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The Choices Before Us

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Personally, I feel energized by the High Holy Days, restored by the spiritual journey that they take me on. This season fills with gratitude for the many blessings in my life, though I do also feel sadness and pain. There’s sadness for the passing of time, and for the distance that lies between me and my loved ones; and deep pain for the loss of family and friends who are no longer with us.

There’s regret for what we haven’t yet accomplished, but also new strength to redress and repair the wrongs in our life. And yes, there is guilt, but along with guilt there is also the prospect of reconciliation.

To be sure, there is fear, too. We don’t know what the new year will bring with it, and the unknown fills us with dread. But then we’re restored, for right there, right next to fear, are also hope, faith, and trust.

The High Holy Days do give us a choice, but this choice is anything but shallow or simple.

Yom Kippur opens with Kol Nidrei, an ancient and moving prayer that absolves us of vows, obligations, and promises. However, it actually has even greater power and a more exalted mission: Kol Nidrei liberates us. It frees us from all obligations. Kol Nidrei gives us permission to examine every word we’ve given, every pledge we’ve made. It isn’t only in the court of Heaven that our ethics and morals are scrutinized. It’s down here. We get to define what we believe in, and we get to decide how best to show our commitment to our ideals. It’s our free choice.

Kol Nidrei calls on us to look at all of our ideals and principles, both those that are very personal and those that bind us together as a community, as Jews and as Americans. And tonight, I would like us to consider a value we hold high above others. Patriotism. The question that we have been asking ourselves for several days now is, What does it mean to respect the flag of the United States and our national anthem.

There is no greater symbol of the greatness of America, its ideals and its contributions to humanity and the world, than this banner and this powerful anthem. On the Fourth of July, to kick off a sports event, and certainly when American athletes win gold at the Olympics, hearing our national anthem never fails to bring a lump to the throat. We feel pride and awe as we join in and reach for those impossibly high notes on “The rockets’ red glare.” They are hard to sing, but how better to symbolize the high and lofty goals and purposes of our country: Liberty, equality and justice for all.

The debate we are engaged in now is about how best to pay homage to these symbols. How does it feel for us to watch athletes—the very personification of our ideals of strength and endurance—when they take the knee or fail to stand at moments when reverence and respect are called for? These days, we are asked—and we ask ourselves: Do these gestures show disrespect to the flag, and thus to America? Or do they perhaps express the shame, the humiliation and even the dangers that people of color and other minorities face on an almost daily basis in the United States?

There’s a cultural battle being waged in America today. Some say that it’s simply an extension of the racial struggle that has always divided our country. But without a doubt these past few days and weeks, the rhetoric and violence have seen a sharp rise in volume and pitch. There is tension and division between those who say that America’s flag and national anthem must be respected regardless of personal views and opinions, and those who feel that the best way to show them respect is to safely and judiciously use the freedoms of speech and expression that these symbols stand for.

The real question here is, when a player takes the knee during the National Anthem, is that a sign of rejection, or is it an affirmation of what the flag really stands for—the constitutional right to protest a social wrong.

After all, taking the knee is nowhere near what we see in countries that view America as the enemy. There, the American flag is trampled on, torn, and burned. There, when good people, American soldiers or civilians, are killed, people rejoice, dance in the streets and pass out candies and sweets. No, as I see it, the symbolic gesture of taking a knee is not in itself an act of violence, nor incitement to hatred. Rather, it’s a respectful call to stop business as usual, a declaration that there’s a serious problem, a rift in our nation that requires dialogue and conversation to resolve.

On the other hand, what I do find disrespectful is the use of profanity to describe the protesters. Many of them overcame tremendous challenges to earn the admiration of their fans, and for millions of children who live in culturally and economically deprived areas, these athletes are a source of pride, kindling dreams of triumph in a harsh reality where opportunities for success and advancement are few and far between. To use insulting language against these individuals is to insult and humiliate the many who look up to them as legitimate heroes.

America was founded on noble ideals. More than a million men and women have given their lives in battle so that this country can thrive and live up to its noble expectations and ideals. Taking a knee does not diss their memory or bring shame to their ultimate sacrifice. What does bring shame to our Country and Flag is a political and social system that preserves racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny; that shames people who do not fit stereotype images; that cynically, cruelly and divisively, uses fear to enrich itself and augment its own powerbase. What does bring shame to us all is the use of foul language—in, of all places, the White House—to denigrate people who are an integral part of the fabric of the America, and who have given disproportionately of their strength and soul to build and defend it.

Do America’s flag and national anthem deserve to be honored and revered? Yes. Absolutely. They represent the highest ideals and goals upon which this country was founded and for which it stands.

Are sports and other public events the proper venue to protest and demonstrate? Here is where some of us may disagree. But my opinion is this: 70% of the players on the NFL are African Americans. For them, this is the only venue where they are recognized by all Americans for who and what they are. It is precisely at these arenas that they need to, are able to, and are free to say what needs to be said—that America’s ideals are not equally shared, that some of us are still considered less worthy citizens than others, and that racism is both immoral and an injustice.

In ancient days, Yom Kippur was an occasion when we asked God to judge us not only in righteousness, but also with compassion. Today, it is an opportunity for us to judge ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Today, Yom Kippur is so much more than only about guilt and fear. On this day we are given permission either to reject our ideals, or to affirm them. There is great freedom in that, but also great responsibility, for our choice can determine the future course of life and events.

What this Yom Kippur demands of us, today, is not only to examine the faults or merits of our own, private lives, but also to engage in wider, public discussion about the kind of nation we are. Unlike other countries, the United States isn’t made up of only one nationality, one language or one religion. Our society is compound and complex. Our strength, however, is in our unity, and our Union depends as much on our own personal integrity as on our ability to listen to one another, to hear what others are trying to tell us about their lives, about their fears and about their needs.

This is the gift of Kol Nidrei: The freedom to choose. This day empowers us. It teaches us that we may—indeed we must—let go of empty words, vain gestures and hollow vows. But instead of turning to chaos and anarchy, Kol Nidrei calls upon us to live our lives in such a way that our pledges and oaths once again become valid and meaningful. The choice is ours.

Tonight I pray that this year we might see America united by love and mutual respect again; that this year we be blessed with reconciliation and peace; that hunger, ignorance and poverty be eradicated from our midst; and that all people, all over the world, be granted the blessings and opportunities they need and deserve for healing, repair and renewal.

G’mar chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year. Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Ha-t’fillah She-balev – The Prayer of the Heart

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Then there was the ancient belief, based on a pilpulistic interpretation of a verse from the Biblical book of Nehemiah, that God’s presence, the Shekhina, actually dwells in the west. If that’s the case then, one obviously would want to face God’s presence, rather than, God forbid, turn one’s back to the Shekhina, and therefore one would face west when praying.

And there are still other, even more curious customs. So, for example, in yet another tractate in the Talmud, we learn that “one who wants to become wise should turn south [during prayer]; one who wants to become rich should turn north… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘One should always face south because from becoming wise, one will [also] become rich.’ Obviously.

Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and a leading sage of the first century, tried to make peace between the many schools of thought by positing the opinion that one could actually face in any direction, since God’s presence was everywhere.

Not surprisingly, however, the arguments do not end with this. Not by a long shot. In the middle ages, Maimonides, Joseph Caro (author of the Jewish law compendium, the Shulchan Aruch) and many other wise rabbis were spending an enormous amount of time on this very dilemma. To face east, as was the custom of many pagans, or west, and away from Jerusalem? And if you did face in another direction, would it be a fair compromise to turn your face to the east, even if your feet pointed elsewhere?

The question becomes even more complex in the 16th century, when it first became the custom to house the Torahs in an Ark that was actually inside the sanctuary. Prior to this time, the Torahs were carried into the sanctuary in their storage cases from rooms that could have been anywhere else. Once inside, the Torah was placed on a bimah—a raised platform—that was in the middle of the room, in the midst of the congregation, so that when it was read everyone faced inward, toward this center, rather than in any another direction. The chiddush—this novelty—of building an in-house Ark and placing it against the eastern wall, set a whole new set of arguments in motion.

We know, however, that by the late 19th century, nearly all synagogues were being built to face east. In “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevye’s deep aspiration to sit at the eastern wall reflects the by-then-established custom of honoring leaders of the community—rabbis, cantors, and the very rich—in this manner.

But the question was still not resolved, and the arguing continued back and forth. And I really don’t want to complicate it any further, but one of the questions that came up was not whether one should face Jerusalem, which was a given, but rather, should one face in the direction of the shortest route to Jerusalem, since, on a spherical world, the shortest route isn’t always the compass route. For example, the compass distance between New York and Jerusalem is about 600 miles longer than the great-circle distance. Which is why airlines that fly from the US to Israel fly over Greenland, well into the Arctic, before turning due south. It may not be the in the precise direction of the east, but it is the shorter route, and isn’t that what really counts when you really want to get somewhere fast.

In the words of our beloved Reb Tevye, these are all questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes, and in the end, one would have to spend far more time calculating and measuring than actually praying, and that of course would defeat the whole purpose of prayer.

But another interpretation of King Solomon’s prayer regarding the Temple does offer us yet another possibility: This lesson takes the phrase, “They shall pray to you b’chol l’vavam u-v’chol nafsham (‘with all their heart and with all their soul’)” to mean that a person may direct his or her prayers to God’s dwelling within their heart and within their soul.

This answer takes a lovely turn in a lesson taught by the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who said, “You should know that every shepherd has a unique song, all his own; and know, too, that each and every blade of grass has its own, unique, song. It is from the song of the grass that the shepherd’s song is created. How beautiful it is when we hear this song, how lovely when we pray to its tune and serve God in awe. For this song of the grass causes the heart to awaken; and when the heart awakens, it longs and yearns for its home in the Land of Israel. And then, the Land responds, and a great, wondrous light emerges from the Land of Israel and rises toward the heart, and then the song becomes the Prayer of the Heart.”

Our befuddled NASA rabbi would have known all this; he would have known that in the space shuttle, time was coordinated to match the time zone in Houston, so no matter how many sunrises he saw, he only had to lay tefillin once a day, not every 90 minutes.

And as to what direction to face, if you ever do find yourself floating in the vast majesty of outer space, perhaps the best advice to follow would be Rabbi Nachman’s, who taught us to look for God’s presence inside our hearts, and to make our prayer The Prayer of the Heart, Ha-t’fillah she-balev. And then, when we let our prayer join the prayer that comes from the heart of the person sitting next to us, and the one next to him or her, when all these prayers merge into one song, then that song rises to Heaven, in fulfillment of the line in Psalm 150 that reads, “Let every soul praise God, Halleluyah.”

That, I would say, would be the right way to pray.

May our prayers all rise and be acceptable to God today and every day of our lives.

L’shana tova tikateivu, may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year, Amen.

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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.