A look back at
High Holy Days 5783/2022
Rosh Hashanah Evening 5783
Rabbi Michael Zedek
I am confident many here are old enough to remember a time when it most we had access to three TV stations and that with our “rabbit year” equipped television antennas, along with the frequent add-on of aluminum foil wrapping to improve reception. The elders here can assure those in disbelief. I’m not making this up, including that a remote control meant asking your child to change the channel. But I recall with special nostalgia the magic of when, as so often, the picture might go awry or astray, the all-purpose and often surprisingly effective tool, namely a whack or slap to the side of the TV.
In those ancient days, the program season lasted from September to May or June, meaning a favorite show ran for some 30 to 36 episodes, after which summer reruns provided the opportunity to catch up. As well, summer included the occasional experiment. The impactful, much admired and ill-fated Smothers Brothers show began in that category. But things change, and the demands of stockholders and profit margins reduce the TV season, first to some 20 or so weeks and now, perhaps, 13 or 10. Famously Seinfeld, one of the most successful shows ever, had initial run of just four weeks. In the result now – whether the program be new or repeat – includes the off-site it refrain, hundreds of channels and nothing to watch.
Well, I hope you won’t reach a version of that conclusion as my intent this
evening is to present (modestly and tongue firmly in cheek) some of
“Zedek’s” greatest hits, by which I mean a few stories, illustrations, examples,
ones I still find enriching and challenging. I promise some “new” stuff during
the sacred gatherings, but I hope/pray familiar or not, that you’ll come along
with me and only more so that the journey will prove worthwhile.
After all, a good story always has a certain character and claim. No matter
how well known the tale, there are distinct moments when we may be open
to embrace its wisdom and to act upon it with something more than
“Oh yeah, that’s nice.”
In fact here’s a story about stories. My closest friend in the Raven, like me,
collects and tell stories. A member of his synagogue would strive regularly to
tell the Rabbi some “meise,” a story that the Rabbi didn’t know already.
Invariably, my friend would interrupt. “Thanks, but I’ve heard it before.”
That is until one day as the familiar encounter began, which quickly brought forth the rabbis refrain. But this time the congregant offered an irrefutable rejoinder.” Rabbi, when I’m at the Boston Symphony, and they are playing Beethoven’s ninth, I don’t get up and say, I’ve heard it before.’”
Now I don’t think what follows belongs in the company of Beethoven, but I do believe these offerings have something to teach us – all of us. So even if a citation may be a repeat for some, hope it opens a door to the heart. After all, stories have an often magical ability to tell us, remind us, urges toward our best even when we may not be functioning at that level.
And that reminds me of a story. Mother overhears her child’s bedtime prayer. “Dear God, I’d like an iPad, and iPhone, game station, and how about a puppy in a pony.” The mother interrupts, “Don’t give God so many orders. Just report for duty.”
An intriguing phrase as the Hebrew word Niftar, a word frequently found on cemetery markers, is often, although imprecisely translated as “departed,” followed by the date. I find a provocative that with all the euphemisms in English for dying – a partial list: called home, passed on, passed away, going to glory, met his maker, breathe through last, going to eternal rest, eternal sleep, in a better place, and they always timely incurious, kicked the bucket. Hebrew really has just two, at most three principal substitutes Ne’esaf El Amo/meaning gathered to or into one’s people. Suggesting, of course, those who came before us and, one hopes, those who remain. That we might be included, gathered into their values, commitments, actions, memories and more.
As to the already mentioned Niftar, a more literal rendering then departed is to be discharged from service. Which leads to the question, what constitutes an honorable discharge? And, of course, that reminds me of a story, one some may recall.
It was after a family service. A four or five-year-old beautiful little girl was leaving with her mother. In a voice a bit too loud for my comfort, she asked, “Mommy, the Rabbi’s sermon confused me.” My ears and my anxiety perked up immediately as I feared the Mother might respond that there was no need to worry. After all, “our Rabbi confuses everybody.” Instead, she responded with a question. “Why is that, honey?” I thought that was a more promising option. The daughter explained that the Rabbi seemed to suggest that God is bigger than we are, and the Mother confirmed the notion. But this gorgeous little girl went on. “Mommy, the Rabbi said there is a part of God in every one of us. Is that true, Mommy? And, yes, in keeping with one of the remarkable assertions of our tradition, the mother agreed, and then this little girl offered the singular most remarkable theological statement I have ever encountered. “Mommy, if God is bigger than we are and God lives in us, wouldn’t God show through.”
Even if God talk may make you uncomfortable, I’m confident you have known people like that, and yes, yes, yes, you and I can/should be persons
like that. So these holidays, more correctly, holy days insist enough with
excuses, enough with too busy or that stuffs not for me. No, this sacred season asserts that is our ultimate calling. To be a place where something of
God shows through. While some of us have retired from the challenge of
making a living, the imperative of how we make a life has no slow or off-
season, no vacation or leave time and certainly no retirement plan. For as
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav reminds us, “If you are not going to be a better
person tomorrow than you are today, why do you need tomorrow?”
So let us agree, commit, insist not only do we need tomorrow but also we
will use it, all of it to become a place where something of kindness, of
holiness, something of God shows through.
For until that inevitable moment when we are gathered into our people, then indeed might we merit an honorable discharge. And that reminds me of a story, actually two stories.
The tale has a remarkable number of variations found in many traditions, but this evening I would share the Buddhist and the Jewish version of this story.
A woman’s only child dies. She goes to see the Buddha. She implores them to restore her child to life. He tells her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that is not known sorrow, and he will do she request. Of course, she understands the Buddha’s teaching, for there is no such home. So she leaves, resigned to her fate.
The Jewish version tells of a woman whose only child dies who goes to see the Prophet Elisha. For those whose Sunday school lessons may be a little rusty, in the Hebrew Bible he does a CPR like reviving of a child who seems to have died. In short, he’s the right one for folklore to select.
The mother implores him to restore her child to life. He tells her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that has not known sorrow, and he will do what she requests. And now it becomes a Jewish story. Rather than resignation, she begins a desperate search. Many years later they meet, and in a wonderful detail, he recognizes her. To do not recognize each other. He inquires as to why she never returned. She explains that at first she was desperately looking for that mustard seed that would restore her child to life, but in every home she entered, there was pain. And she was too busy trying to relieve pain to return to him.
The two stories embrace to distinct wisdom’s. The Buddhist tale expresses the wisdom of acceptance. What is, is what is, is what is. The Jewish version of embodies the wisdom of struggle, to bridge the distance between the world as it is in the world as it should be. In the world as it should be, children don’t die before parents, and we will move and research and even tilt at windmills and often fail and sometime succeed to get our world closer to the way it should be.
An addendum, more precisely a formula: the Jewish story also rightly insists that you can’t get better unless you are helping others get better. And that insistence is also a focal point for the world’s complaint about us. More precisely and as you know, anti-Semitism is once again – if it ever went quiescent – a matter of deep concern. I intend to discuss that topic tomorrow morning and at the study session on Yom Kippur afternoon.
For now, I recall the Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s definition of a Jew as “someone who can’t sleep and won’t let others sleep either.” Forthrightly, it’s dangerous to be the world’s alarm clock, but it is who we are, a wake-up call, one that enlists all of us in the effort to bridge some of the distance between the world as it is as it should be.
That’s not exclusive to us, but it is the heart of what it means to be part of the Jewish story. For the moment, a concluding tale and a reflection.
The Talmud recalls a debate among the Sages concerning the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome. Is it permissible to attend or not? Of course, the majority insists we must stay away from such brutality. And then a certain Rabbi Nathan steps forward to urge that we go. We must go. His reasoning, and the crowd shouts for the blood of the defeated gladiator and goes thumbs down, our job is to shout thumbs up.
Not a bad job description, especially in a world of madness, a world in which it is all too easy to throw in the towel, to imagine there is nothing we can do, but echo Rabbi Nachman, “If you are not going to be a better person tomorrow then you are today, why’d you need tomorrow?”
So I wish all of us a very fine today and an even better tomorrow and tomorrow and all tomorrow’s that may come until we have ended, until we have none.
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Book of Remembrance
It is a sacred tradition of our faith to honor in prayers and acts of charity the memory of loved ones, particularly when we gather for our High Holy Day Services. There will be Yizkor on Yom Kippur and we will remember our family and friends in our Book of Remembrance.
Members can review their entry from last year, make adjustments and submit everything for the Book of Remembrance using this link. Please log into shulcloud first, then click the link so it will provide you with last years information. If you need assistance logging in, please contact the office at 773-561-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Non-Members Option to Add Names:
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This year's Book of Remembrance will be available for congregants to pick-up on Yom Kippur. We are also working on a way to mail the book to those who will not be attending services in person. Thank you.
Tikkun Olam - Repair the World
Emanuel Congregation is working with the following organizations before and during the High Holy Days in an effort to help repair our world:
Care for Real - To help our neighbors in need this winter, we will be collecting items needed by Care for Real to help serve their clients this winter. More information to come.
Shalva - When you donate a used cell phone or iPad, Shalva sends them to a recycling company and then receives money to help fund their much needed services to women healing from abuse. If you have a used cell phone or iPad that you would like to donate to Shalva, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time drop it off at Emanuel. For more information about Shalva visit shalvaonline.org.
The Ark - Annual Food Drive. The Ark is collecting kosher, non-perishable foods to distribute to its clients for the High Holy Days and beyond. More information about The Ark's Annual High Holy Day Food Drive coming soon.
Machzor (Prayer Books)
Emanuel Congregation uses Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe. Should you wish to purchase your own copy, they may be purchased from the publisher, CCAR Press, or they might also be available at Rosenblum's in Skokie, 773-262-1700.
Emanuel Congregation has some machzorim to loan to those who will be attending services in person. Large print versions are also available.
If you have questions or need assistance, email us at email@example.com or give us a call at 773-561-5173. We're here to help!