Jonathan Muskat

What Should Rabbis Talk About and What Should Congregants Think About During the High Holidays?

There has been much discussion recently in response to the claim by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that American Jewish Rabbis are erring by endorsing and opposing President Donald Trump. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the rabbinic leaders of the Agudath Israel community, recently said that Jews should vote to reelect the president.  I can also imagine that some rabbis on the political left feel that it is their moral and religious responsibility as rabbis to endorse Joe Biden as president.

As rabbis prepare their High Holiday sermons, we are aware that this is an opportune time to share each of our visions with our congregations as we all look to reflect and grow and resolve to be better in the coming year.  We ask ourselves, what is most important to address?  Some rabbis may feel that the outcome of the upcoming presidential election is so consequential to our values as Jews and as Americans that the advantage of endorsing a candidate for president is worth the risk of creating division within a synagogue community.  Perhaps some rabbis find themselves preaching to a congregation that is almost 100% Republican or Democrat, such that the downside of endorsing a candidate and creating division in their particular congregation is minimal.

For me, this question of what rabbis should speak about during their High Holiday sermons is much broader than simply should we use this as an opportunity to endorse a particular presidential candidate. It is a question of what we should focus on individually and as a community during this time of teshuva – repentance.

Recently, I was speaking to a colleague who suggested that it is critical that we use this season as an opportunity to make a “cheshbon hanefesh,” a spiritual accounting, for the fact that we often value wealth too much to the extent that many in our community are not honest in business and cheat on our taxes.  I responded that I wasn’t so sure.  Of course, being honest and ethical in business is a very important value. After all, the Gemara in Masechet Yoma 86a explains that we must fulfill the Torah’s dictate of “v’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha,” of loving God, that “y’hei shem shamayim mit’ahev al yadecha,” that we should make the name of Hashem beloved.  We should be pleasant with others when engaging in business to such an extent that people will say, “ashrei aviv she’limdo Torah,” or “Happy is his father who taught him Torah.” Certainly, we can always do better individually and as a community in this area.

At the same time, how do we decide which are the most important issues that we need to focus on at this time?  Is honesty in business the most important issue?  What about the fact that so many Yeshiva-educated boys and girls go “off the derech” after graduating high school?  Should we make a cheshbon hanefesh at this time about the lack of religious passion in our community that results in the “off the derech” phenomenon?  What about the divorce rate and all the broken families?  Should we make a cheshbon hanefesh at this time about the lack of shalom bayit in our community?  What about support for the dream called Medinat Yisrael, our historic homeland, our past, our present and our future?  Should we make a cheshbon hanefesh for not doing enough to support Medinat Yisrael?  And the list goes on.  This is not simply a question of what the Rabbi should speak about during the Yamim Noraim.  It’s a question of what we as a community should be thinking about during this season of teshuva.

To me, there are three guiding principles that should inform what our focus should be at this time.  My thoughts reflect an adaption of an article I read by Rav Lichtenstein entitled, “Determining Objectives in Religious Growth: Spiritual Specialization or Spiritual Breadth?”  In this essay, Rav Lichtenstein asks whether, in charting a course for spiritual growth, we should try to assume a more general approach of growing in a lot of areas or whether we should focus narrowly but more intensively upon a particular area.  The following are my three guiding principles:

  1. Focus on growth in all areas at some level. If we want to strive for increased avodat Hashem in its totality, then we need to realize and practice growth on all three legs upon which the world stands, Torah, avodah, and gemillut chasadim (Avot 1:2).  We should select goals and measurable objectives in each of these three areas upon which to improve in the coming year so that we do not develop a spiritual narrowness and claim that I’m only a “Torah” Jew or I’m only a “Tefillah” Jew or I’m only a “chesed” Jew.  Developing and implementing goals and measurable objectives in each of these areas sensitizes us to the importance of a broad-based grounding in avodat Hashem.
  2. Focus on growth in areas of public need. We can define “public” subjectively.  As an example, some of us can define it as the local community, some of us can define it as the broader orthodox community, some of us can define it as the broader Jewish community, some of us can define it as the broader American community, and some of us can define it as the State of Israel.  We have a responsibility to feel the pain of the tzibbur to such an extent that the Rambam rules (Hilchot Teshuva 4:2) that the doors of repentance are locked to someone who separates from the community and only cares about himself and his own needs and his own spiritual growth.  We have a responsibility to look at the world around us, at our community, however we want to define it, and sensitize ourselves to the importance of caring about others, whether it’s providing greater support for the State of Israel, whether it’s starting a Torah study group in town to increase Talmud Torah in the community or whether it’s reaching out to non-affiliated Jews in the community to share with them the beauty of a Shabbat meal.
  3. Focus on growth in an area that will ignite our religious passion. Yes, we must observe every halacha, but, as Rav Soloveitchik has noted, halacha is the floor of proper behavior and not the ceiling.  A story is told about a mashgiach in a Yeshiva who once told his students what he thought his job was.  He cited the Gemara in Masechet Chagiga (4b-5a) that states that there was a group of Talmudic Sages and when each one would reach a particular pasuk, or verse, he would cry.  When one Talmudic Sage reached the story of Joseph disclosing his identity to his brothers, he cried, and when another Talmudic Sage reached the story of Shmuel chastising Shaul, he cried, and so on and so forth.  These Talmudic Sages knew the entire Torah, but each had his particular pasuk that made him cry.  So, too, the mashgiach told his students, each one of you has your own pasuk that will make you cry and my job is to try to help you discover what that pasuk is, what is the pasuk that makes us cry and what is that mitzvah about which you are so passionate.  Passion is a key ingredient in our avodat Hashem.  We want to find an area of spiritual growth that will constantly motivate us to work hard and push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, an area of growth where we will truly feel connected to Hashem, to Klal Yisrael and to ourselves.

I am not going to weigh in regarding whether I completely agree with Rabbi Sacks’ contention that rabbis should never endorse or oppose a presidential candidate.  I will say that for me at this time I do not believe that the benefits of endorsing either presidential candidate outweighs the potential division that will result in my congregation by taking a particular position.  Additionally, a shul is supposed to be a safe space and especially now when Americans are so divided about who to elect or reelect for president, me endorsing a particular candidate will likely have little impact in shaping my congregation’s views on the matter in any case, and will likely only cause division and strife.  As such, I do not intend to use the pulpit on the Yamim Noraim to endorse a particular presidential candidate.  At the same time, I hope that we all view this season of teshuva to truly reflect on how we can improve and utilize the three guidelines listed above to make meaningful, measurable and lasting changes in our own spiritual lives, and in our community at large.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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