Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Eve 5782



As most of you may know, ten days ago I announced my retirement as Rabbi of  Congregation Beth Shalom effective June, 2023. In making this decision I am reminded of the parent who sends a note to explain her son’s tardiness for kindergarten. “Please excuse Johnny for being late for school this morning. Nine o’clock came sooner than expected.” 


We may feel that my retirement from Congregation Beth Shalom comes “sooner than expected” but in fact it is coming at the right time. When I arrived at CBS in 2008 I  was the fourth rabbi of the synagogue in eight years.  Although the synagogue was thriving in terms of numbers, it was also struggling to maintain consistent leadership, a sense of direction and stability.  I hope, if anything, I have provided that. 


I am reminded, as well, about the first time I made such an announcement to a previous synagogue. Before I was ordained as a Rabbi, and during my student years at seminary, I had a pulpit for three years at a small synagogue in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The synagogue had hoped I would stay on after I was ordained. However, I decided to accept a position at a different synagogue in a larger Jewish community nearby. Over the three years that I was in Holyoke, I became very close with the congregation. When I told them that I would be moving on, they were disappointed, even a bit angry. One of the members, a man in his late eighties, looked at me sadly and said, “And we thought you cared about us!” 


Of course, I did care about them, I reassured him, but I needed to think about myself, my future and the future of my family. So, I had to make the painful decision to leave them and move on, a decision that eventually brought me here.  I want to assure all of you that even though I am leaving as your rabbi, I care about you. Being your rabbi has meant that every day one or more of you, in ways small and large, have touched my heart. I hope that on occasion I may have provided a bit of that uplift for you too.


Naturally I am not finished with my work here. I have two more years with you, but those two years, as we  know, will fly by, as have the previous thirteen!  However, it was necessary to announce my retirement now in order that as a congregation you can plan for your future. If needed I will be available to think through those plans with you.


 Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on the past, both as individuals and as a community. What a year the world has had!   The Covid 19 pandemic has not  only shaken all institutions throughout the world but it has led to a  worldwide crisis in every synagogue, every church, every mosque. The crisis has been felt by every individual, in  every home, in every family. These tumultuous times have brought about enormous levels of stress, of anguish and of loss. As one wag put it, these past 18 months have been like experiencing the flu pandemic of 1918, the economic instability of 1919 and the political turmoil of 1968 all rolled into one!


Last Rosh Hashanah was the first Rosh Hashanah in history where every Jew, wherever they lived in the world, stayed home for the holiday. Instead of crowding into synagogues, we watched services on our computers. Instead of gathering with family and friends to enjoy a festival meal we ate alone.  We were instructed to practice “social distancing”. One of our congregants commented that “social distancing” was the opposite of Judaism.


This New Year brings a different kind of stress. We thought it would be over by now, but we are still living our lives thinking about, worrying about, and planning around the pandemic. There have been tragic losses, and there are many kinds of grief being exhibited.  Grieving over loved ones, but also grieving over opportunities lost, a lifestyle lost, and a concern that we don’t know what post-pandemic will look like.


 We often don’t appreciate what we have until we are in danger of losing it. The writer Mitch Albom, who became famous with the publication of his book Tuesdays with Morrie, published another book, Have a Little Faith.  In it, he returns to the Jewish community of his childhood in New Jersey.  He writes about coming to terms with all he had left behind and lost.  His plans as a young man – to become ‘a citizen of the world’ — had largely come true, he writes.  He had friends in different time zones. He’d been published in foreign languages. He had lived all over the world.


He writes, “You can touch everything and be connected to nothing. I knew airports better than local neighborhoods.  I knew more names in other area codes than I did on my block.”  Most of his relationships, he writes, were through the workplace.  Then he thought about workplace friends who were fired or had quit due to illness.  “Who comforted them?” he wonders, “Where did they go? Not to me. Not to their former bosses.”


Often, he concludes, they were helped and supported by their church or synagogue communities. “Members took up collections. They cooked meals. They gave money to pay bills. They did it with love, empathy and knowledge that it was part of the supportive undercarriage of a “sacred community”, like the one I guess I once belonged to, even if I didn’t realize it.”


We too often do not realize what we have in our sacred community. We take it for granted or feel disappointed by its shortcomings. We often notice what is missing rather than what is there. 


When the Coronavirus struck 18 months ago, we as a sacred community faced quite a challenge. How were we to maintain synagogue life without being able to come together in the temple? How do we make “social distancing” compatible with Jewish communal life?  It was not only an issue of gathering for worship. The very undercarriage of our community had been pulled from us by the virus. Loved ones died alone in hospital beds, their families unable to be with them in their final moments! How would our community be there for them in their grief and despair? Where before the pandemic hundreds of people might attend a funeral, families now had to bury their dead practically alone. How were we to console the mourner when we could not go to their home for shiva?  How could we help the bar and bat mitzvah families — families  that had been looking forward to a synagogue packed with family and friends —  experience the holiness of a bar or bat mitzvah from the confines of their home with only the immediate family present?  How were we going to educate our children when they could not gather in the classroom with their teachers? All of this, and more, against a background where parents were worried about losing their jobs, and those who had jobs had to learn a whole new way of working. Adult children worried about their elderly parents, the most vulnerable of the population. And we all dreaded catching Covid, becoming seriously ill and even  dying. 


Looking back, the challenges to continuing community life were overwhelming and disorienting.  It reminds me of the parable Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell:  A man, wandering in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: “Brother, show me the way out of this forest.” The man replied, “Brother, I, too, am lost. I can only tell you this. The ways I have tried have led nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand and let us search for the way together.” This is what we did. In the beginning, we were all lost and confused. Yet, we held one another’s hand, and we found our way through this together. So, we all deserve a “yasher koach”!  All of you stepped up. You were heroic this year. Just look at what we have accomplished. We moved our entire synagogue online with no notice. We learned how to mute and unmute ourselves (well, some of us are still learning). We taught, we sang, we consoled, we prayed — as a community — while being physically separated. What we did was unprecedented in Jewish history. We not only survived — we affirmed our values, we supported each other, we found a way, we thrived. For all of this I am profoundly grateful to every single one of you and I want to thank you all. 


It was, and continues to be, challenging and extremely difficult work. 

I also want to apologize as well. There were times in this process, when we were reinventing ourselves as a synagogue, that I was not as patient with you as I should have been. There were times when I did not listen as I should have. There were times when I too hastily and abruptly dismissed your suggestions,  you causing you to not feel respected or heard. For this I am deeply sorry. 


People sometimes ask me, “Rabbi, when are we going back to ‘normal’?” My answer to you is that we are never going back to “normal”. We will never go back to the way things were before this pandemic. We have been through, and are still going through, the defining crisis of this generation. When the world experiences something like this, we are changed in a myriad of ways, often for good. The ways we practice Judaism, the ways we experience “community”, the ways we learn and the ways we teach are already different because of this pandemic. Some of the old ways we will miss, some of the new ways we will welcome, but of one thing I am certain — Judaism will adapt to whatever the future will bring because throughout our long and noble history the Jewish People have always met the challenges of “new normals”. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our People lost the way we worshipped, we adapted and met the challenge. When we lived in the diaspora, when we were oppressed and vilified, when we were threatened with conversion or expulsion or death, we met the challenge. When nations more powerful than we rose to destroy us, we met the challenge. When we returned to Palestine to reclaim our ancestral homeland, we met the challenge. Each and every time, we adapted, we changed, we met the challenge. We belong to a people that does not despair, that it is relentless in its determination to move forward, to overcome hardships, to endure and to contribute to the world.


These troubled times present their own unique difficulties and challenges and call for novel, original and fresh responses. Our sages teach that the ram’s horn we blow on Rosh HaShana must be kafuf (bent) to reflect our own bodies bent over in grief.  The shevarim (the broken blasts of the shofar) are meant to echo the sound of our own tears. Yet they are always surrounded by tekiah (whole sounds). This teaches us that even though our hearts have been broken we can be whole again and, in fact, even more complete for having experienced that brokenness.

Shana Tova

Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash