“Rosh Hashanah teaches us that remembering the past shapes the way we behave in the future,” wrote Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, in an emailed New Year message. With “fires, disease, chaos, and unrest surrounding us,” it would be tempting to “close my eyes and try to forget.”
But this New Year, rabbis across the denominational spectrum are not looking away from the difficult issues at hand. From the Covid-19 pandemic and an uncertain global future to police brutality and institutionalized racism, rabbis in pulpits and virtual pulpits across New York will reflect on a year rife with challenges — and hope for a better future.
“Remembering is a foundational theme in the liturgy. In the Zicharonot verses, we read that God remembered the actions of our ancestors in order to shape the future. And so must we,” concluded Rabbi Hurwitz.
The Jewish Week asked area rabbis what they planned to talk about in their High Holiday sermons and teaching.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn
“My sermon is about Malchut, the yearning in our prayers for a King, and how that yearning can go right and how it can go wrong. It is about democracy and its limits, it is about national reckoning, reparations, and the threat of civil war. And ultimately it’s about the way we find Malchut within us and among us.”
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Forest Hills Jewish Center, Queens
“Like most rabbis that I know, I am speaking very briefly during services, as we are all trying to keep our time indoors to a minimum. What I’ll try to do, within those few brief moments, is use both the themes that we associate with Rosh Hashanah and this penitential season, as well as the values system that the Torah provides us with to characterize a just society, to frame the multiple crises that we are facing as a country- pandemic, economic, racial, etc. The very wonderful rabbi who taught me homiletics when I was studying for the rabbinate always said that if you can’t say it in 10 minutes, you don’t know what you want to say. I hope he was right. It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, but these are the times that we are living in.”
Rabbi Steven Exler
Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit
“[My] Rosh Hashanah derashah (pre-recorded today in my kittel and tallit from an empty Main Sanctuary, and posted and emailed out tonight/tomorrow) was about the lessons of masks. That when we are concealed/confined, we face our real selves, and in this pandemic time, we found amazing strengths and resilience. I want people to appreciate what they have achieved in this impossible time. That masks can feel restricting, but they actually help us find our real selves. The culmination is the masked shofar — ours will be this year — which I argue is kosher because the basic sound still comes out. Which is a reminder to us that the masks don’t stop our true inner selves from coming out, and should not, as frustrating as they are on the surface.”
Rabbi Sam Reinstein
Congregation Kol Israel, Brooklyn
“On Rosh Hashanah, I will be talking about our inability to control everything. We crown Hashem as king and understand that while we are in control of our own actions, whether they be sins or mitzvoth, it is only Him that is truly in control. The pandemic has pulled off the veneer. We can and should do everything we can to be healthy, but we must also understand that there are things out of our sphere of control. We can only trust that through our prayers, those things will be taken care of as well.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain
Sutton Place Synagogue, Midtown Manhattan
“In a year like none other I am doing what i believe must be done and that is to craft messages that speak to the depth of the human experience. I wlll be taking a deep look at our role in the world that we are celebrating and how can Judaism serve as lens through which to experience the past 12 months and motivate us for better behavior in the future. I will be asking questions about who is essential, and who is kept down? And, in reflecting on being in quarantine and confined spaces, how do we take an honest look at opening up space for ourselves and others to thrive in the year ahead.
“I will be giving a sermon on the importance of being present with God and with ourselves and how Judaism has a set of tools in its toolbox, focusing on sounds, silence, and study, that can help us gain a greater awareness of what we are called to do in a world full of challenges and opportunities.”
We have increasingly become a shame culture — which is one reason, perhaps a major reason, why our political polarization is so acute.
Rabbi Leead Staller
Stanton Street Shul, Lower East Side
“A topic I keep coming back to is what does it mean to ask for Teshuvah during COVID? How can we tell God we’re sorry we missed Minyan, when shuls were closed? How can we feel bad about not learning more Torah when there were locks on the Beis Medrish? But perhaps even more pressing– how can we critically examine our past sins, focus on our past mistakes, and tell ourselves we need to be better in the middle of a major mental health crisis. COVID is not just a physical pandemic, but a psychological and emotional one as well, as the world has been forced to come to a screeching halt, and years of ambitious Jewish day school education telling us to work harder and strive for more have become incoherent, as many are forced to sit at home all day with nothing to do.
But the menuchah [rest] of Shabbos comes and reminds us that it’s ok. We don’t have to take that self-critical magnifying glass to our lives. We can be content with what we have accomplished.”
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Rabbi Rafi Rank
Midway Jewish Center, Syosset, N.Y.
I am relying on the work of Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), the American anthropologist and folklorist, who did great work in defining the difference between a shame culture versus a guilt culture. A shame culture is one in which a sin committed renders the sinner an object of embarrassment and ridicule. The sin and the sinner merge and the one is indistinguishable from the other. Time may erode the shame but there isn’t much you can do to rid yourself of it. The sinner may seek refuge in another city, hide, or even commit suicide. Greek culture was very much a shame culture. But Judaism and by extension, Christianity, opted for guilt. We understand guilt. With guilt, the sinner has committed some wrong, might even feel shame, but there is a way to remove the guilt through all the ways we talk about removing guilt—confession, repentance, prayer, doing acts of goodness, etc. In other words, the sin and the sinner are two different entities.
As the west has moved further from its Judeo-Christian moorings, we have increasingly become a shame culture — which is one reason, perhaps a major reason, why our political polarization is so acute. We have actually become the people who hate our neighbors, and do so openly.
Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon
B’nai Jeshurun, Upper West Side, Manhattan
“On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I will be speaking about fear and articulating some of the fears we hold in this moment: fear of death, natural calamity, social unrest and all the things that keep us anguished and concerned. I’m going to talk about how fear relates to the biblical character of Hagar and Yitzhak, when he was about to be sacrificed. I will speak about how fear can actually play a positive role in our lives by opening us up to transformation, vision and finding ourselves. We can use our fear and the fear of God, ‘Yiraat shamayim,’ as a source of vision and wisdom.”
Rabbi Felicia Sol
B’nai Jeshurun, Upper West Side, Manhattan
“I’ll be speaking on the first night of Rosh Hashanah about the paths we take and our encounters while on those paths. Paths can be places of darkness but they can be places of learning. From the small vulnerabilities we feel to the larger uncertainties — the pandemic, racism, frailty of our democracy, lack of moral leadership — we are facing many points of darkness right now. This, in some way, will be a reflection of where we’ve been, what’s tripped us up on the path, and where we can find the light. When we arrive at a crossroads we have the possibility of recognizing the path ahead. The High Holidays can be seen as a pathway to finding the light. The work of this time is to help us come home.”