Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown this evening, September 25 and ends at nightfall, Tuesday, September 27. Dip the apple in honey, hear the Shofar, and take in the awesomeness of the day.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of the first human being; Adam. We are very familiar with G-d's call to Adam: "Where are you?"
This isn't just a story that took place many years ago. Rather, today too, we must understand that G-d asks each of us individually: "Where are you?"
Are you fulfilling the purpose for which I created you? Are you making this world a better place? Or are you, unfortunately, letting days, weeks, months and years go by, without any real growth or vitality?
This is the foundation of our faith; the belief that each one of us has it in his or her power, regardless of wealth or position, to turn the world into a better place, a force for good rather than evil.
Each year, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, we are reminded of our ability. Each year, Rosh Hashanah gives us a resurgence of the strength needed to fulfill these goals. This is a time for rejuvenation and commitment. A time to clarify our sense of purpose and fulfillment.
This is especially significant this year, as it is a Year of Hakhel - Gathering. During the Temple times, once every seven years, every man, woman and child, would gather to hear words of Torah read by the king to inspire them. Today we don't have a physical Temple, but the spiritual aspects of Hakhel very much apply. Indeed, each one of us can be "a king" in our surroundings, and inspire as many other "men, women, and children" as possible, to increase in acts of goodness and kindness.
May you and your loved ones be blessed with abundance of goodness, for a very happy and healthy sweet new year!
This Saturday night, we begin saying Selichot, the communal prayers for Divine forgiveness, prior to the High Holidays. Some Sephardic communities have already begun earlier this month. The custom this weekend is that the prayers are said at midnight, and for the next week until Rosh Hashanah, early each morning, from the crack of dawn.
As a child growing up, and into my teenage and adult years, these Saturday midnight prayers have always been very special. Everyone gathered at the Synagogue, had either just woken up, or had been studying, meditating or singing through the night, in preparation for the Selichot service. At the very moment the chazan begins the words Ashrei, we can all feel how the "Days of Awe" are now upon us.
Judaism believes in the power of Teshuva, that is the ability and power each one of us has to own up, to apologize and to sincerely repent. And when we do, we can ask G-d for forgiveness, and a new path opens before us.
This is described beautifully by Rabbi Sacks in his telling of the story of Judah/Yehudah.
"...A young man who sold his brother as a slave. His name was Yehudah. That was a real, real sin and yet he became the ancestor of Israel’s Kings. He became a lot more than that. We bear his name. We are called Jews because we are yehudim, because we are named after Yehudah. Why? Because he was forgiven. And why was he forgiven? Because he owned up, he said, ““Aval asheimim anachnu”, “We were guilty.” He said, (in words we say at Selichos), “Ma-nidaber uma-nitz’tadak” – “What more can we say to justify ourselves?”. He said, “haelokim matza et-ha’avon avadecha”, “God has discovered, uncovered our guilt.”
What’s more, he changed: From the person who sold his brother as a slave, he became the person who was willing to spend the rest of his life as a slave so that his brother Benjamin could go free. He became a Ba’al Teshuvah. Joseph, his brother, forgave him. God forgave him, and it is his name we bear..."
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, and we ask G-d for forgiveness for our own failures, mistakes and sins, it is worth us also taking a moment to think; How fast are we to judge others? How quickly do we write others off? Do we try to put ourselves "in their shoes"? Do we allow others to repent? Do we have it within ourselves to be forgiving? Do we give them a second chance, as we would want for ourselves?
Selichot, and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, show us that we can all come back home.
I was born and grew up in England, and the Queen was always part of our lives and a topic of discussion. Her face was on all currency and postage. Many Synagogues had a special prayer they would say for her each week, and much has been written about her warm relationship with the Anglo-Jewish community.
In 2001, the Queen honored my grandfather, Rabbi Nachman Sudak, with the title Officer of the British Empire, awarding him a prestigious medal at Buckingham Palace, with all the pomp and ceremony only London is capable of.
From 1959 until his passing in 2014, at the request of the Rebbe, he directed the Chabad Lubavitch institutions and activities across Great Britain. It was for those efforts and accomplishments that the Queen awarded him.
Many were invited to the palace that day. Amidst the crowd of people there was one man who "stuck out." My grandfather was the only one meeting the Queen that day who was visibly Jewish in the sense that he wore his Jewish attire, hat, tzitzit, and Chasidic garb. He was also the only person at the event with whom the Queen did not share a handshake.
By Jewish tradition, and in respect to the sanctity of the genders, beside for one's spouse or immediate relatives, men and women will generally not make any physical contact with one another, including even a simple handshake.
The Queen was well aware of these traditional Jewish practices and respected them. Not only did his commitment to Jewish tradition not hinder his standing, the Queen recognized its beauty and she publicly awarded him.
After the ceremony at the palace, I rode in the car with my grandfather, and he let me hold the medal. Whenever I think back to that time, I remember how the Queen understood, appreciated and respected my grandfather, along with his religious observances and requirements, even while she lived a very different life.
Sometimes we feel that to fit in we need to change who we are. Sometimes we may even feel self-conscious that we may be seen as different, as "too Jewish."
The truth is, we each deserve to be proud of our heritage and our sacred traditions that have been part of the Jewish story for millennia. We definitely don't need to change to fit in. On the contrary, what we should be doing is learning more about who we are, what our heritage and traditions mean, and discover the most beautiful, meaningful and harmonious life the Torah teaches us.
In 2022, when there is perhaps greater awareness and sensitivity than ever before, about respecting and appreciating the culture and traditions of others, when we applaud and admire minority groups who maintain their lifestyle, some of that can and should also be afforded to Jews practicing Judaism. In a time when prominent newspapers are dedicating front page Sunday space to malign, demonize and maliciously mischaracterize the life of Chasidic Jews, this point is especially potent.
This week, as millions of people around the world are remembering the Queen, I join and remember a woman who graciously appreciated the Jews in her country, and as someone who respected Jews who respect their Judaism.
Before we jump to judging someone for choosing a lifestyle different from our own - let Queen Elizabeth's memory tap us with a gentle reminder.
This week I experienced one of the most special moments I've had since moving to Sioux Falls. Together with a fellow community member, Stephen Rosenthal, we concluded a tractate of the Talmud. We started studying this together several years ago, and endeavored to study once a week.
As a Yeshiva student, I'd spend several hours a day studying Talmud. Some people dedicate their entire life to this.
But Judaism, and higher Jewish education and scholarship, is not limited to Yeshiva students, or to the times we go to Synagogue, or Shabbat and religious holidays. Rather, it belongs to every Jew equally, and each one of us can incorporate and maintain a real commitment to Judaism in our daily lives, regardless of our profession, background or social status.
Part of the secret of Jewish continuity has always been our commitment to Torah study. It can be done by every woman, man and child, and anywhere. Many times over the past few years, Stephen and I learned during his work hours, while at his office. With zoom and facetime, we also learned on those occasions when one of us was out of town. As we say in the hallowed words of the Shema "when you are at home, and when you are on the road, when you lay down and when you get up."
Beyond everything else, studying Talmud is enjoyable and engaging. On a given page we can learn intimate details about the lives of the Sages, read anecdotes they heard from their teachers, explore theology, or delve into the complex laws of mundane matters like commerce, contracts and inheritance, or the religious intricacies of marriage, divorce and prayer.
There we also discover the Jewish methodology of preserving tradition, of reasoning, debating, challenging, understanding, and coming to a final resolution. (Indeed, a common misconception is that the Talmud is a book of debates. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The Talmud is complete with resolution, always authoritatively arbitrating and giving the final ruling and its methodology Jews have respected and followed for millennia.)
This may very well have been the first time two people studied and completed an entire Talmudic tractate together in South Dakota. But it definitely won't be the last.
Let me know if you would like to study Talmud. It is never too late to start!
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.