Practicing Judaism: Rosh Hashanah 5777 Day 1


When I was a kid we had a set of toys from my father that was pretty special, because my dad was pretty special, and still is. As a physician who trained in the sixties, he had one of those old-time doctor’s bags at home and he let us play with the tools. There were tongue depressors to look down the throat, an otoscope to examine our ears, a reflex hammer that gave us the excuse to kick each other, and of course the all-important stethoscope to listen to our hearts. My siblings and I enjoyed pretending to be doctors, examining each other and our friends with the tools from his bag.

However, I got a shock one day when my mother mentioned in passing something about my father “practicing medicine.” Practicing medicine?! He’s just practicing? Do his patients know? As a 5-year old, I knew what practicing meant—doing something badly. I had taken violin lessons for a short while, and though I did like to rub the rosin on the bow, the screeching sounds it made when I touched the strings were horrible. Practicing is what beginners do, isn’t it?

As I grew older I learned that even accomplished professionals practice, and that referring to one’s medical or legal practice was an indication of humility—even a great artist or expert needs to practice and improve. When it comes to our most important tasks in life, perfection is not a realistic goal. Instead, we seek to identify our strengths and weaknesses, amplifying the former and addressing the latter.

To say that one practices something is also to indicate that your interest is not casual. On a regular basis you set everything else aside and focus on this special skill. We practice things that we value, things that deserve focus, effort and even sacrifice. A doctor cannot read every study and journal article, and will not make a perfect diagnosis every time. But she better keep current in her field, and to approach each patient with an open mind so that the unexpected will not be invisible. We want our doctors to keep practicing—to consult with other practitioners, to think about how to observe more acutely, to prescribe with wisdom, and to improve outcomes for their patients. Medical practitioners must be ready to learn from mistakes, and keen to continue to grow every year. This is what it means to practice medicine.

What is true of medicine, and of law, and of violin is also true of Judaism. We can’t be perfect, but we can be better, and that improvement is worth our attention and effort. As Rabbi Tarfon famously taught, “You may not get to finish the task, but you must nevertheless begin it.”[1] Our religion is demanding, because we think that a great deal is at stake. We seek to become wise, compassionate, and righteous. We try to live lives that are relevant today, and that will be meaningful in the end—we want eventually to be remembered well, as good people. We want to improve our practice of Judaism, and to become better people. Isn’t that why we are here today?

Judaism is not a take-it-or-leave it, all or nothing, proposition. It asks us to practice—every day. It acknowledges that we will often fail, but sometimes we will succeed marvelously, and remarkable blessings will follow. Practicing Judaism gives us a way to identify and correct our errors, and it also allows us to celebrate our triumphs. It is demanding, but also forgiving. The thing is, if you don’t practice then you don’t improve. Rosh HaShanah, as far as I am concerned, is all about learning to practice Judaism.

So let’s get to work. How does one practice Judaism? There are many ways to approach that question, but since I opened with the image of my father’s doctor’s bag, let’s look at the same tools and identify their spiritual side. As it happens, the Rabbis spoke about teshuvah—repentance—in terms of the body parts. In the 16th century Sefer Haredim, Rabbi Elazar b. Moshe Azkari claims that all sins derive from eight parts of the body: the heart, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, hands, feet and head.[2] For each physical stimulus that leads us astray, there is type of Torah, a spiritual stimulus that leads us back. The word Torah has eight synonyms and so there is spiritual toolkit for each physical feature which can lead us away from God. In our prayers we speak about רפואת הנפש ורפואת הגוף, healing the body and healing the spirit. Our focus today is on our spirit, but to heal the spirit requires the work of our bodies.

Tongue Depressor. Doctors use the tongue depressor to look down our throat and see what’s going on in our mouths. To practice Judaism means to practice controlling our tongues. In the beautiful high holiday prayer אוחילה לאל the leader sings, “I plead for the gift of speech, that I may be enabled to sing of God’s might.” It continues, “A person organizes thoughts, but the response of the tongue comes from God,” לאדם מערכי לב, ומה’ מענה לשון.

This is already a forgiving concept. We don’t have full control over our tongues. We’ll express this more fully next week in the Kol Nidre prayer, when we will concede a lack of verbal self-control. But this prayer also posits that we can organize our thoughts, and produce better words with our mouths. We don’t need to bite our tongues, but we must try to control them.

As with most Jewish practice, there is both a negative and a positive aspect, something to avoid, and something to try, a מצות עשה and a מצות לא תעשה. Let’s start with the negative. What should we avoid with our tongue? Judaism has a number of words for slander. One is רכילות, often translated as tale-bearing. When we know something about somebody, it is incredibly tempting to share it with others. For me, this is one of my most challenging temptations. As a rabbi and as a dean, I am trusted with quite a bit of confidential information. Even if it isn’t confidential, it isn’t right to spice up my conversation with tidbits about other people. But it is so tempting! Maybe that is why we finish every Amidah with the prayer אלהי נצור לשוני מרע, My God, guard my tongue from evil.

So, let’s try to practice Judaism, OK? This week let’s make a special effort to notice when we are tempted to gossip. If we can each control our tongues one extra time a day, noticing the temptation and then controlling it, then we will be practicing Judaism. Chancellor Eisen wrote powerfully about bullying recently and correctly called out public figures who try to become powerful by pointing to the weakness of others. Let’s not let them be our role models. Let’s turn ourselves into role models for how to control our tongues. That’s practicing Judaism.

On the positive side, the tongue has incredible power for good. Our prayer service opens with, Lord, open my lips and let my mouth speak your praise. We spend a great deal of time on the high holidays praising God, and that is a good thing. We praise God for the gift of this magnificent planet, and we praise God for the gifts of wisdom and virtue symbolized by the Torah and mitzvot. How can we use our mouths more often to speak praise?

A few weeks ago I led a hiking trip in the Adirondack mountains. When we reached the summit of Big Slide Mountain and saw the entire Great Range arrayed before us, I felt inspired to cry out, ברוך…שככה לו בעולמו, praises to God whose world is so beautiful! This blessing comes from the Talmud, which also instructs us to praise God for the wonders of the natural world.

The same capacity to praise God for the blessings of our lives is available to praise other people who surround us. Family, friends, colleagues at work, strangers on the street. Let’s modify the MTA motto, if you see something, say something—something nice. In Judaism we call this הכרת הטוב, recognizing the good. This week let’s practice recognizing the good. Let’s thank people like the guards and police who keep us safe, and let’s look out for people who don’t get much recognition and find genuine and meaningful ways to praise them. Not in general, but in particular. Not in the future, but now, starting today.

Prayer and praise are like a Jewish tongue depressor—they teach us to say Aaa-men. Amen to the gifts that God has given us, and amen to the beauty in people all around us. This week let’s examine our tongues, preventing them from causing harm, and inviting them to do good. This is how we practice Judaism.


What other tools do we have in our bag? Well, there is that fancy tool, the otoscope. Doctors use it to searching for signs of infection, obstructions and maybe a ruptured ear drum. But for us we can think of this as an opportunity to examine our ears, or more precisely, to check our hearing. Once again there is both positive and negative. This time let’s start with the positive.

In Judaism the word שמע means both to hear and to understand. When we sing the words שמע ישראל, we are supposed to make them audible, literally to hear them. But of course the point is not just to make noise, but to make meaning. And today we will cry out שמע קולינו, hear our voice! We don’t actually mean just to hear—but to listen, understand and respond.

In the Talmud, the rabbis sometimes refer to the Torah as שמעתא, that which has been heard and understood from others. As Rabba says, the reward for studying received tradition is increased wisdom, אמר רבא: אגרא דשמעתא- סברא. I’d like to suggest that one goal for this year should be to listen and learn more from our tradition. Torah study is not just for rabbis and students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This sacred tradition belongs to all of us.

I’m not going to single her out by name, but there is a person at these services who decided this year that she wanted to honor her father, a wonderful man who I knew and who passed away just about ten years ago. She had never really studied a primary text of Torah before, but she approached me for help in finding a study partner and identifying a project. I am very proud of her and her partner, a rabbinical student at JTS. The two of them are delivering a siyum, or concluding study session this week at JTS and teaching all of us what they have learned.

What learning project would you like to start this year? How about choosing a book of Bible to read, perhaps with a friend, and maybe with commentaries? You could also try a book of Jewish scholarship. Our JTS librarian David Kraemer recently announced that the JTS faculty had published more books in the past year or two than at any time in our history. I tried to make a commitment to read every new faculty book, but I can’t keep up. This year I enjoyed Ben Sommer’s book, Revelation and Authority, and Richard Kalmin’s book, Migrating Tales. Burt Visotzky just released a new volume called Aphrodite and the Rabbis, and Amy Kalmanofsky has a new book about to be released on gender in the Bible.

If you only had time for JTS faculty books, dayeinu, but there are many lifetimes of Torah to be learned. So let’s clear out our ears and start to listen to the wisdom that is available. I’d like to suggest that we invite the words of Jewish wisdom to enter our ears and minds. People here have good minds—you have a lot to gain and also to give in further developing our sacred tradition.

There is of course also a negative side to hearing, and I am afraid that it has been very challenging this year. This endless political season has been filled with hateful speech, and not just between the two last major candidates standing. On personal principle and in deference to American law and out of respect for you, I do not endorse candidates from the bimah. Of course I have strong political opinions and I certainly intend to vote in November, as I hope every eligible person in this room will do. While I won’t make an endorsement, I do think that we have the right and obligation to denounce hateful statements, whether made by a candidate whom we support or one whom we oppose.

One winter night last year during Hanukah I found myself lighting the Menorah in an unusual setting. It was a mosque in mid-town. I invited JTS students to go with me to the mosque, which had offered to host a Hanukah party. While this was gracious of them, it was also important for us, because a major political candidate had just announced that Muslims should not be allowed to enter the United States. As a Jew and as a rabbi, I had an obligation to hear these horrible words, and to try to imagine how a Muslim person would have experienced them. And so we did what we could to replace those hateful words with words of respect, compassion and friendship.

Our ears are ringing with hateful speech, and I fear that we have become desensitized by the constant barrage of hateful things that are being heard. We need to hear these noises and do our best to replace them with the sound of civility. So, using our ears to listen for Torah and to notice and combat hatred—this is how we use our Jewish otoscope. This is how we practice Judaism.

Next we have the reflex hammer. This one makes me smile. I remember sitting on the pediatrician’s examining table while he hit my knee, making my leg pop up in the air involuntarily. It’s important to have healthy reflexes, and this is a capacity that diminishes as we age. We don’t react as quickly to stimuli, and that can put us and others around us in danger.

I mentioned before that the Sefer Haredim listed eight body parts that can lead to sin. Two of them are the arms and legs—these symbolize our activity—where we go, and what we do. How are the Jewish reflexes of our legs and arms?

In Jewish terms, the reflex hammer can be our metaphor for tzedakah, by which I mean righteous conduct. This means picking ourselves up and going somewhere good, like we have done today. And then it means going out and doing something good, which is the task before us this week.

No one here can help every person in every way that is called for. But each year we have the chance to train our reflexes once again. For us at JTS one way we are trying to become more responsive is thinking about our responsibility to improve racial justice in this country. The Associate Dean of our Rabbinical School, Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, has been our point person in starting numerous social justice initiatives this year. You can listen to her brief video message on the JTS web site.

JTS is partnering with an organization called Exodus Transitional Communities, founded by a formerly incarcerated man named Julio Medina. This is a re-entry program that helps people reintegrate into communities which they left years or even decades ago. Last winter at Union Seminary, Julio spoke to our students about how he expected that leaving prison would mean entering the promised land, but it did not. He found himself in the wilderness, just like Israel did after leaving Egypt. He didn’t know how to fit back into family, faith community or the work place. His organization helps people come out of prison and rejoin society—to become contributing, responsible and valued citizens. When we partner in such righteous behavior, that is practicing Judaism.

Last week I slept in the homeless shelter at Ansche Chesed, where I sometimes volunteer, though not often enough. We got up at 5:30, but one man was slow to get out of bed. I gently told him, “Time to get up,” but everything he did was slow—rising, putting away his bed, getting out the door. I’ll admit that I was eager to go home, shower, and start my own day. I hope I didn’t show my impatience though, because really, how can I compare my difficulties with his? Have my human reflexes become so dull? I hurry past many of the homeless people in our neighborhood and don’t even look them in the eye. Of course I can’t solve their problems, but I can respond with compassion. Making eye contact, sharing a kind word, maybe even doing something to help—these are the reflexes that we need to nurture.

Testing our reflexes and acting in response to the indignity and injustice around us is a spiritual challenge. If we inure ourselves to those around us, then we become unresponsive, even dead in a spiritual sense. We have heard so many terrible things this year—the shootings of unarmed black men, and the shootings of police officers; the 100,000 children under siege in Aleppo right now, being bombed by Assad and Putin, and the millions of refugees on the move. We cannot solve all of these problems, but we also cannot allow our reflexes to become dull. Training ourselves to respond compassionately, purposefully and effectively—this is practicing Judaism.

Finally, the stethoscope. I actually have my Dad’s old one here [put it on]. The heart is not visible, but it is the most important organ of all. A stethoscope allows a medical practitioner to listen for signs of heart disease. We need a spiritual stethoscope, one which allows us to review not only our deeds but also our inner life—our feelings, hopes and dreams.

There is a story in the Bible that tells about the time God sends Samuel to choose a new king of Israel. The great prophet turns out to be a poor judge of character. He considers all the wrong things, stature, strength, looks. Finally, God rebukes Samuel, telling him to look not with the eyes but with the heart.[3]

In the Talmud, this expression is rephrased with the statement, הקדוש ברוך הוא ליבא בעי The Holy One desires the heart.[4] It became a favorite line of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidut.[5] He said that when one performs a mitzvah, whether great or small, it is important to consider the intention, to perfect one’s heart so that the action will fulfill its potential. Playing on a familiar statement in Pirke Avot (הוי זהיר במצוה קלה כבחמורה) and connecting it to a verse in Daniel (והמשכילים יזהירו כזוהר הרקיע) he concludes that if a person combines proper conduct of the body with proper intention of the heart, then their soul begins to shine. It is as if we have created a new angel with our virtuous act. He says, “One should always look to attach himself to good qualities, and proper conduct, and never let a day pass without doing a mitzvah—whether great or small—because the Holy One desires our heart. (JTS professor Eitan Fishbane spoke beautifully about this quality of heart in his JTS holiday video message, which I recommend to you). The Besh”t seems to be calling for a spiritual stethoscope—a practice of observing our inner life, concerning ourselves with its health, and adopting habits like Torah study that are designed to make us shine within and without.

When we control our tongues, and open our ears, and activate our hands and feet—all of them activated to avoid evil and to do good, then we also have the chance to enhance these virtuous behaviors with a shining heart—a heart of wisdom, of compassion, of humility and joy. A heart that is open to the sorrows of others and appreciative of the gifts that we have received.

As we complete the year 5776 and begin a fresh new year today, let us use every tool in our kit to examine ourselves, to identify our flaws, to seek opportunities for improvement, and to become better versions of our selves. In fact, we have one tool that even my father lacked—the shofar. As we sound tekiah, may the pure sound startle us to attention, the broken notes of shevarim indicate our sorrow for failures this year, and the sobbing sounds of teruah express our regret. Finally, the tekiah gedolah, a powerful and enduring sound, gives us the sense of purification and atonement that we all desire. לב טהור ברא לי אלהים, May the Creator create for us a pure heart, so that our lives can reflect the divine light, and our potential can be realized. That is the task before us today. Now let us practice. שנה טובה ומתוקה.

[1]  משנה מסכת אבות פרק ב.  לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה.

[2]  דכל המצות תלויות בח’ אברים שבאדם בלב ועין ופה וחוטם ואוזן ויד ורגל וראש הגויה.

[3] שמואל א טז ז. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל אַל תַּבֵּט אֶל מַרְאֵהוּ וְאֶל גְּבֹהַּ קוֹמָתוֹ כִּי מְאַסְתִּיהוּ כִּי לֹא אֲשֶׁר יִרְאֶה הָאָדָם כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם וַה’ יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב:

[4]  תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף קו עמוד ב. אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא ליבא בעי, דכתיב וה’ יראה ללבב.

[5]  בעל שם טוב דברים פרשת ואתחנן. ושמרתם ועשיתם וגו’.