High Holy Day Sermons
More than a decade ago, I traveled with my wife, Ariella’s, family to Lithuania to visit the shtetl from where her family came. We hired a tour guide, a member of the modern Lithuanian Jewish community, to help us find the graves of distant loved ones. People whom we never knew but whose legacies were carried forward in the names of the living, passed down through generations.
Like any proud father would, over the lockdown I watched all 23 Marvel comics movies with my pre-teen son. Not only did we watch the movies, we also ventured into the new television shows as well. The first being a show called Wanda Vision. My son and I were all in… debating each episode, watching every breakdown, searching for every hidden clue, and planning our weekly commitments around the show’s broadcast. This was our time together, sharing a mutual love of all things Marvel… and really just sharing mutual love.
The night before Rosh Hashanah, I officiated a beautiful wedding on a cliff overlooking the ocean, just as the sun was setting. I love officiating at weddings. I get a front row seat to one of the most intimate and meaningful moments in a couple’s life. There’s something that happens during a wedding - a moment of potential and possibility unlike any other and I love that I get to be a part of that moment. And when we reach the end of the ceremony, I put a covered glass on the floor, the groom steps on it, we yell ‘mazel tov’, they kiss, and as they ride off into the sunset, I’m usually the one who picks up the broken pieces of glass; the pieces they left behind. We all know what they’re running out into. It’s not a sunset. It’s not a lifetime of rose petals and delicious cake – it’s a world of joy and opportunity, yes, but it’s also a world of potential torment, a world in which they need to navigate pieces of broken glass.
Here we are. This is it. The big day. The biggest, holiest day of the Jewish year. The one day that brings most every Jew, no matter how observant (or not), out of the woodwork, to gather to repent the past.
Last night we began the service with perhaps the most iconic “prayer” we have, Kol Nidre. The cello playing and the cantor chanting that stirring, seemingly ancient, yet somehow timeless melody, as we read:
All vows—resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation, sworn promises and oaths of dedication—that we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves from last Day of Atonement to this Day of Atonement: we regret them and for all of them we repent. Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone; they are not valid and they are not binding. Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves; and our oaths—they shall not be oaths.
In March 2020, when we first went into lockdown, I handled it pretty well. I stayed inside, had my food and other necessities delivered, or went to the supermarket very early, during “senior hours,” not just with a mask, but also a scarf wrapped around my face and bright pink plastic gloves on my hands. When I wasn’t teaching online or conducting services, I cleaned out my closets, rearranged my drawers, organized my books, went on solitary walks and faced-timed my family and friends. Since I no longer had any help, once a week, I did all the household chores. And when people called to ask how I was doing, I would answer, “Good! I’m doing fine.”
If you want to be busy with direct messages from Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, your work and personal email accounts, be the rabbi of a large congregation and write a couple of books about pain and suffering. There is so much suffering in our congregation and so much suffering in the world.
A widow with two small children whose husband died messages me asking when the pain will end and why did God do this to her and children. Was it her fault? Another woman whose father died and whose husband is tired of her moping around the house and bursting into tears asks me, “Why can’t my husband understand?”
“Rabbi, I was just diagnosed, pray for me.”
“Rabbi, the CT scan is tomorrow, pray for me.”
And then there was this Instagram message from Lori. It arrived last week.
Maybe it’s because I’m the oldest of four siblings, or maybe it’s because I enjoy learning, or maybe it’s simply because I like to tell people what to do, but I’ve always loved teaching. I started teaching Religious School when I was eighteen and a freshman in college. Because I’d gone to orthodox Jewish Day School and Hebrew High School, I had a pretty decent Jewish background, and I was always reading and studying on my own in order to really know my stuff. I didn’t teach just for the money, though of course, that helped. It was also because I really loved Judaism. To me, Judaism has always offered this beautiful way of life that elevates us to become our best selves, and I wanted to share that with my students.
Dad, do you think the world is going to end?” my son asks me while sitting at the kitchen table. “There are a lot of really bad things happening.”
What kind of world is it, I wonder, that can shake someone so young’s faith in the future? Maybe it’s the plastics, sewage and death in coastlands and oceans of the world upon which we depend for food. Maybe it’s wildfires with smoke visible from space blanketing the country, blotting out the sun in the middle of the day. Maybe it’s pieces of glacial ice the size of Manhattan crashing into the sea, making us wonder when, not if, we shall go the way of the dinosaurs.
I am a Jew by accident. I did not choose to be born to Jewish parents or raised in a Jewish home. I am a Jew by accident. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m always inspired when someone comes to me wanting to learn about Judaism and wanting to become a Jew. Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic intern, Rabbi Fox gave me the opportunity to co-teach an Introduction to Judaism class for students considering conversion. There was something so special about the conversation that happened in that conference room on Tuesday nights. The quality of the questions was astounding and constantly forced me to think about Judaism in ways I never had before
A psychiatrist in Florida has recently begun using a new phrase to explain Americans’ growing desire to stay home. He calls it ‘cave syndrome’. Research shows that even those who are fully vaccinated have developed an anxiety and unease about venturing out into the world, choosing instead to remain safe and secure in their homes. There are many days that ‘cave syndrome’ perfectly captures my state of mind. But I have a career that takes me out into the world, children who need to go to school and continue with their social-emotional development, and friendships I’d like to maintain. It’s not easy to balance these conflicting values – the safety, security, and comfort of cave dwelling with the yearning for interpersonal connections, enjoyable entertainment, and a date night with my wife every once in a while. As we slowly move into the next phase of this pandemic, I keep asking myself, ‘how can I make sure I don’t lose sight of the lessons I’ve learned during this pandemic?’ I fear we are going to come out of this and be tempted to block the last year and a half from our minds; to treat it like a bad dream and try and return to how things used to be. But that’s just not possible and we have an incredible opportunity to hold on to the lessons of this pandemic and use them to improve ourselves and the world around us. Our tradition offers a strategy to come out of this braver, stronger, smarter, and happier. Earlier in the pandemic, I taught a 30-week online course called ‘Talmud Tales’. Each week, we explored a story from the ancient rabbis and connected it to our own lives. There is one story that speaks to this current moment like no other. It’s about a man and his son and their time in a cave.