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The Low Down on the High Holidays

Enough with the homilies. There is no high in this year’s high holy days.

My fellow rabbis are missing this year’s significance: Most people who will be walking into synagogue feel a sense of loss, confusion, and bewilderment at a world in total and utter disorder. This year was worst than last year and there is nothing that says next year is going to be any better.

A few weeks ago, Adam Cohen in The New York Times described in an op-ed how Americans are, now more than ever before, pessimistic about their future. Hope has been replaced by fear, and redemption has been lost to malaise.

The paralysis of the war on terror, the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and round two in Lebanon have all contributed to American Jewry’s sense that hope is not on the way. Yes, yes, yes: Personally, Jews are for the most part doing pretty well. But communally, we are tired and scared about what next year will bring. For better or for worse, the question most Jews will be asking this week will be: How does one live in a world where nothing seems fair, just, or right?

I am sorry to be so down, but sometimes life isn’t just about the highs.

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posted September 20, 2006 at 10:31 pm

Wow. I have been following Virtual Talmud for quite some time and beyond every day critisism for the best, I had never felt so down with any post. Rabbi Stern, I hope you and your community get in better spirits. Ktima Vchatima Tova and a very very sweet year to all!!! Gd only places us where we belong, to make the best of it, out of what seems sometimes like nothing at all…

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posted September 21, 2006 at 6:21 am

As when a parent loses a child, year five is like being back in the first year; this is the 5th anniversary of 9-11, a day of horror, much as was Pearl Harbor, the Day of Infamy. We in Oklahoma City have experienced year five and year ten (another year that is like being back in the first year) of grief for the bombing of the Murrah building. Then, as in Viet Nam, we face an enemy we cannot clearly identify; people who look the same, without uniforms to identify them as friend or foe! The same could be said of the terrorist groups; the Murrah bombing, G-d forbid, other Americans! Then we look around the world and try to understand the incomprehensible, probably an impossibility. (The older I get, the less I know or understand about anything!) As when I was a caretaker for my forty year partner, there was no hope, no “light at the end of the tunnel”. I learned I could handle all the nasty stuff that goes with a terminal illness, but the one thing I could not handle was his pain! Of course you are right, life is not just about the highs, perhaps we need that reminder. After all, the High Holy Days are also a period of introspection, you have added new levels for me to examine.

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posted September 21, 2006 at 11:11 am

Don’t be so down. You sound like my parents. God who looked after your people for so many thousands of years is looking after you still. Some years are bad and some years are good. Compare these years to some in the past and they’re not so bad.

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posted September 21, 2006 at 1:49 pm

Rabbi Please, cheer up. Jews flocked to High Holy Day services in Germany in the late 30s–surely you cannot be saying our time is more difficult? Sure, the Israel situation is concerning, with a nuclear Iran looming on the horizon; but then again, at least there is a Jewish state. Orthodoxy is thriving, liberal Judaism is reemphasizing ritual and learning, Jewish day schools in America are expanding. And most importantly, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat movie is coming out: I suggest that you see it as soon as possible. L’chaim!

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posted September 21, 2006 at 2:14 pm

Rabbi Stern, I hope this High Holiday period brings you increased hope and peace of mind. Yes, it’s a terribly difficult time. There are many reasons to feel consternation and anxiety. But we cannot give up hope that things will get better, and we cannot give up our part in trying to make that happen. B’Shalom, L’Shana Tova Tikateivu.

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Ashira Himelson

posted September 21, 2006 at 5:43 pm

Suffering has always played a strong role in judaic history.It is easy to praise G-d and feel hope when things “appear” to be going our way, but a true believer always has faith in the wisdom of a divine plan that has an outcome we can not as of yet see.I am not suggesting that we view anti semitism or the needless deaths of innocent people as justifiable,and refrain from feeling a deep sadness.I think that would in fact be a great sin,but it is at such times that we perhaps most need to hold on to the core jewish belief that nothing,especially tradgedy is a result of mere random chance.We are being delivered,even while we cannot see it.May we all have a better sweet new year.

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Mark Fitzgerald

posted September 22, 2006 at 5:46 pm

Ok, this is from a Catholic kid who ventured on to this site to learn more about the High Holy days. Rabbi Stern expressed how I feel deep inside about the state of our world. It seems it is literally falling apart. What do we do? How do we get through? How did people living during World War II deal with all the bad news and the world falling apart then and the killing of millions of Jews? If anyone can help…PLEASE!

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posted September 22, 2006 at 9:10 pm

I know how you feel, Rabbi, but I really do believe “despair” is not in the Jewish dictionary. What about the so-called 11th Commandment: “Do not despair”?? As far as I’m aware, the world has always been “falling apart,” there are always times that seem truly horrible, and the challenge has always been to see it through to the good that God intends us to see. If being a Jew means anything, if our holidays mean anything, they are a testament to persistence and triumph in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. I don’t feel tired and scared of what the next year will bring (at least, any more than I always do). I know that we are in a crucible of some kind and I also know that we will come through it. The Jewish community is stronger than it has been in a very long time, there are more converts, allies, etc., who are excited about Jewish life and their chance to make a difference in the world, and these High Holydays should be about just that — our refusal to let the darkness of modern news events sully our optimism, our faith in a just and good future. Anyway, hope you can feel less hopeless, Rabbi. You’re right that life isn’t “always about the highs,” but it is about people cheering you up and standing with you.

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Sergiu S. Simmel

posted September 24, 2006 at 12:53 am

To put a bit of humor EVE into this somber topic: Have you ever received a Jewish Telegram? What, you don’t know what a Jewish Telegram is? It says: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” L’Shana Tova!

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posted September 24, 2006 at 1:11 am

Rabbi Stern, Remember we are commanded to be both hopeful and joyful. I suspect each and every generation has thought it lived on the edge of political, social, religious, cultural, moral, and every other sort of ruin. But somehow we are all still here with most of us devoted to tikkun olam and trying to do what it right. I wish you for you and your family and loved ones a safe, satisfying, wonderous, and joyful New Year and may God inscribe you all int he book of life.

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posted September 25, 2006 at 4:36 pm

The world is a broken place. This condition is a natural adjunct of the Manichean nature of existence and God’s ultimate gift to Mankind, Free Will. As long as man remains man, the sensuous lure of Evil will always present a visceral possibility that its’ dominion will become real. The best advice I can give in this respect is, deal with it. On the gallows shortly before his execution, the great abolitionist John Brown said…”There is no darkness so deep, nor storm so great that is not dispelled by the light of a new morning”. As one of those who has stood on the wall and continues to, I can tell you that there are more than ever whole armies of good people throughout the world who every day resist the bad, and their numbers are growing. This infuriates those who support evil, and that’s why the fight grows more bitter, because they know they’re losing. The fight has been joined in more ways than you can imagine. It will take a long time to win, and there are times when it will seem that the darkness descended is more impenetrable than ever. But that is the way these conflicts often appear. The important thing is that there are more good people than you can imagine who have shaken off apathy and are prepared to stand for the eternal values that our religion represents and are recognized as essential foundations for civil democratic societies.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 6:59 pm

Forgive a Christian sister from sticking her nose where it may not belong, but it seems to me that Isaiah 64 might be useful reading for you right now…the world is not as it should be and that tears us up; and yet, G-d is still G-d, and that is the source of our hope and what makes it possible for us to continue to live and try to be faithful in a world, as you say, “where nothing seems fair, just, or right.”

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posted September 27, 2006 at 7:07 pm

Tov to you, jonfox! God is the same, yesterday, today and forever! Throughout history (and modern times) God has sent His prophets, His men of God and His angels to proclaim His love for His people! Isn’t it interesting that His angels always begin their statements with “FEAR NOT”. Why? Oh sure, maybe it is because an angel is not human and thus it would be natural to initially have fear. However, I believe it is to give us the clear message of NOT Fearing! FEAR is the lack of FAITH. God is looking for men of FAITH, not fear. When God is ‘for us, who can stand against us’? We, as God’s children should stand FEARLESS in the face of the evils of the world, for God is still on His throne and He makes all things good, even after we have allowed the worries of the world to consume us. Look up and know that whatever besets you, God will turn around for your good, in His time. Shalom.

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posted September 29, 2006 at 5:08 pm

Thank you, Linda. Your words of support mean more than you’ll ever know.

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posted October 1, 2006 at 7:48 am

To Linda and Jonfox I say, “AMEN!”. To Rabbi Stern – I wish to answer your lament with proportionate positive words in keeping w/ our great teacher, Rabbi Akiva who laughed as his collegues lamented and woed the destroyed Temple. I am totally sure you know the story. So leave it to say… May we rejoice at the darkness that is covering the earth for if the words of our prophets are true in this dark regard then they shall also come to pass in fulfillment of the final promises of our God. There is always a divine tension in life and especially in this time of year. The dichotomies are the topography of mind/spirit. Tsom mo’il v’gmar tov

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posted October 1, 2006 at 7:55 am

Oh! and PS Isn’t the whole idea of this time, after all, to be changed, transformed improved so that we can get to the business of tikkun olam? To start shining the light of hope and Torah into a brighter future? That we find the places in our lives where the shells of our existence are obscuring the sparks of the divine and figure out how to break those klipot and free and unite HaShem with, through and in our lives, families, homes, neighborhoods, lands and world? So let’s………….. JUST DO IT! L’heet y’all,

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posted October 1, 2006 at 8:00 am

jethro, I also wanted to say how much I appreciated your comments, too.

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posted October 2, 2006 at 3:21 am

If one looks into the history of our forefather there has always been some sort of a fast for one reason or another. I think we should fast to give thanks to God for all he has done for us and preserved us..If one reads the Holy Books there are dozens and dozens of reasons to fast for. Who would even though of the existance of Israel but because Gods love for his people. We need to be united as a people. We are suppose have a difference of opinion but in heart mind and soul UNITED. On this Yom Kippur let us all fast for peace and for Israel and the love our God has always shown and all that he has givens us…but somehaw we as mortals always give it away..Shalom to all.

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