Monday, October 2, 2017

Israel: A Force of Progress And Change-- Yom Kippur 2017

Israel:  A Force of Progress And Change
A Sermon For Yom Kippur 5778
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
September 30, 2017

A cartoon strip I recently saw hit it right on the nose.  In the first panel, a speaker addresses a large audience and asks, “Who wants change?” Enthusiastically, everybody raises their hand. “Who wants to change,” he asks next.  No hands go up, and all avert their eyes, looking down at the floor.  Finally, the speaker asks, “Who wants to lead the change?” The room suddenly becomes empty.

We speak often of change, but not always fondly.  It may be a good idea, we all agree, but nobody actually wants to do it.  Change is difficult.  We grow comfortable with our routines, while change evokes all sorts of fears. The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know, is the common adage.

And yet, change is inevitable. 

Since World War Two, the world has changed immeasurably.  Empires fell, new countries emerged; political alliances have formed and re-formed; medical advances have enabled the world’s population to triple in size. The Internet has changed the way we communicate, while modern transportation has affected the entire structure of families and societies everywhere.

Yet one place has seen more rapid change than practically any other in the world: Israel.

One hundred years ago the Land of Israel was sparsely populated.  It was basically either swamp or desert.  Ruins and desolation characterized what once was the crux of civilization, where the world’s trade routes intersected.  In modern times, however, almost everything about it changed.  Most importantly, our people’s historic return to our homeland transformed the landscape, and now Israel is once again a busy hub of enterprise, business and culture.

It has been 69 years since Israel declared independence, and in this span, the State of Israel has undergone innumerable transformations.  Physically, it has grown right along with its population.  When I was a child growing up in Netanya, the city’s population was almost 30,000.  Today, it’s nearly a quarter of a million.  Though I still recognize the neighborhood I lived in, the city has grown and become a sprawling metropolis.  And what is true for the city is true for the entire country.  The many wars Israel has had to fight in defending its right to exist have expanded Israel’s boundaries and made the state both larger and stronger than ever.  

In its first few years, Israel was famous for its agriculture.  It exported Jaffa oranges, Carmel wines, and flowers.  Slowly, manufactured goods replaced these; and then, as in a storm, hi-tech took over. There are few orange groves left, all have given way to high-rise apartment and office buildings.

Israel’s national character changed just as rapidly.  In its early years, Jews from Russia founded kibbutzim and communal villages and established Israel’s social and political system.  After the Holocaust, refugees poured in from all over Europe.  In the 1950’s, almost a million Jews, expelled from hostile Arab countries, made Israel their new home.  In the 1970’s, a million and a half Russian Jews left the land where the term “pogrom” originated, leaving behind a system that still refused them the right to live as Jews.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, close to 30,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown into Israel in stealth, so as not to upset a secret agreement with the government of Ethiopia.

Kibbutz Galuyot—the ingathering of the exiles—was not an easy process.  Each group brought its strengths as well as its weaknesses.  Absorbing so many people in such a short time was an almost impossible task—yet Israel persisted and found ways to adapt, to change, to absorb, and to integrate.  In those years, Israel’s highest goal was to give shelter to the homeless, to provide safety and security to those who were persecuted, and to ensure that the Jewish People would never again be helpless victims.

Survival in the new land brought new demands and more changes.  Never permitted to own land, Jews had to learn how to till the stubborn ground and make it fertile again.  Then they had to learn to be soldiers and do the unthinkable—stand up and fight to defend themselves, their families and their homes. With each war that Israel fought, it had to change tactics.  From an invasion of seven Arab armies in 1948, to cordon and blockade in 1967; to a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973; to an unending barrage of missiles and rockets; to terror and kidnappings; to murder and assassination, Israel has stood firm and—not without the help of our brothers and sisters in the United States—was able to fend off the attacks. When our enemies changed their strategy and turned to legal and diplomatic warfare in international courts, in economic unions and even on college campuses, Israel responded in kind.

Through all its wars, Israel developed not only one of the strongest and most moral army in the world—the Israel Defense Force—but possibly also the best espionage and secret service organization of modern times—the legendary Mossad.

But Israel hasn’t had to adapt only to external stimuli. Internal issues continue to demand its attention. Bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel was nothing compared to bringing them up to speed with the 21st century.  This was a population whose family, educational and social structures back home were completely different from what they encountered in modern Israel.

Israel has had to contend with the emotional and psychological effect of almost daily loss of life on the battlefield as well as in horrific terror attacks. Yet rather than weakening our resolve, the tragedies only resulted in Israel becoming one large family and a tighter, united community.  Whenever tragedy struck, everyone, everywhere, mourned.  When Sgt. Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Southern California who volunteered to serve with the IDF, was killed during the Gaza War in 2014, 30,000 Israelis came to his funeral.  When Sean Carmel from Texas, age 21, fell, 20,000 came to show their love, thanks and respect.  When Staff Sgt. Major Hadas Malka, a border police officer, was stabbed and killed in a Jerusalem terror attack, hundreds of young women from all over the country volunteered to serve in the Border Police Unit. The change Jews had undergone, from weak, defenseless victims, to strong, resolute and determined fighters, is one of the greatest transformations of all time. 

Today, however, Israel faces even greater challenges.

Israelis are evenly divided today over Israel’s control of the West Bank.  Following the 1967 Six Day War, hundreds of thousands of Israelis streamed into land that had previously been under Jordanian control.  With the establishment of new cities and settlements, however, new problems arose:  What to do with the vast, impoverished Palestinian population that had been kept in miserable conditions for two decades in UN-financed refugee camps. What had previously been Jordan’s problem became Israel’s problem.  For a time, coexistence seemed possible, but more and more it seems that Israel is going to have to find a way to disengage from some of these lands, probably sooner than later.

Israel’s religious identity is also a vortex of change and contention.  Israel was established as a Jewish state, but the meaning of that term has never been clear.  Even as David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence, he made the decision to let Orthodox religious parties join the government.  Since that time, the religious parties have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence.  Despite the fact that 2/3 of Israel’s Jewish population considers itself secular, their rights to marry, divorce, convert and even worship have been controlled and curtailed by the ultra-Orthodox.  Whether the struggle to change this system will be successful or not is still to be determined.

Other social changes modern Israel contends with include gay rights.  Though in many aspects Israel is one of the most progressive and gay-friendly countries in the world, there are some glaring exceptions.  Gay marriage is not recognized in Israel, and child adoption by same-sex couples is prohibited by law.  Yet here, change is in the air.  This past summer, the government presented its opinion that single-sex parents “load additional baggage on an adopted child, already burdened by the presumed stigma of adoption.” This statement provoked outrage in the LGBTQ community in Israel and in the US, and within days, the government backed down from this position.  Even though this law has not yet been changed, it now seems to be moving in that direction.

Overarching all of these changes, Israel today is redefining the larger meaning and purpose of its existence.  Whereas once Israel saw as its primary objective providing shelter, safety and security for all Jews, it has now set a new goal for itself.  Our ancient prophets spoke of Israel as being a light unto the nations.  With this ideal in mind, Israel today is positioning itself as a benefactor of humanity.  It does not save its medical or technological advances for itself, but rather uses them to help impoverished nations around the world.  From empowering women to providing solar energy technology; from teaching new water- and soil-conserving farming methods to tackling poverty and disease, Israel focuses its efforts on enabling governments, communities and individuals to improve their own lives.  Whenever and wherever disaster strikes—a hurricane, earthquake or epidemic—Israel is among the first to send medical and technical teams to help. Today, Israel is at the forefront of improvement and progress, willing to share lessons it has learned the hard way with whoever is willing to sit and learn.

Change is inevitable.  In the last few years, public opinion of Israel worldwide has changed dramatically.  The Jewish community in the United States is no longer as supportive as in previous years.  Today we see American Jews who refuse to support Israel financially or politically.  I was fortunate enough this past summer to visit an Air Force base somewhere in Israel.  As I watched an F-16 taxi, take off and roar overhead, I learned that just the maintenance cost of this newest and most powerful jet in Israel’s arsenal is $40,000 an hour—let alone the human factor or the cost involved in installing the most up-to-date hi-tech enhancements that benefit not only Israel, but also the United States.

It’s OK to choose which specific organization in Israel one prefers to help, from ecological and environmental, to religious, medical, cultural or educational institutions.  But what we American Jews must never lose sight of is that there is a high price to pay for our hard-won right to live as free and proud Jews.

Today, a new generation is growing up: a generation that has not known pogroms or discrimination; a generation which never saw Israel as a dream, and does not recognize the need for Israel as a safe haven.  Many of today’s young, confident and poised Jews do not feel that they need Israel’s protection.  Some of them are turned off by what they see happening in Israel and the West Bank and do not take the time to understand the history behind events.  It is essential that we teach them the meaning and purpose of Israel.  They must learn its history, both ancient and modern. 

The Jewish People have always striven to move culture and civilization forward. Today, we must all recognize and cherish the modern State of Israel not only for what it has been, but also for what it still is.  Today, in a world where everyone wants change but is afraid of it, in a world where no one wants to be a leader and move towards change, Israel stands alone, tall and unafraid, still and as ever a powerful force for progress and development.

An Israel that is safe and secure within its borders, living peacefully alongside its neighbors, is still a far-off dream.  But, as the visionary prophet of the modern State of Israel, Theodore Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, said over a century ago, “If you will it, it is no dream.”  It will take our collective will, and the support of each and every one of us.  Still, I have no doubt that if we put our backs to it, this wonderful vision can and will become astonishing reality.  May this time come soon and in our own day.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. 

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Choices Before Us: Kol Nidrei Sermon 2017

The Choices Before Us
A Sermon for Kol Nidrei Service 5778
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
September 29, 2017

An ad on Facebook recently grabbed my attention, and managed both to pique my interest and irritate me at once.  It was a cartoon video, drawn in primary colors and simplistic designs, posing a short and direct question.    I should have scrolled on, right then and there—which is what I usually do, past a quick glance at the product being advertised.  But this time I stopped to look.  Unlike other ads, this one had Jewish content.  Relying on Facebook’s detailed knowledge of me and my interests, the ad drew me in, and I yielded. The video was of a man—presumably a rabbi—wrapped in a tallit, blowing the shofar for his few, sparsely seated, all male congregants.  It was obviously an Orthodox synagogue (there was a mechitsa, the traditional curtain barrier separating the men from the women, but no women were present).  The visual was a bit confusing, but its message was anything but mixed.  It read, “Should you feel guilty or excited at Rosh Hashana?” 

Now I was definitely both irritated and curious. Is that all there was to the High Holy Days?  Guilty or excited?  The Ten Days of Awe have tremendous power over our people, causing us to stop everything we’re doing, and congregate in huge numbers at our various and sundry houses of worship. The High Holy Days stimulate and invigorate us; they inspire and challenge us to examine our lives, our hearts, our souls. I resented the simplistic, binary approach of this ad. 

The video was a series of memes.  One was of a heavenly scale, reminder of the annual judging of our lives and deeds that takes place on Yom Kippur. The next meme was of a joyous celebration (replete with colorful confetti) and the explanation that the Torah actually speaks of Rosh Hashana as “a happy day.” This was then replaced by the final meme, where black letters that looked an awful lot like engraving on a tombstone, spelled out, in all-caps, the word “FEAR.”

There it was.  The site offered you a simple choice: you could choose between excitement and guilt, between joy and fear.

What a crude and patronizing lesson, I thought. That’s it?  Is that all that the High Holy Days are about? What about love, tradition, community, or that wonderful sense of renewal you get at this season?

Personally, I feel energized by the High Holy Days, restored by the spiritual journey that they take me on.  This season fills with gratitude for the many blessings in my life, though I do also feel sadness and pain.  There’s sadness for the passing of time, and for the distance that lies between me and my loved ones; and deep pain for the loss of family and friends who are no longer with us. 

There’s regret for what we haven’t yet accomplished, but also new strength to redress and repair the wrongs in our life.  And yes, there is guilt, but along with guilt there is also the prospect of reconciliation. 

To be sure, there is fear, too.  We don’t know what the new year will bring with it, and the unknown fills us with dread. But then we’re restored, for right there, right next to fear, are also hope, faith, and trust. 

The High Holy Days do give us a choice, but this choice is anything but shallow or simple.

Yom Kippur opens with Kol Nidrei, an ancient and moving prayer that absolves us of vows, obligations, and promises.  However, it actually has even greater power and a more exalted mission: Kol Nidrei liberates us.  It frees us from all obligations.  Kol Nidrei gives us permission to examine every word we’ve given, every pledge we’ve made. It isn’t only in the court of Heaven that our ethics and morals are scrutinized.  It’s down here.  We get to define what we believe in, and we get to decide how best to show our commitment to our ideals. It’s our free choice.

Kol Nidrei calls on us to look at all of our ideals and principles, both those that are very personal and those that bind us together as a community, as Jews and as Americans.  And tonight, I would like us to consider a value we hold high above others. Patriotism.  The question that we have been asking ourselves for several days now is, What does it mean to respect the flag of the United States and our national anthem.

There is no greater symbol of the greatness of America, its ideals and its contributions to humanity and the world, than this banner and this powerful anthem.  On the Fourth of July, to kick off a sports event, and certainly when American athletes win gold at the Olympics, hearing our national anthem never fails to bring a lump to the throat.  We feel pride and awe as we join in and reach for those impossibly high notes on “The rockets’ red glare.”  They are hard to sing, but how better to symbolize the high and lofty goals and purposes of our country:  Liberty, equality and justice for all.

The debate we are engaged in now is about how best to pay homage to these symbols.  How does it feel for us to watch athletes—the very personification of our ideals of strength and endurance—when they take the knee or fail to stand at moments when reverence and respect are called for?  These days, we are asked—and we ask ourselves: Do these gestures show disrespect to the flag, and thus to America? Or do they perhaps express the shame, the humiliation and even the dangers that people of color and other minorities face on an almost daily basis in the United States?

There’s a cultural battle being waged in America today.  Some say that it’s simply an extension of the racial struggle that has always divided our country.  But without a doubt these past few days and weeks, the rhetoric and violence have seen a sharp rise in volume and pitch.  There is tension and division between those who say that America’s flag and national anthem must be respected regardless of personal views and opinions, and those who feel that the best way to show them respect is to safely and judiciously use the freedoms of speech and expression that these symbols stand for.

The real question here is, when a player takes the knee during the National Anthem, is that a sign of rejection, or is it an affirmation of what the flag really stands for—the constitutional right to protest a social wrong.

After all, taking the knee is nowhere near what we see in countries that view America as the enemy.  There, the American flag is trampled on, torn, and burned.  There, when good people, American soldiers or civilians, are killed, people rejoice, dance in the streets and pass out candies and sweets. No, as I see it, the symbolic gesture of taking a knee is not in itself an act of violence, nor incitement to hatred.  Rather, it’s a respectful call to stop business as usual, a declaration that there’s a serious problem, a rift in our nation that requires dialogue and conversation to resolve.

On the other hand, what I do find disrespectful is the use of profanity to describe the protesters.  Many of them overcame tremendous challenges to earn the admiration of their fans, and for millions of children who live in culturally and economically deprived areas, these athletes are a source of pride, kindling dreams of triumph in a harsh reality where opportunities for success and advancement are few and far between. To use insulting language against these individuals is to insult and humiliate the many who look up to them as legitimate heroes.

America was founded on noble ideals.  More than a million men and women have given their lives in battle so that this country can thrive and live up to its noble expectations and ideals.  Taking a knee does not diss their memory or bring shame to their ultimate sacrifice.  What does bring shame to our Country and Flag is a political and social system that preserves racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny; that shames people who do not fit stereotype images; that cynically, cruelly and divisively, uses fear to enrich itself and augment its own powerbase.  What does bring shame to us all is the use of foul language—in, of all places, the White House—to denigrate people who are an integral part of the fabric of the America, and who have given disproportionately of their strength and soul to build and defend it.

Do America’s flag and national anthem deserve to be honored and revered?  Yes.  Absolutely.  They represent the highest ideals and goals upon which this country was founded and for which it stands.

Are sports and other public events the proper venue to protest and demonstrate?  Here is where some of us may disagree.  But my opinion is this: 70% of the players on the NFL are African Americans.  For them, this is the only venue where they are recognized by all Americans for who and what they are.  It is precisely at these arenas that they need to, are able to, and are free to say what needs to be said—that America’s ideals are not equally shared, that some of us are still considered less worthy citizens than others, and that racism is both immoral and an injustice.

In ancient days, Yom Kippur was an occasion when we asked God to judge us not only in righteousness, but also with compassion.  Today, it is an opportunity for us to judge ourselves, as individuals and as a society.  Today, Yom Kippur is so much more than only about guilt and fear.  On this day we are given permission either to reject our ideals, or to affirm them. There is great freedom in that, but also great responsibility, for our choice can determine the future course of life and events.

What this Yom Kippur demands of us, today, is not only to examine the faults or merits of our own, private lives, but also to engage in wider, public discussion about the kind of nation we are.  Unlike other countries, the United States isn’t made up of only one nationality, one language or one religion.  Our society is compound and complex.  Our strength, however, is in our unity, and our Union depends as much on our own personal integrity as on our ability to listen to one another, to hear what others are trying to tell us about their lives, about their fears and about their needs.

This is the gift of Kol Nidrei:  The freedom to choose.  This day empowers us. It teaches us that we may—indeed we must—let go of empty words, vain gestures and hollow vows.  But instead of turning to chaos and anarchy, Kol Nidrei calls upon us to live our lives in such a way that our pledges and oaths once again become valid and meaningful.  The choice is ours.

Tonight I pray that this year we might see America united by love and mutual respect again; that this year we be blessed with reconciliation and peace; that hunger, ignorance and poverty be eradicated from our midst; and that all people, all over the world, be granted the blessings and opportunities they need and deserve for healing, repair and renewal.

 G’mar chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year.   Ken y’hi ratzon.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Bound By The Covenant Of Israel: Rosh Hashana 2017

Bound By The Covenant Of Israel
A Sermon for the New Year—5778
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
September 21, 2017

As you know, NASA has sent many shuttles to orbit the earth.  More and more, they made an attempt to include passengers of all races, colors and creed.  But not too long ago they realized they had excluded one group: the clergy.  So they invited a priest, a minister and a rabbi to orbit the earth in a shuttle. 

Upon their return, crowds of people formed to hear their impressions.  First the priest emerged, beaming and happy.  His statement was full of joy. He said, "It was totally amazing, I saw the sun rise and set, I saw the beautiful oceans. I am in awe of God’s magnificence."

Then the minister emerged, also happy and at peace.  He said, "I saw the magnificent earth, our home.  I saw the majestic sun, vast oceans, red deserts.  Praise the Lord!”

Then the rabbi came out.

He was completely disheveled, his beard was tangled and in every direction.  His kipah was frayed, his tallis was wrinkled like you can't imagine. They asked him, “Rabbi, did you enjoy the flight?"  He threw his hands in the air crazily and replied, “ENJOY??? What was to enjoy??? Oy! Every 5 minutes the sun was rising and setting! On with the tefillin, off with the tefillin, mincha, maariv, shacharit, mincha, maariv!  And on top of that, always having to face Jerusalem.  One minute I’m facing this way, the next minute that way…  Gevalt!!!!!!"

It isn’t easy to be a Jew.  Even in space.

Of course, it never was easy.  Not since Abraham left his homeland, his father’s house, pursuing a vision only he could see, obeying a God only he could hear.  We’re not sure exactly what happened right before he left.  The rabbis speculate that Abram was being persecuted for his belief in one God.   The Torah, however, leaves it up to our imagination.  All we know is that Abraham obeyed God without question.  Overnight, he uproots himself and his family.  They become migrants, subject to unknown dangers and the hardships of life in a foreign land. 

It was this and that much worse when, years later, Abraham once again heard God’s call. This time it had to do with his son, Isaac, and what God was demanding was that Abraham offer Isaac as sacrifice on some far-off mountain. Once again, Abraham obeys, though we can only imagine his grief as the two set out together.

Throughout history, it’s always been hard to be a Jew.  Not only because of the number of mitzvot we had to obey (ten would have been dayenu!! Enough! But 613???) But more than that, we saw ourselves as keepers of a special charge, a challenge that became a sacred mission: To pursue knowledge and justice, to seek freedom and equality wherever we saw falsehood, prejudice and discrimination.  This was God’s law, and at Sinai we accepted it as our law.

The Law defined us as Israel, chosen to be in a unique relationship and bound by a Covenant—a Covenant with our God, with our Land and with our People. And throughout our history we have been trying to live up to its demands.

In ancient Israel, no one was above the Law. The Prophets of Israel were quick to judge and rebuke anyone—including the king himself—who transgressed against another, who stole from the poor, or otherwise abused his power.  In our many countries of exile and Diaspora, we held on to the tenets of the Covenant even when our life was at stake.

Our efforts often met with success.  Wherever we were offered hospitality, we and the community around us thrived.  No medieval court was ever without a Jewish doctor, accountant or scribe.  Our business acumen and connections ensured that we would always have an important role to play in international commerce and trade. Our culture inspired and fostered literature, art and music in places where these did not exist prior to our arrival.

But success often also bred jealousy and hatred.  Expelled from one country after another, we were confined to crowded ghettos, our means and livelihood severely restricted.  We were heavily taxed, humiliated and often unjustly imprisoned or murdered.  Still, we clung to the Covenant. 

Through the darkest ages, our faith was our chief source of hope.  Our sacred texts provided a safe haven, a home to return to, for the glorious visions they provided of a better and more just world.  Our prayers reached deeper into our souls, and soared higher into the heavens.  We created even more music, art and literature.  We even played a vital role in the Enlightenment that helped bring freedom to all Europe.  And throughout it all we never forgot who we were.

Recent times, however, brought with them new developments and greater challenges, in whose wake our faith and commitment to the Covenant found themselves profoundly shaken.  First, of course, is the Holocaust.  The second, ironically, is the freedom we found in the New World, in America.

The Holocaust saw one-half of our people killed.  Two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, a million and a half children—a whole generation—were annihilated.  Entire cultures and communities that had existed for hundreds and thousands of years disappeared.  The vast scope of the destruction caused an unparalleled crisis of faith.  The survivors who emerged from the Shoah—and I count all of us among them—have been forever changed.  Our faith can never again be as firm and unwavering as it was in prior days and ages.

America has brought its own challenge to Jewish continuity. Ironically, here, where Jews are finally able to be free, to mingle without constraints and become integral members of society, the danger we face today is byproduct of our own freedom.

Now our very sense of peoplehood is at risk. Today we don’t need Brotherhoods or Sisterhoods to provide us with opportunities for friendship and camaraderie.  Accepted just about anywhere, we don’t need Jewish country clubs or summer resorts such as the Catskills.  Ironically, we don’t need other Jews to be Jewish.

Rather than the whole picture, for many of us, our Judaism expresses itself in more specific aspects:  Some of us may be more observant in our rituals; but equally valid are those among us who see themselves as secular Jews; or Jews who describe themselves as cultural Jews; Jews by food and tradition; Jews for Israel; or Jews invested in social action and tikkun ‘olam.

In America, for all our freedoms, the danger that we face today is losing sight of the forest for the trees.  The bigger picture, the Covenant among ourselves, between us and our God, and between us and our Land, is receding in the blur of modern life and its demands.

And maybe that’s the real purpose of Rosh Ha-Shana, and why it takes place annually, without fail. The Torah does not refer to this day as the beginning of the year.  That designation came much later, in the age of the Talmudic Rabbis.  In the Torah, it’s called Yom Zikaron—a Day of Remembrance. In the storms and hardship of life, forgetfulness comes too easily.  Between one thing and another, it’s too easy to get lost. Rosh Ha-Shana serves to remind us, to call us back, to redirect us onto the right path.

Because here we are, sitting together: rich and poor alike; religious Jews and secular Jews; of Orthodox background, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or of no Jewish background at all; educated Jews, unschooled Jews; Jews by birth, Jews by choice.  Life gets complicated.  It pulls us apart, taking each of us on a journey we must make alone. Rosh Ha-Shana brings us home again, not only to reminisce, but also to give us a chance to re-orient ourselves, to see ourselves on a larger canvas.  On this day—ba-yom ha-zeh—we gather, just as have our people year after year, to recall, to remember, and to reaffirm the terms of the Covenant we chose to accept at Sinai, three thousand six hundred years ago.

On Rosh Ha-Shana, against the infinite backdrop of the Creation of the world, we examine the meaning and direction of our lives.  Measuring our faith against the perfect model set by our first Patriarch, Abraham, each of us considers the role we play in in our people’s sacred mission.  And we recall that to be Israel is not only to be rooted in the historic land that bears our name, but also to be God’s partner in the ongoing act of Creation, to be a Holy People, a people dedicated to the ideals of knowledge, freedom, justice and equality.

Being Jewish isn’t simple or easy.  Pirkei Avot—the Talmudic Tractate of the Fathers—sternly reminds us that it isn’t a task we may desist from. However, taking a somewhat gentler stance, the verse continues: But neither are we obligated to complete it. When each one of us, in our own way, shape, or manner, does whatever we are capable of, when we contribute whatever we can to the greater whole, then all are the better for it.

And that is what it means to be Israel.  We are a people united by an ancient Covenant of love, remembrance and responsibility—towards ourselves and one another; towards our God; towards our country and our homeland, for all eternity.

May this Day of Remembrance bring with it sweet memories of past celebrations. May our prayers and meditations today nourish our souls and strengthen our resolve.  May this Rosh Ha-Shana show us the path to even greater involvement with our people and tradition.  And may we all be inscribed for a good New Year, a year of health, love, joy and peace.

L’shanah tova tikatevu, Amen,

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman