High Holidays Sermons
High Holidays Sermons
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781/2020
"Today I want to speak with you about hakarat ha-tov, recognizing that which is good. Not because I think it is easy, and certainly not in any way to minimize the challenges you are experiencing, but specifically because it is fundamentally Jewish...living with gratitude at all times, particularly when facing adversity, can significantly impact..."
This has been a patently difficult time for our nation. This has been a remarkably tough time for so many in our community. I wish that you were here, that we were able to congregate safely, that we were able to celebrate the New Year in-person in our synagogue.
I have listened to so many of you who are feeling isolated and alone, who miss spending time with grandchildren, who are not able to go and do and be with family and friends. I know that many of you are lamenting not being able to travel. I am mindful of how challenging it is for our young parents who are at various stages of homeschooling their children while balancing work commitments. I empathize with members of our community who were not able to gather to celebrate weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and brit ceremonies, with those of you who celebrated but in an abridged or truncated fashion. I am concerned for members of our congregation whose work and income has been impacted by the pandemic. I am concerned for members of our congregation who are struggling with illness and needing to juggle the additional challenges of receiving medical care during a pandemic. And my heart goes out to members of the congregation who have not been able to sit by their loved one’s side in the hospital and those who, in the midst of loss, have had to navigate funerals and shivahs with family and community participating virtually. My heart is laid bare and breaking for the millions of Americans who are battling COVID and the almost 200,000 American families and counting whose loved ones have succumbed to COVID. In the last six months of “social distancing”, I have walked with many of you through challenging moments and experiences. We are living in a difficult and taxing time.
And still, here we are on Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, in a new year, 5781. And yes we are asked to take stock. Just as our liturgy reveals, we are profoundly cognizant of how fragile life is.
Today I want to speak with you about hakarat ha-tov, recognizing that which is good. Not because I think it is easy, and certainly not in any way to minimize the challenges you are experiencing, but specifically because it is fundamentally Jewish. It is so necessary, now more than ever, to recognize the good that is in our lives. Recognizing that which is good does not make light of the challenges we are facing, nor should it ever encourage nor sanction complacency. But living with gratitude at all times, particularly when facing adversity, can significantly impact our lives.
We live with the human propensity to notice that which is wrong, to focus on that which is lacking. We wish we had more health, more time, more money. We perceive what another has that we have not acquired. It is no wonder that we are commanded not to covet. Conversely, our Judaism requires that, upon waking up, we pray Modeh/Modah Ani, gratitude for the gift of another day. And as the day unfolds we are asked to utter no less than one hundred blessings each day, giving voice to, and recognizing, that which is good. Gratitude requires an authentic accounting of that which we do have. From recognition stems gratitude. This practice of one hundred blessings a day sharpens our discernment of that which we have, making possible our ability to lean into gratitude. The decency of that which is good, the dignity of that which is right, the grace of that which is splendid at this very moment. Pirke Avot 4:1 teaches, “Who is rich? The one who rejoices in what they have.”
The Hebrew word for Jew is Yehudi, the Hebrew word for Judaism Yahadoot. When Leah’s fourth child is born she names him Yehuda, expressing her gratitude to The Source of life, for this child. Yehuda, Yahdoot, and Yehudi each share the same root י ד ה meaning thanks. Throughout our history, we have been referred to as “the people of the book”. Perhaps we would be well served to identify ourselves as the “people of gratitude” making our learning a choice to live with gratitude every day of our life. To be a Jew is and can be living a life of gratitude.
A story is told of the brilliant violinist Itzhak Perlman, a survivor of polio, painstakingly making his way on two crutches onto the stage to premiere a new performance. Moments after he got settled in his seat and began to play and during a solo, one of the strings on his violin snapped. And so the lore suggests that he played the entire piece with three strings, rearranging the entire symphony on the spot delivering a breathtaking performance. Completing the piece he laid his bow down and bowed to a rousing standing ovation. Legend has it that he said, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left.”
We are living through a most difficult time. Never should the hardships, grief, and pain that you are enduring be minimized, but if you have broken a string on your violin and you still have three more, you have something to be grateful for. When we can, we will tend to the broken string. But for the moment, what will we each do with the three remaining strings?
The Hebrew word for gratitude is hakarat ha-tov which means “recognizing the good”. Practicing gratitude is the invitation for recognizing the good that is already yours.
Rabbi Yael Romer
Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
"We desperately need systemic change. It is beyond time that we insist on justice, equity, and accountability. Black Lives Matter. As a Congregation praying together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will again this year return to the words of Unetanah Tokef, asking ourselves the hard questions..."
If Not Now Then When?
One month ago, as I sat down to compose my message for this evening, my head was spinning and my heart was breaking. The previous day, Sunday, August 23rd, yet another Black man had been gunned down in broad daylight. Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father, was shot in the back by a Wisconsin policeman. Enough is enough.
Jacob Blake’s sons, aged three, five, and eight, sat inside the car and witnessed their father being shot seven times at close range, his body riddled with bullets as he fell forward into the front seat of the SUV. It is inhuman, unconscionable, and devastating.
Witnesses reported that Jacob Blake had intervened to de-escalate a “domestic incident”, a fight between two women. Someone called 911. The police arrived and drew their weapons. Whatever other details emerge, it is enough to know that Jacob Blake was returning to his vehicle where his children sat and that he had opened the door to his SUV when he was shot in the back.
Governor Evers said, “While we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.”
Police must protect all people. Police should be held accountable for de-escalating violence. Jewish law based on Deuteronomy 20:10 teaches that, even in war, we are required first to broker peace. Only if peace is entirely unattainable is it permissible to wage war. By extension, we must expect and require that deadly force only be exercised in our streets as a last resort. The fact that an unarmed Black man is shot in the back in front of his three small children, and that this attempted murder is but one of a scourge of police killings of Black people, serves as a damming indictment of our law enforcement and justice system.
Is being Black in America a crime? Black while driving with a broken taillight, Black while sleeping in a parked car, Black while sleeping in your bed, Black while jogging, Black while playing in a park: August 7th Julian Edward Roosevelt Lewis, June 12th Rayshard Brooks, May 25th George Floyd, March 13th Breonna Taylor, February 23rd Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, George Robinson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. The list goes on and on and on. Each of these men, women, and children was someone’s father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother, partner, and friend. The Rev. James Woodall, the president of Georgia’s N.A.A.C.P., said we need to take immediate action to address violence and racial terrorism against Black people, regardless of whether it was committed by police or private citizens. People are losing their lives on a daily basis due to this senselessness. Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by lethal violence than white Americans. The late John Lewis taught us, “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” We must do something about it.
How many more will die before we acknowledge the profound problem and work to resolve it?
Racism is alive and well in our country. Systemic racism has persisted for far too long. Profiling of people of color, undervaluing of Black lives, the use of excessive force: these are daily lethal injustices that Black Americans have been living with from the time they were brought to these shores in shackles. The ultimate travesty is that Black Americans are still living with these brazen injustices. We delude ourselves when we believe that lynching ended with Emmett Till. Enough is enough.
We desperately need systemic change. It is beyond time that we insist on justice, equity, and accountability. Black Lives Matter.
As a Congregation praying together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will again this year return to the words of Unetanah Tokef, asking ourselves the hard questions. How are we doing? Are we living with integrity, compassion, and kindness? Are we living with justice, equality, and equity? This is the time after all, for honest reflection and accountability, a time when we cannot afford to hide behind our comforts, rhetorical assertions, or political affiliations. We are asked to come face-to-face with the stark reality of where we are today.
This year our lives have been shaken to the core by COVID. But the pandemic did not cause the moral chasms in the fabric of our society that we see today. The pandemic only laid bare the preexisting injustices, inequity, and racism that we have allowed to run rampant.
Do we believe that which is written in the Torah? Do we understand that every human being is created in the image of the Divine? Do we remember that which is written in the Constitution of the United States, that all people have unalienable Rights? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Or will we hide behind the bombast of a “great” America, the code language for white supremacy, and the assertion that America belongs to white men?
The commandment “You shall not wrong another or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” is repeated and emphasized at least 36 times in the Torah.
In six and a half weeks, after taking stock of our lives through chesbon nefesh, we will be asked to select the next president of the United States. We are living in our twenty-first century Civil Rights moment. Will we have the vision, courage, and faith to address our flaws and set this nation on a course of healing or will we cower behind our comforts?
If not now, then when?
Rabbi Yael Romer
Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020
Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley
"Words matter. Words matter when they are spoken by a worker at Mother Earth, the President of the United States, or any one of us. Words matter. The journalist Charles Blow wrote, 'One does not have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and absence of understanding are sufficient...'”
"I trust that it isn’t just millennials who want Jewish experience to feel authentic and relevant. We too are striving for inclusivity. We too want to be comfortable in our Jewish experience, feel like we belong, and know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. I am excited to share with you that as a community, we have identified audacious hospitality, study, and tikun olam as three pivotal priorities that are part of our vision of who we are and central to our strategic plan..."
"We all want our lives to be good. Celebrating the New Year is an opportunity for recalibration, cheshbon nefesh, and resolutions. It is the invitation to live better. I offer you this challenge: do these ten things and dare to enhance your life. Connect to your core, wake up with attitude, live with gratitude, transition with grace, take time off, be in sync with the earth, celebrate and count, bless, be a blessing, and fight for justice..."
"This evening I want to discuss a sense of the Divine that has no limits. What could be more fitting than addressing the nature of the Sacred on the Jewish New Year? We say that God is One: Shema Yisrael יהוה Eloheinu יהוה Ehad. But this One, unpronounceable God is known by no fewer than 70 names in the bible..."
Yom Kippur Sermon 5779/2018
“Pave a road, pave a road. Clear a path! Remove the obstacles from my people’s path.” These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we take to heart on Yom Kippur. Listen to the prophetic words of Emma Lazarus, prominently displayed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
"The spaciousness of the Days of Awe allows each of us to reflect on the difficulty, pain, and loss we endured throughout the past year, as well as the accomplishments, blessings, and joy. It is in this spirit that we anticipate 5779 with a measure of concern and perhaps even dread, but also wonder, anticipation, and excitement for that which the future holds."