ROSH HASHANAH 5777 1st DAY
Father Jacob, after awakening from his dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven declares: Ma nora hamakom hazeh (How awesome is this place), eyn zeh ki im beyt elokim (this is none other than a House of Gd), v’zeh shaar hashamayim, (and this is the gate of heaven). My friends, it’s so awesome to be together today to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, here in Shaarei Shamayim— our gate to heaven and our house of Gd—finally in our own home after 14½ years. Can you believe it?
I want you all to sing with me the traditional Jewish song of welcome Heyveynu Shalom Aleychem, (Welcome, peace be upon you because you’re here)…and, as we do, let us all get up and dance around our new shul together…
Please remain standing. I want to recite some verses with me from Psalm 136 in praise to Gd. After I say the 1st part of the verse, you’ll answer: ki l’lolam chasdo (for Gd’s kindness endures forever). Ready:
Hodu laHashem ki tov (We give thanks to Hashem for He is good)—together—ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
L’osey nifla-ot g’dolot l’vado (To Gd alone who performs great wonders for us)…ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
Sheh-b’shifleynu zachar lanu (In our lowliness Gd remembers us)…ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
Hodu l’Keyl Hashamayim (Give thanks to the Gd of Heaven)…ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
Now say with me the Shehechiyanu blessing thanking Gd:
Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeynu Melech HaOlam, Shehechiyanu, v’kimanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh. Repeat after me in English: “Blessed are You Hashem, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us in health, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Amen. Please be seated.
What we have accomplished here in only 3 weeks is nothing short of miraculous. You have cleaned and scrubbed, painted and shlept, installed fixtures, reworked this bima, put in place the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light), the Shulchan and Aron Kodesh, the tallis and kipa stands, bookcases, office work, art work, yard work, plumbing, welding and electrical work, installed a new washing sink, remodeled the bathrooms, put a sign on North Druid Hills Rd. and above the front doors, and on and on. Gd bless all of you who helped. You are our angels. You are an inspiration.
Speaking of signs, I came across an interesting suggestion for a sign to be hung in the front of a local neighborhood business: “We would rather do business with 1,000 radical Islamic terrorists that with one Jew.” The name of the business? Jewish Funeral Care.
My friends, it’s been 14½ years of frustration and heartache. Many times we came so close to making it happen and then it didn’t. I know that some of you didn’t really believe it was happening until you actually walked into this sanctuary after we closed on the property and a couple of days later marched in with the Torahs under a chupa and nailed the mezuzot on the doors. For many of us a new shul was like the Mashiach, the Messiah—something you prayed for, but, like a myth, something you never thought would actually happen. But, Baruch Hashem we are here. Let’s all of us give a round of applause for our new shul…
After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the 1st Temple in 586 BCE, he took the Jews into exile to Babylonia. Zerubavel, the last descendant from the lineage of King David, wanted desperately to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia and permitted the Jews to return, he immediately laid the foundation. But the Samarian people that the Babylonians had moved into the Holy Land to replace the Jews didn’t want the Temple rebuilt and so they went to the lawyers and the judges with lies and deceit and got a decree halting construction.
This is what happens all too many times. Gd puts a promise in our heart and all of our opponents come out of the woodwork to discourage us—to talk us out of it. Even his own men said, “We can’t do this. The task is too great.” And they just gave up and so for 10 years there was no work done on the Temple.
We can relate to Zerubavel’s frustration—week after week—walking by the Temple property and seeing the empty foundation he laid with the materials stacked up—the stone, the lumber. We can all relate to that. How many of us passed our former property down the street, day after day, seeing the foundation and slab we had poured 10 years ago lying dormant. And now trees have grown up all around it and the foundation we had poured has become a makeshift skate-board park.
Well 10 years later Gd sent the prophet Zachariah to Zerubavel (Zechariah 4:9) with this message: “The hand of Zerubavel laid the foundations of this Temple and his hands will complete it!” In other words: “Gd says, ‘Stop brooding, begin again.’”
All of a sudden something stirred inside him: “You mean Gd can still bring this to pass? Do you know how long it’s been? Do you know how many people are against me? Do you really think I can still do this?”
The prophet said, “I don’t think you can. I know you can, so get started.”
We’re like Zerubavel. We laid the foundation 10 years ago. We were so excited, but things didn’t work out as we expected—we were stalled again and again and again.
This happens all too often in our personal lives. Some of you believed you could overcome that addiction…but now it’s been so long you got comfortable where you are. Gd says to you, “Begin again!” Some of you wanted to buy a new home, but you didn’t qualify for the loan. That was 5 years ago. Gd says, “Begin again!” Gd is saying, “It’s not over until I say it’s over. Begin again.”
As I tell you every year, according to Rabbi Yosef Caro (Beyt Yosef 584) who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, Rosh Hashanah is not a time to confess our sins—that’s for Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah—as seen in the Avinu Malkeynu prayer—is a time to express our aspirations. It’s a time to believe in ourselves again—something that’s ironically far more challenging for many than believing in Gd. It’s a time to envision what our lives would be like if the desires or our hearts came to fruition. So today on Rosh Hashanah, let’s envision anew our aspirations. The child you’re praying for…see her life turned around. The troubled relationships you’re experiencing…see it turned around. The business that’s slow, see it successful.
Zachariah told Zerubavel (4:7) to get an even-harosha, a cornerstone for the final piece of the Temple. Why was it important that he keep the cornerstone in front of him before the project was completed? Because every time he got tired…whenever he was down…when he thought it was impossible…he’d go over and look at that cornerstone. That was Gd saying to him, “I will complete it. I’ve got a plan. Just don’t give up.”
Let me ask you, what’s your cornerstone? Do you have something that represents the final piece of your dreams to remind you it will be complete? You can do the same thing. If you’re dreaming of a new home, why don’t you get a new brick or a key? Let it represent the finished product. You may have a dream to change your profession. Go out and get a little something that will represent the new work you’re hoping to do. It’s important that you keep something in front of you to see your dream completed.
9 years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, when we were all so frustrated because the work on our new building project had stopped, I showed you my cornerstone for our new shul building—a shiny new mezuzah. I kept it prominently in my office for 9 years since so I would see it every day. Cheryl would shine it up for me from time to time. I can’t show it to now you from in here like I did 9 years ago. Why? because, Baruch Hashem, thank Gd…it’s now on the front door! How about a round of applause for that mezuzah, our cornerstone. Hodu laHashem ki tov (Give thanks to Hashem for He is good)—together—ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
My friends, if Gd puts a dream in your heart, He will certainly help you bring it to fulfillment. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, Gd can still bring it to pass. How many of you have given up on a dream? How many of you have given up on a child or a relationship? Maybe you’re tempted to give up on the thought that you could become learned or you could achieve financial success. You need to start each day by thinking to yourself: “I believe and expect that every promise Gd put in my heart…Gd will help me bring it to pass.”
Do not give in to despair, to the thought, “My dreams will never work out.” Sometimes life tests us, trying to get us to give up, leaving us to think: “It didn’t work out. I didn’t get that promotion. I didn’t qualify for the new home. I’ll never find the time to study Torah. It’s never going to happen. Just fahgettaboudit!”
Time, on the other end, is pulling. The longer it goes on, the more we hear all the negative voices saying, “You don’t have what it takes; the doctor’s report says you’re not going to make it.” But if you’re going to be the person Gd made you to be, you must have the attitude that nothing is going to cause you to give up. Don’t ever give up on praying for the fulfillment of your dreams.
There’s a story of a tzadik (a holy man) who dies and goes straight to heaven. The angels greet him and tell him he’s welcome in heaven; in fact they were waiting for him. They also tell him Gd gave them instructions to make him feel especially at home as quickly as possible and to give him a tour of the whole heavenly realm right away. One of the angels then takes the tzadik from place to place, from room to room and from hall to hall. The tzadik sees so many wonderful sights—many holy souls engaging in creative holy activities, houses of study and such. Suddenly he notices the angel quickly walking by a closed door without opening it. He asks, “What’s inside?”
The angel responds, “You don’t want to know.”
“But I want to see everything,” says the tzadik. After a while he gets the angel to open the door. Inside is a huge room resembling a post office warehouse with shelf after shelf of packages that are addressed and ready to be delivered.
“What’s this?” asks the tzadik.
The angel tells him, “There are people who have prayed and prayed for a long time for something and lost patience with their prayers. We were about to send them what they prayed for and then we had to cancel the package because they suddenly stopped praying!”
Never stop praying for the fulfillment of your dreams Gd put in your heart.
In our Torah portion this morning, Abraham and Sarah finally have a child of their own. She was 90 and he was 100 years old. How many years do you think they prayed for a child? 20, 40, 60 years? Never give up on praying for your dreams.
Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) taught: By Gut, iz alles meglach (By Gd everything is possible). The only thing that can block the dreams Gd puts in us, teaches Rebbe Nachman, is our negativity—when we quit believing our dreams are going to happen. It may seem impossible—like Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age as we see in today’s Torah reading—but, as I’ve taught you again and again over the years—Gd can make a way even when it looks like there is no way! And our being here this morning is the best proof of that! Hodu laHashem ki tov (Give thanks to Hashem for He is good)—together—ki l’lolam chasdo (for his kindness endures forever).
After all these years, after the sharp rise in property values recently, it seemed like there was no way our small shul would ever be able to afford to have a building of our own. Even if we bought a house and renovated it, we would not have anything as wonderful as what we have now. It would have cost us at least as much and we would have had some severe zoning issues. But Gd made a way even when it looked like there was no way. So get rid of your negative thoughts about your life. Today on Rosh Hashanah envision your dreams fulfilled.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z”l, the greatest authority on Jewish law of the 20th century once officiated at wedding where the groom was so nervous he dropped the bride’s ring under the chupah 3 times. Could you imagine? Someone suggested, “Perhaps Hashem is trying to tell us something. Perhaps this marriage should not happen.” He replied, “Chas v’shalom (Gd forbid), complete the ceremony.” Later he explained that in Gd’s time the merging of these 2 souls needed to take place 4 minutes later and that’s why he kept dropping the ring. My friends, events need to happen at the time that Gd needs it to happen—not in our time.
Yes, Gd works on His schedule, not ours. Nevertheless, as the Psalmist (126) teaches in the Shir Hamaalot we sing before reciting the grace after meals: Hazorim b’dima b’rina yiktzoru, “Those who sow in tears…will reap in joy.” For 14½ years we sowed in tears and frustration. But we never gave up on our shul. Now Hashem…as You promised, now it’s time to reap the joy!
With Hashem’s help it’s now up to us to make of Shaarei Shamayim the wonderful shul and spiritual center to spread the light of Gd in Atlanta and beyond. Let’s take to heart the teaching of the Talmud (Avot 5:26): L’fum tzara agra! (The reward is in proportion to the effort!)…or in today’s parlance, “No pain no gain.” If we want this to be the shul all of us want it to be, it will take your effort to make it so.
I guess this is our challenge in Shaarei Shamayim: to build the kind of shul where people can find Gd, be helped in their spiritual search to ever higher states of connection with Gd. What does it take to build such a shul? We live in an age that’s filled with gimmicks. Congregations have singles Shabbat, tot Shabbat, environmental Shabbat and pizza Shabbat. The only thing too many Jews don’t have today is Shabbos! All the gimmicks distract people from the fact that what’s important is Shabbos. What we need is to build a shule with a Shabbos that helps people find Gd!
What does it take to build that kind of shule? 1st we must find the image of Gd in each other. One of the things I hear again and again from new visitors is that there’s a unique warmth here—it’s palpable. People genuinely care about each other. Our people look each other in the eye and connect.
There is the story of David who goes to the rabbi and says, “You wouldn’t believe what happened, someone stole my bicycle from the shul.”
The rabbi is appalled and said, “Stealing your bicycle from shul is terrible. This is what you should do. Make sure you come to shul next Shabbos. We’ll be reading the 10 Commandments from the Torah. As we read them come up to the Bima, turn around and look at everyone in the eye. And by the time we get to ‘Thou shalt not steal’ you’ll know who your thief is.”
Both David and the rabbi were excited, anticipating the outcome all week. Next Shabbos comes and when the 10 Commandments are read David stands up on the Bima, turns around and looks at the eyes of each of the congregants. At the end of the service the rabbi comes up to him excitedly at Kiddush and asks, “Nu, did it work.”
David responded, “Like magic, like a charm. The Torah reader read the 1st 5 commandments and there was no response. He read the 6th , ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ But before he read the 8th, “Thou shalt not steal,” he read the 7th, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’…(pause and smile), I then remembered where I left my bike!”
By looking his fellow congregants in the eye, David found what he was looking for.
My friends, how can we not be inspired by the fulfillment of more than 10 years of prayer for our new shul Looking back on the last 10 years now…if this has taught us anything it’s that it’s never over until Gd says it’s over! It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or how many obstacles you’ve had, Gd will finish what He started in you.
I’m asking you today, on Rosh Hashanah to make a deal with Gd. Believe that your best days are still in front of you. Expect good things. Too often we settle saying, “Gd I once believed that you wanted me to prosper. But I get so frustrated at times. I’ll just find a way to live with things the way they are.” Rosh Hashanah implores us, don’t settle for the way things are. Gd says, “Begin again!”
Almost every Rosh Hashanah I do an exercise with you about your dreams for the coming year. Let’s do it again. Close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breathes, and with each breath feel more and more relaxed. [Pause] Let’s see into the future to next Rosh Hashanah. Last year I asked you to imagine sitting in our new shul bathed in Gd’s light, singing praises of thanksgiving to Gd for bringing us into our new shul. Baruch Hashem it’s happened! Now that we’re here, I want you to think about all your hopes and dreams for this coming New Year. See your dreams completed in front of you. What does it look like? How does it feel? Imagine yourself sitting here next year thanking Gd for the fulfillment of those dreams. [Pause] Open your eyes.
Let me close by singing with you a song from the Psalms (122:8-9; 29:11) that most of you know. It’s transliterated on the lower back cover of your Rosh Hashanah bulletins: Lemann achai v’reyai (Because of my brothers, sisters and friends), Adabra na shalom bach (Please let me ask peace to you). L’maan Beyt Hashem Elokeynu avaksha tov lach (This is the House, the House of the Lrd, I wish the best for you). Yes, this is the House of the Lrd where we wish the best for you. Together:
L’maan achai v’reyai, Adabra na shalom bach. L’maan Beyt Hashem Elokeynu avaksha tov lach.
Because of my brothers and friends, because of my sisters and friends…
Please let me ask, please let me sing peace to you…
This is the House, the House of the Lrd, I wish the best for you…dai, dai…
This is the year 5777. In Hebrew it’s taf-shin-ayin-zayin. The letters taf-shin can stand for t’hi shnat (Let this be a year of…). The next letters ayin-zayin spell the Hebrew word oz (strength). They also have the gematria numerology of 77 which is the same as the word mazal or good fortune. In other words, the coded message of this Jewish New Year of 5777, taf-shin-ayin-zayin, is t’hi shnat oz umazal (Let this be a year of strength and good fortune). And so as we leave our new shul today let’s go out with renewed determination and expectancy that Hashem will help us in the New Year fulfill the dreams of our hearts. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis