Sign In Forgot Password

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776: September 13, 2015

Rabbi Richard Plavin

An elderly Jewish woman was waiting for a bus in Manhattan. She was very worried about the bus not coming and how late it was. Seeing a young man with a kippah on his head approaching the bus stop, she went up to him. “Ir ken redden Yiddish?” The fellow responds, “Avada, ich ken redden Yiddish.” Visibly relieved, she says, “Gatza dank! Vat time is it?”

I think we are all very well aware of what time it is – it is time to move on from the year 5775 to the new year 5776. It is a time of transition, and in all likelihood most of us have mixed feelings of joy at finishing what has been a difficult year and anxiety about the challenges that may face us in this new year.

For me, this night is fraught with emotion. Tonight I began the last time I will be the rabbi in this pulpit officiating at High Holiday services. This service tonight will be the 37th Rosh HaShanah I have had that privilege. That’s double chai plus one, a significant chunk of time by any measure.

Thirty-seven years is not many as we view the flow of Jewish history, but it is well more than half of my lifetime, and I know that for many people today in the congregation – some of the children in the religious school and even their parents – it is a stretch of years that exceeds their lifetime. In the Bible, the author uses the number 40 when he wants to indicate a long, long time. I hope my nearly 40 years is more akin to Moses’ years of leadership than the years Israel was under the thumb of the Philistines. In 37 years, I have not only seen the passage of time, but the passing of generations. If the essence of the rabbinate is, ‘hatch, match and dispatch,’ I have indeed done all of those for the many families who have been a part of this congregation over those decades.

A vivid sign of that is here this evening. My daughter Ilana was an infant, just six days old when we arrived in Manchester, my having become the rabbi just a few weeks earlier. Tonight, not only is she here as a grown-up, but her three sons are with her, my three remarkable grandsons, Shai, Moshe and Ezra, and her husband Steven Bernstein is our High Holiday cantor. I am sure that you were as pleased with his davening tonight as I was. I don’t think you were as filled with emotion as I was.

Last week when Steven and I were talking about details of the service, I told him that I envied the fact that cantors did essentially the same thing every year on the holidays, quite in contrast to the task of the rabbi. Steven and I get along very well so he felt free to disagree. He told me that in fact I give the same sermons every year, I just have to find new words. I admit he was correct, with the caveat that finding those new words is a significant challenge.

With all that having been said, here are my new words for the year 5776.

Does the name of Vice Admiral James Stockdale ring a bell for you? Not many people were familiar with that name in the 1992 presidential campaign. When Clinton and Bush represented the major parties, and Ross Perot ran as an independent, James Stockdale was the stand-in Vice Presidential candidate for Ross Perot at a televised debate. Stockdale was not the most impressive candidate that night, but he began his remarks with a line I want us to consider very carefully. His opening remarks were in the form of two questions: Who am I and what am I doing here?

That’s a line that could be the opening of a High Holiday sermon, and in fact it is.

The answer to the first question is not as obvious as you may think. You are not only your present self, but you are the descendant of giants, of men and women who preserved the tradition we proudly bear as our own. The Jews by Choice among us tonight are no less in that category because they are the beloved adopted offspring of Abraham and Sarah. Some of you look back at parents and grandparents who did not put great stress on your Jewish tradition. Your presence here tonight tells me that you do indeed cherish that heritage. Some of you look proudly to parents, grandparents or perhaps great-grandparents who were very traditional in their observance of Jewish law. If you are not as observant, I hope you will make the effort to understand what about observance was so meaningful to them. I would be pleased to help you in that learning.

The second question was  “Why am I here?”

You all have your own personal answers to that important question. But I want to give you my answer, and will do so from the perspective of next Rosh HaShanah, when I will be in a pew not on the bima.

I am here on this holy night to connect with my God and my community. The Torah tells me that this is ‘Yom HaZikaron – a day of memory’ and I do want to remember what it means to be a member of God’s covenanted people. But there is more. I am here because I enjoy it. I love the ancient words; I so appreciate the traditional melodies; I like seeing the familiar faces – always in the same places – and I want to hear the Rabbi’s sermon. In sum, I want to connect with my roots.

Last Monday, Labor Day, Lisa and I took a few hours to do a hike on the Hockanum River Trail. If you are up for hiking and enjoy being in the woods and appreciating beautiful scenery, I recommend you do this trail. But be forewarned: there are a few areas that are quite steep and you will find that the only way to secure your footing is to hang on to the many tree roots within your reach. Using roots to secure your footing; that sounds like an important spiritual message.

As I see the world today, a lot of us need support of a spiritual nature, because the state the world is such that our future indeed seems bleak. I read the newspaper each morning, which can be a very upsetting experience, and then I try to daven. As I say those prayers, it occurs to me that it must take a lot of restraint on God’s part not to bring a flood again to destroy His creation. The text in Genesis says, “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth.” Could it have been worse than what we see around us today?

If you don’t mind, I want to vent and tell you what bothers me.

The dimensions of the migrant crisis are beyond comprehension, and particularly frightening is the similarity to what happened to our people in the 1930’s and 40’s. Our people were desperate refugees then, and no country, including our beloved USA, l wanted to have anything to do with them.

In our own country there are serious problems that do not seem to be moving toward any resolution. Here in Connecticut, home to the Newtown school massacre, the carnage here at the Hartford Distributors warehouse, and cities with murders almost every day and night, the proliferation of gun violence is an outrage. Why have we not seen any improvement in controlling the availability of weapons? I was pleased to hear that Wal-Mart would no longer sell assault rifles. How can it be that after all the bloodshed in our country involving guns a general merchandise store was selling assault rifles?

The penal system in America is an apparent failure. A significant proportion of the population of our country resides in our prisons. With just over 2% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Those numbers bespeak deep-seated problems in our country. Knowing the racial make-up of that prison population leads us to the next moral morass in America: pervasive racism.

This past year we heard repeatedly about instances of police violence against African Americans. The racism in America goes beyond discrimination against Blacks to all people of color, but it was the death of so many African Americans this past year that led to the chants of “Black Lives Matter.” Why didn’t we already know that? Of course Black lives matter, just as all lives matter.

The issue of income inequality in our country is yet another moral outrage, and not unconnected to the problem of racism. Our local emergency food pantries literally ran out of supplies this summer to help parents feed their children. There are so many people, most of them working people, who cannot afford the very basics they need so that their children do not go to bed hungry. And at the same time, we’ve heard about the salaries of CEO’s, professional athletes and celebrity entertainers. It is an absolute obscenity. The newspapers should be X-rated.

I thank you for the opportunity to vent my outrage and upset. And I suppose you would like me now to tell you how we can solve these problems. I would like that as well, but of course I can’t.

What I can do is hang on to the roots. I can go to my tradition and find some direction.

I turn to Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Sages, and take some small comfort in the advice: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So what am I to do? The three part rubric of these holy days: Teshuva, Tephillah u’tzedakah gives me some guidance.

Teshuva is usually translated as repentance, but means more to me than that. It means that I must carefully examine my own soul and my actions, and ask myself, what in my life makes these problems worse or contributes to their amelioration, in whatever minuscule way. Teshuva can be done on a national level as well: is our government doing what it can to address these areas of moral decay and am I supporting the political leaders who care about doing that as much as they care about re-election?

Tephillah means prayer and surely I can have the victims of poverty, discrimination and warfare in my prayers, but the position of our tradition on prayer has always been that it must be a spur to action on our part. The book of Genesis is replete with stories about our ancestors worshipping God, as they moved from place to place and built altars. But it also tells us about their courageous actions: Abraham welcoming strangers, Isaac digging wells, Jacob planning for a possible battle with Esau, and Joseph, not waiting for the famine to end, but putting a plan of action in place to feed the hungry in the lean years. Prayer can give us courage, but it must inspire us to action as well.

Tzedakah is generally understood as charity, but we know it really means justice. If I am particularly blessed in a material sense, it is a åmatter of tzedakah – of justice - that I share my blessing with those less fortunate. Lisa and I take the responsibility of tzedakah, of righteous giving very seriously. Choices must be made because no one has so much money that they can give to every worthy cause. We make those choices based upon the teaching of our tradition. I want to recommend that to you as well.  Hang on to those roots. First, they tell you that giving is important, imperative, and a matter of justice. Then, those roots, that tradition, may guide you in carefully allocating your giving to reflect Jewish values: to feed the hungry, to free the captive, to help the stranger, to protect lives in danger – first for our own people, because that is what is means to be a part of a people. But never to neglect the stranger, because that is what it means to be a Jew.

Our world is rife with problems. As much as we pray for the coming of the messiah, it appears we are going to have to take serious action on our own in the interim. In the next two days we will chant many prayers, but we must meditate on the question of how they may guide our actions. We will sing, “U’tshuva, u’tfillah u’tzekakah – repentance, prayer and just actions can help avert the severity of the evil decree.” We will chant the Aleynu prayer and promise “L’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai – to do all we can to make this world more a kingdom of God.”

As we begin these holy days may our prayers inspire us all, and may the coming year be one of blessing for us, for all Israel and all humanity. AMEN.

Sun, June 16 2019 13 Sivan 5779