Rabbinic Greetings For 5777 From New Metro Detroit Rabbis
This Rosh Hashanah, which begins the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2, Detroit’s Jewish community is fortunate to have new voices to hear from in six pulpits. We’ve asked each of these spiritual leaders to offer some thoughts for the New Year.
Anne Frank once wrote, “How noble and good everyone could be if we reviewed the good and the bad every day.” Perhaps we would be better off by doing this each and every day. Yet how easy is it to distinguish the good from the bad? Is life simply that black and white? While I agree that spiritual soul-searching is important, I wonder how we can do it wisely.
We may find a clue by examining more closely the very phrase with which we greet each other at this time of year. When we say “L’shanah tovah,” we’re saying “have a good year.” The word shanah, however, doesn’t merely mean “year.” In fact, it is also a contranym (sometimes also known as an antonym), a word that carries opposite meanings. One of shanah’s meanings is “change,” as in the word shinui, Hebrew for “change, modification or revision.” Thus, the phrase L’shanah tovah means “Have a good change,” which hints at the possibilities that open to us by doing something differently — by changing it.
The other meaning of shanah is “repetition,” as in the word Mishnah, the core of the Talmud, whose title means “study by repetition” or “review.” Thus, L’shanah tovah also means “Have a good repetition,” which hints at the blessings available to us by repeating something.
How confusing, that shanah tovah can mean opposite things! It would seem that when wishing each other “Shanah tovah,” what we’re really wishing each other is both a “good change” and a “good repetition.”
So which is it? What bears changing and what merits repeating, as we review our lives this past year? The answers may be found through the systematic ethical/spiritual review that the Days of Awe, starting with Rosh Hashanah, open for us. Literally, Rosh Hashanah means “the start [or] head of the year.” As we now know, however, it also means both “the start of repetition” and “the start of change.”
Only in the depths of our heart might we discover our inner truths — only we can discern what we ought to repeat and what we ought to change.
May we be blessed with the insight, courage and open-heartedness to change what needs changing, to repeat what merits repeating and to truly enjoy a sweet and renewed year. L’shanah tovah u’metukah, may you have a good and sweet new year.
— Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, Congregation Shir Tikvah, Troy
Staying On The Train
Last summer, I served as a hospital chaplain at the Veterans Administration of Jackson, Miss.
I worked closely with seven Christian colleagues, and we would frequently discuss both ideological and practical differences and similarities between us. One day, we were discussing membership, and a pastor of a large church in Atlanta informed me that they would erase members from their rolls after only a few weeks of not attending services! He seemed puzzled by my confusion at this practice, earnestly explaining to me: “Well, the train is leaving; and if you’re not on the train, you’re missing it — and the train is moving on!”
During the High Holiday season, I certainly feel that I am on a very fast-moving train. I experience the pressures of the professional obligations of a rabbi as well as the anxiety of completing my own personal spiritual work as the holidays approach. Amidst all of the prayers we offer during our High Holidays, one particular line jumps out at me in articulating our choice whether to be on the proverbial train.
Midway through Unetaneh Tokef, the solemn prayer affirming the power of the day, comes the line: “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard.” Both clauses are written in the passive voice — removing the human interaction entirely. We have no sense who is sounding the shofar or who — if anyone — is hearing it. We know that someone must be hearing the still, small voice — but no listener is indicated (least of all ourselves). At this seminal, sensory moment of grave reflection, we find ourselves written out of the text completely. Thrown off the train!
Unless, that is, we actively demand reentry and insert ourselves back into the text. As we sit and pray in services, we can choose to let that sound of the shofar, the still, small voice or anything else pass us by. Conversely, we can emphatically choose to stay on the train and search for ourselves in our texts.
This High Holiday season, I pray to stay on the train no matter where the journey takes me. I pray to listen for the drama of the great shofar that tells me to act boldly in the world. I pray to discern the tremor of the still, small voice of the godliness inherent in all of us. And I pray for you to come along as well. L’shanah tovah!
— Rabbi Megan Brudney, Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Township
Meet Him In The Fields
Our tradition teaches that all year we must visit God in God’s palace. We approach the throne of glory with humility and awe, hoping that through the merit of our good deeds we will be granted counsel with the Holy One. But on the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the teaching goes, God comes down from the sacred throne, tosses aside the royal garments and steps into the fields to meet us where we are.
It’s near impossible to comprehend this idea without provoking some anxiety. When we approach the palace, we do so with preparation and even some protection. We make sure to look and sound our best, to mend the tears in our garments and to clean the dirt off our hands. But when God comes to our front door, we are exposed in a powerfully personal way. Our lives are laid out before the One who created all life. Our fears, our insecurities, our faults, our falters — all are there in the open, in plain sight.
But when God comes into our field, He comes with shovel in one hand and a hoe in the other, reminding us of the partnership our ancestors accepted millennia ago and helping us to harvest all of the fruits of our lives. And as we continue our work together, we do so with a song in our hearts and on our lips that goes like this …
“Baruch Atah HaShem Elokeynu, Melech HaOlam, shehecheyanu, v’hiyamanu, v’higiyanu la’zman hazeh.”
“Blessed are You, oh God, King of the universe, who has given us Life, who has sustained us, and who has brought us to here, to now, to this moment.”
During these Days of Awe, may the fields of your lives be bountiful. May the work be meaningful and rewarding, and may you and God sing together through it all. May your year be sweet and filled with blessings, and may you be written, now and always, in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah u’metukah!
— Rabbi Yonaton Dahlen,Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Southfield
Honoring Those Who Shape Us
Throughout the High Holidays, we will say many blessings. Some of the most important blessings we will say when we express our wishes and dreams for ourselves and our loved ones. These blessings are opportunities to figure out where we are in our lives and where we want to be. While this is a serious part of the holidays, it can also be fun that can be shared with the entire family.
As we gather in our homes for our holiday meals, there is a tradition of eating symbolic foods that represent specific blessings for the year to come. Apples and honey may be the food stars of Rosh Hashanah, but for some Jewish families, they are just the beginning. The custom of holding a Rosh Hashanah seder, where a series of symbolic foods are eaten before the meal, can be a lot of fun and offer an opportunity to offer fun blessings for ourselves and our loved ones.
Each of the chosen foods — generally a pomegranate, date, string bean, beet, pumpkin, leek and fish head — symbolize a wish or blessing for prosperity and health in the coming year. The food’s significance is most often based on a Hebrew pun of that food’s name. During the Rosh Hashanah meal, we traditionally hold up each food, make a blessing and eat as if to personally ingest or take in those good wishes.
While my family has a few of the traditional foods, we have taken to expanding this tradition. We spread different shaped gummy candies around our table. We then encourage everyone to raise up a gummy at different points through the meal and make their own blessing for the year to come (for a gummy coke bottle, my children might say to me “may you fizzle and not pop at us when we misbehave”).
May we all take the time over the holiday season to reflect on who we are and where we want to go in the coming year. At the same time, let us think about the blessings we want for ourselves and those we wish to bestow upon others. There will be blessings in synagogue and blessings in our homes. However you celebrate this holiday, I hope that you find it meaningful and filled with blessings for goodness and positive growth for the year to come.
Shanah tovah u’metukah.
Blessings for a good and sweet year.
— Rabbi Shalom Kantor, Congregation B’nai Moshe, West Bloomfield
The Symbol Of The Ram
The fog lingered well into the morning in the remote Inner Hebrides off Scotland.
Seeking solitude, I decided to set out alone that day toward the Old Man of Storr. Gentle rain made the heath-covered ground especially slippery to climb. I scrambled up until I heard a thump. I cautiously pulled myself over a ridge and realized I had inadvertently encroached into the territory of a large ram. I was nose-to-nose with two menacing horns; it charged, and I retreated. My heart pounded with excitement and trepidation. After catching my breath, I scurried to the other side and quietly pulled myself up. This time the ram didn’t notice, and I admired it with prayerful wonder.
Rams have inspired our sages throughout the ages. The Kotzker Rebbe told of a primordial ram, so tall that the tips of its horns reached the heavens. And we know the story of Abraham, who encountered a ram and offered it as a substitute sacrifice for his son, Isaac. We tell this story each Rosh Hashanah to give special significance to the shofar that calls upon us to be better human beings and upon God to grant us atonement for our faults.
The sound of the shofar is magnificent, but what of the animal that produced it? Rams possess a wild spirit that cannot be tamed. They charge without hesitation when threatened. Yet, when allowed to exist undisturbed in their element, they exude serenity — like a lake without a ripple perfectly reflecting the sky. The blast of the shofar, sharp and proud, may be intended to awaken us on Rosh Hashanah, but whenever I hear that sound, a part of me always thinks of the ram — the majestic animal who donned that horn.
The human condition is to forget our physical embodiment in our desire to transcend it. Hearing the crisp, pure blast of the shofar should remind us that we are not our external accomplishments and accolades. Rather, we are limited; we are mortal. We were created, just like every other creature on this planet. We just are. So, too, when we hear the shofar, let us learn to emulate the ram — to see ourselves in the moment. Certainly to charge ahead when trouble demands change, but to remain internally undisturbed so that our calm reflection might touch the heavens.
Thank you for welcoming me and my new colleagues so warmly to Southeast Michigan. May we all have many happy, sweet new years together.
— Rabbi Brent Gutmann, Temple Kol Ami, West Bloomfield
Honoring Those Who Shape Us
Pirkei Avot 6:3 states, “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter or a single law or a single verse or a single word or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect.”
In Pirkei Avot 6:6 we learn, “One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.”
To credit our teachers is a sacred obligation.
It is something to remember as we enter the new year. None of us would be where we are, who we are or know what we know without those who shaped and taught us.
I am proud to be the first rabbi of Downtown Synagogue in 15 years and am grateful that I have this opportunity because of the hard work and commitment of the synagogue’s lay leaders and staff. Among the many things they have taught me is what it means to be “a beacon for the entire Jewish community of Metropolitan Detroit,” and I will remain devoted to that mission.
I am the first woman to serve as a pulpit rabbi in the city of Detroit, and I know I did not get here alone. Amy Bigman became the first female congregational rabbi in Metro Detroit in 1992. Rabbi Dorit Edut taught at and advised the Downtown Synagogue. Alana Alpert has joined me as a rabbi and Detroiter teaching this generation of Jews living in the city. They have taught me what it means to be trailblazers and activists.
I am the first woman to serve as a rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, and I was installed by the woman who made my rabbinate possible. In 1971, TBI hired a female student rabbi. When she was ordained the following year, she became the first female rabbi in North America. Since the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, approximately 1,000 women have become rabbis, including 12 who currently serve in Metro Detroit.
I share these teachers and teachings not as an exhaustive list but as a step toward fulfilling the obligation of acknowledging those who shaped me.
I hope we all will do the same. Our worship services afford us a sacred opportunity to thank God for our blessings. In addition, as we reflect on the year that has past and on our goals for the year yet to come, may we take the time to recognize the people who enable us to be our best selves. And may we, in turn, share their wisdom with the world.
— Rabbi Ariana Silverman, Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Detroit, and Temple Beth Israel, Jackson
Photos by John Hardwick