Shana Tova! Happy New Year. Shortly after Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple Computers was first diagnosed with cancer he was also approached to give the commencement address at Stanford University. Now although Jobs had made countless public appearances,  he rarely gave speeches beyond the parameters of staged public presentations for his company.  And Jobs would confess to his biographer that he was somewhat intimidated by his task –this man who gave us the Ipod and Ipad, forever changing the way most of us would work –or waste time!  But then he remembered the writer Alex Haley had once given the advice that the best speeches always start off with “Let me tell you a story” because no one is ever eager to be lectured to, but everyone loves a good story, and that is exactly what Jobs did.  In the guise of all great story tellers who came before him he decided to incorporate the “thrice device” utilizing the numerical concept of three (as in three bears, three billygoats, three sons, three daughters, three patriarchs) and Jobs delivered three stories about his life and what guided him down his personal path and helped him realize his life’s vision, to be the transformational agent that forever changed the way communication and technology interfaced.  The speech is online, and it is a good one, so I would like to borrow a page from his script.  I am not going to lecture, but to relate.  So I want to do something different with you this morning, this New Year. I want to share with you a few short stories, and more importantly impart to you three specific themes, three vital principles which I believe get to the heart of the High Holy Day experience, as well as the kishke of every Jew the world over, and throughout time.


Let me tell you a story of a rabbinic master who asks one of his student’s a simple question: if you are going one way, and suddenly realize you are headed in the wrong direction, what must you do? The young disciple, wishing to impress his master responds with all sorts of mathematical permutations as to what you might need to do to suddenly shift course, to which his teacher passionately retorts: if you are going one way, and realize you should be going another, all you need do is turn around!  And that leads me into the first message I want to share with you, which is about the Jewish value of T’shuva.  As I say the word, concentrate on it for a moment: T’shuva…(it is truly a beautiful word) T’shuva is often translated as “forgiveness” but in truth can mean so much more.  T’shuva can imply that you forgive, or are asking for forgiveness.  It can mean to repent, to do penitence, it can mean to physically turn back, it can simply mean to respond to a person –to answer them.   We hear so much about the concept of T’shuva, about pardonce, it is ingrained in our liturgy and the overall philosophy of the entire High Holy Day experience.  We have the physical symbols of the apples and honey and of course the Shofar, but the spirit of T’shuva is the central purpose of the New Year –it’s why we are here –to be forgiven –and perhaps to forgive others. And even if there was no one whom we feel we have to seek forgiveness from, we still need to ask for forgiveness from God!  And therein lies the great conundrum –we want, we expect to be forgiven –but can we in turn forgive others?

This past summer it was reported that the ETA, which is the Basque terrorist organization responsible for carrying out any number of bombings, kidnappings and targeted assassinations within Spain a decade ago, many against civilians, had several of its imprisoned terrorists reach out to Spanish citizens, some who had been terrorized and lost family members in their attacks, and wanted to apologize to them.  And there were several meetings which took place between the former terrorists and their Spanish victims.  I found the story both promising and yet confounding at the same time.  I think it would be a hard thing to forgive a terrorist, even one who did not directly target anyone in your family or impact your own life.  I mean, think about it from a Jewish perspective. Could we forgive Palestinian terrorists?  The ones who carried out the Munich massacre in the ’72 summer Olympics, some of whom are still alive?  Can we forgive them? Should we really forgive them? forgiveness can be incredibly hard –and believe it or not, is not always absolute. I used to think that asking for forgiveness was the hardest thing in the world to do –but maybe not, maybe it is forgiving others!  It might surprise you to know that according to the great medieval sage Maimonidies, Rabbis are not required to forgive their congregants –so you should all be thankful here that I am such a nice and forgiving guy! Now as a parent I don’t think I could forgive someone who hurt my children, and even Jewish law stipulates that only the victim, the injured party has the right to forgive.  According to our tradition not even God can forgive you for a sin you committed against another person.  Sometimes you have to hold onto that anger, grudge, resentment, because it is all you have left and you feel to do otherwise would mean giving up…and you are just not ready to let go yet –I can appreciate that.  But remember most cases are really not as extreme as terrorist murderers.  Jewish law does not always require forgiveness.. but in most cases…it encourages it, promotes it, it is advisable.  First of all, a sense of anger, of vengeance is never a healthy thing. You know who we should try to get even with? Those people in life who helped us—those are the people with whom we should try and “even the score.” And more importantly, remember that if we want God to forgive us, we should then consider showing some mercy and compassion to others if they in turn seek it from us.  T’shuva can do even more for us, healing us spiritually and emotionally, than it can for the person we forgive –it can offer us an invaluable opportunity to let go and move on, move forward, we just have to want to and be ready to do that. Holding a grudge can cause us to expend countless amounts of precious energy that we probably need and can use for other things in other areas.    T’shuva is liberating: and if we practice it, we are better able to utilize our energy for creativity, innovation and renewal.  Think of the entire concept of T’shuva as physical as well as spiritual: moving back, responding to something affords us the chance to move forward, instead of perhaps being stuck in place.  It is the New Year, and the obligation of T’shuva that embodies it, gives us that chance to reset our internal compass.


Allow me to tell you another story.  There was once an ignorant shepherd boy, who lived in another time, in another place, and he had barely any Jewish learning other than knowledge of the Hebrew alpha bet.  One year he managed to make it to High Holy Day services, sitting in the back pews surrounded by other laborers, most much older than himself, he was immediately intimidated and overwhelmed by the complex Hebrew, and Aramaic liturgy that engulfed him on all sides.  Feeling ashamed and inadequate, he recited only what he knew fluently: the alaf bet –over and over again, as tears fell from his cheeks and unto the pages of the mahzor.  When the service concluded the Rabbi noticed the weeping young man and asked him what was wrong. When the boy replied through chocked sobs that all he had been able to do was recite the alaf bet throughout the service, the Rabbi assuaged the innocent young soul, and informed him that because of his pure intention and determination, the whole congregation had been redeemed for these Holy Days, for no doubt God had rearranged all the letters of the alfa bet as they were chanted by the boy as they floated up to the heavens, and not only spelled out the necessary prayers, but with them, unlocked the gates of T’shuva for all.

And on that note the second theme that I want to relate to you has to do with the concept of Tefliah –say the word, envision it: Tefilah –it is commonly translated as prayer in Hebrew.  And while it is important to know the meaning of words and terms in Hebrew seeing as it gives us a connection, even a sense of ownership over them, too many people seem to avoid praying in Hebrew precisely because they get tripped up in the language, the meaning is lost for them and that is a real shame –it should not, does not, have to be that way! In truth you can pray to God in any language, Jewish law is unequivocal about that! And so it is with all of us, don’t get lost in all the verbiage, try and say the words, and speak from the heart, God will understand you from the start, and the rest will come in time. Mayor Michael Bloomberg once said something to the affect of: “I don’t bother praying to God seeing as he doesn’t answer” And yet, for all of us, praying is something we do more of on these few days from the New year through Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, than at any other time of year! Why? Our life hangs in the balance?  Because T’shuvah is such an important concept? Do we want to ensure that God forgives us? Make up for what we neglect the whole rest of the year? My old rabbi growing up, Alvin Kass, wondered what the root of the word Daven is –a word we often employ when discussing the action of prayer –as in physically praying.  Most are of the opinion that it is Yiddish, but he mused that perhaps it is Latin, from the word “divine” –as in davening brings us ever closer to the divine –to God (so take that Mayor Bloomberg!)

When I was a student in seminary, we were always told that there were 10 basic requirements to rabbinical school –and nine of them were in Hebrew! Not everyone is expected to be a rabbi –even if it comes with great perks like a close commute to home and not having to ever forgive people. But just a little familiarity with the Lashon Kodesh –the holy tongue, is NEVER a bad thing! We don’t have to be perfect in what we say or how we say it, we just have to try, God will help us with the rest. I had an audience recently with Leon Weiseltier, the erudite editor of the New Republic and he spoke at length on Israel, Iran and the Arab spring, and when he was asked the question what would be the one subject you would advise rabbis to preach on this High Holy day, what would it be?  Without missing a beat he responded “Jewish literacy”.  He then opined that the state of Jewish learning, Jewish knowledge, Hebrew fluency is deplorable amongst American Jews today as we have grown lazy and decadent.  He actually stated that he thought Judaism was in far more danger today, in America, where we are comfortable and complacent, as opposed to centuries ago in Europe when we were impoverished and endangered –apparently the internal threat can be worse than the external one! And as a suburban Rabbi, who sees hockey often take precedence over Hebrew school, I am not so sure he is wrong!  You see Hebrew is a key that unlocks mysteries and histories, it is not just that Jews throughout the world pray this service in the same language –it is that Jews throughout the centuries have prayed in this holy tongue.  It is the language of the 10 commandments, the language of the Patriarchs and Prophets, and the language of the Scriptures, the most widely read book in the world!  We are all familiar with the phrase “lost in translation” and it is true in the case of Hebrew.  So while we can take it slow, and it is legal and valid to pray in any language, we should at least try with the Hebrew, break our teeth, a bit if we have to, just make the effort like that young shepherd boy. Start with the alef bet and build up from there. God knows we are trying. (pause)

 And now let me tell you yet another story: Once on Yom Kippur night, in the shul of the Brisker Rebbe, long after the service had concluded and all the assembled daveners had gone home to their families, two men remained: the rabbi, and a very rich, but somewhat miserly man, who now stood in the corner, davening away, reciting extra psalms from the Mahzor, with an intensity that the Rebbe had never before seen on this man, at any other service at any other time of the year.  The Rebbe slowly approached the rich man and said softly “far be it for me to interrupt your davening on so holy a night, but everyone else has gone home.. and please understand, God no doubt appreciates your sincerity and intensity, your sense of kavanah, but even the Czar has within his mighty army a specific role for each and every soldier. Some soldiers are cavalry riders, some are riflemen, some are artillerymen who reload the cannons and still some attend to the wounded. If any of these men should suddenly switch roles unnecessarily in the midst of battle it could cause havoc and lead to a break down in the system.  And so it is with us, we each have our assigned role with God, our strength. You are a very wealthy man, God has truly blessed you, as such you have no reason to remain here any longer, engaged in superfluous prayer, instead, after Yom Kippur go out and engage in tzedakah, help your fellow person that way, for that would mean more to God this year than all the prayer in the world –bless others as God has blessed you.”  You see, there is a time and place for everything.  And the Issue was not that man had not prayed enough –clearly he had –the issue was that there was an area where he could do more –sometimes we have to also play to our ability, and live up to our possibilities and potential.  And on that note I want to speak of one last theme, which is also, and always, most integral for the High Holy Days.

We have all no doubt heard the word tzedakah, say the word: picture it in your mind, we have all heard the word and know what it means: charity, righteousness, justice. Restoring a sense of right or justice to a person by helping them –not just giving a hand out.  And now one last story if you will indulge me: immediately following the death of a very wealthy man, his son was approached by the man’s lawyer with an envelope. The note inside read “before you do anything else, please arrange for me to be buried in a pair of gym socks” it was a bizarre request, but what son could ever refuse the dying request of his own father so he sought out their rabbi who surprisingly enough turned him down –Jewish law forbids being buried with your socks on –who knew? He then sought out every rabbi in the region where they lived, including the chief rabbi who all refused him on the grounds that it violated traditional Jewish practice. Crestfallen, he returned to his father’s attorney who then handed him a second envelope. Inside was also a note, composed by his father with the simple message “this is my last lesson to you: even with all of my wealth, I cannot take a simple pair of socks with me into the next world.”  That is a sobering thought for all of us at this time of judgment.  It teaches us that we should never be consumed with counting our money –instead, consume yourself with making your money count!! And furthermore, like all things in this life, don’t get caught up into the negative thinking of “it is not my problem” because even if the smallest acts we do only make a small difference –we have still made some difference. Remember that as babies we are all born clenching our fists, because there is nothing more needy in this world than a baby –babies want and want and take, and take, they grasp the bottle, their mothers, their rattles –whatever they can hold unto.  However, when we die, are hands are always open –because we have finally let go –and the High Holy Days, if nothing else, are about coming to terms with our own mortality.  We all have to learn, and grow into giving, but it is so, so vital because in the end, you can’t physically take it with you into the next world, but with tzedakah, you can of course send it on ahead! So let’s just say it is like a spiritual investment in your future!

In a little while we are going to begin the Musaf, or the final leg (and it also happens to be the longest leg!)  of the Rosh HaShanah service, and one of the mantras we are going to hear chanted early on is the tri-fold theme of: T’shuva, Tzedakah and Tefilah. It is part of a monumental prayer known as the “u’netaneh tokef” which states emphatically that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the most severe decree –even the decree of death itself! U’Tshuva, U’tefila U’tzedakah, Ma’arivin et ro’ah ha’gezerah! According to tradition it was composed by one Rabbi Amnon ben Kaloynmus of Maynce Germany as he lay dying after being tortured to death and killed by the Christian authorities for refusing to convert, on the High Holy Days, roughly a thousand years ago.  The tale itself is a tragic one of course, which unfortunately was par for the course with our people through most of the Middle Ages, but aside from being inspired by Rabbi Amnon’s faith, the question that begs to be answered is:  is it true? Can those three practices, T’shuva, Tzedakah and Tefilah do what they claim to in the prayer –avert the horrible decree of death, or even translated more literally: avert the severity of the decree of death?  Do you believe it is true? After all, you are all here praying, and will recite that prayer very soon! Do we honestly believe this will have some affect on the coming year, our immediate future?  Or is this even how we should understand and interpret the verses? Some would translate the prayer as not so much that those three actions can assuage the most severe decree, but that the Hebrew verb Ma’arveen can be understood as transformation, it is the same root as “erev” or evening –a transformative time (day into night) and the idea being that these three actions can help us overcome, transform or persevere the decree itself that we have been handed down for the coming year simply by making our lives more meaningful for others –and ourselves! We also have to remember, it is not just about counting our days, but making our days count.  In past years you have all heard me preach about the 3 d’s –the daveners, the doers and the donors –you can also employ the device of the 3 P’s if you like: the prayers, the players and the payers, now the import is the same –it comes back to that principle, that spiritual partnership of t’shuvah, tefilah and tzedakah –it is about doing, davening and donating –they are vital concepts for our community and ourselves, a true call to action.   You can try and make this year the year in which you live differently, you give back just a little bit more, and you connect better with God. Whether it is that you come to services just once a month, or you volunteer for one program at the shul, or you make one extra charitable contribution because you know this community needs it.  Do this in the spirit of a great American like Neil Armstrong who recently passed away –he took one physical step on the moon, and changed history. Try to take one small spiritual step this year for yourself, on this earth, and change your future. In truth we can’t change everything but we can change ourselves. Certainly no one else can do it for us –we have to want it –we have to attempt it! So the three spiritual lessons for today: T’shuva, tefilah and tzedakah –no easy tasks, and I commend each and every one of you for even being here today!  Recent sociological studies reveal to us that fewer and fewer Jews are identifying with their community every year, so you are all starting the year out on the right foot.  You are in some ways making the effort, investing in your community, the trick is to keep it going in some way, shape or fashion and be back here next year.  A new year is a new chance for renewal.  And if some of you think I am preaching to the choir, good –I preach to the choir precisely because I want to hear you sing!! Most people think that they can’t do enough to make a difference but can’t really means won’t –it becomes an excuse, a crutch not to rise to the challenge –it doesn’t come easy, and it is not supposed to be easy, but good things, worthwhile things in life are seldom easy –that is part of the challenge, and part of the lesson and gain! And part of what we are supposed to work on and towards, during the High Holy Days, our first day of the Jewish year and our first step into a new, and God willing, brighter future.