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In this week’s Torah portion, Moses poetically implores the world to listen to his words:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass. (Deut 32:1-2)
Over the last few days, we have done a great deal of listening, speaking, and singing. We have been engaged in self-reflection and repentance. But as someone once said, “it matters less what we do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than what we do from Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashanah.” The Torah commands that we listen to its words, not merely hear them, and that the words have an actual effect on us – like rain, nourishing us, giving us the opportunity to grow and change. How do we incorporate these teachings rather than letting them evaporate over time?
The Torah’s repeating focus on the concept of listening demands our attention. What is true, active listening? If we are formulating a response as a question is being asked or a statement is being made, we are not listening with a whole heart. When I counsel couples before a wedding, I ask them to engage in an active listening exercise. They are to repeat back what their partner said without response or interpretation. This is more challenging than it would seem, but the results are important. Really being heard and understood has a profound effect. If we take the time to really hear those we love, to allow their words in, to repeat them back and allow them to clarify, we will be so much less likely to accidentally hurt them.
Active listening means turning off our internal dialogue and opening ourselves up to the other. Active listening isn’t only about human relationships, though. When we take a walk and turn off our music, and take a moment to listen to the rustling of the leaves, the birds, we create a spiritual space, an opening where once there was noise. If there is no opening for spirituality, how will it find us? Listening, creating moments of space and silence makes room for so much more.
I wish you a Shabbat filled with warmth and beauty, moments of music and connection, and moments of silence. I wish you a Yom Kippur to Rosh Hashanah filled with health, openness, strength, growth, trust, and love.
Cantor Sally L. Neff
This Shabbat is one of a handful of special Shabbatot tied to the festival calendar. In this case it is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return. This is the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Traditionally Shabbat Shuva was one of two times during the year when the rabbi would deliver a sermon (the other being Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that occurs right before Passover). On Shabbat Shuva, the sermon would focus on the themes we sing about during the High Holy Days: teshuvah (repentence), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (acts of justice).
On Shabbat Shuva, in addition to the Torah reading, which this year is Vayeilech, we have the additional haftarah readings from Hosea, Micah and Joel. Hosea’s words begin with, “Shuva Yisrael, Return, Oh Israel, to the Eternal your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2).
The tradition of reading from Hosea, Micah and Joel combine both the Sephardic (Hosea and Micah) and Ashkenazic (Hosea and Joel) traditions. “The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from divine healing and restoration. The selection from Joel imagines a blow of the shofar that will unite the people in fasting and supplication. Hosea focuses on divine forgiveness and how great it is in comparison to the forgiveness of man.”
Thus in reading from these three prophets, we are re-emphasizing the central themes of our High Holy Day worship experience: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah. Another way to think about these three are they represent the head, the heart and the hands. One is a spiritual, mental accounting of where we have gone astray during the past year, and how we can work to realign ourselves through acts of turning, returning, and seeking forgiveness. The second is a genuine expression of the heart through the power of prayer to find the strength to engage in acts of teshuvah. And the third, tzedakah is more than charity, it is deeds that bring greater justice into the world. None of these are easy, in and of themselves, but true change is never easy. It takes more than one day and possibly more than one season of the Yamim Noraiim.
Thankfully we are presented with the gift of this season to keep working on becoming the people who we always wish we can be. It does not end with the shofar on Rosh Hashanah or with the final Tekiah Gedolah on Yom Kippur. It continues with every Shabbat, and every other day where we open ourselves to the possibility of encountering the sacred and the holy in ourselves and in the world. So, on this Shabbat Shuva, may we all find the strength to continue to engage in the sacred acts of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, so that we can all be called to turn and return to the pathways of holiness.
Shana Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week’s Torah portion begins with the words: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One, your G-d – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Eternal One, your G-d.”(Deut 29:9-11) And so we will. This Sunday night, we will gather: members of our congregation, and of our broader community, leaders of our synagogue, and twice a year Jews, friends, family, the ones we love, alongside the ones we have never seen before. Each person will come to mark Rosh Hashanah – the beginning of the Jewish year – a chance to reflect on the year that has passed and to consider how we wish to live as Jews in the year to come.
Every year we return, every year we reflect – often on the same failings, hoping to reach higher this year, but I think that we so often miss the point. The High Holy Days aren’t about making “new year’s resolutions,” as in the secular world. We gather, we stand in our mixed multitude, to reaffirm our commitment to our Jewish connection, whether we access that through our relationships with family, community, a building, a friend group, a clergy person, a piece of liturgy, a song, or simply through the tradition of showing up year after year.
The Torah is a guidebook on how to build a relationship with the Divine. If you follow the underlying precepts, you will begin to build that partnership. The liturgy of the High Holy days is surprisingly short on promises of good behavior, but instead stresses over and over again the different kinds of relationship we have with G-d. G-d as parent, as ruler, as lover, as friend, as shepherd, and more. When we return year after year, it is to renew and reflect upon that relationship, which, if we are true to it, will lead us to act justly, and to become the best person that we are capable of being. In partnership with G-d, how could we seek to be anything less?
And so as we prepare to return, I’d like to share with you this beautiful song about our returning by Elana Arian and Noah Aronson: We Return / Hashiveinu
Shabbat Shalom and L’shanah Tovah uM’tukah!
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from parashat Ki Tavo. These last parshiyot (Torah portions) are all part of Moses’ final words to the Israelites. As the Plaut Torah Commentary describes, they are part of his “final appeal and farewell …” Ki Tavo “summarizes Israel’s history, highlighted by the establishment of the Covenant. Then in covenantal style, it recapitulates blessings and curses, with heaven and earth invoked as witnesses to this formal restatement.”
In Ki Tavo, Moses teaches, “The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 26:16). But what if we are not able to observe all the mitzvot with all of our heart our soul?
As Reform Jews, we have made the conscious and deliberate choice to focus mostly on our ethical interpretations of the commandments with less emphasis on ritual observances. But even then, we sometimes fall short of our own aspirations for how we strive to live openly, and proudly as progressive Jews.
The High Holy Days are all about reorienting ourselves by helping us to return to the ways set before us by our tradition and by our personal goals. In this way, Ki Tavo ties in nicely with the observance of Selichot.
Traditionally, Selichot falls on the last Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah unless Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, then it is observed the week before (like this year). During this time, it is tradition to recite a number of penitential prayers and poems to help prepare the individual and community for the spiritual challenges as we enter the High Holy Day Season. This powerful and meaningful experience contains liturgical and poetic expressions designed to turn our hearts towards God and our true selves.
Through the reading of Ki Tisa, we are not just observing and celebrating Shabbat, we are also connecting our weekly Torah reading to our greater preparation for the Yamim Norai’im, the High Holy Days. During these days may we be encouraged to uncover and reconnect to the pathways of holiness we have set for ourselves.
With this in mind, please join us for a Dessert Reception this Saturday, September 21 at 7:45 PM which will then be followed by both our musical presentation featuring Jewish Rock Star Rick Recht at 8:30 PM and our Selichot Service with Cantor Neff and our wonderful choir at 10:00 PM.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Plaut., Gunther W., ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005, pg. 1348
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei concludes with a rather odd paragraph:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal One, your G-d, grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal One, your G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut 26:17-19)
Rabbis have debated for centuries what it means to “not forget,” to blot out the memory of a people. After all, isn’t “blotting out the memory” the same thing as forgetting? It is also curious why Amalek should be so disregarded when, in this very same Torah portion, we read, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.”(Deut 23:8) Wouldn’t it make sense to want to blot out the memory of Egypt after four hundred years of slavery? Clearly, what the people Amalek did was distinctly different.
Amalek attacked the Israelites while they were weak – “famished and weary.” Worse yet, they attacked the stragglers, the women and children, the elderly, the disabled, who walked at the back, theoretically protected by the soldiers in the frontlines. I think that by telling us to blot out the memory of such a people, the Torah is teaching us that attacking the weak is the worst kind of behavior. Again and again the Torah tells us that it is our job to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. We must visit the sick and care for the elderly. A people who do not respect this, are not worthy of memory, yet we MUST remember them because it is in remembering that we learn the lessons of the past. So this is a different sort of remembering that the Torah is teaching us – a process of continually denying an evil the power to re-emerge. We continually blot out this type of behavior from our world because its perpetuation poisons us all. We blot out the memory of Amalek to protect our society. We must never forget our responsibility to continually blot it out.
Cantor Sally Neff
Much of this week’s parasha, Shoftim (magistrates), is focused on the importance of setting of a proper legal system. Moses speaks about all sorts of important facets to this system including, “a single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more.”
The underlying premise of all of the rules found in Shoftim is that there can be no shalom (peace) in the land until a system allowing for legal redress is established.
I am currently listening to a podcast entitled, “Against the Rules with Michael Lewis.” I was introduced to it by one of my colleagues. In its description, this podcast “takes a searing look at what’s happened to fairness—in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more. And he asks what’s happening to a world where everyone loves to hate the referee.” Michael Lewis asks some very tough questions especially about what happens when there no longer is a referee, and who suffers because of it.
Fairness is not necessarily a central concept to Jewish practice, but inherent to Judaism is the pursuit of what is just and right. As it states in the beginning of Shoftim, “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue.” This phrase is known well, but what is equally as important is what follows, “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.” This idea of thriving in the land being connected to the creation and support of a just and right society may not be uniquely Jewish, but it is a core part of our tradition and our mission.
This is possibly why Jews have suffered throughout the millennia because we have served, in a way, as God’s appointed referee. As a people, we are supposed to stand for what is just and right. And even in times where people are starting to hate the referee even more, how the more so is it important to stand up for what is tzedek, justice.
 Deuteronomy 19:15
 Deuteronomy 16:20
On Wednesday the Rockland County Republican Party released the a deeply disturbing video on social media. Though it was taken down by Thursday though you can still find it on YouTube https://youtu.be/ooe-f00l0pk While showing images of the ultra-Orthodox community with ominous music in the background the video proclaims, “What’s at stake? Our homes, our families, our schools, our communities, our water, our way of life … if they win we lose … a storm is brewing in Rockland.” The video is filled with antisemitic tropes but defended under the guise of “overdevelopment.”
On Tuesday in Lincoln Terrace Park in Crown Heights, Abraham Gopin, a Chasid, was attacked while exercising. A young man approached him, shouted an antisemitic slur before hurling a large paving stone at Gopin. He knocked out Gopin’s front teeth and fractured his nose.
As Eli Steinberg wrote for the Forward, “You’ve all heard the story: A Haredi Jew violently assaulted in broad daylight somewhere in New York City. It happens so often now, with what is almost a chilling regularity, it’s virtually impossible to miss. According to the NYPD, anti-Semitic hate crimes have skyrocketed in the past year; the 145 complaints so far in 2019 alone are sharply up from 88 in that same time frame a year earlier — a year which itself saw a 22% increase from 2017.”
Thankfully the Rockland County video was condemned not only by New York’s Attorney General, but also by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Unfortunately this is not usually the case. The rise in antisemitic attacks in New York are called out by the Orthodox community, but rarely discussed in the non-Orthodox world. Trump’s questioning of Jewish loyalty is called out by the left, while Tlaib’s questioning of Jewish loyalty is called out by the right.
Sadly, antisemitism is becoming an increasingly partisan issue, while being excused if one supports the politician or party of the person spewing the hate. Antisemitism is antisemitism, and it must be called out and condemned regardless of who is speaking it. To all politicians I say, stop using Jews and/or Israel to further your political ambitions. Your use of us, only further endangers us from those who would seek us harm.
Back to the video, are there bad actors in the Orthodox community? Absolutely. Is overdevelopment a cause of major concern, certainly. However, these issues need to be challenged through all appropriate legal channels. Laws, regulations and rules must be enforced. Rockland Clergy for Social Justice is one such organization fighting on behalf of the students of East Ramapo School District. Among the members of this organization are a number of Rockland rabbis, myself included.
In contrast to the video, there are ways to challenge frustrating developments in Rockland County without putting a target on the back of Jews writ large. It is one thing to challenge the actions of a person. It is another to indict a whole community. Anger towards Jews leads to violence towards all Jews. For as we know, when one Jew is assaulted simply for being Jewish, we all become targets to be assaulted. Lest we forget, the communities that were attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway were not, for the most part, Orthodox communities.
The Rockland Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education recently welcomed back to Rockland Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt’s new book Antisemitism: Here and Now, confronts the reality of modern day antisemitism. I plan on speaking more about it at our upcoming High Holy Day services. Needless to say, there are ancient tropes being resurrected by all sides for political, social, educational, and geographic reasons, to name a few.
We have an obligation to ourselves and our brethren to call out antisemitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Or to borrow from that disturbing video, “if (anti-Semites) win, we lose.”
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 The virulent accusation of Jews poisoning the wells dates back to the early middle ages. It is a trope that sadly has never gone away, and many Jews have been murdered after being accused of poisoning the water of a local community.
This week we will be reading from parashat Eikev. Rather than do my usual exploration of the parasha for the weekly D’var Torah, I’ll first be presenting a passage from Deuteronomy and then following it with a commentary from Rabbi Pinchas HaCohen Peli.
A piece of background, Rabbi Peli was a Jerusalem-born scholar, rabbi, essayist and poet. Rabbi Peli was also a renowned Modern Orthodox Scholar and a Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In Deuteronomy we find the following passage, “For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord Supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
In the words of Pinchas Peli, “According to the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) the injunction to love the stranger and treat him in justice and mercy appears no less than thirty-six, some say forty-six times in the Bible. The fact that it is reiterated so many times tells us two things: first, that it must be of utmost importance in the eyes of the Bible; secondly, that it is most probably a neglected area, or something which people are liable to forget, to overlook, or even find all kinds of “explanations” to do away with. The Torah repeats again and again: Remember, you must not mistreat the stranger within thy gates, nor can you evade the issue.” 
As Peli goes on to explain further, “The proper treatment of the stranger which the Bible requires of us does not remain the realm of the lofty ideals paying lip-service to human rights in general. It is spelled out over and over again, in concrete terms. It must be expressed in equality in law and justice (Leviticus 24:22), in equal working conditions and equal pay for labor (Deuteronomy 24:14), an equal share in welfare support (Leviticus 25:35), and above all in respect and love. This last requirement, love, being the hardest is repeated several times, and reaches its peak in the Code of Holiness (Leviticus 19:33): ‘And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger … shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
‘Love him like yourself’ could very well mean, love him because he is like yourself. He is a human being with feelings and emotions and has the right to live with you in dignity. The conclusive close, ‘I am the Lord your God’ is said in the plural: ani hashem elohi-khem. Why? Rashi says: I am your God. I am as well his God. And Heschel said: ‘God is either the father of all man, or of no man.’”
On this Shabbat, may we be inclined to remember that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Not only to remember our past, but also to use our past as a guide to help us in how we treat the strangers among us today.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Deuteronomy 10:17-19
 Peli, Pinchas, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, B’nai Brith Books, 1987. Pg. 209
 Apologies for the gender specific language. When I quote, b’shem omro, in the name of others, I like to do it verbatim even if the language choice is not one I would use in the same circumstance
 Peli, Pinchas, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture, B’nai Brith Books, 1987. Pg. 212
This week we will be reading from parashat Va’et’chanan. There is a lot going on in this Torah portion including both the restatement of the 10 Commandments as well as the text of theShema and V’Ahavata.
One thing that has always struck me about Judaism is that we are not a dogmatic tradition, for the most part. In some more traditional communities there is the expected adherence to Moses Maimonides 13 principles of faith, but even then there are disagreements over how these are to be interpreted. However, for our purposes, the one statement of faith, if you will, is that there is one God. However, even with this, there is not a statement about what God is, or even, what God is not. This is in part why, we as Jews, spend so much time debating and wrestling over both the nature of God as well as trying to understand what God wants from us.
And if there is no universal agreement in our tradition over the nature of God or the paths we should be walking, how much the more so, there is a great deal of space for us to disagree over just about everything.
In our tradition, there are a couple of useful concepts with it comes to sacred disagreement. The first is: mahloket–as conflict, debate, disagreement, controversy. The second is l’Shem Shamayim / Lo L’Shem Shamayim: An argument considered ‘for the sake of Heaven’ or ‘not for the sake of Heaven.’
Sadly, in today’s world, especially in social media, but not exclusively, any makloket is mostly lo l’Shem Shamayim, not for the sake of heaven. It is for the sake of winning, for the sake of ego, or the sake of simply wanting to be right. Rather, our tradition teaches, sacred arguing should be focused on uncovering greater truths and greater understanding, or l’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.
On a personal note, it has taken me many years, and many hard lessons to learn that social media is not the place for mahloket. This is why I rarely post anymore, and why I don’t get involved in arguments anymore, at least online. It is simply not an environment conducive to sacred argumentation. When you cannot see the face of the person you’re engaging with, it is easy to create a false image of them in your mind, and forget that they too, are created in the image of God.
There is much that is upsetting and distressing in the world today, and I will continue to argue, hopefully l’Shem Shamayim, from a position of Jewish tradition. But from spaces where we can encounter each other in sacred and meaningful ways.
May this Shabbat be for you, a sweet and restful one, and a place to continue to wrestle and struggle, for the sake of Heaven.