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High Holiday Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5778
Mitzvah as Opportunity
Rabbi Michael Pont

I am in my 18th year as a rabbi, or chai! Over time and with experience, I’ve come to understand the kind of Jewish leader I want to be. Namely, my goal is to express to people that Judaism is life affirming and positive. I thank you for your faith in me, which has furthered my confidence. But I didn’t always feel so empowered.

On Simchas Torah my first year of rabbinical school, at the Jewish Theological Seminary or JTS in Manhattan, we were dancing with the Torahs. I saw a student who wore his tzitzit or tallis fringes out, and when he danced with passion they flailed about, not unlike an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Borough Park or Jerusalem. I watched in amazement, and then with apprehension. I thought, “Am I a good enough Jew to be here? Am I religious enough? Do I know enough Hebrew, Torah, and Talmud?” Those little fringes became a source of anxiety for me! I was at the very beginning of my rabbinic training, and doubt was creeping into my consciousness.   

A Seminary professor, who was also a rabbi, asked the student, “Why do you wear your tzitzit out?” The student replied, “Well, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah. And it’s a symbol of my identity, showing that I’m proud to be Jewish.” The rabbi said, “So is a bris, why don’t you wear that out!?”

I think the professor meant that there are many ways to show Jewish pride – overtly ritual behaviors make up only one such category. But some twenty years later, this exchange says something about being an American Jew today.
There is a sense that most Jews, including us, are not “Jewish enough.” Many Jews do not come to shul often, nor do they keep kosher, and I regularly hear them say, “I’m not that religious.” We think that if we’re not doing EVERYTHING we’re not genuine. As if being Jewish was an all-or-nothing proposition, we tell ourselves, “I don’t want to do a lot of that ritual stuff, so I’ll never be a good Jew.” Dr. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS, claims that this sentiment stems in part from our perception of God. Comparing our view to that of Christians, he wrote, “Their God … instructs humanity, and does so out of love and elicits love in return. Our God sets forth laws in anger, and we obey these commandments in fear of God’s wrath. The Torah and the gospels are of course more complicated than that. But the complexities are lost on all too many Jews who, I fear, are distanced from the life of mitzvah because they see it as mere servitude. Their loss and ours is immense.” (HHD MESSAGE 5768)

Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. There is only One True Judge, who shows mercy in the face of our shortcomings. Ultimately God is compassionate, and Judaism is about love, not judgment. All of us do mitzvot every day: ritual ones like attending services and lighting Shabbat candles, and ethical ones like feeding the hungry and giving tzedakah. Both categories are critical for living a full life, and both are equal before God. Now if I stopped here, you could tell your friends, “My rabbi said I’m a good Jew and I don’t have to change a thing.” Sorry, but I’m not saying that. Every Jew, indeed every person, should regularly review their behavior and ask, “What else could I do to make my life more whole? What else could I do to make the world a better place?” When we ask ourselves these questions with sincerity, that is teshuvah. Teshuvah means return, in the sense that we revert to our truest selves, the people we are meant to be and hopefully want to be. We should wrestle with ourselves and strive to do good and to bring more positive energy into the world; doing a mitzvah is how we bring that positive energy. So yes, all of us are good Jews, if we push ourselves to grow.

Mitzvot allow us to maintain standards which unify us as a community. We should do as many as we can because we realize that every act will add holiness to our lives, and joy to the world. A mitzvah is a chance to feel fulfilled as a human being.

Rabbi Harold Kushner articulated this type of thinking. He wrote that the clear majority of non-Orthodox Jews perform the mitzvot we choose to perform; living in America, a democracy, we expect to have freedom of choice. Many people see Jewish rituals as arbitrary and irrelevant, and don’t believe that God will reward unquestioning obedience. Kushner wrote, “Obedience is a child’s definition of being good; our adult congregants deserve something more.” (Conservative Judaism in an Age of Democracy, Conservative Judaism, Summer 2007, p.6) He suggested a redefinition of the term mitzvah, from “commandment” to “…opportunity, the opportunity to be in touch with God by transforming the ordinary into the sacred.” ibid. p.9) I believe that this ability, to create holiness, is what it means to be made in God’s image.

In Genesis, we read that after forming the animals, God spoke to them saying, “Let’s make a human being in our image.” (1:26) In other words, God wanted to make a new creature: part animal and part divine. Like other animals, this being will eat, sleep, and procreate. But it will also make room for its divine side when it asks for forgiveness, acts with compassion, or chooses to fast when hungry, showing restraint. These behaviors are mitzvot, and doing a mitzvah is a chance to experience holiness and to fill one’s life with deep meaning.

If I tell you to do Jewish acts solely because they’re in the Torah, or simply because God said so, I feel disingenuous. We all know that we don’t have to do mitzvot, rather we choose to do what we wish. But, when I implore you to do mitzvot because I know they will enrich your life, I feel most alive as a Jewish leader and more connected as a member of the community. I know how powerful it is, to be able to take an ordinary moment and to make it holy. As Jews, we do not find God in places; we find God in moments; this is the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. To be human is to choose to transform an ordinary moment into one where God is found. When you say Hamotzi over a sandwich, God is there with you; and when you share some of that sandwich with a homeless man in NYC, God is there too. To do a mitzvah is to encounter the divine. I believe this is what Moses meant when he declared, “These mitzvot … are not too hard for you, neither are they far off. They are not in heaven … neither are they beyond the sea … but they are very close, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do them.” (See Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Mitzvot are the system to be holy and to meet God.

I’d like to suggest a few mitzvot that can bring us together as a community and allow us to make room for God. The first mitzvah will take you less than one minute - lighting candles on Friday night. We begin Shabbat by lighting candles, which reminds us of the first light of Creation. For many, it reminds us of watching their mothers and grandmothers light. Knowing that generations of Jews performed this transformative ritual is part of what makes it so powerful.

In fact, I am so convinced of its power that next month, I am going to send two candles to every Temple family – MJC’s gift to you! At home, I want you to take an ordinary moment and make it special with two simple acts – lighting candles and saying a blessing. Don’t worry about how you’re dressed, or what’s for dinner, or what time you start – just allow the light into your home and into your life, literally and spiritually! 

We have many Shabbat meals and programs here at MJC. But I’m still mailing the candles because I want you to feel the joy of Shabbat in your home, where you’re probably most comfortable. Again, you don’t have to, but I’m urging you to seize this opportunity for goodness.

I have a few suggestions for ethical mitzvot you can do with MJC. Please donate generously to the Corners of Our Fields food drive. There are bags on your seats with a list of what’s needed for Fulfill NJ, formerly known as the Monmouth and Ocean Counties Food Bank. No one should be hungry and this is a way to help right here in our community. Please donate blood at our annual Fall blood drive on Tuesday, October 10: give the gift of life. We are helping Texas and Florida rebuild, by collecting
gift cards – you can bring them to the marked boxes here and at the Chai building. Please be generous in all your donations. Our Men’s Club is considering a trip to Texas to help - watch for details. In my family, we are helping as well – we’re fostering a dog from Houston named Buster! Finally, we are exploring ways to stand together against hate, affirming the Torah’s teachings, that every person is created in God’s image and has great potential. This will be a theme of this year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving service.

When all is said and done, this sermon is a sales pitch. I’m urging you to buy my product because I know it will change your life, and I would never tell you that you’re a bad person if you don’t buy it! I much prefer to dip your apple in honey, instead of vinegar. Mitzvot are opportunities to excel and to achieve holiness – they are not a source of guilt. On behalf of Natalie, Gabe, Emma, Dani, and our dogs Tommy and Buster, may all of us try our best this year, shanah tovah!


ROSH HASHANAH - Rabbi Ron Koas


A man walked to the top of a hill to talk to G-d. The man asked, "G-d, what's a million years to you?" And G-d said "A minute." Then the man asked: "Well, what's a million dollars to you?" and G-d said: "A penny" Then the man asked: "G-d.....can I have a penny?" And G-d said: "Sure.....In a minute."

Every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we make new resolutions and plan how to fulfill them. We promise ourselves that this year we will be better people, improve our health, or excel in our careers. We take time to look inside, analyze the successes and mistakes of the past year, and plan to improve our futures.

On Rosh Hashanah we’re granted a unique chance to pause our hectic schedules and take the time we need to think about our lives. What are our most important values? What are our goals? How can we improve ourselves and the world around us? How can we use this holiday as a time to start a transformation?

This year, while searching for inspiration, I came across a mini-documentary from the New York Times about an incredible man who took his life into his own hands. It’s a story of complete transformation. I fell in love with his story and want to share it with you today.

Dr. John Kitchin, was a hot-shot neurologist who seemed to have it all: a top-notch job, financial security, a fancy assortment of sports cars, an exotic animal farm and more. However, John was empty. After a failed marriage and eyesight issues, he realized it was time to reevaluate himself and his life. After looking to his career and questioning his work as a doctor, John had an epiphany: it was time to make a change. But unlike so many others, he actually took action.
John knew that all his wealth and material things did not bring him lasting happiness. But for him to be fully aware of his situation, John took a step back, did some deep thinking, and thought about the big picture and his purpose and role in this life. He did this by asking himself just one question:
“How much of today promoted me spiritually, and how much of it promoted me financially?” John finally realized that despite spending countless hours and years of his life devoted to his career as a doctor, he was not satisfied.
John made drastic changes. He sold his house and possessions and moved to San Diego. There he stumbled upon his true happiness – slowly roller blading by the beach – and even took on a new name – Slomo. 

After making the radical transformation from Dr. John Kitchin to Slomo, he received many criticisms of his newfound identity. Slomo said, “Nobody thought I was normal. Even me, I had been trained to think this was a type of mental illness.” However, Slomo didn’t listen to the “haters”. He had been a hater before, he had lived the life that others expected of him. But now that he had experienced a sense of divinity in his skating, he knew that no other thing in this world could bring him the same amount of joy and satisfaction.
Slomo has found his happiness. But how can we find our happiness? How do we make changes in our own life? How can we improve ourselves? How can we find our calling?

I’ve come up with what I believe to be the three most important lessons or steps we can learn from Slomo’s life in order to ignite passion and happiness in our own lives this coming year. I want you to view these steps as my take on how to make changes in our lives easier. You don’t need to follow them to the letter, just take their value and see how you can apply these lessons to your own lives.
1. The first is becoming more self aware. We need to try to realize who we genuinely are and do so by asking the difficult questions. Why do we do what we do? We need to take a step back and find out of what makes us tick – what makes us happy, what makes us sad? What can we talk about for hours on end without ever growing tired? What makes us come alive?

This is a process. It takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. But the simple fact that you begin asking yourself these questions means that you are challenging and getting to know yourself. This introspection is something that our tradition tasks us to do during the high holiday season, and I urge you to take some time in the coming days and weeks to do some deep thinking.

The second step is recognizing the need for change. For a moment, let’s look back one year ago on Rosh Hashanah 2016. What did each of us promise to change? Did we adjust something we really wanted and needed to change? For many of us, myself included, the answer is no. In the end, this realization might leave most of us feeling let down and disappointed. But I believe that we can use that frustration to help us with the year ahead. We must take that frustration and disappointment and funnel it into creative, positive energy that can help us with making changes. It’s time to take action. As Hillel asks in Pirkei Avot, “Eem lo achshav eimatai?” -- “If not now, when?”

This leads me into the third step -- ensuring that our desire for change is translated to action and that actions lead to actual change. For changes to be of true value, they have to be lasting and consistent. I’m not saying that we need to make changes as drastic as Slomo did. What I am saying is that even for the smallest changes, we need to find the drive and the courage to approach them on a regular basis. We need to remain consistent and in order to do so we need to figure out exactly what our goals should be.

Ask yourself the following: How am I going to live the next ten years of my life? Yes, ten years, not five, not three, not just next year. How can I apply what I learned from my introspection to my vision of the future? What actions, large or small, can I take to work towards happiness? Once you have your answers, other questions emerge: How can I keep track of my progress? How can others help me? How can I keep progressing once I’ve accomplish my first goal?

Without a true plan of action, it’s very difficult to stay committed. With an action plan, you are able to take your life into your own hands, and stay on track.
This Rosh Hashanah prove to yourself that you can make a change. I encourage you to go through this process: start a process of introspection, recognize the need for change, and then take action. You can make this as easy or difficult as you want. My suggestion? Choose one easy decision and one that is a little bit more difficult. Show yourself what you can do and stick to it.

At the start of my sermon, I told a story of a man asking for help from God. What’s the message? For me, it’s that we only have a short time on this Earth. If we’re not doing things that excite and bring us happiness, then what’s the point? If we’re not challenging ourselves and constantly changing, learning , and growing, why are we here?

Howard Thurman said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

So this year let’s go beyond who we are and who we think we can be. Let’s recognize that we are on an amazing journey. Let’s look deep inside. And Let’s not be afraid to make the difficult decisions, so that in turn, we can improve our lives, the lives of those around us, and make the world a better place.
Shanah tovah, happy and healthy good year.

Rabbi Michael Pont

Once every few years, Yom Kippur and Shabbat coincide. While it feels odd to fast on a day when we are used to eating well, there is nevertheless a strong connection between these two holy days, a connection involving memory. The word yizkor reflects the meaning of the fourth commandment: “Zachor et yom ha shabbat l’kadsho.” “Remember the Sabbath Day to make it special.” (Exodus 20:8)

The Hebrew word zachor encompasses more than its plain meaning. In his commentary on the Book of Exodus, scholar Nachum Sarna wrote, “It means to be mindful, and signifies a sharp focusing of attention, on someone or something. Zachor embraces concern and involvement, and it leads to action.” (See Etz Chayim p.326) Multiple times in the Torah God tells us to remember that we were slaves, so that we will act with compassion. For us, zachor means remember and act – memory leads to doing.

It is easy to remember Shabbat which comes every week, and the seder reminds us of freedom and empathy. But how do we keep loved ones in the forefront of our minds? According to neurological research, they are always there.

Douglas Hofstader, a science professor at Indiana University, wrote about memory in his book entitled I Am a Strange Loop. He claims that when one person shares their hopes and dreams, those aspirations don’t disappear upon death, rather they live on in others. This isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s how the brain works – our loved ones are in there! Each of us is a ‘strange loop,’ constantly receiving feedback, making it a part of ourselves, and in turn affecting the world. Our loops become intertwined with those of others. As Hofstader wrote, “Every normal adult human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness … lives at once in a collection of different brains, to varying extents.” (Loop, p.259) We exist in others’ brains, and others reside in ours – we are literally in each other’s heads! OnHofstader’s work, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso commented, “We are distinct individuals, so of course you are you and I am I … But we also overlap. In some ways, I am I because you are you. I am changed by what you say to me, by how you embrace or shun me, by the way you move with me in the dance of life. When your life intersects with mine, I am transformed.” (May God Remember, p.207)

Who is in your head? I want to tell you about someone who is in mine, someone who in part made me who I am – my grandpa, Irv Wasserman. We were very close: Shabbat dinner every Friday, all holidays Jewish and secular, and much more. Grandpa Irv inhabits a major space in my brain.

When I was nine years old I asked him, “Grandpa, why don’t you have a middle name?” In his raspy voice and with a straight face he replied, “Well Mike, when I was a kid my family was so poor that we couldn’t afford one.” “Oh,” I said and walked away. Whenever I tell a story or a joke, Irv is with me. In the thirty plus years I knew my grandfather, I only heard him raise his voice once - when my sister and I were bickering. Upon hearing him and seeing the look on his face, I was scared, but also sad that I had caused it. While that memory is in my head, it is crowded out by the many happy moments we shared. If I am frustrated with my own children, Irv is there, reminding me how important family is, how much I love my kids, how to be patient and keep it all in perspective.
My interactions with Grandpa Irv made me a different person, a better person, than I would have been otherwise, and I believe that he’s still with me. In a few minutes, we will recite an English reading entitled, “We remember them.” The authors, Rabbis Sylvan Kamens, who served here at MJC in the ‘80s, and Jack Riemer, wrote, “As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.” (Machzor Hadash p.572) Clearly, they understood this notion of memory.

And now we will take the time to memorialize our loved ones during Yizkor. We might shed tears as we reflect upon the joys they brought to us, and upon the many ways they inspired us. We might be regretting things we never said, or apologies we never made or accepted. We might be thinking about a parent who is no longer alive, and we yearn to feel their presence again. How ironic that our Sanctuary is crowded today – every seat is taken. And yet, we see empty chairs everywhere – chairs which our loved ones no longer occupy.
Keeping with the full meaning of yizkor, remembering our loved ones today should inspire action. The liturgy reflects this sentiment: the individual yizkor passages read, “In her memory I pledge to do acts of charity and goodness.” They are no longer here physically, but they are inside us, urging us to act in this world and uphold their values. As you say yizkor for your parent, spouse, or friend, know that they are with you, guiding you. May they help us become the people that will make them and us proud.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Rabbi Michael Pont

On Rosh Hashanah, we discussed one aspect of being an American Jew, and tonight I’d like to touch upon another. I hope that this will be an introduction to an ongoing, at times uncomfortable yet critical conversation.

As American Jews, we are among the wealthiest, the most influential, and overall the most secure Jewish communities in history. We have attained the highest echelons in politics, culture, and finance. As a result, we are widely admired. In fact, a 2017 study revealed that American adults feel more positively about Jews than any other religious group. Another indication that we’ve arrived as it were, is that people want to marry us, (pause) which was not the case in centuries past. Even the daughters of US Presidents and presidential candidates love us!

Our popularity should not come as a surprise – think of everything Jewish life offers. It is a celebration of family, of study and debate, of compassion, of music and culture. It provides structure and guidance in life’s most profound moments.
We should feel great that we are so popular. And yet, some assert that this success comes at a price, namely that we are diluting our practices, that we will assimilate, and that Judaism will eventually disappear. On marriage, the theory is that when a Jew marries a non-Jew, the result is a watering down and thus a loss for Jewish continuity. Intermarriage is common today at over 60% among non-Orthodox Jews married since 2000, so no matter what you think of the numbers, the need for a contemporary response is long overdue. How should we welcome interest in Judaism while still maintaining our distinct character?

As we discussed last week, America is fertile ground for the relatively high rate of intermarriage. My colleague Gerry Skolnik recently wrote that our country is “the land of radical free choice … today’s American Jew is less and less inclined to be bound by the ‘commanding Presence’ of God as expressed through religious authority. Jews like to customize their patterns of observance and affiliation, and certainly whom and how they love.” (Jewish Week 6/28/17)

Intermarriage is an international phenomenon, but it impacts us significantly due to our numbers. After all, there are between thirteen and fourteen million Jews worldwide, which is only 0.2% of the global population. Each Jewish partnership, and each family matters, in terms of our viability.

I am a proponent of Jews marrying Jews. But given current realities, an attitudinal shift is critical if Judaism is to survive, let alone flourish. Continuing to ostracize those who marry out is not the deterrent it was once thought to be. Instead, we should encourage these couples, indeed all couples, to live Jewish lives and to raise Jewish families.

Is it possible that American Judaism, the unique blend of individualism and community, is evolving into a viable brand? The most recent survey of the Boston Jewish community, America’s fourth largest, reveals that there are almost a quarter million Jewish adults and children, and that 47% of households are interfaith. Of the interfaith families, 57% of them are raising their children as Jews exclusively; 41% belong to synagogues, and; there are significant increases in both formal and informal Jewish education for their children since 2005. Boston’s approach is to actively engage interfaith families, and it seems to have garnered positive results. Other communities are learning from this example. If we create appropriate avenues of welcome, we might nurture more Jewish households and strengthen the Jewish people!

The Conservative movement has an initiative to welcome those interested in Judaism – it’s called Keruv, the Hebrew word meaning ‘to bring close’. At MJC we have a Keruv committee that raises awareness about these issues through educational programs, focus groups and more.

When couples want to learn more about the Jewish way of seeing the world, I’m thrilled and will support them however I can. I want to propose today a ceremony to welcome each and every newlywed couple of MJC’s extended family. I spoke to a colleague who shared his congregation’s practice. Couples stand on the bema underneath a tallis and recite the following prayer.  “God, we thank you for this precious moment. We feel so blessed to have found a partner in life, blessed to know the love of family and the embrace of community.

We come before this congregation and to this sanctuary to seek Your blessing, God, your blessing on our lives and on the home we are establishing.
Shine your light upon us that we might know harmony and companionship, that we might continue to grow together as reiim ahuvim, loving companions.
Bless our home, God. May it be a shelter of peace, a welcome gathering place for family and friends where Jewish values and Jewish traditions are daily lived. Grant us, God, length of years filled with joy and gladness beneath Your sheltering presence. Amen.” Each couple would receive a tzedakah box or some gift, and I would follow up with them, supporting their effort to live a Jewish life.

In Genesis, God decided that Adam needed a partner saying, “it is not good for a person to be alone.” (2:18) From this we understand that everyone should have a soulmate, and love between two people is sacred and should be celebrated.

I would love to hear your feedback and/or your family story as it pertains to this issue. G’mar chatimah tovah, may we work together to ensure the Jewish future, and may we be sealed in the Book of Life for blessings and for peace.

Tue, January 16 2018 29 Tevet 5778