Friday, November 24, 2023

Giving Thanks at Times of Darkness: Thanksgiving.23

Giving Thanks at Times of Darkness

Sermon by Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

November 24, 2023

So how are you?

Don’t answer—I know. We are tired. We are exhausted—and rightfully so. For the past seven weeks we’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster, swaying from disbelief to horror, from grief to rage, from despair to hope—and right back again. We haven’t had a decent night’s sleep all this time, hoping to rise in the morning if not exactly refreshed then at least strong enough to carry on with the day’s challenges and obligations.

We’re exhausted not only because of our attempts to follow—and understand—the news from Israel, but also because of the strange and fearful wake the war leaves in our own lives. The uncertainty, the fear for loved ones and friends, the horrors we’ve been trying to push out of our minds, the unimaginable rise we’re witnessing in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence in our own backyards.

The humorous saying we often use to summarize Jewish history, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat!” isn’t so funny this year. 

And yet, here we are, American Jews, celebrating possibly the most American holiday of all (except of course, the Fourth of July and maybe Presidents’ Day), a holiday that truly represents what America is, or hopes to be: a nation of immigrants from all corners of the world, all trying to integrate while keeping some old-world traditions alive, struggling to create a new life, a new nation, with hopes for peace, security, and acceptance. Not so easy or simple when the differences between us outweigh the common goals: Skin color, language, nation of origin, religion and other barriers that often seem insurmountable.

Still, despite the violence that sometimes erupts along these lines of demarcation, we’ve managed to stay more or less unified. Until now, it seems.

Suddenly, a clear and wide divide has erupted between us. With hardly a heads up (at least for some of us; for others, the signs have been clear for a long time), what seems like a deafening silence has caused us to reevaluate who our friends are. We are confused. We find ourselves strange bedfellows with news outlets we normally scorn; with politicians and religious leaders we prefer to keep an arm’s distance from. We wonder how quickly political allies we once thought of as our partners have turned against us. Because it isn’t only Israel that is being widely criticized and attacked; the lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become so faded as to become invisible. The two hatreds have become one, a throwback to times we thought we had left behind in “the old country.”

Worst of all, we have become fearful. Fearful to look too Jewish or exhibit outward signs of our Judaism or support of Israel. Fearful for ourselves, for our children in school, on college campuses, at the workplace, and on the street.

So what can we be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

For our food, for family love, warmth and companionship, of course. But there is yet more, so much more.

As Jews, we can be thankful for our unity as a people. We may at times quarrel and argue, but we are one family. Reaching out to—and for—one another has always been our strength. When so much of the world turns against us, we turn to one another. When no one else seems to care, we care more than ever.

We can be thankful for President Biden, whose unwavering support for Israel, both militarily and diplomatically, will probably cost him some votes, but whose bold and forthright standing as a friend of our people and homeland will enshrine him in our hearts forever.

We can be thankful for the larger community around us. In the past few weeks Congregation B’nai Torah has received numerous letters, emails and phone calls from total strangers, offering encouragement, support, and friendship. We’ve been invited to co-sponsor and participate in interfaith security events. Though not many clergy of other faiths have contacted us, we did hear from the CEO of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, who will also be present at our Hanukkah celebration in a couple of weeks. We’ve heard from friends, members of Westminster City Hall, as well as from the United States Attorney’s Office in Denver and the District Attorney of Broomfield and Westminster Counties, offering their support. I am thankful for all these expressions of caring and friendship.

A few days ago I attended a presentation by the ADL and the US Secret Service, at which the two agencies shared their strategies for protection of communities and houses of faith. I was frankly amazed at the scope of the plans as well as at the close working partnership they displayed. And I am grateful for that.

Last week’s pro-Israel rally in Washington DC showed me several things: First, the number of Israel supporters—nearly 300,000! —who came out to demonstrate, sing, wave Israeli flags and show the world that—in the Hebrew words, Am Yisrael Chai—the People of Israel is yet alive and strong. A strong showing by representatives from the entire spectrum of political, social and religious groups, spoke to the ideal stated by the U.S. Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, that “Hate and violence directed at any member of our society because of who they are is un-American and wrong.” 

And I was gratified to see how many young Jewish men and women were there. At a time when many Jewish American youth are ambivalent about their Jewish identity as well as their relationship to Israel, the presence of these young people demonstrated for me that theirs is NOT a lost generation. That our future is in strong hands—with God’s help. And I am grateful for this wide and diverse show of support.

Lastly at this point, and just as important as anything I’ve already said, I am gratified to have watched today—through many tears—the miracle of the release of 13 of the Israeli hostages and 11 foreign workers who taken by the Hamas terrorists 49 days ago—though I am still afraid (and yet hopeful) for the fate of the almost 200 others who are still in the clutches of those barbarian cannibals whose whole purpose in life is to kill, ravage and mutilate. I am grateful to all who negotiated this small step from despair to hope, from darkness to light; and above all, we all owe a huge debt of thanks that can never be repaid, to the scores of Israeli soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that this miracle could take place.

Israel is indeed a place where miracles happen every day—though often at no small cost to our people.

I am thankful and feel ever-so-blessed to be member of this ancient and resilient people that has somehow managed to rise from the ashes time and again; that has contributed so much to humanity and civilization and, against all odds, manages to remain a light unto the nations. I am gratified that, after nearly 2000 years, today we have an army—the most heroic, the most moral army in the world—to defend us and our inalienable human rights of existence and self-determination in our own ancient and rebuilt homeland.

This Thanksgiving, we truly have much to be thankful for. But one thing is clear: The work is far from over. During the next few months and possibly years, we will have to somehow bridge the cavernous chasms that have opened up in our own society and nation. We will have to rebuild relationships and restore trust. Above all, we must not let divisiveness tear us apart, nor let hate and fear hide the ideals for which the United States stands. Our strength is always in our unity.

In the next few weeks we will all be celebrating holy days that speak of light and peace. May the darkness of the season be dispelled by glowing lights of joy and thanksgiving. May all our hopes and prayers come true. 

Adonai ‘oz l’amo yitein; Adonai y’varech et amo bashalom: May God bless us with strength; may God bless us, one and all, with peace.


© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, October 20, 2023

Redefining Evil: Hamas’s War Against Civilization

 Redefining Evil: Hamas’s War Against Civilization

Sermon by Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 20, 2023

In this week’s Torah portion, Noach (Genesis 6:9—11:32), we read that the reason God decides to flood the earth and destroy all life was that the world was filled with violence. “Violence:” that’s the most frequent English translation of the Hebrew word hamas. The Amplified Bible, however, which incorporates explanations and interpretations into its translation, defines hamas as “desecration, infringement, outrage, assault, and lust for power.”

How ironic that in the last two weeks, the term has reentered our spoken lexicon. 

Now of course, hamas in the Bible and Hamas, the terrorist organization, are not one and the same. The words may sound the same, but that’s a mere coincidence.

Still, in this case, the shoe fits. In both situations, it represents evil—evil enough to break the heart, evil enough to cause destruction death and destruction.

In the past, I defined evil in context of the Biblical history of Amalek and its war against the Israelites. The Amalekites were a tribe that roamed in the Sinai Wilderness and the southern regions of the Negev, subsisting to a large extent on robbing and looting. Deuteronomy 25:17-18 describes the first encounter between Israel and Amalek. Having just left Egypt, the Israelites were weary, disorganized and not yet trained in war or self-defense. Seizing the opportunity, the wily Amalekites attacked by stealth, by night, targeting the rear of the camp. 

Attacking the weak, despondent and helpless is indeed evil—the very opposite of what we consider a sacred mitzvah. But this definition is not complete. The horrendous attack on Israel two weeks ago mandates that we redefine the term.

Orchestrated by the malicious axis of Iran, Russia and the terrorist organization Hamas, the surprise attack which took place on October 7, a Sabbath and a Sacred Day in our calendar, has so far taken the lives of over 1400 civilians—men, women, children, infants and the aged. I won’t go into detail on how they were killed. Additionally, more than 200 were taken hostage, and the estimate is that, tragically, at least half of them are no longer alive. 

But committing these atrocities wasn’t the only goal of Hamas.

When the IDF—the Israel Defense Force—fights, its main purpose is to protect Israel and its civilian population. Hamas on the other hand uses its own people as human shields. To make matters even that much worse however, is the reality that Hamas doesn’t use the Gazan population merely as human shields, but rather also as human bait. 

Hamas knew very well what would happen as a result of its vicious attack. There could be no other possible outcome but a full reckoning. As in past conflicts, Hamas expected—and even hoped—that thousands of its own population would be killed and wounded. Relying on world sympathy, Hamas has been using this tactic ruthlessly and cynically for years now. Turning the definition of oppressed on its head, the goal of Arab leaders has always been to keep their own people captive in fear, poverty and misery, and turn Israel into the victimizer. Untold millions of dollars have poured into Gaza since Hamas violently took control of it in 2007. Not surprisingly, very little of that money ever reached the Gazan population. Most of it went either to finance the luxurious lifestyle of Hamas leaders, or to purchase weapons and dig attack tunnels that reach deep into Israel proper. 

The stated goal of Hamas is to “liberate” Israel and give its land back to the poor displaced Arabs. But that, like everything else Hamas purports to be and do, is subterfuge and a lie. Their real goal is to spread the rule of radical Islam (and along the way, make its leaders powerful multi-billionaires). Make no mistake about it: Hamas is ISIS, a mutated deadly virus that will do anything—and stop at nothing—in order to reach its goal of world domination.

Last Tuesday, an explosion at a Gaza hospital reportedly left hundreds of civilians injured and dead. The world and international news organizations pounced on the opportunity to accuse Israel of this atrocity, without stopping for a moment to check the facts on the ground. Now it turns out that the explosion was caused by an errant missile fired by Hamas from a cemetery adjoining the hospital. By the way, this wasn’t the only example of this tactic. Hamas commonly uses high-rise apartment buildings, schools, kindergartens and mosques to launch missiles against Israel, hoping for the inescapable result, retaliation that would cause loss of life to its own population and the inevitable condemnation of Israel. And, of course, even more blood money to pour in, in the guise of humanitarian aid. The bombing of the Gaza hospital was the moment Hamas was waiting and hoping for. Mongering fear and horror while appealing for sympathy is how Hamas aims to spread its reign of terror. First Israel, then the rest of the world. 

Hamas does not represent the majority of Palestinians. Frankly, it couldn’t care less about them. Nor does it represent the Gazan population that they control through oppression and tyranny. In addition to murdering, kidnapping and raping Jews, Hamas is willing to kill its own people and sacrifice Gazan children for its own vile purposes. And that is what makes Hamas so evil, and that’s why Hamas has to be eradicated. 

Evil can no longer be defined only as hurting the weak and defenseless. This definition must be expanded to include the cynical use of men, women and children, infants and the aged as human shields and human bait. 

It turns out that the explanation offered by the Amplified Bible is pretty accurate: “desecration, infringement, outrage, assault, and lust for power” describe both the Biblical word hamas and the goals and methods of the terror organization that today is the very personification of that evil. 

How sad that, thousands of years after the Israelites first encountered the vicious tribe called Amalek, the Torah’s warning still remains valid today: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God” (Deut. 25:17-18 NKJV).

Tonight we pray for the wounded civilians and soldiers, as well as the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. We pray for the souls of the innocent men, women and children—entire families—who were so brutally murdered two weeks ago, on the Sabbath, on a day set aside for holiness and rejoicing. We pray for the return of peace to the region, so that evil and suffering may be eradicated from the earth. 

Adonai ‘oz l’amo yitein, Adonai y’varech ‘et ‘amo bashalom—May God grant us strength, may God bless us with peace. Amen.

© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Eradicating Evil: Israel's War Against Hamas

 Eradicating Evil

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

October 14, 2023

I’d like first of all to thank all of you who are here today. This gathering isn’t meant to be a political rally. We’re not here to discuss political issues—we are here to show unity and solidarity in the face of evil.

Let us not be mistaken: what happened a week ago today in Israel was not part of a regional conflict. It wasn’t tit for tat, one in a series of attacks and counterattacks. This was not merely an act of war. It was the essence of evil itself.

The atrocities we witnessed, the savage murder of over 1200 innocent men, women, children, infants and the aged, are unspeakable. They belong in horror movies or history books—the acts of barbarians and hordes that come riding across continents, slaughtering any and all who stand in their way.

The Jewish People, tragically, are not unfamiliar with terror and massacres. We first encountered it three thousand years ago, having just come out of Egypt, unprepared for war or conflict, when we were assailed by the Amalekites, a vicious and bloodthirsty desert tribe that attacked us at night, by stealth—and most treacherously, that targeted the rear of the camp, where the weary, dispirited, and sick were lagging behind.

At that time, God and Moses declared an eternal war against the Amalekites and the evil that they represented.

The Amalekites are long gone, but not so the evil. We saw it again and again, perpetrated by nations and nationalist fanatics who took the sword against us, forcing us to convert or be killed. 

The horror that was perpetrated last Shabbat was the most recent in this long line of attacks. But let us be clear: This massacre was not intended against Israel alone. It was far and beyond part of the “cycle of violence,” part of the regional conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Taking place on the Sabbath—and, most significantly, on Simchat Torah, the day set apart thousands of years ago to celebrate our Covenant with God—this was an attack against all Jews, an attack against Judaism itself.

And in truth, it was even broader than that. The massacre was meant to send a signal to the entire world: “We,” said Hamas, “are coming after all of you. Jews, Christians, and anyone else who may not be a follower of Allah,” their god. 

Who and what is Hamas? 

Hamas is the blood sister of ISIS, whose stated purpose is to establish a Muslim califate over the entire Middle East—and then spread to the rest of the world.

Hamas claims to represent the Palestinians. That is a lie. They couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. They claim to be the liberators of conquered lands—and that’s a lie too. Their true intention is to subject all lands to Sharia Law. The Jews in Israel represent only the first target on their target list of those destined for annihilation and destruction.

Hamas has always stated their intention: Their national covenant calls for the elimination of Jewish presence in Israel. For 1500 years, their version of Islam has shown its true bloody, murderous purpose in Iran and Iraq, in Yemen, Turkey, Egypt and Syria, among many other lands. 

There are those in this country and elsewhere who see last week’s massacre as the result of oppression and occupation. Those pseudo-liberals who live in ivory towers, in academia, in bastions of liberal politics, who claim to stand for freedom for the oppressed—have had their minds stolen by religious fanatics who are only too happy to teach them that pent up rage results in righteous self-defense.

But righteousness doesn’t—by any stretch of the imagination and definition—include acts of barbaric violence such as were committed last week. 

Righteousness, by any standards, does not include the indiscriminate murder of men, women and children. It does not include the desecration and mutilation of bodies. It does not include rape, beheadings and burning of babies, slitting of throats of defenseless youth, the mass shootings and setting on fire of entire families and communities. Such acts are nothing less than evil. They represent the choice some people make, to do the very worst that human beings are capable of. By the definition set by Moses and God thousands of years ago, these acts are evil.

Today is Shabbat, and we are taught not to mourn on Shabbat, but this is no ordinary Sabbath. This is a Sabbath of mourning and commemoration. It is a Sabbath of unity, reflection, and prayer: Prayers for the souls of those who were murdered in cold blood; prayers that we may forget the images we have seen, not hear again the screams of terror and agony; prayers for unity; prayers for the moral courage and strength to eliminate and eradicate evil and all evildoers.

There will yet be a time for political reckoning in Israel. The country’s leaders let Israel down. They failed us; they failed in their mission, stated over and over; they failed to demonstrate the proof of the oath we repeat: Never Again. And they will pay the price for this failure.

But this isn’t the time for that. For now, we must face the evil that was unleashed upon us. It has affected each and every one of us, regardless of nationality, religion, or political affiliation as inhumanity and evil inevitably do. 

Over the past few days, I’ve struggled both with words and with prayers. How could God let this happen again—especially on the day celebrating our Covenant with God?

The only prayer that comes to my mind at this moment is Adonai oz l’amo yiten, Adonai yevarech et ‘amo bashalom: “God give us strength, God bless us with peace.” We need to be strong. Only then will peace follow. It will take what it will take, and undoubtedly Israel will be condemned for disproportionate reaction, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Because this is the nature of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy. The world at large shows the Jews pity when we are slaughtered, but none when we hit back. That luxury—a right given to every other nation and people and nation in the world, is not one allowed the Jews.

Tragically, however, it is exactly this kind of force and strength that Israel must now show, no matter how prolific be the crocodile tears shed by pop artists, hypocritical and ignorant academics, pseudo-liberal students and hardcore anti-Semites who crawl from the swamp or occupy gilded seats of power.

Am Yisrael Chai—the People of Israel lives. Our history offers unassailable proof that no matter how many times we are attacked, exiled, humiliated and murdered, burnt alive or drowned in the deep seas, we rise up again and again. We shall rise again after this demonstration of evil and hatred too, but first we must teach the perpetrators a lesson they will never forget. It’s our moral duty and responsibility.

And so help us God. 

© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A Fifty-Year Anniversary: Yom Kippur Sermon 2023

 A Fifty-Year Anniversary

Sermon for Yom Kippur 2024

September 24, 2023

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

I recently attended a screening of the movie Golda. The movie deserves much of the praise it’s been receiving, but it still left me feeling that something—perhaps even a lot—was missing.

Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the movie centers on Golda Meir’s role in the preparation for, and conduct of, the war. However, despite the brilliant acting by Helen Mirren and the powerful visual and sound effects, the movie’s narrow perspective is ultimately also its biggest flaw. As a war movie, Golda fails to portray either the war or its impact on Israelis—which lasts to this day. And as a biopic of the fourth prime minister of the State of Israel, this limited view of one of the most beloved and influential politicians of the 20th century fails to tell us much about Golda’s life, her strong beliefs and ideals as a Zionist—so strong that she left her husband so she could live and work in Israel—or about the political struggles she engaged in—and won, until the very end of her life and career.

Even though 50 years have passed, a whole generation of Israelis remembers the day and even the moment that the war broke out. It was—as its name implies—on Yom Kippur, which in 1973 fell on Oct. 6. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, the sirens’ wail took us all by surprise. Because it was a holy day, the only news you could hear was not from Israel’s own broadcasting authority, but from the BBC. That’s how we—the majority of Israel’s civilian population—learned of what was happening.

Some people, however, were not so surprised. On September 25, almost two weeks earlier, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Tel Aviv to personally warn Golda that the Syrians were planning an attack. His warning was not heeded. Golda preferred to leave the unfolding of events in the hand of the military establishment, particularly those responsible for intelligence gathering and analysis. Then, on October 4, only two days prior to the war’s outbreak, Golda received reliable information that Egypt and Syria were planning a joint surprise attack, to take place on Yom Kippur.  The timing however, was a bit off. It was expected to happen three-to-four hours later, towards evening time. 

Meanwhile, even as intelligence showed massive Arab tank, artillery and infantry buildup along both Syria’s and Egypt’s borders with Israel, Israel was warned by President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to fire the first shot. Golda agreed, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan issued orders that reservists not be called up. Despite this, on October 5, Israel’s Chief of Staff, David Elazar, popularly known as "Dado," called up a limited number of reservists—no more than a few thousand.

On the day the war broke out, a total of 500 Israeli soldiers and a handful of tanks were positioned along the entire Suez Canal. Israel’s Air Force—which had basically won for Israel the 1967, Six Day War—was grounded. Only starting on the morning of the holy day itself could you see thousands of young men, many wearing a tallit over their military uniforms, gathering at bus and train stations and at major intersections, waiting for transportation to their bases.

It was a tragic mistake that cost Israel almost 3000 lives, with almost 8000 wounded, many of whom still bear emotional and physical scars to this day.

The war started out badly from the beginning. At the end of the first day of fighting, Moshe Dayan appeared on Israeli television. Despite looking haggard—he would be suffering an emotional and psychological breakdown hours later—Dayan insisted that the war was going as expected—that Israel was taken by surprise but was winning. He was lying.

Shortly after, Golda took matters into her own hands. Sidestepping Dayan, she handed control of the war effort to the IDF Chief of Staff, David Elazar (“Dado”). A few days later, against objections from senior advisors, Golda OK’d General Ariel Sharon’s plans to cross the Suez Canal in a bold and dangerous counteroffensive. Despite heavy casualties, Sharon’s success forced Egypt’s ruler, Anwar Sadat, to agree to a ceasefire. Egypt’s defeat—despite its initial successes—and the peace deal that followed six years later—resulted in Sadat’s assassination eight years to the day after the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 1981, at the hands of a radical Islamist.

In Israel, immediately following the war, public outcry over what became known as Ha-mechdal, “the failure,” forced the appointment of an inquiry commission to determine what went wrong. The Agranat Commission, named after its chairman, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, Dr. Shimon Agranat—concluded that the majority of the blame fell on the Chief of Staff, Dado. It cleared both Moshe Dayan and Golda of any wrongdoing.

Following this decision, Dado resigned. He died of a heart attack three years later.

Moshe Dayan continued serving for two more years as Minister of Defense, and later became one of the architects of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Golda, though cleared of any blame, was the only person who took personal responsibility for the war and resigned six months later.

The discussion over who was at fault, however, still continues to this day, with most of the blame now placed on the Intelligence Branch of the IDF (Israel Defense Force) for failing to assess correctly the probability of the outbreak of war, despite reliable information it received in the weeks and days prior to October 6. 

Still, questions remain. To what extent was Israel’s political leadership at fault? Was there collusion with the United States? Henry Kissinger, who along with then-President Richard Nixon had warned Israel not to fire the first shot, is known to have shared his opinion that he “dreaded an all-out Israeli victory that resulted in a decisive Arab surrender.” His intent was to teach Israel a lesson in realpolitik, to remind the Jewish state that it could not survive without relying on United States help. Even after Israel’s devastating losses during the first few days of the war, Kissinger was reluctant to replenish Israel with military equipment, finally agreeing only after he was convinced by Golda Meir that Israel would be forced to resort to the nuclear option. 

Politics, as we know, is not based on romantic idealism, but rather on political expediency, arrogance and greed.

The Yom Kippur War transformed forever Israel’s psychological and political landscape. Israel has taken to heart many lessons from the trauma it suffered 50 years ago. One of these lessons is to never again allow itself to be pressured into relinquishing one of the most important purposes for which it exists: Defense of its population. 

Secondly, despite the current infighting within Israel itself, Israel’s political and military leaders have learned to cooperate more fully among themselves (or so we hope). Israel will never again be caught unprepared. As one father who had lost his son in the war cried out soon after its conclusion, you don’t show up to a championship game five minutes late. You must always be prepared.

And that’s where we American Jews come into the picture today. We’ve come a long way since 1973. Jews are more influential than ever in American politics, business, and the judicial system. We’ve come to that position rightfully, both through activism and idealism. Now we must take to heart two lessons from the Yom Kippur War. First—that Kissinger was right. Israel needs the support of the United States.

Secondly, in light of the alarming spike in anti-Semitism—much of it taking the form of anti-Israelism—we must lend our full validation and assistance to Israel. We may not agree with some of her policies. We may not like some of her leaders. But one thing is certain: Neither Israel nor American Jews can afford another Yom Kippur War. We must use our influence to ensure that the US does not abandon its most reliable friend and ally in the world. We must continue to fight the surge of racist and anti-Semitic hatred and violence emanating from both right-wing and left-wing extremists. If nothing else, the Yom Kippur War is proof that violence against Israel is not disconnected from attacks against Jews and Judaism itself. Agencies such as the ADL and StandWithUs are always there, ready and able to help defend our right to live and express ourselves as Jews. We must continue to rely on these organizations and to support them in an existential war that has claimed millions of Jewish lives in the last century alone.

Yom Kippur has always served as both an individual and collective Day of Atonement. Along with other renewed pledges, on this sacred day we must also rekindle our commitment to the Jewish Nation and the Jewish People—in Israel and everywhere else in the world. 

Israel is, and always was, at the heart of our national and religious existence. We pray for its continued safety and security. Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai y’varech et amo bashalom: May God always grant strength to our people, may God always bless us with peace.

G’mar chatimah tova—may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of healthy, joy, love and peace. Amen.

© 2024 by Boaz D. Heilman

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Gateway To Repentance: Kol Nidrei.23

 The Gateway To Repentance

Sermon for Kol Nidre Eve

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

September 24, 2023

On a day not long ago, the phone rings in the rabbi’s office. Rabbi Rabinowitz answers. “Hello?”

“Hello, is this Rabbi Rabinowitz?”

“It is.”

“This is the IRS. Can you help us?”

“I’ll try.”

“Do you know Sam Cohen?”

“I do.”

“Is he a member of your congregation?”

“He is.”

“Did he donate $10,000 to the synagogue building fund last year?”

“He will!”

Ahhh! Jewish humor! And what better topic—especially for Yom Kippur—than guilt, and Jewish guilt in particular!

Of course, by now most of you must know my views on so-called “Jewish” guilt—that there’s really no such beast. Guilt is innate in all humankind and therefore crosses all cultural, religious and other imaginary divides. “Jewish guilt” is a stereotype, an example of a prejudice that goes back thousands of years. Still, we like to laugh at things we can’t do much about, and in this context of time and place, the topic isn’t completely inappropriate…

Guilt is part of the psychology of every human being. Used—and misused—for centuries by individuals as well as institutions, guilt can serve both to unite people but also to suppress uniqueness and individuality. Used as a verb—“to guilt”—it can become a form of emotional abuse.

But guilt does also serve a legitimate purpose. It’s there as a red flag, to let us know that we have done something wrong, or else to warn us that we are getting too near the danger zone, that we are about to err in judgment or behavior. It’s meant to direct us to do the right thing—or, if possible, to fix the wrong that was already done.

While guilt has only become subject for study in the last hundred years or so, we’ve always known its burden, and have always tried to find a way of being released from it. 

Today we may seek therapy, but in the past there were other ways of being cleansed of guilt. Most religions prescribe confession and penance—sometimes even to an extreme degree. The Torah commands a series of actions: First, public acknowledgment and a sincere apology, followed by restitution (often topped with a 20% fine); and finally a sacrifice meant to symbolically rid our souls of any residual feelings of guilt. Once these steps were taken, the individual was considered pardoned and absolved, their wrongdoing erased, never to be mentioned again.

There were also times for collective penance. When facing peril and danger, a king, prophet or rabbi (and sometimes a queen, too: think Queen Esther) could call for a period of atonement, a time in which a community would fast, pray and abstain from ostentatious behavior. 

One day in the year, however, was etched in stone, forever known as THE Day of Atonement: Yom Kippur. A day of personal as well as communal repentance, the rituals of Yom Kippur consisted not only of prayer and fasting, but also of a great number of sacrifices, including the famous scapegoat on whose shoulders all our sins were symbolically placed and which was then cast out into the wilderness. One of the most stirring moments of the day came when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies—the only day he was allowed to do that—to encounter God’s own Sacred Presence and plead for forgiveness for himself, his family, and finally his people. Upon coming out, he would proclaim the Sh’ma, pronouncing the unity of God and the uniqueness of the relationship between God and Israel. Only then was the ritual of atonement complete, and we could move on with our daily routines.

This method may have worked in ancient days, but once the Temple was destroyed, everything changed. Without the ability to offer sacrifices, our relationship with God became an existential problem, and it became the ancient Rabbis’ most important task to re-define the Covenant between God and Israel in new and meaningful ways. 

The Midrash tells the story of Rabban (“Our Rabbi”) Yohanan ben Zakkai—who almost singlehandedly founded post-Temple, rabbinic Judaism—and one of his disciples, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah. One day the two were walking by the ruins of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehoshua started weeping and tore his garments in mourning. “Woe to us,” he called out in his grief, “for this—the place where all of Israel’s sins were forgiven—is now destroyed!” Rabbi Yohanan said to him: “My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says (Ps. 89:3), ‘For I desire kindness, not a well-being offering’” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5).

Deeds of loving kindness go a long way towards bettering the world, but guilt is hard to expunge. A whole new set of rituals had to be put in place. New prayers replaced old sacrifices—including one so moving and significant that this evening’s entire service is known by its title: Kol Nidrei.

The date when this famous prayer was composed is unknown, but it is known to have been in wide use already in the sixth century CE.

Kol Nidrei has a long history of controversy. Common belief has it that the prayer was composed during a period of especially harsh persecution, when Jews were forced to choose between converting or being put to the sword. At that time, the text served to undo those vows made under duress and to reaffirm Jewish identity. In the eyes of the nations, however, this practice led to a general mistrust of Jews. As a result there were times and places when Kol Nidrei was altered or even completely removed from the service. 

Today however, no Yom Kippur is even thinkable without Kol Nidrei and its ancient and haunting melody.

But what is it about this prayer that makes it so powerful? And how has it come to symbolize the entire process of atonement? Its words do not speak of sins. No mention is made of sacrifice or contrition; nor does it even attempt to address God or beg forgiveness for our wrongdoings. 

But in having us declare all our vows null and void, Kol Nidrei frees us to examine what really matters to us. Repentance isn’t true unless it is freely made, not forced on us.

By the light of Kol Nidrei, we examine those values, ethics and morals that we hold up as highest and most sacred. Kol Nidrei doesn’t free us of our obligations, but its spiritual and psychological effect is such that it enables us to start again with a clean slate. Kol Nidrei opens for us the doorway to true repentance.

The purpose of Yom Kippur was always to give us a fresh start, an opportunity to turn a new leaf on life, to look forward toward the New Year with hope, not burdened with the stifling effect of guilt. This sacred day does not automatically absolve us of our guilt. The choice to atone, to realign ourselves with God’s purpose and reaffirm the Covenant, is ours to make. The lesson of Kol Nidrei is that as we renew our vows and make new promises, we pledge not necessarily to be perfect, but rather to be the best that we can be at any given time. And that’s why this prayer appears at the beginning of our service. It’s the gateway through which we, like the High Priest of olden days, take our tentative steps into the Holy of Holies, to face God and ourselves, to measure our accomplishments as well as our failures, and to begin again, with a clean heart.

May our prayers tonight and tomorrow serve the purpose for which they were created. May our atonement be acceptable before God, and may we be strengthened by this day to live by our highest ideals. 

L’shana tova tikatevu v’teichatemu—may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of love, happiness, health and peace, amen. 

© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Practicing Judaism: Rosh HaShanah.23

Practicing Judaism
Rosh Ha-Shanah 5784 sermon
Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
September 16, 2023

I was recently asked by a young man, how does one practice Judaism.

I admit the question caught me a bit off guard. It sounds simple enough, but the answer can be very complicated—and not very easy to respond to 'al regel achat, “while standing on one foot,” as the Hebrew saying goes.

How does one practice Judaism? Do we mean practice as in exercise—constant repetition and refinement, the way we practice a musical instrument or a dedicated sport? Or more like the implementation of what we had studied: the practice of law, for example, or family medicine?

The answer, of course, is a combination of both. 

Judaism is greater than the sum of its parts. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic teachings and sayings from the 1st and 2nd centuries, Rabbi Simeon the Righteous teaches that the Jewish world stands on three principles: Torah study, the Sacred Service, and acts of righteousness. These three don’t exist independently, however. They are intertwined, one leading to the other and back again. We study the texts and at the same time begin to fulfill the Commandments. And as we observe our rituals and traditions, so we also aim to get better and more consistent at performing them. We may practice by repetition the unfamiliar shapes and sounds of the Hebrew aleph-bet, but at the same time we seek fresh meaning and purpose, in ancient prayers that were formulated thousands of years ago.

Children first learn by repeating what they hear; then they start asking questions. Growing older, our quest for understanding never ends. Every Torah story we study raises questions: Is the world really 5784 years old as tradition tells us? And why did God rest on the seventh day of creation? Why would God—the all-mighty force behind all Creation—need to rest anyway? Why didn’t Abraham tell Sarah that God ordered him to sacrifice their son, Isaac? And, really, what did happen to the dinosaurs? Shouldn’t they be part of the story of Creation? Did they miss the boat when Noah mustered all the other animals on earth into his ark? 

The answers that we uncover become lessons that accompany us throughout life—not only to be stored away, but also to become part of the way we practice our faith. 

Living a Jewish life means constant dialogue—with God, with ancient and contemporary rabbis and teachers, but mostly, among ourselves. We try to participate in Jewish life—to practice our Judaism—as members of communities and congregations. At our homes, in nature, or, more commonly, in the beit-knesset, the synagogue, we have always found a place to come together. It is here that we gather to worship and study, to celebrate our customs and traditions, and to mark the passage of time. It is here that we come to observe Shabbat and the holidays. Here we discuss events that affect us as a community and as a people. 

While our lives as American Jews may take us on diverse paths, it is in our synagogues that we find others who believe as we do, who share similar experiences and traditions. We come here to make and sustain friendships, to educate our children, to find strength and encouragement when challenges beset us. The synagogue is indeed a house of prayer, but in the larger picture it’s also so much more: It is the heart and hearth of our people, the tent of meeting where, through active participation, we keep Jewish history alive and make sure it continues into the future.

Practicing Judaism also means becoming involved with our brethren in the Land of Israel and elsewhere in the world—to deepen our own identity while also doing whatever we can to maintain and support the nation and culture that we are a part of, that affects us in countless ways and gives us so much more in return.

Long ago, our people accepted a challenge. Along all our paths, wherever we make our homes, Judaism does more than simply identify us as a people. Judaism presents us with a mission that extends beyond the walls of our homes and sanctuaries. Our care and concern must never be limited only to ourselves. Rather, we must always also be aware of the needs of the world around us. Our faith calls on us to help all Creation. We are commanded to free the captive—the falsely imprisoned; to remove the chains of those who are shackled by poverty, prejudice and tyranny. It is a mitzvah—a holy commandment—to feed the hungry and care for the sick and needy. And as caretakers of the world, it becomes our duty to repair our mismanaged planet and restore—or at least conserve—its squandered resources. 

To practice Judaism means to pursue justice, and to bring solace and comfort to people and places where the terrors of war have caused homelessness, poverty and misery. That is the meaning of the third anchor in the teaching of Simeon the Righteous: g’millut chasadim, acts loving-kindness. On bumper stickers and social media we are often urged to engage in “random acts of kindness.” The ancient Rabbi Simeon would have taken issue with this concept. His idea of practicing Judaism would have us go beyond random, to make kindness our regular practice. 

And no other Jewish holiday iterates this message as vividly as Rosh Ha-Shanah.

Rosh Ha-Shanah is unlike any other holiday in our calendar. Rather than commemorating a singular event in Jewish history, Rosh Ha-Shanah marks the Anniversary of all Creation. Its message to us is that we—the Jewish People—have a role to play in the ongoing work of Creation. Our choices and deeds make a difference not only in our own lives, but also in the life of the universe. Rosh Ha-Shanah is a reminder to put our lives in order, to sort out what’s important and of lasting value, from those habits and customs that serve only to distract us from our primary duties and tasks. 

At Rosh Ha-Shanah services we rededicate ourselves to those purposes and ethics that we accepted at Sinai nearly four thousand years ago. And in return, we find our own faith reinforced, even—and perhaps especially—during troubling times and circumstances. 

Yet at the same time, we must not forget that our sacred communities are sustained by the generosity, service and dedication of volunteers. Just as the Tent of Meeting in the Sinai Wilderness was built through the contribution and volunteering of the entire nation of Israelites, so by answering the call to participate in any way that we can, we take our place among those who have built and maintained synagogues since that time.

There are many opportunities to serve a congregation: from setup to cleanup; from planning social events to creating beautiful rituals; from contributing to a meal train to visiting someone who is sick, or giving them a ride to or from a doctor’s appointment. We perform a mitzvah when we volunteer time and knowledge to help make our services available online to housebound families and individuals. These are just some of the opportunities for service and participation that are calling and awaiting your response. By responding hineni, “here I am,” you not only enrich your own life, but you also contribute to the ongoing life and story of the Jewish people. 

So this is the answer I would like to give the individual who asked me how to practice Judaism: We pray, we study, we act. To be Jewish is to be part of an ancient people whose culture and traditions go back hundreds and thousands of years and are as diverse and beautiful as the colors of a rainbow. We join our fate and faith with our people when we engage in the study of our sacred texts; when we observe rituals that bring light and meaning into our lives; when we become active in the Jewish community; and when we put into daily practice the values, ethics and morals that our faith teaches us. 

May our worship this morning serve to remind us of our ideals and inspire us to continue working toward them. May our prayers and petitions find their path to the Source of all life and blessing. And may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of joy, health, love and peace. L’shana tova tikatveu. Amen.

© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, September 15, 2023

Gazing Into the Sacred Void: Rosh Hashana Eve.23

 Gazing Into the Sacred Void

Rosh Ha-Shanah Eve Sermon

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

September 15, 2023

Lately, I’ve been staring into space. No, not deep space, no images from the James Webb Telescope. Nor have I been gazing aimlessly at a blank computer screen. It’s a particular space I’ve been looking at, left intentionally empty by its creator—the void between God and Adam in Michelangelo’s magnificent mural of the Creation of Adam.

I’ve been fascinated with Michelangelo since childhood. My grandparents had a book of photographs of his artworks, and on many occasions I would take the book down from the shelf and devote hours to studying these amazing masterpieces—which I found both beautiful and moving.

I was fortunate enough to see some of Michelangelo’s art in person: the tragic yet eternally hopeful statue of The Dying Slave in the Louvre; and, on a trip to Rome a few years ago, the famous statue of Moses—the one with the horns sprouting from his head; and of course the Sistine Chapel ceiling, at the center of which lies the reclining figure of Adam, awakening to life, his index finger just beginning to rise upwards towards his Creator, with only a short space between it and God’s powerful finger stretched out towards him. It’s that void, that empty space, that I’ve been gazing at with endless wonder and fascination.

To be sure, there is so much to see in this mural: God’s ancient face, filled with both love and concern for this creature that He had seen fit to create and give life to; Adam’s muscular form, which occupies nearly half the panel, almost the same size as God, a figure not yet aware of his own strength, his face reflecting both innocence and gratitude. 

Yet for me at least, the most puzzling piece of all is that empty space, the one between the figures of God and Adam. It seems that at any moment Adam would complete his hand’s motion upwards and touch God. Yet we know that that will never happen. The space must remain empty forever.

It was the genius of Michelangelo to be able capture and portray the longing that we humans carry within us to know our Creator, to touch and be touched by God’s Presence.

Not that we haven’t tried, so often and in so many ways!

The creation of Adam comes at a sacred moment in the Biblical narrative of Creation—at the very end of the sixth day, just as the seventh day, the Sabbath, is about to commence. In Jewish belief, Shabbat—the Sabbath—represents God’s holy and eternal Presence in our lives. It’s the moment when God chooses to stop working, leaving yet so much more to be done. If only God had continued the sacred work of Creation, this world would look so different! There would be no pain, no want or need, no desire, hunger or thirst. Ever. Yet because of God’s purposeful choice, the world remains incomplete, unfinished, and it becomes our human response—our calling—to reach up and fill in this void, to call it holy, to take on the responsibility of carrying on God’s work into the Seventh Day. 

As children, we think our time on earth is limitless. There will always be tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after that. Except for those things that the law requires of us—such as going to school—how we fill our time is largely our choice. But then, as we grow older, our days become filled with greater needs and demands. Our workload increases, and somehow the days seem to get shorter and fly by so much more quickly than when we were younger. 

At some point we become aware that our time on earth is not infinite, and we start filling what we have left of it more wisely. We learn to punctuate time, to separate it into cycles of work and rest; into intervals we call secular, and those we consider holy. 

We reach towards God by making Time—our time on earth—sacred.

But it isn’t only the infinite expanse between God’s Eternity and our finite time that we try to bridge. It’s also the physical space that separates us. Gazing into the night sky we realize how grand God’s Creation actually is. The distance between us and the host of heavenly lights is almost immeasurable; and so, trying to understand the structure and configuration of the cosmos, we strive to make space holy.

We learn to measure the miles we traverse. We keep lists of places we would like to visit. In the words of the Psalm (121:1-2), we “lift up our eyes to the mountains” and imagine the endless vistas that must open for us from those magnificent peaks. There are places we come back to, simply to revisit, or in order to celebrate special moments such as birthdays, weddings or anniversaries; and we call cities that anchor our faith and traditions holy: Rome, Mecca.   


Churches and synagogues, even burial places, are sites we call holy. Even tumbledown ruins and ancient walls, remnants of a sacred history.

Little by little we realize that the entire Earth is God’s creation and we learn to treat is as holy. We become pilgrims along all our paths, and we learn to find God’s Presence all around us.

Still, something in Michelangelo’s masterpiece leaves us questioning. What compels Adam to reach out to God? Looking carefully at the empty space between the earthbound figure of Adam and the floating image of God, we can see that there are no strings attached. Adam is not a puppet, nor a robot carefully wired to respond to commands. Is it merely the innate need of a child to reach toward their parents, to be picked up, loved, and guided along life’s journey? Or is there something in Adam’s gesture that expresses more than that, more than an instinct?

Just as God’s choice to create Adam was freely made, so is our response. We can go beyond instinct. We can choose to answer the call or disregard it. Rosh Ha-Shanah is all about that choice. We have impulses that drive us, yet we are free to go beyond them. Rosh Ha-Shanah reminds us that we can reach beyond our needs, that we can respond to love with yet more love, that we are capable of giving even more than we take. 

We can enrich the world with our deeds. We can be messengers of holiness through the ways in which we interact with one another. Like God, we can cause a spark to become a bright light when we bring a measure of love and hope to the desperate and downcast among us; when we show compassion to those who are bereaved; when we share our abundance with the needy.  

The Torah teaches that God created human beings “in the Divine image.” Embedded within each of us is a spark, a touch of God’s own holiness, a measure of the same force that motivated God to create the universe in the first place. When we discover that spark within us and learn to use it, it becomes a powerful drive. This is the force that artists feel when they take up brush or chisel, when writers search for the words that will describe precisely what they see and feel within themselves, when scientists search for the answers to the puzzle of existence, and when teachers try to impart knowledge and wisdom to their students.

And that is our purpose in coming here tonight, and tomorrow—and ten days after that. Because at this season of the year, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, we hear the ancient call and we pause to remember and rededicate ourselves to the charge we accepted thousands of years ago: to the best of our abilities, to discover the holiness that surrounds us and is imbued within us; to live up to the highest standards and expectations placed upon us at the moment when God instilled the Divine breath within us and enabled us to rise from the dust. 

This is what I see when I look at that empty space in Michelangelo’s mural of the Creation of Adam. What I have come to realize and understand is that it really isn’t empty at all. We may not be able to see it, but that seeming void is filled with God’s love and calling to us, as well as with our response to God’s call. We fill the void with our longing to know and understand God; through the love and devotion we show to our faith and traditions; through the choices we make; through the words we speak and the work of our hands. It’s the reason why we are here tonight: To respond and, like Adam, to say, hineini—here I am.

May our prayers at this season of change and renewal be a source of inspiration for us all. May our deeds reflect God’s love and holiness, and may the coming year be filled with sweetness, health, and joy.

L’shanah tova tikatevu—may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy New Year. 

© 2023 by Boaz D. Heilman