High Holy Day Sermons 5775

Erev Rosh Hashanah

I’m worried.

The New Year is upon us, and I am worried.

It is Yom HaDin — The Day of Judgment, and we have just sung the Avinu Malkenu:


Avinu Malkenu, hear our prayer.

Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned against you.

 Avinu Malkenu, have compassion upon

 us and our children.

 Avinu Malkenu, let the new year be a

 good year for us.”


Our book is open.  Our judgment is being recorded.  And I’ve got to tell you, I’m worried.


I’m worried about the year that lies ahead.  I’m worried about some things that are far away and seem to be beyond our control.  And I’m worried about some things that are very close to home, and over which we have total control.


I’m worried about our world. 

When I look around, read the papers, watch the news on TV, I am deeply troubled by what I see.

ISIS continues to expand its territory and its influence in the realm of terrorism, growing in strength, attracting disaffected Americans and Europeans into their ranks, and committing acts of barbarism and violence on a scale not seen since the Shoah.  Putin’s armies, together with pro-Russian rebels, continue to threaten the sovereignty of the Ukraine, even in the face of unanimous condemnation and harsh sanctions from Europe and abroad. The African continent is ravaged by war and disease, and the nuclear arsenals of North Korea, India and Pakistan threaten the security and the stability of the Far East, the sub-continent and, indeed, the whole world.


And as we enter the New Year, our world is faced with overpopulation, contagious disease, diminishing resources, and climate change – harsh winters, hurricanes, tornados and flooding in the East and the Midwest, and scarcely a drop of rain here at home.


I’m worried about Israel.

The summer of war with Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge…it confirmed our worst fears—that Israel’s history and, perhaps, her destiny are being shaped by the absence of any true progress toward a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian State, in either or both of the West Bank and Gaza, co-existing with a Jewish State in Israel.


It has been nine years since Israel withdrew from Gaza, removing all settlements and all military and police presence. In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the peace process seems to be moving ever so slowly, and against a growing tide of opposition from both Palestinians and Israelis.  I believe that the vision of peace which was born with Peres and Rabin and initiated in Oslo, will come to fruition over time.  But as the New Year begins, I worry about the visible lack of progress in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, and a return to the Netanyahu government’s policies of establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in the territories, which continue to place obstacles on the path to peace, and the stalemate over the future of Jerusalem.  Though I do not despair of Israel’s survival, I worry about her long-term relations with the Palestinians, and with her Arab neighbors.  I worry about Israel’s security, and about support from the International community of nations. And I worry that young Jews, those below the age of 30, are increasingly estranged from Israel, and believe Israel to be responsible for the current situation. But that is not all that concerns me about Israel.


Religious discrimination continues to be a significant problem in Israel, though strangely enough, it is not directed against Christians, Muslims, Bah’ais or other non-Jews.  It is a sad truth that the most serious religious discrimination in Israel continues to be directed at non-Orthodox Jews, whose rabbis cannot officiate at weddings or in matters of divorce; Reform and Conservative Jews like you and me, who cannot even be buried by their own rabbis according to their chosen custom.  Over the past few years, it appeared that we might see some progress toward religious pluralism in Israel, as Israel’s Supreme Court consistently ruled in favor of the Reform and Conservative movements in matters of civil legislation and government funding for liberal Jewish synagogues and educational institutions. The egalitarian worship space at the Western Wall has become a reality, and the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis serving Regional Councils are now being paid by the State, as has always been the case with Orthodox rabbis.  But it is a constant struggle, and in the year ahead our brothers and sisters in Israel will need our support, just to maintain the progress they have made over all of these years.


And in the New Year, Israelis will give up even more of the values of the chalutzim — the pioneers who built the land — for the values of the West, which they see every day on CNN, NBC and HBO.  Tel Aviv has become a high-tech, international caliber city, with modern skyscrapers, mass transit and cultural offerings on par with any major city in the world. But it has become more and more difficult to find good felafel in Jerusalem, large shopping malls have replaced neighborhood grocery and clothing stores, and the Atara cafe on Ben Yehudah Street—the place where leaders of the Irgun and the Palmach met to formulate the plans for Israel’s independence—is now a Burger King. Ben-Gurion and Begin would have been appalled at the new face of their old meeting place, even though both of them liked the idea of having it “their way”…


I’m worried about the United States of America.

We have not gained much in the arena of national security following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, only more uncertainty, and an ever-growing loss of civil liberties.  Our economy continues to suffer from the financial costs of the wars, and we see its cost in other ways; in the eyes of families who lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and in the eyes of those who returned, many with physical and emotional injuries that they will carry forever. And we don’t even talk about the wars all that much anymore, because people are tired of hearing about them, because it is too painful.  Instead we tuck it away. But for those who love this country, it quietly eats away at our souls.  Cynical politicians try to turn our attention away to other matters, and move these distractions to the top of their agendas. Partisanship, finger-pointing and sabre rattling have replaced debate and compromise in Congress, and the effect on our economy and on our national pride, has damaged our national psyche and our sense of security. 


Escalating violence and crime, intolerance of racial, cultural and religious differences, and disillusionment of our young people have become hallmarks of American communities.  There is a great deal of fragmentation, and growing alienation.  Sandy Hook.  Ferguson, Missouri.  We worry about our kids when they are out of our sight, and after dark.  And we worry about our own safety.


Refugees and emigres continue to line up on our shores and at our borders, but we have removed the welcome mat from our door.  Yielding to the pressures of the economy and a political shift to the right, we have become wary of the strangers in our midst, and unwilling to increase their number in our communities.  Lady Liberty still cries out,


 “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

                        Emma Lazarus (inscription on Statue of Liberty)


But the gild seems to have come off the doorknob, and I wonder if anyone is listening.


I’m worried about California.

We have had over a year now with almost no rain. “Meyshiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem”, the words we will add to the tefillah after Simchat Torah asking for the winds and the rain are no longer just a theoretical prayer for rain in the Holy Land.  The effect of the drought on the environment, our economy, and the food supply is obvious.  Forest fires burn for weeks on end, not only in southern California, but at Yosemite National Park, and outside of Sacramento, closer to home. The economic divide in our communities continues to increase, as the income gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow, with resulting increases and hunger and homelessness.  (I will have more to say about that tomorrow.) Unemployment remains at levels that are unacceptable for a healthy society.  Everyone here knows someone who is unemployed or under-employed and losing hope.  And tolerance for minorities is not what it used to be.


Governor Brown has done an admirable job in deficit reduction and budget balancing, a seemingly impossible task that he inherited from his predecessors (one of whom was him.)  But this has resulted in reducing the resources available to prop up the social welfare net that is needed to provide the most basic standard of living for people in need. Support for mass transportation, public education, job training and affordable housing have been reduced, thus denying avenues of self-improvement that provide hope for the future.


In 5775, California will still be a great place to live, but it will not be as nice a place to live as it once was for lots of folks.


And I’m worried about our own community.

It is not just the civic community, but the Jewish community as well, where changing demographics and diminishing resources present difficult challenges; to our federation and its agencies and institutions—and to synagogue communities like our own.  The Pew study confirms that the new generation is far less committed to supporting the institutions of Jewish life according to the models of affiliation that we grew up with, and is more interested in purchasing their Jewish services a la carte,


Who would have thought it?

And a better question…what can we do about it?


That is to say, what can we do about all of these things, beyond sharing our worries with one another?  What can we do when the problems seem to be so huge and beyond our reach?  What can we do when we are so small?  After all, we are not world leaders or politicians.


Jewish tradition teaches us to begin at home, and then in our own town, and to move outward from there.  And so the year ahead will need to be one in which we get involved in our local community, to try to make it better.  To renew the commitment of Torah to tikkun olam, repairing the broken parts of the world.  Tikkun olam can be achieved, one small repair at a time. 


Tzedakah is a part of Tikkun Olam. 

Judaism teaches tzedakah—righteous behavior—as its highest goal: to help those who are able to become self-sufficient, and to ensure the safety, security, and dignity of those who are unable to be self-sufficient.  It teaches that an individual need not be in jeopardy before the community extends its hand, and that a community who abandons its poor has ceased to be a community by definition.


We know that much of the brokenness in our community and in our nation is connected to the inability, or perhaps the unwillingness, of government to provide adequately for those in need.  In the coming year we will have to take up the slack, and become even more involved in charitable work—food banks, affordable housing projects, provision of day care, employment training and job banks.  And we will probably have to do it through our religious communities and the non-profit, charitable sector, which means we will have to ensure the well-being of our synagogues by joining and sustaining them, and our non-profits and charities, by giving something of what we have.  Judaism teaches “no less than 10%, and no more than 20% of our income” should be used for tzedakah.  We need to make sure that we place ourselves, all of us, within these parameters.


At the same time, we need to make our voices heard.  It is the role of government to ensure basic standards of living for its citizenry, and it is the role of citizens to exercise their franchise and participate in the election of public officials and the formation of social policy. 


It is not the role of religious communities and charities to look after the poor and disadvantaged.  We will do it if they won’t, because human decency demands that we do.  But we ought not tolerate a government that abdicates its responsibility to those who need it most.  Balance the budget.  Sure.  Reduce the deficit.  Sure…but not on the backs of our most vulnerable. 


Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That is the voice of our tradition speaking, the voice of our Jewish values.  We need to make our voices heard—voices of Torah—Jewish voices that articulate God’s will as we understand it.  We need to step up and become Or L’goyim — a Light to the Nations.  Making our voices heard is also tikkun olam, and it is equally important for local, national and international issues.


One of the ways that we, as individuals, can fulfill the mandate from the Torah of “justice, justice shall you pursue” is to vote. Our system of government that finds its mission in the preamble to the Constitution has established away for each of us to pursue a just society. That practice—voting—is a just way for our collective goals to be realized. The deadline for voter registration in California is October 20th, and November 4th is the day to cast your ballot. Educate yourself on the issues, and then vote your conscience.  A registration guidelines sheet is available in the foyer.  Voting is also a part of tikkun olam.   


We can make a difference, as our voices are added to those of others.  People of good will can bring about good ends.  I do believe this to be true. 

yad b’yad, echad im ha-sheyni

 am echad im lev echad,

 ken anu natlim n’suat olam


“Hand in hand as one with another

 one people with one heart,

 we bear the burden of the world.”


Building Community is yet another part of Tikkun Olam.

Here at Beth Israel Judea, we have an opportunity to build community together, to fashion and become a part of a vibrant religious community and carry on its proud heritage, dedicated to repairing the broken parts of our world.   A community dedicated to the study of Torah and Mitzvot, to acts of tzedakah and g’milut chasadim.  For the two go hand in hand:           

                        “Im ayn kemach, ayn Torah,

                         Im ayn Torah, ayn kemach


                        “Without Torah, there is no sustenance.

                         Without sustenance, there is no Torah”


In the year ahead, we must strive to become a community committed to action that comes from our understanding of Torah, and God’s demands upon us.  And we need to continue to be a community that makes it possible for each of us to reach God through song and prayer.  You see, I believe that prayer helps.  I believe that by putting our faith in God we can help to bring about some of the repair that, at times, seems to be beyond our reach.  Tomorrow morning, I will speak about our BIJ community, and share with you some of my thoughts about where we can go in the year 5775, and how we can continue to move toward the achievement of these communal goals.


To return to that which has always been available to us, and to renew our lives through such a return, is called teshuvah, and it is what these High Holy Days are about.


On this Day of Judgment, the book lies open, and we cry out:

Avinu Malkenu, hear our voice.

 Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned against


                   Avinu Malkenu, make an end to sickness,

                   war and famine.

                   Avinu Malkenu, make an end to all


                   Avinu Malkenu, give strength to Your

                   people Israel”.

 Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us for blessing

 in the book of life.

                   Avinu Malkenu, be gracious and answer

                   us, for we have little merit.

                   Treat us generously and with kindness,

                   and be our help.”


Ken Yihi Ratzon.