Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 76

August 20, 2021


Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you in good health and good cheer.

This Shabbat morning, at 10:30AM, we will reopen our building for services for the first time in a year-and-a-half. We have been looking forward this day for quite some time and personally, I look forward to welcoming all of those, who will attend in person. Of course, some may still feel be more comfortable participating via Zoom, which I understand, but I do hope to see everyone on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Don’t worry, our High Holy Day services will be available online for your enjoyment and uplift, if you are unable to join us in person.)

As you know, during a “normal” (meaning non-Covid) year, Jewish people around the world flock to their local synagogues to connect with community, re-engage with their spiritual heritage, and pray for forgiveness and new beginnings. Growing up in Canada, shuls were packed to over-flowing (good luck with parking, by the way) and even people who were only somewhat involved during the year scurried to synagogue to celebrate the New Year. In many ways, the High Holidays were like the shul’s “Super Bowl.”

Over the years I have asked my students, “On a day that we have our biggest audience in house, what do you think would be the best Torah portion to chant?” While not quite akin to a Letterman Top Ten List, these are some of the most popular answers I have received.

Student One: Definitely, Exodus 19 (the Ten Commandments). The Parsha is worthy of a movie on its own merits!

Student Two: Definitely, Exodus 7 and 8 (the Ten Plagues), which shows just how powerful God can be and why we shouldn’t mess with Him!

Student Three: Definitely, Genesis 6 (Noah and the Ark): lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Student Four: Definitely, Genesis 1 (the saga of Creation): we all need an alternative to the Big Bang Theory.

While all these answers certainly have merit, the assigned traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is taken from Genesis 21-22 and it describes the story of Avraham and Sarah’s infertility, the birth of Isaac, and Avraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son thirty-seven years later.

The main reason our tradition offers this scriptural choice is that it speaks of God “remembering.” In particular, God remembers Sarah’s prayers, and in the Haftarah, God also remembers the prayers of Hannah. Some suggest that given the concept of God’s omniscience, it is strange to focus on the idea that the Master of the Universe is “remembering,” because it implicitly suggests that God forgot!

Rather, the tradition interprets that the concept of remembering relates to our own internal process during the holiday season. Yes, we too, should remember our ancestors, who were devoutly dedicated in their service to God and had characteristic strengths. For example, Avraham is known for his hospitality, Sarah is known for her spirituality, Moshe is known for his leadership and prophecy, and King David is known for his poetry and valor.

The holiday motif of remembrance suggests that in addition to remembering the amazing characteristics of our biblical heroes, we too should recall our ability to repent, our possibility for Teshuvah, and our potentiality to strengthen the Jewish community both locally and globally.

As we continue to struggle against the variants of the pandemic, we should additionally remember the numerous blessings, both large and small, that have come our way. Remembering a virtual hug, recalling the outreach of a friend, or recollecting the uplift of prayer, music, and laughter as a community can all provide a lightening of our burden during the month of Elul.

This year, the holidays will indeed represent a new day and a new start. Let us pray that Hashem will remember the merit of our ancestors while we work hard to remember what it means to make our lives, shul, and community a fountain of peace and blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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