High Holiday Sermons 5784

Can We Do AI Teshuvah?

U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah

Ma’avirin et roa hagezeirah

Through atonement, prayer, and righteous giving, we can transcend the harshness of the decree.

Erev Rosh Hashana


The above quote from the Kedushah prayer in Mishkan HaNefesh, our High Holiday prayer book, is the essence of our High Holidays and entering into the new year.  It is a covenantal statement reflecting our commitment to each other and to the Divine.  This covenant is not a business agreement, not a quid pro quo, not a barter of goods and services.  It is, rather, an unequivocal deep dive into moving out of ourselves into the greater universe of humanity and a Divine presence.  Each of these components is guaranteed to offer us direction and motivation, if never a guaranteed outcome.

And how do these three pathways play out for Jews and Judaism in the 21st century?  Tonight, we focus on teshuvah repentence.  What is it?  What is its purpose?  How do we go about it?

Is to atone simply to assess what we may have done to transgress against God and against humans, to seek forgiveness, to avoid repeating our sins, and to forgive others who may have sinned against us?  I’d like to suggest that this traditional formula of atonement from medieval Jewish commentator, Maimonides, falls short.  The Hebrew teshuvah means “Return.”  To what might we return?  To the past offense, I think not.  To the scene of the crime.  Not often.  I think we do return at this season to deep inner reflection, even internal confrontation with the deeds that do not make us proud, because they did not result in what we had intended or hoped for. We review our deeds in hindsight to remind ourselves what choices we made and all the alternative choices that lie ahead.  Most significantly, we return to our communities, we re-integrate with a sense of belonging, wholeness, acceptance, forgiveness, possibly even reconciliation with our family members, our friends and associates, our sacred and secular communities. We return to our highest selves.

Let us consider for a moment how to go about teshuvah – repentence or atonement as we know it.  For millenia, we have prayed our most penitential prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, ostensibly to stay the hand of God from inflicting negative consequences upon us in the coming year and to seek God’s forgiveness.  We have turned to humans to ask their forgiveness.  We have made new vows, renewed with increased compassion and spiritual energy through the sacred and inspiring music and words of these high holydays.

It seems to me that we engage at the core to do this work through memory and speech.  And today, we have an assistive device for both memory and speech – AI, artificial intelligence.  Let’s consider.  AI is shaping our world positively, aiding in healthcare, science and the most basic literary tasks.  I have been sorely tempted to join ChatGPT or one of the other available AI tools to write more polished and nuanced sermons than I can, even if suspect for truth and accuracy.

No worries – I am not that adept at managing such applications nor could I share such a Dvar Torah with you from an ethical standpoint.   Also, there is that little personal motivation based on the growing sophistication of AI that it may render entire professions obsolete.

In all fairness, many of my rabbinical colleagues disagree.  For them, ChatGPT can operate as a well-rounded encyclopedia of Judaism, swiftly answering “Who, What, Where, and When” inquiries. It aces Hebrew.  After all, we Jews have had major shifts in how we study Torah. We moved from an oral tradition to a written one, from scrolls and books to digital forms of transmitting Torah — like Sefaria, the online database and interface for Jewish texts — that make instantly accessible the repository of the most central Jewish texts, including Torah, Talmud and Midrash.

One of the frustrating features of the autocorrect function on a smartphone is that it constantly changes transliterated Hebrew phrases and expressions. “Shalom alechem” becomes “salmon in a blanket.” “Rosh Hashanah” is altered to “Tosh has Hannah.” “Kosher” is sometimes “cashew,” “cashier” or “kitchen.” Because of ChatGPT’s multicultural training, it recognizes phrases like “Mazal Tov,” “Chag Samayach,” “Kishke” or “Cholent,” and it even responds to “Gut Shabbes” with “Shabbat Shalom.”

AI dispenses information related to the Talmud and Mishna, and provides summary bios of Jewish figures, whether they are medieval commentators such as Rashi and Maimonides, or modern Israeli icons such as Naomi Shemer or Golda Meir. Its ritual knowledge was such that it could give the sources and explain the significance of Hanukkah or the lighting of two candles in honor of Shabbat. Ostensibly, AI is programmed to assess content with multiple perspectives without bias, whether it’s analyzing the role of religion in Israel’s political system or listing the pros and cons of innovative programming in synagogues.

Still, that which is AI expedient can also be sinister, judging by what we are learning about its use in generating antisemitic tropes.  In an article in EJewishPhilanthropy last May, Ashley Gold writes:  “Experts say that the dynamic of AI-amplified antisemitism can be one good bellwether or proxy for assessing the much wider varieties of bias and hate that the technology can spread on the basis of race, gender or LGBTQ identification, religion, immigration status, and other factors.”  As strange as it seems, because AI models learn to complete sentences by analyzing enormous quantities of text created by people, usually on the internet, they pick up bias embedded in both the digital environment and broader society.  A recent Anti-defamation League survey of 1,007 adults in the US found that 84% are worried generative AI tools will increase the spread of misleading or false information.  And, Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor, CEO of CyberWell, an Israeli nonprofit platform that monitors social media antisemitism in real-time shares his mission: “We want and require a more ethical result when it comes to generative AI.”

An ethical result in the atonement process might be to address what harm we may have caused and to restore whatever was broken.

In 16th-century Prague, according to Jewish historical tradition, Rabbi Yehudah Loeb created a Golem, a humanoid made of clay, to protect his community. When the Golem became too dangerous to his surroundings, he was dismantled. This Jewish theme illustrates some of the guiding principles in its approach to the moral dilemmas inherent in future technologies, such as artificial intelligence and robotics. Man is viewed as having received the power to improve upon creation and develop technologies to achieve them, with the proviso that appropriate safeguards are taken. Ethically, not-harming is viewed as taking precedence over promoting good. Jewish ethical thinking approaches these novel technological possibilities with a cautious optimism that humankind will derive their benefits without coming to harm.

The objective of Artificial Intelligence is to collect and organize endless data in order to steer us to a decision to benefit and improve the human ability to solve dilemmas, from less to more, from confusion to resolution, not exactly the stuff of acknowledging, accepting, and supporting human frailties.

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank of Yeshiva University, commenting on the essential Genesis teaching that humans have been created in God’s image, points to a human’s ability to handle complexity and contradiction. Unlike a computer, which gets stuck when the pieces don’t fit, a human being can embrace opposite and sometimes contradictory realities without requiring a clear-cut resolution. The ability to handle contradiction may stem from something else unique to humans, that is, their very composition is a merger of the irreconcilable.  Medieval commentator Moses Naḥmanides emphasizes that the uniqueness in humans lies in their being comprised of the physical and spiritual—two aspects with opposite characteristics.

While a computer can be programmed to maximize convenience, efficiency, and safety, it cannot hold onto complex and opposing emotions. Instead, when it encounters a problem, it requires a resolution.  And, the whole idea of digital devices and AI seems kind of strange because humans can’t focus on millions of different things simultaneously. We can barely manage more than one thing at a time. It is fascinating that humanity has invented digital platforms, that interface with millions of users simultaneously. We humans, however, are asked to live with complexity without the expectation of a resolution.  This, too, is an element of sincere teshuvah.

I suspect Artificial Intelligence may fall short in both having realistic expectations for our teshuvah and setting our sights higher at the same time.  Artificial intelligence may offer us formulas, and even the polished and compassionate words to atone, but the human soul needs something more aligned to something positive, something that leads to hope and renewal, for ourselves and for those we love and cherish.  Rabbi Samantha Natov teaches that when we study Torah with at least one other person, the shekhina — the feminine and most accessible aspect of God — dwells among us. At the time when we are opening our hearts and minds to growth — when we are engaged in spiritual connection — God is with us. Indeed, when we are in conversation with someone, we are receiving much more than just their words; we are receiving a whole life behind that language.  But with a bot, there is nothing behind the veil. A vital essence of communication is rendered meaningless; there is no possibility of a soul connection.

We will read on Yom Kippur from Deuteronomy 20:19: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you may live.” Choosing life means choosing life-affirming relationships. Holding space for one another’s life experiences. Leaning into compassion. Connecting with one another. Seeing ourselves in one another. Valuing deep engagement, not just efficiency. And recognizing the unity of God and all of God’s creation.

Teshuvah is a path not only to atonement, but to reintegration and to true belonging among our family members, our community, and our society.   It is a continuous pathway that needs the human heart to navigate along with conscience, desire, and the acceptance of less than perfect results.  Allow me to share with you a few pointers that I have gleaned of late from my restorative justice work with incarcerated persons, who have chosen to also engage in teshuvah.

*Our behaviors may change in the act of seeking forgiveness of others or if others forgive us, but others won’t necessarily change.

*In forgiving others, we need to be clear about what we need from them going forward.

*Let’s not get lost in our anger and defensiveness. These big feelings only give more power to those with whom we are angry, and, anyway, anger really blocks our teshuvah efforts, along with all the fears we have in stepping up and asking for forgiveness, and all the judgmentalism that can surface when someone who has hurt us attempts to ask for our forgiveness.

*The words that come from our heart will surely help us not to second guess what others are thinking and feeling.  And the truth of our hearts may sometimes be painful to acknowledge, but such an essential step toward teshuvah. 

This is the Divine plan for us in achieving teshuvah each new year.  If you are skeptical, pull out your pocket notes:  In one: “we are divine glory and honor.”  In the other, “we are but dust and ashes.”  More than ever, this High Holiday season, I am mindful that life is short and we can all make a difference while we exist.  May we all go from strength to strength in our teshuvah journey.  Shana tova umetukah  to you and yours – a sweet, healthy, uplifting, and meaningful 5784.

Rosh Hashana


This morning we turn to Tefilah – Prayer.

In the forward to his book on Prayer and Repentance, Jeffrey Cohen offers that Tefilah, prayer, is to the spirit of the High Holy Days what matzah is to Passover and the sukkah to the festival of Sukkot.  Prayer… is the path by which once a year we Jews regenerate ourselves to reach our spiritual peak just as nature around us is in its most perfect state.  How does prayer achieve this?

Our sages refer to Isaiah 55:6 (which you have heard today as part of the haftarah reading by Lynn Goodnough) as a reference to God’s location, unique to this season of atonement: “Seek God where God is to be found, call on God when God is near.”  At this moment, God is “near” to us, intimately at hand with and within us.  Our sages offer a proof text for God’s immanent presence in the kedushah section of our service.  Only from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur do we replace Baruch ata Adonai ha-El hakadosh, Blessed are you Adonai, the Holy God, with Baruch ata Adonai HaMelech Hakadosh, Blessed are you Adonai, the Holy Sovereign.  God, transcendent, abstract, remote, beyond human comprehension appears as a concrete ruler with crown and royal vestments, a manifest presence, whom we can address and hear directly.  The image is repeated in the shofar-blowing section entitled Malchuyot – Sovereignty.  God is meeting us more than halfway and our traditional prayers of petition and gratitude can become informal conversations.

This Rosh Hashana day we focus on quintessential prayers of petition and gratitude:  Petition… because in our process of teshuvah, we are accustomed to pray for forgiveness and for our health and welfare in the year ahead, and gratitude, for our very existence and for the earth on which we dwell, survive, and thrive.

As many of you may already know, I am a devotee of Philosopher Martin Buber.  He understands prayer as dialogue.  According to Buber, human beings possess a two-fold attitude towards other human beings, towards the world, and towards God, which are indicated by his foundational concepts of relationship, ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’.  It is the I-Thou relationship that stresses the mutual and holistic existence of two entities. It is an encounter of equals, who recognize each other as such. It is a dialogue. This I-Thou/I-It typology is a description of the two kinds of relationships a human being can establish not only with other human beings, but also with nature and with God.  Thou, for Buber, represents our encounter with the Eternal Thou.

Every time we address the other as a Thou, we cease to be alone because we allow the ‘spark’ of the Eternal that resides in us to connect with the ‘spark’ of the Eternal that is in another person – and this aspect of Buber’s thought blurs the commonly held conception of God as an entity transcendent to reality, high above us, and too distant to reach.

Buber refuses to recognize a God that is “believed in”. He acknowledges, a God, that is lived with” — a God who confronts us immediately, momentarily and lastingly face to face, that which can rightly only be addressed, not expressed.

One may object to Buber’s rejection of God as a unique entity, because many do believe in a God with desires, qualities, plans, likes and dislikes.  We need only to look at our biblical text to justify this traditional view.  God…. is pained by human corruption and oppression in the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, and by the years of enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt.  God is angry when the Golden Calf is fashioned and Moses hits a rock instead of speaking to it.  God rejoices in Isaiah 62:5 in God’s promise to redeem Israel from exile as it is written: “God will rejoice over you with gladness . . . God will exult over you with a shout of joy.”  The God we address in our prayers is less about the nature of God and more about the ways and reasons that we interact with the Divine Presence.

One might also object to Buber turning God into a friend or partner, as an equal to us, and thus dissolving the height from which God comes to us.  That is not Bubers intention at all.  Indeed, Buber rails against what he perceives in modern times (and Buber lived a century ago but insightfully speaks to us today), that we Jews at times profess God in the synagogue and deny Gods presence in the sphere of economics and politics, and sometimes believe it possible to be honest and upright in private life and to lie in public for the sake of the greater good.  As an antidote to the compartmentalization of God, Buber offers re-establishing a dialogue with God as a way of overcoming any existential loneliness, hopelessness, and powerlessness.

For Buber, the word, Thou, cannot be defined, that is to say, Thou implies a state of complete openness to the other and to the infinite number of experiential possibilities.  When we pray, we do not rise above our situation as we pray; rather we bring our situation into dialogue with God.  In other words, the holy does not mean leaving the every day for a higher spiritual sphere but rather “hallowing the everyday” through a genuine openness to what meets’ us.  And what does meet us?  What are we praying for these days?  I can only speak for myself.  I am praying for the health and safety of my family.  I am praying for my extended family to be able to live going forward having suffered the tragic loss of an adult child from a younger generation this past summer.  I am praying for the strength to serve you all.  I am praying for clarity on how to engage meaningfully in the world outside that is so full of bias and hate and violence and the absence of civility.  And, I am praying that praying can truly be for me a powerful guide and support to all of the above.

For most of us this high holyday season we are seeking through praying some measure of ‘reconciliation’ with all that troubles us—coming to terms with situations beyond our control, or at least the process leading to these. But ‘reconciliation’ here means so much more. ‘Reconciliation’  cannot merely be the sentimental goodwill that looks away from the very conflict that is to be reconciled or… an action or approach that assumes that a tragic situation can be transformed into a harmonious one.

As we review our missteps during these Days of Awe, we may feel unhappy about ourselves or about our own lives; sometimes we feel ashamed or guilty about things we have done or not done.  If prayers are about reflecting upon the character and purpose of our lives, they offer us a pathway for understanding aspects of our lives we feel uneasy about, and in doing so to bring about that reconciliation with ourselves. Reconciliation, then, is moving towards the meeting of what ails us spiritually and how we can integrate all of it—not deny or avoid or diminish—but integrate all of it into our lives each and every day so that we can find the joy and fulfillment that all people deserve.

And, when we enter into this prayer dialogue with an open heart, and acknowledge that sought-after feeling of being loved and guided towards a better future, it’s time for the other category of prayer,… words of gratitude for all the blessings, whether big ones like health, family members, job security, friends, and our own sacred community of Temple B’nai Israel, or the “microjoys, meaning a hearty laugh, pride in a new skill, eating a good meal, feeling better than we did yesterday, solving a dilemma, helping another person, and any other sparks of uplift that we observe or make happen during an ordinary day.

What is gratitude?  Some people experience thankfulness as a debt.  This notion of thankfulness can come to feel like a burden, something that obligates us to others. That’s why cowboys in old westerns would say, “Much obliged, Ma’am”—they were obligated out of a sense of gratitude. And if gratitude is a debt, it can cause us to feel weighed down.

In the context of prayer, thankfulness is rather a connection—it signifies a deep bond, to someone or something, experienced as a rush, a thrill, something that evokes deep emotions that are hard to put into words.  The great English poet John Milton saw thankfulness along these lines: “Gratitude bestows reverence,” he wrote, “allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” In the twentieth century, the Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “We are struck with an awareness of the immense preciousness of being; a preciousness which is not an object of analysis but a cause of wonder; it is inexplicable, nameless, and cannot be specified or put in one of our categories.” For both Milton and Heschel, a general sense of thankfulness for life is directed at God and leads to a more open, generous sensibility towards other people.

We will hear in just 10 days, on the evening of Yom Kippur, Melody singing the haunting and penetrating Kol Nidre, a melodic formula that allows us to cancel out all the vows that we have made this past year and have not fulfilled or will make in the year to come. Yet, the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 9:7) suggests that, in the World to Come, “all sacrifices will be annulled, but the Thanksgiving Sacrifice will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but prayers of gratitude will not be annulled.” Our ability to express gratitude and thankfulness for what we have is, perhaps, one of the most eternal aspects of our humanity. It enables us to engage our lives with joy and humility, and perhaps to understand even more clearly than ever before what might be possible.  Our liturgy is full of prayers of thanksgiving, many recited in rote each day, each Sabbath, each holy day, each life cycle event:  modeh ani lefanecha  – I give thanks before you, each morning; modim anachnu lach – we give thanks to you, in our central Tefilah; Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, shehecheyanu, vkimanu, vhigiyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment – These prayers and blessings are recognizable to all of us.  Even the word “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning “thankfulness.” At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy and gratitude that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community, instructs Rabbi Bradley Artson.

We circle back to the role of tefilah as an element of the triumvirate of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah that maavirin et roa hagezeirah, that have the power to diminish the harshness of the inevitable playing out of our personal and communal life journeys.

Whether prayers of petition or gratitude, our prayers are ultimately dialogical in character and should not be understood as attempts to bring about a change of outcome or of influencing the outcome of events, which would equate prayers with some sort of incantation and superstition; prayers are about reflecting upon the character and purpose of our lives as well as an expression of devotion to God and to humanity through an ongoing and evolving mutuality.

It behooves us to remind ourselves that no one who prays today leaves without benefit.  Prayer, whether private or in community can draw out the spirit that hides within us.  May we find together a spiritual strength in our public prayer together, as two people walking together in some dark wood feel stronger and braver each for the other’s near presence.  May our united prayer voices deepen the bond of sympathy and empathy towards each other and may our prayers continue to express the outpouring of our boundless longing for a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate world, for generations to come.  Kein yehi ratzon – may it be so.

Kol Nidre


This evening I had planned turn to the final ingredient of this iconic and redeeming Jewish High Holyday triumvirate – Tzedakah

        Alas, from poet Robert Burns, The best-laid plans of mice and….people often go awry. 

And, as I believe every rabbi will fess up as they imagine and create HH sermons to engage their congregations, we never know if it’s the right one.  On that note, allow me to begin (and digress) with a story told by a Florida colleague just this past RH:

A man and his grandson were traveling in the countryside.  The grandson was traveling on the back of a donkey and the grandfather was leading the animal.  As they walked, they came across a passerby, who chided them, saying that it’s not right that the young child should ride and that the old man should be made to walk.  So, they switched places.  The old man rode the donkey and the young man led it by its lead. They walked along a little further and came across another passerby, who said:  Ach, you’re foolish – there’s more than enough room for both of you to ride that animal. So, the grandson and the grandfather rode the donkey together.  They traveled on a little longer and came to another passer-by who chided them and said: Ach, those two healthy people are making that animal work, so the grandson and the grandfather got off and they carried the donkey.  They came to a river.  However, they lost their footing and slipped and the donkey drowned.  The moral of the story, friends, is that if you try to please everyone, you end up losing your ass.  (You know this language came from someone else!!)

 So, last Monday, I decided to scrap, if you will, my first (and completed) sermon on tzedakah in face of the latest and very personal assault in Laconia on our communal Jewish identity and in particular the targeting of one of our own.  (and by the way, these were my very first words of last year’s Kol Nidre”s sermon, October 4, 2022:  “Forgive me, but tonight I must talk about the elephant in the room, the act of vandalism and mockery and hate that happened in this town, in your community, on a Sabbath eve, two days before Rosh Hashanah.”  But that was last year.)  In any case, I had an “aha” moment” — to look at the original topic through a different lens.  On these HH days we engage in teshuvah and tefilah primarily for our own benefit, to renew our souls and vow to be and behave better in the year to come.  Tzedakah is a different animal.  Tzedakah comes from Tzedek – righteousness, a trait which is all about our behavior and treatment towards others, that is, we cannot fulfil this commandment all by ourselves nor for ourselves.  Tzedakah is the Jewish imperative to give charity to those less fortunate, and, also, to enable others in all ways to live their life with enough to eat, with shelter, with dignity and in safety.  The other cognate of tzedakah is the one who engages in it – the tzaddik, the righteous one who aspires to do the right thing.

Sadly, when it comes to human relations in this moment in time, and in the words of Rabbi Debbi Till in her RH sermon on Decency, she offers: “We are instead far more accustomed to things like, polarized and vitriolic political debates, contentious and ugly community meetings, gun violence in our nearby neighborhoods and beyond, at houses of worship, supermarkets, concerts, and schools –attacks on a woman’s ability to make choices about her own body, and people assaulted for their religion, race, gender identity, or sexual identity.   It is against this horrid backdrop to which we have largely become inured, that the prophets recognized two and a half millennia ago, exhorting us to wipe out corruption, oppression, and ignorance from our midst.”

We are as Rabbi Daniel Levin says, “…. losing our capacity for care and love and empathy, we are losing our commitment to civility, honesty, and integrity – we are losing our sense of decency and it is tearing our society apart.”

While there are some who believe that these are especially awful and unprecedented times, that the lid has been taken off some hitherto non-existent box of hatred, we know that generations before us, for the same reasons and for altogether different ones, have said the exact same thing.

That said, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory writes about the unique challenges of our time:  “the four great institutions of the modern West are science, technology, the market economy, and the liberal democratic state. Science tells us how, but not why. Technology gives us power, but cannot tell us how to use that power. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. The liberal democratic state – as a matter of principle – holds back from endorsing any particular way of life. The result is that contemporary culture sets before us an almost infinite range of possibilities, but does not tell us who we are, why we are here, and how we should live.

Religion in general attempts to address these questions, for sure, but I’d like to think that the Jewish concept of tzedakah encapsulates these existential questions and offers a way forward.

Tzedakah and its cognates may actually be the most important path as we engage in Teshuvah, atonement, and tefillah, intense prayer.  tzedakah, translated in our prayer book as “righteous giving” is so much more.  My words to you are not really about giving because you are all such generous givers of your time, your talent, and whatever treasure you have to give, but rather the Jewish nature of tzedakah, balancing your life with giving, and how to prioritize giving, giving of yourselves, giving of your voice and standing up for your beliefs and values for the sake of justice, and ensuring that the people and the institutions we love survive and thrive, our own and those of our beloved communities and country.

Tzedakah is about cultivating a heartfelt intention to seek a life of meaning outside of ourselves.  Victor Frankl of blessed memory, concentration camp survivor and eminent psychologist taught in his famous treatise, Man’s Search for Meaning, that we make life meaningful by looking beyond ourselves to relationships with others and the greater community, and by fulfilling responsibilities, those assigned to us, and those we take upon ourselves because we see a need.  Frankl believed that accomplishing a purposeful task or responding to the words or needs of another human being made life meaningful, even under conditions of extreme discomfort, deprivation, and dehumanization.  He saw our internal well-being as an outgrowth of our relations with others.  His unexpected analogy is in the human eye. When it works properly, it looks outward.  When it sees itself, as when covered with a cataract, it does not perform its task.  He concludes that the eye must gaze beyond itself in order to advance the spirit.

The great Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim said there are three different ways of giving tzedakah: (1)the act of giving to benefit an individual or a community or cause. This type of tzedakah refers the person who gives because it’s a commandment, an obligation; (2)the second type refers to the person who gives because their heart is moved.  Empathy—they intuitively sense what is needed; (3)and the third type refers to the person who is resistant, doesn’t even feel the obligation of the commandment. And from that person you simply have to take their money.  Allow me to reframe Bunin’s typology in the context of acting the role of a Tzaddik because we should and because we need to teach others to be Tzaddikim as well.  The first giver is called by their faith in a beneficent God and God’s faith in humankind. The second giver rises to the occasion, sees a need, and steps up to help.  That person doesn’t live by the “my win/your loss” principle, but rather “your win is my win” and vice versa.  The third giver finally brings us to the sermon topic.

I’m not sure I agree with Rabbi Bunin.  How can one forcibly take another’s material possessions, albeit for a great cause, and expect to imbue that person with the meaning and purpose of tzedakah?  How can we turn the heart of that person from ignorance, indifference, and the absence of empathy and compassion for another human?  And, here we are definitely talking about antisemitism here!

There are also givers who never say no when asked, but may not really feel like giving to a certain cause nor believe in it.  Regarding this kind of giver, and in the context of fundraising, researcher Adam Grant studied those who are in call centers, a pretty tough way to make some money for an organization. What he found is, that if the person making the call has personally experienced that the money they are requesting is going to scholarships to help people who otherwise could not afford schooling, or towards medical research of a disease personally endured by the caller, that it dramatically boosts their ability to make the case and their desire to make the call.  The caller’s authenticity and personal relationship to the cause—about who will benefit from the giving, influences those being asked, upping the success of the whole project.  Grant writes that this is an example of how giving to others can really be transformative.   How can we make generosity our default setting?  Our Days of Awe culminating on Yom Kippur give us a loud message, through the shofar calls, that people can be transformed.

In the language of civil society, we might call this transformation a practice in restorative justice.

Let’s review what’s going on around us, what is happening, and what is missing, with regards to Tzedek – often translated as justice.

The Anti-Defamation League has just reported that New Hampshire recorded in 2022 300% more incidents of bias and hate crimes against Jews than the year before.  Sadly, we are witnesses to and now victims of these incidents.

Our children, Jewish and non-Jewish live in an age of social media, where they are constantly bombarded by cyberbullying and hate speech of all kinds.  Although not local, my son in Toronto reports that he lives around the corner from a public middle school that was under investigation last year after two students depicted swastikas and gave a Heil Hitler salute in front of their classmates.  And while that school acted swiftly and seriously in its handling of the case, turning the incident into an opportunity for education and awareness-raising among its whole student body, he wonders if that will always be the case.

I note here that the Chair of the school board of the Laconia school district was present at Mayor Andrew Hosmer’s rapid response meeting last Tuesday and shared her commitment to bring back to her cohort a mandate for lessons of inclusivity, respect, and acceptance of all to teachers and students, especially the very young whose open and curious minds have not yet been exposed to the bias and hateful rantings all over social media.

Last Thursday, the National Security Community Network in partnership with the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association and the FBI reported on a webinar (that many here may have attended) on the uptick of swatting and bomb threats to synagogues across the United States during this high holiday season.  For those who may not be in the know yet, swatting are calls made by extremist groups and individuals, often between the ages of 14 and 17, having been radicalized on online chats, directly to law enforcement agencies reporting false threats to local synagogues, resulting in an immediate response by police that disrupts worship services, often prompting evacuations and trauma for congregants.  For me, the takeaway was preparedness and the ability to stay calm, but never complacent.  I don’t know how many people were on the webinar, but the 120 questions recorded on the Q and A function reflected the seriousness of these threats, which are only increasing in number.

And there was the clergy call from President Biden a day before Rosh Hashanah, a ritual that stems from the Presidency of George Bush (I think).  The call is to Jewish clergy from all the movements and denominations, probably the only event that crosses the divide.  I was not on the call this year, but do know that President Biden’s primary message was to passionately condemn antisemitism in every form and list all the ways his administration is combatting it.  I’m sure the president’s speech writers had a hand in his polished remarks.  That said, President Biden offered from the heart (so I read) that he decided to run for President because after the 2017 Right the Might rally in Charlottesville, his grandson confronted him with “You can’t allow this to happen – what are you going to do about it?”

I thought that question was for me, right now, and for all of us.  We may not be able to successfully change another person, but we can transform and amplify our intentions and actions.  I was directed this week to the Southern Poverty Law website and their guide to responding to hate in all its ugly forms – through positive and hopeful attitudes and actions.  There is no other way – even for law enforcement officials, whose sole intention in our vulnerability is to protect us.

The center charges us to become an activist against hate, just as we are against crime. Never miss sharing the “good news” as ordinary people discover unique ways to promote tolerance.  Keep in mind the greater impact of hate crimes and bias incidents—they don’t just victimize individuals; they torment communities. When someone scrawls threatening graffiti, everyone in the community may feel frightened and unsafe, along with the targeted person or group.  Publicly support the mayors, police chiefs, school principals, local clergy, business leaders, and others who are addressing the causes of hate and bias incidents and helping the community to learn and heal.  When our local elected officials issue statements against hate, it’s not just platitudes — it unifies our community and promotes tolerance.  Silence, on the other hand, can be interpreted as the acceptance of hate.  Our local multi-cultural festival is such an effective tool in bringing together people from different backgrounds and belief systems and providing a safe space to share thoughts and get to know each other.  We can create these gatherings on a miniature scale regularly to break bread together with no agenda, no speakers, just for the sake of making new friends.  It works.

And, finally—no surprise.  Our children are our future hope.  The center describes what we already know: Bias is learned in childhood. By age 3, children can be aware of differences.  By age 12, they can hold stereotypes about ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Because stereotypes underlie hate, tolerance education is critical.  Schools are an ideal environment to counter bias because they mix children of different backgrounds, place them on equal footing, and allow one-on-one interaction. Children also are naturally curious about people who are different. We know that children learn from the language we use and the attitudes we model. If we demonstrate a deep respect for other cultures, races, faiths, and walks of life, they most likely will, too.

To honor my parents and grandparents, who insisted that this country was a goldena medina of freedom and opportunity, even in the worst of times, I refuse to lose hope that the future, nearer or a little further away will bring us closer to a reality, at least in this country, when antisemitic tropes, both the words and the acts, will diminish and disappear because our citizens will figure out that we all need each other to survive and thrive.  Is this not the foundational principle articulated in George Washington’s letter to the members of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790.  His famous dictum that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance”  established a precedent for protecting religious liberty and pluralism in the United States.  Where did we go wrong?

As our High Holyday prayer implies, tzedakah as justice and righteousness can diminish the harshness of the decree, and I solemnly believe has the power to change the lives of its recipients and, also those who are the givers.

This kind of tzedakah, that is, walking the path of tzedek, of righteousness and compassion for that which is greater than ourselves, has to do, in the end with stepping up for the greater good, for our congregation and for our neighbors outside the congregation. To each of you, your skills, passions, creativity, and connections are sacred offerings in the same way that we offer our prayers to God, not necessarily to enact a different outcome, but to find purpose and meaning and even more dignity for ourselves as humans.  Remember, according to the Jewish legend of the 36 Righteous individuals, the 36 tzaddikim, who will redeem the world of its imperfections. . . . at any given moment, we don’t know who they are as their descriptors are entirely internal.  Thus, it could be any one of you.  As a potential tzaddik, you are each called upon to give of yourself, and, also receive the righteous acts of each other.  We can only fulfill this kind of tzedakah when each of us is present, has a voice, shares our story, practices our compassion and even our ability to forgive those who have harmed us when they fulfil their teshuvah.

The prophet, Isaiah declares

Tziyon b’mishpat tipadeh; vshaveha bitzdakah  (1:28)

Zion will be redeemed by justice; and those who have atoned in righteousness.


V’haya maasei hatzdakah hashalom v’avodat hatzdakah….ad olam  (32:17)

For the act of righteousness will bring peace

And the work of righteousness is everlasting.

May our prayers this Yom Kippur be for the health and welfare of each of you and for our congregation together.  May we go from strength to strength through and with the righteous acts of involvement, of tzedakah, from each of you.

K’tiva vchatima tova – May you be written and sealed l’tova for good – in the year ahead.  Amen.