrooge, clutching the robe of Christmas Future, “Why show me this if I am past all hope?”

Scrooge, of course, was not past all hope. And neither are we.

In one of his famous stories, the 18th-century Polish preacher, Jacob Krantz, known as the Dubner Maggid, told of a king who owned a precious diamond.

One morning to his horror, the king noted a scratch on one of the facets of the gem. The overwrought monarch sent word around the world offering a great reward to any jeweler who could remove the scratch from the gem, but none of them succeeded.

At last, a local lapidary asked to try. The king’s courtiers scoffed: “What can you do that the world’s greatest jewelers could not?”

“Certainly,” he replied, “I cannot do any worse than they.”

Skillfully, the jeweler used the scratch as a stem around which he etched a beautiful flower. When he finished, the king and all his courtiers agreed that the gem was more beautiful than it had been before.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we are flawed diamonds – with the opportunity to etch lives of beauty and meaning around our shortcomings.

Every year, the Yom Kippur Carol urges us to build lives of “charity, mercy, benevolence, and forbearance” around our flaws.

It is not an easy thing to do, but if our efforts are sincere, infinite rewards await us at the end of the day.

 

 

The Holy Day Sermons I Won’t Deliver

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Ceiling Tile Kof (Named by Akuokuo Vallis) who won our kof naming contest a few months ago.

The Hebrew letter Kof is the first letter of the word Kadosh. Kadosh means, “Holy.”For Jews this season of the year is holy ”

Simply defined, “Holy,” means different or opposite from the ordinary.

Our Holy Day table is beautifully set.

In just a few hours, we shall welcome a new Jewish year.

To prepare for this holy day I have just finished my annual reading of S. Y. Agnon’s The Days of Awe (See my essay, If It’s Elul, It Must Be Agnon) that I began mid-summer.

For Vickie and me it will be a new year, in a new home in a new congregation. It is a daunting challenge but one we eagerly embrace.

These are troubled times for our country and our world. Many rabbis will devote their Holy Day messages to these troubles. Some will read as part of their sermons a beautifully crafted statement written by leaders of our American Reform movement about these issues.

I will not. Here is why:

These problems will remain unchanged long after Yom Kippur ends in ten days. They will remain no matter how eloquent or how eloquently passionate a rabbi’s statements about Donald Trump or the problems faced by non Orthodox Jews in Israel, the threat of North Korea or any other issue will be.

No sermons will solve them.

But there is a chance, perhaps a small chance but still a chance, that my messages and those of others, will affect the way a person relates to these sacred days and their message of self reflection, repentance and change.

Because there is that chance, all the time, effort and thought that I put into those messages is worthwhile.

It is natural to want change in our country and in our world.

It is understandable that many are unhappy about any number of salient political issues.

Certainly some of these issues, like our Torah’s most frequently repeated imperative to welcome the stranger and treat him or her with dignity and respect touch the core of our values as a people.

But my messages will not change national policy.

But …

  • if they change the heart or mind of one person,
  • or if they enable someone to see meaning in a biblical passage in a different light that speaks to their lives …

Then I believe I will have fulfilled the purpose for which the Eternal One allowed me to become a rabbi. And I will be content

 

Rosh Hashanah 5778

“This is the day of the world’s creation,” our Rosh Hashanah prayer proclaims.
In this new year, may we recreate in ourselves all that is kind, gentle and compassionate …
And may we curb all that is cruel, violent and selfish …
And may our world be blessed by our actions!

L’shanah Tovah לשנה טובה
A happy New Year to all from Vickie and me!

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Vickie holding the recently published booklet about her mother’s life and journeys from Breslau in 1921 to Sand Francisco in 2015

In the Wake of Irma

“For You, O God, silence is praise!” (Psalm 65:1)

In the face of the hurricane that devastated the lives of many and disrupted our lives, silence is appropriate.

There are no words to convey our feelings.

There are no words to express our relief that we are still here and that though our property may have suffered damage, we are still here.

This season is one of renewal and atonement. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. More specifically it celebrates the values of Genesis creation story.

For me the “Truth” of that story is that our lives have purpose and meaning and that we humans-–not the alligator or the shark—are in charge of and responsible for the quality of life on our planet.

God’s hope, I believe, is that we humans will use our individual talents to forge a just, caring and compassionate society on this planet.

A natural disaster like Hurricane Irma challenges those ideals but has the potential to strengthen them. We must find the strength to re-create our world.

Silence and reflection help us find that strength.

One of my favorite prayers is (from the URJ’s Shabbat Manual): “Help us O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain.”

Our house, our car, our boat our furniture, our whatever —they all mean a lot to us. They represent years of hard work and pride in what we have achieved. But at the end of the day all of these things are “fleeting and vain.”

How we live, and how we use the opportunities we have to help one another … these are the real and enduring bases on which we build meaningful futures.

Perhaps silence is the place to start.

Confronted with the disastrous sudden death of his two sons, Aaron, the High Priest of Israel was silent (Leviticus 10:10).

Thankfully the impact of Irma on most of us has been less devastating, but silence is still an apt response. To listen with empathy to our friends and neighbor as they describe their losses and is a great gift. To silently contemplate how we might best help others at this time is another.

But then we must move forward.

We cannot undo Irma’s’ impact, but the future is ours to shape.

My prayer is that we come together as a community—no matter where we live–and face that future with hope and courage.

 

 

 

We Can Do Better

I cannot get the image our of my mind!
On a morning walk when I lived in Jerusalem, I could see minarets, church spires and the Western Wall of the ancient Temple courtyard.

I cannot get the sound out of my ears!
At this time of the year—this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah—I could hear the mingled sounds of shofars, church bells, and muezzin calls urging Muslims to prayer.

These persistent images and sounds represent harmony and mutual respect.

I treasure them.

Yet we all know that the realities of Jerusalem and those of the world at large are a far cry from the images and sounds that my heart holds fast.

And yet I cling to hope! We can do better!

The greatness of humanity is not that we have always lived up to our lofty ideals but that we have never failed to hold our ideals aloft.

Those words are not original with me (I would love it if a reader can point me too their source), but I wish they were.

It is easy to look at our world and launch into angry rants.

We can demand change in our government, protest many policies, and feel good that we are taking a stand for social justice. “It is (to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address) altogether fitting and proper that we do this.” We hope our protests will bring change down the road.

But real change–immediate change—can begin in our own hearts and with our own actions.

This may not be the year that the images of  harmony, affirmation and respect that I treasure from Jerusalem become reality.

But 

  • It can be the year when we express our own pain less and listen more to that of others.
  •  It can be the year we spend less time on our business and more time with our loved ones.
  • it can be the year we spend less on luxuries and more on helping others who have so little

It might not be the year that we change the world, but it can be the year that we change ourselves.

 

 

 

The Shrine of St Cecilia

The song was originally recorded in 1941 as a message of hope in response to World War II bombings.
But it is the Doo Wop version by Willie Winfield and the Harptones
(1957) that runs through my head as Hurricane Irma wreaks havoc on Florida.
Certain Doo wop songs have the ability to touch my heart and bring me comfort in troubling times. This is one of them:
Our home is in shambles
All I treasured is gone
The town seems deserted
Everyone’s so forlorn!
A storm came from up above
But somehow it missed
The Shrine of St Cecilia.

Irma, like Charley, Katrina and other disaster, has taken lives and left much of what we treasure in shambles.

Some have suffered greater loss than others. Regardless of the level of personal devastation, the key to our future is to find a “Shrine of St. Cecilia” in our hearts.
There are so many inspiring stories to hear and read of people coming together in the face of disaster to rebuild their lives and their dreams.
Not every story has a happy ending, but for those who have been spared it is the ability to cling to and build on hope that will determine the future.
The courage and resolve of many inspire me and, I pray, all of us, to do however little or much we can to bring hope and encouragement to others as the hurricane goes her way:

I kneel in my solitude
And silently pray
That Heaven will protect us dear,
And there’ll come a day
The storm will be over and
We’ll all meet again
At the Shrine of St. Cecilia.

Amen