What we say and what we do matters

I wrote the original draft of this blog two weeks ago just as the latest cycle of hate inspired attacks began to ramp up across Israel. Today on Rosh Chodesh Mar Chesvan, as we  mourn the deaths of Israeli Victims of Terror and we bemoan the need for Israeli security forces to kill perpetrators, many of whom are children, I believe that the message of the High Holy Days that we are responsible for both our words and our deeds is even more salient than when I first drafted this as an op Ed for the Jewish Standard of Northern New Jersey

Thomas Cahill wrote a Book over a decade ago called The Gift of the Jews. His thesis was that because Judaism affirms the past and postulates the future we have given the world the gift of the Present. Cahill understood Judaism as a belief system that affirms that: What “you” or “I or “they” or “we” do, actually matters. As the month of Tishre filled with Holy Days of reflection, renewal and thanksgiving, comes to a conclusion, and we begin again the cycle of Torah readings, with the story of creation this week, Cahill’s question haunts me.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur focus us upon the opportunity for human change. Judaism sees history as the unfolding story of the journey from creation to redemption. Yet, the reality of our personal, communal, national and international lives, seem to affirm the opposite; nothing really changes.

Exodus 34:6 and 7, the thirteen attributes of God, where we affirm that God is The Source of both Justice and Mercy, is both the often repeated introduction to the Yom Kippur confessionals and an introduction to the reading of Torah on Sukot and Atzeret Simchat Torah. These verses are also included in the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Sukot, where they are heard in the context of Moses second ascent of Mount Sinai.

In the annual cycle of Torah reading that we begin this week, this passage of the thirteen attributes is found in Parshat Ki Tissa, following the story of the Golden calf and the subsequent shattering of the first set of the 10 commandments.  Perhaps the rabbinic decision to use an our edited version of this text liturgically, on Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage festivals, is a reminder that Judaism challenges us to risk using our heart and our soul, not just our eyes and ears to see and hear what can be, instead of merely accepting the video of life, perceived by our senses. Our rabbis teach that the second ascent described in Exodus 34 took place on the first of Elul and therefore by counting 40 days, Yom Kippur is the day when our ancestors actually received Torah. As our month of Holy Days reaches its conclusion, I believe that this recollection of the second ascent of Sinai gives us an opportunity to see ourselves at a metaphoric Sinai, ready and willing to see and hear Torah with our souls, and truly answer as our ancestors did at Sinai “Naaseh Vnishma” we will act and we will listen

On Yom Kippur , as we prayed for Divine forgiveness; sought forgiveness from those we wrong and granted forgiveness to those who hurt us in the year past, did we not all realize that despite our intentions, we are destined to transgress in the year ahead.? Therefore, for me reading Exodus 34 as we come to the end of month of Holy Days, reminds me that despite the Divine Forgiveness we seek, God’s giving us a second chance, is not the same as a “do over”. Using a golf metaphor, there are no mulligans in life. What I have done or will do has consequences; consequences that impact not only me or us but future generations as well.

Yes it is extremely rare for any of us to dramatically change our nature. However are there not times when a slight turn can make a real difference? I thought of this as I gazed at the awesome full moon on the first night of Sukot, as its color changed from white to bronze and people all over the world gazed upon it. The lunar eclipse reminded me that just the slightest degree of movement can have an impact. It also left me with a sense of AWE in the God, who is, I believe, both that spark of the Divine within each of us and the Eternal light of the Universe.

The story of Moses’ second ascent of Sinai lacks the sound and light show described in Exodus 19 and 24. I see in our less dramatic version of revelation a sobering challenge that repairing the holes of the Sukot Shalom, the Sukkah of Peace we pray for each night, in the hashkivaynu prayer, will not be achieved by Divine Proclamation, but through a partnership between God and humanity.

From genocidal wars to global warming; from gridlock in Congress to stalemate in the Middle East; from a lack of will in our country to provide adequate childcare or eldercare, it seem that our Sukat Shalom has more holes in it than usual. Therefore, it is in need of our repair through prayer and action. So, in the spirit of Passover when Exodus 34 is also read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, I want to pose four questions for each of us to consider in the year ahead.

1. How can we in the spirit of Sukot be more grateful for the many blessings we have as Americans and as Jews?  
2. How can we turn from our worship of our own golden calves and become God’s messengers of compassion and mercy in the world?

3. Can we, in the spirit of Ushpitzin, the custom of inviting guests into our Sukot, make our own communities, as well as both America and Israel more welcoming to the stranger ?

4. Can we, this year, build a Sukat Shalom, a Sukkah of Peace where all the children of Noah including the Children of Ishmael and the children of Israel can dwell side by side in peace?

Change is difficult and except in fairy tales never instantaneous. Cahill taught that that the Gift of the Jews is that what each of us does matters. David Ben Gurion once said “Time works both for us and against us depending on how we use it” As we experience a renewed cycle of violence with suicide attacks taking a new expression yet grounded in the same seeds of hate May we each use 5776 as a time to make positive changes in our personal, communal, national and global spheres.

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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