Tag Archives: Rosh Hashanah

Less is More

The following sermon “Less is More” was delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 at Congregation Beth El:

My daughter threw up two weeks ago. I know. That’s not really the best way to begin a sermon or to reel you in. But, my daughter threw up two weeks ago. And my wife and I hesitated. Not because we aren’t used to vomit. With three kids, we have seen our share. But it was our seven-year-old’s vomiting last January that led to six months – a winter and spring – full of hospital stays and infusions. It seems that her end of summer virus was just a bump in the road. But as I reflect on this past year, I can’t help but hold my breath with every deep chested cough, slight limp, low grade fever, or sense of exhaustion.

If this sermon sounds somewhat familiar, it’s not déjà vu, although it sort of felt that way to me. Last year, I stood on the bima on Rosh Hashanah, while four-year-old Noah was in the hospital. Days later, he was diagnosed with HSP, an auto-immune condition that caused an inflammation of his blood vessels, and as a result, in his case, inflamed joints and an inflamed abdomen.

By November, thank God, he was off medication and back to his crazy four-year-old self, training for American Ninja Warrior on our living room furniture.

I remember when Cayla would complain that her legs hurt. “They’re growing pains,” I’d say. “Stop being lazy,” I thought. “You have to walk. You’re seven. And I need to carry your brother.” The complaints would continue, as would the extended rests on the couch. “Let her rest,” I thought. “Let her watch tv. That will occupy her while I tend to her brother.”

It would be months before she noticed purple splotches on her legs. We were convinced it was bug bites and we even sent her to school the next day. By midday, I picked her up from school and carried her, because her joints were too swollen to walk. She too was diagnosed with the same auto-immune condition, HSP, that Noah was. Hers was a much more severe case, that caused inflammation of her kidneys, eventually leading to a Spring of chemotherapy infusions to reduce the inflammation. And now, for the most part, she is back to herself. She is still on a lot of medication, and still immunosuppressed, because of that medication. But she is back to doing cartwheels in the backyard, or making videos on my phone, pretending to be a YouTube star. But every time she gets sick, like that virus two weeks ago, we hold our breath.

With every hospital stay, blood test, infusion, or follow up doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t help but to have it in the back of my mind. Did I ignore her? With each stomachache, or complaint or leg pain, or exhaustion, I questioned if I ignored her symptoms? Was I too focused on one sick child, that I ignored the other?

The funny thing is, in February, during one of Cayla’s lengthier hospital stays, Noah complained that we were spending all our time in the hospital with his sister, completely ignoring him. Again, focusing on one child’s needs and ignoring the other. And when we explained that we wouldn’t leave his sister’s bedside, just as we didn’t leave his bedside when he was in the hospital only months prior, he looked at us and responded in perfect four-year-old fashion: “when was I ever in the hospital?!”

I was so focused on the needs of one child, that I completely ignored the needs of another. And when Cayla was sick, I was so focused on her, that I completely ignored the needs of Noah. And poor Hannah, all of 18 months. I’m just glad that she doesn’t talk yet. She can’t complain that I’ve been ignoring her this whole time. Maybe that is reality. In fact, a friend joked when we had our third child, that we are doing it right as long as one of the three is crying or mad at us at all times.

I was hard on myself. How could I not give of myself to all my children. How could I ignore one child for the sake of another? Didn’t I have enough love for them all? But of course, the answer was no – not in those moments. I couldn’t give of myself to all of them. And maybe that is true for all of us. We cannot give all of ourselves to everyone, all the time. We do not have enough love to give. We don’t have enough of ourselves to give. And that is okay. There is no secret to how to do this. We just get up each day anew and try to live life.

Struggling with this realization, my mind turned to Torah. In Parashat Toldot, when we learn of the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau, rabbinic tradition paints Jacob as the righteous one and Esau as the villain. However, the text tells us:

Vaye’ehav Yitzhak et Esav ki Tzayid b’fiv, v’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov. Isaac loved Esau because he was a hunter, he had a taste for game, but Rebekah loved Jacob more. (Gen. 25:28)

In reality, Jacob and Esau were not hero and villain, or vice-versa. They were simply children, yearning for their parents love. And neither Isaac nor Rebekah were able to give of their love to both of their children. The infamous narrative ends with Rebekah devising a plot to deceive her husband. On his death bed, with eyes too dim to see, Isaac sends Esau out to hunt for a meal. Rebekah in turn, dressed Jacob up in Esau’s clothes, and Isaac blesses Jacob as he approaches in disguise. When Esau returns with a prepared dish of hunted game, his father is confused. Esau and Isaac realize that Jacob had masked his identity to receive a blessing. But despite rabbinic attempts to paint Esau as a violent man seeking revenge, his first instinct isn’t to hunt down his twin. Instead, he sits and cries.

Vayitz’ak tzeaka gedolah u’mara at meod vayomer l’aviv baracheni gam ani avi. Esau bursted into wailing and bitter sobbing and said to his father, ‘bless me too’. (Gen. 27:34)

But Isaac explained that Jacob took his blessing.

Halo atzalta li beracha. Don’t you have a blessing for me too?,” he asked. (Gen. 27:36)

Habracha achat hee lecha avi, baracheini gam ani avi. Don’t you have one more blessing, dad? Bless me too, father. (Gen. 27:38)

This heartbreaking biblical tale is not about deception or the art of the con. It is an acknowledgement that we can’t give all of ourselves to everyone. We do not have enough of ourselves to give. We are finite. And that is okay. I am admitting that I too cannot give all of myself to everyone at all times.

And I am asking for forgiveness, from all of you, from friends, from my wife, and from my children, when one need, or one person, takes up all of myself and I neglect other things as a result.

And this isn’t only true for the individuals whom we love and want to be there for, but can’t always make the time for. This is also true for the causes that we care about, the issues that define us, the values that are at our core. It this era of activism, we can’t make every rally, attend every march, or show up to every protest. But that doesn’t mean that we do not care. It doesn’t mean that our hearts are not present. It just means that we cannot give of ourselves to everyone and everything all the time. And that is okay. We are enough.

Each and every year we try to focus on being better. But what does that mean? We tend to think being better is about doing more or being more. We tend to think that being better is about make more time for family, for friends, for community, for those in need.

But in doing so, we end up judging ourselves and our actions based on others. We need to do more because we see how much someone else is doing. We need to be more present because we see every other family’s happily together all the time on our Instagram feeds. But we don’t strive to be better. We just strive to be the best version of ourselves.

The Hasidic master Reb Zusya once came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him, what’s the matter? He replied, “I learned the question that I will be asked by God’s ministering angels when I leave this world.” “But you are a scholar,” they answered. “And so pious,” they said. “What possible question could you be asked that would have you in tears.” Zusya replied, “I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ I will not be asked ‘why weren’t you more like Joshua leading your people into the promised land.’ They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?’”

We may be flawed individuals. But that is what makes us beautiful. We are beautiful in our imperfections. So stop trying to be perfect. When we try to be perfect, we try to be somehow else. In the new year, let’s try being more like ourselves, imperfect and finite, with not enough of ourselves to go around, and not enough time to do all that we want to do. Flawed. And beautiful. And holy.

We read in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, of the three books that God supposedly opens on Rosh Hashanah. The book of life for those who are perfectly righteous, the book of death for those who are fully wicked, and the beinonim, the book for those who hang in the balance. It is said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that we all are written in that third book, for we all are imperfect. We are not expected to be better. We are just expected to be the best version of ourselves. And sometimes, the best version of ourselves means that we need to focus more time or energy on work, or a meeting, or on a specific child, or on a relationship.

And sometimes that means that at that moment, we don’t have time, energy, or emotion to give to others. The best version of ourselves means that we cannot balance everything. Even if it looks like we are, we are not. Even if we are able to juggle all the balls in the air for a moment, we eventually drop them. Because a life in balance is impossible.

Moments ago, we read from the Torah about the biblical narrative of Abraham’s challenging relationship with his family. It’s not great. And it gets worse. Spoiler alert: tomorrow, we read about him trying to kill his son Isaac. In today’s reading we read of Abraham being pressured to kick his firstborn son Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar out of his home, because of his wife, Sarah’s, jealousy. He doesn’t love Ishmael any less than he loves Isaac. Our rabbis even suggest that Abraham deeply loves Hagar. Some commentators conclude that Ketura, whom he marries after Sarah passes away is even Hagar whom he abandons in the wilderness in this morning’s Torah reading.

This is not a pleasant story. It’s a story of a flawed person. The patriarch of our people. The one who inspired us to put our faith in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed Be God, who we turn towards on this holiest of days. And what do we read? We read of an individual who at times failed his family, who made his children cry, who couldn’t find a way to give all of himself to everyone, who at times chooses one family member over another. We read of a flawed individual. But we do not celebrate the individual’s actions or inactions. We celebrate the biblical character’s imperfections, and celebrate our own imperfections as a result. We celebrate that we are far from perfect, that we can’t do it all or have it all.

In Tractate Kiddushin 39b, the Talmud teaches that one who performs a single precept is well rewarded. But for one does not perform a precept, good does not come to that person. We understand how difficult it is to balance the scales. Even a balanced scale slightly shakes back and forth. Rabbi Shemayah explains that even if there is equal balance, the scales are still tipped. This means that balance is impossible, that perfection is impossible.

This summer’s story of Serena Williams is a remarkable one. She had already etched her image into Tennis’ Mount Rushmore, but a year ago, following the birth of her daughter Olympia, she had a near death experience. The emergency c-section delivery of her baby caused a pulmonary embolism, leading to five surgeries and months of bed rest. The fact that she made it to the finals in Wimbledon this summer on sheer grit was the comeback story we were all waiting for. The fact that she made it to the finals of the US Open only days ago, is an exclamation point on that comeback story. But in between, she was ousted in the opening round of a tune up tournament in San Jose to someone no one has ever heard of. And she spoke about how training to get back on the court meant spending less time with her daughter.

Her trainer concluded that to get physically fit again for competition meant that she had to stop breastfeeding. Her coach told her she needed to put tennis before family to return to form.

On the cover of Time Magazine last month, she acknowledged that in her struggle, failing to balance being a parent and being an elite athlete. She said, “there is nothing about me that is perfect. But I am perfectly Serena.” And she is right. We are imperfect. That is who we are, so that is whom we should strive to be.

So in the new year, may we stop trying to balance everything. May we stop trying to fit more unto our overflowing plates. May we stop committing to do more or to be more. May we do less. Yes, in the new year, let us do less. We can become the best version of ourselves by doing less. Because when we only have so much of ourselves to give, less is more.

I’ve learned to forgive myself, to not feel guilty for the blessings I give to one person instead of another, for the time I spend focused on one activity and neglect other responsibilities, for the cause that I dedicate myself to and the others that I care about, but don’t make time for. So in the new year, do not try to be better. Do not try to take on more.

In the new year, become a better version of yourself by doing less, by refocusing on the areas that we do not give enough attention to, by appreciating the blessings that we give and receive to all, by making time for all of our loved ones, by creating a true work-life balance, by reconnecting with the world and at times disconnecting with the world.

I try to focus more time on each of my children now. And maybe that means that I spend less time with my wife, or at work, or with each of you. As the imbalanced scale of life constantly shakes back and forth, may we embrace the shakiness of life, understanding that we cannot be everything for everyone all the time. Let us just be. Because that is enough.

In the end, Esau finally got his blessing. It may not have been the blessing he wanted, or the blessing that Isaac intended to give, but the dying parent still found a way to bless his beloved child. May that be a lesson to all of us. What we are able to offer is enough. The love that we can give is enough. Who we are is enough. Instead of trying to be better, just be. Shana Tova.

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Shana Tova! For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Rosh Hashanah 5778. The first deals with my own personal struggle as a parent having a child in the hospital and understanding our liturgy so that we don’t necessarily change our fates, but change our perspectives. The second deals with the rise of hate and anti-Semitism in this country and ponders what our responsibility as Jews and as humanity is to fight back against such hate.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778: Accepting Our Fate

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778: When Awe Becomes Fear 

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Finding Purpose in the Shofar Blasts

While we look forward to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that announce the new year, we’ve actually been blowing shofar at Beth El since September 4. We are instructed to blow the shofar every weekday morning during the Hebrew month of Elul — a whole month prior to the actual Jewish new year. We blow the shofar to remind us that the new year is upon us, and to encourage us to use these weeks for spiritual reflection. In some ways, the shofar blasts that we will hear in the coming days on Rosh Hashanah is a culmination of that period of self-examination. In fact, we are taught that our responsibility is not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blasts, so much so that the person who blows the shofar must also make sure to listen. And each blast, from the beginning of Elul until Rosh Hashanah day, is meant to help prepare us spiritually.

big-shofarTekiah! Tekiah is our wake up call. A single blast meant to remind us that we are here and present, created in God’s image with the power to create, to love, and to build. Tekiah is a call to grab our attention, a reminder that we too often get consumed with the thoughts of others and don’t focus on ourselves enough. Tekiah reminds us to not compare ourselves to others and instead focus on becoming the best version of ourselves in the year ahead.

Shevarim! Shevarim is three short blasts. The rabbis compare these blasts to the whimpering of a child. We cry to acknowledge our own broken hearts. We cry to acknowledge the brokenness inside us all. While Tekiah allows us to celebrate the divine spark within us, Shevarim reminds us that life’s journey is bumpy. In order to do a true accounting of the soul, we must accept what we have done right and what we have done wrong. We must celebrate the progress we’ve made since this time last year, but also speak of our mistakes.

T’ruah! T’ruah, nine short staccato notes, reminds us of the brokenness in the world, because when we make a new year’s resolution we think about ourselves and others. T’ruah represents wailing and tears. But when we begin Rosh Hashanah, we turn those tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Ultimately, the shofar is a symbol of liberation, announcing a new year, announcing our new selves. It reminds us never to be apathetic or complacent. It reminds us that we are each holy, and we should never see ourselves as anything less than that. May the shofar blasts awaken us to a new year full of health, happiness, peace, and love, and may this new year be filled with new beginnings for us all.

Join us on both days of Rosh Hashanah for our Shofar service, which will take place in the Sanctuary at approximately 11:00am.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermon Now Available

Shanah Tovah! I hope you had a spiritually meaningful and uplifting Rosh Hashanah and take the opportunity to spend these Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance reflecting, asking for forgiveness, and going out of your way to forgive. Our goal is for all of us to enter Yom Kippur with a clean slate and make great changes in the year ahead. My sermon from the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, entitled Justice Renewed, is now available. You can read the PDF: Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5774 – Justice Renewed or listen to the audio file here. Additionally, both are available on the Sermon Page of this blog. The text of the sermon is below:

Justice Renewed

My grandfather is quite the story teller. Like most grandfathers when he tells a story the television goes off, the heads turn towards him, he grabs the attention of the entire room, and his grandchildren listen with delight. While at least the first time he tells the story. Also, like most grandfathers, my Pop-Pop tends to retell stories. We still listen. I listen with amazement. I listen with awe.

My favorite story of his takes place in the early days of his career as a traveling salesman. While living in Rochester, New York, he would regularly leave my bubbe and mother to drive up and down the east coast, selling siding. He was in the home improvement business – first it was selling siding, then decks, then windows, but I think he was still selling siding at the time. He would stay at a motel for weeks at a time while in an area. While selling siding in the deep south, he befriended many of the hotel employees and elevator operators, many of whom happened to be African-American. Staying in town soon before an upcoming election, he learned that none of them were registered to vote. He organized after-hour meetings in his hotel room to help them register to vote… that was until he received threatening phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan.

He eventually returned to his family in Rochester and maybe the fear of burning crosses on the front lawn caused him to return earlier than anticipated. Still, when his new friends at the hotel asked him why he was helping them, complete strangers in a town that was far from his own home, he offered a simple answer: I am Jewish, he said.

PeaceAndJusticeImageI am Jewish. A powerful statement. An even more powerful explanation. Not about our belief in God, but about our belief in humanity. Not about personal practice or action, but about action towards others. Not about ethnicity, but about ethics. I am Jewish is the simple reason for Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It is the reason for a voice of faith and a voice of reason in the fight for Marriage Equality. It is the reason we collect food to donate to the needy while fighting to end hunger and homeless. I am Jewish. It is the reason we do everything we do. It is the reason that Reform Rabbinical Seminary Hebrew Union College many years ago, while she was still living, awarded Rosa Parks an honorary doctorate for taking a stand by staying seated.

I am Jewish is the reason that the Jewish Theological Seminary — where I studied, where Rabbi Lubliner studied, where Hazzan Holzer studied, where Dr. Mitzmacher studied — last year honored Civil Rights Leader — and now Congressman — John Lewis for being a youth role model during the Civil Rights Movement for action through words rather than through violence.

In his speech at JTS commencement last year upon receiving his honorary degree, Representative Lewis charged the students to get into trouble. He said: “You must go out and find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. You must play a role in helping to make our country, helping to make our world, a better place.”

Judaism puts specific emphasis on the 50th year of something. The Jubilee year, or the Yovel, is a time for celebration. It’s the 50th year of crop cycle. Seven represents completion – seven days of the week, seven times a partner circles around the other underneath the chuppah. So too, the seventh year in the land of Israel is the shemitah year, the sabbatical year. The land would not be tilled, indentured servants would be released.

After seven cycles of this seven year cycle — forty-nine years in total, we celebrate the fiftieth year, the Yovel, the Jubilee.

Last week marked a sort of Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the famous March on Washington. At the time, this event was the largest organized rally in American history, and to this day, it still ranks as one of the largest rallies for human rights in our country’s short history.  The event was organized as a march for jobs and freedom, but what it was really a march for civil rights, for human rights, for God-given rights. Most estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 peacefully assembled at the National Mall, culminating their march at the Lincoln Memorial where participants heard from civil rights leaders, and faith leaders, concluding with the lasting memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” Speech.

While Dr. King gets all the credit for his inspirational words, his vision, and his dream, it was the action of others, the actions of all, that made the march happen.

Bob Zellner was Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His father was in the Ku Klux Klan. His grandfather was in the Ku Klux Klan. He was organizing the largest to date march for equality. Hollywood celebrities showed support with the likes of Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, James Garner, and Paul Newman in attendance.

Julian Bond, Co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee made a promise to his parents not to get arrested, not to go to jail because of these protests. He assured them that he was a pacifist, that this was a non-violent protest. Nan Orrock, now a state senator in Georgia attended the march, despite protests from her parents, despite the fact that she went to an all-white school in what was at the time the still segregated state of Georgia.

As previously mentioned, John Lewis, now Representative John Lewis, was Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He said that walking down Constitutional Ave, he witnessed all of America, “people from coming from all over the country to bear witness, to participate.

Many of the people were well dressed. It was like going to church or temple or synagogue,” he said. People were dressing up for worship for they were worshipping, for regardless of faith, they were participating in prayer, they were acting as God’s messengers in this world.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke immediately before Dr. King’s famous oratory. As a young rabbi in Germany he actively opposed and stood up to the rise of Nazi fascism. Then at the Lincoln Memorial he prayed that Shema Koleynu, that God hears our voices, but also said, acknowledging his own tribulations: “it is not simply sympathy and compassion for the black population of America that motivates us…It is a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”

Speaking at the Jubilee event, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, President Obama said that this was about more than just the African-American community. He said, “they marched and America became more free and more fair” and I would add more just, “not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for Gays, and for Americans with disabilities.” At it’s core, this March on Washington was truly about justice.

Our High holy Day Machzor explains that justice is the ultimate principle by which the world exists. The biblical standard of justice is always defined by the treatment of the poor, the weak, the powerless, the infirm, the unprotected. God’s care is especially directed towards the most vulnerable, and societies are judged by how they are treated. The lack of justice is the undoing of God’s creation.

This event, this March, ultimately was about justice, but at its core, it was a spiritual event. It was a spiritual experience. As Representative Lewis said, they were dressing up for worship. They were dressing up because they were worshipping; they were praying, God was present.

Bernice King, the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, who was only a couple of months old during her father’s historic speech, spoke at this Jubilee event. I, along with Rabbi Lubliner and Hazzan Holzer, as well as other members of our city, heard her speak last year at Jacksonville’s annual Martin Luther King Day interfaith breakfast. When she spoke on the day of this Jubilee, one week ago, she reminded everyone:

Martin Luther King Jr. is often remembered as a freedom fighter for equal rights and for human rights. Most importantly though, he was a man of faith. He was a faith leader with the spirit of God — Ruach Elohim, as we call it in Judaism — and the faith community, she said, must continue to lead every movement for justice and equality.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, the 16th century Jewish mystic, was teaching about Judaism’s movement towards justice 500 years ago. He taught that we are God’s partner in the creation of the world. The first to use the term Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World, he suggested that Adonai created humans to remedy an error in the Divine creation of this world. We were created to ensure the equality and justice that God hoped to create. We are created to act. So this morning, we act.

Our three pillars program this morning introduced us to the core Mishnaic teaching that the world rests on three pillars, on the pillar of Torah Study, on the pillar of Avodah, Prayer, and on the pillar of Gemilut Hasadim, Social Action and Social Justice. To suggest that these three pillars hold up this world means that each pillar is an integral part of this world; each pillar is an integral part of our faith. If we only focus on one and not the other, the world will collapse. Additionally, this message reminds us that these three pillars on which the world stands are of equal importance. Prayer is just as important as Torah study. Acts of Kindness and Justice are just as important as prayer and study. More striking, Prayer and Study are meaningless without Acts of Kindness and Justice. Even as we wrestle with God, even as we teach and learn Torah, with the pillar of Justice missing, the world will still collapse. Acts of Kindness, and Acts of Justice, are Acts of Torah study, rooted in the scriptural core of our faith. Acts of Kindness and Acts of Justice are Acts of Prayer and Worship, to use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s metaphor, when we act, we pray with our feet. We did that on a small scale this morning through social action. We do that on the greater scale through social justice.

I was hesitant to share my vision, my belief for our need for justice, to pursue justice, even if our liturgy speaks of it, even if the words of rabbinic literature speak of it, even if Torah speaks of it. I thought twice because I fear – I know – that some think I speak about our need to do justice too much. I worried about pigeon-holing myself, constricting the Torah that I teach. I worried about being viewed as the rabbi who only speaks about our need to repair the world.

Then, I realized that this is why we do all that we do. Every single thing we do, every teaching of our tradition, every attempt to bring ourselves closer to God, every attempt to immerse ourselves in ritual, is meant to ignite a spark to act as the angels of God, the messengers of God, that we are. Every teaching of Torah, every spiritual experience, is meant to fuel the fire, so that that spark within us turns into a towering flame, like the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame above our ark, our Aron Kodesh, a towering flame to walk in God’s ways, and do God’s will.

I was worried that these thoughts would be seen as political or divisive. But then I said three simple words. Three words that my grandfather said to me. Three words that are the reason we do what we do. I AM JEWISH.

For if we do not care about repairing the world, if we do not care about making this world a better place, if we do not care about the rights of other, if we do not care about honoring God, through honoring God’s creatures, made in God’s image, if we do not care about justice and equality, then nothing else we do as Jews matters. So we get up. We stand up. We do, and we act. The new year is about renewal. It is about change – changing our ways and ridding ourselves of the apathy that too often exists.

The disturbing liturgy of the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer during the Musaf Amidah speaks of the reality of the injustices that surrounds us: Some will live and some will die. Some will live a long happy life while others will leave this world long before their time. Some will die of hunger and thirst; some will die of plague; some will be impoverished and some will be enriched; some will be brought low and some will be raised up. Some will feel at peace while others will live a life of trouble.

The liturgy speaks of the injustice that exists. Yet, we are also charged by this same liturgy to change that reality.

We recite: U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah Ma’avirim et-Roah Hagezerah. Despite the darkness of this world, despite the chaos that surrounds us, the injustice that is reality, we are taught that through Teshuvah, through Repentance, through Tefillah, through Connection with God, and through Tzedakah – not charity, but true justice – we can change the harsh reality.

The U’netaneh Tokef begs us to change ourselves and to change the world, to turn our world from a world of chaos to a world of calm. We spent the month of Elul doing Teshuvah. We spend the Chagim, the High Holy Days — and God-willing every day — making time for prayer. And we leave the sanctuary, the synagogue, inspired and charged to participate in true justice, to fulfill God’s promise.

God’s promise is heard in the prophetic charges in our Bible. We hear the demand of the prophet Micah, when he says: What does God require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

We hear the prayer of the prophet Amos: Let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Those words echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when Reverend King preached them during his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago. That was not his speech, that was his prayer. That was God’s word. According to King’s speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, King’s speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper. The press was given advanced copies of his speech the morning of the March on Washington and it looked nothing like the speech he gave. It begins the same, with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ‘em about the dream.” Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: the people don’t know it yet, but they’re about to go to church. They’re about to go to synagogue. They’re about to go to services. In that dream, he quoted the words of Amos. He quoted the Psalmist. He quoted the prophet Isaiah.

Dr. King taught us that the arc of the moral universe bends towards Justice. But it does not bend on its own. We bend it. As Nehemiah, who was charged in our Tanakh with returning to Jerusalem, rebuilding the city and purifying the people, put it:

“The work is great and large, and we at times feel separated from one another. But when we hear the sounding of the shofar, the blasts of the shofar, we hear God. For God is on our side.” God is on the side of justice. So as we go ahead, in the new year,  as we pursue justice, as we pursue peace, let us keep one thought in our minds to guide us: I am Jewish. Shanah Tovah.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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