What Should Rabbis Be Speaking About on Rosh Hashanah?

The High Holy Days are three weeks away. Phone conversations with colleagues nearly always begin with, “Are you ready?” and “What are you speaking about?” Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur most lend themselves to sermons: repentance, returning, introspection and relationships are ripe with material and thoughts to present from the pulpit. But I find that more and more colleagues are seeing these topics as low priority in favor of what they see as more pressing needs.

And they are pressing; Iran and its existential threat to Israel and the world, ISIS and the growth of Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitism destroying the European Jewish community are only some of the global issues we face. The status of American Jewry, the graying of our movement-oriented community and the rise of consumer Judaism are challenging us in our sanctuaries. Global warming, poverty and the homeless are only some of the issues of social justice besetting our community. There is so much to speak about – pressing issues. And, this is the only time we will have such a large sanctuary; filled to overflowing. Where do the themes of the High Holy Days fit in?

First a confession: I don’t see myself primarily as a political person or advocate for social justice. This doesn’t mean I have not participated in those roles. In my life I have been imprisoned in the United States, detained by the more than one communist regime, participated and supported AIPAC, worked with the homeless, spent much time in Mississippi and Appalachia and facilitated programs for special needs populations . I did not participate because I was a rabbi. I participated because I was a human being.

I keep remembering two events that happened within weeks of my ordination when I assumed my first pulpit in Greenbelt, Maryland. The honorable Steny Hoyer (currently the House Minority Whip), was a member of my congregation (our district and we had made him an honorary member). That first service, being in the D.C. community I spoke about politics. After the service Representative Hoyer came over to me and in his most ingratiating style put his arm around me and suggested I stick to my day job. He was right. In all my years in congregational life I have rarely met a colleague who could qualify as an “expert” in politics. The next day I was called to a local hospital to sit with a family and their terminal infant in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It was a four-day vigil.

I will mention the global and existential issues we face – but most of all I believe that these days were meant to grow; spiritually and communally – and we are so much in need of this.   

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