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This was my Kol Tikvah newsletter article for September 2011. I thought it might be helpful for us for this week, too. Gamar Chatimah Tovah — may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book for good!

I admit: this is not the usual headline for one of my articles. But each year at Yom Kippur, after I walk in with my sneakers, I am greeted with, “Nice Shoes!” Or perhaps folks will share that they are glad I chose comfort over fashion. (I can’t imagine people would be saying that I would ever choose fashion over comfort.)

So what’s the deal with wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers? New fashion craze or spiritual statement?

According to Jewish Tradition, one does not wear leather shoes. It is not that we are commanded to wear sneakers. But it is a mitzvah to avoid wearing leather shoes (belts and accessories are traditionally permitted). Why? The prooftext emerges from the instructions in the Book of Leviticus to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur. This idea is the key ingredient for our personal practices on Yom Kippur. We do not hurt ourselves, to be sure. But we are instructed to postpone some of our pleasures and abstain from eating, drinking, anointing oneself (which is understood today as applying lotions, creams, or make up), bathing, and spousal intimacy. But the one that is often forgotten is to abstain from wearing leather footwear.

To our ancient ancestors, leather shoes were a luxury item. To wear leather shoes was a sign of comfort and status. Our sages taught that such comfortable shoes contradicted the spirit of the message “to afflict” ourselves.

Another perspective is from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, one of our greatest Ashkenazi commentators and contributor to the Shulchan Aruch (Judaism’s most recognized code of Jewish law). He pointed out how this practice teaches compassion for all living creatures: “How can a person put on shoes, a piece of clothing for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written ‘God’s tender mercies are over all of God’s works’? (Psalms 145:9).” So while the Torah clearly says that we can use animals for certain purposes, according to Isserles, we should not be so bold and wear leather on Yom Kippur.

And while some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have ruled that Crocs are too comfortable and thus should not be worn, I would say leave that aside and say…let’s make a new fashion statement this Yom Kippur. I always believe in the power of taking on new traditions and finding new ways to connect to our tradition, our faith and our God. Perhaps our shoes we choose could be one of the ways to build that connection.

I’ll be wearing my canvas shoes (which are far less comfortable than my dress shoes). You can come in your Keds or Vans or Crocs, some might choose boat shoes or even slippers (they will go great with your suit!). If you want to make a statement, some rabbis are encouraging their congregants to go to TOMS shoes ( — where for every pair of shoes you buy, the company donates one pair of shoes to a child in need somewhere around the world. So you fulfill two mitzvot for the price of one!   (Note: some do have leather, so inspect well.)


This summer, many of you have read about or heard me speak about a young boy at one of our Reform movement camps who was struck by lightening. He wasn’t the only one, but he was the most significantly wounded.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, just wrote a blog post asking for help for his care from the members of our Reform Jewish Community.

Please, read his blog so respond to his request to help 13 year old Ethan Kadish. His family’s insurance will only take care of so much, so they need their community’s help. Rabbi Jacob’s words and information on how to help can be found here:

A Family in Our Community Needs Your Help

August 21, 2013

Ethan Kadish is a 13-year-old boy in great need of the Reform Jewish community’s help.

On June 29, 2013, the afternoon peace of Shabbat at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, IN, was shattered by a lightning strike that left three campers unresponsive on the athletic field. Thanks to the skill, courage, and quick thinking of the GUCI staff, all three campers made it to the hospital and survived this unimaginable tragedy.

This heartrending incident tested the GUCI family, the URJ camp community, and the entire Reform Movement, but none more than the families of the injured campers. Their strength has been nothing short of inspirational. Two of those families’ children, thankfully, recovered and returned home; one even returned to camp. The third camper, Ethan Kadish, remains hospitalized in Cincinnati, OH.

To date, Ethan’s recovery has included a series of successes that began with his survival and includes milestones like opening his eyes, breathing independently, and responding to stimuli. Ethan is in the care of a fantastic medical team and undergoes several hours of intense physical therapy every day. His family looks forward to the day he will return home, but they recognize, too, that even once he’s home, his challenges will continue. Ethan will require regular therapy and constant medical care, which, once he leaves the hospital, likely will not be covered by insurance. Ethan and his family face a long, hard, and, yes, expensive road ahead.

The Kadish family’s remarkable strength comes largely from their faith – faith in the healing power of God, faith in the skill and wisdom of Ethan’s physicians, and faith in the support of the URJ and GUCI communities. We are pledged to maintain that support, ensuring that throughout the challenges ahead, their faith in our communities will not waver.

This week – the week before Ethan was to have celebrated his bar mitzvah – a fundraising campaign in his honor has been launched with HelpHOPELive, a nonprofit organization that assists the transplant community and those who have sustained catastrophic injury. The funds will help Ethan’s family meet immense financial challenges associated with uninsured therapies, home modifications, and other injury-related expenses. All contributions made in Ethan’s honor will be administered by HelpHOPELive, specifically and solely for his injury-related expenses.

Our tradition teaches that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh (all Jews are responsible one for the other). Indeed, together with HelpHOPELive, the Reform Jewish family can honor Ethan and his family, sending a strong message that we stand together with all of them during this time of need.

To make a charitable contribution by credit card, please call 800.642.8399 or visit Ethan’s page at

To make a donation by check, make checks payable to: HelpHOPELive and include this notation in the memo section: In honor of Ethan Kadish. Mail to:

2 Radnor Corporate Center
100 Matsonford Road, Suite 100
Radnor, PA 19087

Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by the law. This campaign is being administered by HelpHOPELive – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing fundraising assistance to transplant and catastrophic injury patients – which will hold all funds raised in honor of Ethan in its Great Lakes Catastrophic Injury Fund.

More and more people are contacting me with concerns about issues relating to the separation of church and state in our local public schools. Let me first say… I hear you!  I am choosing to share this info here instead of an email because this forum will give us an opportunity to publicly interact with one another regarding the questions we all have.

The challenges we face are, in general, not about a malicious effort to sideline our kids, but a lack of awareness and understanding of the religious needs of minorities in our community. I will submit to you that the primary challenge is ignorance (I don’t mean this in a pejorative way). The best antidote towards ignorance is education. I consistently find that my daughters’ teachers are understanding and supportive when we give them as much information as we can with plenty of notice.

So my suggestions start with two things: as soon as possible, write to your child’s teachers (or your child should him/herself if s/he is an older student) and explain, now, that your child needs to miss school on  certain days for religious reasons.

(Part of the problem we face is when our Jewish neighbors don’t observe holy days, I often hear from our school administrators  something like: “our Jewish teachers said it was ok.” If your school administrator or teacher has any questions about Jewish tradition and observance as they plan their calendars, I would be glad to advise on how to approach things as best as possible.)

My younger two daughters are in the Cobb County School District. I can see the Administration’s efforts to encourage faculty and administrators to be mindful, especially when scheduling events. Here is one example of their Diversity Dialogue Bulletin for Cobb County Schools. Cobb also has guidelines on using religious music in school: Cobb Country Guidelines on Religious Music. Yet, we often see conflicts with the calendar and different activities and tests.

Cobb, Fulton, and other districts in the State of Georgia do excuse absences for religious reasons. It was recently affirmed in Cobb’s literature here.  Fulton spells out the policy in its Parent-Student Handbook.

Regarding tests, there is no law or policy that prohibits faculty from giving tests on holy days. However, a parent who writes with plenty of time and is courteous and grateful will (almost) always be heard and respected. When I write that my kids will be missing school for the Days of Awe, Sukkot, Pesach, etc., I make a clear request to not schedule tests that day. If there must be one, to provide adequate opportunities for my daughters to make it up.

Another suggestion is to give your school’s principal a list of these holy days. (The Anti-Defamation League-Southeast Chapter gives a multi-year Jewish calendar to county Boards of Education, routinely.) You can ask them to encourage their faculty to avoid tests on these holy days so that our kids don’t feel penalized or stressed to make up the work. If there has to be a test, since it is an excused absence, an appropriate solution for a make up would be necessary.

I know we don’t want our children to receive a greater burden than necessary when it comes to their school work, however… I am going to make a plea: We will communicate to schools and to our kids that school comes before our selves and our spiritual health if we go into school on our holiest of days. Encourage your daughter/son to stand tall when it comes to their Jewish identity and observance. If we don’t, it becomes a very slippery slope in terms of connections later on.

I have also been hearing a lot about religious activities after school on school property. Due to Constitutional protections, there is no breach to have religious based activities in the school’s facility outside of school hours. So when we hear that there is an effort to have a Rise Up for Christ group in the public schools, or a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any other activity, it is legal for groups to do so. However, we need to be mindful  when the school itself distributes the information or a school sanctioned group like the PTA endorses it. Those are examples where the school’s leadership needs to be confronted because the school cannot advance a religious based club or class. So if groups have the right to meet after school, we also have the right to not be confronted or recruited to participate.

In high school, when students are thought to be more self-assured, there is more flexibility when it comes to recruiting among students. But in elementary school, it is not quite as open. When there are feelings among kids to join these groups, our kids sometimes don’t want to be left out or feel pressured. If there is a tone in your elementary school where your child is being actively recruited for such programs, you ought to contact the school principal and request that they intervene.

For more information about legal issues in our public schools relating to the separation of church and state, I encourage you to read the ADL’s Religion in the Public Schools.  The complete PDF document is here:

If you are having difficulty, please feel free to contact me directly at or 770-642-0434 x217. You can also contact Shelley Rose, Associate Director of the ADL-Southeast Region:

Shelley Rose

One last thing… here is a sample of an email that I am sending to my own kids’ teachers, and I will copy the appropriate principal or vice principal:

Dear Ms. XYZ,

I wanted to write to you to let you know that the Jewish High Holy Days are approaching and my daughter, Yael, will be missing a few days of school.  This year, Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday and Friday, September 5 and 6. Yom Kippur doesn’t start until Friday night, so she will be in school that day. But there is another Festival immediately afterwards called Sukkot (the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles in English). She will be absent Thursday, September 19 for that holy day, too.

The next round of Jewish holy days are not until the spring.

We would be very grateful if her teachers do not schedule tests or major assignments on those days. She will be glad to make up the work. Since they are holy days and she will be in the synagogue for a fair part of those days, if she can get her assignments in advance, that will make things easier for her since she won’t have the time to do the make up work on the those holy days. It would be a great help if she can get as much work as possible done in advance so that it doesn’t become a challenge to make up her work. If she needs to do it after those days, we would appreciate a little extra time to make up that work.

Thanks again.

Fred Greene

Last year at this time, I wrote to you about the power of Neilah – the final service on Yom Kippur. I explained that these are the final moments before the Gates of Repentance close (which leads us to the term Neilah, meaning “locking”).

It is such an intense moment… the congregation stands, the ark remains open for the last several prayers. We begin with the Amidah, we move towards Avinu Malkeinu, we remain standing for yet another confession (Vidui),  recite prayers reflecting the fragility of life and how God is a God of forgiveness and mercy, yearning for us to return to The Holy One/HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

There are some of us who feel like we need to stretch to make it through those gates.

This year at this service, I am going to invite – for those who choose – anyone to ascend the bimah while the ark is open to stand before the open ark and offer their own personal, silent prayer. As the gates begin to close, some of us might need to express something that can’t be spoken at other times. Others might want the opportunity to come as close as one physically can to God’s Presence hovering over us on such a day. Whatever one might need, this is our chance to express our deepest prayers and feelings before our most sacred space at our most sacred time.

I know some of us might be concerned about walking about or sitting while the ark is opened. Yet, the Shulcahn Aruch, the most widely accepted Code of Jewish Law, gives us the halachah (classic Jewish law) on the issue. It says that one is to stand when a Torah scroll is in motion (Yoreh Deah 282.2), not just when the ark is open. To give an illustration, we stand for Kol Nidre not because the ark is opened, but because the Sifrei Torah are being held before us and those people are standing. When the Torah is amongst us and it is resting or someone who is holding it is sitting, then we sit, too.

As we continue with our service, while sitting or standing, the ark will remain open and you can respectfully come to share your private prayer before God. You can come yourself. You can come with a loved one or your family. Each of us can take some time to pray.

May the Holy One of Blessing continue to hear our prayers, and may we be willing to share the prayers of our hearts.

From my family to yours, from our synagogue leadership to all of you, may the New Year be a sweet, happy, and healthy one for you and yours.

From our March 2013 newsletter, The Kol Tikvah

One year ago, I shared a message in this very newsletter about how we are commanded to the principle of “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” It is a major statement in our Passover seder. I wrote about how it is incumbent upon us as Jews to respond to those who are our modern-day “strangers” because we, too, were strangers in Egypt. And then I introduced the idea of Family Promise and its Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Our Board took on a courageous decision to agree to welcome up to four homeless families with no where to go into our “house” (the synagogue facility) for a week at a time. Yes, during the day, these individuals will be at work, school, or at the Family Promise Day Center in Dunwoody. But at night, our congregants will be volunteering to set up a safe place for them to rest, provide thoughtful dinners, stay overnight with them, and then help them with breakfast and bagged lunches.

We have now received our date to host and it is March 10, just two weeks before our Festival of Pesach. What an inspiring time for us – we remember our liberation from Egypt, and now… this very month, we get to liberate these families from THEIR EGYPT.

Modim Anachnu Lach – We thank you God! We thank you for giving us the vision and the resources to extend our hands the way You extended Your Hand to our ancestors who came before us. Thank you for showing us the small and large ways that we can make a difference in people’s lives. Guide us to do this work so we can walk in Your ways. This is our small part to bring healing to our broken world. Modim Anachnu Lach.

All of us since we were kids would celebrate the end of the Passover seder. Some of us would celebrate because the seder was over! Others might have celebrated that we would get to run to the front door and open the door for Elijah the Prophet. Our Tradition teaches that this great prophet was himself homeless and an advocate for the poor. Before he died, he announced that he would return once in every generation disguised as a poor oppressed person, arriving at the doors of Jewish homes. Elijah’s treatment would determine whether humanity had improved enough to expect the coming of the Messianic Age. In this way the rabbis taught us that any poor or homeless person might be Elijah!

So yes, let’s do our part. We are grateful for all who have signed up, all who have bought supplies, all who have made contributions to make sure we can host these people with care and dignity. Thank you for recognizing that these families also have God’s spark within them.

To learn more about our program and efforts, visit our web page at

Here is a quick way to learn more directly from Family Promise: Family Promise Video.

There are many boys and girls in our Jewish community whose most favorite Jewish holidays is Chanukah.  That probably isn’t much of a surprise to many of you.  The festival has emerged over the past several decades in America to be the ultimate gift-giving holiday. 

Many suspect that the focal point of gift giving emerged in the twentieth century as Jewish parents wanted to compensate for the overwhelming presence of a Christmas-centered culture in our country.  Wanting to have our children feel good about Chanukah, traditionally a minor holiday without the major ritual moments of Passover or Sukkot, we began to give our children gifts each and every night.

As the Jewish community in America grew stronger and stronger, the gift-giving aspect did as well.  But in earlier times in Europe, Jewish children received something sweet (a little raisins and nuts) and gelt (“money” in Yiddish).  The practice of giving a little gelt is thought to have emerged when Jews would provide gifts of support the students studying in a yeshivah (seminary). Others think that it was to commemorate the coins minted by the first Hasmonean (the dynasty of Judah Maccabee) ruler in the Land of Israel. 

But today, it is the gift giving that overshadows the Festival itself. 

Chanukah is often translated as an act of “dedication.” When the Syrian Greeks ruled the Land of Israel and occupied The Holy Temple, a small band of Jewish fighters sought to liberate it.  After their victory, they re-consecrated the Temple and said this was a day of Chanukah.  The root in Chanukah is chet-nun-kaf.  The verb l’chanech is to educate.  In the Torah, its original meaning is “to initiate” or “to begin.”  There is an interesting spectrum of meaning of this word, chanukah – bringing together the messages of dedication, education and beginning.

For this Chanukah, may we…

  • begin our observance of Chanukahin a new way, with new priorities and new traditions.
  • dedicate ourselves to bringing light into our lives and into our world;
  • educate our children, grandchildren, students and young friends about the real importance of this festival: the significance of freedom and courage, resilience and securing our Jewish identity.

Some of the moms of our synagogue community have already been wrestling with these ideas: what do they want to teach about Chanukah, how do we show our children that it is not all about presents, and how do create authentic Jewish memories.  These mothers have come up with a program being launched by our Youth Committee called “Chanukah Lights and Mitzvah Nights.”

Instead of marking Chanukah with a new present each and every night, consider doing different things, together as a family.

I believe that children want our presence more than any single present.  And with our desire to raise a mensch, let’s think of new ways to observe, remember, teach and dedicate.  Here are just a few ideas…

Watch for more information from our Youth Committee about Chanukah Lights, Mitzvah Nights.  We hope that you come and celebrate with us on Saturday afternoon, December 15 at 4:00-5:30pm. We will conclude Shabbat together, have some fun activities for our families to bring light into other people’s lives and celebrate the Festival of Lights! Cost of admission: new or very gently used books to replace the East Rockaway elementary school’s library that was destroyed by Super Storm Sandy.

May your Chanukah be filled with light, and may you bring much light to our world.

hannukah nights

Shalom friends, I don’t usually post my sermons, not even after our holiest of days. But since I shared these words on Yom Kippur, I have been overwhelmed with requests to do so. As you can see, I contront the issues of addiction in our Jewish community, but I also share my thoughts on the Twelve Steps, not only as a framework for recovery, but as a spiritual framework for any seeker in our Jewish community. For those confronting addiction and compulsive behaviors and disorders, I hope that these words will helpful. To our other spiritual seekers and fellow journeyers, I also hope that my efforts will bring strength and fortitude to journey forward with integrity. I am very grateful to Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Mark Borovitz for opening my eyes to the issues facing our community through a Jewish lens. And to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, for his many writings and teachings (even though I have never met him).

Addiction is in our Jewish community.

Is this something that you really didn’t know?

Am I sharing a dirty little secret that we aren’t supposed to talk about?

You know I like to tell stories and share a little humor. But there is an important message today. I need to do two things this morning…

The first is to tell you that addiction is not in someone else’s community. It is in ours…but no one wants to talk about it out loud, not even to me.

The second thing is…while we all know about the Twelve Steps, few of us have any idea what they are and certainly not how valuable they are to any religious seeker looking for something to ground them on their journey.

First, addiction.

It is still shrouded in secrecy and cloaked in shame. So much so that when individuals and families are facing addiction and compulsion disorders, they don’t feel it is safe enough to share it with their own rabbi or their own synagogue. If someone had, God forbid, a terrible illness, generally I’ll get a call. If you land in the hospital, I typically hear about it. But if someone is confronting an addiction or a compulsive disorder…I seldom hear of it. I do not think it is out of a sense of wanting to protect someone’s privacy. It is about shame and embarrassment. It is about a feeling of failure:

“What did I do wrong?” as a parent…

“Why can’t I stop this behavior?” as the addict…

Its time to help our friends, our families, our neighbors…ourselves…to get rid of the shame… and instead know, that their community cares. Not only do we care, but if we shed a light on these challenges and recognize them as illness, then we show up to care, to respond, to support…without judgment.

“Addiction is a symptom of divided self; an unhealthy dependence on substances or compulsive activities to provide a temporary sense of wholeness and well-being. It is a “dis-ease” of body, mind, soul and spirit.”[1]

As a rabbi, I see it as the result of someone who feels so empty that they fill themselves up with anything that can give them, for a moment, a positive feeling. But, it is a false positive of sorts…it never lasts.

It is our family, friends, and neighbors who face these challenges. Addictions to alcohol, pain meds, meth, cocaine… we have members of our community that, on their own, cannot stop compulsive behaviors like shopping and gambling. We don’t think of eating disorders as falling into these categories…we know of anorexia or bulimia, but what about a food addiction…something you cannot even abstain from.  

This is the part of the sermon where I wanted to give you the hard facts, to hear the wake up call. But I couldn’t find any. The only one I could find: estimates are that up to 50% of patient populations in residential treatment are Jews — as are 20% of those calling national drug hotlines (yet Jews comprise but 2% of the U.S. population).[2] Our Jewish community, nationally and locally, still has not invested the time, energy or resources to support our members who find themselves in harm’s way.

We have too many people in this very room who need a community to support them. These are our kids. Yes, our kids from nice families, good schools, who became a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah in this very sanctuary. It is our kids who feel lost. It is our parents who have not yet found the courage to ask for help. It is our spouses who think we haven’t noticed, but…we really have but we haven’t found our own courage to say something.

I said that there are two reasons to write this sermon:

1)      It is time for our Jewish community to say that if you are dealing with an addiction, let us be a source of support.

2)      Many of us know about the Twelve Steps, but we don’t know anything about them. While they were created by a Christian group, I find them to be a tremendous resource for anyone looking for a simple spiritual framework to guide us. But we can translate them into Jewish Steps.

For those dealing with addictions, I hope this will help.

For those looking for a path of teshuvah, of turning toward a better Self, then I hope this will help you, too.

On Yom Kippur, we focus on Change, Transformation, Hope…they are all within reach. We can break free out of the Egypts that enslave us, whether they are addiction, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, materialism, a lack of self worth, an ongoing sense of emptiness…what have you. Whatever keeps you from being your authentic Self…is your Egypt.

The 12 Steps can guide all of us on our way…

Here are the steps according to Alcoholics Anonymous.[3] While this might include alcohol, other Anonymous groups will have their own relevant versions. As I share these steps, let’s see how we can make them Jewish steps, whether they are towards recovery or towards wholeness. I am convinced there are universal truths imbedded in these steps. You don’t need an addiction to see their value. If they are a framework for healing for those who are so so vulnerable, they can be a framework to help all of us strive for meaning, strength and wholeness.

Step 1

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

The greatest act of the first step is the recognition that there is a problem. That we are vulnerable. That we can’t always control our urges. Saying that we need to take a first step is not always easy.

I am drawn to a biblical figure that we know little about from the Torah, but the rabbis give him a great achievement in rabbinic literature. It is Nachshon ben Aminadav. As the Israelites were leaving the confines of Egyptian slavery, they were stopped at the Red Sea. How could it be that the God who produced all those plagues, wonders and miracles would bring them to a dead end.

Nachshon understood that it wasn’t a dead end. If we were going to make it work…if we were going to get to the other side, we needed to take a leap of faith. So he jumped first into the Sea filled with trust and with hope.[4]

I know that I cannot save every person who walks into my study. I wish I could. Even with all the resources I could ever want at my disposal…I cannot save anyone who isn’t willing to take a first step, a leap of faith…to admit that they need some support, and be willing to make the journey forward.

This Day, we are all doing something similar. You are here ready to acknowledge that we can do better.

Step 2

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is where people in recovery programs who do the steps that talk about a Higher Power. I also believe that there is a power far greater than I. I am not the center of my universe and I cannot act as if I am.

It was just this past Shabbat[5] where Moses comes to the end of his life and we learn that the ancient Israelites are going to enter into the Land of Canaan with Joshua. In chapter 31, it said, “Be strong and resolute” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 31:7, 31:23). What a great message when we are feeling at a low point or lost, just like these Israelites must have felt as the only leader that they have ever known was about to retire…be strong and be resolute.

And then in 6 we read, “For it is indeed the Eternal your God who marches with you: [God] will not fail you or forsake you.”

Listen again: “Be strong and resolute.” And before we can once again protest our weakness we are assured, “It is . . . God who marches with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you.”

This doesn’t mean that God is going to fix everything that is broken. But just as Nachshon realized that he had to do his part, he had to jump in the sea for it to split, we recognize that God has got our back and we will never be alone. Never.

Step 3

Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in his book Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery says: “the very act of deciding means that you begin to take back control of your life. // When you change who you are, trying to become what you might be, you enter sacred time and sacred space. There, the old you slowly evolved into the new person you yearn to become.” (17)

What better illustration of teshuvah do we need? We started with Confession, we acknowledged God’s presence, and now we are deciding  to turn ourselves over to God. Now let’s be clear. This does not mean that we no longer have a say in our actions.

We can understand its meaning by referring back to our Israelite ancestors leaving Egypt. There were times when, confronted by their new found freedom, they panicked. They lashed out at Moses…the one who lead them out of Egypt! And still, they kvetched and moaned when things got hard. They never had to make their own decisions before this point. It wasn’t easy. But Moses, as best as he could, taught them that they needed to look beyond their own fears and to embrace the opportunities before them.

They needed to find their faith. They needed to learn how to trust in God’s Presence. They didn’t need to be perfect. They just needed to journey forward. I think this step is about walking with God. Not just believing in God. Knowing that this relationship is going to help me make better decisions.

Step 4

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

One of the hardest things any person can do is to engage in real, authentic soul searching. We call this cheshbon nefesh.

Many of us shy away from such an endeavor. If we were more serious, there would be more of us in therapy and more meeting me for spiritual and pastoral counseling.

Instead, we work to much, we drink to much, we pop pills, we eat too much, we cheat, we fill ourselves up with things that are not only bad for us, but they are bad for those who love us.

I find my inspiration from Jacob. Jacob wasn’t the kind, sensitive soul that we sometimes give him credit for. He stole the birthright from his older brother, Esau. He then tricked his blind dying father Isaac out of the blessing that was also designated for Esau. Esau was so angry, he threatened to kill Jacob. After being estranged from each other for decades, they are about to meet. The night before their encounter, Jacob wrestles with a man, purported to be an angel. After a whole night of struggling and wrestling, Jacob makes a demand of his adversary to give him a blessing. Instead, the angel changes his name from Yaakov, which means “heel,” to Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and prevails.[6] I have always looked at this section as Jacob wrestling with his own demons, his own baggage. Even though he has changed from a scoundrel to a leader, he needed to hold himself accountable for his past actions. And perhaps just as powerful as his transformation, is that he walks away with a limp. You see, he injured his hip in this wrestling match. The way I see it is: if we are honest with ourselves as we pursue our own cheshbon nefesh, we might not always be happy with our past actions. We might walk away with a limp…with a wound. But we can walk with our heads high. We will journey forward.

Step 5

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

One of things that make our tradition so unique is the very simple, but perhaps hardest task at hand during these holy days: For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”[7]

In our Jewish system, it couldn’t be clearer. There are no shortcuts to doing the right thing. It isn’t going to be easy. But we have to ask for forgiveness from the people that we have hurt.

We have a tradition that expects us to go to our family, friends and neighbors and say…if there has been anything that I have done over the past year that has caused you any pain, whether it is was deliberate or by accident, I am sorry.

No, Facebook posts and tweets won’t fulfill your obligation.

Let’s put Steps 6 and 7 together:

6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.

7) Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

I am drawn to a teaching of the rabbis that I have shared with you often. The rabbis note that in Exodus, there are references to “the two tablets of the Pact.” While the context seems like it should be referring to a single set of tablets, a teaching emerged to say that there were two sets of tablets that represented this Pact that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai. One set was smashed when he saw the Golden Calf. The other set was placed into the Ark of the Covenant.

But the rabbis say that both are holy and both have to live side by side.[8]

We have our broken pieces, too, side by side with our strong Selves. We can’t ignore our past. Jacob tried, but at some point, even if it was later in life, he figured out he had to confront his past actions. We can’t just give them to God and hope that God will take the burden away. We can give these things up, let them go, free ourselves, by being willing…truly willing to change.

And that is walking humbly with our God.[9]

Do you know this quote? “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”[10]

And with God’s help, tapping into those reserves of strength, conviction and resilience that we all have been given, we can find amazing strength.

Step 8

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9

Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

These two steps, while there are nuances between them to be sure, exemplify crucial elements of teshuvah. We must approach the person we have wronged and make amends, whenever possible.

There are ways to make amends, too, even if it is not possible or safe to go to the one we have hurt. Mark Borovitz, one of my heroes, stole thousands and thousands of dollars from strangers and friends alike. After two stints in prison, he realized his crimes, his emptiness. He even robbed his own daughter of the father he was supposed to be. He can’t change any of that. But he fully realizes that he can still do teshuvah to acknowledge his wrongs and do better. Borovitz became a rabbi. He likes to claim that he is the first rabbi to start rabbinical school after prison. He is the Spiritual Leader at Beit T’shuvah[11] in Los Angeles. A 150 bed in treatment facility that uses Jewish values and hopes to treat people in recovery. They even have their own sober congregation, Temple Beit T’shuvah. He and his wife, who is the CEO and clinical director, could not have picked a better name. His service has been paying back everything he stole through acts of chesed and tzedakah.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro shares something that can be liberating. “We have to accept the past, learn from it, and eventually let it go so that we can make what we can of the present.”

Step 10

Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

The truth is, whether or not we face an addiction, we need to always be mindful of our actions. There are going to be days when we fall, when we miss the mark, but our sages tell us that we are not required to complete the task, but we must not evade it. We don’t have to be perfect.

However…Rabbi Harold Kushner said it best: “When we do something wrong, because we are human and our choices are so complicated and temptations so strong, we don’t lose our humanity. But we lose our integrity, our sense of wholeness, of being the same person all the time. We create a situation where a part of us, our good self, is at war with another part of us, our weak and selfish self. We lose the focus, the singleness of purpose, that enables us to do the things that matter to us. That is when we need the religious gift of forgiveness and atonement (making our split selves at one). But should we ever conclude that there is no point in trying to be good because we can never be good enough, that is when we lose everything. Being human can never mean being perfect, but it should always mean struggling to be as good as we can and never letting our failures be a reason for giving up the struggle.”[12]

Step 11

Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Ummm… THAT is what we are doing here.

Step 12

Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of our affairs.

This step reminds me of the quip I shared my very first year here. Playing on the idea that we all know that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year…a prominent rabbi I know challenged that idea…it is the day after. It is tomorrow. We are great today. What about tomorrow when our choices matter the most.

There are resources today that we have never had for Jews confronting addiction. Aside from a huge alphabet of Anonymous groups: FA, AA, NA, OA, EA, there is a Jewish group that meets in East Cobb. There are numerous books to be grounded in a Jewish spiritual tradition. This is the third year that there will be a sober birthright Israel trip for young Jewish adults in recovery. And now, for the first time, Atlanta has a new Jewish program to join in partnership with other recovery and treatment programs…Jewish Family & Career Services[13] has launched HAMSA, Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse.[14] A hamsa, of course, is the symbolic representation of God’s hand protecting us. This new effort is already underway to advance Jewish clinical support as well as substance abuse prevention programs. I promise you will be hearing more about it.

These steps are some of the best resources for someone who confronts addiction. But remember, I share them for two reasons. One is, they are basic understandings of human behavior that are timeless for all of us.

The other is…it is time to break the taboo about addictions and have the conversations in public: In the pew and in the school.  

Are we ready now for rebirth?

“Be strong and resolute.” Maybe this year can mark a new way of our being in the world. Maybe with the help of Torah, tradition, and community—maybe with the help of God—we can overcome the obstacles that have kept us from becoming our best selves. Maybe now we are ready to go through those Gates of Repentance with the sense of hope and confidence that are the core of its message.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky adapted our text for the traditional Travelers Prayer[15] to make it a little clearer for those on this particular journey:

“May it be Your will, Adonai, My God and God of my ancestors, to lead me, to direct my steps, and to support me in peace.

Lead me in life, tranquil and serene, until I arrive at where I am going.

Deliver me from every enemy, ambush and hurt that I might encounter on the way and from all afflictions that visit and trouble the world.

Bless the work of my hands. Let me receive divine grace and those loving acts of kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all those I encounter.

Listen to the voice of my appeal, for you are a God who responds to prayerful plea.

Praised are you, Adonai, who responds to prayer.”

Two additional resources for reading that might be helpful:

[1] This definition was told to me Rabbi Mark Borovitz of the Beit T’shuvah Recovery Program:

[3] The text for the steps were taken from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s and Dr. Stuart A. Copans’ Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning From Alcoholism and Other Addictions—Drugs, Food, Gambling, Sex…, 2nd ed. VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.

[4] Based on Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 36b-37a.

[5] Referring to Shabbat Shuvah.

[6] Genesis 32.29.

[7] Gates of Repentance. NY: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 251.

[8] See Exodus 25.16, 34.29, 34.1; Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 8b.

[9] Micah 6.8.

[10] I am not certain of the source. I have found conflicting sources.

[11] See Rabbi Borovitz’s memoir, The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light. NY: William Morrow, 2005.

[12] Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? 174.

[13] Jewish Family & Career Services is an outstanding social service agency:

[15] Adapted by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. 

There is a dramatic moment in our liturgy that I wait for all year long. It is the final service in the late afternoon on Yom Kippur called Neilah. Neilah means “locking.” The idea is that the Gates of Repentance are closing and these are the last few moments available to us to do the important work of teshuvah – turning/returning/repentance. The intensity is so strong that it actually makes me feel like my very life depends on it.

Neilah marks the conclusion of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that began on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and will conclude with this service on Yom Kippur.  The only time we include it in our liturgy is on Yom Kippur. I look forward to it because, for me, it is a liberating and cleansing moment. After owning how I have failed and how I have missed important things in the year that past, I can begin again. I have a chance to do better.

I know that there are many people who have never seen this service. After a day of fasting, spending the morning and perhaps a fair amount of the day in the synagogue, and of course, the very Jewish aspect of coming together to eat with friends and family, many people miss this truly awesome experience.

So please, accept this as my personal invitation for you to try something new. To be open to what our tradition has to offer us. I believe that, as the Gates are closing, you will find a beauty to be with your community at such a peak moment of our holy days.

I can tell you that this last section of prayers, after leading services all day and frankly feeling a little exhausted…it strengthens me. It isn’t just the anticipation of ending. It is the drive to finish what I have started. It is the nuances in the prayers that express our gratitude for being written in the Book of Life and hoping that the book will be sealed.

I find a peace by knowing that I have done the hard work that these Ten Days require – asking for forgiveness, trying to do better, acknowledging my shortcomings, and strengthening my commitment to our tradition, to my family, to my people, to my world, and yes, to The Holy One of Blessing.

But it is the very end that is so compelling. We ask God to “open the gates of righteousness” so that we can go through. We take a breath, stand up in front of the open ark, profess how we are aware of our weaknesses but promise to be open to God’s guidance. We express our deep gratitude for all of the beauty in our world, even if we too often focus on the negative or the difficult.

And then…

We say Sh’ma Yisrael one time.

We say Baruch Shem Kavod… three times.

We say Adonai Hu HaElohim, “The Eternal One is God,” seven times.

And immediately, standing in front of our ark, often with a sense of awe, relief, joy, and gratitude, we hear the final tekiah g’dolah – the last great blast of the shofar, telling us that we have finished and that we can start again.

I hope you join me for Neilah. The food will still be there when you return. Start again with me and your friends and neighbors at Temple Beth Tikvah, and let’s begin the year anew, together.

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