Category Archives: Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana message 5776: The Eternal Optimists

The Eternal Optimists

  The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Einstein sardonically stated that to attempt the same thing over and over again and expect different results is the definition of insanity. Then perhaps we are an insane people. Here we are celebrating the New Year yet again. It’s not a big surprise. The rituals are exactly the same. The prayers haven’t changed in hundreds of years. The shofar is the same type and form which has been used for over 3,000 years. Yet how many of us can state that there was some significant difference in our lives after Rosh Hashana? What does all the praying, moaning and bellyaching actually do? I can understand the food and the festive meals. That’s always fun and I’ll accept any excuse to celebrate. But what are we doing yet again in the synagogue?

I think that the secret is none other than an intrinsic, divinely inspired type of insanity that is nothing less than pure optimism. In the face of years and years of failure, disappointment, heartache, loneliness, illness and all the other maladies that are the human condition, we stand in front of God and we say: “We want better.”

And perhaps the madness is that we expect an answer. We expect God to listen to our pleas. We expect God to serve us our cure, our success, our comfort, our prize on a silver platter. On rare occasions He does, though we are often so distracted or clueless that we fail to note or appreciate the divine intervention. On many occasions the answer is a brutal no. No, you will not get better. No, your loved one will not survive. No, you will not find a job. No, you will not find the love of your life. No. No. No. The constant failure, the constant silent rejection of our innermost pleas is devastating.

Yet we come back again. We plead again. We pray again. We hope again. This is the definition of insanity.

But our sages, our traditions, instruct us to continue with this insanity. They command us never to give up hope. While there is breath in our bodies we look to God to deliver us. At the same time our traditions guide us to deal with our reality, to accept present circumstances, yet always hoping, praying, working for a better future.

That is the secret of Rosh Hashana. That is why we return every year to meet our Creator. That is the unquenchable optimism, which states that no matter how bad things are, no matter how many times we’ve been down the same road, we are allowed, we are enjoined, we are commanded to seek better. We must never give up. We must never tire. We must never quit.

Perhaps this Rosh Hashana will be different.



Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Yom Kippur Redux

October 5, 2014

Yom Kippur Redux

Finally, the following afternoon, I’m beginning to recover from Yom Kippur. It was very successful. Some people apparently walked an hour in each direction to participate in our services. I was extremely humbled by this effort. We had record crowds for each of the three highlights (Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and Neila) – I estimate around 800 for the first two and perhaps close to one thousand for Neila, including about 100 children that joined me on stage for the end of Neila. The synagogue was full and stirring with energy.

More people stayed longer, and there seemed to be a significant number of younger people than the previous year. I spoke throughout the day. I interrupted the Hazan approximately every ten minutes with introductions and explanations as to where we were or what we were doing in the prayer or Torah reading. We also skipped a lot of the liturgy as I wrote about before. That was besides the three major sermons and conducting a 3-hour question and answer session during the break. I also had to read the Torah, Haftara, Sefer Yona and serve as Gabbai and page announcer. At some points during Minha and Neila I thought I would faint or collapse. Some divine spirit kept me going, gave my mind inspiration to address the congregation and my voice strength to reach the rafters.

I was happiest about involving the children in the recitation of the final verses before blowing the shofar. Second to that was having successfully gotten the Hazan and the choir to sing my favorite Yom Kippur song, Mare Kohen. Noise throughout the day was down to a bare minimum, I think mostly because of my interruptions and an extreme preoccupation to keep things moving and interesting. It probably didn’t hurt that I invited talkers to leave, and threatened to ask them personally if they persisted in talking. A few probably remembered that I kicked them out the previous year. Just eying them this year was enough. I announced the upcoming Shabbat Project before each sermon.

I have also been blessed with the friendship and presence of Bernardo Olesker, one of the great community leaders and the acknowledged “greatest orator of the community”. He sits in the front row and always gives me valuable feedback on my talks. When he compliments me, I know I’ve done well. When he asks for a repeat of something I’ve said, I know I’ve struck a chord. He particularly liked my Yizkor talk where I permitted people whose parents weren’t dead to stay in and to say liturgy for grandparents, martyrs and other loved ones. I asked not only what memory we had of our ancestors but what memories we would leave our descendants and to consider who would be saying Yizkor for us. That seemed to move a number of people.

Many more people were praying, focusing in the Machzor, turning the pages, beating their chest, responding when I waved my flag and in general participating and being a part of the service, as compared to last year. A cellphone did not ring once throughout the day – repeated warnings probably helped as well.

However, right after Yom Kippur, my brain synapses finally burnt out. I could no longer answer simple questions, contemplate any decisions or pronounce more than monosyllables (no Mom, don’t worry – it wasn’t a stroke or anything of that kind). In our cab ride from the hotel (which due to a last minute glich, we were upgraded to) to our wider Spitz family Break-Fast, I contemplated a career as a taxi driver as a suitable aspiration for my mental and decision-making capacities. I was feeling extreme Decision Fatigue.

However, overall, it was really good. Thank God.

Now I’m looking forward to my next big and totally different event. I’m giving a lecture to over 300 South American engineers on my thoughts on Reliability Engineering, featuring movie clips from Armageddon and I Love Lucy…

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Divine Shofar-Blasts

September 29, 2014

Divine Shofar-Blasts

Experience is the greatest teacher. 25 years ago, I worked as the youth director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Rabbi Lookstein, at the end of every major event would review our activities and asked what we could do better. He would write it down and then review it in time to make the following year’s event even better.

Last Rosh Hashana, morning prayers were called for 9am and we only had a minyan (a quorum of ten men necessary to start the prayers) after 10:30am. Last year, there was a large lag between the time when those called had to open the Ark and when they actually did it. While it had been considered a successful Rosh Hashana, I made notes to myself how to make it better. We needed a better page-turning announcement system. I needed a Gabai (someone to call people to the reading of the Torah). Perhaps the biggest fault was last year’s shofar-blower (me). I had never blown the shofar before, and while I did it correctly, it was a sometimes painful process for those listening.

This year I called morning prayers for 10am. By 10:05 we had a minyan and were moving through the prayer service. I had come up with a system to reduce to zero the wait before opening the Ark. The page-turning worked out better (still needs some work) and I got a Gabai. During my recent trip to Israel, I had the chance to sit with my Rabbi, Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon of Alon Shvut. He edited a special Machzor (the prayer book for the High Holidays) for Israeli soldiers and mothers staying at home with their children. He highlighted the bare minimum of prayers that needed to be said, what prayers can only be said with a minyan and which don’t need one. I explained to him that I had an entire congregation that was less than enthused with the quantity of prayers. We went through each page of the Machzor and determined what we should say and what we could skip. It was a significant amount.

Another innovation that we imported from Israel was to have a Kiddush (refreshments) to break up the long service.

Finally, and most importantly, we got someone new to blow the shofar.

We finished the first part of the prayer service at 11:30am and proceeded to the Kiddush as scheduled. The Kiddush was a great joy to the congregation and attracted many participants who socialized freely and unrestrained by an ongoing prayer service.

At 12 noon, we convened back in the synagogue, I gave my speech and then we heard the shofar. The shofar blower is a young man who hadn’t blown the shofar before for Rosh Hashana. He was concerned as to his spiritual suitability for the task. He studied the laws and consulted with multiple Rabbis. He went to the Mikveh (ritual bath). He prepared himself mentally and spiritually for the big responsibility of blowing the shofar for the congregation. I think he took the idea of Teshuva, of repentance, very seriously. He was completely focused. He didn’t talk or chit-chat with anyone before or after his part.

And then he blew the shofar. It was clear. It was strong. It was perfect. He didn’t need to repeat one note due to error. At the end of each series of blasts, there is the Tekia Gedola, a long continuous blast that seemed to last forever. The sound incredibly expanded with each passing second. One could feel the heavens opening up to hear the blast and our accompanying prayers. In all my years of attending Rosh Hashana services around the world, I cannot recall a more powerful, moving, spiritually charged shofar blowing act than what we just had in Montevideo.

The Holidays, Again

The Holidays, Again

There is both something boring yet something comforting about the Holidays. Thanks to yearly repetition, we know more or less what to expect. There are particular things about the Holidays that each of us likes, and there are probably more that we can do without, but we put up with it, out of respect for our parents, family, friends, community and tradition.

This predictability is both a great strength and a fatal weakness. There is a tremendous value in repetition. Studies have shown that repetition of any act is not a cumulative effect but an exponential force at reinforcing that act as part of our psyche. However, that same, sometimes mind-numbing repetition of anything, is what often causes us to miss out entirely the deeper meaning, potential and force that each Holiday has contained within it.

I will divide each of the Holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar, namely, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, into three different aspects:

  1. Symbolic commandments, acts and traditions of the day.
  2. Liturgy
  3. Spiritual essence of the day.

Perhaps by taking a closer look and analysis, someone will uncover a personal connection point to find greater meaning in what it is we’re doing, or supposed to be doing on that day.

A. Rosh Hashana (September 25, 26) [The numbers in parenthesis are the Gregorian dates of the holidays for 2014. The holiday begins from sunset of the day before and ends at nightfall of that day. Every year it falls on different dates]

  1. Commandments: Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday celebrating the New Jewish Year has two biblical commands: Not to work on those days and to hear the blasts of the Shofar. During the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, many have the tradition to eat from a variety of foods that symbolize either blessings for us or curses upon our enemies.
  1. Liturgy: The day-time prayers of Rosh Hashana are longer than usual with the highlight being the Shofar blasts and the Musaf service where we refer to God’s Kingship, His Memory of our Ancestors, and the Shofar.
  2. Essence: Rosh Hashana is an ideal time for introspection, for review of our acts, accomplishments and misdeeds during the past year and to chart a new, better course for the following year. The liturgy and the Shofar is meant to awaken in us feelings of repentance while acknowledging and crowning God as King over us, His loyal subjects.

B. Yom Kippur (October 4)

  1. Commandments: Yom Kippur likewise has two commandments: Not to do any work and to fast (which includes no eating, drinking, bathing, using ointments, wearing leather shoes, or having intimate relations). The restrictions of Yom Kippur are considered to be extremely serious and Jewish tradition frowns strongly upon those who violate Yom Kippur.
  1. Liturgy: The prayers of Yom Kippur are the longest of the year (can’t do anything else anyway, so might as well stay in the synagogue) and provide the congregant with long lists of possible sins that we may have committed and gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness of God for those sins. This is an essential aspect of repentance. We must acknowledge our sins, whether they are sins we’ve committed against our friends and fellow man, or if they are ritual matters, that according to Rabbinic understanding, God is disappointed if we take his commandments lightly. After we acknowledge the sins, and that they are indeed sins, we need to regret having done them and then resolve ourselves to avoiding them in the future. Repetition, as mentioned above, helps a lot with this process.
  1. Essence: According to Jewish tradition, the process of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur has the effect of bringing us closer to the level of angels that day. There is a power in the day of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse us of our sins, of our mistakes, of our regrets. But we need to want it. The Jewish way, for more than 3,000 years has been to fast, pray, become spiritual beings for a day, reach to God and connect with him in a fashion that is not possible all the other days of the year. Perhaps for this reason Yom Kippur retains a special place in Jewish consciousness above all other Holidays.

C. Sukkot (October 9 – 15)

  1. Commandments: There are several:
    1. To use booths (Sukkot) primarily for eating, for one week.
    2. To take the Four Species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Arava) and shake them during the appointed times each day of Sukkot.
    3. Not to work the first two days (October 9, 10) of Sukkot.
    4. To be happy.
  2. Liturgy: The prayers of Sukkot are much more joyous. We sing the Hallel. We shake and march with the Four Species. It is a special sight to see a congregation with their green Lulavs all held straight, circling within the synagogue.
  3. Essence: We have finished with the more serious and somber holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate! God apparently wants us to celebrate with many commandments and to be actively happy. We do this by gathering in the unique Sukkot which takes us out of the routine of our homes, allows us to bond with friends and neighbors that we wouldn’t have otherwise and gets us off to the start of the new year on the right foot.

D. Simchat Torah (October 16, 17)

  1. Commandments: Two: Not to work and to be happy. Note: There is absolutely no commandment to drink or get drunk on Simchat Torah (see my article about drinking on Purim) – whoever gets drunk on Simchat Torah (or any other day of the year) is making a grave mistake and has little to no support or basis for this from Jewish sources.
  2. Liturgy: Very similar to the liturgy of Sukkot, plus there is the added traditions of the completion of the cycle of reading the Torah and the celebration of that event.
  3. Essence: The essence of the day of Simchat Torah is the incredible love God has for the Jewish people. He doesn’t want to be separated from the closeness that has been engendered by these weeks of holidays and being close to Him. In addition we have both the completion and the immediate restart of the cycle of reading the Torah – God’s instruction guide for living and succeeding in His world. We should cherish this last day of His close embrace, until the next encounter.

Other comments:

“Not to work”. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme/commandment. It is something that many people take lightly in our day and age. I will address two aspects of this prohibition. One is the restriction on what we’ll call creative actions, which include the direct manipulation of electricity. I won’t get into further details of this aspect of the prohibition of what we call “work”.

The other aspect of “work” is what is more commonly understood as work for gain, whether it is as an employee or a company or a store owner. This type of work is likewise prohibited on the Sabbath and Holidays. Furthermore, traditional belief is that whoever works on these days will see no blessing in that work.

Whoever believes that whatever financial gains he receives is completely due to his direct efforts is a person of limited faith in God. We need to make reasonable efforts to make a living. However, if we believe that ultimately God is the one who is providing us with our sustenance and success, then it makes no sense to go against the rules and wishes of the ultimate Boss. This may be difficult for many people to either believe or understand, especially if they, and their parents before them, spent a lifetime ignoring such directives – and saw material success.

I promise you this, however. Those people who find ways to abstain from working on the Sabbath and the Holidays, will find blessings in their lives, their families and their work. Those who ignore our ancient directives on so important a matter will reap what they sow.

For anyone wanting advice, strategies, solutions on how to reduce and cut out work on the Sabbath and Holidays, please feel free to contact me.

In closing, I hope that each of you individually, your families, our entire community and the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora will be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the Book of Good Health, in the Book of Good Livelihood, in the Book of Great Success and in the Book of Great Joy. Amen!

Celebrate and Grow! Jewish Holidays as Signposts for Personal Development

The Chief Rabbi’s New Year Message

Celebrate and Grow! Jewish Holidays as Signposts for Personal Development

The same holidays arrive year after year. We say the same prayers. Conduct the same rituals. Gather with the same relatives. Eat the same foods. For some it is a comfort. Our traditions provide the security that little has changed in the Jewish religion. I hear the same shofar that my ancestors heard thousands of years ago. I eat the same apple dipped in honey that my forefathers ate in Europe. I say the same prayers that my grandfathers said throughout the centuries.

But for many it is also boring, repetitious, lacking meaning, innovation or relevance. Our ears no longer understand the meaning of the prayers. Our mouths are not accustomed to saying them. Our stomachs may no longer enjoy the traditional foods. I will borrow a concept from the philosopher Descartes. If “I think therefore I am” validates the existence of man, then “I understand therefore I appreciate” must be the motto for anyone seeking greater spirituality, greater personal growth – and there is a sea full of what to understand and appreciate about our ancient, sacred, long-held and hard-fought laws, traditions and customs.

What is the inner significance of the Jewish Holidays? Besides all of the detailed rituals, besides the lengthy prayers, what is it supposed to do for me as a person? How does it speak to my soul? Why the different holidays and why are they spread out as they are throughout the year?

In Jewish tradition, and especially in more Kabalistic sources, each holiday connects to some a different aspect or need of the human condition. Pesach celebrates freedom, and based on Kabala is a most opportune time for each person to free himself from the shackles of enslavement. Shavuot, seven weeks later, the day we celebrate receiving of the Torah, is a time to rededicate ourselves to familiarity and acquisition of our ancient, world-influencing texts. Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning over the loss of the Jewish Temple and homeland, is a time to understand the reasons for our exile, how disunity doomed us and how only unity will lead to the successful gathering of the exiles.

Then we reach the festive month of Tishrei, filled with holidays. We start the year with the two-day holiday of Rosh Hashana. More perhaps than an accounting between God and ourselves, where He lays out His plans for us for the coming year, it is the ideal time for self-accounting, for introspection, for making our own plans for the coming year.

Then comes perhaps the most powerful day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur. We believe that the day itself has the power to forgive us of our many sins. But we also must forgive those around us, and perhaps most importantly we must forgive ourselves. We must let go of our failings, our mistakes, our sins, and discard them as we would old clothing. We must take on the mantle of a new persona, a better one, a cleaner one, one that will think more of the needs and sensitivities of others. One that will try to understand why they are in this world and all the good they can accomplish. One that seeks God in our lives; that seeks to be spiritually aware and morally correct. That is the power of Yom Kippur that according to tradition elevates us once a year to the level of angels.

But the cycle does not end there. After reaching the spiritual heights of Yom Kippur, God invites us to a more intimate celebration, that of Sukkot. The commandment of sitting in huts for a week reminds us of our dependency on God and of where our blessings truly come from. We feel in our very bones that God is the one that provides shelter, food, success and abundance and it changes our perspective for the coming year. It takes the stress off of many of the decisions and concerns of our lives, reminding us in a very concrete way that God is our partner and that He is with us – if we let Him in.

The weeklong celebration of Sukkot is capped off with the joy of Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. We hold, embrace and dance with the Torah scroll, celebrating the written source of our identity, what our people brought to humanity. We start our own cycles of personal learning, of being another chain in the longest transmission of wisdom in the history of the world.

We have Hanukah, the festival of lights, which celebrates the triumph of Jewish identity over assimilationist forces. It reminds us to successfully strengthen our own identities in the face of overwhelming odds.

There is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the Trees. We remember our stewardship of this planet, our responsibility to the environment, that we are also passengers on this planet Earth and must care for the beautiful, precious home and resources that God gave us, to make the world a better place while caring for all His other creations.

To complete the year we have Purim, celebrating our salvation from utter destruction. It is the happiest month of the year. It is the month with the greatest good fortune. It is the month before Pesach, the happiness before the salvation. It is where we show friendship and unity with all of our brothers, for that is what saved us then and that is what will save us in the future. Though God was hidden during the miracle of Purim and He may be hidden to many of us today, upon further inspection it becomes obvious that He was there all along, directing events, placing people in positions of challenge, to see whether they will rise to the test, whether they will seek Him out, whether they will choose the high road, the moral path, the way of goodness and blessings.

Those are just some of the themes of the holidays of the Jewish calendar. May we celebrate them and grow!

Ktiva Ve’chatima Tova,