The following are my farewell sermons after serving Temple Israel of Hollywood for 30 years. This is my last High Holiday season before my retirement at the end of June, 2019. These are highly personal sermons, but they reflect the greater themes and challenges that Judaism presents us during the High Holidays, and were the best personal reflections on a forty-year rabbinate and thirty years at my home congregation.
For all TIOH Rabbis’ Sermons in 2018, go to
https://www.tioh.org/worship/rabbis/clergystudy These include sermons by Rabbi John Rosove, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, and Rabbi Jocee Hudson
The following are the sermons I delivered, the final High Holiday sermons I am ever likely to deliver:
Rosh Hashanah 5779 – “Carrying forward the Life of Our People”
Video Direct Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqcY1nwo0tc
Kol Nidre 5779 – “What I Wish for You”
Video Direct Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPHP_ui4YQ4
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779 – “Midrash on the Death of Moses”
“Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak, / Hear, O Earth, the utterance of my mouth. / Let my teaching drip like rain, / Let my words flow like dew, ‘ Like droplets on new growth, / Like showers on grass.” (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)
“Like an eagle protecting its nest / Over its young-birds hovering, / He spread out his wings, he took him, / Bearing him on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11)
“See now that I, am he / I myself bring-death, bestow-life / I wound and I myself heal, / And there is from my hand no rescuing! / For I lift up my hand to the heavens, / And say: As I live, for the ages.” (Deuteronomy 32:40)
These are among the fifty-two verses in this week’s Torah portion Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32), one of the shortest portions in the annual Torah reading cycle.
Though these verses are magnificent poetry, the Torah isn’t largely a poetic text. Rather, it’s a series of legal texts set in a narrative context. For poetry we have to search elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible – the soaring visions of the prophets, the yearnings of the Psalms, the saga of Job, and the eroticism of the Song of Songs.
Despite the Torah’s narrative and legal style, this portion closes in a burst of poetry as Moses nears the end of his life.
Essentially, Parashat Ha’azinu is a poetic meditation on the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It’s graphic and written from the prospective of God, not Moses. Its themes dwell not upon the strength of the divine-human bond, but upon its weakness. Israel is characterized not as a covenantal lover, but as a treacherous adversary prepared to smash the covenant and cavort with other gods.
Towards the end of the poem, Moses shifts suddenly from speaking as a third-person narrator into the first person as God’s prophet. We envision an enraged God Who intends to hand Israel over to its most vicious enemies and its ultimate devastation. Fearing Israel’s demise to polytheism and oblivion, God reverses the divine decree, vanquishes Israel’s enemies and renews the covenant.
One scholar suggested that this poem is a CAT scan of God’s mind embracing the totality of divine rage, longing and love. Though God did indeed reverse the divine decree, it wasn’t because of divine compassion; rather, it was the consequence of divine pride.
There is something especially shocking about this poem, and that it’s missing utterly the idea of Teshuvah.
One would think that at the end of the annual Torah reading cycle that coincides each year with the close of the Yamim Noraim that Torah would affirm the covenantal bond between God and Israel as a consequence of Israel’s Teshuvah and return to God. But, the poem ignores the possibility of Israel’s repentance and presents a world devoid of the capacity of the people to alter God’s will through its contrition and Teshuvah.
It’s difficult to imagine living our lives without Teshuvah. Perhaps, that’s the point of the poem, to show us what such a world would be like without the possibility of our return, without the life-sustaining value of hope.
Judaism understands that Teshuvah is so indispensable for human welfare that the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish insisted that God conceived of Teshuvah before creating the world and wove Teshuvah into the fabric of creation itself.
The prophetic and rabbinic concept of repentance is among Judaism’s most ennobling and inspiring affirmations. Judaism rejects a fatalistic world, one in which what was will always be without the possibility of personal and communal evolution. Judaism affirms that we do indeed have a measure of control over our lives, that we can improve ourselves and be better morally and spiritually than we were. Though perfection isn’t the goal of the Yamim Noraim, self-improvement is.
Since our beginnings as a people we Jews have been buoyed by hope and messianic expectancy, all made possible by Teshuvah.
And so, perhaps, Ha’azinu is a warning about what our lives really would be like without the covenant and without our capacity to be better than we were.
Note: Translation of the Hebrew are from “The Schocken Bible: Volume 1 – The Five Books of Moses” with a new translation and Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox
Former Ambassador Martin Indyk writes in The Atlantic…
“The Day Israeli-Palestinian Peace Seemed Within Reach: Perhaps when Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Donald Trump leave the scene, it will be time to try again. Perhaps then someone will dig up the video of that magical day in September 1993, when peace seemed within reach, and when an American president promised Israelis and Palestinians “the quiet miracle of a normal life.”
In the context of so much negative press about Israeli policies in the West Bank, this story from the Israeli daily newspaper “Haaretz” is powerful, inspiring, and unexpected. Haaretz’s story speaks for itself. Jews the world over ought to feel proud that 1400 Israeli volunteers are helping thousands of Palestinians reach hospitals and clinics in Israel from the West Bank on a daily and weekly basis.
The following is the Haaretz story. Share it especially with those who ought to know that Israelis are performing the mitzvah of g’milut chassadim (loving-kindness) for their Palestinian neighbors without expectation of compensation or reward.
“The Road to Recovery organization collects Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza borders and takes them to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
It’s almost 6:30 A.M. and the sun is rising quickly over the Sha’ar Efraim checkpoint separating Israel and the West Bank. Amid the rush of Palestinian workers heading toward vans that will take them to jobs inside Israel stand the Alwaneh family, including 3-year-old Kais clutching a “Bob the Builder” backpack.
The father, Samir Alwaneh, 41, smokes a cigarette, his face tense. The family is waiting for a driver from Israel – someone they have never met before – who will collect them and take them the 32 kilometers (20 miles) to Israel’s largest hospital, Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv. It is time for another surgery for Kais, who was badly burned in a fire last year, leaving his face severely disfigured and his hands as stumps. This will be his fourth surgery and is meant to help repair damage to the skin around one of his eyes.
The family looks up to see Orli Shalem, 56, driving up in a blue hatchback. Shalem, a member of Kibbutz Ma’abarot, is with Derech Hachlama (The Road to Recovery), an organization boasting some 1,400 Israeli volunteers who drive Palestinians from border checkpoints – both in Gaza and the West Bank – for medical treatment inside Israel.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are treated in Israeli hospitals every year, most for cancer or heart problems, and many of them are children. There are between 30 and 60 rides given per day; without them, the Palestinian patients and their families would be left to foot the cost of taxis to the hospitals, which can cost anything from 150 to 400 shekels ($41 to $110) each way.
“It’s a small way of helping, but it is some kind of help, and a way to show we care so they [the Palestinians] can see there is not just the brutal, threatening side of Israel,” explains Shalem as she heads west to the hospital.
Shalem and the Alwanehs had exchanged a quick and limited greeting of “Shalom” when they met, since Shalem does not speak Arabic and the Alwanehs do not speak Hebrew. It is a common problem.
Tami Suchman, 71, from Kibbutz Beeri near the Gaza border, started volunteering as a driver five years ago. In the past she would try to talk to her passengers as much as possible, even if it meant pushing through the language barrier with hand gestures and facial expressions. “But these days I prefer to speak less,” admits Suchman.
“What is there to say after we agree conditions are bad?” she asks. “We both want things to be good, but understand that it’s going to take a long time till things get better. For me personally, I feel guilt. I find myself apologizing for the situation that I’m ashamed we are even in.”
“I don’t justify what they are doing – for example, with the burning kites,” Suchman adds, referring to the recent incidents that have set thousands of dunams of kibbutz fields ablaze, “but I understand where it comes from.”
This language gap can feel like a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Road to Recovery was founded in 2006 with the hope that, amid the seemingly intractable conflict, the human connection and goodwill forged in these rides might eventually help break down walls, both psychological and real, between Israelis and Palestinians.
It was established by Yuval Roth, who had become active in the Parents Circle Families Forum – which brings bereaved families from both sides of the conflict together – after his brother was killed by Hamas terrorists in 1993. It was at one of these meetings, in 2005, that he met a Palestinian woman whose brother was ill. She asked Roth to drive him from a checkpoint for treatment in Israel – and that one ride developed into a nonprofit that is now on the brink of expanding inside the West Bank as well, offering Palestinians rides to both sides of the checkpoint. Legendary Canadian singer Leonard Cohen was the project’s first donor.
Road to Recovery describes itself as an apolitical organization, drawing volunteers from across the political spectrum – including retired army officers and even a small number of Jewish settlers. For people like Shalem, however, the act of volunteering is also a political one. She opposes the Israeli occupation and says the rides are one of the few ways she has found to express that opposition in a practical and, she says, hopefully helpful way.
Alwaneh says the round-trip rides to the Israeli hospitals are a big help. And the medical care his son has received in Israel has moved him, noting: “Their treatment of Israeli and Palestinians is the same there – they treat Kais like a boy, like any other boy.”
Neely Gardin, 53, opens the gate that leads from her house to her car on a narrow street in a Tel Aviv suburb. This is her first day as a volunteer driver and she has given herself extra time to get to the Efraim checkpoint. Once there, she will rendezvous with Shalem – who will help if there are any problems – and the Palestinians she is driving to hospital.
She’s never been to a checkpoint before and says she does not know any Palestinians from either the West Bank or Gaza. She is not a particularly political person, she points out, but heard about the organization and just knew she wanted to help out.
The dawn sky grows lighter as she navigates her car past olive groves, open fields and, eventually, the sprawling Arab-Israeli city of Taibeh. The checkpoint comes into view and she calls Naim Albeida when she parks.
Palestinians need permits to enter Israel, and the permit system can be cumbersome and slow – final authorizations from the Israeli army usually only come a day before a patient’s appointment at the hospital, and if they arrive too late the patient cannot travel. Albeida, a Palestinian who lives in the West Bank, oversees the logistics for the Palestinian patients, working as a link between the PA, the Israeli army and Road to Recovery.
Gardin follows Albeida’s instructions and finds her Palestinian patient at the border. She greets Rami, 32, a cancer patient who has finished his treatment but is going to Israel for some tests. He is accompanied by his wife and mother. Neely and Rani start chatting in Hebrew and he tells her about his young daughters, showing her some photos.
“The thing that struck me most was how normal, how everyday, it all felt,” Gardin tells Haaretz afterward. “It’s very important to see that the person who stands on the other side [of the border] is a human being. We know that theoretically, but until we are with someone real, that remains only an idea. We forget everything that we have in common, because we are all so focused on the conflict, each side wrapped up in their own justifications.”
Albeida has only been a Road to Recovery staffer for a few months. But he’s been helping out as a volunteer since 2010, when he stumbled upon the organization while looking for ways to help a neighbor find an affordable way to get to an Israeli hospital.
When he first heard about it, he admits not believing that such help could really exist. He called Roth, who told him, “Sure, no problem.”
“And I said, ‘No problem? What do you mean no problem?” recounts Albeida – who even traveled with his neighbor to see with his own eyes that it was all real.
“I met the volunteer at the crossing and I thought to myself, ‘She’s like an angel, not a person,’” recalls Albeida, who lives in Kafr Jayus, near the city of Qalqilyah. Every day after that, he started communicating with Roth, helping to coordinate the rides.
It was not easy: He was working in construction, often receiving urgent phone calls while he was atop a ladder or up scaffolding. He says he lost two jobs because of those phone calls. “It interfered with my focus on the job, but what could I do? There were medical emergencies going on,” Albeida explains.
He credits his fluent Hebrew not only to 25 years working on construction sites in Israel but also to a woman named Dalia, whom his mother befriended when he was a young boy. His mother worked as a cleaner in an Israeli hospital, where Dalia was a nurse.
“I learned early on that not all Israelis are soldiers who come into our homes and arrest us. They are also people living their normal lives,” says Albeida. “I know the occupation is what ruined lives on both sides.”
Albeida adds that he noticed the Israeli volunteers’ desire to connect more deeply with Palestinians, so now he hosts lunches at his home once a month for people on both sides of the border to get together. “After the meal we sit and talk, and discuss our shared future,” he says.
After about an hour’s drive, Shalem pulls up at the Sheba Medical Center. Kais is whimpering in the backseat. Seeking to distract him, his mother, Hanna, tickles him and covers his burned face with kisses.
Shalem watches as the family walks toward the hospital entrance. “Goodbye, and good luck,” she calls out.
This comes to me from my daughter in-law, Marina Rosove Javor, a major gifts officer of PPLA.
Dr. Leana Wen is the first physician to lead Planned Parenthood in 50 years and an immigrant who came to the US as a political refugee. She is the current Commissioner of Health for the City of Baltimore and this past year she helped lead lawsuits against Trump Administration for unlawfully sabotaging the Affordable Care Act and for cutting teen pregnancy prevention funds.
The central theme of the High Holiday season is t’shuvah (return, turn, response), a process that brings us back to our truest ourselves, our families, friends, community, the Jewish people, Torah, and God. T’shuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that the way we are today need not be who we remain tomorrow.
T’shuvah is a step-by-step process of re-engaging with our highest selves, of turning away from negative and destructive tendencies (i.e. yetzer hara – the evil inclination) and embracing that which is good in our nature (yetzer hatov – the good inclination), such as living according to the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The t’shuvah process often begins with a sense of despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re forever stuck where we are and are unable to change the nature, character, or direction of our lives. Judaism, however, rejects stagnation, pessimism, and cynicism, and urges us to transcend those impediments that prevent our personal transformation and the creation of a more hopeful future.
In the story of the prophet Jonah that’s read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the prophet descends into hopelessness and despair and then when all seems its most bleak, he turns his life around. Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs from himself, from civilization, from moral responsibility, and from God. Every verb associated with his bleak journey into the netherworld uses the language of descent (Hebrew words with a root that includes these three letters: yod-resh-daled). He flees from God’s command to preach to the Ninevites down to the seashore. He boards a ship and goes down into its interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He’s thrown overboard down into the waters by his terrified ship-mates. He’s swallowed into the belly of a great fish, and there he remains for three days and nights until out of darkness and from desperation Jonah realizes that he wants to live and not die. At last he cries out to God to save him.
God responds by making the fish vomit Jonah out onto dry land and into the light of day. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites to turn away from their evil ways. While the town’s people don sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their humility and willingness to change), God provides Jonah with shade and protection from the sun’s intolerable heat. Jonah, however, is mortified because he doesn’t believe in change and is convinced that the Ninevites are destined to fail in their penetance. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites’ success makes him appear the fool, more evidence that Jonah didn’t understand the first principle of t’shuvah, that change is possible if there is acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a will to fashion a new way of being in one’s life.
T’shuvah is never easy. It’s for those who are strong of mind, heart, and soul, who are willing to suffer failure, but also to get up, own what we’ve done, acknowledge our wrong-doing, apologize unconditionally to those we’ve hurt, and recommit to our struggle for greater enlightenment, step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and even one moment at a time.
When successful, t’shuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our truest selves and overcome the past for the sake of a better future.
Barack Obama launched his midterm campaigning Friday at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, arguing that President Donald Trump poses such a threat to America that it forced him to speak out in an unprecedented way for a former president.
“I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who we are, what it is that we stand for,” Obama said. “As a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, I’m here to deliver a simple message, which is that you need to vote, because our democracy depends on it.”
May we hold lovingly in our thoughts / those who suffer from tyranny, subjection, cruelty, and injustice / and work every day towards the alleviation of their suffering.
May we recognize our solidarity / with the stranger, outcast, downtrodden, abused, and deprived / that no human being be treated as “other” / that our common humanity weaves us together / in one fabric of mutuality / one garment of destiny.
May we pursue the Biblical prophet’s vision of peace / that we might live harmoniously with each other / and side by side / respecting differences / cherishing diversity / with no one exploiting the weak / each living without fear of the other / each revering Divinity in every human soul.
May we struggle against institutional injustice and governmental corruption / free those from oppression and contempt / act with purity of heart and mind / despising none / defrauding none / hating none / cherishing all / honoring every child of God and every creature of the earth.
May the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and all peoples / know peace in this New Year / and may we nurture kindness and love everywhere.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu
Rabbi John L. Rosove – Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles
”What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”
So is it recorded in The Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha who lived 2600 years ago.
Shakespeare expressed the same idea: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” 
Are they both right, that we are mind over matter?
Not according to Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He writes that the conscious, reasoning part of our mind has only limited control over what we think, feel and do. 
The problem, he says, is that the mind is divided into two parts that often conflict. We are like riders on the back of elephants. Our conscious and rational mind has only limited control of what the elephant beneath us does.
The elephant represents our gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions. The rider is like the ‘press agent’ for the President (i.e. the elephant) who rationalizes whatever the president says.
The elephant and rider each have its own intelligence, and when the two work together, they reveal human brilliance. However, they don’t always work together.
As we approach the High Holidays, we Jews turn and return, break from habits that keep us from change and growth, and respond in new ways to those around us, to events in the world, and to our own lives.
The goal of t’shuvah (i.e. turning, returning, and responding) is to restore ourselves to where we know we should be, to our loved ones, families and friends, to colleagues and community, Torah and Judaism, goodness and God. This season reminds us that we ought to look beyond our material needs to our spiritual ones and focus on that which elevates us to be just “a little lower than the angels.” 
Haidt reminds us that when the Rider and the Elephant are at cross purposes – we ought to retrain the elephant, and that’s not so easy. The elephant is wired by nature, nurture and ingrained patterns and it doesn’t seem that it matters what our conscious minds, our reason and good yetzer (inclination) are telling us. The rider often has little control over the elephant beneathe our legs.
Haidt urges the rider to talk directly to the elephant.
Was Shakespeare right that “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”?
I answer this way – that the challenge of this season isn’t to insist that the rider have the final word, but to redirect the elephant’s impulses to be more in tune with the rider’s vision and purpose. Haidt suggests three means to do so:
- Meditation – to quiet the mind and detach from whatever drives us towards dysfunctional and destructive behavior;
- Cognitive therapy – to dig into our motivations, unconscious impulses and hidden agendas, and “unpack” the baggage that we carry, the memories and hurts that taught us that the world works in such and such a way, and that if we’re to survive we better behave accordingly;
- Biochemical support – I’m not a psychiatrist, but those who think that drug therapy would be helpful should consult with qualified mental health professionals.
Each strategy has its place. There’s no one means to effect t’shuvah. Change and growth don’t come suddenly. T’shuvah involves a deliberate step-by-step process taken over time with patience and perseverance.
The elephant operates from a subterranean unconscious mishmash of forces. Given its size and weight, it’s likely that we may only be able to direct it forward slowly. What’s necessary is to retrain ourselves that we might become more optimistic and positive.
“Life is what we deem it,” is the truth of t’shuvah. We CAN redeem ourselves, but it won’t be easy!
 Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2
 “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” and “The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”
 Hebrews 2:7 based on Psalms 8:5