Planting Seeds…. a Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning

The following is my Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon for 5776

Shana Tov.  Boker Tov.  Good morning and Happy New Year everyone.

Character.  It is the template of a good person.  When we say a someone has character, We mean they are upright; Trustworthy and honest.  When we describe a person of character we see someone who can overcome hurdles, tough situations with grace and discipline.

We admire people for these kinds of qualities. Precisely because not every one can live up to such high standards.

Someone with character is devoted to their family and/ also to their work.  We use it in so many different ways.  When we say someone has character. We are describing someone who can perhaps tough out a difficult situation through discipline, fortitude as they live out their ideals.

Recently, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks latest book, The Road to Character, discusses this in detail.  He presents many stories of American heroines and heroes who possessed the qualities of selfless devotion to their families, work or vocations as examples of character and how we might begin to examine our own lives for these traits.

One of the most interesting aspects of Brook’s book emphasizes the teachings of one of the greatest 20th Century Jewish thinkers and theologians, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik.  Rabbi Soleveitchik wrote a very important book in the 1965 called “The Lonely Man of Faith”.

In it and Brooks explains Soloveitchik’s teaching very well.  The noted Orthodox rabbi talks about two archetypes or people – Adam 1 and Adam 2.  Remember the word Adam in Hebrew means human being—(besides being the name of the first human being in the Torah). And Rabbi Solveitchik’s idea is that the two creation stories in Genesis teach very different messages about human nature.

Brooks explains Solveitchik like this:

“Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature…external Adam, resume’ Adam, Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things, He wants have high status and win victories.” (p. xii)

While, “Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.”  “Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.”  (p. xii)

“…Adam 1 –the creating, building, and discovering Adam –lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic.  It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self- interest. Maximize your utility, impress the world”

“Adam 11 lives by an inverse logic,” Brooks writes.  Adam II lives by “…a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave…. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses. (Ibid.)”

Oh it’s not very in fashion now.  In our world today having character, being ethical, trustworthy and honest seems old-fashioned.  It doesn’t comport with the outrageous behaviors we see all around us; the often-shocking language, comportment and behaviors of those in the public eye. Of course there is the mean spiritedness of politics and reality television (often one cannot tell the difference between the two); the kind of selfishness of our economic theories that put the corporate fat cats above the communal good.  And don’t forget the increasing income gap in our society between the 1% and the rest of us.  This emphasis on the rights of the commercial corporations over people is an example of the lack of character and the denigration of character ideals in our country.

When Corporations matter more than people then the ideals associated with having character like selfless devotion to the community and to humanity, then we know this is not among society’s values.   When leaders pit one group against another as a way of retaining power- without an outrage then this is a how you know that the ideals of character are not among society’s values.  When all decisions are based on what feels good to me-rather than considering the impact not only on self but also on family, friends and community-then the notion that living a life with character is no longer seen as positive. We live in an Adam I world.

But on Rosh Hashanah we Jews come together to try to restore our character.  Our Jewish responsibilities, our mitzvot, are designed to help each and every adult live a life with dignity and to live a life filled with character.  The mitzvot of our tradition teach us to be honest and trustworthy. Our mitzvot speak to us of caring for our family even when they are annoying: we are taught to honor our parents, not love them.  The mitzvot of our tradition try to shape us into living up to our title- as being created B’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.  Our tradition, our Judaism (which is Solveitchik’s point) helps us to aspire to live lives like Adam ll.  Rosh Hashanah in particular and these ten Day of Repentance and Yom Kippur remind us to seek out the Adam ll parts of our being. These holy days remind us to aspire to live lives of holiness-Be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.

In society that surrounds us we are subject every day to images and sounds that eat away at our souls.  More cars and hamburgers are sold with an appeal to our base natures.  And for most of us-even those of us responsible for the creative material that is used across media platforms are forced by the powers that be to deal at the level.  Sell more product- buy more just to have more.  All you have to do is feel good.  Now there is nothing wrong with nice things-or feeling good but if this is our main goal and society’s emphasis then we are missing the point of living a life of meaning and a life lived with character. We are missing the meaning of a life filled with holiness.

I contend that this lowering of the human endeavor, this emphasis on corporate greed has translated into making us little better than the animals themselves.  When we human being operate at that level-we lower our standards and add to a world that is desensitized to human pain and suffering, that is desensitized to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, we ourselves withdraw.  We say I am only going to be concerned with myself and my family.  Selfishly we protect what we have because of course someone else is after it.  And the structure of a society that cares for its own is destroyed.  My friends, we are close if not already at that point.  When we see the body of three year old Syrian boy wash ashore because no one will address the crisis of those fleeing war and turmoil in Syria-we are barely hanging on to the lowest rung of humanity.

Yes there is the occasional outpouring of caring-a hurricane in the Philippines, an earthquake in Nepal or Haiti but it is driven by emotion-not discipline.  And so Haiti is still in deep trouble all these years later-and Nepal? Who is really helping out there still?  Noblese oblige—the nobleman and women who take pity on others to help out occasionally is so different than our notion of tzedakah—of righteous giving.  For tzedakah is a discipline.  Tzedakah is not charity.  It is righteousness.  Tzedakah is not something we do only when we are moved to but a discipline we must engage in each and every day.  Being called to righteousness develops character-rather than pity in those less fortunate than ourselves.  Tzedakah is yes a moral obligation. Not something that gives you just a tax break.

Rosh Hashanah morning and the sounding of the shofar is calling you to say – it is time to rebuild your character. The Shofar is reminding you to live a life as Adam ll. Teshuvah repentance is about recommitting your life to ideals of our Jewish tradition.  Of examining where you strayed- yes where you sinned and renewing your ability to live a life of character.  The High Holy Days is our time as a Jewish community to say we can do this together!

The Shofar this morning is calling you to look toward your God, your Higher Power, to fall in love again with the Divine Spirit of Universe and to cleave to God as the kabbalists would say.   To know before who you stand on this holy day. This is the season that is urging you to take responsibility for nurturing the Adam ll in you.

The sound of the Shofar is calling the Jewish people together to become a force for good in the world.  A force that helps society at large live lives filled with character.  We used to call that Or LaGoyim—to be a light to the nations.  We used to believe that Jews had a mission in this world—to live by ideals of Torah- I am not talking about rituals tallit and tefillin or even kashrut)  I am talking about the mindfulness that Judaism calls us to live by-in how we treat our neighbors, how mindful we are about the widow, the stranger and the orphan in our midst,  the mindfulness to remember that we were slaves in Egypt-and that we can’t, we mustn’t treat others as slaves.   Not our gardeners, nannies or housekeepers or teachers.

Sadly, our society treats us all as slaves-slaves to the corporate bottom line—with only a lucky few who get to have a piece of the pie.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that this is the season of change.  This is the season when we can affect our community.  This is the season when you can turn toward God and living a life of holiness.  Repentance, Teshuva is just that—sin drives us away from godliness, holiness but teshuvah helps us draw near again.  Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Olam, the rebirth of the world.  What will it take for you to be reborn this holy day season-and live your life with character rather than as a character?

The great neurologist, and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankel wrote in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

We who lived in concentrations camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make, (he writes).  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would become a plaything of circumstances, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate or whether you would choose instead to be free.

Today on this day of rebirth, renewal and repentance you can choose as well.  Will you freely choose to change the course from the wrongs of the past year?  The habits that hold you back?  Will you choose dignity, responsibility and living a life of character or will you choose instead to remain the same.  Repentance indicates change.  A change of attitude and action. A commitment to live with ideals and repentance indicates a turning toward living a life of holiness.

The shofar sounds for you to remind you of today’s task.  Dignity. Nobility. A sense of life’s purpose and meaning.  A deep and profound connection to our God and to the Jewish people. The shofar is calling you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And calling upon you to choose to live a life of meaning.  The Shofar is calling you home-to live out the holy responsibilities of being Jewish. The Shofar is calling you to be a part of your synagogue that stands for these ideals and to support the synagogue—a holy place that reminds us to live lives of Adam ll rather than continue to reinforce the lives of Adam l.

Ask yourself what the Shofar is calling you to do and to become today?

A successful businessman was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.

He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.” The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued, “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO.”

One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.

Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure.

Six months went by — still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however, he just kept watering and fertilizing the soil. He so wanted the seed to grow.

A year went by and the CEO asked the young executives to bring their plants to work for inspection.

When Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot, she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot to the board room.

When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful – in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him!

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. “My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!”

All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He asked Jim to come to the front of the room. Jim was terrified.  He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!”

When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story.  The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, “Behold your next Chief Executive Officer — Jim!”

Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. “How could he be the new CEO?” the others said.

Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead – it was not possible for them to grow.

“All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!”

If you plant honesty, you will reap trust

If you plant goodness, you will reap friends

If you plant humility, you will reap greatness

If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment

If you plant consideration, you will reap perspective

If you plant hard work, you will reap success

If you plant forgiveness, you will reap reconciliation

So, be careful what you plant now; it will determine what you will reap later.

Sometimes the sins, the failures we encounter along life’s path are the holiest of moments when we can turn it around, learn to surrender to living honestly.  Just as Jim seemed to fail, the truth literally set him free.  He lived his life with nobility, dignity and honesty.

This year you can plant within your soul the seeds of character. And you can nurture all year long a life that calls you to live in this way.  And this year we need you to help our synagogue remain healthy and strong by planting seeds for its future. Because if we keep living lives of Adam I,the synagogue and Jewish life will be doomed because Jewish ideals and mitzvoth are based on the life of Adam II.

It’s Rosh Hashanah the time of year where we repent and ask God and our fellow human beings to forgive us from our sins.  It is a time of starting over with a clean slate.

Hear the call of the Shofar to plant within your own soul a commitment to a life of integrity and character.  Indeed you will reap a life of meaning and blessing.

As my gift to you—on your way out today- the ushers will distribute-a packet of sweet basil seeds.  No they are not boiled—but hopefully you will go home and plant them and nurture them and grow luscious sweet basil for your cooking and your home.  The sweet basil I hope will remind you to live a New Year with sweetness and responsibility.  A New Year filled with living a life of character.  Plant goodness, honesty, trust, hope, ethical living and mitzvoth in 5776.  Happy Planting.  Ken Yehi ratzon.

Awaken My Soul: A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

Shana Tovah

Wow! Wasn’t this something.  Thank you Cantor and Jeremy and the Kol Ami New Year’s Band for such an uplifting beginning to our Rosh Hashanah 5775!


We all need awakening for the New Year.   Tonight we can say goodbye to the tzoris of last year.  For the last few months I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and keep sleeping.  I wanted to pretend that the turmoil of the world was not my concern. So many tragic happenings: War on Israel and the Gazan people who are hostages to Hamas, Ferguson, Mo and the turmoil there; drought, Children fleeing as refugees from violence to America only to be treated horribly warehoused and becoming a political football; ISIS and beheadings, Anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, the Ebola virus growing in Africa. It is enough to crawl away and not deal with it.

But this time of year-calls us, calls each of us to wake up and anticipate the possibility that with the New Year blossoming before us tonight, together Jews around the world might coach out our eternal prayer of hope for us and for the world.

We are a people who have been schooled in tragedies throughout our history. And yet, we the bearers of Jewish history, custom, tradition and values, time and again, believe that the world can be better. We cannot and must not give up the hope that through our prayer and our actions we can affect positive change.  This New Year’s arrival calls us to implement change within ourselves and in the world around us. The sounding of the shofar is vehicle for teshuvah, repentance. Its sound—the sound of a child sobbing in search of the parent he has abandoned—wakens our hearts to return to God and restore and intensify the relationship we have damaged with our transgressions.

I have taught you time and again that Teshuva, means not only repentance but also turning around.  This holy day period- this Asseret Yamei Teshuvah, These Ten Sacred Days of Turning-means that we turn ourselves around, we repent of those words and deeds that harm ourselves and our families, our world, and we turn it over to create a new life for ourselves and our world.  Think of this as a holy dance to the sacred music of the Shofar. This is the hope of our people.  We believe humanity can be better. We believe the world can be better. We believe that we can strive to walk in the ways of goodness, righteousness, and compassion. We believe that we can triumph over evil.

These are our values and the Shofar is our clarion call.

A story:

A professor walked around a room while teaching stress management to her students.

As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full?” question.

Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz., 12 oz to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it.

  • If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem.
  • If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm.
  • If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed.

In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water; think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt.  And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

So too with our sins and transgression and the problems of the world in the world. The longer we hold on to them the more incapable we become of doing anything about them.

This is what we hear in the blasts of the Shofar—tekiah, teruah, shvarim, tekiah—wake up you and you and you, wake up world, awaken your soul, and turn around. Get rid of those things that are chipping away at your soul. The sounds of the shofar are calling us to focus on hope and the New Year rather than our worries.  It’s calling us to get rid of the errors, the lies we tell ourselves and others. It is telling us through each note:  Hate evil and love what is good, as our Prophets Amos and Micah taught.

The holy days are here to shake up your soul to engage in Teshuvah and to help restore hope in yourself, the Jewish people and the world!

The Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidic Judaism, taught that just as one can grasp a physical thing by holding on to it, so can one grasp the soul by calling its name. For this reason, a sleeping person wakes up when his name is called,  (Toledoth Yaakov Yosef, Shemoth (42d)  Sefer Baal Shem Tov  Bereshit 121 Keter Shem Tov 104).

Tonight and tomorrow, the Shofar is asking you to awaken-it is calling your name out loud… Jew.  Tekiah, Jew wake up. Teruah-it’s time to turn and change, Shvarim, it’s urgent now. Tekiah—don’t go back to letting your soul sleep- awaken your soul, its time to overcome- and restore faith and hope in yourself, God, the Jewish people and in the world!

Maimonides the greatest of our Jewish philosophers and legal interpreters wrote in the opening to the Laws of the Shofar in the Mishneh Torah,  “It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as it is stated: “It shall be a day of blowing the horn to you. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, 1:1)

The mitzvah, your responsibility is hearing the notes of the Shofar. Maimonides continues “Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: “Be roused, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, wake from your slumber; search your deeds and return in teshuvah…” remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts.” (Mishneh Torah 3:4)

Maimonides understood exactly what I am saying tonight to each of you. Wake up people.  Wake up Jews.  Wake up world.  We cannot sit idly by without hope for if we do we will succumb to the evil and the horror that is present.  It will incapacitate us. In fact the Hebrew root of the word Shofar, L’hishtafer means to make better, to improve…. The Shofar is calling us to make ourselves and improve the world!

And there is evil in the world right now.  We see it every day in the headlines.  Judaism has struggled for a long time with the notions of good and evil.  But evil doesn’t exist as a separate entity challenging God.  It’s not like “the Devil made me do it!”  The Jewish truth is that human beings have the capacity to do evil. We have the moral responsibility to make a choice. And our Torah is very clear—Choose life over death. Choose goodness over unkindness; our system of Torah, our mitzvoth, our values try to elevate the human soul, shape the human soul so that we aspire to being honorable and righteous rather than to evil.  This New Year being together, hearing the shofar is a hedge against those evils.

The problem of evil also played an important role in the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. For Buber the source of evil was the failure to enter into relationship with others and God, and conversely evil can be redeemed by the reestablishment of relations. (Hu)Man(ity) is not evil by nature, but the misuse of (human) nature generates evil. (Some) can carry evil so far as to give it a kind of independent quality. However, evil is never an independent entity but such (people) crystallize it into a perverse resistance to the individual’s self-fulfillment in relation.

The late great poet and author Maya Angelou reflected on evil

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings,” she says. “ I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.”

Both Maya Angelou and Professor Buber understood that the courage to confront evil and immorality that lurks in human beings has the power to elevate us. On this Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar urges you to detach your soul from those actions that literally pull you into the chaos of our times.  Hear the call of the shofar pulling you back toward balance.  Hear the call of the shofar urging you to improve. Hear the sound of the Shofar calling for your essential beauty.  Hear the sounds of the shofar awakening you to do teshuvah. And that teshuvah is turning inward so we can turn outward. Teshuvah will allow us to redefine ourselves. We are no longer the person of the past: the person of weakness; the person who couldn’t control herself; the one who harmed others with words or actions. The process of teshuvah urged on by the sound of the Shofar will call us toward repentance of our sins and will help us restore our connection to ourselves, to God and our place in the world.  True repentance returns us to spiritual balance.

It was a snowy night and Robert was recalling the time two springs ago when he was determined to paint the family room. Up early, he was out the door, to the hardware store gathering the gallons of red, the wooden mixing sticks, the drop cloths, and the one-time brushes that always harden, no matter what you soak them in.

He mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth. He began to chuckle in telling what happened, “I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backwards, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me. I lost my balance carrying too much”

At this point, he laughed at himself, as he has done many times. Amazingly, we all do this, whether with groceries or paint or with the stories we feel determined to share. We do this with our love, with our sense of truth, even with our pain. It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: we cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.

It is a basic human sequence: gather, prepare, put down, and enter. But failing as we do, we always have that second chance: to learn how to fall, get up, and laugh. (

This is the time of year for Jews. This is the time to put down the past and enter the New Year, pull away from temptations, have the courage to face the inner self ushered and strengthened by the sounds of the shofar.  The shofar is calling us to awaken.


The challenge this New Year’s Eve-is the same for each of us.  Through Torah, prayer, reflection, and meditation; by rebuilding our relationships to one another, to the Jewish people and to God we can restore balance to the world. We can as Professor Buber teaches us overcome the evils that human beings create by committing to live a different kind of life.  By setting down the past, and walking through the opening of a new day and a New Year; through this holy day season and for the next Ten days try to restore our spiritual balance. Through making teshuvah and the call of the Shofar we can awaken to a new day and yes, a new world.  By recommitting to our covenant, our Jewish responsibilities we too will have a stake in restoring balance to the world and ourselves.  At this New Year we must awaken ourselves, our souls to the cause of justice, and hope. Of combating the evil we create. We can heal the world if we begin to heal ourselves through teshuva.

May this be our prayer.

So said the Holy Blessed One to Israel.

“My beloved children. I lack nothing that I should ask of you.  So what do I ask of you? Just that you love one another and respect one another and be awed by one another. (Tanna de be Eliyahu 2b).

This indeed is our task-so let the shofar awaken our souls to love one another.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Universal and Particular

The Universal and Particular

Next week we will be observing Rosh Hashanah. I look forward to greeting each of you at our magnificent High Holy Day services at the Artani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC )in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.  Our New Year’s observances are different than many other cultures. Most are big celebration with fireworks, parties of wild abandon and some even parades.  Our New Year begins with introspection and culminates at Yom Kippur, our day of atonement.  Our ancestors recognized that if we are going to really start afresh in a New Year that we cannot bring the hurts, grudges, resentments, sins, and impurities with us into a new calendar.

These two holy days  of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur work hand in hand.  They rely on one another. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of creation has with it an emphasis on universalism.  Its themes are a celebration of human dignity for all people.  Yom Kippur, ten days later focuses on the individual, on the particular.  It is a time of rebirth for the individual person who at the close of the gates of Heaven at Neilah, can now enter the New Year as a new you!   You can’t have one without the other because then you get a skewed view of this Season.  Rosh Hashanah and its themes and prayers and reflections move us from the universal to the particular and by end of Yom Kippur we move from the particular back to the Universal.  You can see this pattern in the Torah and Haftarah portions for the High Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah we will read from Gensis 21 and 22.  The first is the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac and Abraham.  We will learn about difficult family dynamics which is universal. We will learn about the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that he will father many nations since Ishmael becomes the link to the Arab nations and Isaac to the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 22, read together with Genesis 21 we learn about the value of children in our lives and what we must do to protect them.  These are universal themes: Parents who must protect their children, many nations tracing their ancestry to Abraham.  On Rosh Hashanah God answers the prayers of Hagar, Sarah, and in our Haftarah, Channa.  God is not the exclusive God of just men or just Jews.  But God hears the prayers of all people and all nations.  Our Haftarah on the second day reminds us however in a particularistic way that God does love the Jewish people too.

Contrast that with Yom Kippur Torah readings which remind us about our specific covenant with God.  “You stand before Me this day….” This is our particularistic Jewish covenant with God and the way in which we must “stand before the Eternal this day”, one to one, to ask for atonement for our wrongdoings, to renew our covenant and to be reminded in the afternoon how we, the Jewish people must live out our ethical and moral worldview in everyday life.  This is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah of the morning service reminding us that our covenant with God means nothing if we are so focused on the ritual that we forget how to act in the world caring for the hungry, the naked and the poor.  The afternoon portion teaches us “Be holy for I Adonai your God is holy.” The Jewish way of being in the world is definitely a higher standard.  We are reminded on Yom Kippur of that standard and as we enter the New Year, forgiven, cleansed and spiritual purified we are sent on our way with a reminder of how we should act in the New Year.  But the Haftarah on Yom Kippur returns us to the Universal in contrast with the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  The story of Jonah reminds us that repentance, teshuvah is necessary but this is not only a Jewish ideal but God’s compassion extends to all people even the sinful people of Nineveh.  It teaches us that even though Jonah is the chosen prophet of God, God is still responds to all people.

Thus our holy days work together beginning with the Universal on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur we atone in very specific, particularistic ways.  Their message speaks to us of the importance of being a moral and ethical human being in everything we do.  The holy days teach us to rise above our baser instincts and act in the world accordingly.  This is the Jewish task. And this is what we remind ourselves of and pray for during this High Holy Day season.

I look forward to sharing this New Year time with you.  Join us to kick it off with Selichot, this Saturday night, Sept. 20 for a great “Nite at the Improv” as we explore through improvisation, the Biblical stories of the High Holy Days creating our own modern Midrash.  It begins with Havdallah at 7 pm at Kol Ami.

I hope to see you there.

The Bluebird of Happiness

Below is my Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon for 5774.      



Shanah Tovah u’metukah-I want to wish each of you a happy and sweet New Year!  Tonight we have begun our New Year’s observance with exuberance, with music and song, and reflection.  Thank you to Cantor Saltzman to our student Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel and our musical director Lisa Sylvester and are musicians. You have helped us create a place of pure happiness, especially as we live in a world of chaos.  

As this holiday arrives we wish one another Shana Tovah tikateivu. We wish one another Happy New year and good inscription in the Book of Life.  This is our way of saying we hope it is a good year for you. We hope it is a happy year for you.  The New Year comes with a promise, a hope, a dream of happiness.

Our Declaration of Independence declared that each citizen shall have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! This perhaps more than many other written guidelines have defined the American ideal.  Each of us as citizens, whether native born or naturalized has, as the founders of our Country held, has the God-given right to these three things. 

          Tonight as the New Year begins I want to focus on the pursuit of happiness. This wish we give one another to have a happy life.   It is our entitlement, our right as Americans to have the liberty and freedom, to pursue our happiness.   After all isn’t living a happy life our goal? We all want to be happy.  Even the philosopher Aristotle wrote so long ago:  Happiness then, is the end of action… –the whole point of life!

Many of us spend our own lifetimes trying to search out what will make us “happy”.  Sometimes it is a new car. Sometimes it is a special vacation. Sometimes it is pursuing an educational goal.  Sometimes happiness is sought through finding the right relationship. It is different for each one of us. It is personal. It is unique.

But the Pursuit of happiness certainly has defined our American ideals. And perhaps just perhaps, it is simply an important part of being human. 

For many of us the wonderful decision that brought an end to DOMA-the defense of Marriage Act and the Supreme Court Decision that threw out Prop 8 on an issue of standing-brought a kind of happiness that many of us could have only dreamed of.  It was a day of joy; the ultimate expression of our humanity to have a relationship solemnized and to be formally recognized as a family by society.

To be really able to marry the one you love for so many of us has been fleeting.  And now that avenue of the pursuit of happiness is available.   Will all of you who are getting married or have gotten married since Prop 8 was overturned please stand?


We wish you blessings of peace and joy, health and yes, happiness. May your lives together be entwined with patience and caring through sad times and time of joy. And May you create a home filled with reverence, faith, laughter and hope.  Let us all say Amen!  (You can be seated)


Now that was a happy moment.  But happiness is a state of being not just a state of mind.  And there is science to back that up!

Years ago an experiment was conducted in which test subjects were asked to mimic facial expression for six different emotions; happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. According to the researches when the subjects showed fear, their skin temperatures dropped and their heart rates increased. Appropriate physical responses were recorded for each of the remaining expressions.

So wouldn’t it make sense to act happy, confident and positive as often as possible? That’s not to say you won’t have sad days or experience any negative feelings. It simply means that by making a choice we can embody and manifest the absolute best for ourselves. 

 Finding the key to your happiness is not just a matter of your attitude but your health!


As Daisaku Ikeda a Buddhist teacher said: One thing is certain; that is that the power of belief, the power of thought, will move reality in the direction of what we believe and conceive of it. If you really believe you can do something, you can!

You can pursue happiness.  And Act happy.

     On this first day of the New Year, we Jews are so lucky. We can toss out the past behaviors, errors and sins that block our road to happiness and contentment and we have rituals that are designed to help us move toward greater happiness.  We are encouraged to confront the transgressions that muck up our relationships and to sort through them.  That’s not always happy business. But the goal during these High Holy Days of our tradition is to lead you through a process that will restore and purify your spirit, purify your soul in an effort to create a space of spiritual contentment. Rosh Hashanah and our traditions try to restore the balance in your life – so that you can be happy.

          Judaism recognizes that contentment and peace are huge part of the happiness equation.  If you are content with your lot in life, the Mishnah teaches you are rich indeed.

          In Jewish tradition that is why we say 100 blessings a day. We try and frame our day with a certain kind of mindfulness. A deep sense of gratitude for everything; from the food we eat, to the ability to get up in the morning, to move your bowels, and to have the chance to learn something new! Everything has a bracha, a blessing.  Not to be cumbersome-but to remind you of how much we have to be grateful for each and every day.  And the blessing, the bracha, is a way to take an inventory and remind yourself; how happy you should be given the many blessings in your life.  The blessing is the antidote to difficult moments. And if you are affirming the goodness in your life, well then you tend not to focus on the irritations and setbacks.

          This isn’t to ignore existential pain, physical pain or suffering. These are real and disrupt our inner and outer worlds. And yet even when we are faced with such overwhelming grief or distress, to continue with life we must “count what blessings we have”.  Appreciating our blessings, even if they seem few in number help lead us on a path toward greater contentment and the ultimate gift of peace and happiness.

          There is a great emphasis on mindfulness meditation.  Time and again people are telling me that their doctors and psychologists are recommending they take mindful meditation classes to help with everything from their high blood pressure to their anxiety disorders.  This is exactly what prayer is about.  We are here these 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to engage in mindful meditation about our lives and how to restore our souls and our bodies to a state of equilibrium!  We do this each week as Shabbat services.  And in truth if you pray daily as a Jew this is the goal! We Jews wrote the book on mindful meditation and how prayer can lead to a fuller, happier life.

A sign in a pet store read, “If anybody has seen the Bluebird of Happiness? It used to live here but seems to have flown away.  The bluebird of happiness supposedly flies over the rainbow somewhere, elusive at best.  But when we can find it, all happiness and joy can be ours.

     But Joy and happiness are not always the same things. Happiness can be thought of as more of a temporary, emotional condition, often based on outside circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is deeper. It is often contentment in spite of the unsettling present. We can be basically joyful, regardless of a particular unhappy situation that we may be enduring. It is sometimes just a matter of keeping perspective on our troubles, and especially when those troubles seem to be in long supply.

You may know the story of the man who had a marvelous way of keeping joy in his life. He was a carpenter (No, not that carpenter.). He followed the same ritual every day when he came home from the job. He stopped by a small tree in his front yard and placed his hand on a couple of branches. Then,

when he walked into his home, it was as if a magical transformation had occurred. All of a sudden, the stress was lifted from him. He became energetic and joyful, dare I say happy, able to fully interact with his children and his wife.

He explained it this way: “That tree is my trouble tree. When I come home I stop by the tree and, just like I leave my tools in the truck, I leave my troubles outside of my home. I hang them on that tree before greeting my family. Anything that does not have to come in my house stays outside. Anything that I do not have to deal with at home, I leave on that tree. And in the morning, I stop by the tree and pick up the troubles I left there in the evening.”

       Then he adds, “It’s a funny thing, though. Every morning I always find fewer troubles remaining than I hung the night before.”

     Here is a man who has no doubt seen the Bluebird of Happiness.

Chances are it is nesting in a tree just outside his home. 

     For most of us we too get so caught up in the things that drag us down during a day that we forget to leave our troubles outside our home.  The ancient tale of the bluebird of happiness teaches us that happiness is often found just near our own homes! Happiness and contentment is close to home, with our family and friends who add meaning to our lives.

     But studies show one more thing-and that is happiness changes over time—we are not static in our desires and dreams-rather our sense of self and our needs change as we change, as we age.  What made us happy at 21 is different than at 40 and different yet again at 70 or 90.   We are different people in the course of our own lifetimes. 

      The Grant Study was a longitudinal study of 238 men who graduated Harvard University in 1938-1940, of course this study might be flawed because it contained no women and tracked college graduates. Nevertheless, it does give us a glimpse into a long time over 75 year study of a group who was monitored and checked with over the course of their lifetimes.  And the universality of the results were astounding. There are five lessons that come from this study, (

Love is all that matters, being a part of supporting and caring relationships is the most important factor in this study. But equally important is not pushing away love. Moving from the narcissistic self, focused on the “me”, and being able to move to care deeply about others also was an important factor.  We call this maturity.  Connections with other people are a must especially as we get older. As we age our circles of people who cared about us gets smaller and so for our own longevity, and reduction of stress we need other people.   Money and Power was not the key to happiness, it contributed something to the equation but when measured against the full life, the biggest factor was contentment at work.  You can make a lot of money but be miserable at your job and the money isn’t comforting in the end. It might make things easier but true contentment and peace comes from the satisfaction you get from your work. Finally, the ability to change your perspective-make lemonade out of lemons is crucial. These five factors were the results of this long term study.

     But how do we get there? What tools do we have for helping us find the secrets to a happier life? Many Jews look elsewhere, they seek it out in Buddhist practice, they explore political philosophies and politics as if it is their religion. They try new age spiritualties as an authentic expression that they can relate to.  I went to a service at Agape with a friend not so long ago and there were more Jews sitting there than here tonight! 

  My dear friends, I want to let you in on a secret.  Judaism is an age-old recipe for living a life of happiness.  Perhaps you don’t know it well.  Perhaps you didn’t have a strong Jewish education, perhaps the Hebrew has been a barrier or you think the only brand of Judaism that is authentic is an Orthodox one. And you say to yourself I can never do all those things like stop driving on Shabbat or wear those clothes or only eat kosher. I know more people in this room that limit their kind of food in one way or another-some of you are vegan, or gluten free, or carb free, or dairy free. You have the discipline and capacity to live out your values in your food consumption.

  But if you look at contemporary Judaism, even as we age and our focus on what makes us happy as human beings, Judaism is really a constant. It reminds us that we ought to live in a moral universe and we human beings ought to live our lives no matter what age we are—seeking contentment and happiness through the goodness of our character and, as the Grant study at Harvard showed the relationships we build.  .

Judaism teaches us happiness comes not from things but from relationship.  Just a tree blooms and bears fruit from the watering of stream as it says in the first chapter of Psalms, a person has contentment when they have right relationships with people and with their Higher Power-that we Jews call God. When we water and nurture our spirits and our good character then we are on the path toward happiness.  For these next ten days we are focused on getting right in our relationships. This is a time to own up to your mistakes, this is time to make amends. These next 10 days are part of your natural Jewish path towards a life of happiness, contentment and peace.

      Our tradition –teaches happiness is not found in external things but within ourselves-

“A truly happy person does not allow his happiness to be dependent on any external factor over which he may not have control.” (Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, pp.331-2) Teaches an ancient Jewish text.

The happiness factor in Judaism comes not from how much money one has or how big a home, because our tradition teaches that things are fleeting. As the book of Ecclesiastes taught us that everything, all labor can add up to is nothing but vanities—one day we are have money and the next it can be gone with the whims of the market.  We all sat here at Rosh Hashanah 2008 in panic because the accounts we had were tanking. Money comes and goes, jobs are not forever but to be truly happy is to be content in yourself.  That is the key to happiness according to Jewish tradition is to be someone who is just and kind and moral.  Be a person who is a mensch.   Then we will know true happiness because we will find that contentment comes when we have made peace with ourselves, peace with our loved ones and peace with God.  

The key to happiness is not out there.  But in Here.  In You.  The key to happiness can begin on this Rosh Hashanah and help you re-order, re-prioritize and return to yourself.  That is the nature of Teshuvah. It helps us return to the pursuit of happiness grounded in our authentic selves.  Thus equipped we can through the process of these High Holy Days, seek authentic relationships, feel love, feel our own worth, and remember that God made you just as you are. The Sound of the Shofar is calling to you to remind you of that spark inside you that is God’s presence and can radiate through you into the world.  When you let that spark shine through your actions, your mitzvoth, and your attitude it will change you for the better. There was a boy, whose family was very wealthy. One day his father took him on a trip to the country, where he aimed to show his son, how poor people live. So they arrived at a farm of a very poor family, as he considered. They spent several days there. On their return, the father asked his son, did he like the trip. “Oh, it was great, dad” – the boy replied. “Did you notice, how poor people live?”. “Yeah, I did” – said the boy. The father asked his son to tell in more details about his impressions from their trip.

     “Well, we have only one dog, and they have four of them. In our garden there is a pool, while they have a river that has no end. We‘ve got expensive lanterns, but they have stars above their heads at night. We have the patio, and they have the whole horizon. We have only a small piece of land, while they have the endless fields. We buy food, but they grow it. We have high fence for protection of our property, and they don‘t need it, as their friends protect them.”

The father was stunned he could not say a word. Then the boy added: “Thank you, dad, for letting me see how poor we really are.”

This story shows that the true wealth as well as happiness are not measured by materials things. Love, friendship and freedom are far more valuable.  And it also shows us the very point of the Grant Study-that our perspective and attitude and ability to make lemonade from lemons is the greatest measure of attaining happiness.

In other words, our attitudes and our outlook matter in the pursuit of happiness.  So how in this year of 5774 will you be engaged in the pursuit of happiness?  Will it merely be acquiring more things? OR chasing after vanities? Or can you shift your perception to include a focus on your inner being, your character, your attitude of gratitude in the world?  Can you use these High Holy Days to enhance the pursuit of happiness, the meaning of life and your Jewish birthright to lift you to higher planes of spirituality, contentment and peace? 

     Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Harat Olam, The day the world was born.

Is it literally the birthday of the world—exploding into a new year-a new time, this is the chance to have tonight, Rosh Hashanah be the beginning of a new world for you.  So sound the Shofar at the arrival of your re-birth.  Sound the shofar that the new you is soon arriving.  Sound tekiah in welcome of a commitment to a new way, a change in our attitude, healing our relationships with self, and one another and God and yes connecting in a community built on Jewish ethics and values that guide us today and into the future as well.

Ken Yehi Ratzon so may it be God’s Will