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Bound By The Covenant of Israel

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

It was this and that much worse when, years later, Abraham once again heard God’s call. This time it had to do with his son, Isaac, and what God was demanding was that Abraham offer Isaac as sacrifice on some far-off mountain. Once again, Abraham obeys, though we can only imagine his grief as the two set out together.

Throughout history, it’s always been hard to be a Jew. Not only because of the number of mitzvot we had to obey (ten would have been dayenu!! Enough! But 613???) But more than that, we saw ourselves as keepers of a special charge, a challenge that became a sacred mission: To pursue knowledge and justice, to seek freedom and equality wherever we saw falsehood, prejudice and discrimination. This was God’s law, and at Sinai we accepted it as our law.

The Law defined us as Israel, chosen to be in a unique relationship and bound by a Covenant—a Covenant with our God, with our Land and with our People. And throughout our history we have been trying to live up to its demands.

In ancient Israel, no one was above the Law. The Prophets of Israel were quick to judge and rebuke anyone—including the king himself—who transgressed against another, who stole from the poor, or otherwise abused his power. In our many countries of exile and Diaspora, we held on to the tenets of the Covenant even when our life was at stake.

Our efforts often met with success. Wherever we were offered hospitality, we and the community around us thrived. No medieval court was ever without a Jewish doctor, accountant or scribe. Our business acumen and connections ensured that we would always have an important role to play in international commerce and trade. Our culture inspired and fostered literature, art and music in places where these did not exist prior to our arrival.

But success often also bred jealousy and hatred. Expelled from one country after another, we were confined to crowded ghettos, our means and livelihood severely restricted. We were heavily taxed, humiliated and often unjustly imprisoned or murdered. Still, we clung to the Covenant.

Through the darkest ages, our faith was our chief source of hope. Our sacred texts provided a safe haven, a home to return to, for the glorious visions they provided of a better and more just world. Our prayers reached deeper into our souls, and soared higher into the heavens. We created even more music, art and literature. We even played a vital role in the Enlightenment that helped bring freedom to all Europe. And throughout it all we never forgot who we were.

Recent times, however, brought with them new developments and greater challenges, in whose wake our faith and commitment to the Covenant found themselves profoundly shaken. First, of course, is the Holocaust. The second, ironically, is the freedom we found in the New World, in America.

The Holocaust saw one-half of our people killed. Two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, a million and a half children—a whole generation—were annihilated. Entire cultures and communities that had existed for hundreds and thousands of years disappeared. The vast scope of the destruction caused an unparalleled crisis of faith. The survivors who emerged from the catastrophe—and I count all of us among them—have been forever changed. Our faith can never again be as firm and unwavering as it was in prior days and ages.

America has brought its own challenge to Jewish continuity. Ironically, here, where Jews are finally able to be free, to mingle without constraints and become integral members of society, the danger we face today is byproduct of our own freedom.

Now our very sense of peoplehood is at risk. Today we don’t need Brotherhoods or Sisterhoods to provide us with opportunities for friendship and camaraderie. Accepted just about anywhere, we don’t need Jewish country clubs or summer resorts such as the Catskills. Ironically, we don’t need other Jews to be Jewish.

Rather than the whole picture, for many of us, our Judaism expresses itself in more specific aspects: Some of us may be more observant in our rituals; but equally valid are those among us who see themselves as secular Jews; or Jews who describe themselves as cultural Jews; Jews by food and tradition; Jews for Israel; or Jews invested in social action and tikkun ‘olam.

In America, for all our freedoms, the danger that we face today is losing sight of the forest for the trees. The bigger picture, the Covenant among ourselves, between us and our God, and between us and our Land, is receding in the blur of modern life and its demands.

And maybe that’s the real purpose of Rosh Ha-Shana, and why it takes place annually, without fail. The Torah does not refer to this day as the beginning of the year. That designation came much later, in the age of the Talmudic Rabbis. In the Torah, it’s called Yom Zikaron—a Day of Remembrance. In the storms and hardship of life, forgetfulness comes too easily. Between one thing and another, it’s too easy to get lost. Rosh Ha-Shana serves to remind us, to call us back, to redirect us onto the right path.

Because here we are, sitting together: rich and poor alike; religious Jews and secular Jews; of Orthodox background, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or of no Jewish background at all; educated Jews, unschooled Jews; Jews by birth, Jews by choice. Life gets complicated. It pulls us apart, taking each of us on a journey we must make alone. Rosh Ha-Shana brings us home again, not only to reminisce, but also to give us a chance to re-orient ourselves, to see ourselves on a larger canvas. On this day—ba-yom ha-zeh—we gather, just as have our people year after year, to recall, to remember, and to reaffirm the terms of the Covenant we chose to accept at Sinai, three thousand six hundred years ago.

On Rosh Ha-Shana, against the infinite backdrop of the Creation of the world, we examine the meaning and direction of our lives. Measuring our faith against the perfect model set by our first Patriarch, Abraham, each of us considers the role we play in in our people’s sacred mission. And we recall that to be Israel is not only to be rooted in the historic land that bears our name, but also to be God’s partner in the ongoing act of Creation, to be a Holy People, a people dedicated to the ideals of knowledge, freedom, justice and equality.

Being Jewish isn’t simple or easy. Pirkei Avot—the Talmudic Tractate of the Fathers—sternly reminds us that it isn’t a task we may desist from. However, taking a somewhat gentler stance, the verse continues: But neither are we obligated to complete it. When each one of us, in our own way, shape, or manner, does whatever we are capable of, when we contribute whatever we can to the greater whole, then all are the better for it.

And that is what it means to be Israel. We are a people united by an ancient Covenant of love, remembrance and responsibility—towards ourselves and one another; towards our God; towards our country and our homeland, for all eternity.

May this Day of Remembrance bring with it sweet memories of past celebrations. May our prayers and meditations today nourish our souls and strengthen our resolve. May this Rosh Ha-Shana show us the path to even greater involvement with our people and tradition. And may we all be inscribed for a good New Year, a year of health, love, joy and peace.

L’shanah tova tikatevu, Amen.

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Words, Words, Words!

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Words give us joy, laughter, and tears—sometimes all at once.

I once remarked to my father, of blessed memory, that he seemed to save too many newspaper and magazine clippings, some of them going back decades in time. My father responded, “What can I do?? I love words.” I now realize that I must have inherited this love from him. I love words and the paths that they lead me on. I love playing with words, listening to their rhythms and rhymes. I love figuring out how words evolved through the ages and how they arrived at the meaning they hold for us today.

Personally, I love puns and word play. One of my favorite passages in all literature is from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s play about the man who sought justice by means of words. In Act II, Hamlet is reading a book when he encounters Polonius, chief counselor to the king. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the prince answers, “Words, words, words.” He then goes on to engages Polonius in some clever and witty wordplay, twisting, turning and tweaking the words Polonius speaks, until Polonius comes to believe that Hamlet has lost his mind. When you take the meaning out of words, Shakespeare seems to tell us, there is nothing left but chaos and madness. When communication breaks down, civilization fails.

Words can turn empty and meaningless. They can become false and turn into lies. And words can be vicious and hurtful, when they are filled with wicked intent and used to evil purposes.

We first learn of the power of words in the Torah’s story of Creation. It is with words, after all, that the world is created. The Big Bang may have brought matter into being, but it is with words, “Let there be light,” that God brings order into the chaos. In chapter 2 of Genesis, God shares this creative power with human beings, not by giving us fire (as in other mythological stories) but rather by giving us the gift of language. By commanding Adam to give animals the names by which they will be known for all time, God empowers all human beings to catalogue and categorize the world around us, to bring purpose and order to the chaos we perceive, to shape and reshape reality in our own image, according to our own knowledge and understanding.

But just as words can create, so can they also destroy. Only a few paragraphs later, in chapter four of the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel, the first set of siblings in the world, have words with one another. We never learn exactly what was said, but whatever it was, the words were forceful enough to lead Cain to kill his brother Abel, the first murder in recorded human history.

As the Good Book says (Proverbs 18:21): death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Little has changed in the millennia since Creation. Today words can still create, teach and inspire; and they can still also destroy, hurt and leave behind deep scars.

Maybe it’s because of the anonymity associated with social media, or maybe because of the power Facebook has given us to judge others quickly and without much thinking—with a simple emoji, with a thumbs up or a thumbs down; or maybe it’s because of MTV and other facets of pop culture, which cater to our baser instincts. Whatever the reason, in the past few years we have seen vile words, words meant to hurt, mock and insult, become the new norm. Even the recent race for the highest and most prestigious office in the world—the Presidency of the United States of America—became a disgusting display of indecency, dishonesty and bullying.

Then, in the wake of the elections, new words appeared—Alt-Right, Alt-Left, the Antifa—words that shed light not only on the deep social, economic and racial rifts that are tearing our nation apart, but also on what the extremists on both sides have in common: hatred, prejudice, and—yes, you guessed it—anti-Semitism.

After Charlottesville, the White House issued words that seemed to show moral equivalency, words that obfuscated the difference between prejudice and tolerance, between hatred and acceptance. Later statements tried to back off from this failure of vision and leadership, but something was still missing. Amidst all the tumult, finger-pointing and shouting, not a single word of apology, not a single “I’m sorry” was spoken—not for Heather Heyer, whose life was so cruelly cut short in Charlottesville; not for the nineteen who were wounded and injured by the man who deliberately rammed his car into the counter-protestors; nor for the thousands and thousands all over the world, whose traumas were reawakened by the once-again-rising specter of racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. A shocking silence.

But there WAS response. It came from the streets, as in Boston, where, a week after Charlottesville, forty thousand people marched across town and gathered at the Boston Common to drown out the voices of bigotry and prejudice. Response came from other cities as well, where people came out to protest against the hatred.

Response is also found in our machzorim, our holiday prayer books. Here we find words that our people have called holy: Words that teach us how to love one another; words that instruct us to act with charity and compassion; words that remind us that saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t make you less of a man, and that to forgive actually makes you more like God. Here we learn about humility, and about the genius implanted within each and every human being, the unique challenge given each of us by God, and the opportunity we all have to participate in tikkun ‘olam, the repair of our world.

The central image of Rosh Ha-Shana is Sefer ha-chayim, the Book of Life. In this book, we are told, our life story writes itself. Each word we think, utter or act upon is registered on its pages. But then, so are the many lost opportunities, the many missed chances to make it a good story, to imbue it with purpose and meaning, to give it a happy ending.

As we go through the next 10 days, reflecting upon our life and the direction it’s going in, let us remember that until the last day, until our last breath, we have the power to repent, to turn back, to get back on the right path. Words do have power—but we have power over the words we use to shape our lives and the world around us.

Pen in hand, let us take control of our life-story and make sure it turns out right. One day at a time, one breath at a time, one kind word at a time. The story is ours to write, and today we get to begin a new chapter.

L’shanah tova tikatveivu—may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, of peace, of life, love, health and prosperity. Amen.