Yom Kippur 5773 Sermon – American Jews and Israel: What We Need To Say And Do To Secure Our Jewish State

Before I begin, I need to let you know that while I want to talk about Israel today, the political climate makes this extremely difficult for me to do.  Israel has become so politicized and this politicalization has created an awful rift within the Jewish community.  And this is wrong.  The love for Israel that so many of us share is not determined by our political affiliation but upon our faith, heritage and history – things that transcend politics.  But, the upcoming election has made it virtually impossible to talk about our Jewish homeland without ruffling feathers.  Every year, during the High Holidays, I talk about Israel.  But, this year, I came very close to being silent about the Jewish State.  But, I realized that if an American rabbi can’t stand on his bimah on the holiest day of the year and talk about Israel – something is truly broken.  I realized that if an American rabbi can’t express his support for the Jewish State on the same day that the President of Iran steps before the podium of the United Nations in New York City and threatens the Jewish State’s very existence – something is truly broken.  And I don’t believe we are that broken.  And I don’t believe that we Jews should be silent about our love for Israel – ever.  So, yes, I am going to talk about Israel today.  I am NOT going to talk about what the candidates have to say about Israel.  I certainly am NOT going to talk about who to vote for.  Today, I want to talk about how and why American-Jews need to talk about Israel.  This sermon today is not a feel good sermon.  It is not a sermon about spirituality.  It is a call to action – a plea that we, as a Jewish community – united by Israel and her safety, speak and act in ways which insure that G-d’s sukkat shalom – sukkah of peace – surrounds Israel, the United States and the entire world.  I know it sounds like a huge task.  But, I believe that we are up for it.

With this as an introduction, I want to remind you that at the end of the Book of Genesis, when the Israelites moved down to Egypt from Israel – they thrived.  Joseph, the son of our patriarch Jacob, rose to power in Pharaoh’s administration and all was good.  Egypt was a great place for the Israelites.  They were comfortable, successful and, most importantly, safe.  But, eventually, the tide would turn.  Joseph would die.  The political landscape would change and at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Torah tells us that “a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  And with this new Pharaoh – Egypt became a dark place for our ancestors.  They were enslaved by Pharaoh – stripped of their freedom, rights and dignity.  Had it not been for the courage of Moses, the Israelite people might very well have died off, giving their last ounce of blood, sweat and tears to build Pharaoh’s empire.

The story of our ancestor’s demise in Egypt is one that repeats itself over and over again throughout our history.  As a small group of people often living under the control of others, we have frequently found our situation change dramatically as a result of political turnover or turmoil.  Whether it was while living under the rule of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks or the Romans, our biblical ancestors knew the uncertainty associated with living under leaders who did not consider the concerns of the Jewish people to be a priority.  This uncertainty would continue for centuries as Jews found themselves exiled from the land of Israel and rebuilding lives all over the globe.  At times Jews prospered in foreign lands, living under friendly rulers.  But too often, history shows us how these friendly rulers were replaced by others who either did nothing to protect the Jews or, worse, worked to annihilate them.  We simply need to look back just a few generations to the Jews of Europe – who, at times, prospered but were virtually wiped off the map with the rise of Hitler.

With the screams of the Holocaust still echoing across the globe, the establishment of the modern State of Israel was so very important to us because it was a place where we could be in control of our own destiny – no longer living in fear and waiting for the “new Pharaoh” to rise to power who did not “know us”.  With the rebirth of Israel in 1948, there was no longer any uncertainty about the Jewish tomorrow – because Israel promised and still promises a Jewish tomorrow – and, even better, a Jewish next year.  And for almost 65 years, American Jews have worked tirelessly to insure that Israel will be around, strong and secure, forever.

As American Jews, we are blessed to live in a country that has for years, welcomed us, blessed us, protected us – and let us grow and prosper as a powerful albeit tiny minority – making up just 2% of this great nation.  Without a doubt, Jews in America are safe, secure and prosperous.  We are lucky to be able to call America our home.  And we are lucky to be able to take part in a political process that gives us – a tiny minority – a say – and a pretty powerful say.

I experienced the power of the collective Jewish voice earlier this year when I attended AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC in March.  AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee)  is the largest pro-Israel lobbying group.  President Obama was a speaker at the conference.  Governor Romney also spoke.  Most major American political leaders played a role.  50% of Congress attended the conference along with 15,000 pro-Israel delegates who worked the halls of the Capital – lobbying for Israel and having a tremendous impact.

Thanks to the efforts of pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC, our government has taken important steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon – and, thus, threatening the very existence of Israel, the stability of the entire Middle East and the security of the world.  Just this summer, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2012 (H.R. 1905), which enshrined in law that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and sharply tightened the enforcement of existing sanctions law. The House passed the measure by a vote of 421-6, while the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent and President Obama signed it into law just last month.

Things sure have changed dramatically since some 400 rabbis marched on Washington just 69 years ago, on October 6, 1943.  These rabbis were marching in support of American and Allied action to stop the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust.  In 1943, President Roosevelt refused to meet with the rabbis as they walked up to the White House.   The President slipped out of the White House via a rear door.  Today, our American Jewish voice is powerful.  As Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in a recent article, “Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people.” We might make up only 2% of this great country – but we have the support of many national leaders on both sides of the aisle.

And this is a blessing.

Since her rebirth in 1948, Israel has had a rough time.  But today, the Jewish State, which continues to struggle with her Palestinian neighbors, is facing unprecedented threats from Iran and her nuclear ambitions, from an unstable Syria, from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, from a strained relationship with Turkey, from Hamas terrorists who continue to launch missiles into Israel, from Hezbollah militants who are heavily funded and supported by Iran and from a powerful international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State.  Now, more than ever, Israel needs America and the support of the American Jewish community.  Because now, more than ever, Israel’s security is being threatened and with it, the certainty of a Jewish tomorrow in our Jewish State.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney are spending a great deal of time and money explaining their pro-Israel positions.  It is great that both men running for President have Israel on their radar screen.  But, come January, Israel will be just one of countless other important issues that the winner of November’s election will have to deal with.  While many of us in the Jewish, pro-Israel community will work to insure that Israel’s security continues to be a priority for the President come January – we have to appreciate the fact that the vast majority of Americans will be looking to whoever is our President next year to put jobs and the economy on the top of his to-do list.  Surveys of the American electorate suggest that other issues like heath care and illegal immigration also have to be on the President’s to-do list.  These same surveys suggest that the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t even consider Israel’s security to be something for the President to put on his to-do list – not because these Americans are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic – but simply because Israel is not on their radar screens.  For those of us living in a large Jewish community like South Florida, this is sometimes hard for us to understand. While I love the fact that today, we Jews don’t consider ourselves to be a “tiptoeing people”, we need to get our heads around the reality that what’s important to us is not always what is important to the rest of the country.

Based upon our tiny size and the fact that Jews, for the most part, tend to live in certain parts of the country, more and more, members of Congress increasingly live where the Jewish community does not and the Jewish community lives where there are fewer and fewer members of Congress.

  • For example, North Carolina, with a Jewish population of 30,000, has more members of Congress than New Jersey with a Jewish population of 500,000.
  • The State of Washington has a Jewish population of 45,000 and more congressional districts than Massachusetts with a Jewish population of 280,000.
  • 40% of the Jewish population in America currently lives in the northeast, an area that contains only 19% of the general population.

During these challenging economic times, Congressmen who are not representing a Jewish community like our own – which is the vast majority of Congressmen – are, understandably, much more likely to put Israel’s security on the bottom of the list of national priorities.

We have been blessed by the fact that Congress has been very receptive to pro-Israel lobbying groups and incredibly supportive of Israel.  This Congress “knows Israel” and “knows” how important it is for the United States to insure her safety.  But, Congress will be transformed by the November elections.  33 Senate seats and all 435 Congressional seats are up for grabs.  We already know that, because of redistricting and other factors unrelated to the results of the November election, there will be at least 71 new members of Congress in 2013 – 11 Senators and 60 members of the House – insuring that next year’s Congress will be comprised of one the largest freshman classes in Congressional history.

There will be a lot of newbies in Washington who the President will have to work with come 2013.  These newbies will play an important role in setting the national agenda.  As is typical with new Congressman, many of these new leaders will begin their Congressional careers with little or no background in foreign affairs.  Many of them will not “know Israel” and will, therefore, have little understanding of the important US-Israel relationship.  These Congressmen will, however, begin their careers with a clear and important message from their constituencies: get us jobs!   Spending American resources to secure Israel and stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb won’t necessarily be a national priority come 2013 – despite the pro-Israel positions of the people we will vote for in November.

If we want to do our part to help insure the safety and security of Israel AND remain a people who don’t tiptoe around – we have to live the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent!” If we, American Jews, can’t live by these words, who will?  Goodness knows there are a lot of important causes out there – and lots of people fighting for these causes.  We need more people to break their silence when it comes to Israel.  We need more pro-Israel voices.  We need Israel activists who will speak up for the Jewish State.

As this new Jewish year begins and many of us are looking to renew our connection to Judaism, I am asking you to become a pro-Israel activist.  I am asking you to educate yourself about Israel and use what you learn to insure that Israel’s wellbeing remains in the spotlight and on the radar screens of all of our elected officials. You can help to make certain that our leaders in Washington, old and new, “know Israel”.  You can support pro-Israel lobbying groups that work with our national leaders, take them to Israel and teach them about the Jewish State, her security concerns and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.  You can come with me to Washington in March and become a pro-Israel lobbyist, meeting face to face with members of Congress urging members on both sides of the aisle to insure the safety and security of Israel.

Closer to home, each of you can talk to your friends and neighbors about Israel.  They need to understand that our passion to insure Israel’s security should be their passion as well!  After all, the biggest threat facing Israel today – mainly Iran and her nuclear ambitions – is a tremendous threat to the United States.

We need to remind people here that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror – backing insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who are responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers.  This year alone, Iran has sponsored terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, including a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, D.C., failed attempts to kill diplomats in India, Thailand, Georgia and Kenya.  Iran is behind the horrific events in Syria and is feeding the frenzy associated with the murder of our Ambassador and others in Libya.

We have to remind our friends and neighbors that in addition to calling for the annihilation of Israel, Iran has called for a world without the United States.  A nuclear Iran would be able to provide nuclear materials and knowledge to its allies in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia – bringing the threat of nuclear terror extremely close to our shores.

We have to remind our fellow Americans that the prospect of a nuclear Iran would directly affect the price of oil.  Iran would be able to manipulate the cost of oil by coercing other oil-exporting nations to reduce their crude production.  A nuclear Iran could easily dominate OPEC – which controls 75% of the world’s conventional oil reserves – causing the global price of oil to skyrocket and force us to pay more for gas, groceries and other consumer goods.

But, more important than all of these facts are our beliefs and feelings.  As a pro-Israel activist, I don’t hesitate to tell people that I believe the world is better because of Israel.  And I also don’t hesitate to tell them that I fear a world that could witness her destruction.  And when someone responds to this by saying “well, that could never happen” – I don’t hesitate to say, “you don’t know your Jewish history”.  The tide can turn.  And then what?

As some of you know, when it comes to Israel, my greatest fear is not that Iran will get the bomb.  I have faith in Israel and her leaders.  Israel will not allow the six million Jews and two million non-Jews who call Israel home to be wiped off the face of the earth by Iran.  Israel will take action when and if she feels the threat is there.  What I truly fear is the morning after.  The morning after Israel attacks Iran – waking up to the news.  Waiting for the backlash – from the international community, from, perhaps, our own leaders who don’t understand the dangers of Iran, from our friends and neighbors.  I fear that this “morning after” is getting closer and closer.  It might, Gd forbid, be tomorrow.  And we are not yet ready for this sunrise. There are too many people out there who do not understand – too many people who won’t want to get involved because it costs too much, because it is too dangerous, because we here in the U.S. have enough on our plate.  Too many people who will accuse Israel rather than noting that she not only saved herself, but the entire world.

We – the American Jewish community – can prevent this “morning after” from being a nightmare for Israel and the global Jewish community by doing our part to right now to garner support for the Jewish State.  Perhaps, we can even prevent this “morning after” from happening in the first place by thanking our politicians for all they have done so far to stop Iran – but urging them to increase sanctions and do more to totally isolate Iran and her leaders.  I do believe we can do great things if we pledge to speak up as 5773 begins and insure that as many people as possible “know” about Israel.

By speaking up for Israel– what we are doing according to the Senator Jonny Isakson, the Senator from Georgia – is telling our story.  Telling the story of our heritage and the future of our children and grandchildren.  By speaking up, we’re telling the story that is the great miracle of Israel.  And this telling of the story is, according to the Senator, what it takes for our two countries to commit to a future for Israel that is safe and secure and at peace.

By speaking up for Israel – what we are doing according to former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey is being an American.  The Senator reminds us that at one point in America, there was only one abolitionist who said slavery was wrong.  There was only one suffragette who said women need the right to vote.  There was only one civil rights worker who said we have to perfect the American promise for African-Americans.  And there was only one environmentalist who said we’ve got to clean up our air and water.  And then there where two and then there were four and there were five…And if we lose sight of that, the Senator says, we don’t see the strength of America.

As American Jews, we owe it to ourselves, to our Jewish community, to our country, to Israel and the world to stand up for our story – for the State of Israel.  In doing so, we will do our part to insure that the words we will chant at the end of our service tonight – “Next Year In Jerusalem” – can be recited with pride by our grandchildren and their grandchildren in a peaceful world that contains a vibrant and beautiful State of Israel.

Kol Nidrei 5773: Listening For Your Bat Kol – What I Have Learned From My Daughter and Her Juvenile Arthritis

While we Jews don’t believe that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day – Friday, January 13th, 2012 was one of the worst days of my life.  It was on this day that Cheryl and I learned that Abigail has JIA – Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis – Arthritis found in children that has no distinct cause.  It is probably an autoimmune disease.  Fortunately, many children grow out of it and we hope this will be the case for Abigail.

For several weeks leading up to January 13th, Abigail’s right wrist was swollen.  She couldn’t move it.  We thought the problem was related to a fall she had at Universal Studios last Thanksgiving.  But, x-rays showed no brake.  There were no torn tendons or ligaments.  An MRI, however, showed swelling of the joint and damage to the cartilage – telltale signs of arthritis.  We were sent to one of the few pediatric rheumatologists in Florida – but had to wait three weeks for an appointment.

During those three weeks, I did what I tell many of you not to do – I went on-line and googled “arthritis and children” and I was bombarded with website after website of confusing, frightening and conflicting information – all of it a parent’s worst nightmare.  But, as we did not yet have a definite diagnosis from a pediatric rheumatologist, I prayed to G-d that this nightmare would not be mine.  On Friday, January 13th, as I sat in an exam room in Delray Beach with Abigail – who at this point was fed up with being x-rayed and used as a pin cushion – I learned that my prayers were not answered.  The pediatric rheumatologist confirmed that Abigail had JIA – my nightmare was now a reality.

Within minutes of the diagnosis the doctor was explaining that the damage to Abigail’s wrist was severe.  Her cartilage had eroded which meant that the arthritis had been there for some time, which was shocking to us.  How had we missed it?  How had it not bothered Abigail!?  There was a risk of permanent damage to her right wrist that could result in permanent lack of movement.  I was being flooded with information that I did not want to hear.  I was feeling overwhelmed and it got worse.  The left wrist was affected too.  My mind flashed to some of the information I read on the internet – something about the severity of JIA often being linked to how many joints were affected.  Before I could ask about this, the doctor gave me the first good news of the day – no other joints, at this point, were affected.

I breathed.  But my moment of calm was shattered when the doctor started to talk about the aggressive course of treatment we needed to pursue immediately – to prevent permanent damage to Abigail’s wrists.  The medicine he talked about – pills used to fight cancer, bi-weekly injections that we would have to give at home, side affects that I still don’t want to think about.  It was all too much.  I went on automatic pilot – all the while my insides were breaking.  I had never been so frightened, so angry, so upset, so confused.  My mind was on overdrive – filled with questions, fears and the nightmares.

Cheryl wasn’t with us.  I had her on the phone.  She was hysterical.  I had to be strong for her and, of course, for Abigail – who all the while was playing on her iTouch – wonderfully oblivious to what had just happened.

I remember agreeing to begin the treatment protocol and the next thing I knew, Abigail was taken for yet another x-ray.  This made her angry.  But not as angry as when she returned and learned that she would be getting a shot – her first of many shots that would hopefully bring her arthritis under control.  In the moments before the nurse administered the shot, I remember asking myself – am I doing the right thing?  Am I protecting my child?  Am I going to make it worse?  I had never felt so helpless and out of control.

The car ride home from Delray Beach was spent beginning a long argument with my insurance company over filling and paying for the injections that would need to be given immediately.  Initially, I was told I had to pay $5,000/month for the injections.  Fortunately, I have a big mouth and by using it to talk to the right people, I managed to get the cost reduced significantly.  But – before the prescription was filled, the insurance company had to get things approved by everyone and their brother.  As I drove down 95 on Friday the 13th, the red tape associated with the insurance company only added to the storm that was brewing in my head and in my heart.

When we got home, Cheryl and I had our own private meltdown together and then sat with Abigail to see if she had any thoughts, questions or concerns.   She was pretty calm.  Much better than her parents.  Annoyed by the bi-weekly injections – but okay.  What she didn’t know, but was about to learn from us was that, upon doctor’s orders, her favorite activity – Krav Maga – an Israeli form of karate and self defense – was about to come to an abrupt end.  The strain on her wrists was too much.  We gave her the bad news.

This is what it took to make reality set in for her.

The tears started.  As did the expected: “this isn’t fair” and “why me!” cries of a 10 year old.  While expected – this didn’t help me at all.  My kid’s body wasn’t working right and now her heart was broken.  Cheryl was in a cloud.  And I couldn’t do a thing to make it better.  While I wasn’t angry at G-d, I felt far away from G-d.  I had prayed with all my might that the nightmare unfolding before me would not happen – and it was…and it all felt very un-godly.  It felt un-holy.  It felt chaotic.

We were now just a few hours away from Shabbat and, for the first time in my professional life, I decided that I was simply not able to pull myself together to lead our community at Kabbalat Shabbat services.  I let the Cantor know I wouldn’t be coming.  The Jacobs family hunkered down and prepared for a dark Shabbat.

But, we were in for a surprise.  Unbeknownst to me, Abigail had grabbed some flyers at the doctor’s office that advertised an upcoming Broward County Arthritis Walk.  As we sat down for a Shabbat dinner that we somehow managed to pull together, Abigail put the flyers on the table and announced that she wanted to create a team for the Arthritis Walk and raise a lot of money to help find a cure for her disease.  Cheryl and I were stunned.  We were stuck somewhere between “your child has arthritis” and “you will have to inject her with medication twice a week,” but Abigail was planning to walk in an event that was 3 months away.  “We have to fight this stupid disease” she said.  “I am not going to let it stop me.”

The chaos in my head subsided just a bit as I processed what my 10 year old daughter was saying and read the flyer.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked  “You will have to let people know that you have arthritis and you will have to work hard to raise money.”

“Dad,” she looked at me. “I have nothing to be embarrassed about.  And I have no choice, I have to fight this and do what you and mom always tell me to do – make a difference.”

And, at that moment, on that Friday the 13th of January, on what should have been a very dark Shabbat, suddenly there was light.  There was clarity.  There was order in chaos.  Cheryl and I finally caught our breath.  We looked at each other and realized – we were okay.  Jonah added his voice to the conversation – “I want to be the captain of our Arthritis Walk Team!”

Before Gd reveals the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai, we are taught that there was fire, wind, thunder claps, lightning flashes, and a thick cloud of smoke upon the mountain.  The earth shook violently and the air was filled with the shrieking of a very powerful shofar blast.  As the Israelites took in this horrific scene, each of them shuddered.

I can totally relate to this shuddering.  This storm on Mount Sinai perfectly captures the chaotic storm raging in my head on January 13th.

Poor Moses!  He was expected to communicate with G-d in that storm – he was expected to receive the words of G-d – the Torah – the stories we still place at the center of our tradition – as the earth shook and the air filled with smoke and the shofar cried!

And Moses did just this.  The Torah explains that amid the chaos, Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.

We are taught exactly what this voice is in the First Book of Kings:

And behold, Gd passed by (on Mt. Sinai), and a great and strong wind rent the mountain, and broke the rocks in pieces…; but Gd was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake (hit Mt. Sinai); but Gd was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire (spread on the mountain); but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice (came from the mountain.  Gd was in this voice). (I Kings 19:11-12).

Despite the chaos, G-d communicated with Moses in the form of a still, small voice.  In Hebrew – this still, small voice is a bat kol – or literally – the daughter of the voice.  At Mt. Sinai, the bat kol rose above the noise, penetrated the smoke, pushed through the storm AND revealed the truth – the Torah – to Moses.

As Cheryl and I sat at our Shabbat table on January 13th and shuddered as we were surrounded by the overwhelming storm of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, a bat kol – a daughter of the voice -– our daughter, her voice – revealed to us the truth and spoke Godly words – “I have to fight this”.  And with these words – our bat kol brought peace, holiness and Gd back into focus for us and filled us with hope and determination.

Soon after that Shabbat dinner, Abigail created “Team Abby”, which walked and raised a lot of money for the Arthritis Foundation of Broward County.  She was featured as a top fundraiser for and supporter of the Arthritis Foundation and we are planning to do more fundraising for and education on Juvenile Arthritis.

We have been working closely with her doctor down here and with another pediatric rheumatologist in Chicago to fight Abigail’s arthritis.  Today, she is no longer taking any pills – just her bi-weekly injections and she has regained total use of her wrists.  The swelling is gone and, most importantly, Abigail has slowly begun to return to Krav Maga and just recently broke this board.  She is indeed a fighter.

But, more than that – she is a bat kol – a voice for Gd that in the darkest of moments can bring light to darkness.

I believe that each of us can be or are surrounded by these voices of Gd – people or even just moments that lift us higher – above the chaos.

Even though we are taught that on this the holiest of nights we stand right before Gd, Avinu Malkeinu – our Parent our Ruler – and ask over and over again for forgiveness, it is very easy to feel disconnected from Gd.  This is because, tonight, we are supposed to wrestle with the darkest parts of ourselves – trying desperately to grow and improve – and this can make us feel helpless and alone.  We need Gd tonight – but tonight, like on many other nights,  Gd is not so easy to feel, hear or experience.  Tonight, like many other nights, you might feel, as I did back in January, that your prayers to Gd are not answered.  Perhaps this is because all of the noise in your life has made it impossible to hear your bat kol,that still small voice that is there – calling out amid all the noise – giving you the inspiration you need to be better, move forward and go higher this year.  The Rabbis teach us that to this very day – that bat kol that spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai – issues forth – it speaks….the question is, does anyone hear it?  Tonight, a bat kol is speaking.  Do you hear it?

Several months after hearing the bat kol at our Shabbat dinner table, all four of us experienced it again.  This time, it came not in the form of spoken words – but written words.  On August 1st, we took the kids to Ground Zero to teach them about 9/11 and remember that dark day that still haunts so many of us.  I lost a family friend on September 11th, Dennis O’Connor Jr.  We planned to look for his name on the granite memorials that surround the pools marking the footprints of the towers.  We were also asked by dear friends who we met after moving down to South Florida in 2002 to look for their brother’s name, John “Pepe” Salerno who was also lost on September 11th.

Fortunately, with the help of maps, they have made it quite easy to find the names of the deceased despite the fact that there are more than 3,000 names and they are not alphabetized.

We were surprised to see from the map we received upon entering Ground Zero, that both Dennis and Pepe, who, as far as we know, did not know each other, were located not only in the same section – but on the same large slab of granite.  What we didn’t know until we got there and saw it ourselves was that Dennis and Pepe’s names were right next to each other.  What are the chances?  3,000, non-alphabetized names!

This was not chance.  This was not coincidence.  This was a bat kol.  Issuing forth from these two names etched in granite, this bat kol lifted Cheryl, me and the kids above the sadness and horrors associated with Ground Zero and gave us a tiny glimpse of the Divine.  The bat kol didn’t explain.  It simply was.  A godly message that literally brought some order to the chaos. A message that taught us that Dennis and Pepe were connected not just by our post 9/11 relationship with Pepe’s family, not just by words etched in granite – but by the awe-inspiring, incomprehensible power of Gd.

Tonight, if you are truly doing the work of these Days of Awe, you might very well be exhausted and overwhelmed by the challenges that lie ahead of you this year.  You might very well be in desperate need of a sign, a message, a call from Gd.  Tonight I want to tell you that what you are looking for is out there.  But your life is too noisy.  The storm in your head is too strong.  You can’t hear your bat kol.  Psalm 46 teaches us: “Be still and know that I am Gd.”  Tonight, try to be still – just for a moment. Breathe.  Try to quiet the noise, the storm – just for a moment.  Be still.

In that stillness – that brief moment of silence – you can hear the bat kol – shining a light, urging you forward, filling you with the hope that you so desperately need.  Please, use the next 24 hours to be still and know that the inspiration you hear and see and feel is, indeed, a bat kol, a Gdly voice urging you to move forward.

Three Special Rosh HaShanah Stories

I shared the following three stories on Erev Rosh HaShanah:

From the Depths of the Heart (Nachlei Binah p. 317 #632 Tehillim Ben Beiti, Rabbi Eliezer of Komarno)

One time a Jewish peasant boy came to the big town to celebrate Yom Kippur. He didn’t know how to pray. He could not even read the letter Alef. He only saw that everyone was traveling to the synagogue to participate in the holy prayers. He thought, “If everybody is going to town, I must go too!”

He arrived at the town synagogue with his father and watched the congregants crying and singing together, swaying to and fro. He turned to his father and asked, “Father, what is this all about?” His father turned to him and said, “The Holy One blessed be He sits enthroned in the heavens and we pray all year long to Him. We especially pray during these two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when the whole world is being judged and each person is being judged for the rest of the year.”

The son responded, “Father, what am I to do since I do not know how to pray?”
His father quickly said to him condescendingly, “All you have to do is be quiet and listen to the other Jews praying. That is enough for you.”

“But Father, if I don’t know what these people are saying how is that going to affect God’s decision? How is being silent going to help me?” His father became unnerved and blurted out, “Listen, you should be quiet so no one will know you’re an ignorant peasant!” The son stood still for a couple of minutes as his father and the rest of the congregation continued praying, and then the young boy stood up and in a loud voice stated: “I am going to pray to God in the way I know best. I will whistle to God as I whistle to my flock of sheep.”

He began whistling the sweet calls most shepherds know. His father was enraged. The boy continued whistling with all his might, not caring what other people thought.

Now it happened that this particular Yom Kippur all the heavenly gates were shut. Suddenly, because of this peasant boy’s pure whistling from his heart, all the gates burst open. The prayers of Israel were finally heard.

A Tzaddik’s Repentance

More than 1000 years ago, there lived a great and holy leader and teacher called Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (882–942). The Gaon (as the leading sages of Babylonian Jewry were titled at the time) had many hundreds of pupils, and all of them had a great thirst to learn. Even a casual movement or word from their revered teacher provided them a lesson for life.

One winter morning, two of his pupils happened to be walking in the mountains when they heard a strange sound on the other side of a hill. When they approached the summit they saw, to their great surprise, their master sitting on the snow-covered ground, weeping, praying and engaging in other acts of penitence. What could a tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) such as their teacher possibly need to repent for? Could he have committed some sin, G‑d forbid? They hurriedly departed from that place. But later that day, they could no longer restrain themselves and asked their teacher what the scene they had witnessed had been about.

“I do that every day,” he said to them. “Every day I repent and plead with G‑d to forgive my shortcomings and failings in my service of Him.”

“Your failings?” they asked. “Of what failings does the Gaon speak?”

“Let me tell you a story,” said Rabbi Saadiah. “Something that happened to me a while ago.”

“At one point in my life, I decided that all the honor and attention I was receiving from everyone around me was interfering with my service of the Creator. G‑d must be served with joy, and without complete humility, joy is impossible. So I decided that I would spend several months in a place where no one recognized me.

“I dressed in simple garments and began my self-imposed exile, wandering from town to town. One night I was in a small inn run by an old Jew. He was a very kind and simple man, and we spoke for a while before I went to sleep. Early the next morning, after I had prayed shacharit (the morning prayer), I bade him farewell and was again on my way.

“What I didn’t know was that several of my pupils had been searching for me, and several hours after I left the inn they appeared, hot on my trail. ‘Did you see Rabbi Saadiah Gaon?’ they asked him. ‘We have reason to believe that he was here.’

“‘Saadiah Gaon?’ replied the bewildered old Jew. ‘What would the great Rav Saadiah be doing in a place like mine? Rav Saadiah Gaon in my inn? No . . . I’m sure that you are very mistaken! There was no Rav Saadiah Gaon here!’

“But when the young men described me to him and explained about my exile and ‘disguise,’ the old Jew grabbed his head and cried: ‘Oy! Rav Saadiah! Rav Saadiah was here! You are right! Oy, Oy!’ and he ran outside, jumped into his wagon and began urging his horse to go as fast as possible in the direction I had taken.

“After a short time he caught up to me, jumped from his carriage and fell at my feet, weeping: ‘Please forgive me, Rav Saadiah. Please forgive me. I didn’t know that it was you!’

“I made him stand up and brush himself off, and then said to him: ‘But my dear friend, you treated me very well, you were very kind and hospitable. Why are you so sorry? You have nothing to apologize for.’

“‘No, no, Rabbi,’ he replied. ‘If I would have known who you are, I would have served you completely differently!’

“Suddenly I realized that this man was teaching me a very important lesson in the service of G‑d and in the way I treat others, and that the purpose of my exile had been fulfilled. I thanked and blessed him, and returned home.

“Since then, every evening when I say the prayer before sleeping, I go over in my mind how I served G‑d and my fellow man that day. Then I think of that old innkeeper, and say to myself: ‘Oy! If I had known about G‑d in the beginning of the day what I know now and if I had only remembered that that person I spoke to today was created in the image of G-d, I would have served Him completely differently!’

“And that is what I was repenting for this morning.”

A Pound of Candles

In his youth, the famed Maggid of Zlotchov, Rabbi Yechiel Michel, lived in a certain town, where he would sit all day in the local Beit Midrash (study hall and synagogue) and pursue his studies.

In that town there lived a simple Jew who earned his livelihood by transporting travelers and merchandise in his wagon. One day, the wagon driver came to the local rabbi in a state of great distress. “Help me, Rebbe!” he wept. “I have committed a terrible sin. I have desecrated the holy Shabbat. How can I atone for my transgression?”

“How did this come to pass?” asked the Rabbi.

“Last Friday,” the man explained, “I was returning from the marketplace with a wagonload of merchandise when I lost my way in the forest. By the time I found my way to the outskirts of the city, the sun had already set. So preoccupied was I with my worry over the merchandise, that I failed to realize that the Shabbat had arrived until it was too late…”

Seeing how broken-hearted the man was, the rabbi comforted him and said: “My son, the gates of repentance are never closed. Donate a pound of candles to the synagogue and your transgression will be forgiven.”

The young prodigy, Rabbi Michel, overheard this exchange, and was displeased by the rabbi’s approach. “A pound of candles to atone for violating the Shabbat?” he thought to himself. “The Shabbat is one of the most important mitzvot of the Torah. Why is the rabbi treating the matter so lightly?”

That Friday afternoon, the wagon driver brought the candles to the synagogue. As Rabbi Michel watched disapprovingly from his table against the back wall, he placed them on the lectern for the synagogue beadle to light in honor of the Shabbat. But this was not to be. Before the beadle arrived, a stray dog carried off the candles and ate them.

The distraught penitent ran to report the incident to the rabbi. “Woe is me!” he wept. “My repentance has been rejected in Heaven! What shall I do?!”

“You’re making too much of the matter,” the rabbi reassured him. “These things happen — there’s no reason to deduce that G-d is rejecting your repentance. Bring another pound of candles to the synagogue next week, and everything will be alright.”.

But when the beadle lit the candles on the following Friday afternoon, they inexplicably melted down, so that by the time Shabbat commenced, nothing was left of them. And upon his third attempt on the week after that, a strong wind suddenly blow out the candles just when Shabbat began and it was not possible to relight them.

The rabbi, too, realized, that something was amiss, and advised the wagon driver to seek the counsel of the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.

“Hmm…” said the Baal Shem Tov, upon hearing the man’s story. “It seems that a certain young scholar in your town finds fault with the path to repentance that the rabbi has prescribed for you. Never mind. Next week, donate another pound of candles to the synagogue. This time, I promise you that everything will be alright. And tell Rabbi Michel that I would be honored if he could trouble himself to come visit me.”

Rabbi Michel wasted no time in abiding by the Baal Shem Tov’s request. But no sooner had he and his coachman set out that all sorts of troubles beset their journey. First, the wagon tumbled into a ditch. Then, an axle broke many miles from the nearest town. After which they lost their way altogether. When they finally found the road to Mezhibuzh it was late Friday afternoon and the sun was about to set. They were forced to abandon the wagon and continue on foot – fearing the entire way that the sun would set and they would, at any moment, violate the Sabbath.

Rabbi Michel arrived at the Baal Shem Tov’s door an hour into Shabbat, weary and traumatized by his near-violation of the holy day. “Good Shabbat, Reb Michel,” Rabbi Israel greeted him, “come in and warm yourself by the fire. You, Reb Michel, have never tasted sin, so you did not comprehend the remorse a Jew feels at having transgressed the will of his Father in Heaven. Given the mishaps on the way here, I trust that you now understand something of the agony that our friend experienced. Believe me, his remorse alone more than atoned for his unwitting transgression…”

Rosh HaShanah 5773 Day 1 Sermon: Olympian John Orozco and The Jewish View of Success as

Back in June, my 20th college reunion took place.  Next fall, my 25th high school reunion will be held.  Finding myself sandwiched in between these two not so important but highly symbolic events, I can’t help but spend time reflecting upon my life – wondering have I done the most with the years that have come and gone? Am I as successful as I should be at this point in my life?  Am I accomplished enough?

I know that these questions are shared by many facing life milestones like a school reunion, a big birthday or any other life transition.  That’s because these transitions serve as life mirrors that we are forced to look into and determine if our reflection makes us proud…in the case of a reunion, proud enough to show the world of yesterday who and what we have become.  As we stare at ourselves in life’s mirror, not only concerned about what our physical appearance says about us, but also what our personal and professional accomplishments say about us, life milestones force us to examine our reflection and ask, “is what I see a success?”

The experts say that many of the people who like to attend school reunions are those who are truly happy with their lives – content with who they are, what they are and where they are.  As these people look at their reflection in their life mirror, what they see is 100% success.

Lots of us would love to see a successful reflection staring back at us as we gaze into our life mirror.  But, since most of us are still trying to achieve success in so many aspects of our lives – what we see in our reflection are our flaws, inadequacies and the parts of us that are incomplete.  In this day and age, in the competitive, cut throat society in which we live, success is fleeting at best.  As so many of us evaluate our accomplishments by the accomplishments of others, we so often feel like we need to do better. Whether it be because we have not achieved the same title, status or income as someone else, we feel inferior.  Our lack of a prestigious position, a published book or fancy address means, that we have not only not succeeded, but that we have failed.  And if we have hit a bump in the road, are unemployed or underemployed, forget about it – we just want to hide until things get better.  Having to gaze into that mirror of life and see all that we don’t have is painful (unless, of course it is something we don’t want to see like a wrinkly face or a beer gut).

Today, success is based upon what we have obtained – what we can show the world.  A successful person needs proof – something to show the world that we have arrived!  We’ve done good.  Feeling successful – being content with where we are in life – this is not enough.  When we look in life’s mirror, we need to SEE how good we are – how flawless we are – how powerful we are – how important we are.  This is why last year Americans spent 10.4 billion dollars on plastic surgery.  Success has become something that is demonstrated by our external appearance, by our material possessions, by the type of job we have, by how much money we make and, thus, how much stuff we can buy.  Success is demonstrated by the name of the school you or your child go to, the grades you or your students make, the name of your law firm, how many sales you close and how many patients you see.  Success is not measured by your character, determination or internal strength.  These internal qualities, while certainly important, can’t be put on display for all the world to see and, therefore, can’t be used to show success.  Today, success needs to be tangible.

This is epitomized by the Olympic Games which so many of us enjoyed this summer.  Athletes like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, and Aly Raisman are now household names.  Their incredible athletic accomplishments earned them gold medals – the highest symbol of success in the athletic world and beyond.  Tangible proof that they are indeed successful.  These gold medalists are now icons, epitomizing success.

As we stand at the threshold of a new year, urged by our tradition to look inwards and examine our accomplishments and failures with the hope of making the new year, 5773, a better year, our spiritual quest is similar to those of us contemplating attending a school reunion or celebrating another life milestone.  As we stand before the open ark and sing Avinu Makeinu, seek forgiveness and work to become better people, what we are really being forced to do is look into our life mirror and evaluate our successes and failures.  If we are honest with ourselves, I believe that most of us will have no trouble seeing our failures as we gaze into the mirror of life that stands before each of us today.  But, when it comes to our successes, many of us will have a much harder time seeing them because success has become like the gold medal at the Olympics – the thing that proves that we have made it.  We want to be the Michael Phelps of our professional life, the Gabby Douglas of parenting/grandparenting, the Ryan Lochte of friends, the Missy Franklin of students and the Aly Raisman of all the other areas of our life.  We want to be the best.  As in the Olympics, getting the silver or, worse, the bronze, means failure.  And if we don’t medal, we are like John Orozco.

Who you ask? 

John Orozco, the American gymnast who worked like crazy for years to earn the gold medal at last year’s Visa Championships in St Louis only to fail to medal at this year’s Olympic games. That is right, he failed to medal. He failed.  He won’t make it onto a box of Wheeties or gain a high paying endorsement.  He won’t be idolized by our kids. He won’t become a household name.  He was not successful. He failed.

Given this view of success, it is no wonder that those of us who have yet to win a gold medal in our professional or personal lives have so much anxiety about attending a school reunion or feel so lacking as we take stock of our lives during these Days of Awe.  We have lost sight of the true meaning of success. We have allowed the “gold medal” definition of success to diminish our accomplishments and undermine the pride we should have in ourselves.  And this negativity undermines our physical, mental and spiritual health.

Today, the day we stand before the great mirror of Rosh HaShanah and get ready to stand before the even greater mirror of Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to explore what it really means to be successful. To do this I invite you come with me on a little journey that takes us out of the world of Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and into the world of Judaism, specifically into the world of the rabbis, who wrote centuries ago:

 Who is wise?  The one who learns from others.

Who is strong?  The one who controls his emotions.

Who is rich?  The one who is happy with his share.

Who is honored? The one who honors others.In addition to devoting yourself to study and good deeds, wisdom, strength, wealth and honor are four important ways in which the rabbis defined success:

A truly wise individual is successful not because he knows it all, but because he is still learning from others.

A truly strong individual is successful because she can control herself, not others.

A truly rich individual is successful because he is happy with what he has  – and does not focus on what he could have.

Finally, a truly honored individual is successful when she does not seek honor, but seeks to honor others.

According to the rabbis, success is not defined by the medal you win, the degrees on your wall or the power you wield.  Success is not defined by your knowledge, your external beauty, the material possessions you have or the honors you receive.  No.  The rabbis taught that success is being totally content with where and who you are and not with how others look at you. This is quite the opposite view of our modern understanding of success!

The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.  Rabbi Yosef became ill and passed away. Subsequently, he came back to life. His father asked him what he had seen in the afterlife. He answered, “I saw an upside down world.  People whom we consider important are on the bottom, while people whom we consider unimportant are on the top.” His father responded, “My son, what you have seen is the clear world.”

Even in ancient times, the rabbis understanding of success was in stark contrast to mainstream society.  For centuries, the world has defined a successful person as being an important, powerful, prestigious person who is above those people who control no one and live outside of the spotlight.  And for centuries, through their teachings, the rabbis have been trying to turn this world upside down and define people whom most of us consider unimportant as true success stories.

The 19th century Chasidic sage, Rabbi Aaron Karlin taught: “G-d does not count the number of pages of Torah studied, but the hours spent studying the pages.” The successful Torah scholar, according to Rabbi Karlin, is not the one who finishes reading an entire chapter of Torah before his classmates, but the one who puts in the most time studying…even if this student does not finish the chapter and struggles to understand just one verse.

Rabbi Karlin drives home the fundamental Jewish belief that while we are not obligated to complete the work, we must never refrain from trying and trying hard.  Judaism teaches us that it is the effort we put into something, be it understanding a chapter of Torah, mastering an athletic skill or winning a law case – that defines success.   Hard work, often referred to by the rabbis as “toiling”, is what Judaism defines as success. The medal we win, the grade we receive, the praise we earn, the verdict of the jury we argue before, the huge deal we close, the hundreds of pages of Torah we have studied…while wonderful accomplishments – these do not define success.  It is the effort we put into the process.  Working hard for a goal is what defines success.  Reaching the goal – that’s an added perk – but it is not needed to be successful.  Meaning, you can fail to reach your goal and still be successful!  The true Torah scholar is, according to Rabbi Karlin, not the one who completes the Torah – but the one who spends countless hours trying to understand just one page.

The story is told of the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shimon, who spent a great deal of time explaining the purpose of dozens of seemingly unnecessary words in the Torah.  His goal was to show how every word of Torah had a purpose.  And so, for years, he studied Torah and argued that every word he read was there for a reason.  In doing so, he led a meaningful life and was content.

One day, something shocking happened to Rabbi Shimon: he came across a word in the Torah that, no matter how hard he tried, had no purpose!  He was forced to abandon his entire argument and declare that of all his previous explanations we’re wrong.  There was indeed an unnecessary word in the Torah!

Now, Rabbi Shimon could have done as many people in his predicament would do — close his mind to the notion that he had made a mistake and remain loyal to the idea that there was no useless word in the Torah. Or he could have become depressed and said, “I wasted my time. I should never have started this project in the first place. I am a failure” But he didn’t behave in either way. He quickly changed his thinking and said instead, “Just as I received a reward for my tireless efforts to prove that there is no useless word in the Torah, so will I receive a reward for changing my mind.” Since Rabbi Shimon had spent years working hard to reach a worthy goal, even though he erred and did not reach this goal, he considered himself successful and was certain that his life of meaning and contentment would not be diminished by his change in thinking and his refocusing on a new goal.

According to Rabbi Shimon’s view of success, American Olympian John Orozco and all the other athletes who worked hard yet did not medal this summer are success stories.  And really, can anyone of us deny this?

And if we can agree that John Orozco is a success, perhaps we can use his accomplishments to rethink our own success.

Instead of focusing on the goals you have not reached this year –  that deal you didn’t close, that case you didn’t win, that student who couldn’t reach, that patient you couldn’t heal, that promotion you didn’t receive – instead of focusing on all of those “gold medals” you didn’t win and seeing your inability to reach your goals as a failure – refocus your attention on the effort you put into achieving your goals.  If the effort – the toil, the blood sweat and tears were there, perhaps you will feel the rabbis patting you on the shoulder, supporting your success as you stand before life’s mirror this Rosh HaShanah.

As you stand there – looking at your reflection: instead of berating yourself for not knowing enough, perhaps the wisdom of the rabbis will lead you to discover success in your willingness to learn from others.

Instead of focusing on your lack of power in the office, let our tradition remind you that success is defined by the power we have over ourselves.

Instead of feeling like a failure as others are praised and recognized, take comfort in knowing that Judaism defines a successful individual as one who honors others.

And, most importantly, as you stand before your life mirror, instead of focusing on the fact that you don’t have that gold medal, that fancy car, that prestigious address or the myriads material possessions that society teaches us come with success, remember that success is what you put into reaching your goal.  The sense of contentment and satisfaction you receive from working like crazy to reach goals you might never reach – these feelings, according to Judaism, are the true rewards of success.

There are many people out there who are, by today’s standards of success, extremely successful.  They seem to have it all.  More gold medals then they can count.  Many of them have worked hard to obtain these medals.  And many are happy but there are many who are miserable.  With true success comes contentment.  Those who have lots of things – but lack contentment – they are not success stories.

And then there are those who have gotten really lucky.  They have gained their gold medals be it wealth, power and/or prestige without hard work.  Perhaps they were born into a family with means or maybe they won the lottery.  As success in Judaism is defined by our hard work, these lucky souls – are just that – lucky.  They are not successful.  Certainly, some of these lucky folks do use their resources to make the world a better place – and they work tirelessly for important causes – and because of this, we can say they are successful.

Today, as you look at your reflection in the mirror of life, I want you to remember that success cannot be defined by gold medals.  Success is about the effort we put into life.  Success is about the countless hours we spend working towards a goal – a goal we might never reach – but one we believe in with our whole heart and soul.  Success is about falling down, picking ourselves up and moving forward.  Success is about giving it your all, trying harder and never giving up.  Success is really hard work.  Success can mean failing and, then, finding a new way.

In conclusion, I share with you the words of Rabbi Alvin Fine – words that to me, define a successful life.

Birth is a beginning and Death a destination
And life is a journey; From childhood to maturity
And youth to age; From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing; From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom; From weakness to strength; Or strength to weakness – And, often back again;
From health to sickness; And back, we pray, to health again:
From offense to forgiveness; From loneliness to love;
From joy to gratitude; From pain to compassion, and grief to understanding
From fear to faith, From defeat to defeat to defeat –Until looking backward or ahead, We see that victory lies not at some high point along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage-by-stage, A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and Death a destination.
And life is a journey, A sacred Pilgrimage – To Life Everlasting.

Today, remind yourself that a successful life is measured not by material possessions but rather by the willingness to take the journey of life – up hills and steep mountains – down into dark valleys, through really crummy weather – to carry on even when our body says no and our spirit seems broken – and, with great effort, make it to next day, week, month, and year….Always striving to be a better person, often missing the mark, but never giving up.  Success is hard work.  And the reward is knowing that you gave it your all.

Here’s to an incredibly successful year!  Shanah Tovah!!!

 

It is that time again!!! Cheshbon HaNefesh: End of the Year Exam

We are just two days away from Rosh HaShanah.  As we begin the new year of 5773, our tradition urges us to spend time examining our lives.  This is not easy.  Some have compared this self-examination process to looking into a 3-way mirror – the type you often find in department stores.  People generally have one of four reactions when standing before such a mirror. Probably, the most common reaction: we are startled by the part of us that we never knew was there.  Reaction two: dread; if we have the courage to open up our eyes and actually look into the mirror, it will force us to look at that part of us we knew was there, but never wanted to acknowledge.  Reaction three: we stand before the mirror and see a side of ourselves that makes us happy.  Finally, we might stand before the mirror and simply see clothing and pay no attention to the body that fills the clothing.

I hope that each of us has the courage to stand before a spiritual 3-way mirror this time of year.  As we do so, I pray that none of us ignore the soul (our essence) that fills our body.  Taking a step back and honestly looking at who we have become will be challenging for many of us.  The difficult aspects of our lives that we have worked very hard to ignore will be completely visible before the spiritual mirror.  We will discover attributes or behaviors that we never knew existed and would like to change.  And, without a doubt, we will be given an incredible opportunity to see what makes us truly special, holy.
How do you stand before the spiritual 3-way mirror?  By performing Chesbon HaNefesh, an examination of the soul.  Good news, such an “exam” does not require an office visit or a co-pay.  It simply involves your time and honesty.
Below, you will find a “Cheshbon HaNefesh: End of the Year Exam”.  Take it.  You don’t have to share your answers with anyone.  Study your answers as they are the spiritual mirror.  Learn from them.  Embrace what you love.  Change what you can.  Grow.  This is what Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all about.  Give yourself the gift of the spiritual 3-way mirror.
  1. Have you taken care of yourself this year?  Did you get a physical, go the gym on a regular basis, eat well, give yourself time to relax and reflect?  If you have not taken care of yourself, what has kept you from doing so?
  2. Have you taken care of the important people in your life? How have you treated your spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, children, parents, siblings, friends, extended family, colleagues, etc. this year?  Would you like to change anything?  Are there relationships in your life that need improving?
  3. Do you owe anyone an apology?  If so, when will you apologize?
  4. Have you refused to make amends with someone who apologized to you?  Why?
  5. Have you been financially responsible?  If not, what can you do to change this?
  6. This year, what was your number one weakness?  How can you get over it?
  7. Most of the time you feel________________(fill in the blank).  Do you like the answer?  If not, what can you change?
  8. As this Jewish year ends, what do you regret the most?  What can you do to not feel this way next year?
  9. As this Jewish year ends, what are you most proud of?  Have you congratulated yourself?  Do you accept praise and compliments?  Are you too hard on yourself?
  10. What are you afraid of?  What can you do to overcome this fear?
  11. What unfinished business do you have to complete before the Jewish year is done?
  12. Overall, are you happy with your life?  If not, what do you want to see change this upcoming year?  List three ways you can make these changes.
  13. Have you given tzedakah (charity)?  Do you volunteer your time to help others?  Do you have a “cause”?  If you answered “no” to any of these things, would you like the answer to be “yes”?  Why?
  14. Have you taken the time to explore your spirituality?  If so, what have you learned?
  15. How do you feel about God?  Are you happy with your answer?  If not, what can you do to make your answer different next year?
  16. If you believe in God, have you been angry or upset with God this year?  Have you expressed your feelings? If not, why?
  17. Have you prayed this year?
  18. What is one thing you want to accomplish in the new Jewish year?
  19. Additional thoughts, feelings, etc…..
It is a custom at Ramat Shalom to bring your completed exam to Rosh HaShanah services and deposit it in our special “Cheshbon HaNefesh Ark” which is never opened.  Many find this to be a way of making their exam “official”.  The ark will be located in the lobby throughout the High Holidays.
As we begin 5773, Cheryl, Abigail and Jonah join me in wishing each of you a Shanah Tovah – a Happy New Year.