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Rabbi’s High Holiday Message, 5775 – 2014

The Rabbi’s Teaching
High Holiday Message
One of the things that I most cherish about Judaism is its great realism. Our Rabbis had great psychological insight and moral imagination. Judaism teaches that we improve ourselves not by miraculous revelations, or radical makeovers, but by gradual acculturation in the life of Mitzvot, of righteous actions in our relationships with G-d and with each other.
Our Rabbis understood that if you stand before people and say “You can act on the highest ethical plane every day for the rest of your life,” most folks will be demoralized, rather than challenged because they will realistically give up in advance. However, if you advise people about how to behave in certain ways for a certain period of time, they are more willing to give it a try.
In that spirit, I offer below a ten day, self-improvement “curriculum” for you to try during this season of Repentance. It is designed for the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hoshana to Yom Kippur, but feel free to pursue it, in whole or in part at any time. Several of these suggestions are inspired by the writings of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to whom I am indebted.

Day 1 – Act Cheerfully
In Pirke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers 1:15 Shammai teaches “Receive all people with a cheerful countenance.” Does this mean that you are expected to receive someone cheerfully even when you are in a bad mood? Basically yes, unless something truly awful has happened to you. The rationale is that just because you are feeling unhappy, you are not entitled to inflict your bad mood on others.
You cannot control how you feel, but you can control how you act. In fact, emotional expression, while subtle, can have a stronger interpersonal impact than verbal expression. You certainly would not allow someone to hurt others verbally just because they felt badly. Cheerlessness, moodiness are not victimless states. How many have grown up with a parent who fell into a sullen mood every day after returning from work? How does that effect the household, especially young children?

Day 2 – What do you Need?
Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, a Chasidic master, taught that in order to love someone we have to know their needs, especially what pains them. You can’t take a stab at self-improvement without Cheshbon Nefesh, self-accounting. So on this day, tell a friend something that you really need to change over this season of repentance. If this feels awkward, tell him or her that you’re doing it because the Rabbi said it would help, and they don’t need to respond to or gratify the need, but just to listen.

Day 3 – Shabbat Shuva – Observe Shabbat at least some
In his exquisite book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is a day of “an armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social…(of) peace between man and man, man and nature.”
Still, many of us fear this day. Many of us fear free time. We fear life without schedule, without directions. We fear relaxation and intimacy.
At this time of t’shuva, let us challenge ourselves for all or even part of this Shabbat. Let us embrace some of the discipline, and the joy of Shabbat observance. Try at least some of these practices, for at least four hours of this Shabbat:
Set aside your smart phone, blackberry, wallet, money, and computer.
Plan a Shabbat meal with the rituals of wine, challah and blessings, with Jewish songs, friends, a three minute teaching about the meaning of the High Holidays, and face to face conversation.
If you are observant and this is already your practice, then spend some time over this Shabbat studying the Laws of Repentance of Maimonides.

Day 4 – Can you last a day?
Almost everyone regards the intentional transmission of untrue, negative statements as slanderous. However, many people, and legal systems, regard the sharing of negative but true statements as permissible.
Jewish law opposes this view. The fact that something is true doesn’t mean that it is anybody else’s business. You can only share negative information if it is necessary to prevent harm, for example, to inform people that a shopkeeper sells shoddy merchandise. However, we don’t make statements like “Oh, he has more money that he knows what to do with,” or “she really has put on weight” or “you know, he played around a lot in college.” The information may be true but we must refrain if there is no positive, moral reason to share it, and in fact might cause harm.
Try to spend one Jewish day, from sundown to the next sundown, refraining from saying anything unkind about, or to anyone. If it gets hard, imagine that others are doing the same, refraining from saying negative things about you, despite their habits or impulses.

Day 5 – Apologize to someone over whom you wield power
It is painful when someone hurts us, but the pain lasts long, even for a lifetime when the person inflicting the pain never takes responsibility. This can destroy relationships, and make it harder for the aggrieved party to trust later. It sends a message that irresponsibility is OK, and increases the emotional toxins already choking our families and communities. Before Yom Kippur, of course, we should apologize to all we have hurt, but it is especially important to approach those over whom we wield power, our children, spouses, aged parents, employees, etc. The apology should not be general, that is, “I’m sorry for any way in which I hurt you” but rather refer specifically to incidents, words, and conduct, “I am sorry for screaming at you as we set up last year’s Holiday party.”

Day 6 – To love and to work
Asked what are the most important things in life, Sigmund Freud responded, “to love and to work.”
Today, many people are out of love and many are out of work. Many are resigned or depressed, and sit in front of a computer trying to fill their lives.
You can help. Take fifteen minutes today and start a file. The goal of this file is to find one person a spouse or a job, or both, this year. In one section, enter the name of someone you know in need of a job, or spouse. Jot down relevant information about him or her. In the second section, enter names and information of anyone you know who is single and looking, or who has a job to offer. There may be no matches yet, but you can build this file over the year.
Before next Rosh Hoshana, b’ezrat Hashem, with G-d’s help, e mail me if any of your matches have been successful, with the party’s permission, and we’ll acknowledge and celebrate one year from now, First Day, Rosh Hoshana, 5776, September 14, 2015.

Day 7 – When you hear a siren
I learned this from my dear and recently departed friend and teacher, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, zichrono livracha.
Usually, if we’re driving in traffic, or trying to cross a street, or just carrying on a conversation, and hear the piercing wail of an ambulance, we are annoyed. Some of us have bedroom or office windows that face busy streets and we know how discomforted we can be by clanging fire trucks or racing ambulances if they disturb our sleep or our concentration. Reb Zalman suggested that when we hear these sounds we offer a prayer that the ambulance or fire engine arrive in time to save endangered people, and pray that no rescue personnel be injured.
This is a beautiful idea because it trains us to empathize with those who are suffering, and to offer loving prayers, rather than curses, when we feel unjustly annoyed. And can you imagine how you would feel if ever, G-d forbid, you were lying injured in the back of an ambulance but knew that there were hundreds of people, along the way, praying for your recovery?

Day 8 – Cross-give
One central practice of these Days of Repentance is increasing Tzedaka, our charitable giving. As fund raisers know, the pocket is often a test of ideological commitment. We give as we believe.
This is very sound, but unfortunately has the effect, especially in the Jewish world, of pitting our movements and causes against each other.
One Rabbinic prescription for healing ourselves involves the development of an ayin tov, an ability to see the good even in hard times, or even in people or groups we oppose.
So on this day write a check, the size of your average charitable contribution and give it to a Jewish organization that you would otherwise not support. For example, if you usually give Conservative, donate to Orthodox or Reform; if you give left wing, go right wing. You get the idea. Attach a note explaining why you’re doing this. You will raise consciousness, and promote Jewish unity.
Of course there are organizations which are illegitimate and violate basic Jewish values, but I will let you make that determination.

Day 9 – Walk and Talk
Take a walk with a confidante and discuss this Mishna from the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5:
“A single man only was first created, to insure peace in the human race, that no man might say to his fellow, ‘My ancestor was greater than your ancestor,’ and also so that the heretics would not say, ‘there are many powers in Heaven.’ Rather, one human being was first created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for man stamps many coins with one die and they are all alike, one with the other, but the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped all humankind with the die for the first man and yet not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore, every one is duty bound to say, ‘for my sake was the universe created.'”

Day 10 – Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. We take off work, we fast, and we spend the day in sacred space, surrounded by community. It is the perfect time to reach higher, to try to lead a pious life for one day. Make every effort to follow the ritual and ethical laws of the day seriously. If you need guidance, read the Chapter on Yom Kippur in the Jewish Holidays by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld.

B’hatzlacha, much success!
Uk’tiva v’Chatima Tova
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year,
Rabbi Weintraub

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