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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

Rosh Hashana 5781 is just hours away. What do we want to accomplish over the course of Rosh Hashanah’s fourty-eight hours? To answer this question, I share with you two articles by authors who need no introduction. The first article titled “G-d’s Alarm Clock” is by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who explains the meaning of Maimonides’ analogy of a shofar as an alarm clock. The second article titled “Life’s Two Essentials'' is from Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who seeks to clarify the most essential things in life.

Blog #1: 

There are many lovely explanations for why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana, but one of the most powerful is given by Moses Maimonides. For Maimonides the shofar is God's alarm clock, waking us up from the "slumber" in which we spend many of our days. What did he mean?

God's greatest gift to us is time, and He gives it to us on equal terms. Whether we are rich or poor, there are still only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week and a span of years that is all too short. Often, we spend our time on things that in Maimonides` words "neither help nor save." How many people looking back on a lifetime, saying, "I wish I had spent more time at committee meetings?" By contrast, how many say, "I wish I had spent more time with my children, or helping others, or simply enjoying being alive?"

Sometimes we can be so busy making a living that we hardly have time to live. Experts on time management speak about two types of activity: the urgent and the important. Often our days are spent on the urgent, and we lose out on the important. I remember a conversation with someone who had been a workaholic, busy seven days a week. As a result of a personal crisis he decided to keep Shabbat. He later told me it was the best decision he ever made. "Now," he said, "I have time for my wife and child and for my friends. Going to shul has made me part of a community. The strange thing is that the work still gets done, in six days, not seven."

Shabbat teaches us to take time for what is important, even though it isn't urgent. Thirty years ago, when technology was less advanced, most people who wrote about the future saw it as an age of leisure when we would have far more free time. It has not happened that way. We seem more pressurized than ever and less relaxed. Mobile phones, e-mails and pocket computers mean that we are constantly on call. As Wordsworth said, "The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." The Psalmist put it best: "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are when we number our days. Asking to be written in the book of life, we think about life and how we use it. In this context the three key words of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer are fundamental: teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity). Teshuvah is about our relationship with ourself. Tefillah is about our relationship with God. Tzedakahis about our relationship with other people.

Teshuvah means not only "repentance" but also "returning" -- to our roots, our faith, our people's history and our vocation as heirs to those who stood at Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. Teshuvah asks us: did we grow in the past year or did we stand still? Did we study the texts of our heritage? Did we keep one more mitzvah? Did we live fully and confidently as Jews? Teshuvah is our satellite navigation system giving us a direction in life.

Tefillah means prayer. It is our conversation with God. We speak, but if we are wise we also listen, to the voice of God as refracted through the prayers of a hundred generations of our ancestors. Tefillah is less about asking God for what we want, more about asking God to teach us what to want. A new car? A better job? An exotic holiday? Our prayers do not speak about these things because life is about more than these things. It is less about what we own than about what we do and who we aspire to be. We speak about forgiveness and about God's presence in our lives. We remind ourselves that, short though our time on earth is, by connecting with God we touch eternity. Tefillah is our 'mobile phone to heaven.'

Tzedakah is about the good we do for others. Sir Moses Montefiore was one of the great figures of Victorian Jewry. He was a wealthy man and devoted much of his long life to serving the Jewish people in Britain and worldwide (he built the windmill in Jerusalem, and the area of which it is a part -- Yemin Moshe -- is named after him). Someone once asked him how much he was worth, and he gave him a figure. "But," said the questioner, "I know you own more than that." "You didn't ask me what I own but what I am worth. The figure I gave you was how much money I have given this year to charity, because we are worth what we are willing to share with others." That is tzedakah.

Certain mitzvot in Judaism are rehearsals for a time to come. Shabbat is a rehearsal for the messianic age when strife will end and peace reign. Yom Kippur -- when we do not eat or drink or engage in physical pleasure, and when there is a custom to wear a kittel like a shroud -- is a dress rehearsal for death. It forces us to ask the ultimate question: what did I do in my life that was worthwhile? Did I waste time or did I share it, with my faith, with God, and with those in need?

Knowing that none of us will live forever, we ask God for another year: to grow, to pray and to give. That is what Maimonides meant when he called the shofar "God's alarm call," asking us not to slumber through life, but to use it to bring blessings.

May the Almighty bless us, our families and the Jewish people, and may He write us all in the Book of Life.

 

Blog #2: 

What's essential?

The term has gained considerable prominence in this time of global pandemic. Professions that are deemed essential are granted the privilege of being exempt from stay-at-home mandates and lockdowns.

It's surprising what some state governments are willing to include as so “essential” that they override any possible threats to the health and welfare of society. Florists can still deliver bouquets in Delaware and golf courses can stay open in Arizona. New York, while forbidding physical exercise in gyms and indoor dining in restaurants even with social distancing and the wearing of masks, seems to acknowledge that liquor stores need to remain open.

So what is really “essential”? It's an important question to answer during these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The best answer I’ve heard is that the most essential thing in life is to be wise enough to know what is truly essential. And that’s the primary purpose of the High Holy days.

Throughout the year we spend our days pursuing things that don’t really have any lasting value or significance. And once a year there comes a time when we get off the treadmill of our lives to stop and rethink. While governments are busy trying to resolve the actual meaning of essential, Judaism has provided us with the most powerful and profound response by way of a Jewish law.

Judaism mandates countless blessings. According to the Talmud every Jew should recite at least 100 blessings daily. Yes, Tevye, there’s a blessing for a sewing machine and even a blessing for the czar. But almost all of these blessings are rabbinic. They have no source in the Torah. They come from the heartfelt desire of sages to give expression to their love of God and their gratefulness for his numerous acts of kindness. Yet there are only two blessings whose source is the Torah itself and thus they have the force of biblical commandments.

They are the two – and the only two – essentials of our lives.

The first of them is the Grace after Meals. The second is the daily commandment to bless God for giving us the Torah. And what is the connection between these two blessings? The first – the blessing for food – puts into words the thanks we owe the Almighty for sustaining us physically and giving us life. The second reminds us to express gratitude for nurturing our souls and giving us a reason for living.

In Genesis, the creation of man is described as a duality of two sources. We are created from the dust of the earth. That is the key to our bodies. But bodies without souls are nothing more than corpses. Life came about when God blew into Adam some of his divine spirit. That is when we became “created in the image of God.” 

On Rosh Hashanah we commemorate this uniqueness with the blowing of the shofar, replicating that moment when our bodies became united with a part of divinity. God and His breath entered into our very being. The two biblical blessings refer to the two essentials of our lives. Both our bodies and our souls require sustenance and nourishment.

The English language takes beautiful note of this historic moment. The Latin for breath is spiritus. We are alive for as long as the soul remains within us. The breath of God’s shofar makes us human. To die is to expire; it is the moment when God’s spirit, His breath, chooses to leave us.

When our bodies become aware of our spirituality, of God’s presence in our very being, we are inspired. Our souls feel God’s presence. When God decides that we have either fulfilled our purpose in life or that we are no longer inspired to do so - His decree is that we expire, and that we return His breath to him.

The two biblical blessings refer to the two essentials of our lives. Both our bodies and our souls require sustenance and nourishment. Our bodies need food. No one can deny that is essential for life. But our souls also require something equally important. Just as we eat three times a day, so too we pray the same number of moments. Food fills our stomachs; Torah satiates our souls.

In these past few horrible months, we have come to recognize more than ever the real meaning of necessity. We have gone without many things, and thankfully most of us have survived. Coming face-to-face with the High Holy days we need to rethink our priorities and to pray with full hearts for the two biblical blessings that best define us. We are bodies and we also souls – and we have to bless God for giving us the opportunity to fulfill the truly “essential” needs of both.