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To be a Thriving & Wholesome Jew in a Modern & Changing World, Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774

Saturday, 7 September, 2013 - 10:54 pm

To be a Thriving & Wholesome Jew in a Modern & Changing World, Rosh Hashanah Sermon Chabad of Sudbury 5774

Some thoughts on a Log Ride

Logride.jpgA few weeks ago, I took a trip to Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire along with Camp Gan Israel of Sudbury. We had plenty of campers in the group with various desires, heights and abilities, so we decided to split up the campers into different groups that would allow them to have the maximum fun possible.

I soon discovered that my assigned group of campers were anxious to experience some real action and dramatic rides. Before long, despite my inner feelings telling me not to do this, I found myself seated on a log ride that was winding its way around sharp curves, up and down some small hills and then promptly began to make this huge climb into empty space high above ground. As I began to have my regrets about coming on the ride, I began wondering to myself “what was I thinking, I haven’t done this in years”. I remembered the warning sign at the beginning of the ride, about pregnant ladies and people with weak hearts and I began to wonder “if G-d forbid, I will have a heart attack on the way down, or perhaps our boat may be the one that you read about that fell off the top of the ride or the one that was infamously known for the Rabbi that fell out on the way down”?

As I am thinking about this, I realized that there is nothing I can do to stop the climb, and no matter what I am thinking the log boat just keeps on going higher and higher, and the crowds below seem to recede further and further away. The campers who were in the boat were in seventh heaven (almost literally) and were full of excitement, so I couldn’t even show or display my fears, or else all of them would be scared. In fact one of them was starting to tell me that they were scared and had specifically chosen to sit next to me, as he assumed that by doing so I would catch him if he fell out. Meanwhile as my mind is raging, the boat is continuing to climb and we are almost at the top at the spot where they snap the picture of your shocked face as you see the drop you face.

We reach the top and the drop that stands before us seems like a nightmare with no way of escape. Right before we go into a free fall, the kids began yelling at me that my Yarmulka will fly away. I opted to keep it on and just hoped that I would make it out of this ride in one piece.

Suddenly there was a shake and a jolt and I realized that that was it, we were going over the edge and the free fall began. I shut my eyes and held on for my dear life as I listened to the screams of joy and excitement from the kids as we barreled downwards at an incredible speed. My stomach dropped out and my eyes were tightly shut as I gripped onto the sides of the boat, but realized that at least my heart still seemed like it was beating. Then, after an eternity that was really only 5 seconds, I hear a massive whoosh as we hit the bottom and a huge wave smacks up in the air and lands all over us. Quickly before the kids realize, I open my eyes feel my drenched clothes and give a smile and thumbs up to the kids who turned around to see my happy reaction from the wild ride.

They loved it and I think I too actually enjoyed being a kid again, although I was definitely done for the day with crazy joyrides.

Your Log Ride Today

When you came in here this morning some of you may have felt that same feeling that I felt when I was going up the hill on the log ride. You may have been questioning yourself as to why you came here today, or reminding yourself of all the warnings and dangers about getting too involved in a religious service. Yet before you leave here today, I want you to feel the joy and happiness of the campers in my boat, or at least my sense of relief and pleasure that it actually wasn’t as bad as I had feared and was actually a little fun. I want you to have had an experience that contributed to you walking away with a healthier, happier and enriched sense of being a Jew in America in 2014.

Changes in the World Around Us

We live in a world where things are changing constantly and there is a never ending flow of new gadgets, changing dynamics, and new realities that change by the month, year, decades and centuries.

Music    -              As a young child, thirty years ago, I remember when we used to turn on the music at home on a big box called a record player that spun around these gigantic records inside of it. That changed pretty quickly with the entrance of cassettes which were a tenth of the size and more reliable. In addition to the fun of unwinding the insides of cassettes I still remember my excitement when my parents bought me a Walkman. Years later, my cassettes never get listened to anymore, as we only have CD Players, and now even my CD’s are becoming obsolete as I have an MP3 player, and why bother carrying CD’s which can get scratched and ruined all too fast.

Computers         -              My father in law told me that when he first got married around the same time I was listening to music from a Record Player, he had a job working for a large accounting firm in New York City. He described the computers that his company had, that were among the first major commercial computers. The computers were larger than rooms and were kept in this gigantic space that required plenty of maintenance. Just over thirty years down the line, that has all changed, and now not only every large or small company or executive has a computer, but everyone including teenagers and sometimes children have laptops and handheld phones which can do infinitely more than those very first computers.

Cars       -              Or take a look at one of today’s basic staples, the car. Thirty years ago the average car was getting about 12 or 13 miles per gallon, yet nowadays, despite the Car Manufacturers saying that it wouldn’t be possible, cars are getting an average of more than 30 miles a gallon. Just a few weeks ago, I drove an electric car for the very first time that a friend wanted me to drive when we were going somewhere. I remember the funny feeling when I was trying to find where the gas cap is, and trying to internalize the facts that it has no gas and doesn’t need gas to run.

Everything Else                 -              In addition, there are so many other fields, like medicine, technology, science, and so many other areas of life, that are experiencing constant and dramatic changes. These changes have radically changed the landscape of what our world and society look like over the last century, and mean that we live in a world of flux, new challenges, new cultural and social do’s and don’ts, and a new world order every few decades. Think of what percentage of our great grandparents worked in technology, farming, or trading compared to today’s economy. Think about the massive role technology plays in the US economy, or think about how travel companies are history, banking is now at the tips of your fingers, and texting can now be done instantly with someone from across the world.

The bottom line is that we live in a world which is constantly changing, developing and evolving in so many shapes, forms and places. As the never ending changes occur, people are sometimes knocked down along the way, thrown off course, lose their jobs or maybe gain a job, some people lose a lot of money and some people make a lot of money. Some professions become obsolete and some become useful. Some commodities become valuable or some useless. Some challenges are overcome and others come in their wake which we are still grappling with.

As all of this is going on, sometimes our Judaism seems may seem to be a little lost or out of touch with all the big and never ending changes that are going on. Yet sometimes we learn how to harness our Judaism to maximize its impact on our lives, relationship with G-d, and in bettering the world around us.

Other Dimension to “Change”

Yet despite all the changes and constant evolving society and world, there is another aspect to the story, the things that remain stable, eternally true, and have a timeless value that transcends generations and changes in the world around us. These things remain as true and as powerful today in 2013 as they were 1000 or 2000 years ago.

Rosh Hashanah in Damascus

These days, there is a tremendous amount of news about the war and destruction in Syria, including the terrible atrocities that were recently committed, to which the world may or may not respond. In the midst of all of this I just read an article in the Jerusalem Post describing the fifty Jews that are the remainder of the once massive Damascus Jewish Community. No one in the community is under the age of 40 – 50, as anyone younger than that has gotten out of the country, and despite the turmoil in the country that have kept the synagogue open in Damascus. In fact, although the synagogue has been closed for the last few Saturdays, today as Jews around the world celebrate the High Holidays and Rosh Hashanah, the Jews in Damascus were planning on gathering in their synagogue to celebrate and pray on this holiday, like Jews in Sudbury and any other place in the world.

When one thinks of the terror, war, and carnage going on in Syria, Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah is probably the last thing you would think any remaining Jews might be thinking about. Yet despite that, there is something powerful and alluring enough about Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish community in Damascus, that they are determined enough to pray, open up their synagogue and celebrate Rosh Hashanah, like any other year and any other community.

With all the changes and craziness that they are dealing with, it would actually make perfect sense to close up shop and stay safe. Yet that would be true if everything in life were changeable, if people, aspects of their lives, and rituals were all disposable and replaceable in one way or another. Judaism however teaches us that our faith, Jewish tradition, the Torah & Mitzvoth, and our relationship with G-d, are actually all items that are irreplaceable, unchangeable, remain eternally true, and are as powerful and meaningful today as much as they were 100 years ago, 30 years ago or 2000 years ago.

Mikveh in Jerusalem

This year in Jerusalem, in a neighborhood called Kiryat Menachem a Mikveh, a Jewish Ritual pool that dated back over 2000 years was discovered. According to the archeologists who made the discovery, they believe that this Mikveh is from the time period preceding the destruction of the Temple. This is one of dozens that have been found over the years, yet this one was unique in that not only was it intact and in pristine condition, but also the pipe system and water supply system for the Mikveh was intact.

Interestingly, the same multitude of detailed laws that Judaism follows to this day in how to construct and maintain a Mikveh, are apparent and clearly identifiable in the Mikveh that was just dug up from 2000 years ago. In other words, the same principles, the same laws and the same values that were true and timeless 2000 years ago, are as true and timeless today, and have not changed one iota in what they and their role mean to us and our relationship with G-d.

Influencing Anchor

Anchor.jpgThis does not mean that Judaism is rigid and unbending to the ultimate degree. But it does mean that since Judaism is built on G-d based system and one that is defined by G-d, therefore it provides us with a rock solid foundation that is eternal, transcends time and generations, and transcends our finite abilities as human beings. Judaism provides us with an anchor and direction for our lives that can deal with multiple dynamics and changing environments, even with all the changes in every generation and decade. 

With this said, Judaism welcomes change and creativity in the world around us, and encourages us to never be complacent with what we see. Instead we are entrusted with a mission of constantly seeking to improve, better and develop the world around us, both in the bigger picture as well as in the personal picture. Yet Judaism’s rock solid principles, guidelines, meaning and purpose, are there to empower us as we deal and navigate through changing situations, generations, challenge and scenarios, so that the bedrock anchored principles of Judaism extend out and influence our own lives and the ever changing world and environment around us.

Shofar in the Gulag

I recently read an article by a Chassidic Jew who was a member of the Chabad Movement in Russia, by the name of Gorelik. He was imprisoned by the Russians and sent off to the Gulag for the crime of helping spread and teach Judaism in the former Soviet Union. Right before he was sent to the Gulag, his interrogators from the KGB gave him some mental torture and told him, that his wife had resisted arrest and had a heart attack during the struggle, and that his kids whom he had fought to give a Jewish education, had been taken by the state and placed in a Communist Orphanage where they would be given a communist education.

When Gorelik arrived in the Gulag, he was crammed into a hut that was meant to house 20 prisoners that instead held 100 prisoners. The conditions were unbearable, and in his weakened post-torture state, he was beginning to feel that he wasn’t going to make it more than a few days. On the day that he knew to be Rosh Hashanah, despite the crazy G-dless and inhuman environment that he was in, he thought, let me try to pray to G-d regardless of what is happening here. Let me try and rise above what I am experiencing and face G-d and communicate with Him and have a heart to heart talk.

He began to pray and ask G-d to forgive all of his sins for which he had been imprisoned as he lays out his sins and asks G-d for forgiveness. He asked to forgiven for making a secret Cheder where Jewish children could study their Judaism, he asked to be forgiven for teaching Judaism to adults and children, he asked to be forgiven for trying to keep the synagogue and the Mikveh open, and he asked G-d to forgive him for trying to provide families with Kosher food. He then says to G-d, all my crimes were done for your honor, for your sake and for your people, please, in return at least let me know what is with my wife and children and if they are really finished like the KGB had said or perhaps they are still alive and free.

As he stood in the frigid Siberian air and said his version of the Rosh Hashanah prayer, he began to softly cry to himself as he bared his heart to G-d in this G-d forsaken place and thought of everything he was going through. He cried even more when he realized that he didn’t even have a Shofar to blow or to hear, and he reflected on the kind of Rosh Hashanah that he was experiencing.

But then he fired himself up and his mind began to drift as he envisioned what it was like to be in the synagogue where he used to pray along with his Rebbe and his brethren. As his thoughts are transported to a different place, he began to mentally envision the sounds of the Shofar and the experience of Rosh Hashanah with his community and his Rebbe. He thought about the sound of the Shofar blasts and the piercing message that they contained. He envisioned the sounds of the Tekiah as he thought of the heavens and the hearts and souls of man being pierced even in Siberia, he heard the sounds of the broken Shevarim blasts and thought about the cries of Jews around the world on the special day, and he heard the multiple Teruah blasts and thought about G-d being the King of the world on this special day of renewal even in this G-dless place. The tears flowed, but the mental sounds of the Shofar rung deep into the depths of his soul and would leave an eternal impression on Gorelik for the rest of his life.

Years later he did make it out of Gulag and he discovered that his wife and children had all in fact survived and were okay. Eventually he was able to leave Russia and move to Israel, whereupon he began to travel to the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York for Rosh Hashanah each year. Each year afterwards, as he experienced once again hearing his Rebbe blow the Shofar with thousands of his fellow Jews standing in silence and awe, he would transport himself back in time to his own mental Shofar blowing back in the frigid Siberian Gulag. Each year he would relive the powerful calling of hope, action and Judaism that the Shofar calls for, no matter the place and no matter the time.

Gorelik in his own way proved that even in the Gulag in Siberia, even in the toughest of environments and situations, there are elements of life and who he was, which can never be taken away from him, no matter the changes or difficulties that he was being subjected to.

The Common Theme of the Anchor of Judaism

From Rosh Hashanah in the bombed out streets of Damascus to the mental Shofar Blowing in the frigid Gulag in Russia, or from the 2000 year old Mikveh in Jerusalem to Rosh Hashanah in Sudbury, MA 2013, there are elements of our lives and our Judaism that are our anchors and are eternal and unchanging. It is these ideas, actions and values that contain a unique and enduring strength, inherent value, and eternal meaning and purpose. As we too resolve to continue connecting with these ideas and actions and incorporating them into our lives we too can truly gain an immense amount for ourselves, our relationship with G-d and for our Jewish journey through life.

How to Connect with this?

I recently watched an interview with a high powered CEO who came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe many years ago for an audience. As they discussed many aspects of his personal and business life, the Rebbe asked him about his Judaism and connection with G-d. The gentleman replied, “I am sorry, but I don’t feel right about certain things and I can’t get my head around certain ideas about G-d and Judaism and I am stuck where I am”. The Rebbe then replied to him “your problem is that you are trying to think your way to G-d, but in truth Judaism and a relationship with G-d is built on doing and acting your way to G-d”.

Action is what Counts

We can sit here from today until tomorrow and talk about unique aspects of Judaism, about timeless and priceless elements of Judaism which are eternal and unchanging in their meaning and importance. Yet if it remains as a discussion alone, nothing much is going to change, besides having addressed an interesting topic and aspect of Judaism. However if we can resolve this Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the Shofar and participate in a timeless and unchanging element of Judaism, to find a way for ourselves to connect with Judaism through actions, through a specific new tangible Mitzvah or improvement that we undertake for the New Year, it is then that the timeless energy and message of Judaism will truly resonate in our lives and become an amazing piece of our lives.

All it takes is committing to one more Mitzvah for the year to introduce to your life and family, be it Tefillin, Mezuzah, Kosher, Torah Study, Shabbat, or any one of the other 613 Mitzvot, and by doing so you are tapping into a priceless and timeless resource that will give you and your family an unbelievable powerful spiritual, moral, and insightful anchor that will make a huge difference in your lives. One additional new Mitzvah in your life, connects you with G-d and your heritage in an unbelievable powerful manner that will provide you and your family with tremendous staying power and resilience, that will continue to make a difference for a long time to come.

Summarizing the Log Ride

We may all be on a log ride through time, with some nasty curves, steep climbs and dramatic drops that make up our lives, the world around us and the constant change and movement that we experience. We cannot control all the change that is occurring around us, the Log Ride is still moving and doing its own thing, and there is no way to get off. Yet Judaism provides us with a seatbelt and with a safe and secure system, so that we may maximize this ride for ourselves, our families and communities to the maximum possible way. Judaism provides us with the tools to make it as productive, meaningful and enjoyable as possible while simultaneously allowing us to connect with something far greater and far more infinite than ourselves.

It has worked for generations and it will work today too!

You owe it to yourself and your family, you owe it to your ancestors and you owe it to the world around us. Go for it and make it happen and find a new Mitzvah for 5774! The ride is great, let’s hold on tight and let’s keep going!

Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetuka, a Happy & Sweet New Year and may everyone and their families be inscribed for a healthy, happy, successful and joyous New Year!

Comments on: To be a Thriving & Wholesome Jew in a Modern & Changing World, Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774

Sharon wrote...

I just loved it.
Such a powerful message. I am definitely going to get on the ride and focus on a new Mitzvah for 5774

Rabbi Freeman you've done it again!

Larry wrote...

Stupendous - to be able to take something so mundane (and like you Rabbi, I don't think I could go on that log ride) and develop such an important lesson - that's quite something.

I just love your articles - keep 'em coming!

Alex Gutt wrote...


Wao!! That was very inspiring. !!Words that come from the heart enter the heart.
Yesherkoach Rabbi Yisroel Freeman!

Alex Gutt

Sharyn wrote...

Rabbi Freeman,

Very inspiring, yet the goals are very attainable. Thanks for sharing, and shana tovah!