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The Greatest Love of All

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

There is a story I’ve told several times this year of a man who got into trouble when his wife informed him that the day had gone by and he had forgotten her birthday. He told her how sorry he was, and said he would do anything to make up for it. She immediately said, “All right, tomorrow there better be something in the driveway for me that goes from zero to 200 in two seconds flat, or you’re in for it.” The next morning the wife awoke early, and looking out her bedroom window saw a small package in the driveway. She was a bit perturbed, as this was not what she was expecting. She went out and retrieved the package and upon opening it, found a handsome brand new bathroom scale! The funeral for her husband took place earlier this week.

Today is a day that God looks at the scale: Hinei baw yom hadin – today is the Day of Judgment for all of you. For me it feels as if Yom Kippur came early this year – on Wednesday, Aug. 8th to be exact – when God decided whether I should live or die. READ MORE

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“We Are Not Ready to Become Freiers”

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Tonight I want to teach you a word … just one word. It’s a word I suspect that most of you don’t know but every Israeli child does. It is perhaps the most popular word used in Israel these days, and it is not even a Hebrew word. It’s a word that goes to the very heart of the Israeli psyche. And because of that, you need to know it, the world needs to know it, and I dare say that President Obama should have been taught it from the very beginning.

We have ushered in the Day of Atonement for our sins. There are a lot of sins we’ll be speaking about as we recite the Al Chet confession of sins. But if you asked an Israeli today what is the greatest sin, he might not list anything from the Al Chet or Ashamnu. Today in Israel the greatest sin is to be a freier. The literal translation: a sucker. But it runs much deeper than that… READ MORE

Do we still know how to atone?

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Have an easy fast and a good year:

The Forward asked a series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?

  • The Thrill of Repentance, by Louis E. Newman, the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College and author of several books on Jewish ethics, most recently, “Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah”
  • In Acknowledging Our Gravest SinLawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York, and editor of “We Have Sinned — Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Chet.”
  • Owning Up to My Corrections, by Randy Cohen, author of the recent book “Be Good: How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything”
  • Hitting the Moral Reset Button, by Dan Ariely professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University

You must watch this video: IDF Chief Cantor Sings “Unetanneh Tokef”

This video clip, which was produced especially for the Jewish High Holidays, shows the IDF chief cantor and IDF soldiers singing the prayer “Unetanneh Tokef” in the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. The video features footage of the Yom Kippur War and one of its heroes, Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, who was a battalion commander in the Armored Brigade, fought in the battle of the Valley of Tears and was awarded a Medal of Valor.

Also, this you  must read … it is from one of our own.

Dear Rabbi Wohlberg,

Thank you for the kind email. Despite what you think, I was quite happy to receive pre-delivery editions of your High Holiday sermons. In this foreign time and place, your messages should provide a small sense of normalcy for at least a few minutes.

Once I got past the fact that you made time to email during such a busy time, and that you generously passed on what is usually well-guarded like a state secret, I was most struck by the tone of your email. You seemed– dare I say– lost for words. Yes, it’s rare that a Day School graduate or congregant finds himself in a war zone. You probably never foresaw this when you conceived the Beth Tfiloh idea more than a quarter century ago. If you have the time, allow me to provide you some words, something to link us during what is no doubt a tumultuous time for us both.

Quite often, rabbis and lay leaders, you included, have focused their Rosh Hashana sermons on the famous metaphor “B’Rosh Hashana kol ba’ei olam ovrim l’fanav kivnei maron”—“On Rosh Hashana all mankind pass before Him like sheep before their shepherd.” Most every modern translation pushes the “sheep” translation. It paints a nice picture, combining a grandfatherly, bearded Charlton Heston-like shepherd with Pixar-animated fluffy sheep. But it’s hardly something a boy from Baltimore or a Rabbi from Brooklyn can relate to. But there’s another, long ago lost explanation for the phrase “kivnei maron.” In his 1874 work, Jahrbuecher fuer Juedische Geschichte und Literatur, Nehemia Brull postulated that kivnei maron was not two words but one—that the space between the two words was actually a missing vowel. And so, really, the word is “kivinumeron” translated as “like a numeron.” “Numeron” is greek and latin for “a legion or troop of soldiers.” And so, the alternative translation, supported by early editions of the Talmud, Toseftah Rosh Hashana, and 10th and 12th century Genizah fragments, provides that on Rosh Hashana we pass before Him “like armies of the House of David” or “like battalions before a King.”

Some say this explanation was inspired by the Romans—the Rabbis saw the way Roman commanders inspected their troops, one-by-one, before major battles. Another explanation says that much as a battalion marches as one unit, so too the Jewish people march before God as one unit. Finally, a third says that despite the recurring theme throughout Rosh Hashana of judgment and trial, we should not forget that this is a holiday, a day of celebration. And so, like military units parading before a new monarch, we parade before the Heavenly King to celebrate his coronation renewed.

For obvious reasons, as I spend this High Holiday season in Afghanistan, I find this alternative explanation of kivnei moron more fitting than the classic “sheep before the shepherd” metaphor. And I think it works for you and your congregants as well. Anyone who has seen or stood in a military formation for inspection knows that preparation is key. We spend hours preparing our uniforms, removing loose threads, polishing rank, aligning and measuring ribbons and medals. We spend even more hours cleaning rifles and rehearsing the movements required to perform inspection arms. So too, for the High Holidays, people spend hours shopping and getting fitted for new suits or dresses, ironing dress shirts, or for you, the countless hours you spend choosing that new tie and getting the Windsor knot just right. Many of you also prepare your equipment: a machzor, a honey bear, and reading material for those long musaf moments. We get fresh haircuts…so do you. We have assigned spots in the formation…you have assigned seats in the sanctuary. We have a senior leader to bark out greetings and commands…you have a Cantor Albrecht. When the commander stands in front of us, we salute…when you go before your Commander, you bow.

Some people sweat an inspection, worrying if the commander will ask a questioned they’re not prepared to answer. Some are timid while others greet the commander confidently. Some require no more than a once-over, while others are inspected for minutes that seem like an eternity. And while this happens, the entire unit stands at attention. So too, while some are sweating God’s annual inspection, the entire congregation and Jewish people stand with them, awaiting judgment. Now, a story:

A few years ago, I was part of a week-long training exercise overlapping Rosh Hashana. Recognizing the potential conflict, I brought it to my chain-of-command’s attention weeks in advance. My commander had no idea what Rosh Hashana was, but, out of respect for me, asked “How big a deal is this?” Trying to properly frame the issue for him, I responded: “Would you schedule this exercise over Christmas or Easter?” He said he would pass it up and see what he could do, but the answer was likely going to be that it was essential that I participate. As the weeks passed, my commander continued to inform me that he was still waiting on an answer. As my fellow Marines and I packed our bags the night before departing, I figured the request was denied and prepared for a week out in the field. Not surprisingly, my mother had collected some honey sticks and dried apples, sending them to me for use in the field. After a few days and nights playing GI Joe, the first night of Rosh Hashana arrived. As the sun went down, my platoon continued to prepare for some sort of night attack. At some point though, we entered the stage every soldier dreads…the pre-battle wait. This provided the perfect opportunity. Two Jewish Marines in my company learned that I was planning on doing something that night to celebrate the holiday. And so, under cover of darkness, the three of us sat on a fallen tree, sweaty, muddy, and tired, as I led us through a few prayers and blessing the apples and honey. It wasn’t much, but for five to ten minutes, we fulfilled the commandment to be joyful during our holiday.

The next day, the first day of Rosh Hashana, my commander pulled me aside and let me know that, despite not having final approval yet, they were working on an extraction plan so that I could get to services for the second day of the holiday. I told him I wouldn’t hold my breath but thanks for continuing to work it.

We have a saying in the Marine Corps: “The Marine Corps’ gonna get theirs.” Usually, this means that when a holiday weekend arrives, you should use it as a true three-day holiday. Spend it with friends and family, go somewhere fun, because one day, somewhere, the Marine Corps will eventually get theirs. The Marine Corps always gets theirs. And it’s only now, as I write to you from Afghanistan, that I truly appreciate what this means. You see, when I was out in the field for that training exercise, on the second night of Rosh Hashana, my commander came to me and finally told me that they were pulling me out first thing in the morning so that I could make services for the second day of Rosh Hashana. He explained that when all was said and done, it was an easy decision for the higher-ups to justify, despite a supposedly important exercise, because, eventually, the Marine Corps always gets theirs. A war was going on far across the world where Marines and others truly had no choice but to spend their holiday away from the comforts of home. One day, that would be me. But for now, back home, where we weren’t under the constraints of real combat, there was no reason to keep me from my holiday. So the next morning, I was extracted from the middle of nowhere, rushed back to camp, cleaned up, and sent to services.

Unfortunately, my current situation will not allow me to celebrate the upcoming holidays in typical or traditional fashion. While there are a few bases and chaplains hosting Rosh Hashana services across Afghanistan, mine is not one of them. And mission requirements and security issues will prevent finding a ride or hopper to someone else’s service. This year, the Marine Corps is getting theirs… But there is no higher honor than to spend this important time of year standing before my commander with fellow servicemembers and allies, knowing that I also stand with a battalion passing before their King.

Thank you for the kind email. Shana Tova. Semper Fidelis.

Captain Joshua J. Chinsky ’01
United States Marine Corps

P.S. Yes, you can tell people that the Master of the Sermon finally reached Afghanistan.

Some Light Pre-Yom Kippur Fare…

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Something light to prepare for Yom Kippur … the heavy stuff comes next week!

  • Shoes You Can Use: What to wear on Yom Kippur, when leather is banned
  • Fast Food: Advice from rabbis and a nutritionist on what to eat when you won’t be eating

Shabbat Shalom,
Mitchell Wohlberg

“Why I’m A One-Issue Voter”

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Rabbi David Wolpe, the rabbi who gave the benediction at the DNC asks, “Which candidate will prevent nuclear terror?” in this Time magazine article.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

From Bikinis to Burqas: Finding the Middle Ground

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been quite a few years since I delivered a sermon to you on the
second day of Rosh Hashana. It’s been much easier preparing one Rosh
Hashana sermon and delivering it the first day here and the second day
in the Auditorium. But we are trying something different this year. We
anticipate that next year, because of its growth, the Chapel service will
be moving into the Auditorium. And while many – or most – of the
people in the Auditorium will remain there, we are hoping to encourage
some of them to move over to the Sanctuary. Part of that
encouragement is my delivering the sermon here on both days of Rosh
Hashana as well as Kol Nidre and both here and in the Auditorium on
Yizkor.

So I asked myself: what could I talk about that people who were
not here would regret not hearing and eventually want to be here. What
subject matter could I seize that would immediately capture people’s
imagination? After much thought, I decided that today I am going to
talk about BREASTS! Even I can’t believe that I just said that! I told
you that I was going to talk about a subject that no rabbi had talked
about before, and I knew I would when I woke up on Friday, May 8 of
this year. READ MORE

What’s in YOUR Kishkas?

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

This was quite a year for me! Before Yizkor I will have something
to say about my medical event of the year … of a lifetime! But, on this,
the first day of the Jewish New Year, I want to speak to you about what
was, for me and my family, the most significant Jewish event of this past
year. I spoke of it when it happened, but I speak of it again because it
helps answer a question I asked the Cantor this year which both he and I
had trouble answering.

It was on the first day of Pesach. All of my grandchildren were
playing in the backyard on the new swing set we had purchased, when
all of a sudden our next to youngest – Elana, who is three years old – fell
off the swing, breaking her elbow. She was taken to GBMC where they
felt the break was more severe than they wanted to handle. That led to
an ambulance ride to Johns Hopkins. At Hopkins, being in severe pain,
they gave Elana morphine which put her in a bit of a stupor. And
suddenly, in the midst of it all and from out of nowhere, she started to
sing a song she had learned in her preschool class … “kol od balevav
p’nima nefesh yehudi homiyah – as long as in the heart within a Jewish
soul still yearns and onward towards the ends of the east an eye still
gazes toward Zion, our hope is not yet lost. The hope of 2000 years to
be a free people in our land – the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” That’s
what she sang in her medically induced stupor – the Hatikvah! You tell
me: why? Certainly there are songs she is more familiar with; songs
like: “The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round, “Mary had a Little
Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or even “Dip the Apple in the
Honey!” What made her sing the Hatikvah? READ MORE