Introducing a Blog to you

Some of you may wonder what I think about at times.... Others may recall that I have been involved in learning and teaching about issues relating to the Jewish approach to the end of life, death, funerals, mourning, and remembrance.

At this juncture, I want to suggest the blog for the organization known as Kavod v'Nichum - Honor & Comfort. You may think it morbid as a topic, but perhaps you will change your mind as you see what appears in that blog. 

The introductory entry describes a little of what the blog intends to talk about. You can find it HERE

From there, you can scroll through the other entries. The ones posted recently tell about Shmirah - Guarding the Body of a Friend; then a story about Taharah - She is Pure; the thoughts of a woman who is a Funeral Director and head of the Chevrah Kadisha - Isn't it Depressing?; and a post that seemed to resonate even more than it would have at other times in light of the news from Israel, about those Taharot that remain in mind for a long-time Chevrah Kadisha member - These I Remember.  

A new entry appears weekly - perhaps you will be interested in visiting to see what is added. 

I hope that you find these stories and this blog Inspiring - not morbid of depressing. 

Rabbi Joe 


Passover wishes, Thoughts on a tragedy

We are all shocked and saddened by the recent shootings at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. On this eve of Passover, we pray for comfort and healing for all those affected in the greater Kansas City community and beyond. We will keep the families affected by this tragedy in mind at our Seder tables, and in time ahead.

We pray that our country will find the courage and the strength to overcome and eliminate the plague of bigotry and hatred in all its forms, and address the scourge of violence in our society. The acts of a few deranged individuals can sadden us, but will not deter us from working for peace, justice, respect for, and acceptance of all. 

Particularly at this time of Passover we pray that we will all find the means to move from the narrow places which breed bigotry, hatred, and violence, to a way of life in which we are all free of fear and oppression, accepted for who we are, and can find redemption as one of G-d's creations. 

For those celebrating Passover, we wish you and your loved ones a joyous, meaningful, liberating, and redemptive Pesach. For those who celebrate Easter, may your holy season be joyous and uplifting. For those who celebrate other holidays at this time of year, may you have good and joyful holidays. And for those who celebrate none of these, may you have a good and pleasant season.

Passover (Pesach) is the holiday which serves as the Jewish celebration of the liberation of the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews from oppression and slavery, and their Redemption by G-d (as told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible), in order that they be free to worship and serve G-d through the Teachings and Laws of G-d. May all human beings be blessed with this gift. 

B'virkat shalom (with blessings for peace), 

Rabbi Joe Blair

Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Staunton VA    March 2, 2014/Adar 1  30, 5774


Shalom! Good morning to you!

 Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.  Rev. Owen – Shelby – my thanks to you for agreeing to our ‘pulpit exchange’. I hope that both our communities find it a rich concept and worth repeating in future. I am approaching this ‘drash’ from an informal perspective; if that is not suited to your community, please accept my apologies in advance. I also am limiting my remarks to the Hebrew Scripture reading from Exodus in the lectionary for today. I know I won’t do it justice, and I can’t imagine having enough time to do more!

The scripture reading for today includes a section from Exodus chapter 24 verses 12-18. I have taken the liberty of asking Sarah Grove-Humphries, your organist, and THOI's Cantorial Soloist, to chant the reading from Exodus in the Traditional Trope so you can hear what it sounds like. [Sarah Chants here]

 In this very brief reading we see that Moses is being called up onto Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the ten sayings (sometimes called the 10 commandments), the teachings of the Torah – also called the ‘torah’ or ‘instruction’, and the ‘Mitzvot’ or commandments by which we are to live a good and godly life, in order to teach all of them to the Hebrews. Moses rises, and tells the 70 elders to stay where they are, and that should anyone present a question or conflict that needed resolution, Aaron and Chur would be there to handle them.  Spoiler alert – this doesn’t work out all that well – we will be hearing about the failure and episode of the golden calf shortly!

Then, we read, Moses goes up, and the cloud of the glory of G-d covers Mount Sinai, and remains there for six days. On the seventh day, G-d called to Moses from inside the cloud, and Moses entered, and met with G-d. At that point the sight of the glory of G-d appeared to the people as a consuming fire on top of the mountain; and we read that Moses remained atop the mountain for forty days and nights.

 Let’s just picture this from the viewpoint of the people. They are camped around the foot of the mountain, and Moses has told them not to set foot on the mountain or to touch it, lest they die. The elders have ascended partway with Moses and are still on the mountain – perhaps visible, at least from time to time, but perhaps not. And Moses, who has led them here, has ascended the mountain, and entered the cloud where G-d is found – and then the cloud of the glory of G-d turns into a devouring fire!

“No way”, they think, “could Moses survive that! G-d has become angry and killed Moses. Moses is no more.” And it is in that mindset that they turn on Aaron and demand that he do something! Make something that we can pray to that will make G-d less angry! So the golden calf comes about…. In that light, it is easier for us to imagine the motivations and the concerns that drove the people. 

But that is not what I want to talk to you about today.

Instead, I want to do a bit of a close reading, focus on the details to see what thye may reveal for us.

Going back to the beginning, we know that Moses was reluctant to take on this role. “Not me, G-d. Pick someone else, G-d. They won’t believe me. I am slow of speech, and heavy of tongue.” Moses, known as the most humble of men, argued with G-d! He must have felt pretty strongly that he didn’t want to do this. But here, Moses utters not a word. G-d calls, and Moses goes. This time is different for some reason.

Is it because Moses has seen what G-d can and will do? Is it because G-d already told Moses that any objection raised would be met? Or is it because Moses has grown to accept that what G-d instructs will occur? Has Moses come to a realization of the power of G-d? Does he grow and learn to have faith in G-d? All of these questions, and more, come to mind here.

And now I share with you a very important aspect of life as a Jew. We have lots of questions, but we don’t necessarily have answers. We are called to ask questions, to search and to seek, but often we are left to live with ambivalence, uncertainty, and unclarity. There are many things to which there are no answers provided, and even a few where the ‘answer’ is that this is too hard to answer, so we will leave it until Elijah comes to announce the start of the messianic age, and can respond – until then, as they say, just learn to live with it!  And so with our questions here.

The next step in our reading is even more interesting. Moses goes to the elders and instructs them in what to do. Now you will have to trust me on this, but the two most common phrases throughout the Torah – the five books of Moses – are, ‘And G-d said to Moses’, or ‘And G-d spoke to Moses’. Moses gets a LOT of instructions, directions, advice, counsel, and information from G-d. But here, no such thing - G-d doesn’t say a thing. Moses simply instructs the elders. Apparently Moses already knows what needs to be done, and he takes the initiative to make it happen. The questions this begs are, ‘How did Moses know what to do? Is Moses acting with initiative because he is ‘on board’ – perhaps even looking forward to, or anticipating the opportunity for his close encounter with G-d; a chance to be alone and converse with the Divine? Is this really the same Moses who whines and complains that he is the wrong man for the job?’

Again, no answers, just the echo of our own questions.

And then Moses ascends the mountain, and the cloud covers it, and we are told that NOTHING HAPPENS. Moses goes up into the cloud, and he waits. And he waits, and he waits, and he waits. He waits for a total of SEVEN DAYS and NOTHING happens. What is that about? Why is it part of this story? What does it mean?

Perhaps it will help us to recall that seven is what is called a typological number in Jewish thought, a number that implies wholeness and completeness. It tells the number of the days of the week, it is the length of the biblical festival holidays (Sukkot and Passover), it is the time of the celebration rituals for the couple following a wedding, it is the number of Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Israelites. Seven appears over and over again in Judaism. So we can readily imagine that Moses waiting for seven days has significance in some way.

We don’t know how, really, but there are some suppositions put forth. For example, perhaps Moses, as a human being who had been in Egypt, met with Pharaoh, encountered the Egyptian Magicians, had contact with the Egyptian priests, worship, and gods – including Pharaoh remember – for Pharaoh was considered a god by the Egyptians – perhaps as a result Moses was not in a sufficiently ritually pure state to encounter G-d when he ascended the mountain, so the seven days might have been necessary for him to be cleansed and purified spiritually and ritually in preparation for the meeting (just as we read that Miriam must wait seven days after her punishment following gossiping about her brother’s wife). Or perhaps Moses was tainted ritually by having encountered death – the ultimate source of ritual impurity in Hebrew, Israelite, and Jewish practice - when he called down the final plague - the death of the first born on the Egyptians, or perhaps it was for the death of the Egyptian military in the Reed Sea. Again, we don’t know, but we can’t help but wonder – and leave it an open question.

And then, G-d calls to Moses from the midst of the cloud. This can only call to mind other images of G-d calling: G-d as the voice within the fire of the burning bush calling Moses in the wilderness. Here on Mount Sinai, and then soon again, when we read of G-d as he will be seen by the Hebrews leading them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and hovering over the Ark in the Tabernacle. God is not said to BE the cloud or the fire, but to be in its midst, just as we are told in Job that G-d was not the whirlwind – G-d appeared as the small still voice.

So Moses enters a thick, impenetrable cloud, and is lost from view. The cloud then takes on the appearance of fire, and thirty-three days pass, more than an entire month! No word, no sign, nothing.

While in the cloud, G-d is speaking to Moses, instructing him, teaching him, showing him, giving him all the rules, laws, teachings, ethics, values, and behaviors that are contained in the Torah and the related texts.

In the cloud things are busy, buzzing, and happening. Moses and G-d are communing, communicating, embraced in an encounter and a relationship.

Outside, it is silence and apart-ness, all cut off from G-d and Moses.

That is a short look touching on what the Torah says in this reading, and what it causes us to ask and imagine.

I feel the need to finish up the story by jumping ahead a little bit. When Moses descends from the mountain, carrying the tablets and ready to teach, we read that his face is suffused with a glow, and that light emanates from him in rays.  [A side note: the word in Hebrew for rays is the same word as horns – so in some translations of the Torah, Moses is described as having horns. That is where Michaelangelo, for example, got the idea both for his frescoes in the Sistine chapel and his later statue of Moses.]

Moses is so filled with light from his encounter and interaction with G-d that he radiates that divine light afterwards, and must wear a veil to protect others. Think of the glow that we see in the face of a lover who has just been with their beloved, and we have a possible parallel. 

Now, as we run out of time today, we have to ask the larger question: what does it all mean to us?

We can’t answer all the questions raised, but we can pull out some general thoughts that may help us on our way. Here is my brief attempt to do that. I came up with five points.

1. Moses has come to accept, have faith in, and even trust G-d since the day at the burning bush. G-d already knew Moses, and accepted him as he was. G-d and Moses are a team. So when G-d calls Moses to come in for a pow-wow, Moses goes. More, this is closer to a retreat for the two of them. It is a time alone and apart from everyone else. Moses goes when G-d calls, and does what he knows G-d would want, because there is a relationship between them. G-d knows what Moses needs and offers it, but doesn’t overwhelm Moses by doing it all for him. And it would seem that there is not just a working arrangement, but a mutual sense of respect, even love, that permeates the interaction. Isn’t this the model of a partnership or a loving relationship?

2. Moses changes and grows – we see that because Moses learns stop thinking of himself, and to anticipate what it is that G-d will need or want from him. On the other hand, G-d is immutable and unchanging, but G-d changes G-d’s behavior to suit what Moses needs. At first G-d is directive, then G-d is instructive, and here G-d is collaborative. G-d doesn’t change, but G-d adjusts the means and the tools used to accomplish G-d’s ends. People can grow, and G-d will recognize that and act accordingly in relationship with them.

3. Both G-d and Moses understand the power and meaning of ritual and intentionality, and accept the limitations that it may impose. Moses doesn’t complain or whine about waiting, and G-d doesn’t cause things to happen more rapidly. Each patiently waits, eagerly anticipating the encounter with the other, as two close friends or lovers wait for the time they may be together.

4. There is trust between G-d and Moses. Moses asks no questions, doesn’t hesitate, and expresses no qualms. G-d has no concern that Moses will come when asked to do so. Each knows the other, each believes and trusts the other. They are in a relationship of mutual trust and acceptance.

5. G-d provides Moses with a gift that is meant for Moses and all the Hebrews, and through them, for the whole of humanity. That is, of course, the teachings, including the Torah. At the same time, G-d gives this gift to Moses personally, face to face, as it were, lovingly. And that is how we should receive it, and pass it along to others.

So we see that in this story the heart of it (and I choose that word intentionally) is that it is all about creating and nurturing our relationships. We all wish to find love in life, and this teaching from the Torah tells us that we are also able to find love and relationship with G-d. We must want it, we must seek it out, we must bring it into existence, and we must work at it – just as with any other loving relationship. Knowing that it is possible, and that we have the ability to make it real in our own life, we pray:

May we each find our loving relationships in life and with the divine. May G-d grant us gifts and love as G-d did with Moses. And may we each grow and change to be more attuned to G-d and what G-d wants from us in the world, so that our relationship with G-d will also grow and be strengthened.

And Let us say, Amen. 


A long life, well lived.... Farewell, Milton

Baruch Dayan Haemet (Blessed is the righteous judge.) 

Tomorrow, Friday the 21st of February, 21 Adar 1, 5774, we will be bidding farewell to Milton Perlman, member of Beth El Congregation from the 1960's. Plans were underway to celebrate Milton's 95th birthday in just a few weeks. Milton had been in declining health for the last few years, but was still sharp as a tack and clear witted, and seemed to be in no pain. He could still read (in both English and French) and discuss what he was reading with vigor and enjoyment. 

The service will be at 11 am at the Congregation (Beth El, 830 Old Furnace Road, Harrisonburg VA 22802), immediately followed by interment at the Beth El Cemetery, with all invited by his family to return to the social hall of the congregation to join in the Seu'dah Havra'ah (meal of condolence). 

Milton wanted a simple ceremony, nothing elaborate, and asked that there be no formal Hesped (eulogy); instead, we ask that you come to the gathering in the social hall and share your memories and stories about Milton with the family. 

Milton asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to either the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Free Clinic or Congregation Beth El in his memory.

May the ONE who comforts comfort all his loved ones and all who mourn, and may his memory be for a blessing.

 Milton Perlman, Zichrono Livrachah; March 19, 1919 to February 18, 2014. 


Time - Part 3: Sermon for Afternoon Yom Kippur 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Time – Part 3

Yom Kippur Afternoon Service 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah.

Permit me to begin by again repeating what I said earlier: the overarching theme I want to follow this year for the holiday is “time.” I have sought to explore the three segments of prayer across this day of Yom Kippur: the evening, morning, and afternoon, in terms of the concepts of Heart, Head, and Soul. We come now to the afternoon service, where I will address the last of these, and seek to tie all of these together.

Of necessity, my remarks have been spread across the entire holiday; if you were not here for part of them, you are welcome to turn to the website and read what I have said on the Rabbi’s Blog page – I will post it there after the holiday is done.

Last night we talked about how Erev Yom Kippur is about heart –the yearning and heart-call that draws us together ; this morning we spoke about head – the focus on meaning and evaluation. Now we speak about soul.

The Jewish conception of soul is a three part structure. At the innermost core is the inherently pure and holy Neshamah – that which is given by and returns to G-d. Next comes the Ruach, the breath of G-d and the spirit of life that animates and energizes us. Third is Nefesh, the most malleable component, which is impacted by our actions and choices, and which reflects our virtues and vices, those human traits and characteristics we practice in our life. We cannot affect the Neshamah, and the ruach is simply a fact – without it we cease to live. The only aspect of our soul we can affect is the Nefesh, and we do that by practicing and seeking to be better than we have been, living a life that embodies incrementally more of the traits and characteristics that are viewed as godly. Those who achieve a high level in their Nefesh are often viewed as saints or Tzadiks, those who are lacking in this arena are frequently seen as villians or sinners to be looked down upon. In truth, we all carry the possibility of both. As human beings, we are capable of striving to elevate our Nefesh, and thereby our soul, to live a godly life, and bring about positive changes in the world. We are also capable of the opposite – that is the consequence of possessing free will.

Another way of describing someone who has striven with themselves and is living a more godly life is to call them a hero.

It is hoped that through our fasting and prayer, we have succeeded in opening our heart, head and soul, that we have done all the hard work of self-examination and evaluation, become aware of our shortcomings, and that we are now in a position to work on improving and avoiding these pitfalls in the year to come, becoming ‘heroes’ in our life and in our world.

But what of the past – the errors we have made? You might ask, how can we be forgiven of sins or errors? Here is a short rabbinic tale that may help to answer that question.

How to be Forgiven of Sin

A man who had drifted away from religion came to a rabbi and gave him a long list of sins he had committed over the years, and told the rabbi that he had hoped by fasting frequently and punishing himself by sleeping on the rocky ground and putting pebbles inside his shoes, eating poorly and infrequently, he could be forgiven for his terrible deeds. He asked whether all of his actions were sufficient to attain forgiveness for his sins.

The rabbi listened closely and studied the list of sins carefully, then he remarked, “It appears that you have done a complete job. Truly a complete job.”

The man was pleased that the rabbi appeared to have approved of his penance. “Then I am forgiven?” he asked.

“Not quite,” the rabbi said, then asked, “Is not the soul a guest in our body, deserving of our kind hospitality? After all, today it is here, tomorrow it is gone.” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3) The rabbi paused and thought for a moment, then continued, “You began by committing sins that would despoil your nefesh (soul). Having done that, you then directed your attention toward ruining your body as well. That is a complete job.”

The man began to cry, “Rabbi, rabbi, I want to be forgiven for the terrible things I have done. I thought I was doing what is right for penance, but now I see that I was wrong. What am I to do?”

The rabbi comforted the man, and said, “Don’t despair. Make it your habit to begin a meal with words of Torah (Scriptures) and a benediction/blessing.” (Megillah 12b). The rabbi instructed the man, “Eat three meals each day, pray from your heart, and study the Holy Words. Remember that ‘through kindness and truth, sin is atoned.’ (Proverbs 16:6) Do this and you will be forgiven by man and the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Astobished, the man looked up and asked, “how can this be?” The rabbi replied, “We learn that ‘G-d created man B’tzelem Elohim - in God’s own image’ (Genesis 1:27) Since man is created in the image of G-d, he has the ability to forgive and be divine in his deeds. For this reason we are taught, ‘Beloved is man who was created in the divine image.’ (Mishna Pirke Avot 3:14).”

According to many great rabbis, atonement does not require self-torment and punishment. We are not to afflict our soul to achieve Teshuvah. Rather, one should understand the gravity of transgressing the Divine will, appreciate how injurious this is to oneself, and make a concerted effort to refine his character so that he is no longer likely to repeat the improper behavior. Self-punishment can mislead one to think that he has achieved atonement, whereas nothing in his character may have changed.

An old Jewish teaching tells us that “great is repentance: it brings healing to the world.” (Yoma 86a)

Adapted from a telling on the Story Tour website

As Kohelet tells us, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. We have arrived at the time for fulfillment of our Teshuvah. We have opened our hearts to the call. We have entered our heads and examined ourselves, seen our flaws and errors and repented. In our souls we have prayed sincerely to improve.

Now we must go forward and act on what we have learned and resolved, and hold fast to the idea that we have the power by our choices at each moment to aspire to be more godly and more holy, and to integrate our hearts, heads and souls in order to elevate ourselves and our world.

May this be an auspicious and fortunate time for us all, and let us all pray that we can bring about a healing in the world and in ourselves, and make this a year of blessings for all who deserve them.

Shana Tovah Umetukah Tichateimu. May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year, full of blessings. We continue now with the conclusion of our service. 

Time - Part 2: Sermon for Morning Yom Kippur 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Time – Part 2

Yom Kippur Morning 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah.

Permit me to begin by repeating what I said last night: the overarching theme I want to follow this year for the holiday is “time.” I want to think of and explore the three segments of prayer we follow on Yom Kippur, the services of the evening, morning, and afternoon, in terms of the concepts of Heart, Head, and Soul.

Last night I talked about ‘time’ and Kohelet, and I suggested how the services of Yom Kippur could be seen in terms of Heart, Head, and Soul. We talked about how Erev Yom Kippur is about heart. The music of Kol Nidrei tugged and played on our heart strings. Our need for community and belonging arose and impelled us to attend. We needed each other for community, for confession, and for companionship. We needed to be together to open our hearts, and to be ready to face what we will encounter today.

This morning, we turn our focus to the rubric of ‘head’. The service is more cerebral, more about our thoughts and evaluation of our deeds. We take out our past and examine it, looking at what we did wrong, how we missed the mark and fell short, where we didn’t live up to our hopes and self-expectations. We focus on our understanding of the world and our place in it, our relationships to G-d and others, the balance of our self as an individual in contrast to our place in community.

We seek an understanding of the meaning of the day and the holiday – why do we fast and afflict our self, why do we spend the effort to examine our deeds and motivations, what do we want and expect from our relationship with G-d?  

We read the truly frightening text from Deuteronomy, telling us what is expected of us in our relationship with G-d and with others. The image it summons is one of the people on trial, standing ‘in the dock’ on the two mountains of Gerezim and Eyval, with G-d as prosecutor and judge, calling on the Earth and the Heavens as the witnesses against us should we fail to obey the orders of the court. We, imperfect and flawed humans, are being held to account by nature, the universe, and creation, before G-d, the ultimate judge. To fail in light of this image is unthinkable. This is not called Yom HaKippurim, the day of atonements, for nothing. We know our failings in past. Looking forward, how can we possibly measure up?  

We follow that up with the deeply troubling and demanding text from Isaiah 58 which challenges us as to what it means to serve G-d, what it means to be in community, and what it means to be in relationship. The very language is both a challenge and a rebuke.

G-d is asking of us, ‘is THIS the fast I desire?’. ‘Do you really think I am so blind as not to see that you continue to sin even as you ask forgiveness?’ ‘Do you mean any of what you say in the smallest degree?’ 

I can’t imagine anything that would be a tougher set of questions to seriously addresss and take on than these.  

This is the service at which we ask the hard questions about what we believe, what we stand for, what we can be, and how we measured up in the last year. This really puts us through the wringer; no mercy, no quarter, no pulling punches – it is all on the line.

Yet we cannot simply give up.

Let me return to Kohelet and read it once again.

1. To everything there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,

and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down,

and a time to build up;

4. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn,

and a time to dance;

5. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6. A time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7. A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8. A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

In light of the poetic passage from Kohelet, this service is the one at which we are looking at the message of that text as the spotlight, focusing inwardly, examining our self, our soul, and our deeds, and considering this as: a time to pluck up that which is planted inappropriately, a time to break down what has been built incorrectly, a time to gather stones and clear obstacles in our path, a time to refrain from embracing that which is easy and familiar and wrong, a time to cast away that which we do not value, a time to rend what is misshapen and ill-fitting, and a time to keep silence and not seek to justify our mistaken actions and choices to our self or others.  

This is hard work – no cakewalk. It takes effort, it takes strength, it takes persistence and fortitude, it takes concentration. And all this while we are also afflicting ourselves physically and psychically….

It is no wonder that we can’t do this alone. We need the community to support us in this effort, to help us hold the focus, to keep us on track. Having others around us who are also going through the same thing, experiencing the same questions, doubts, and afflictions really helps us as we push through this and seek to face our self, confront our errors, and resolve to work to be better.

We opened our hearts last night; now we open our minds. The time is ripe, and we are ready. The next step will be to open our souls.


G’mar Chatimah tovah umetukah tichateimu. May you be sealed for a good and sweet year.  See you at 3 for the continuation of the service. 


Time - Part 1: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Time – Part 1

Erev Yom Kippur 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah.

Tonight is the start of our Yom Kippur holiday together.

The overarching theme I want to follow this year for the holiday is “time.” I want to think of and explore the three segments of prayer this Yom Kippur, the structure of the evening, morning, and afternoon, in terms of the concepts of Heart, Head, and Soul. Of necessity, my remarks will be spread across the entire holiday; if you are not here for part of them, you are welcome to turn to the website and read what I am saying on the Rabbi’s Blog page – I will post it there after the holiday is done.


Last Sunday I led the annual Yizkor service prior to Yom Kippur in the cemetery. In the Yizkor service, one of the key (to me, at any rate) readings included struck my eye and caused me to pause. The specific reading I mean in that service is taken from Kohelet (in English called Ecclesiastes), chapter 3. You all know it; it is only eight verses, but it is justly famous.

1. To everything there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heavens.

2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,

and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down,

and a time to build up;

4. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn,

and a time to dance;

5. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6. A time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7. A time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8. A time to love, and a time to hate;

a time of war, and a time of peace.

I want to look at this holiday in light of this piece of poetic liturgy.

I believe that it describes our presence here tonight. We are here as an expression in particular of that first verse, that there a season and a time for everything. Just as birds know when to migrate for the seasons, plants know when to push forth new growth and flower, and animals know when to seek out shelter, we humans, and perhaps in particularl we Jews, are endowed with an innate sense of when it is time for us to gather in groups and renew our connection and ties. We are called, or perhaps more accurately, we are pulled by invisible strings that tug at us to come together at this time of year. We can ignore it, we can fight it, we can be annoyed by it, but still, we feel it. It is less conscious, more primitive and visceral than most urges, far below the level of awareness or thought. And in most cases, as you can see by looking around you, we respond.

So I think that we can legitimately say that the focus tonight is on the call of the heart. I think of this evening as a time of Heart because we come out of a deep longing, more a need, to be together, to join with others here and around the world, to be part of the entirety of the Jewish people - Am Yisra’el, B’nai Ya’akov (this, at least, if not also of the larger world). We long and yearn to be part of and connected to the whole, and to share with our family, friends, community, and others the sense of belonging.

At this moment, on this Shabbat and Yom Kippur, I call your attention again to the first verse from Kohelet. We have cycled once again through the calendar, the year has passed, and we arrive here tonight, at this season, at this time, at this moment. To what end? To what purpose? And more – who has chosen this end, and whose is the purpose?

We know why we are here: we have come together tonight as a community. I ask you to remember that the liturgy leading up to Kol Nidrei has told us that we must join, ALL of us, sinners and saints, imperfect as we are, and TOGETHER seek atonement, for all the sins, transgressions, failings, shortcomings, and mistakes we made – AS A COMMUNITY. We do not ask forgiveness as individuals, or only for those sins we personally committed. We come to be a community, and AS ONE to ask forgiveness for all of us.

This is the power of this evening. It is a moment of transition, of movement from one state to another. We each enter as an individual, but we soon merge, and become part of the whole, and together we seek release from our unfulfilled vows and ask forgiveness. We rise beyond and above our self, and become a member of the community, adding our voice, our prayer, our desire, and our Teshuvah to the common pool, and thereby strengthen it, and are in turn empowered as part of that community to seek forgiveness and release.

We come here seeking Teshuvah, and ideally we leave here, having experienced and been part of manifesting a miracle. From a disparate group of individuals, each focused on their own issues, problems, and pains, we can participate in a godly act of creation – the making of a community that can together reach for Teshuvah for each one of us, and heal our shattered hearts.

That is why we are drawn here, why we come, and why it matters. As Kohelet teaches, the season is upon us, the time is now, and our purpose is clear before us. May we each one and all together find our way to that healing tonight, and may the healing of our hearts help us as we move forward into this holiday tomorrow, and continue to support us in the year ahead.

G’mar Chatimah tovah umetukah tichateimu. May you be sealed for a good and sweet year.

Outline, Symbols and Meanings of Rosh HaShanah: Undelivered Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Rosh Hashanah 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shanah tovah, chag sameach.

We are gathered here according to Jewish custom and practice, at the birth of a new year, the anniversary of creation, and the acknowledgement of God as Creator and Sovereign. Last evening we came together in community, lit the candles, read and sang the familiar words of the prayers and readings, and heard the beautiful melodies presented for us so ably and with such warm emotion, so that we became ready to open our hearts to celebrate.

But what exactly is it that we are here to celebrate?  What is this holiday?  What are we doing, and what does it mean?  Because several people have asked, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some thoughts about this.

Let’s take a look at what is unusual that takes place in the course of the period from sundown tonight through sundown at the conclusion of the holiday.

A Rosh Hashanah Outline

Following a festive meal, dressed in our finest, often choosing to wear something new as a sign and reminder that this is a new start of a new year, we come together to welcome the Holiday.

We use special melodies to indicate that this is not just another service. Listen to the tunes, think about the difference from Shabbat. Do you hear how the music is broader, both more plaintive and more uplifting?  Pay attention to the way it fits the mood of the service.

We insert special prayers into the Amidah, the central prayer of the service – including specifically the request to be inscribed in the book of life. This metaphoric book of life concept is about judgment. It is viewed as a book that tells what our year holds, based on our past behavior. It is the judges’ sentence passed on us. When we think of it in that way, it is a powerful image, one that strikes viscerally, because it drives home the point that we are called to account for our actions and omissions. This is probably the Jewish metaphor that is best known and most remembered.

Even the foods that we eat on this holiday have a symbolic meaning. Apples & honey, or honey cake, symbolize the wish for a sweet year, and gesture towards a return to Gan Eden and the close relationship with God as the parent. The round challot symbolize the crowning of G-d as sovereign and our submission to the divine, physically demonstrating the theme of endlessly turning and returning, and indicating our turning back to G-d as part of the cycle of our life. 

The feeling is one of joy, celebration, and welcoming, a special feeling of being welcomed home into the presence of the King and parent who loves us. We are all family, all coming together at this moment.

This morning, after the standard start of day – gratitude for bodies, breath, and health, and the Psalms of praise – the warm up of praying to be ready to pray, we recognize the holiday by adding Hamelech with its very fancy tune – the special affirmation of God as Sovereign, and us as part of the godly kingdom in God’s earthly realm. Some have the custom to rise at this moment to show readiness to pledge fealty and to be judged and evaluated by God, our ruler and sovereign.

We insert the Unetaneh Tokef prayer into the Amidah, focusing on judgement, and the impact of our own actions on our life. We follow that with the assertion that prayer, tzedakah, and deeds of loving kindness can avert the severity of the decree – offering us some hope to mitigate the punishment we should deserve according to strict justice, and giving us the prescription for how to act when we do err.

On Non-Shabbat days we include Avinu Malkeynu – our father our king, expressing hope for redemption and a good year to come, calling on God as both sovereign and loving parent. 

This part of the service is a good opportunity to focus on your relationship with God, with others, or with both; to revisit areas of your life, your goals, and to reflect on where you have been and where you would like to go in the year ahead. It is fodder for the week ahead, the Yamim Nora’im (days of awe) leading up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

In our congregation, we read the Torah portion containing  the story of the Binding of Isaac – Abraham’s effort to sacrifice his son. The Haftarah is from Jeremiah, and it is about being cast out of the land, and how Rachel weeps for the exiles (her children) and pleads with God for their return to God’s favor. These readings challenge us to think about loyalty, zealotry, sacrifice, faith, what God wants of us, and the limits of human perception.

With the Torah still out of the Ark, the Shofar is sounded. Hearing the Shofar is considered THE Mitzvah for the day. Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Teruah – the day of the (sounding of the) horn/trumpet; the reason that the holiday is sometimes called the Feast of Trumpets.  The shofar has always been used as a call to action – in times of war, for disasters, and for spiritual lethargy. Pay attention to the different sounds of the Shofar – the 9 blasts of Teruah, the 3 blasts of Shevarim, and the single longer blast of the Tekiah. Think of this set of sounds as one larger grouping, representing brokenness seeking to heal and become one. The separate sounds are combined in different combinations, but end with the one, long, Tekiah Gedolah – the large or great Tekiah.  The shofar is an alarm to wake us up to pay attention.

When we think of the shofar we are reminded of the special moment of the giving of the Torah, of the fact that this is Judgement Day, and the sound of it heralds the crowning of God as king, recalls the ram in the thicket at the binding of Isaac, and reminds us that Abraham was prepared to do God’s will with a massive sacrifice so we can ask that God should be merciful with us by recalling our ancestor Abraham’s merit.  The Shofar is a sound of hope, reminding us of redemption – messianic days will be announced with the sound of the Shofar. Finally, shofar is from the root that also means to make better and to beautify – so it calls is to improve and make beautiful our deeds in the coming year.

At the close of services, the custom is to wish each other a Shana tovah tikatevu – to be inscribed for a good year. From Yom Kippur until Sukkot, we change that to Shana tovah tichatemu – to be sealed for a good year, as the book of life is finally closed and the decrees in it enacted. 

As the final event on the day of Rosh Hashanah, we go to a nearby flowing natural body of water, ideally one that empties (eventually) into the sea. There we symbolically ‘cast off’ our sins, misdeeds, and missteps of the past year, now that we have engaged in teshuvah, and can begin the year in a state of openness.  Often we use bread crumbs to symbolize the sins and we cast them into the water, which covers them so they may never be found again, with the idea that they will be carried to the depths of the ocean, or eaten by the creatures that will ‘take on’ our sin in our place.

An amusing conceit, written tongue in cheek by Rabbi Dick Israel, z”l, some years ago, lists the various types of breads one might use to indicate specific varieties of sins. Of course, this has nothing to do with traditional Jewish practice, but it is quite funny, and has taken on a life of its own.  That outlines the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

I would like to read a poem at this time that is based on the story from the Torah, in Genesis 21, concerning the story of Isaac and Ishmael. It is by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, and is called We’re Settling Down Now. It speaks to me of hope – hope for forgiveness, hope for reconciliation, and hope for peace. All of which are appropriate for this holiday.


Abe and I have finally settled down now

near the well at Be’er Sheva.

The palm tree is growing,

the dates are almost ripe!

I see a shadow on the horizon —

Two figures, shimmering like a mirage.

Closer, closer they come.

I see the boy,

now a tall, strong man,

beard black and full, muscular arms,

dark skin, hide of a buck.

I see the woman, rounder now,

ebony hair

tumbling down,

a few white streaks

betraying all the moons

that have

waxed and waned

since then,

since . . .

Oh, never mind.

She approaches me,

unsure —

sand and dust,

questioning eyes.


I myself


slowly, very slowly,

I open my arms

to my sister, my other, my self —

and we embrace,

Izzy and Ish,

their old dad between them,

walk off together

arms entwined,

shovels ready to dig a new well.                                               

— Rabbi Leila Gal Berner


[Intended to be delivered on Rosh HaShanah morning 5774 at Temple House of Israel in Staunton VA. Not delivered due to time constraints.]