Saturday, September 18, 2021

Yom Kippur 5782: Post Traumatic Growth

 A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5782 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.

            Let me tell you about the sermon I had planned for today.  It was going to be glorious.  It was going to be powerful and hit all the right notes.  It was going to be a meditation on the moving words of Psalm 122, the Psalm for the ascent to Jerusalem.  I was going to connect our feelings of returning to our house of worship to those of the Psalmist returning to the rebuilt Jerusalem.  Then Cantor was ready to sing a beautiful rendition of the Psalm for us to herald our triumphant return to congregational worship.  My friends, that is not what you are going to hear today. 

As with so much over this last year, plans had to change.  New ideas had to be considered.  And I’m going to be honest with you, because this day demands it.  I’m angry about it.  I’m angry in part because so many are not here with us today.  So many are not able to be, because we are still mired in this pandemic and living through the difficulties and the stresses of the day to day.  I’ve been angry about it for a while, and I want to apologize for those times my anger at…all of this…got the better of me and infiltrated the work I care about so deeply.

            A year ago, I put all my cards into the hope that by this day, The Day, Yom Hakippurim 5782, we’d be in our new normal.  The vaccine was coming.  Hope was on the horizon.  The reality of 5781 was temporary.  There was no way we’d still be dealing with spreading cases and overwhelmed hospitals turning patients away.  Now we’re back to accounting over 1,500 deaths a day.  A year ago, the delta variant was not on our minds. 

And yet, here we are.  Yom Kippur 5782.  In many ways much better off than a year ago, to be sure.  My vaccine status, yours, and my family’s has allowed us to resume some of our normal life.  But in other ways, we’re still deeply in it, and we can feel it.  We’re still experiencing the weight of all of it, and you’re still not all here with us to plead for and then to celebrate God’s loving forgiveness.

            It’s traumatic.  And it’s ok to say so and to acknowledge how we are feeling, what we’ve been through, and what we are still going through.  It’s ok to acknowledge the exhaustion.  We’re tired.  Extraordinarily tired, in unprecedented ways.  It’s ok to acknowledge the ways we’re not our best.  It’s ok to acknowledge the things we miss, and the experiences we won’t get back, and the ways we feel not ourselves, even if much of our lives has gone back to how it was.  Just as Yom Kippur asks us to acknowledge our failings of action and thought, today, and this year, let us also acknowledge our failings due to emotion.  The difference is our emotions are not always up to us.  What is up to us is how we react to them. 

            Trauma is not something we talk about too often, though it’s clear we’re all going through it.  According to psychologists, trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope.  Trauma often causes feelings of helplessness.  It diminishes our sense of self and our ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.  Does this sound like you over the last number of months? 

Often a trauma, like a loved one’s death or a natural disaster is a one-time event.  We experience an urgent response in our brains that attempts to alleviate the situation.  Then, once the event is done, a different part of our brains activates, more rational, more measured, less reactive.  Trauma limits our normal access to ourselves and our emotions.  Often, we can feel highs and lows, but our baseline normal is missing, hard to settle into, hard to calibrate.

What we’ve been living through, over these past 18 months: this is more than that.  It is relentless.  Every day, more bad news.  Every day more deaths.  Every day new guidelines and new regulations and new fights over those guidelines and regulations in our communities.  On top of that, the nation is in turmoil, we’ve experienced wars and insurrections, and the climate is a catastrophe…And our lives continue, with carpools, and errands, and masks.  We are living through a period of ongoing trauma as this pandemic continues, peppered with additional traumatic moments, and it’s no surprise how we’re all reacting. 

If we think of our brain like a muscle, we can imagine the quick response area tensing and relaxing when encountering something difficult or traumatic.  In ongoing trauma, that part in our brain doesn’t get a chance to relax.  It doesn’t give way to the rational, thoughtful part.  Our brains’ traumatic response areas have been in constant tension.  This, then, never allows us to relax, to reset, to move forward.  We’ve been at high alert for 18 months.  That’s why we’re so tired.  That’s why we’re not thinking as clearly, and why we may seem more impulsive, and less measured than usual. 

We’ve all heard about PTSD, about post-traumatic stress disorder, wherein a trauma leads to intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.  It is terrible and important to understand.  What we don’t talk about all that often, however, is its corollary, post-traumatic growth.  Now these are not opposites, nor are they stages.  They are two distinct reactions to trauma.  Sometimes people will experience both.  But one is much more common than the other.  According to David Kessler: “Pain, death, and loss never feel good, but they’re unavoidable in our lifetime.  Yet the reality is post-traumatic growth happens more than post-traumatic stress.”[1]

Post-traumatic growth is not about finding silver linings or moments of blessing, though that is important and helpful in its own way.  Post traumatic growth is when the trauma leads to a change in the way we live our lives after the trauma has ended, a change in how we think, live or feel.[2]  It’s about making meaning and discovering new creativity, and it’s different for each of us. 

For some it will be about finding greater appreciation of the life we have and sensing what brings us joy and prioritizing that.  For others it will be about appreciating and strengthening our relationships, or focusing on the ones that really matter, and maybe letting go of ones that don’t.  For some of us, it will be about breaking old patterns and feeling our own personal strength.  I hope that for all of us it is about increasing our compassion for others and exploring a new spirituality. 

We are clearly not there yet, not quite ready to take this on, as we are still so far from an ending.  We know that there won’t be a return to normal, as much as a new normal.  And getting there will require that we prepare ourselves for what will come next.  We may think we don’t know how to do it.  How could we know what to expect?  The pandemic is literally unprecedented in our lifetimes.  That is true.  But our traditions, particularly the synagogue customs of this day, The Day, Yom Kippur, can serve as a guide for us.

Yom Kippur is a model for a traumatic experience that leads to growth.  This entire day is set up to literally put the fear and awe of God into us.  It is meant to make us come face to face with God’s power, and face to face with our mortality.  We clothe ourselves in white like a funeral shroud.  We empty ourselves.  We empty the Ark, the Aron, which is also the Hebrew word for casket, and we metaphorically stare into our own graves. 

But that’s not all.  We don’t just think about our own deaths, we consider the many ways we and others may not make it into the book of life, as we did in our Untaneh Tokef prayer earlier this morning.  And then, a little bit later, we’ll pray our Eleh Ezkarah and pour out our souls.  This is our tribute to those whose deaths in the last year did not have to happen.  This is based on the tradition of reading the stories of the martyrs of our people, who gave their lives in horrific and painful ways for the sanctification of God’s name.  As we hear about their deaths, we put ourselves into their shoes.  It’s heavy.  It’s meant to make an impression.  It’s meant to change us.  It’s traumatic for the purpose of growth.  “If we allow ourselves to live with the consciousness of death, it will enrich us by making us understand how precious life is.”[3]

Similar to the other liturgy of this day that speaks of death in the abstract, our Yizkor Memorial service, which we will pray together in a little while, deals with deaths that are personal, those we have experienced, those that are closest to us.  Yizkor is in many ways about acceptance of our loss, our trauma.  Together we honor the lives that our loved ones lived.  We remember them.  We take time to recall them, to mourn them, often feeling again as if they only just left us.  By honoring their lives, by recalling our loved ones of blessed memory, by recalling what they meant to us, remembering times we were together, and how much we hurt that they are gone, we give their deaths more meaning and give our own lives more meaning.  We know that as we remember, we will be remembered.  We recognize that while we cannot bring our loved ones back, we don’t have to leave them behind.  We call ourselves to continue to live and to live better for their sakes.

And the prayer most associated with death in our tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish, is so much about what happens after the trauma, that it doesn’t even mention the trauma, death.  The Mourner’s Kaddish is about sanctifying God’s name, making God’s name great.  Over and over again, in synonym after synonym, we praise God.  Magnified, extolled, blessed, acclaimed, revered, beautified, etc., etc.  The prayer we recite on behalf of our departed loved ones is about renewed spirituality.  It’s about searching for something bigger to make meaning out of the difficulties of our lives.  It’s about putting faith in God and affirming life.  After a trauma, we bless and affirm life!

 This is a day that is truly nora v’ayyom awesome and full of trauma!

And yet at the end of this day, after all this trauma, where will we find ourselves?  We will see ourselves in as pure a state as we can be.  We will be ready to put our teshuvah into practice, make better decisions, and break patterns of bad behavior.  Out of this truly difficult day, we come out ready to strengthen relationships and called again to do more for those in need in our community and our world.  This day is not just leading to a break fast, it’s leading to a break with who we used to be and a connection to who we can grow into.

Encountering our death brings meaning into our lives.  As the angel Michael learns in the TV show “The Good Place,” “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die, but that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”[4]  Yom Kippur demands we give our lives meaning by leaving the sanctuary different than when we entered it because we have come face to face with our mortality.  

Yom Kippur traumatizes us so that we grow.

At the end of the day, when our mouths are parched and dry, and our feet ache from standing before the heavenly court, we participate in a special and sacred ritual moment, unlike anything we do on any other day.  We take out the Torahs once again, as we did last night, and we stare into that empty Ark one more time.  Last night we declared that we will sin, that we ought not be taken at our word.  This time, though, as the last rays of sun darken and the purples and mauves paint the heavens, we make three declarations.  First, we recite the Shema, declaring that God is one and one alone.  These words are familiar to us as the central prayer of our people. 

As are the words of the next line familiar: Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed.  We are used to hearing them immediately after the Shema, but here we say them three times.  Once each for the past, the present, and the future.  This line, unlike the Shema is not from the Torah.  Rather, it comes from the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, based on the Psalms.  After he would come out from the Holy of Holies, atone, and declare God’s name, the people would bow low to the ground and exclaim these words: Blessed be God’s glorious majesty forever and ever!  And they would proclaim God’s sovereignty.

Then seven times we repeat: Adonai hu HaElohim:  Adonai is God.  Seven times, a number that symbolizes wholeness and holiness, like the days of creation.  We exclaim that God is our God, using two names of God, one that refers to God’s justice, Adonai, and one that Refers to God’s mercy. 

The end of Yom Kippur tells us that after the trauma of the day.  After coming face to face with our deaths, the deaths of our people, and recalling the deaths of our loved ones, we declare the presence of God.  We put ourselves into something bigger than us, that makes us more than just random atoms floating through a multiverse.  These three declarations make us part of a bigger plan, with more purpose than we can understand.  We declare God’s presence as a springboard to the days after.

Then, we sound a Tekiah Gedolah.  You might think that after such a long day, after fasting and praying and atoning, we’d maybe want to get out of here more quickly.  Maybe just a plain old tekiah.  But instead, we linger.  We allow the note of the shofar to call out as long as possible.  We make it last.  We hear the sound of God’s presence as at Sinai and we can’t bear to take ourselves away from it!  Why?  To hold on to the moment of purity.  To hold onto the moment of connection with God, our tradition, our history, and our community.  To hold onto the pristine soul within us for just a moment longer, because we know that as soon as the shofar ends, we’re liable to go back to our ways.  One more second of the tekiah is a second we don’t yet have to deal with the world after Yom Kippur.  The long call of the Shofar reminds us to take the lessons of this day with us.  “Grow from this day!” it says to us.

And as we will grow from this day, so will we grow from this extended trauma that we are living through.  There won’t be a shofar blast to announce the end of COVID, unfortunately.  But one day, we will look back on this time and marvel at how it changed us.  One day, I’ll get to give that sermon.  One day, we will look back at this day and exclaim how different we were before.  

We will look at ourselves and we will see how we have grown, and we will recognize that we don’t get over trauma or leave it.  No, we absorb it into us, and let it propel us.  And if we take the lessons from our tradition, we can use it to push us to grow toward the heavens.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[1] Kessler, David, Finding Meaning.  Scribner 2019, page 15.

[2] Much of this is based on teachings by Dr. Betsy Stone on Post-Traumatic Growth

[3] Kessler, David p 56

[4] The Good Place S4E12

Kol Nidre 5782: Making the Bitter Sweet

 A version of this sermon was delivered on Kol Nidre 5782 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.

            Let me tell you about my friend Martha.  You might not expect it, but one of my best friends is a somewhat lapsed-Catholic, high school guidance counselor a good number of years older than I am.  Manners prevent me from telling you exactly how many years…  We met for the first time on my first day teaching at the day school in Atlanta.  Martha is originally from Michigan and made her way to Atlanta via some time in New York, including living in Huntington well before I knew her.

On that first day of my first real job out of college, into my classroom peeked a tall woman with a broad, warm smile asking if I needed anything and introducing herself.  In my insecurity, I said no and quickly rattled off my credentials, for which she still ribs me to this day.  After that inauspicious beginning, we soon became good friends, though on paper you’d probably never imagine the two of us getting along so well.  We are very different, but we do share, among other things, Midwestern roots, a sense of humor and cultural references, and now an almost 20-year friendship.

I want to talk about Martha tonight, not because I need to apologize to her for something, or because I’m waiting for an apology from her.  Tonight, I want to talk about a change I noticed in my good friend a number of months back.  Now, Martha and I don’t get to see each other that often, so we mostly talk on the phone, text, and interact online.  About 18 months ago, I noticed this change online, on her Facebook profile.  During the election in 2016 and in the first months of the former administration, Martha was an avid poster of news articles, fact checks, and also opinions, both her own and those of others with whom she agreed.

Martha had a regular group of Facebook friends and acquaintances who would like, comment, and often get into Facebook arguments with her and each other about these posts.  I’ll admit here, before the heavenly and earthly court, that I was sometimes involved in these online spats.  How did it go?  We all know… Martha would post something, then, like clockwork, there’d be one comment pushing back, often quite rudely, then often another.  Then, of course, the people who agreed with Martha would chime in and fight back, often rudely, and back and forth it would go.  The engagement with the post would drive it higher on people’s news feeds, so more folks would see the posts that had more disagreement and vitriol.  But then, one day, Martha’s Facebook presence started to be different.  Suddenly, there were very few political posts.  Now it was mostly pictures of her and her family and dogs and occasional positive statements.  Supportive statements.  Statements of hope.  It didn’t happen after the 2020 election, it happened well before.

I asked her recently if she noticed the change and if she’d done it on purpose.  She said no.  I asked her if she made an active decision to change what she posted.  She answered me that she was just tired of getting into a fight all the time.  She made a choice to post things that could really only be responded to with positivity.  She made the choice and put in the effort to spread that which might be able to gain consensus rather than that which would divide.  She opted for sweetness rather than bitterness.

And while that’s easy to say and easy to declare as an intention, apparently, it’s not so easy to do…

According to a study published this summer by researchers at Cambridge and New York Universities,[1] negative political posts are twice as likely as positive ones to get shared and go viral.  This is separate and apart from the questionable algorithms that promote certain content over other.  Reactions from users made clear, in a study surveying millions of posts and reactions, that negative content leads to more frequent and more polarized reactions and more frequent sharing of the information.  A negative post is more likely to be shared and spread than a positive one.  What does it mean for our social fabric that we are more comfortable sharing the negative than the positive?  What are we sharing about ourselves when we do this?  

Posts that demonize the other side are almost 5 times more likely to get engagement than posts that talk about policy effects and almost 7 times more likely to get engagement than posts that use moral or emotional language.  Negative posts on social media have disproportionately led to more negativity being spread than positive posts have led to positivity.  That’s led to an imbalance of stimuli whose compounding effects we need to correct.[2]  

But seeking out that balance goes against our instincts, which is part of why it’s so hard to overcome.  As humans, our brains are wired to remember negative stimuli in a different way than positive.  According to Psychologist Rick Hanson, our minds are like Velcro for the bad experiences and Teflon for the good experiences.[3]  Evolutionarily, we can understand why.  If we forget how hot the fire is and how dangerous it is and only remember its warmth and light, we’re going to keep getting burned.  It’s part of why we remember pain and traumatic events so deeply.  It’s meant to be a defense mechanism for the future.  Too often, though, we know, it becomes a source of its own pain in the present. 

So, if opting toward and remembering the positive goes against our instincts, and if the negative gets the stronger reaction and amplification, what are we supposed to do?  We could, and maybe should, give up social media.  Unfortunately, it is now enmeshed in our communication so deeply that until something else comes along, we can’t.  So what instead?  Well, to answer that, I want us to look to the heavens, but not in the way you might suspect…  Rather than looking up from our low places and calling out to God as the Psalmist encourages, tonight I want us to look up and take our cue from the birds!

Did you know that all species of songbirds originated in Australia?  And Australia, as you may know, is a land riddled with carbohydrates.  Due to nutrient deficiencies, plants in Australia “struggle to convert…sugars into leaves, seeds, and other tissues.  They end up with excess [sugar], which they…give away.  Flowers overflow with nectar.  Eucalyptus trees exude a sweet substance called mannah from their bark.”[4]  This excess sugar is responsible for the size of the birds in Australia, and for the emergence of and prevalence of songbirds, which comprise about half the known species of birds and which are known to have originated in Australia.

How does Australia’s sugary terrain take credit for the prevalence of songbirds?  Well, it has to do with how birds’ taste receptors work.  Most mammals, like humans, taste sugar thanks to two genes that each build one half of the sweet receptor that sends the message to our brains that we’re eating something sweet.  Some mammals, however, mostly those that eat meat only, have evolved to have one faulty gene of the pair, blocking the receptor from being activated.  According to research led by Maude Baldwin of the Max Plank Institute for Ornithology, this is probably what happened to the small dinosaurs, who we now understand were most likely the ancestors of the bird species we have today. 

So, the dinosaurs millions of years ago couldn’t taste sweetness, and neither could their evolutionary descendants, the birds.  What happened?  Well, a shift happened, a mutation.  At some point, in order to survive, in order to live, the birds began to detect sweetness.  The research shows that what happened was not a mutation on the faulty gene to make it work, but rather a mutation in a different gene.  The birds’ savory receptor, their umami and bitterness receptor, changed.  One half of the two genes that make up the savory tastebuds of birds shifted from being able to taste the savory to being able to taste the sweet.  In order to survive, in order not just to survive, but to thrive and to take flight into the sky and spread across the planet, the birds had to trade out bitterness for sweetness.

It goes against our animal instincts to prioritize the positive in and around our lives, to prioritize the sweetness.  It goes against our evolution to try to downplay the negative.  And at the same time, it is clear that our spiritual instincts, and our spiritual evolution demand that we do! 

Our Torah and our tradition make clear that humanity’s most base instincts ought not always be the driving force in our decision making.  We are given dominion over the animals in Genesis in part because humans, made in the Divine Image, have the ability to discern, to differentiate good from bad, separate and apart from our survival needs and instincts.  No story makes this clearer than Cain and Abel.  When Cain kills his brother and God chastises him for it eternally, the Torah is telling us that we are, unfortunately, at our core, prone to violence when we don’t get our way.  The rest of the Torah, seemingly, is about helping us to move away from those animalistic urges, moving away from those instinctual habits that tell us that survival is the only prerogative.  The Torah urges us to change our receptors.  Our belief in God, our traditions, and our communal responsibilities demand we do as well.

We share the kiddush cup around the table at Shabbat, making sure everyone tastes of the sweetness and joy, which the wine symbolizes, from the same cup!  We shower our b’nai mitzvah with candy.  At the Passover seder, we make a sweet paste out of the mortar, and we never taste the maror without a little charoset.  The matzo changes before our eyes from the bread of affliction to symbolizing the sweet-smelling paschal sacrifice.  Our Jewish lives call out to us to taste sweetness!

What are ways that we can choose to go against our instincts and make the choice to taste sweetness?  This is a part of the role of community, to share with others in their times of joy.  Yes, we are always supposed to be here for each other in times of need, in times of sickness, in times of sadness, after a death, God forbid.  But we are also meant to share in our communal joy.  That's the role of blessing: to recognize the sweetness and joy in our lives and offer gratitude.  By blessing moments of sweetness and goodness, we recognize where it all comes from: God as the Creator of All, Sovereign of the Universe.  In saying blessings, we mark the moments and declare that the sweet, and the good are worthy of praise and thanksgiving.  Judaism understands what it means to emphasize sweetness. 

In the Torah reading we will hear tomorrow morning, from the book of Deuteronomy, God sets before the people, before us, options.  God, through Moses, says: “רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃  See, I set before you this day life and goodness, death and evil.”[5]  As Rashi explains: “the one is dependent upon the other: if you do good, behold, there is life for you, and if you do evil, behold, there is death for you.”[6] 

A little later in the reading, we hear an almost repeat of this: הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.”[7]  Life, goodness, and blessing are all grouped together, almost as if to be interchangeable.  Likewise, death, evil, and curse are grouped together.  Both are before us.  Both are laid out and we are granted the autonomy by God to make a choice.  God’s desire is clear.  Choose life.  Choose goodness.  Choose blessing.  Choose sweetness.

Tonight, through the enchanting melody of the Kol Nidre, intoned so beautifully by Cantor Timman, we make a pledge that from this Yom Kippur to the next, God shouldn’t hold us to the promises and vows we make to God.  We say that we know we are going to miss the mark, even though we don’t intend to.  Tonight, let us also pledge, knowing that it will be hard and knowing that we will miss the mark, that we will opt for sweetness rather than bitterness.  Tonight, let us pledge that however we can and whenever we can in the year ahead, we will work to change our bitterness receptors to sweetness receptors, so that, like the birds in the sky, we may not only live, but thrive.  Let us opt to taste the sweetness because, like Australia, there’s so much sweetness to be had! 

In this year ahead, after a year of being so separate from one another, so distanced and removed, let us commit to sharing in each other's joys.  Let us choose goodness and blessing and choose to spread more good news than bad, more positive encouragement than negative feedback!

There is a tradition that when we break our fast tomorrow after the three stars appear in the sky, that the first bite of food should be something sweet.  Either an apple with some honey, a piece of sweet challah, or the like.  In my family, the first bite is always my mother’s rugelach.  No, she won’t give you the recipe.  Yes, they’re very good.  The hunger pangs haven’t yet started for those of us fasting.  Tomorrow, after we make our way through this day of emptying ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, may that first bite of sweetness trigger our receptors.  May that first bite of sweetness inspire us to a year of sweetness.  A year of joy.  A year of going against our instincts and opting for goodness, blessing, and life.  

And may our commitment to ourselves and to each other lead 5782 to truly be a good year, a sweet year for us, our families, our nation, the Jewish people, and the world.

Shanah Tovah, u’metukah.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Kessler, David. Finding Meaning. Scribner 2019.  P 198


[5] Deut. 31:15

[6] Rashi on Deut 31:15

[7] Deut: 31:19

Rosh HaShanah 2nd Day: Saadia Gaon's 10 Reasons for Shofar

A version of this Shofar Service was presented at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation on Second Day Rosh HaShanah 5782.  

Saadia Ben Yosef, was a prominent rabbi, and Head of the Rabbinic academy in Babylonia which is how he got his title gaon.  He was also a scientist, Jewish philosopher, and exegete who was active in the first half of the 10th century over 1000 years ago.  He was born in Egypt, moved to the land of Israel and then was elevated to be the head of the Rabbinical academy in the town of Sura in Babylonia.  At the age of 20, he completed his first great work, a Hebrew dictionary.  Over the next few years he began his works highlighting and defending Rabbinic Judaism from attacks by groups like the Karaites, who do not believe in Rabbinic authority.

            It was his arguments in a dispute about the calendar which brought him to acclaim amongst the Jewish community and which saw him, along with others, prevent a schism in the community over the days of the holidays.  This led to him being named head of the academy.  He was among the first to write in Judeo-Arabic, and due to where and when he lived, the influence of early Islam can be seen on his understanding of Judaism and how it is lived.  Unfortunately, most of his works have been lost over time, but his best-known work, Emunot v'De'ot, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, which some consider the first systematic work of Jewish philosophy, is still popularly studied to this day. Parts of his commentaries to Torah and Talmud have been preserved in books written by other Geonim and later Jewish sources.

Today, in lieu of the full shofar service, since we’ll gather together this afternoon at 4:30 at Jones Beach, weather permitting, for shofar and tashlich, I’d like to share Saadia’s teaching about the Shofar, and the 10 reasons for its sounding.  We come together every year to hear the Shofar.  It has become the hallmark of what this holiday of Rosh Hashanah is, a day of the blasts of the horn, as the Torah calls it.  It is a highlight for us, to be sure.   And it is important to know what it is we are supposed to be feeling and thinking about when we hear its tones.  Now, no matter what it is Saadia tells us, we also know that the Shofar often taps into something deep within us, and so just know that these ten connections to the call of the shofar are not the only way to understand what it is supposed to mean for us.

If so many of Saadia Gaon’s teachings were lost, where does this teaching come from?  Well, it doesn’t come from one of Saadia’s own works, but this teaching is quoted in a book known as Sefer Abudarham.  This book of Abudarham is a compilation of laws, customs, and commentary on the siddur, the prayer book, and it is named for its author, Rabbi David Abudarham.  According to the introduction, the book was completed in the year 5100, so that’s 1339, 682 years ago in Seville, in Spain.  In his introduction, Abudarham explains that he was motivated to write the book because he felt that the masses were unequipped and therefore unable to understand the content of the prayers they said or the surrounding customs.  Perhaps some of us can relate.  The work draws on a wide array of earlier materials, including Saadia’s writings and teachings.  The latest edition of this work was published in 1877 in Warsaw. 

Saadia teaches us:[1]

There are 10 reasons why the Creator of blessing, commanded us to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah:

The first reason: Because this day is the beginning of creation, on which the Holy One of Blessing created the world and reigned over it.  We read this from the Torah this morning.  Just as it is with kings at the start of their reign – trumpets and horns are blown in their presence to make it known and to let it be heard in every place – thus it is when we designate the Creator of Blessing, as Sovereign on this day for as King David said in the psalms: בַּ֭חֲצֹ֣צְרוֹת וְק֣וֹל שׁוֹפָ֑ר הָ֝רִ֗יעוּ לִפְנֵ֤י ׀ הַמֶּ֬לֶךְ יְיָ׃ With trumpets and the blast of the horn, raise a shout before the Eternal, haMelech.

    On Rosh HaShanah we make a point to see God as our Sovereign.  Now, the Hebrew is gendered, so it only speaks in the language of King.  But on these holidays, the opening of the service announces God’s presence as King on the throne, exalted and uplifted.  We approach God as King on these days, and so, as we hear the shofar, we proclaim God’s rule, with judgment, yes, but benevolence, grace, and love as well.

Shofar Blessings:  on page 142 if you’d like to follow along

Please rise!

Take moment, as you hear the sounds of the shofar, imagine them ushering God onto God’s throne.

Tekiah!  Shevarim-Teruah!

Tekiah!  Shevarim-Teruah!

Please be seated.


The Second reason Saadia cites:

Because the day of the New Year is the first of the 10 days of repentance, the shofar is sounded on it to announce to us as one warns and says: “Whoever wants to repent – let them repent; and if they do not, let them reproach themselves!”  Thus do the kings: first they warn the people of their decrees; then if one violates a decree after the warning, their excuse is not accepted.

As you hear the sound of the shofar, be stirred from your complacency, be ready to admit wrongdoing, be ready to repent.  Break yourself open and allow these days to repair you and leave you whole again…  Please rise!

Tekiah! Shevarim! Tekiah!

Tekiah!  Teruah!  Tekiah!  Be seated.


The third reason Saadia gives is that the Shofar reminds us of Mt. Sinai.  (Dennis, can you zoom in on the window for the folks at home?) The Torah tells us that as the Israelites were at the base of the mountain “The sound of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  We should accept for ourselves the covenant that our ancestors accepted as they responded to God Na’aseh v’Nishmah, we will do and we will obey.  The shofar reminds us of our destiny — to be a people of Torah, to pursue its study and to practice its commandments.

Those of you with us here in the sanctuary, take a look at the beautiful Sinai stained glass above the Ark.  (Those at home, imagine Mt. Sinai.)  Hear the Thunder.  Feel the ground quake beneath you.  Experience God’s presence as the cloud descends on the mountain.  Feel God’s presence envelop you.  Feel the community around you.  Feel the presence of every soul, and prepare to bind yourself to God’s covenant.  Please Rise

Tekiah!  Tekiah!  Tekiah!

Tekiah!  Tekiah!  Tekiah!   Be seated.


The fourth reason we hear the shofar, Saadia teaches us is to remind us of the words of the prophets.  These words are compared to the sound of the shofar, as it is written in Ezekiel: “If anybody hears the sound of the horn but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and dispatches him, he has only himself to blame, for had he heeded the warning, he would have been spared.

The Prophets call us to compassion.  The Prophets call us to morality, to humility, to Justice above all else.  The prophets remind us that our calling is to be a light to the nations, a people of unbreakable covenant, leading by example.  The Prophets’ voices call out like a shofar, calling us to serve God and to serve each other.  How will we serve others in the year ahead?  What will we commit to now, as the sounds ring in our souls to spread God’s light?  Please rise:

Tekiah!  Shevarim- Teruah!  Tekiah!

Tekiah!  Shevarim- Teruah! 

Tekiah! Please be seated.


The fifth reason for the shofar is as a Reminder of the Temple’s Destruction.  In the years 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.  Each time, it seemed as if there could be no coming back from such destruction.  The Abode of the Eternal was ransacked, looted, left in ruin.  Though God could not be destroyed.

The Shofar calls us to strive for Israel’s renewal in freedom and in fellowship with God.  It calls us to recognize that difficulties and calamity don’t mean the end, but often the beginning of something new and more powerful.  May the sounds of these shofar calls compel us to see the difficult world of today as an impermanent situation, with the potential to lead us to a life of more meaning and purpose.

Please rise

Tekiah! Shevarim! Shevarim! Teruah! Teruah!  Tekiah!

Be seated

The sixth reason for the sounding of the Shofar is to remind us of the Binding of Isaac, which we read from the Torah yesterday.  Isaac offered his life to heaven, and so we should also offer our lives for the sanctification of God’s name, and thus be remembered for good.

In fact, the Ram that Abraham and Isaac sacrifice in place of Isaac is said to be one of the miraculous objects that God creates at the end of the 6th day of creation in the time known as Ben Hashmashot, between the suns, which was known to be a time of miraculous creation.  The ram was created knowing that Abraham would pass the test and that Isaac would be saved.  The tradition teaches that the Ram was created for a specific purpose for a specific time, to be there to catch Abraham’s eye.  As you hear these sounds, think about where and when you are needed for specific purpose, and what you do to be sure you will be there in the year ahead.

Please rise

Tekiah! Shevarim-Teruah! Tekiah!

Tekiah! Shevarim-Teruah! Tekiah!

Please be seated

 The seventh reason for the Shofar is that when we hear the blowing of the shofar, we will be fearful, and we will tremble, and we will humble ourselves before the creator, for that is the nature of the shofar – it causes fear and trembling, as it is written in the book of Amos: “Shall the shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble?”

The shofar is supposed to make us quake in our boots at the prospect of God’s arrival, make us shake in awe of the majesty of God, which surrounds us at all times.  As we hear the shofar, let us be awed by the presence of God.  Let us tremble as we make our way deeper into these days of awe and this period of teshuvah.

Please rise

Tekiah!  Shevarim!  Tekiah!

Tekiah!  Teurah!  Tekiah!

Tekiah!  Tekiah!  Tekiah!

Please be seated

The eighth reason we sound to shofar is to remind us of Judgment Day as it is said: “The great day of Almighty is near, it is near and rapidly approaching—a day of the shofar and shouting” (Tzefaniah 1:14, 16).

The Shofar calls upon all people and all nations to prepare for God’s scrutiny of their deeds.

What are the deeds God would be scrutinizing from our last year? 


The Midrash teaches that when we hear the broken notes of the teruah, we are to realize that we deserve shattering punishment from God for our transgressions and are therefore inspired to teshuvah, true repentance.

Our sins are then forgiven and this forgiveness is symbolized in the ascendance of God from the Throne of Strict Justice to sit on His Throne of Mercy.  Thus God ascends because of the teruah sound of the shofar, as we read in Psalm 47: עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְהֹוָה בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר God has ascended with a blast, Adonai, with the sound of the shofar. Please rise

Tekiah!  Teruah!  Teruah!  Teruah!

Be seated

The ninth reason to blow the shofar is that the shofar inspires us with hope for the ultimate ingathering of our people and their deliverance from exile, as it is said, “וְהָיָה בַּיוֹם הַהוּא יִתָּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָדוֹל וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשׁוּר וגו' And it will be on that day that a great shofar will be sounded; and those who were lost in the land of Ashur ... will come and prostrate themselves before Adonai on the holy mountain in Yerushalayim.” (Isaiah 27:13)

The shofar foreshadows the jubilant proclamation of freedom, when Israel’s exiled and homeless are to return to the Holy Land. It calls us to believe in Israel’s deliverance at all times and under all circumstances and in figurative as well as literal understanding.  As we hear the shofar, let it inspire us to how we will support the land and the nation of Israel in the year ahead.  How will we work to ensure its safety and security?  How will we work to foster our own ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, as well as a love of Israel in our community?

Shevarim Tekiah!  Shevarim Tekiah!  Shevarim Tekiah!


Be seated


The final reason Saadia gives us for the sounding of the Shofar is that it foreshadows the Coming of the Messiah.

The shofar foreshadows the end of the present world order and the inauguration of God’s reign of righteousness throughout the world, with a regenerated Israel leading all people in acknowledging that God is One and God’s name is One.

As we read in Isaiah: “All you who live in the world, And inhabit the earth, When a flag is raised in the hills, take note! When a ram’s horn is blown, give heed!”

The Messianic Age is possible.  It is heralded by blasts of the horn, but also by our commitment to God and to each other.  It is heralded by our commitment to justice, mercy, and humility.  It is heralded by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It is heralded by teaching our children.  It is heralded by following God’s commandments, trusting in God, and working as a partner with God in the creation of and repair of the world. 

Please rise:

Tekiah!  Tekiah!  Tekiah Gedolah!

Please be seated.

Let’s turn to page 151 and close with Areshet Sefatainu. 

[1] The Rosh HaShanah Anthology, JPS

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5782: If Not Now, When?

 A Version of this sermon was delivered on Rosh HaShanah Morning 5782 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.

            Like many of you, I’m sure, when I was growing up, my family would go out for Chinese fairly regularly.  At least once every couple of weeks, if not more often, we’d all pile into the car and make our way, excited at the prospect of kung pao chicken and using chopsticks.  Every few years, the Chinese restaurant of choice would change, as we discovered new favorites.  What never changed, though, was what happened at the end of the meal.  With the check, without fail, arrived a plate with fortune cookies, small, folded, crispy, thin cookies with a vaguely positive or philosophical message written on them.  “A chance meeting opens new doors to success and friendship.”  Or, “Patience is bitter, but its fruit sweet.”  Or, “It is now and in this world, that we must live.” 

Over the years, lucky numbers and Chinese translation made their way onto these small slips of paper, too, and novelty fortune cookies were sold at the candy store where I worked in high school.  At the restaurants, there was usually one cookie per person, but on those occasions when we’d get extra, if we didn’t like the fortune the cookie offered, we’d take another, hoping for better luck.  I once got one that said, no joke, “Everyone agrees you are the best.”  I didn’t open another fortune for a year…

            Now, I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but fortune cookies aren’t actually Chinese.  At best, historians can determine, they are Japanese in origin and date to probably the middle of the 19th century.[1]  The fortunes are meant to be fun, not prophetic.  I mean, who would live their life based on advice on small slips of paper?

            Reb Simcha Bunim,[2] a 19th-century Polish Chassidic rabbi, advises that we all walk around with two small slips of paper, one each in our two side pockets.  On one slip of paper is to be written: “The world was created for me alone.”  On the second slip of paper is to be written: “I am but dust and ashes.”  Why carry around these two conflicting pieces of advice?

According to Simcha Bunim, “When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket and, there, find the words: “The world was created for me.”  This message comes from the Mishnah, the Jewish law code of the second and third centuries.  The phrase is found in a discussion about the creation of humanity.  The Rabbis debate the meaning of Adam being created alone, asking what meaning there is in Adam’s singularness.  At the end of the discussion, the text advises that “since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: The world was created for me, as one person can be the source of all humanity, and recognize the significance of his actions.”[3]

            On the other hand, according to Rabbi Bunim, “when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”  This pocket-phrase is of much earlier origin, coming from the mouth of Abraham during his debate and negotiation with God at Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham presses God not to destroy an entire town, for perhaps there are 50 righteous people, and it is not just to kill them because of the sins of others.  As God agrees to Abraham’s terms, Abraham senses an opening and responds in seeming humility: “וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֙לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר׃  Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”[4]  After this genuflective statement, Abraham asks God if God is really firm on that 50 people number.  The negotiation continues and God’s final offer is that if there are ten righteous souls, God won’t destroy Sodom. 

            Abraham’s tactic of humility in his conversation with God comes at a moment when the Torah tells us that God chooses Abraham for favor.  Abraham has already been selected to begin the covenantal relationship with the Eternal.  This moment is different. God asks Themself: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”[5]  In this moment, the Torah describes God’s internal monologue.  God decides that it’s not a good idea to keep Abraham in the dark, and so God chooses to inform Abraham because of their special relationship. 

In this moment of divine selection, in this moment of communion with God, Abraham’s head could have swelled.  He could have seen himself as more than just in the image of the divine, but as somewhat divine himself.  After all, it’s not just that he listens to God, God listens to him!  Instead, Abraham defaults to humility.  Simcha Bunim wants us to remember that even in those moments when we think that everyone agrees we’re the best, even when it feels like God is shining on us uniquely, we are to remember our patriarch and recognize that we are but dust and ashes.

            This is an important way to live life, to be sure.  Both of these phrases have to do with our relationship with God, what we call ben adam lemakom.  The world was created for me alone; created by God, for me.  I am but dust and ashes, only here and with a soul because God breathes it into me pure every day.  These slips of paper in our pockets are about how we see ourselves in relationship with the cosmos. 

These Days of Awe remind us that as much as we are here at services in the service of repairing our relationship with God, the harder work, and probably more meaningful work, is to repair our relationships with each other, what we call ben adam lechavero.  And so, while Simcha Bunim has a point, this coming year, as we move through this complicated, damaged world, perhaps we change the slips of paper in our pockets, the way we regularly require novel fortune cookie wisdom.  Let’s put those two slips of paper in the geniza and find something new.  Or to paraphrase Rav Kook, perhaps we take something old and make it new again.  I want to direct us back toward the sagely proverbial advice of the great Rabbi Hillel.

The details of Hillel’s life are sparse.  What we know of him is mostly based on his teachings which survive in rabbinic literature and the stories in that literature that open very small windows on that world.

Hillel is well known for the following advice found in Pirke Avot: “אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי: If I am not for myself, who is for me?  And, if I am for my own self alone, what am I?  And if not now, when?”[6]  He is so well known, in fact, that this very statement has been found in fortune cookies, and not just at the kosher places!

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz calls this teaching the raison d’être of Judaism, the reason for being.  He explains that, “Hillel reminds us that it is challenging to find the proper balance between religious self-preservation and self-sacrifice.”[7]

Self-preservation and self-sacrifice.  With this understanding, Hillel’s words from 2,000 years ago ring true in our ears today.  Self-preservation in the face of a seemingly unending pandemic.  Self-preservation as we made difficult choices.  Self-sacrifice in order to protect ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our communities.  Self-sacrifice as we kept ourselves at social distance, as we cancelled gatherings, holidays, weddings, High Holy Day plans… again…

If I am not for myself, who is for me?  And, if I am for my own self alone, what am I? And if not now, when?  These statements are meant to be understood and lived in tandem.  They are offered as a set.  Three legs of a stool that, when lived out, hold up society.

If I am not for myself, who is for me?  Hillel begins his advice with a recognition that the self has worth.  He reminds us that sometimes we have to put ourselves first, because we may not be able to rely on others.  We have to make decisions that further our lives.  We put on our own oxygen masks first.  Self-preservation.

And, if I am for myself alone, what am I?  Ultimately, we also know that if our own needs are not met, then we cannot be there for others.  But once we’ve seen to ourselves, we must look out for others.  We are followers of Torah, guided by its principles, called to witness the covenant with the Eternal God, whose refrain over and over is to care for the vulnerable, the orphaned, the widowed, the stranger, the marginalized, the oppressed, the immunocompromised, in our midst.  If we take care of only ourselves, Hillel asks, are we a part of society?  If we take care of only ourselves, and we fail to take into account the wellbeing of the community, are we living Jewishly?

When we fall victim to rampant individualism, what are we?  When we spend more time looking into the phones in our palms than the faces of others next to us, what are we?  If we fail to act on climate change and leave a less inhabitable world for our children, what are we?  If we continue to sell weapons of war and don’t work to protect our schools, our malls, our theaters, our concerts, our houses of worship, from them, what are we?!  If we take a woman’s autonomy of body away from her, what are we?  If we fight against simple, proven, life-saving policies, like vaccines and masks, what are we?

And if not now, when!?  We have to live both of these statements now, in the present, meaning at all times.  Because if we choose not to, self-preservation and self-sacrifice are out of balance. 

This notion that we have to live in a way that balances self-preservation and self-sacrifice is discussed philosophically in ideas of the social contract.  But as Jews, we don’t speak in contracts, we speak in covenants.  Hillel’s statement is a societal covenant. 

And so is his other most famous teaching.  The story goes that once a Roman soldier came to convert, on condition that the rabbi would teach him all he needed to know while he stood on one foot.  Addressing himself first to Shammai, the legionnaire made his request and was promptly pushed aside.  The Roman went next to Hillel who calmly responded, as he stood on one foot: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.  That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.”[8]  Hillel reformulates language from Leviticus, language which we read at Yom Kippur afternoon, from the centerpiece of the Torah, the Holiness Code, in which God commands us to be holy as God is holy.  In that Holiness Code, God commands us: V’ahavta lereacha kamcha, Love your neighbor as yourself!”[9]  In order to love your neighbor properly, you must also love yourself. For if you hate yourself, then you’ll hate your neighbor too. Love yourself, but not only yourself, and only then can you ALSO go beyond yourself to love the other.

V’ahavta lereacha kamcha, Love your neighbor as yourself, is a command of God.  It is also a sacred responsibility.  God invites us to be in covenant with God, and commands us to be in covenant with each other.  Our relationships, our community, our society require sacred responsibility for each other, especially in difficult times like this pandemic.  This responsibility is required not just when times are tough, though, like after a natural disaster, but always!  If we neglect these responsibilities for too long, if we focus only on ourselves, we may find ourselves in the position of Abraham desperately seeking 10 righteous among our community.  It was a lack of concern for the other, a lack of a sense of sacred responsibility for the other, and for the vulnerable, which the midrash points to as among the egregious sins of Sodom, which cause God to condemn that city.

God calls us to be in covenant with each other.  And this morning’s Torah reading, a stark and complicated one, but one which bears out the dual covenants that these days ask us to reaffirm.  God calls Abraham to the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  God is testing Abraham, the Torah reminds us.  God is affirming that Abraham is a willing participant in the divine Brit, the covenant.  God wants us to believe and follow God’s ways, and in return we are blessed by God.  Abraham has to prove his belief, and so he does.  Abraham is to sacrifice of his family in order to preserve the blessing of God.

After a back and forth, perhaps hoping God might change Their mind, Abraham takes his son up the mountain.  He is ready to sacrifice that which is most precious to him for his covenant with God.  And then, as had been planned all along, God stops him.  And in so doing, God teaches all of us that there is no covenant with God when we don’t care about the lives of others.  There is no covenant with God when we sacrifice our future.  

There is no covenant with God when there is no covenant with others.

Why doesn’t Hillel just tell us these statements?  Take care of yourself.  Take care of others.  Do it now.  Hillel’s are not the only questions in all of Pirke Avot, but they are the only advice framed as such.  Why does he phrase them in the form of a question?  The Rabbi in me wants to answer that a question is always better because it leads to more discussion and more wisdom.  The teacher in me knows that helping others come to a conclusion can lead to enduring learning.  I would guess that even without educational theory, Hillel understood this intrinsically.

Hillel understood human nature.  When he reframed Leviticus for that Roman soldier, he put it in the negative: Don’t do what is hateful to you.  Why?  Because he understood that sometimes stopping a bad action is easier to do than starting a good one.  These High Holy Days take us to task with regard to God.  Hillel knew that in order to truly live out the covenant we have with others, we have to take ourselves to task.  We have to ask ourselves these questions over and over because we are always changing, even though we know the answers stay the same,.  We have to ask ourselves over and over because in so doing, we have the opportunity to constantly adjust our actions.  We have the chance to turn, for teshuvah, always, because we’re always checking.

If I am not for myself, who is for me?  And, if I am for my own self alone, what am I? Put these statements in your pockets.  Speak of them when you walk on the way.  Think of them when you lie down and you rise up.  Because in doing so, we recommit to the covenant we have with each other, the covenant which God commands us to forge.

If not now, when? 

Shanah Tovah.


[2] Based on Buber’s Tales of the Chassidim, and other sources

[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 3:7, including comment from Rashi on BT Sanh. 37a

[4] Gen. 18:27

[5] Gen. 18:17-19

[6] Mishnah Avot 1:14

[7] Yanklowitz, Rabbi Shmuly., Pirke Avot a Social Justice Commentary.  CCAR Press 2018

[8] BT Shabbat 31a

[9] Lev. 19:18