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COVID-19 and Teshuvah (RH1 5781)

RH1 Sermons from Shomrei Torah on Vimeo.

I have to say that this is the strangest Rosh Hashanah I have ever experienced and I suspect that is true for many, if not most of us. Typically, I look out on Rosh Hashanah and see hundreds of people here at this annual religious gathering. But not this year, I am looking at a mostly empty sanctuary, at cameras and a large monitor, all from behind my Plexiglass shield; and you are at home participating in our service from the screen of your devise.  And yet, it is nonetheless Rosh Hashanah, another year has closed and new one has begun. I certainly hope that 5781 is a better year than 5780 was. In spite of the strangeness and the modifications, the annual theme of the High Holy Days remains the same – Teshuvah/Repentance.  

Each year on Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge that we have fallen short of our goals, express remorse, set new goals and strive to do better. So, if we find ourselves in the same place each year why do we continue on this merry go round? Because if we do it well, we are not in the same place as we were a year ago. We have grown and changed, but because we are human we have still fallen short of our idealized vision of what we imagine we could be.  Our best selves remain elusively out of grasp and can continue to be a goal towards which we strive.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that conversations regarding Jewish holidays plays a large role in our family.  My mother-in-law was telling me about the wonderful resources put out by the Hadar Institute on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They had an interesting piece on teshuvah in which Rabbi Ethan Tucker points out that the most famous compilation on repentance, from the great rabbi and scholar Maimonides, actually consists of two incompatible parts. The Rambam states in his Laws of Repentance:  What is complete teshuvah? When a person again confronts a sin they committed, is capable of doing it again, but nonetheless refrains from doing so in order to repent, not simply because they are afraid of the consequences or too weak to carry out the act. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1)

The Rambam, another name for Maimonides, basis this on a passage in the Talmud:  What is a ba’al teshuvah—a penitent? Said Rav Yehudah: A case where a person encounters a sin for a second time and is spared. (BT Yoma 86b) In other words we know that we have repented when we find ourselves in the same situation, but we make a different choice. If find myself thinking about people recovering from an addiction, their challenge is to live their lives in a way that they don’t give in to their temptation again.

However, in that same passage, Maimonides also writes, but if a person only repented in old age, thus lacking the power to do what they would have done at an earlier point in life, this is not ideal teshuvah but it nonetheless counts and such a person is considered a ba’al teshuvah—a penitent person. Even if a person was a sinner their whole life and then repented on the day of death and died in a state of teshuvah, all sins are forgiven…

This is also based upon an earlier rabbinic text which teaches, R. Shimon says... If a person was wicked his whole life and then did teshuvah at the end, God accepts him, as it says, “The wickedness of the wicked will not trip him up on the day when he turns back from his wickedness” (Ezekiel 33:12). [Tosefta Kiddushin 1:15-16]

Rabbi Shimon is positing that teshuvah is an internal process and that it can be done at any point in life. While Rav Yehudah teaches that teshuvah is action driven and has to be done at a time when sinning is possible. Maimonides could have picked one of these as the model for teshuvah, but instead he tries to create a synthesis.  I know people for whom doing the personal work of repentance is challenging and yet real; while I also know others, who feel that if there is not some sort of action taken, it is not really teshuvah. Maimonides makes it clear that actions showing repentance is the ideal, but acknowledges that something is better than nothing.  

Our tradition is forgiving, which for us as sinners on this day of judgement is a good thing. Most of us do not think of Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, but that is what the rabbis called it. They say that on this day, everyone is judged by the Almighty.  There are some of us who judge ourselves harshly and tend to judge others, focusing on their failings and shortcomings.  But as I said, our tradition is one of forgiveness – we should not judge ourselves too harshly and certainly we should not judge others harshly. We can never know with certainty what motivates someone to act as they do. The rabbis teach that we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

My father-in-law, was talking to me about how the Conservative Movement responded to the pandemic could be useful in a Rosh Hashanah sermon.  I agree, I think that being able to forgive is enhanced if one has a sense of flexibility in life, understanding that often there is not just one right answer, but multiple paths that can be followed and when someone chooses a different path from our own, it does not make it wrong or bad, just different. Conservative Judaism teaches this path, in most situations there is not a single Conservative answer, but often a range of legitimate Conservative Movement responses.  

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the movement at its best as we responded religiously to an unprecedented situation. First, you should know that the way our movement responds to religious questions is that people ask questions of their rabbis. If we are not sure, we ask our own teachers, when they don’t have an answer either, we can submit our question to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). The chair can give us an answer or it can be assigned to a committee member to research and write a Teshuvah, a religious position paper. It is a long and arduous process to get a teshuvah approved. It is not unusual for our movement to approve two position papers that are in conflict with one another, thereby reflecting the diversity of our movement, recognizing that some congregations do things one way and other communities do things differently and both are legitimate.

When the pandemic hit there were many questions that needed quick answers that the normal process could not accommodate, so to respond to the needs of the hour, the CJLS found an alternative process – members were invited to write responses to queries that were then vetted by the chair and co-chair and then published on the website with a disclaimer that this letter is not an approved position of the CJLS, just guidance. They produced a letter approving a virtual minyan over zoom which we implemented, but other synagogues did not. They produced a letter permitting zoom on Shabbat which we also implemented and others did not. They provided guidance on how to abbreviate the High Holy Day services and each rabbi applied it in a way that made sense for their community.  However, everyone took as their base position that protecting life supersedes all other considerations, there were just different responses as to how that best could be done.

Our Movements ability to change can and should inspire each of us to realize that we too can change that teshuvah is always possible. Life is not static, change is a constant. Our job is to change thoughtfully, not randomly. Our goal is to strive to do better, to be better. So, as you are invited to do each year, engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, Soul Searching, examine the life that you live and contemplate how you can change it. It is important to remember that in our tradition a sin is simply missing the mark, the Hebrew word for sin is the same one used in archery when missing the target. We have a goal for which we aim and being human fall short of our expectations, and so we stop to take stock, reset our aim and try to do better. Doing teshuvah is a choice that we make, we can let these Ten Days of Repentance, the Aseret Yemei T’shuvah, pass not doing any personal work and be the same person were before the holidays began or we can make a commitment to ourselves, to God, to the community, to do more, to do better, to change – that is the essence of teshuvah. Your future is in your hands, don’t waste the opportunity.

Wishing you a Good Year, a productive year, a year of growth and change and most especially, a Year of Health – Shanah Tovah!


Israel/Corona (RH2 5781)

RH2 Sermons from Shomrei Torah on Vimeo.

I think it is important to talk about Israel each year during the High Holy Days. It is critical that we acknowledge the central role that Israel plays in the life of American Judaism and I hope in your Jewish identity as well. I would not be the person that I am today if not for the time I have spent in Israel. We are a diverse community, so I would expect there to be those out there today who are happy with everything Israel is doing right now, and others who are very unhappy with Israel. Either way, I hope that you love Israel for what she is and what she represents to the world Jewish community.  

Earlier this month Daniel Gordis had an article in The Times of Israel where he pointed out that the way we teach about Israel in the Diaspora is by talking about the various wars she has fought and the about the hostilities with the Palestinians.  Israel is so much more than just that and what a negative perception one gets when only talking about conflict. Israel has a Declaration of Independence that lays out some of the basic beliefs and aspirations of the founders. Have we taught you enough about Zionism to discuss the differences between Herzl’s Political Zionism, Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism and Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism? Truth is that for all the time we give to Israel education, we have not been doing a very good job of it.

Israel is complicated, it is no accident that the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative of what happened in 1948 are different. They cannot even agree on the facts of what happened. We need to be teaching both narratives. We need our students to understand why they will encounter hostility for being Zionists when they go to college and how to respond. And we want them to understand that in spite of everything, being a Zionist is a good thing!

Coming to the present, I think the accords signed last week between Israel and two Arab Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, are historic. I don’t think that it is a peace deal since neither country has ever been at war with Israel. And it did nothing to further peace in the Middle East.  However, in terms of normalization of ties with Arab neighbors, it is the first time in 25 years that any Arab state has been willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and agreed to joint economic ties. So, yes, I think it is a big deal and something we should celebrate!

At the same time we have to acknowledge that it did nothing to help resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, but that was not a goal of the accords.  Rather I think it was a statement by Arab states signaling to the Palestinians that they are tired of their intransience and that joining with Israel to develop technology and to oppose Iran is more important to them than standing together with the Palestinians in their fight against Israel. Israel was once isolated in the Middle East, as they make more friends, perhaps the Palestinians will realize that the whole region does not hate Israel. Certainly, the firing of missiles from Gaza during the signing ceremony, indicates that that this step by other Arabs will not bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table, rather they are demonstrating their displeasure.

I believe that we must be thankful for this new development and at the same time, continue to hope and pray that Israel and the Palestinians find a way to end the ongoing conflict as the status que is not an acceptable solution.

In the midst of all this, Israel has been hard hit by the coronavirus.  The only flights that have been going into Israel have been with gap year students. Nativ, the Conservative Movement gap year program, as well as yeshivot throughout the country are at maximum capacity, but everyone is following the protocols, all students had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival and now will be staying put over the holidays. As Israel is the first country to enact a second lockdown which started just before Rosh Hashanah and it will continue throughout the Chagim. The goal is to prevent Israelis from gathering with family and friends over the holidays thereby spreading the virus.

I’d like to share with you a wonderful coronavirus story that I learned about from an AIPAC publication that gives me hope that perhaps someday things in Israel can be different.  In the midst of the first wave of the coronavirus, Israeli society did not hesitate to quickly take action. Israel set up “corona hotels” for people who had tested positive for the disease and could not go back to their homes without potentially infecting other people. In Jerusalem it was at the Dan Hotel.  At the start, the manager of the hotel was asking people about their backgrounds to understand who to pair together as roommates: Orthodox Jews with other Orthodox Jews, secular Jews with other secular Jews, and Arabs with other Arabs.

The first day in the corona hotel looked as one might expect: people ate their meals and generally spent time with people from their own “group.” But one day, a young Muslim woman, Aysha Abu Shhab, noticed this and decided to break the trend: she sat with Amram and Gina Maman, visibly observant Israeli Jews. In an interview she later said, “they were laughing all the time, so I chose them.”

Over the next few days, the group at the corona hotel started bonding and crossing barriers. Aysha, a Muslim Bedouin woman, helped an Orthodox Jew while he was having an asthma attack (paramedics were not able to access him easily as they spent several minutes putting on protective gear). She wondered afterward whether she was allowed to touch him, causing her to ask her new friends about Jewish customs and laws in a way that she never had before. An Israeli couple provided a young Bedouin woman with some life advice and counseling as she was contemplating her next steps and wondering whether or not she wanted to study to become a nurse. Both admitted that they previously had limited interactions with a person of the other group until that moment, and it opened their eyes up respectively to Jewish and Bedouin culture.

Noam Shuster-Eliassi, an Israeli comedian who was there as well, performed a stand-up comedy show in both Arabic and Hebrew, surprising the audience and poking fun at both societies along the way. A few days into her time at the corona hotel, she said, “Where’s all the problems? Where’s all the prejudice? Everybody’s getting along here in this hotel. What is happening here?” Life in the Jerusalem corona hotel provided an escape, in which people were treating each other with compassion as if they were from the same group, going above and beyond in maintaining health and sanity during their time together.

The ultimate test for the corona hotel came on Passover, as the guests prepared for a seder. The hotel had divided the group into two seders: one for the Orthodox Jews and one for everyone else. The comedian Noam said, “It reminded me of the world that I’m used to before the coronavirus. It reminded me of our default—that we prefer separation rather than the compromise that comes with uniting.” Then, together, the Orthodox community removed the barrier and all 180 guests sat together for a seder evening together: Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, bonded by the shared experience of being in the corona hotel.

I don’t know about you, but I find that story inspiring. It reinforces for me that we tend to distrust and to dislike that is which is unfamiliar. When we get to know someone who is “other” in a real and personal way, we discover that we have more in common than that which divides us. It is a lesson that we here in America desperately need.  Civil discourse has disappeared in American life – people are pro-Trump or anti-Trump, supporters of Black Lives Matter or opponents, and there are people who want to defund and others who defend police departments. Even how we respond to the coronavirus is influenced by our politics. These issues are not going away anytime soon, but they don’t have to define our lives or divide us. We can engage one another about teshuvah, about this Rosh Hashanah physically separated from family and fellow congregants, we can learn Torah and live Judaism as members of one unified Kehilah Kedosha, Sacred Community, because that is what we are – we are a sacred community. We need to care for each other and support each other regardless of politics and beliefs. And we need to take our love and cooperation beyond just Shomrei Torah to show the world that people with differences can be united. We are one – Am Yisrael Chai!

Shanah Tovah


Ruth Bader Ginsburg (KN 5781)

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Stigma (RH1 5779)

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Israel (RH2 5779)

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Israel (RH2 5778)

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Sun, October 24 2021 18 Cheshvan 5782