High Holiday Reflections- 5775
The Talmud teaches, “Great is repentance, for on account of a single person who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven.” (Yoma 86b) It is outrageous to suggest that one individual could save the world simply by reflecting upon his or her deeds, making amends and apologies and resolving to do better.
Or is it? Alfred Nobel and Oskar Schindler are examples of those who have faced moments of truth that led to changes in their lives. Those changes, in turn, had great impact on the wider world. We still feel ripple effects of their actions today.
It can feel like our lives are small, like it doesn’t matter all that much what we do or don’t do. That Talmud reminds us that, in fact, this is not the case. We never know how far our reach will extend when we make even the smallest change.
On this Rosh HaShana, could you be the one? Could your teshuva make a world of difference?
Rabbi Mari Chernow
RH Day One-
Our frenetic lives are not conducive to spiritual growth. It is hard to make the time for teshuvah, for reflection on the path of our lives.
Teshuvah means that we feel sorry for what we did, and so we make amends. When we are confronted with the opportunity to sin again, we reject it. And we resolve to commit ourselves to a more righteous way of living in the days ahead. Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught, “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.”
Our sense of embarrassment should not stand in the way of our teshuvah. We support each other in our promises to act differently next time, confident in our capacity to grow and change. “No matter how far you’ve strayed,” Reb Nachman continues, “returning to God is always possible. Agree therefore that there is absolutely no place for despair.”
Rabbi Yose ben Halafta was once asked what God had been doing since the creation of the world. His response- “Making ladders for people to descend and ascend.” His words remind us that the process of teshuvah is ongoing. May we all be blessed in this new year to climb that ladder to the highest heights.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
RH Day Two-
Rosh Hashanah is a time where we put our lives under a microscope. We take a good hard look at who we are. We try hard not to outsmart ourselves on these two days. Our task is simple–face the truth and face the lies we tell ourselves. Uncover the excuses we excel at making. Try to find the places we hide out in order to avoid who we really are and who we really could become. Its a tough job but somebody has to do it. Otherwise there’s no growth and no healing and no progress. We want to create ourselves anew–enough each year that as we age we become someone that brings lots of light into the world.
What I have just described is the individual challenge we each face on these High Holy Days. But there is another challenge that many of us are fond of skipping out on. That’s the communal challenge. Our prayers, after all, are in the plural. We are supposed to put our communities, our people, our country under the microscope. We are supposed to ask, “How are WE doing?” One of the things I love about Israel is that this dimension is in our faces all the time. As my brother puts it, “What other country calls their country a project?” The word “project” is used a great deal in Israel. We have all kinds of projects going on–the kibbutz project, the high-tech project, the “how do we build a democratic and Jewish state” project. Project means a serious attempt to work together to make something happen that will make things better. We’re not just a country. We’re a country with a purpose, a country with dreams, a country still being born.
I guess you could say that Rosh Hashanah is a good time to ask–how’s the project of America going? How’s the Jewish project going? How’s the project of Temple Chai? I can assure you that where I live we’ll be asking similar questions. Together, we can figure it out and respond.
Rabbi Bill Berk
Rabbi Alexandri said, “If a common person uses a broken vessel, it is considered a disgrace. But not the Holy One, blessed be God. All of God’s vessels are broken. ‘God is near the brokenhearted’” (Psalm 34)
As we saw in our Selichot art gallery, the connections between brokenness and wholeness are complicated and deep. Beyond the veneer of wholeness there is often something shattered. So too, the shards and wreckage of events of the past form the foundation for wholeness in the future.
Shabbat Shuva comes while we are in the process of breaking down egos and shattering illusions of certainty. At the same time, it is still Shabbat, the day on which we treat ourselves to a feeling of comple total contentedness. We act as if all the work we have to do is completely done.
May this Shabbat Shuva remind us that every last one of us is both shattered and whole. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Mari Chernow
Sunday Sept. 28-
As I grow in my Judaism in my adult life, this time of year is always one of reflection, renewal and transformation. Each year cultivates different feelings depending on where I am in my life and what experiences or life changes I am going through at that moment. It is a time to examine both the negative and positive experiences and allow them to be opportunities for growth. How could I have reacted differently? Did I try my best? Did I stay true to myself in my decisions? Did I remain truthful and purposeful in my actions? Did I incorporate Jewish values in my life and my interactions with others? I ask myself these questions not in search for the right answers, but rather as a time to look within and acknowledge that I am human. I am a person who makes mistakes, has triumphs, successes and failures. All of these experiences make me human; they make me who I am. I appreciate this time of reflection and use it as a reminder to be fully present, to live my life honestly, with integrity and with Judaism lighting the way.
Monday Sept. 29-
Awe is a powerful word. I wonder sometimes (lament really) if we don’t lose the capacity for awe as we grow older. I remember feeling awe as a child. I felt it when Mt. St. Helens erupted only a few hundred miles from my house, blanketing my town in a hauntingly beautiful whisper of ash. I felt it when I stood in two-mile long line to see The Empire Strikes Back, bonded in a cultural moment that I would remember forever. I felt it again a few hours later when I learned that (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. I felt it often because, often, an experience was brand new. As I grew older, however, less and less was new in my life. Or, to be more truthful, perhaps I was seeking out less and less that was new. Becoming a father changed that. Now, I see the awe in my daughter as she experiences life for the first time. It’s not that I experience awe vicariously through her. It’s that I experience the awe of her new eyes as she sees the word anew. I love the world more for her loving it. Even better, I get to craft experiences designed to evoke awe inside of her. What a truly beautiful life we live when we grow from the one who experiences to the one who engineers. Imagine how amazing G-d must feel to get to do that every day.
Tuesday Sept. 30-
During the High Holy Days, we engage in a review of our lives with serious intention. This accounting of our soul is referred to by the term cheshbon hanefesh. It is a time when we heed the sound of the shofar as a wake-up mantra to look closely at our deeds and decisions. As Maimonides writes: Awake from your slumber, and rouse yourself from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance.
This practice gives us an opportunity to awaken to our commitments and see where we need to grow and change. At the same time, we can affirm our awe and gratitude of life around us and the gifts that we bring to it. As we turn toward new possibilities, we are also reminded of our unique passions and talents that increase the presence of compassion, healing, and shalom in our lives, in our community, and in the world. With this in mind, we can humbly begin anew.
Wednesday Oct. 1-
There is a powerful saying by Bachya ibn Pakuda from the 11th Century which reads, “Days are scrolls: write on them only what you want remembered.”
Each time I read these words I sit a little taller and ask myself – How do I want to be remembered? Are there people whom I have hurt? disregarded? not treated fairly? Are there times when I could have helped more? given more? done more? And the list goes on.
We all have our internal lists, and fears, and doors we choose to keep closed.
As we approach Yom Kippur, it is our spiritual directive to bring these difficult questions and challenges to the surface, wrestle with them and ultimately begin the work of writing a better, stronger scroll.
May we all have the courage to really see what we need to change, to accept forgiveness from others and begin to mend wounds.
Dear God, as we open up our hearts remember us to Life – “Zochreynu l’Chayim”
Cantor Sharona Feller
Thursday Oct. 2-
Almost time for Kol Nidre. What is the captivating power of this moment of prayer? The magnetism that draws Jews from the farthest corners of the Jewish world back to the sanctuary? Is it the haunting and ancient melody? The hypnotic, ritual repetition of the words, once, twice, three times? The community standing together, the ark open, all the sifrei Torah embraced before before our eyes by our dedicated leaders?
All of these, yes. Certainly. And even more so, it is the sense of release. KOL Nidre- ALL our vows. We live lives of overwhelming commitments and a myriad of responsibilities. How liberating it is, for just that moment, to lay down these obligations and let go. Kol Nidre ultimately offers us the opportunity to free ourselves from the attachments that prevent us from being who we most deeply long to become.
For this one day we separate ourselves from the needs of our physical being so that we may be devoted to our spiritual selves. Rabbi Alan Lew writes that, “When we recite the Kol Nidre, God calls out to the soul, in a voice the soul recognizes instantly because it is the soul’s own cry. . . and its name is pain, grief, shame, humiliation, loss, failure, death- or at least that is its first name.” We let go of our bodies, we release ourselves from unhealthy commitments and negative emotions. Through the process of Yom Kippur, beginning with the first few notes of the Kol Nidre prayer, a new soul is born within our cleansed spirit.
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Friday Oct. 3- final for KN/YK-
We spend today preparing for Kol Nidre. The work ahead of us is daunting but these ten days of repentance will soon come to an end. Still, the hours that remain are teeming with opportunity and possibility. With that in mind, I’d like to share a story I learned from Alan Morinis of the Mussar Institute:
One night Rabbi Yisrael Salanter walked past the home of a shoemaker. He noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. “Why are you still working,” he asked. “It is very late and soon that candle will go out.” The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.” Rabbi Salanter spend that entire night excitedly pacing his room and repeating to himself: “As long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.”
Rabbi Mari Chernow
 Likutei Moharan, 2:112
 Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, Braslav Research Institute, 1973, #3
 Leviticus Rabba 8:1
 Pesikta de’Rav Kahana as quoted in S.Y. Agnon’s Days of Awe.
 Lew, Alan, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2003, p. 178