Friday, September 29, 2023

Yom Kippur, Our Fight for Israel, 2023

Israeli tank crosses the Suez Canal, Yom Kippur War, 1973

October 9th, 1973.  The invasion had been on for three days already and the situation was dire.  Already she had ordered preparations for the use of nuclear weapons but that was not all Prime Minister Golda Meir would do to save her country.  She also issued another plea directly to the leaders of the West for supplies to replace those that had been lost.  The Soviets were resupplying the Arab states, would the Western powers do the same for their ally?  

Only in DC was there a positive response.  Secretary of State Kissinger, who had quietly been advocating for limited American support, was able to convince President Nixon to begin Operation Nickel Grass which saw over 20,000 tons of materiel sent to Israel. 

This support, added to the grit and determination of Israel’s leaders and fighters, snatched victory out of the jaws of what seemed would be certain defeat.  

We remember the Yom Kippur War on this, its 50th anniversary.  And we do so as Israel faces perhaps an even greater crisis of existence.  For at just the same time as miraculously, relations with the very same Arab states that sought to destroy Israel half a century ago are now at the warmest and strongest place yet, Israel’s very identity as a Jewish and democratic country is at risk. 

As Zionists, Israel is dear to our hearts and what happens there always feels as if it is happening in part to us.  Yet as American Jews, certainly for myself I can speak, the attitude has always been “we are not on the front lines” and so we can’t comment or act as Israelis must given that they live it every day.

My friends, this can no longer be our attitude.  Fifty years ago, it was an American Jew who heard Israel’s call for help.  And while I don’t pretend to think that Henry Kissinger was motivated solely by a sense of Jewish loyalty, it does set up for us what the model must be.  It has been, in fact, for centuries, the case that the Jews of the Diaspora, and all the more so in the affluent countries of the Jews’ Exile, to support and even intervene in the doings of the Jewish community in the Holy Land both before Israel was a state and since then. 

If Israel is to be the sort of light to the nations we want it to be, if it is to be reshit tzmichat geulateinu, the beginning of our redemption from Exile, then we have no choice but to act. 

I’ve admired the Netanyahu family for more than one hundred years.  I wasn’t around that whole time, but the work of Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, played a valuable role in my understanding of Jewish history.  Who could not be an admirer of Yoni Netanyahu, who embodied the spirit of Israel.  And I will admit to having liked Bibi as prime minister – at least some of the times he was prime minister.  This is important only inasmuch as it shows that above all, we as Jews, whether rabbis up here or congregants out there all need to think for ourselves and reflect on what we think we know and be open to new ways of understanding when the truth is presented to us.

The truth is now that Netanyahu is in government primarily for himself, betraying the legacy of his family and his own past legacy.  And this is clear from the coalition he has assembled.  Parties on the outside of Israeli politics, rightfully so, are now at its center.  Advocating for legislation that would negatively impact non-Orthodox Jews, LGBTQ Israelis, women, and the Arab population both of Israeli citizens and in Gaza and the PA. 

Israel is supposed to be a Jewish and democratic society.  I once saw an argument on the Knesset floor between a Likud member (Netanyahu’s party) and one from Labor arguing over which party had welcomed gay and lesbian members first.  And while I realize that Israel does not have a separation between synagogue and state as we do, and that in itself is not wrong, the balance that has existed between secular and religious norms in society has by and large been reasonable, and now it is in danger of tipping to a minority of a minority of those on the right of the Israeli Jewish religio-political spectrum.

And how does the governing coalition hope to effect these changes, changes let loose by the lack of the PM’s having a policy program other than staying in power?  By limiting the role of the Supreme Court. 

Israel is a parliamentary state, modeled on the UK.  As such, there is no separate executive – the Knesset is both that and the legislature.  The courts stand separate as a check on power.  This is made the more complicated because, like the UK, Israel does not have a constitution.  It has what are called Basic Laws, but even these are, shall I say, “squishy” in terms of what becomes one, how that happens, and what it means to violate one.  Yet the system has worked, with the Courts being able to call into question laws passed that break a reasonableness bar with regard to the Basic Laws.

Netanyahu’s coalition wants to curb the Court by making it possible for a simple majority in the Knesset able to invalidate the Court’s finding that a law is unreasonable.  It also wants to change the way in which decisions can be made into Basic Laws. 

While some check on the Court, perhaps a super majority in the Knesset, is probably a good idea, and so too a clearer understanding of what Basic Laws are, would serve Israel well, that is not what is happening now. 

And so, we see the protests – fierce but thus far not effective, against this effort to upturn the balance of power. 

Again, how tragic, that just as a state of peace with its neighbors once unimaginable seems just ready to dawn that Israel tear itself apart from the inside.

In 1773, the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, hosted Chaim Isaac Karigal, an emissary (or schnorrer you might say) from the Old Yishuv, the Jewish community of pre-State Israel.  Dressed in the exotic manner of a Turkish nobleman, Karigal, communicating with those early colonial Sephardic Jews in Ladino, requested support for the poor Jews of the Land of Israel.  The Jews of Newport were happy to help. 

This is probably the earliest reference to American Jews assisting the Jews of Israel.  It is far from the last.  Raising money, visiting,

Helping found Hebrew University.  Supporting the War of Independence.  Countless examples abound of Diaspora Jews and American Jews in particular weighing in at critical times in Israel’s life.

And now is another of those times.  We cannot take the old “Israelis have to decide attitude.”  Let our actions as Jews motivate us to support those in the streets of Israel waving the blue and white banner.  Let us aid in ushering the time of our Redemption into being by allowing Israel to be what its Declaration of Independence says it is meant to be a country that, “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture” to all its inhabitants.

Use all the ways you would act politically here be the ways you reach to Israel.  And perhaps most of all.  Let people, in particular young people, about whom we hear so much regarding their distance from and diffidence towards Israel, see how it is truly a land of all Jews, a miraculous land.  A land so important to our history and world history that we cannot but take an active and keen interest in its future. 

May it be true the prayer we say:

Avinu she-ba-Shamayim, stronghold and redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, beginning of our redemption. Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Guide its leaders and advisors with Your light and Your truth. Help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our holy land. Deliver them; crown their efforts with triumph. Bless the land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy. And let us say: Amen.



Thursday, September 21, 2023

Rosh Hashanah, Soul Intuition, 2023

The man walked into the convenience store; it was quiet.  Or maybe silent would be a better word.  There was one other customer wearing a hood and seeming anxious.  Most of all, the man noticed the clerk was sweating and looked very nervous. 

The man left.  He wasn't entirely sure why - a hunch, intuition, maybe.  The store, you can probably guess, was robbed just afterwards.

This story is among many that appear in the book The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker.  He is a safety and security expert whose company provides education, consultation, and protection for all sorts of clients from businesses to schools to until her passing, Olivia Newton John.

I encourage everyone to read his book given the world of risks in which we now find ourselves.

But most of all because the biggest lesson of the book is to trust your intuition.  Intuition, he says, always provides two critically important things to you.  First, it is always responding to some outside stimulus and second, it is there to help you. 

Intuition is a good friend when you think of that way! 

As much as this applies to one’s personal safety, I want to say it can apply to something else.  Something perhaps even more important.  And that is our intuition, our gut feeling, about knowing what is good, right, to do in each situation – for oneself and more importantly, for how we deal with others.  It is our Soul Intuition, or in Hebrew our Nefesh HaSichlit, the way our innermost selves would operate were we able to access that. It is the perfect lesson as we begin a new year, to let our Soul Intuition help us be the people who seek holiness that we pray today we will be.

What’s more, this is a gift nobody needs to give you.  God gave it to you at the moment of your birth.  Our goal with the Soul Intuition today is to find it, as it were, up in the attic, or in the box of your stuff your mom sends you when she’s cleaning out her attic.   This what makes this so urgent for me to share, because we already have it in ourselves to live in harmony with God’s Divine Spark within us, with our souls. 


People already know.  When people come to see me, I am no longer surprised at how often the following is the case.  People who come in and really want advice – they already “know” what it is they should do.  People really seem to be just checking to make sure there isn’t some “get out of this moral dilemma rabbi card” I can give them to play for whatever situation they are facing – sorry, insider trading, stealing from the tip jar, and pushing your brother down the stairs and blaming the dog are not allowed.   And even in situations where it is choosing between two good or reasonable things to do – people still seem to have a sense as to which is the more important to prioritize. 

Why this is because of the Soul Intuition, or the term I’m borrowing from elsewhere in the tradition, the Nefesh HaSichlit.  We have this in us from the start.  Think of the blowing of the shofar.  What is one of the best things about it during services?  To me, it’s all the kids who come up to hear it and see it up close.  They don’t need to be told this is special, this is important, or that it must be blown in these three ways and with such and such other considerations.  Innately, immediately, you can see it on their faces – they look up and they just know – they are connecting with God, with the very essence of human experience. 


You may be familiar with the concepts of our two inclinations, the two desires in each person.  These, Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa, often translated as the Good and Bad Inclinations, are probably better for our understood as the Altruistic and Selfish Inclinations.  Sometimes, it’s good to be Selfish – we’re told the Yetzer Ra exists so people will feed themselves and put on a coat when its cold outside.  And while it is often good to be altruistic, giving someone else your coat when it is cold outside doesn’t reduce the number of cold people there are. 

Chasidic Judaism gives us the name for the Soul Inclination – the ability to know how much of each inclination you need in any situation.  This is Nefesh HaSichlit.  It is usually translated as the “Intellectual Soul” from the word seichel.  But as you know, seichel is less knowing how to build a rocket to the moon and more about knowing where you can get a deal on the parts for your spaceship.  That sounds more like a “gut feeling,” a “hunch,” or “intuition.”  Hence, it truly is our Soul Intuition – our Nefesh HaSichlit. 

So how can we get better at trusting our Soul Intuition and not letting too much or too little of one of our Inclinations keep us from doing what’s right? 


The expert swimmer will tell you that it’s not the ocean you need to be afraid of.  Cold water?  Where’s your wet suit?  Lots of waves?  Maybe you should have looked at the weather.  Sharks?  You’re gonna need a bigger boat. 

De Becker uses this to point out that awareness of what’s around you is key and that there is little need to be surprised if you observe what is or will happen.  Preparing for what the water might be like, preparing for the things that might worry you or might actually cause you fear, is something you can do to help your Intuition in its work to keep you safe. The same is true with the Soul Intuition. 

Why don’t we help people?  We are feeling stressed, we are tired, we have concerns about where our resources are going to go – our time, our wealth, our patience for helping.  We may carry suspicions based on past experiences that make it hard to believe such and such a person really needs help – they might be stealing from us.  If not just the food we are about to give, then even worse – our trust in people!  I was cheated, I was tricked!       

Our Soul Intuition helps us dial between Tov and Ra.  Helps us see that even if we are late, we could probably pull over and check on the stopped car – just call your appointment and say, give me five minutes, you can make this work. 

The person who needs a sandwich or money every day as you turn on 347 to Old Town?  Your Soul Intuition would help point out to you that it really doesn’t need to bother you that much if you help this person out and maybe they aren’t as deserving as you think – it will be okay.  Give him something.  You could give him some change, you’ll be fine.  You could buy him something at Seven Eleven, that way it would be food after all, and less likely to be used for something bad.  You could go home and make a sandwich, showing a level of care and dignity I would imagine anyone sitting outside for any reason does not get enough of. 

Your Soul Intuition would also point out, if you gave it that minute, that if it really bothers you that much that maybe he’s a schnorrer and not truly in need, that you could invest the time into getting him true help.  You could really do that.  And while that would really be going above and beyond, when you consider you could do that, the sandwich or the change doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. 


Therefore, we simply need to prepare ourselves for the day ahead and the opportunities that may present themselves.  Try just these three or use these examples to derive other methods of preparation:

1.     Make sure you have coins or small bills with you to help out in whatever small ways might come up – helping the person on the street, tipping the waiter, paying it forward in the drive-thru, etc. 

2.    Build in some extra time.  There was a study done that found people in a hurry were less likely to help someone who appeared injured they had to walk past.  Give yourself five extra minutes of mitzvah time during the day.  Even if no cats are up trees on your morning jog, showing up on time to meet someone is a small kindness and act of respect that is a mitzvah itself. 

3.    Smile.  Make yourself smile.  A mental health worker told me even if you can’t sincerely smile, making yourself smile makes you feel better.  And as long as you aren’t doing a creepy forced smile, remembering to smile at others can be a huge mitzvah.  The person who is lonely, the person who looks up to you.  The person you love – if you don’t think smiling is a mitzvah, stop for a moment.  I want you to think of your youngest grandchild or great-grandchild smiling and laughing.  Did it make you smile just thinking about them?  What about everyone who doesn’t have any grandkids or great-grandkids – did you happen to notice that you are now sitting in a sea of people smiling to themselves?  That’s the mitzvah of a smile. 

When it comes to our personal safety, we need to remember:  our intuition is real and serves to help us.  Our senses evolved to pick up on cues that help our survival, and they are doing this even if we are not conscious of it.  And since our intuition can only be better the better, we prepare ourselves to listen to it, plan accordingly.

The Soul that God has planted in each of us longs to connect us, others and the world to its Creator through what we do and say.  Our desires to help ourselves and help others are neither good nor bad without context.  Our Soul Intuition, or Nefesh HaSichlit, when trusted and exercised and prepared, will allow our Souls to succeed at their tasks – at letting us live purposeful, intentional, helpful lives. 

While it would be a true miracle were we to always maintain that high level of attunement and holiness; rest assured it is innately within each of us.  For this New Year, let the sound of the shofar penetrate to your very Soul, your Soul Intuition, to guide you along the way. 

Rosh Hashanah: Loneliness, 2023


Boerneplatz Synagogue, Frankfurt am Main, prior to its destruction during Kristallnacht

“There wasn’t a minyan, but the shul was full of angels.”  My rabbi, Rabbi Meier Schimmel, told me this is what either his father or one of their rabbis said when, after the Nazis came to power, fewer and fewer people ventured out to their synagogue in Frankfurt.  It is an instructive and powerful response to what could have been a profound moment of loneliness.  One so strong that the impression it made in the mind of the young man who heard it lasted the sixty years until he told me and then more than another twenty for me to tell you. 

Loneliness is a terrible plague, and just because the Jews in 1930’s Germany would come to know far more terrible catastrophes does not lessen what it is to be bereft of companionship. 

Loneliness is addressed by community, but as we all learned eight decades ago, not community in the way you might think. 

Finally, loneliness might be the result of immoral, inhumane, even evil deeds, but, in itself, it is none of these things.  A community that recognizes this distinction is a true one for its members.     


Loneliness is a Big Problem

In May, Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General, released a report on the epidemic of loneliness confronting American life.  Made worse by the Pandemic, Americans since 1976 have indicated growing rates of loneliness and isolation.  Being “disconnected” from family and friends and suffering prolonged bouts of loneliness have health impacts as serious as being obese or being a heavy smoker.  Profoundly isolated people are angrier, sicker, more depressed, and more likely to commit suicide. 

Various factors are mentioned as compounding this very serious threat.  The emphasis Americans put on material wealth that pushes us all to see work as the key indicator of success.  The inability to “go home” at the end of a hard day’s work because phones and emails and computers and more go home with us - only made worse when home became the office – it is no surprise that we have a real issue with isolation and loneliness. 

The study also points out that, “from 2003 to 2020 young people’s time spent physically in the presence of their friends declined by 70%.  While I’m sure this is true, this is one of the only alarming revelations about which I am a bit suspect regarding the conclusions they are drawing.  In the 70s, 80s and 90s, the worry was we were sitting too close to the TV for too long watching one of the four channels available.  Then it was that we were spending too much time engrossed in the alternate universe which was a Pac-Man arcade or video game.  Adults are always going to be worried that the phonograph or talking pictures or the Tic-Tac will irrevocably corrupt the next generation.  That is not to say there isn’t anything to worry about, but the sky doesn’t need to be falling for something to be really bad. 

Finally, the alarm is not limited to just those who work and those of the up-and-coming generation.  The tragedy among so many of grandparents and other older Americans being isolated from family, sometimes in the most pressing of situations during the Pandemic was yet another extreme example of growing trends towards being alone as we enter the later years of our lives. 


It Takes a Community

Not surprisingly, numerous responses have been penned to the Surgeon General’s report. Rabbis, ministers, researchers, and even former Secretaries of State have all responded.  In her Atlantic piece, Secretary Clinton, as many others do, points to the erosion of the various institutions that in the past brought people together and kept them connected, “attending religious services, joining unions, clubs, civic organizations – even participating in local bowling leagues-were disappearing.”  Clinton writes with a focus on political polarization in mind and so also notes that the report says, “diverse, robust, social networks make the American dream possible… without them, it…has significantly reduced economic mobility in America.”

What religious organizations do to counteract the sickness of loneliness is further discussed in an article from the Boston Globe by Rabbi Elan Babchuk.  He notes the study doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge that faith communities can be part of the solution instead of “part of a list of divisive topics that cause polarization between individuals and communities.” 

When Rabbi Babchuk elaborates on the good religious groups can offer, his examples involve a Baptist Church organization that worked at combatting obesity, starting by banning fried chicken at church events and installing a track around the church grounds – or another religious group that helped get vaccinations to people during the Pandemic (as the Galinkin Family helped us do here at NSJC).  To these he adds the benefits that can come from gathering inside houses of worship, too. 

These things are all good.  And they are all things that religious groups can do well.  Yet I don’t think they are chiefly what type of “community” a religious institution, offers. 

This unease at including religious institutions alongside gyms and arcades as places where people with like interests can get together and do stuff is picked up on in another article from the Atlantic, this one by Jake Meador, editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, a millennial generation Christian journal of religion, politics, and culture:

“The tragedy of American [houses of worship] is that they have been so caught up in the same world [as the rest of us] that we now find they have nothing to offer these suffering people that can’t be more easily found somewhere else…content to function as a kind of vaguely spiritual non-governmental organization.” 

A community focused on better health, economic advancement, or just playing chess, is a good community that will profoundly benefit its members in many direct and indirect ways. 

Yet the “community” a religious community should bring is of a different sort.


It’s Okay to be Lonely, If…

Meador goes on to quote the theologian and public intellectual (who when Time magazine voted him “America’s best theologian” responded that, “’best’ is not a theological category”) Stanley Hauerwas, who eloquently adds:

“Pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people… who have discovered their lives lack meaning… Many of the wounds of, and aches provoked by, our current order aren’t of a sort that can be managed or life-hacked away.  They are resolved only by changing one’s life, by becoming a radically different sort of person belong to a radically different sort of community.”

In other words, the type of community that in the face of bigotry, prejudice and hate, the type of community threatened to express itself in communal prayer, the type of community that nevertheless could find in an empty sanctuary, not a sign of defeat, but of God’s care and protection.  Not a room without Jews, but with the heavenly servants of the Divine crowding in to comfort those worshipers who dared show up.  Angels there to reassure the Jews and answer their despairing question that echoed in the sanctuary, ayeh makom kevodo?  “Oh, where is the place of God’s glory?” by answering them, kevodo malei olam, “the whole Earth is full of God’s glory!”

The very same thing we imagine the angels are singing with us when the Cantor leads us with that refrain during the Kedushah. 

That is a religious community!  That is the community that doesn’t just give you something to do when you’re lonely to keep you busy – that is community that changes loneliness.  Loneliness is an opportunity to remain a member of your community even when apart from it.  To feel embraced by it even when alone.  Never did I see Rabbi Schimmel disappointed if attendance at services was a bit shvach.  He felt the enduring, eternal community of Jews all the time. 

So should we!  I am still a Jew, who could be part of a minyan even if there isn’t one.  I am a Jew who probably knows another Jew who knows another Jew, who knows every other Jew in the world.  I am a Jew who whether I’m dancing with a bunch of men at an Orthodox wedding in Brooklyn, or with many hundreds of guests at a Persian wedding in Los Angeles, or at chic and somewhat secular American Ashkenazi wedding in a Manhattan restaurant, we’re all singing, Havah Nagilah and praying we aren’t going to launch the groom’s head into the chandelier when we pick him up. 

That is the community we seek to create.  One that acknowledges that loneliness, like illness, like death, like evil, cannot be eradicated but they can be fought.  They can be held at bay.  And most importantly, that none of them can ever sever you from the eternal community of the Jewish People. 

I pray we may be united in lifting people out from sadness to joy and despair to hope.  That we may facilitate healing for the ill and comfort for the bereaved.  And that we should always keep alive that connection to each other we feel in our hearts today no matter where and with who we might be in the future. 

For I’ll have you know - that communal spirit, that spirit of Am Yisrael Chai – the Jewish People Endure! That spirit each of you has inside you today is marvelous.  It is precious.  It is so special that even God’s angels have come here to wonder at how its beauty and strength connects us all today and always. 

Shanah Tovah


Rosh Hashanah, The Test of the House of the Repentance, 2023

 If Edgar Allan Poe gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon:

In the forgotten depths of a decaying city, there stood a decrepit mansion. The mansion was old, a relic from a time long past, and it carried with it a sinister reputation. The mansion was known as the House of Repentance, a place where those seeking redemption went to confront their darkest sins.

For years, the House of Repentance had remained abandoned, a symbol of dread that loomed over the city. Its windows were shattered, its walls were covered in ivy, and its once grand entrance was now a crumbling archway. But despite its dilapidated state, the house had a magnetic pull on those who had transgressed.

One fateful evening, as a cold and clammy fog descended upon the city, a man named Samuel found himself standing before the House of Repentance. Samuel was a tortured soul, burdened by the weight of his sins. He had betrayed a dear friend, lied to his family, and stolen from those who trusted him. His conscience had become a relentless tormentor, and he had heard rumors of the house's power to grant redemption.

With trembling hands, Samuel pushed open the creaking door and entered the mansion. The air inside was thick with a sense of foreboding, and the walls seemed to whisper his sins. He ventured deeper into the darkness, guided only by the dim light of his lantern.

As he explored the mansion, Samuel encountered a series of rooms, each more haunting than the last. In the first, he saw a ghostly vision of his past self, innocent and full of promise, before he had fallen into darkness.

In another room, the reflection in the glass forced him to relive the things he had done wrong.  Ghoulishly, he saw himself, who, though he had every chance not to, went ahead with his misdeeds – over and over without end.

But it was the next room that would test his resolve the most. In that room, there was a single, ornate mirror that seemed to radiate an eerie glow. Samuel approached it hesitantly, and as he gazed into the mirror, he was confronted with the full extent of his sins. He saw the pain he had caused, the trust he had shattered, and the lives he had ruined.

Overwhelmed with guilt and despair, Samuel fell to his knees and wept. He begged for forgiveness, but the house did not grant him absolution.  No deity or supernatural force gave him a reprieve.  He could not even find forgiveness in himself.  Not yet. 

He looked up at the mirror in front of him again.  It showed him… nothing.  Running, he made his way back through all the rooms he had passed.  In none did the mirrors show him anything, not even his own reflection.  They were empty, as if waiting for something to finally fill them. 

Hours passed, and Samuel emerged from the House of Repentance a changed man. He knew that he could never erase the past, but he also understood the importance of doing teshuvah, of seeking forgiveness and making amends. With newfound determination, he set out to right his wrongs, to mend broken relationships, and to live a life of integrity. 

Only then, though Samuel saw it not, did pictures of the healed people, relationships, and world that he had created shimmer into existence.  Only then, after earning the forgiveness from others, did he finally feel it from God, and from himself, as well. 

The House of Repentance remained standing, a somber reminder of the power of self-reflection and the importance of doing teshuvah. It was a place where the weight of one's sins could be felt, and where the path to redemption began with a long, hard look in the mirror of one's own soul. Samuel's story served as a cautionary tale to all who passed by, a reminder that the darkness within could only be dispelled through genuine remorse and the sincere desire to change.

Friday, September 8, 2023

High Holiday Highlights: How Selichot Could be Good for Your Health


Why do we take the summers off?  Why do we like it to be dark earlier in the winter?  And why does the workday start at 9am and last for eight hours?  We might take these divisions of time for granted, but it wasn’t always the case.

This Saturday evening, we observe Selichot, the addition of penitential prayers to our morning routine for the High Holidays.  Traditionally, these prayers were offered at midnight Saturday-Sunday and then said before shacharit (morning services) for the rest of the season. 

Our service starts Saturday night with minchah at 6:55, maariv and Havdalah at 7:55, snacks and speaker – Jessica Lemons the executive director of Stony Brook Hillel, and then, at approximately 9pm, our Selichot service.  It’s hard to stay up all the way until midnight! 

However, before electrical lighting and the Industrial Revolution, peoples’ sleeping habits would have made the custom of a midnight Selichot far easier to observe.  This is because in pre-Modern times, people practiced “biphasic sleeping,” that is, sleeping in two shifts.  People would go to sleep at nightfall, wake up again around midnight, eat, read, etc., and then after about an hour, go back to sleep until the morning. 

Religious people, both Jews and non-Jews, would have used this time for prayer and even today, some Christian monks and Chasidic Jews continue to practice a version of this midnight prayer practice.

There are those who suggest we go back to the “Selichot Sleep Pattern” for health reasons. 

And there are spiritual lessons we can learn, too.  And these can be realized even if we don’t stay up late for them.  The traditional Selichot teaches us to be mindful of our time, to not take it for granted, to not put off that which can help ourselves and others. 

And there is one last, most important lesson.  When midnight Selichot was practiced during the period “between sleeps,” it was in sync with, conformed to, a healthy lifestyle.  Sure, perhaps you did not always spend your wakeful midnight hour praying, but you weren’t hurting your health or your sleep in doing so for Selichot. 

For a sleep-starved society like our own, this would certainly be a wise lesson to follow.  We would all perform better at all things with more sleep.  We do ourselves and others no favors by ignoring our health.  Selichot shows us that ignoring our health has spiritual and moral ramifications.  That is something echoed elsewhere in our High Holiday prayers, too – we will be more forgiving, more thoughtful, more careful, when rested.

May the year ahead be full of sweetness, health, and rest – physical and spiritual!

Friday, September 1, 2023

High Holiday Highlights: Havdalah and Rosh Hashanah


Havdalah and Rosh Hashanah.

Every Saturday night, we mark the distinction between Shabbat and the week with the first of these.  Shortly we celebrate the second with the coming of the New Year, 5784. 

These two rituals, seemingly distinct, hold profound connections that illuminate the depth and richness of our faith.

NSJC is making a connection between the two by making Havdalah our mitzvah of the year.  This initiative will bring the congregation together in person or together in spirit around this ritual. 

And we will begin on Erev Simchat Torah, Saturday night, October 7th, celebrate with us and receive a gift of a Havdalah set for you and your family to use in the year ahead.  After that, they will be available to pick up at the synagogue and as possible we will deliver them to those who live locally.   

There are also deeper, religious connections between the start of the New Year and the end of Shabbat. 

Havdalah marks the transition between the holiness of Shabbat and the regular days of the week. Through the symbolic use of a braided candle, wine, and spices, we bid farewell to the tranquility of Shabbat and embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Rosh Hashanah stands as a time of reflection, repentance, and renewal. During this period, we look back at the previous year, examining our actions and seeking forgiveness.  Yet we also look forward, recommitting ourselves to living aligned with our values and the teachings of our tradition.

In Havdalah, as we extinguish the braided candle's flame, we are reminded of the light that Shabbat brought into our lives. This light represents not only physical illumination but also the spiritual enlightenment and warmth that comes from dedicating time to connect with our faith, our loved ones, and ourselves. Similarly, Rosh Hashanah serves as a beacon of light, guiding us towards introspection and self-improvement.

The traditional sweet kosher wine shared during Havdalah signifies celebration and joy, reminding us of the blessings that accompany the conclusion of Shabbat. Likewise, as we dip apples in honey, Rosh Hashanah calls us to rejoice in the gift of a new year, to celebrate life's potential, and to express gratitude for the opportunities that lie ahead.

Spices, an essential part of Havdalah, remind us of the fragrant spices used to revive our senses as the sweetness of Shabbat departs. In a similar vein, the High Holiday season, which starts with Rosh Hashanah, concludes with Sukkot when we enjoy the scents of the etrog and the myrtle in the lulav bouquet, and the smells of autumn that surround us while we sit in our sukkot. Thus, the New Year holidays also awaken our spiritual senses, reinvigorating our connection with God, and recommitting us to living with purpose and mindfulness.

The connection between Havdalah and Rosh Hashanah runs deeper than mere coincidence. Both observances guide us through transitions – from the sacred to the ordinary, and from one year to the next. They inspire us to reflect, renew, and rekindle the flame of our faith. As we gather around the Havdalah table every week and prepare to welcome the High Holy Days, may we carry the lessons of these observances with us, guiding our journey towards growth, renewal, and a deeper connection with our Creator.

Just as the braided candle, wine, and spices of Havdalah guide us through the conclusion of Shabbat, let the themes of reflection, repentance, and renewal of Rosh Hashanah guide us through the beginning of a new year. Let us take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to living a life of love, compassion, and justice, and may the blessings of both Havdalah and Rosh Hashanah shine upon us and our community.

For more information about Havdalah take a look at “Exploring Judaism,” a new website created by the Conservative Movement:  Exploring Judaism Havdalah

Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year – may each of its weeks be a Shavua Tov, a good one!

Rabbi Aaron Benson


Thursday, August 24, 2023

High Holiday Highlights: Praying for Healing

High Holiday Highlights: Praying for Healing

At no time as on the High Holidays do I feel the power of prayer. Chanting Avinu Malkeinu, hearing Kol Nidrei, I am moved. That prayer matters, that it works, that it changes me and the world, that it connects to God; it comforts me and inspires me for the year ahead.

Perhaps most of all, prayer fills me at the Unetaneh Tokef, when we acknowledge that whatever our fate for the year, teshuvah, repairing relationships, tzedakah, giving charity, and tefillah, prayer, will provide purpose, strength and comfort, for us and those around us.

Which brings me to the Mi Shebeirach, the Prayer for Healing. Mentioning the names of those in need of healing, we say this prayer every Shabbat. It is solemn and yet hope filled. It is long and urgent. Most of all, it feels real. And that is because it is.

Does it heal the one who is ill? In some ways I know it does, in others I'm not sure though but I also wouldn't say no.

Does it reach to God? Again, I believe it does. And while I don't believe that "praying hard enough" all of a sudden flicks a switch and God does what we want, yet God is certainly brought into the experience through reciting the prayer.

Most certainly, the prayer expresses of our love and communal concern for all those named.

For those reasons, we should want to know who to include, for how long, and when or if to cease praying for someone:

  • Who is "sick"? I firmly believe if a person would benefit from the prayer we say it for them. The prayer, after all, is for nefesh, "spirit" as well as guf, "body." That said, the Rabbis define a person who "cannot get up from bed," whose condition signifcantly prevents them from functioning in their usual way as being in need of such a prayer.
  • Has the person given permission to include them? If not, we should not, and instead pray in our hearts for such people.
  • What of the chronically ill person? Again, if a person would benefit from being prayed for, we should leave them on the list. Otherwise, a person who is at their "baseline" of health, say the person on medication successfully managing an ongoing condition, might not really need the prayer. We should act with dignity for all people "as they are" and show graditude for the health they now enjoy.
  • Finally, a practical consideration. The list can get long and at the same time the thought of removing a name that should remain is uncomfortable. Thus, nearly every community strikes a balance by setting a time period after which the list is revised with those for whom there has been no update as to their condition removed.

Starting this Rosh Hashanah, every three months we will begin managing our list in this way. If you want to keep someone on the list, contact the synagogue and tell us, otherwise we will take names off. We will always add a name if you give us one. Still, I suggest you consider these guidlines when adding a name. You can always pray in your heart for someone without adding them to the communal list.

Let us as individuals and as a congregation treat all people, whether healthy or ill, with dignity. Let God give us resolve and determination to meet the challenges and enjoy the blessings of the year ahead, doing so through the actions of our hands and the prayers of our hearts.

L'shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Benson

For an even more detailed consideration of this issue, click here.

Additional High Holiday Highlights will be released weekly through Sukkot.