Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Happy Rosh Hashanah! Do you want to be happy in this New Year 5772? Of course you do. Well, how do we go about it? For the last 3 years, Gallup has called 1,000 randomly selected American adults each day and asked them about their emotional status, work satisfaction, eating habits, illnesses, stress levels and other indicators of their quality of life. It’s part of an effort to measure the components of “the good life.” The responses were plugged into a formula, called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. This year the New York Times asked Gallup to come up with a statistical composite for the happiest person in America. Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who’s at least 65 and married with children, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. Wow! Except for the Asian part, there should be a lot of happy Jews.

But seriously, why was being Jewish a part of this formula? We represent less than 2% of the population. I think it’s because we Jews are different in a uniquely important way: we’re a family! The Biblical readings for Rosh Hashanah beautifully make this point. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, and yet the Biblical portions we read are not about the creation of the world and Adam and Eve. The Biblical portions are about the families of Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Jacob, Hannah and Elkana.

Yes all Jews are part of a family. We are descendants of Abraham and Sarah. But American Jews like you are a strange breed indeed! Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, who inspired me to give this sermon, notes that for 3,000 years our people didn’t have people like you. For 3,000 years, for all practical purposes, Jews were observant Jews…Jews lived by the words of the Torah in their daily lives. But then came the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the Emancipation. Suddenly Jews started making choices. Some chose to leave Judaism and some chose to “reform” Judaism. Until that time any Jew who desecrated Shabbos was written out! According to the Talmud: “He who desecrates the Sabbath is as if he has worshipped idols and violates all the laws of the Torah.” Whoever violated the Shabbos, it was as if he was rejecting Gd.

But then something strange happened…1st in Germany and then here in America. People started coming to shule on Shabbos and then going to work! And then people started driving to shule on Shabbos! There was no way you could say that these people were rejecting Gd—they were coming to shule to pray to Gd! These were people who were proud of their Judaism—people who cared about their Judaism—people who were trying to do the best that they could. Such Jews are people like you.

The truth of the matter is, many in the Jewish world don’t know what to make of you! Drive to a Traditional shule on Shabbos? Some of you are strictly kosher, others organic kosher, and then there is “kosher style,” with some kosher in the home and others outside the home and still others never kosher when home alone. Whoever heard of such people! I did! I grew up in Brooklyn and after World War II Brooklyn was renowned for being a bastion of Judaism. There were major Yeshivot and Orthodox synagogues with world-renowned Cantors and rabbis. People flocked from all over to be in Brooklyn for Shabbos. But you know what? There were Orthodox synagogues where the rabbi didn’t deliver a sermon on Shabbos morning…instead he spoke in the afternoon—in Yiddish—for the many people who had not been able to be there in the morning because they had to go to work! The rabbis didn’t approve of this behavior but they understood.

You may have different reasons that guide your behavior, but we understand as well. People sometimes ask me how many members of our congregation walk to shule on Shabbos. I immediately reply: “All of them. Some walk from their homes and some walk from the parking lot!”

But you are here! Why are you here? Each and every one of you could give a different answer, but let me give one that I think speaks to all of us. We are here because we’re family! That is what we Jews are—a family! Christians are not a family. They are a religion, but not a family. We are a religion, for sure! But even before we were a religion, we were a family. And that’s why in the Bible we are never referred to as being the “religion of Israel,” but rather, the “Children of Israel.” And so, when the High Holidays or Pesach or Chanukah comes, our people have a family reunion. What draws us may not be rational, but it can be explained by being a part of a family. Here are some examples:

  • People are always telling me how they traveled to Curacao, Barcelona, Hong Kong or wherever, and how they went to the synagogue there, and what an experience it was. Why did they go to the synagogue there when they hardly come to shule here? To see how other members of the family are doing?
  • There was a marvelous book published this year called, When They Came for Us We’ll Be Gone: a History of the Soviet Jewry Movement. It documents what we Jews here in America did to help the Jews of the Soviet Union achieve freedom. It’s a remarkable tale—a high point in our people’s history. But why did we do it? Why did we write letters and put up signs and go to rallies for people we never met. Why did we give so many millions of dollars to bring 120,000 black Ethiopian Jews to Israel? It was the 1st time in history when blacks were taken out of Africa to freedom and not slavery. Why did we care? It’s not rational. But it’s family!
  • It is not rational to be moved by the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. It’s an animal’s horn. People just don’t do that sort of thing.
  • You tell me: how do you explain the so many Jews who hardly ever come to services, and when they do, they come toward the end…but when Kol Nidre comes they rush to be here on time to hear the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer which they hardly understand. It really isn’t rational.
  • And I’ll tell you something else that’s not rational: it’s not rational to cut off the tip of your penis! There, I said it! That became a big issue this year, with a drive having taken place in San Francisco to ban circumcision as being inhumane. Russell Crowe spoke for many when he wrote on Twitter: “I love my Jewish friends, I love the apple and the honey and the funny little hats, but stop cutting your babies.”

Now, I could spend the rest of the day explaining to you the reasons behind circumcision, but you know what? You could make a better case against it. I can prove it to you! In the 1st century, moving away from their mythological gods, the Romans started to believe in the monotheistic Gd. A missionary war broke out between the Jews and the early Christians, trying to attract these Romans to their way of life. The Romans would go to the Christian missionary and say: “What do I have to do to join your religion?” And he was told: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” They then went and asked the Jewish missionary, “What do I have to do to become part of your people?” And they were told: “Here, let me introduce you to Moishe the Mohel!” And you know what? As a result, there are now more than one billion Christians in this world and only something like 14 million Jews!

But we keep on doing it and don’t let anyone try to stop us. In San Francisco, the Jewish defenders of circumcision were not just Traditional Jews, but Reform Jews who have discarded many aspects of Jewish observance. One would think they would not be on the front lines in the battle over circumcision, of all things. But they were! Why? Because you don’t let anybody mess with your family traditions! We continue to put mezuzot on our doors and doing many other things that have become part of our family tradition. Is it rational? You may not think so but the survival of the Jewish people over the past 3,000 years is not rational either. And we sense that in our very being; we know that the things that we do here in the synagogue and in our homes are the things our family has been doing for thousands of years. And we want to be a part of it! We don’t want to be the ones to end it. That’s what it means to be a part of a family.

When we say the Vidui—the confessional on Yom Kippur—we verbally confess ours sins, taking responsibility for our actions. Notice, though, that we recite these sins in the plural. “We sinned. We rebelled. We stole...” This is because all Jews are responsible for one another. We are a family, so what one does impacts us all.

Let me read to you an amazing true story that exquisitely makes this point:

Dvir Aminolav was the 1st Israeli soldier killed in the 2008 Gaza War. His mother Dalya missed Dvir, terribly. One night before she went to bed, she said in a loud voice: “Gd, give me a sign, give me a hug from Dvir so that I will know that his death had some meaning.”

That week her daughter asked her to accompany her to a musical performance at The International Crafts Festival in Jerusalem. Dalya, feeling quite depressed, didn’t want to go, but she didn’t want to disappoint her daughter either, and agreed to go. The concert was a bit delayed. A 2-year-old boy began wandering through the stands. He walked up to Dalya’s seat and touched her on the shoulder. A preschool teacher, Dalya turned around, saw the boy and smiled warmly asking, “What’s your name?”

“Eshel,” the boy replied.

“That’s a nice name. Do you want to be my friend, Eshel?” The boy nodded in reply and sat down next to Dalya. Eshel’s parents were sitting 2 rows above. Concerned their little boy was bothering Dalya, they asked him to come back up. But Dalya insisted that everything was fine.

“I have a brother named Dvir,” Eshel said. Dalya was shocked to hear the unusual name of her beloved son, and walked up the 2 rows to where Eshel’s parents were sitting. She saw a baby in a stroller, and apologizing, asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, how old is your baby and when was he born?”

The baby’s mother replied, “He was born right after the war in Gaza.”

Dalya swallowed hard. “Please tell me, why did you choose to name him Dvir?”

Baby Dvir’s mother began to explain. “When I was at the end of my pregnancy, the doctors suspected the fetus may have a very serious birth defect. Since it was the end of the pregnancy, there was little the doctors could do and I just had to wait and see how things would turn out. When I went home that night, the news reported that the 1st casualty in the war was a soldier named Dvir. I was so saddened by this news that I decided to make a deal with Gd. “If you give me a healthy son I promise to name him Dvir, in memory of the soldier that was killed.”

Dalya, the mother of Dvir, stood with her mouth open. She tried to speak but she couldn’t. After a long silence, she said quietly, “I am Dvir’s mother.”

The young parents didn’t believe her. She repeated, “Yes, it’s true. I’m Dvir’s mother. My name is Dalya Aminalov, from Pisgat Zeev.”

With a sudden inspiration, Baby Dvir’s mother handed Dalya the baby and said, “Dvir wants to give you a hug.”

Dalya held the little baby boy in her arms and looked into his angelic face. The emotion she felt at that moment was overwhelming. She had asked for a hug from Dvir and she could truly feel his warm and loving embrace from the World of Truth. (Rabbi Randall Mark)

The baby was named Dvir because Sergeant Dvir Aaminalov was family—all Jews are family. The problem today is that many members of the Jewish family cannot be counted on to help us. They know about their people, but they don’t care much. They’re not here…but we are! And there are not that many of us. Just one generation ago we lost 1/3 of our people, and they’ve never been replaced. In our generation the losses are of a different nature—but equally severe. It’s reflected in fewer children being raised Jewish, fewer people joining a synagogue, a decrease in day school enrollment. These days the only Jewish growth industry seems to be in ignorance and assimilation. We who are here today—in this synagogue and in every synagogue—we are the ones who must pick up the slack to help keep our family secure.

It’s not that we don’t care about other families, we do! It’s just that everyone should have a particular love and concern for the members of their own family. We are the ones who have to be proud when others are ashamed. We are the ones who have to care about our own when other Jews only care about others. What I’m trying to say is that we all have got to try and do a little bit more for our people. Each of us has got to do our share, for nobody can do it all.

Our tradition would have us study Torah all day, raise Jewish children, make a living, visit the sick and so much more…and no one person can do it all. But in a family, everyone has got to do something! Everyone has to bring something to the table. For some it will be by giving more charity, for others it will be by more learning. For some it will be by defending the borders of Israel and for others by defending Israel in the corridors of Congress. For some it will be by taking an adult education class and for others by keeping a kosher home.

Chaim Fogel is the father and father-in-law of Udi and Ruth Fogel, and grandfather of their 3 children—all of whom were viciously slaughtered last March by Palestinian terrorists. Recently one of the terrorists was sentenced to 130 years in prison. The other will soon be sentenced. Chaim Fogel told Israeli Army Radio: “If they tell me that in exchange fof the release of the 2 murderers Gilad Shalit—who has been held hostage for 5 years by Hamas—will return home, I would agree…despite my opposition in principle to such transactions.” What an incredible statement! These terrorists killed this man’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren…his own flesh and blood! And yet, he would be ready to let them go for the release of Gilad Shalit, someone he’s never met! But he’s willing to do it. You know why? Because, in every Israeli’s home Gilad Shalit is family!

If you care about your family, you make sacrifices for your family. And certainly there are sacrifices to be made to have a kosher affair, to sit shiva, to come to synagogue for kaddish and a Yizkor, to give your time and from your pocket for your family. But these sacrifices pale in comparison to the sacrifices Jews have made over the centuries and make to this very day. Our family has values and ethics and rich religious traditions that are the envy of mankind.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about a relatively new phenomenon. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes picked the name Suri—a Biblical variant of Sarah—for their daughter. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt named their daughter “Shiloh”—after the Biblical city where the Tabernacle was placed by King David. We have Madonna studying Kabbalah, not holding concerts on Shabbos and visiting Israel for Rosh Hashanah. Mattisyahu, a Lubavitcher Chassid clad in black hat and tzitzis, is now atop the rap music charts. There were 2 Orthodox contestants on “The Apprentice.” On the “National Spelling Bee” 2 of the words used for the contestants were: Yizkor and Hechsher. The Wall St. Journal reports that non-Jewish children in Long Island are asking for Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties so that they can also be lifted on a chair and celebrated.

There has been a recent trend for non-Jewish celebrities to wear Jewish jewelry. Sarah Palin sometimes wears a big Magen David pendant and Elijah Wood has a ring inscribed with a quote from Pirke Avot, Im lo achshav eymatai, “If not now when?” Then there are all those red-string bracelets worn by Madona, Demi More and Ashton Kutcher—not to mention Justin Beiber’s new Hebrew tattoo he got in Israel. What in the world is going on? It all leads to inescapable conclusion that Jewish is really cool.

But while so many non-Jews think Jewish traditions are cool, alas, many Jews do not. Ask yourself, honestly, how much of our traditions do you bring into your homes? And how much of it are you passing on to your children? If we care about our family—the Jewish family—we’ve got to do more than we have been doing.

We are a unique congregation. There is a certain depth and intimacy and warmth here that are hard to find elsewhere. Ours is not a judgmental congregation—we are inclusive. It’s because we really are family. It is this that the old story has in mind that tells of the elderly woman who came to shule on Rosh Hashana and turned toward heaven and said, “Dear God, all year long I ask things of you…I ask for your blessings. But today on Rosh Hashana, for a change, I would like to give you something…give you a blessing. But with what shall I bless you…with wealth? The whole world is yours. With health? I guess you can take care of yourself. And so, there is only one blessing I can offer you: I hope and pray that this coming year you will have nachas from all your children.”

My friends, I hope and pray that this year, you, I and Almighty Gd, will have a great deal of nachas—from all our family. Amen!

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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