I began last year’s D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeira with the following story: When I was living in Israel as a rabbinic student, I asked my roommate a simple but profoundly complicated question: why do the Palestinians and Israelis fight so viciously with each other? He paused for a moment before saying, “because they’re brothers. And who do you fight more with than your family?” They are brothers because of the relationship we learned about in Vayeira between Isaac and Ishmael, the progenitors of Judaism and Islam respectively.
Among the impeachment hearings and the Astros cheating scandal, of which I have very mixed emotions, another event was unfolding. It all started when, just a few days ago, Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Ata, the military leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Baha Abu Al-Ata was responsible for several attacks carried out against Israel this year, such as missile strikes towards the Israeli city of Sderot in August, and against the city of Ashdod in September. In response to the killing, Islamic Jihad began launching rockets into Israel. Hundreds of rockets have fallen in Israel with some reaching as far as Tel Aviv, Israel’s most populous city.
Israel has defended herself with the use of Iron Dome, a product of the bipartisan Congressional support of Israel. The IDF has also responded with attacks into Gaza resulting in the deaths of thirty-four Palestinians, most of whom were terrorists. This has been acknowledged by both the IDF and Palestinian authorities.
It is the latest flare up between Gaza and Israel. As of the writing of this D’var Torah, there is a tenuous cease fire between the IDF and Islamic Jihad. On the other hand, Hamas, for the most part, has refrained from participating in the violence.
This begs the larger question as to why Hamas has not only refrained but also cooperated with Israeli authorities. The main reason for this, according to Avi Isaacharoff in his analysis for The Times of Israel  was that “Abu al-Ata was a bone in the throat of Hamas, Egypt, and even the Islamic Jihad leadership in Damascus, which ultimately agreed to a ceasefire without any achievements…None of this is to say that Hamas and Israel will cooperate from here to eternity … but this most recent escalation from Gaza and the ceasefire that is now taking effect, bring with them a rather different reality. They might, just might, open the path to at least a longer period of calm when it comes to the Gaza Strip.”
There are many conversations to be had on the relationship between Israel and the various Palestinian factions. However, what I hope we can agree upon is Israel’s absolute right to defend herself from attack including from rockets and missiles.
Amidst all of this violence, we are reminded of the words from our tradition, “Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”  Or as we learn from Leviticus Rabbah 9:9 we should not only seek peace in our own place but pursue it in other places as well. The goal is not never-ending warfare, but a final and lasting peace. Barring that, even a temporary peace is better than any type of violence.
If you are wondering what you can do, you can thank our national leaders for continuing to support the State of Israel and Iron Dome. Another option, to borrow from a statement that went our earlier this week from the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County is, “We here in Rockland County’s Jewish community have a concern not just for everyone in Israel, that they stay safe today and in succeeding days, but specifically we have a concern for our friends at K’far Silver. This boarding school serves disadvantaged, multicultural students as well as adolescents who come from countries around the world to make Aliyah alone. K’far Silver lies just miles from the Gaza border. If a rocket is fired at K’far Silver, it would take just seconds from launch to explosion…on the grounds…or a direct hit on the dormitories. We don’t know what’s going to happen an hour from now, let alone tomorrow. We do know we in Rockland have stepped up to help Israel when help is needed in the past. If you would like to show that this is one of those times and you want to step up again, please let us know by donating here. The donation you make in support of Israel today will go to fund programs and services in Israel…like K’far Silver…or the Israel Trauma Coalition.”
May peace return speedily and soon to the land of Israel and for us all. Until then we continue to pray for the safety and well-being of the inhabitants of the land and an end to all the violence.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
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 Psalm 34:15
This week we will be reading from parashat Lech Lecha. It begins with God calling to Avram telling him to go forth from everything he knows to a land that God will show him. Without even questioning the request, Avram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the people they had ‘acquired.’ As an aside, according to Nachmanides, a medieval commentator, this meant, all the people Avram and Sarai converted to monotheism. This is why people who convert to Judaism to this very day gain an extra set of parents and become ploni ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah.
Avram left the cradle of civilization at that time in Ur, and headed out to Canaan, a backwater, land on the outskirts of the unknown. It was a great leap of faith, for which Avram would ultimately be greatly rewarded, but not without pain and suffering as well.
I have been thinking about this narrative in relationship to our upcoming Veterans Shabbat. Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of WWI, which was November 11, 1918. In 1956 Congress voted to include WWII and the Korean War by declaring Nov. 11th as the day to honor all American veterans.
Traditionally Judaism has been conflicted when it comes to warfare, at least since the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome from 132-136 C.E. This is in part because since that time, until modern days, Jews have had very little in the way of political or military control over their own lives.
That being said, by the time of the Rabbis, they declared in the Mishneh that there were two types of wars, commanded wards (milhemet mitzvah) and permitted wards (milhemet reshut). As My Jewish Learning teaches, “Though there is some ambiguity on the matter, generally speaking, commanded wars refer to wars against the seven nations that originally inhabited Canaan and against Amalek (the nation that attacked the Israelites as they departed Egypt). Permitted wars are expansionary wars undertaken by Jewish kings to secure their boundaries or increase their glory…
As scholar Michael Walzer points out, distinguishing between commanded and permitted wars is very different than distinguishing between just and unjust wars. In addition, for close to two thousand years, Jews did not have the ability to fight their own wars. Thus many questions of morality (i.e., jus ad bellum, the ethics of starting a war, and jus in bello, the ethics of battlefield conduct) are under-discussed in Jewish tradition.”
Ethics of warfare aside, what we do know is that Jews have been fighting in wars since before the founding of our nation, for and against the Revolution, against each other in the Civil War all the way through to modern conflicts. More recently Jews fought for the creation and protection of the State of Israel. Jews have also fought on both sides of WWI, and we have fought for other nations in the world as well. However, the greatest numbers who served were in WWII and in Korea. This was the first time many Americans encountered Jews, which proved transformational for our society.
The men and women of our tradition who choose or who were selected to serve, were taking a leap of faith, much like Avram, that their cause was just, and the fight was right. They have served in numerous battlefields with honor and distinction and are a credit to our nation and our values as a people. Though our tradition may be conflicted about the ethics of warfare, what we are never conflicted about is our gratitude to the men and women who have and who continue to put their lives on the line for the preservation of life and liberty.
On this Shabbat where we recall the beginning of Avram’s journey in to the great unknown, we also offer tremendous gratitude to the men and women who have served our nation, whose journeys were also perilous, whose rewards were often accompanied by pain and suffering, but who often willingly and with honor chose to fight for what was right, decent and honorable.
Please join us at our Shabbat Evening service this evening at 7:30 PM where we will show our gratitude to our Jewish War Veterans and to all Veterans of our armed forces.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Sotah 8:7; Sanhedrin 1:5
This week we will be reading from Parashat Noah. Most of the Torah portion is focused on Noah and the flood, but near the end, there is also the story of the Tower of Babel. At tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvah we’ll be learning some of the potential implications and lessons from this very brief story in our Torah.
When reading the stories of creation, Noah, Babel and the like, we are often quick to dismiss them as fairytales. However, our ancient ancestors never intended for us to read or hear these stories as literal history. They are part of our sacred mythology intended to help us understand the human condition. For example the first story of creation is to emphasize the centrality of Shabbat in the Jewish experience. The Tower of Babel helps explain the multiplicity of languages expressed by humanity. And the story of Noah teaches lessons about evil, morality and ecology, just to name a few.
One of the most important themes underlying all of these stories is the significance of the partnership between God and humanity.
This is expressed at the very end of Noah where we are introduced to the descendants of Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. The last person introduced was Abram, son of Terah. It is Avram who will receive God’s call in next week’s portion Lech Lecha. Avram’s partnership with God is the foundational moment for our journey as Jews with God that has been guiding us ever since.
With this in mind, I encourage you not to think of the story of Noah as silly little tale we tell to our children. Instead it is a much more complex narrative that helps to explain the how’s and why’s of what we do as Jews. We wrestle with questions of morality, theodicy (the existence of evil), ethics, environmentalism, and simply trying to figure out what God wants from us as individuals and as a people.
These are all big questions being asked by a big story. We may all be in the same boat (pun intended), but ultimately we need to help steer it in the correct direction.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Beresheet, the first Torah portion of the year. Beresheet is all about new beginnings. With that in mind, we are beginning the year with important and significant events here and in our community.
The first is our Scholar-in-Residence weekend with Rabbi Amy Scheinerman. Rabbi Scheinerman comes to us from the greater Baltimore area where she serves as the hospice rabbi in Howard County. She is also a brilliant scholar and a teacher. Rabbi Scheinerman is engaging, entertaining. She is also the author of two recent releases, The Talmud of Relationships Volumes One and Two.
One of the reasons why we are bringing Rabbi Scheinerman in is because of our commitment to continue expanding our adult learning experiences. Aside from our weekly offerings of Torah Topics (on Thursdays) and Taste of Torah (on Shabbat morning), we offer monthly classes, films, and lectures.
So, if you are looking for a good time to begin or continue your life long Jewish learning goals, please join us at one, two or all of the events this weekend with Rabbi Scheinerman. All of them are free, except the dinner tonight which is $10/person. Please let us know if you are coming for the dinner, otherwise we hope to see you at the following events where Rabbi Scheinerman will be speaking: Shabbat Evening services at 7:30pm, Taste of Torah Saturday morning at 9:00am, Shabbat morning services at 10:30am, Saturday afternoon at 4:00pm for a wine and cheese reception with a discussion on Women’s Voices in Tradition and/or Sunday morning at 9:00am with a breakfast and presentation on Kibub Av v’Aim and the Sandwich Generation.
In addition, many of you have expressed concern over issues related to my Yom Kippur sermon on topics including antisemitism, the Ultra-Orthodox, and Rockland County. To this end, I would like to let you know about an upcoming event with an organization I am involved with, The Rockland Clergy for Social Justice (RCSJ). This organization predates my time in Rockland. It was created to fight for justice for the East Ramapo School District.
On Monday night October 28th at 6:30pm, the RCSJ will be holding a meeting entitled: The East Ramapo Crisis: Five Years Later (after the unfulfilled Greenberg Report). It will be taking place at Rockland Community College in the Technology Center Ellipse. We are expecting a number of state legislators to attend, and we would like you to join the RCSJ in encouraging our representatives to vote on the East Ramapo Legislation.
The meeting will likely be the best shot we have to encourage the passing of East Ramapo legislation this coming session in Albany. Last June, the Assembly approved a bill for a monitor with veto power for the Hempstead school district, (Greenberg’s recommendation for East Ramapo in 2015), unfortunately the Senate refused to allow a vote.
Even though the High Holy Days are all done, we very much have a tremendous amount going on at our congregation. It is part of our commitment to lifelong learning and being a force for positive change in our community. And what better ways to start our 5780 than with opportunities for new beginnings.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
During Shabbat, Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, we have both a special Torah reading and haftarah reading. The haftarah comes from Ezekiel, while the Torah reading comes to us from Exodus 33:12-34:26. This is the section where, following the incident of the golden calf and the breaking of the 10 Commandments, God instructs Moses to carve two more sets of tablets and ascend Mt. Sinai. It is here where we learn of the 13 attributes of God’s merciful nature, which we chanted throughout the High Holy Days. Moses then proceeds to write down God’s instructions on this second set of tablets.
The first set of tablets were written by the finger of God, but here, they are written exclusively by human hand. What is really fascinating is that this set of commandments looks almost nothing like the first. The first set, one could argue were focused on mostly general ethical principles that can apply to almost any society. These include the prohibitions against lying, stealing, adultery and murder.
However, in Exodus 34, the commandments are much more Israelite specific. They include the prohibitions against idolatry, offerings, and the instructions to keep the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. This is why this section is read during Sukkot, as it is a reminder to keep the commandments regarding our fall harvest festival. This section of the story then ends with the mitzvah to not “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 34:26), but that is a conversation for another day.
What are we to make of all of this? Does this mean there are actually three versions of the 10 Commandments? Possibly. But another important point is the emphasis our tradition placed on the agricultural festivals including Sukkot. That is because the fall harvest was so essential to the survival of the community, it was important to celebrate and give thanks.
As we are less and less tied to the land, it is easier to take food and sustenance for granted. But having just come out of a major fast into a harvest celebration, our tradition is connecting the heart, mind, soul and stomach, with the important concept of gratitude.
On this Shabbat where we celebrate creation and the harvest, may we be reminded to give thanks for the blessings we have in our lives and to also continue to work to make sure that all are able to celebrate with full stomachs and full hearts by contributing to our ongoing food drives or supporting organizations like mazon.org.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
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