Atem Nitzavim - Blessing for the Weeders: A Benediction for a Small Congregation - Sermon by Rabbi Joe Blair Yom Kippur 5775

Atem Nitzavim - Blessing for the Weeders: A Benediction for a Small Congregation

Yom Kippur 5775

Rabbi Joe Blair

(adapted with kind permission from a concept by colleague Rabbi Ellen Lewis)

Delivered to Temple House of Israel in Staunton and Congregation Beth El in Harrisonburg, Virginia

  Shalom, and Gut Yontiff.

As you are aware, we have shared a year of difficulties and sad events, of tragic occurrences, and sad news. It was a year filled with trials, tribulations, and troubles, both here in our own community, and throughout the world. In light of all that has been, it would be easy to fall into the all-too common pattern of looking back with gloom and negativity, of focusing on the ills, and resigning our self to despair and expectation of nothing but bad news.

But let me assure you: on this day of Yom Kippur, that is NOT what we are urged to do, not what this holiday is about. As solemn as this holiday may be, it is also a time of happiness, joy, and looking forward, an opportunity to strive and be better, an entryway to hope and moving forward.

Those who came before us were wise in many ways, just one of which is shown today. On this day, the Day of Atonement, we are not encouraged to wallow in our past mistakes, or to give up and see the future as hopeless and bleak! Instead, we are taught that if we truly wish it and are willing to make the effort, we can overcome our faults and flaws, raise ourselves up and be better than we were in the year now past. We are taught, Im tirtzu, eyn zo agadah! If you will it, it is no dream.

We must acknowledge those errors and faults, in order to know what it is we must correct and work to improve, but we are not mired or anchored in what was. We are assured that whatever the past, if we arrive at this day having made a sincere effort, and ask for forgiveness and a chance to do better, G-d, the merciful, compassionate, grace-full, and loving sovereign and parent, will take that into account; we will have a chance to refocus, get back on track, and correct course. We can proceed with a sense of hope that we are moving in the correct direction, and that each of us working for the best for all will find the best for our self as well – and what more could we hope for or want?

So we see that part of the process of renewing our hope and sense of anticipation for the future is to take stock, not only of what went wrong, but also what went right. We need to acknowledge what we did and should continue to do as we move forward.

For our time together, I want to draw your attention to, and focus for a little time on us, as a community, and I want to highlight what we did that was good. I am sure you will find it no surprise that I want to look at this through the lens of Torah, with a look at who we are.

Allow me to remind you that the reading from Torah for the morning of Yom Kippur paints a powerful picture. It is spoken during Moses’ retelling of what happened, his final address to the people that makes up the book of Devarim. In this particular section, Moses describes that moment when all of the Hebrews who were Redeemed from Egypt, from the narrow place, who ventured into the wilderness and walked for days, until they had gathered in one place to encounter G-d. ALL of them were part of that unique moment, the Revelation of G-d at Sinai, and all of them entered into the covenant between G-d and the Hebrews.

Let me remind you again that it is understood that not only those who were present, those who had come out of Egypt, who stood there in the conventional sense, are included. No, instead we understand that ALL who were there at that time, along with ALL the souls who would ever be part of the covenant, every one of them - EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US - were understood to be present at that moment. So YOU, TOO, were there at the moment of Revelation. And YOU, TOO, are part of that Torah and the sanctity that came about as the outpouring of Revelation.

With that understanding as the background for what we read, the words that we read from the Torah on this holiday have a particular resonance for us. Listen closely.

 “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your G-d…”Deuteronomy 1:9-11

 Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem….

Again: You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d. From woodchopper to waterdrawer….

With this in your ear, permit me to expand on what is here, and show you how it speaks to us today, in our community, as a benediction, a promise, and a blessing. Listen, and hear yourself in it.

Shema, Yisra’el….. Listen and Hear, Israel.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From woodchopper to waterdrawer  ….

From weeder to planter

From painter to bulb changer

From flower arranger to ark curtain hanger

From Torah holder to Torah reader

From hedge trimmer to newsletter editor

From artwork selector to tallit ironer

From plaque hanger to fruit picker.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From service usher to back row worshipper

From craft-creator to memorial board hanger and lighter

From potluck chef to greeter of strangers

From gatherer of rummage to seller of treasures

From maker of sandwiches to deliverer of orders

From break-fast planner to air conditioning filter installer

From light bulb changer to tablecloth washer.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d

From lawn cutter to Torah repairer

From ritual planner to snack provider

From Haftarah chanter to challah baker

From student of Torah to teacher of Torah

From student of the Alefbet to teacher of adult education

From teacher of Hebrew to student of Hebrew

From religious school teacher to religious school parent

From writer of notes to reader of announcements.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From mopper of floors to unstopper of sinks

From pourer of wine to raiser of Sukkah

From unlocker of doors to twister of yahrzeit bulbs

From maker of coffee to purchaser of cups

From sender of shalach manot to mailer of bulletins

From singer of songs to performer of mitzvot

From organizer of oneg to assigner of honors

From plotter of gravesites to maintainer of cemetery.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

From discussants of books to deliverers of mishloach manot

From blower of shofar to decorator of Sukkah

From installer of carpet to bearer of Torah

From hoster of oneg to performer of talent

From member of Sisterhood to member of the men’s club

From committee member to principal of the religious school

From member of the board to trustee

From elected officer to volunteer.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord Your G-d

The one who says yes when asked

The one who say yes before being asked

The one who brings challah for eating

The one who watches for the sun’s setting

The one who arrives first and the one who cleans up last

The one who provides snacks and the one who picks up trash

The one who sits and the one who stands.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d;

The one who judges talent and the ones who share their talents

The one who convenes and the one who attends

The one who welcomes the stranger and the one who blesses the sick

The one who mourns and the one who rejoices

The ones who shed tears and the ones who wipe them away

The one who pursues justice and the one who performs mitzvoth.



Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheychem

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d

Those who are standing here with us this day

Those who are not with us here this day.

Those who were here in years past

Those who will come to join us in future

And those who are yet to be born.


You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d, and together you encounter the divine, together you create the kehilah kedosha (the holy community), together you elevate the lives of others, and together you sanctify your own lives in the way you live them. All of you, together and individually, form our community and create the world around us. Our task is to strive, to do our best.

We are told that we are not obliged to finish the work, but we are not permitted to desist from it. It is our honest, heartfelt, and sincere efforts and striving that are our offering today, and everyday. And I pray that all of can continue the work that we have done in past, and accomplish even more in the year ahead. What we have done is good, what we will do is even better. Stay strong, stay connected, stay focused and together we will reach new heights.


To all of you – I wish a g’mar chatima tovah umetukah; may you be sealed for a good year and sweet year, and may you have a tzom kal, a meaningful and light fast. Chag sameach.



Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life in this Place 

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

10 Tishrei 5775

3-4 October 2014

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD.


Welcome back. Were here again, in this place.

Bmakom hazeh.

For some of us, this place is familiar. For some of us, this is a new place.

Lets all take a moment to look around this space, this place, hamakom hazeh.

When I was young, I attended a school where we taught not only how to think but also how to behave. We were taught that we should walk into a space, particularly any gathering space, with eyes straight ahead. Once we had found our seats, we should not turn around; rather our composed stature would ground us and prepare us for whatever would come next.

Tonight, I ask you to follow a different direction. Look around, look up, behind you, then in front of you. Notice something you may not have noticed before about this place, haMakom ha Zeh.


HaMakom means this place. It is also one of any names for the Holy One, for Gods Self.

In Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei, Jacob begins what becomes his formative spiritual journey, and the very first night after leaving home, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and coming down on it. The Holy One appears and speaks to Jacob, and when Jacob awakes, he says, Mah norah haMakom haZeh!How awesome is this place! (Genesis 28:17)

How Awesome is the ONE who is in every place.

We have returned to this place tonight to be grounded, to remember who we are, to reclaim our identity as Jews. To remember and recover, in community, the why of our lives, the reason for our strivings, the ways we are held and challenged by our Judaism.

Mah norah haMakom haZeh!

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a day helping my best friend go through her closets because, after 41 years in this house, she is going to move. In three separate closets we found her fathers neckties, her former husband's tuxedos, and many items belonging to her mother: pants, jackets, blouses, and more. As gently as I could, I asked her if she was ready to part with the clothing of these three family members, all of whom are dead.

How do clothes, and other belongings, represent life, or, conversely, feed our fears of death? What are we carrying forward into this New Year that may be pulling us back into the past, or into our fears? How can we go forward, to new projects, new hopes, new homes, in this New Year?

Rosh HaShana is a call to life, with over 100 shofar blasts, with our declaration that Today is the Birth Day of the World. Ten days ago, with pageantry and ritual and symbolic foods for long life and wisdom, we sang the New Year into being. Together we proclaimed, may this year, 5775 bring to us and the whole House of Israel life and peace, joy and exultation, redemption and comfort. We ate sweet foods and engaged in conversation, strengthening community, affirming our connection. Some of us stood on the banks and cast away our transgressions, reaffirming life and hope. In synagogues and homes, in the practices of the devout and those who call themselves secular, the message of Rosh Hashana is simple and strong: CHOOSE LIFE.

Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death, as we fast, eschew bathing, wear simple white clothes, go barefoot or wear no leather, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware. We may fear the darkness. But descending, find light.

In A Bride for One Night, Professor Ruth Calderon, the Israeli Knesset member, retells Talmudic tales. In one, she writes that when the Angel of Death was sent by the Holy One to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, The Angel of Death knew from experience that escorting sages to their deaths, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task.  Sages were prepared to die; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men. With sages the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and the paralyzed looks of those not ready to depart from the world. Perhaps the little pride they had countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would secure them a place in heaven. In any case the Angel of Death tended to interact politely with sages, as if conversing with equals. (p. 101).

On Yom Kippur, we all become sages. On Yom Kippur, we are welcomed into the world of death. We wrestle with our pride, in both communal and individual confessions. And together, we study Torah.

Here are two pieces of Torah that we study on Yom Kippur:

We began the seamless flow of this day with Kol Nidre. listening to the words that remind us that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.{C}[1]{C} The version of Kol Nidre that we use names the words that we may speak between this Yom Kippur and the nextMi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba, and expresses the hope that we use words judiciously, intentionally, and with care. Kol Nidre is understood to serve us as a prophylactic, a protective shield, if we are forced to utter words we do not believe, to articulate views with which we disagree, to acquiesce to opinions or positions we do not hold.

The Kol Nidre prayer, then, reminds us to be mindful of our speech even as it says, youre covered. The community, those who witness Kol Nidre, has our back. Were not alone if we stumble in our speech. The words we will say, from this Yom Kippur to the next, are protected.

What of the vows we make willingly, without coercion, with joy and intention, with clarity and commitment?

Tonight, I would like to challenge each of us, as we enter into this day of discernment, to consider a vow, a commitment, that we WANT to and CAN keep in the coming year: ““Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba.

I would like each of us to spend some time on this day that begins tonight, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this day like no other in the Jewish calendar, thinking about one vow that we can make to ourselves that we can PRACTICE for the next year.

I looked up that word, and heres how the dictionary helps us:

rehearse, run through, go over/through, work on/at; polish, perfect.

train, prepare, go through one's paces.

carry out, perform, observe.

What would you like to work on, polish, and observe this year?

What is one achievable ongoing practice, commitment, engagement FOR YOU in the new year that begins now?

Weve all done thismany, many times. Weve all started projects that weve then put aside. Weve all made commitments that, for a range of reasons, weve not completed or followed through on. We may be jaded, or resistant. Not again!

Can we make this year differentby choosing ONE ONGOING COMMITMENT TO OURSELVES THAT, a year from now, we will be able to say, I worked on this.

The Torah portion that we read tomorrow includes these words:

Ki haMitzvah hazot asher anochi mitzavcha hayom lo niflate he vlo rchocha heelo va shamayim hee

The opportunity which You have given us today is not too hard for you, nor too remote; it is not in the heavensno, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.

On this Yom Kippur day, each of us, I believe, can become sages, committing ourselves to living fully, even with the knowledge that each of us will die. The sages knew that looking death in the eye can help us to embrace life. I want to encourage each of us to do that: to immerse ourselves in the work of this Yom Kippur Day and to go forth into this year with a renewed sense of the powerand the beautyof life, and our own ability to increase that power and beauty.

Do you, like my friend, like me, have closets that need attention, belongings and memories that need to be sorted through?

Another friend, Susan, told me that as she prepared to move, she delightedly engaged in what she called revisionist history. I kept the mementos and the papers and books from the happy times in my life. I discarded all the rest.

This is a perfect time of year for us to clean our hearts closets. This is challenging work, but not impossible. We all have, intentionally or unintentionally, kept memories, and grudges, costumes and protective clothing that we no longer need or want. Weve begun a new year, and to better live in the present, we need to acknowledge, honor, and move beyond the past. For some of us, this means packing up our sorrows. Someone else will, perhaps, know how to use them. {C}[2]{C} And we, less burdened, can move on.

What is your vow, your commitment for this new year, Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba that will help you move into this New Year with a greater sense of purpose, of clarity, of being fully yourself? This is your one precious life. Whatever your age, whatever your capacity, as this new year begins, you can claim your freedom and chart your next moves, moves towards life, towards health, towards engagement, towards service.

I want to encourage each of us here to identify ONE practice you would like to beginor set your mind to beginningfor yourself. This is between you and yourself, although, if appropriate, your commitment can involve service to another.

Your commitment to life might be as simple as spending 30 minutes a week walking outside. Or learning the Hebrew alphabet. Or taking up piano again. Or writing to an aging or lonely friend or relative once a month. Or volunteering, gardening, or learning carpentry. Or researching and then giving time or money to a cause or campaign you believe in.

What will enable you to mobilize your heart and claim an opportunity that is waiting for YOU in 5775?

By attending to our lives with intention and clarity, we are, consciously or not, preparing to meet the Angel of Death. Like the sages, each of us can cultivate equanimity, developing the muscle of calm so that when our time comes, we are not shocked or startled. We may not welcome the Angels knock, but we may acknowledge the inevitability of its arrival.

I invite you to write down your vow, your commitment, and to seal it in a self-addressed envelope. As you leave this service, you will find note cards and envelopes and pens at the front and at the rear of the sanctuary. I will collect the sealed envelopes. Three months from now, as the month of December draws to a close and the Hebrew month of Tevet begins, I will mail your letter to you. You will then have an opportunity to see how youve done for the first quarter of this new year, and to renew or revise your vow. Youll keep growing as the seasons and the months change. You will be making your way through the Jewish year, and through your own life. How alive will you be to each days opportunities and challenges?

In a few weeks, we will read Parashat VaYetze. Wherever we are on our own journeys,  I hope that we will hear Jacobs words echo in your own experience of the New Year that is unfolding: Mah norah haMakom haZeh: How amazing is this place; how fortunate am I to be here, now, in this place.


{C}[1] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Absolutely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Boston: Little Brown, 2003).

{C}[2] Johnny Cash, “Pack Up Your Sorrows”

Finding Meaning, Finding My Path Sermon by Rabbi Joe Blair Rosh Hashanah 5775 (September 2014)

Gut Yontiff!

I am glad to be here with you today to share the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar cycle.

It is a time, we are told, of awe at the immensity of the divine and our own smallness in comparison, and of what is translated as ‘fear’ at the sense that we are observed and seen and evaluated by that divine being. And yet, it is also a time of looking forward with happy anticipation. Each year when we reach this holiday we are given the gift of another opportunity at a reset, a sense of openings, and a fresh start.

Of course, in order to experience that blessed sense of hopefulness, we have to invest in our self. We are required to do the hard work of self-examination and self-evaluation; to see honestly what we have been and done, and to measure it against the yardstick of our self-expectations and the image of our ideal self.

It is a truism that two things are necessary. First, if you don’t know where you are and where you have been, you can have no idea about how to move to another place. Second, if you have no direction and don’t know where you are headed, it doesn’t matter what path you take or what choices you make.

Only when we know where we are now, and where we are headed, can we map out the path and choose those things to work on that will help us along the way.

So at this point, I hope that you have had a productive period of self-examination and self-evaluation – that which we call a Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. With the information and self-knowledge you gained in that process, you are prepared to look forward and strive to be your best self.

Armed with that information, it seems to me that we are prepared to address three questions that together may help us to seek to answer a larger question.

To frame this conversation, I would like to remind you of the Torah story that we read for this holiday. It is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. In it, G-d decides to test Abraham, and tells him to bring his beloved son Isaac to a place G-d will indicate for a sacrifice, and offer him up. Abraham does this, bringing Isaac, who asks at one moment what will be sacrificed, and is given an ambiguous answer. The two (and the two servants) walk on together, Abraham and Isaac as one, arriving at this place, and then Abraham proceeds to prepare to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is stopped by an angel (a malach or messenger), and directed to offer instead a ram caught in a thicket. Then, we read, Abraham returns home. No mention of Isaac. ….

Turning to the questions raised here.

1. What makes life worth living for you? In other words, what gives purpose and meaning to what you do?

What is it that motivates you? What is it that you value? How do you measure success and self-worth? For some it is all about money, or acclaim and fame. For many it is respect and acknowledgement of their worth. I would suggest that for most of us it is love and belonging – belonging to family, to community, and sometimes to larger things or groups.

What is it that gets you moving each day, that motivates you to get out of bed and start? Looking at yourself, what did you find or decide is your motivation?

Looking at the story we read, we are told, and can see that Abraham loved G-d and sought to serve G-d with his whole heart and being, and all that he had. He ‘didn’t withhold’ anything – even his precious son, the link to the future and his legacy.

Isaac loved his father, perhaps even to the point of trusting him and turning over his own life to Abraham. It seems that both Abraham and Isaac are spurred by wishing to serve that which they love – they value G-d, or their parent, or the relationship with them.  

For both, we might consider the link between love and what is sometimes identified as awe, other times as fear. We are told both to love G-d and to fear G-d. G-d is described as awesome – which can mean really cool, in today’s language, but can also mean something that is terrifying and/or incomprehensible. How you can love that which you fear, and how remain in awe of what you love, is a conversation for another time.

For today, for our self, we need to know what it is that gives our life direction and motivates us to arise and carry on each day. 

2. What do you strive for or seek?

Some people seek fame, others fortune, yet others love. Many of us seek comfort, or familiarity, while a few seek challenges and to test themselves. Most of us seek recognition and acknowledgement, validation and support. A very few will seek the inverse if they feel they cannot get what they want, so they may prefer to be hated rather than ignored when they are not loved, or  seek infamy or notoriety when they cannot achieve fame or approval.

In the Torah, Abraham, it would seem to me, sought approval, acknowledgement, and acceptance from G-d – and perhaps even love, though I am not really sure what it would mean to seek love on a human scale from something beyond human understanding. He starts out doing all of this in exchange for a promise of family and descendants. He wants love and acceptance from G-d, and to touch the future and leave a legacy.

He did not seek fame, though G-d refers later on to all nations being blessed through Abraham and that all will know of him. He did not seek anything from others; on the contrary, in this instance he had to know that his actions would be rejected, by Sarah at least, and we are told that he left the two servants behind at the end, presumably so they could not interfere or be part of the event. This was all about Abraham and G-d – and maybe Isaac. If Abraham had not sought the approval of G-d, this story would not have been possible. It is that which Abraham strove for that made him act as he did.

As for Isaac, it is a little less clear. The rabbis struggle with his motivation, because we do not know much about him. It is not even clear how old he was at this time, or how much he truly understood about what was happening. All we can infer is that Isaac sought the love of his father, and that brought him to serve G-d as he was asked by his father.

In your Cheshbon Hanefesh, could you identify that which motivates you? Could you pick out what it is that you are seeking and working for, that which you have set as your goal? This is not a trivial question because this goal is what has driven and gotten you to where you are at this moment. To a large degree that which you seek and strive for defines you.

3. What has meaning for you? How do you measure the worth of your life?

Both of the questions so far feed into this one. Once you have identified what makes life worth living and motivates you, and what you are striving for, you have a good leg up on knowing what it is that has meaning and that gives meaning to life for you. For example, if what you value is money, and your efforts are directed towards acquiring wealth, then wealth is what both gives your life meaning and what has meaning for you. That is the thing that will direct you and drive you; it will be the factor that determines what choices and actions you make and take.

For Abraham, what gave his life meaning and what was meaningful to him was the service of G-d. That, above all else:  at the cost of his relationships with those most near and dear - to the point of costing their lives; and even to the degree that he would abandon his own fondest and most deeply held desire for progeny to live after himself.

For Isaac, it would seem that it was the love and approval of his father, perhaps even to the point of agreeing to the sacrifice his own life.

As a side note, I have to observe that this is the most dangerous place for us as humans. It is the point at which we can cross the threshold and enter into idolatry. It need not be figures, statues, or representations – we can worship things, possessions, ideas, beliefs, people, money, art, power, love, or even ourselves.

It is very easy to slip into worship of that which we hold most dear and meaningful – but it is at a terrible cost. We have all seen it in those who are driven by the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all else, those who become workaholics to the point that their families do not even recognize them, those who are so self-centered and narcissistic that no one and nothing else matters, or those who become addicts of a myriad of other things or behaviors that become the center of their existence, and drive out all else.

If we were to meet a modern day Abraham, we would almost certainly see him as a religious fanatic, and an unbalanced lunatic who had to be restrained – because we would not understand the weight given to what he valued and in which he found meaning. The question of how to view Abraham is still open, and worthy of deep consideration – but again, that is for another day.

The first two questions, relating to what motivates you and makes life worth living, and what you strive for, define your past and who you are today. The third question about meaning asks you to define how you would wish to be seen and how you would live an ideal life.

Taking these three answers, we are ready now to turn to the much larger and more important question. Consider now, what is it that is more important than what you value, what you strive for, or what gives meaning for you. We have one meta-question, an issue that these three questions help to define, and which in truth is existential. This matter is so large, so central, and so core that I will raise it, and leave it with you, for your consideration.  

At this moment in time, in light of your answers to the three questions posed, and given the themes of this time of year on the Jewish calendar, the key question could be phrased as: who are you, and who will you become?

You now have determined who you were, and what made you that person. We come to the nub of the matter: are you defined by your circumstances, or are you a free agent, able to shape your own destiny? Who are you today, and who will you be tomorrow and in a year?

Referencing Sigmund Freud’s discussion of the repetition compulsion, and recalling the more common definition of insanity as doing what you have always done and expecting different results, I invite you to consider - in light of what you found in your Cheshbon Hanefesh:

-      Are you happy with where and who you are today?

If not, do you need to re-evaluate what you think is valuable and important, and perhaps revise what motivates you?

-     Are you on the path towards what you wish to become?

If not, do you need to rethink your priorities and redefine what you will strive for to align more closely with what you think is meaningful?

-      Have you fallen into the trap of idolatry, elevating that which is not core to your self-definition?

And finally, with the answers to these questions in mind, we come to the most significant of all the questions:

-      What must you do to focus and act in a way that will bring you more in line with where and who you wish to be?

Let me be perfectly clear: these questions, when taken seriously, are not fodder for casual perusal or light consideration. They ask you to really take out your soul and examine it, to see yourself as you are and as others might see you, and to compare yourself now to a more ideal self. The last one asks you to determine what changes you wish to make, and how to actualize those changes.

Change is hard. I know it, and you do, too.

Still, as hard as this process is, it is worth the attempt. When you undertake such an evaluation, and seek to make (at least some of) the changes you wish to see manifested in your life, you are making progress and moving on the path towards the higher self you can be. And that is perhaps the most hopeful and positive thing possible for us as human beings, creatures formed in the divine image.

The possibility of change and improvement does exist, if we will it. And as the well-known song tells us, Im tirtzu ayn zo aggadah – if you will it, it is no dream.

May we come to know our best and highest self, and recognize that we are becoming that person. May we all be granted the strength and will to act in accord with our best self. May our actions and efforts in the world result in a better world each day of our lives. May THIS be the hope, the hope that is real.

Leshanah tovah umetukah. May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year of many blessings.


Rosh Hashanah Sermon Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell 5775

Our Promised Land[i]

Rosh HaShana 5775/2014

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell


 Shana tova. Friends and familyI am very glad to be here with you, once again. Welcome! Welcome back.

 We have not seen one another for a year. Some of us have never met. So beginning an important conversation is challenging. Here we are, on this Rosh HaShana Eve, and I want to speak my heart to you about a topic that is very important to me. And yet we are at the very beginning of our relationship, or beginning again after a long absence.

For me, this mirrors the challenge that faces every individual who enters into these Days of Awe, these Awesome Days. We walk through the doors of the synagogue, and are welcomed into a serious conversationwith our tradition and with God. Some of us may not feel at all ready to engagethe relationship may be too new, or strange, or perhaps even strained. Even those of us who are familiar, even fluent in the language of this extraordinary cycle, even we, as Rabbi Alan Lew teaches, are utterly unprepared.[ii] Many of us arrive here tonight unclear about why were here. We may be anxious about whats expected of us, we may be here in body but, without even realizing it, were not totally present. We have left some significant part of ourselves at home, or in the car, or at the door.

So I challenge each of you: be here now. Bring your whole self here. We are entering this New Year together. And I would like to share some words from my heart. The rabbis teach that words that are offered from the heart, words that are offered with a sense of Awe, enter the hearts of those who listen.[iii]

I want to talk with you about love. I want to talk with you about family, our family.

I want to speak with you about loving family even when it is difficult.

I want to speak with you tonight about Israel. For Jews and those who have chosen to travel with Jews, for part of a journey or for a lifetime, the people of Israel is family. Our family. In all our complexity, with our complicated history and our even more complicated present, we are members of this rich and varied, difficult and frustrating, resilient family. We are people who have an ancient and durable heart connection to a small piece of land we call Zion. For centuries we prayed that we might be privileged to return to that land. Sixty-six years ago, our people established a sovereign state in our ancestral land. And as you know, building a democratic state, a refuge for both Jews and others on this tiny strip of land has been an almost impossible challenge.

As some of you know, I have had the honor of serving as your High Holiday rabbi for the past eighteen years; this is my 19th year with you. I have watched a number of children grow up here, delighting as toddlers become kindergartners, seeing kids grow and change and prepare for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and then go off to college. I have had the honor to sit on this bima with several generations of temple leaders. And Ihave mourned with you when we have lost beloved members, and friends.  Over the years, we have become members of each others extended Jewish family.

So some of you know that Israel has been an important part of my life since I was a college Junior and spent six months studying in Jerusalem. I returned to Israel several years later and spent six months studying Hebrew on a kibbutz ulpan. For the past 23 years, I have been partnered with Nurit, who was born in Tel Aviv weeks after the state was declared. Over the years, I have shared stories of my Israeli families and friends, and learning from my continuing studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

This year, I speak with particular urgency. I speak with particular urgency because of what Israelis call HaMatzav, the ongoing situation, as it erupted and escalated this summer. HaMatzav included, tragically, the kidnapping and brutal murder of four young men. These murders were both preceded and followed by rocket attacks aimed at every city and almost every town in Israel, and the discovery of hundreds of subterranean tunnels that provided access for terrorists into kindergartens and schools and community centers. HaMatzvah included the response to these attacks, first airstrikes and then a ground invasion to locate and seal the tunnels.

Nurit and I had been looking forward to a 6 week mini-sabbatical in Israel. We rented an apartment in Tel Aviv, and I planned to return to my beloved Hartman Institute for a 2 week rabbinic study program. We arrived in Tel Aviv the week that the three yeshiva students were kidnapped. Ten days later, on the opening night of my Rabbinic Learning Institute, we learned that the students, Naftali Fraenkel, who was 16, Gilad Shaar, also 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, had been murdered. Two days later, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, age 16, was kidnapped and murdered.

The theme of our study program was A Time for War, A Time for Peace[iv]

On our second day, Dr. Tal Becker presented a lesson entitled Jewish Values, Jewish Character and the Pursuit of Peace. He invited us to study Talmudic and biblical texts that help him in his role as a member of Israels peace negotiating team. These are his words:

The negotiating table is not the place that peace happens. The challenge in that room is to create a space for an investmenta gamble where a different reality can emerge over time.

He continued, The true engineers of peace are those who take advantage of the space of negotiation to create an alternative reality.

He challenged us by saying that we need to address NOT the past but rather, the future. We need to challenge our own sense of certainty. When we think that our position is right because it is true, when we believe that we stand for the only possible truth, he reminded us that there is no room for the other. We must make peace with the other. So we must enter the process with both an open mind and an open heart.

He continued,

I have to be a champion of the view with which I disagree. What is the greatestexample of this posture? He asked. And then, like thousands of years of great teachers before him, Dr. Becker answered his own question.

What is the greatest example of championing the view with which I disagree?

Historically, we Jews perpetuate the point of view with which we disagree. We lift it up, we preserve it, we study it.[v]

Dr. Becker urged us to open ourselves to the narrative of the other, to the perspective of the other, to the truths of the other. He challenged us to reconsider what we hold as our own truths.

This is the beginning of dialogue, the beginning of conversation.

On July 8th, the eighth evening of our study together, Donniel Hartman, the President of the Hartman Institute, opened the evening saying that he and those who planned our time of study knew that the odds were in our favor that the topic was going to be relevant when they chose A Time for War, A Time for Peace. He continued, either a serious peace treaty would be on the table, or, if negotiations had fallen apartwe would look at our understanding of war in this impossible environment, and askhow do we think about peace?

Operation Protective Edge had been launched earlier that day, and rockets had been launched from Gaza towards Tel Aviv. Rabbi Hartman continued, I want to welcome you to Israel. I want to welcome you to one of the greatest secrets of Israeli society one of the sources of its greatest strength and of profound difficulty and potential failureto live in Israel is the ability to bifurcate your consciousness; to live and hold onto a myth of stability regardless of the circumstances Tonight were going to be Israelis.[vi]

Two hours later, shortly after the conclusion of the evenings program, a siren sounded. Those of us who were still on campus were herded down the stairs in the Beit Midrash, the Study Hall, descending into a series of rooms that comprise Hartmans extensive miklat, shelter. The festive mood of the evening was shattered by the siren, the first that some of us had ever heard. We were an erev rav, a mix of rabbinical students and seasoned rabbis, friends and family members, Americans, Canadians, Israelis, and others. For some of us, this was the first time we had entered a miklat seeking shelter from possible danger. Some prayed. Some were silent. I held a rabbinic student who had just arrived in Israel for her first year, as she trembled with fear and wept. After what seemed like many minutes, Donniel told us that it was safe to leave the campus. We found others who were headed in the same direction and walked through the empty, quiet streets. As my group approached the brightly lit main street in the neighborhood, Emek Refaim, we agreed that ice cream was an appropriate antidote to our brief, and for many of us, deeply unsettling experience.

Tonight were going to be Israelis.

My studies in Jerusalem came to an end, and I returned to Tel Aviv. Our days were punctuated by sirens indicating that a rocket was headed towards us, and that we had 15 seconds to seek cover. More than once sirens sounded when we were in a restaurant or coffee shop and we were ushered by the waitstaff into an internal kitchen or dishroom. Once we were drivingwe pulled over and lay down on the ground. Wed wait to hear the sonic boom letting us know that the Iron Dome, the Israeli developed and American funded anti-missile defense system, had intercepted the rocket. And then we would resume our day. 

There were several attempts to negotiate cease fires in July, but none succeeded 

Nurit and I returned to the United Statesshe had to return to her work on July 17.  That was the day that the Malaysian Airline flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. It was also the day that Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces, entered Gaza on the ground. We landed in New York and learned the distressing news of loss and death in Europe, and continuing losses in Israel and in Gaza. 

As you know, the conflict continued all summer. Rockets continued to be aimed at Israel, and Israel continued to attempt to identify and destroy the stockpiles and staging areas, and the vast network of underground tunnels. The death tolls continued to mount. And as the conflict continued, print and social media was ablaze with heartbreaking stories, accusations and allegations of blame and guilt, and misinformation.  Some of us on this side of the ocean began conversations and then could not extract ourselves without hurting ourselves or others. Others of us simply shut down, afraid or unable to speak about the conflict. In many places, including several European capitals, hate speech escalated to violence against Jews. This summer saw a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism unseen for a generation. Make no mistake: Anti-Zionism IS Anti-Semitism. This summers war exposed a hatred of Jews that, for some, has been simmering for many, many years.

Yet we are a people who pursue peace. Every time that Jews gather for prayer, we ask for Gods blessing of peace: Sim Shalom: Grant us Peace. Shalom Rav, we declare: Grant a great, lasting, expansive peace to us and to all peoples Every Shabbat and at every simcha, we bless one another with an ancient blessing that begins, Yivarechecha Adonai vyismarecha and concludes: May God bless us with peace. 

Twenty-one years ago, six days after Rosh HaShana, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke to the Knesset and addressed both those who stood before him and his adversaries. Trained as a warrior, he had become a fierce fighter for peace. These are his words:

We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their childrenWe say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.
We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free [people .We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: Enough.

I stand before you today, on this day of new beginnings and ask you to consider a new beginning in your relationship with Israel. Can we, like Rabin, say ENOUGH to blame, to bloodshed, to tears? I believe that we canand must find a way to speak with one another about Israel, claiming this complex inheritance, this mixed blessing.

Wherever you stand, I ask you, on this New Years Eve, to stand with Israel.

We call ourselves AM YISRAELthe people of Israel. We are family. We have always been a contentious people, arguing with one another about many issues, both issues of consequence and not. We are family. This is a time to claim that family connection.

It is time to meet the fiesty, difficult, beloved, diverse members of our family: the artists and industrialists, the kibbutzniks who now run factories and agribusinesses, the religious and the proudly secular, those who have made millions in high-tech, and those who are struggling to feed their families, the soldiers and the dreamers, those who were born in Israel and those whose parents came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, from Ethiopian, from Argentina, from France, from Australia and New Zealand, from the U.S. and Canada. Some members of our family embrace religious extremism. Some distance themselves from historical Judaism and from claiming any connection to the land.

Were a complicated family. And we are family to one another.

Tal Becker reminded us that we Jews have always honored dissenting voices. Join us: raise your dissenting voice! Let us reclaim our historic legacy and listen to one another with respect and the humility that is the rock shelf of admitting that we may not always know the answer.

This was a hellish summer for too many families in Israel and Gaza. The rocket fire and destruction has finally come to an end, and negotiators are sitting together, working on listening to one another, struggling, day after day to turn towards a future where all of our children will live with hope, not fear. As Rabin said, We are today giving peace a chance and again a clear voice: Enough.

Israel, in all of her complexity and vibrancy, calls us now. I believe that each of us can find a way in, a way to reconnect with this fractious, beloved, difficult amazing family in the only democracy in the Middle East.

I conclude with hope.

Hope is at the core of our Judaism. Jim Wallis, a powerful theologian of social justice teaches that hope is a decision we make. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.[viii]

Our presence here tonight proves his point. None of us would be here, in this place, on this night, if someone in our past had not worked to realize an unrealistic hope. We are survivors of hatred and persecution, discrimination and exile. We are here tonight, celebrating a New Year because the core of our tradition is resilience and hope. Af al pi chenlamrot ha kol; we are people who, throughout history and now, in spite of everything, champion the rights of others to be heard and considered. In spite of everything, we believe that there is a better way, a path to peace.

Hope, HaTikvah, is the title and the essence of Israels national anthem. Hope, HaTikvah is the Jewish peoples timeless source of strength. Let us, tonight, reclaim that hopeof an Israel that has the strength and the vision to be a beacon of peace and justice, an AM YISRAEL who stand together to realize that dream.

May we go forth into this New Year as one, reconstituting our family as a family that stands together EVEN WHEN WE HOLD DISPARATE IDEAS May we go forth into this New Year as a community who dares to dialogue with one another ESPECIALLY when we disagree. May we go forth into this New Year to a year of peace and justice, equality and fairness, in Israel, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and in every corner of our deeply troubled, deeply beloved world. That is our shared hope, HaTikvah.

Ken yhi ratzon: may it be so.


[i] I am deeply indebted to the powerful insights and inspired writing of three passionate Israelis, whose recent books continue to challenge me and help me find my way. Ari Shavit's masterful My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is, I believe, a "must read" for all who want to engage in informed conversations about contemporary Israel. (NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2013.) Yossi Klein Halevi's Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reuinted Jerusalem and Divided a Nation provides essential insights into Religious Zionism and the settler movement and offers invaluable insights and commentary on the last 47 years of Israel’s history.(NY: HarperCollins, 2013). Bonna Devora Haberman's Rereading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2012) articulates a creative, interdisciplinary, hope-infused vision.

[ii] Alan Lew, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (NY: Little Brown and Company, 2003), p.112

[iii] Berachot 6b: “R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one is filled with the fear of God his words are listened to.” I offer these words in humility and with a sense of God’s awesomeness.

[iv] Ecclesiastes 3. Pete Seeger, the great American folk singer, set these words to music in the 1950s, and the song became an international sensation when it was recorded by the 1960s band The Byrds in 1965.!_Turn!_Turn!

[v] my notes from Tal Becker's presentation, "Jewish Values, Jewish Character and the Pursuit of Peace," 1 July 2014, Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar.



[viii] I have paraphrased Wallis’ words from a talk delivered at the CCAR Conference in Chicago in March 2013. This quotation is found at Thanks to Hara Person for helping me locate it!