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Being Able to Focus on the Good

09/21/2021 05:02:23 PM


Before we leave the high holidays behind us there's one final teaching that I'd like us to return to. On second day Rosh Hashanah I had asked Jodi Harris to deliver the sermon. She spoke about what would become our theme for Yom Kippur:  acknowledging our shortcomings so that we might focus on the good in all of us.

While the English understanding of the soul is that it is one thing, the Jewish understanding is that the soul is made up of three separate parts: Neshemah, Nefesh, and Ruach (Neshemah and Nefesh are both translated as soul because English does not have a way to distinguish these two aspects, just to make it extra confusing).

The innermost part of the soul, the Neshemah, is envisioned as pure and good. Nothing penetrates or can change the purity of the Neshamah.  Envision it as a pure, eternal light, deep inside each of us.  One way to understand the Jewish attitude towards the Neshamah is found in our morning prayers when we recite Elohai Neshemah,  “the soul (Neshamah) you have placed in me is pure”.

The nefesh, the second part of the soul, could be envisioned as the glass encasement in which our Neshemah is placed.  This case is susceptible to our actions (the Ruach, the third aspect of the soul, our spirit). Consider the prayer Yedid NefeshLover of my soul, merciful God, bring​ your servant close to Your will”.  When we say this, we are asking God to guide our actions to keep our susceptible Nefesh clean (read: clean instead of pure when referring to the Nefesh).  Based on our actions, the nefesh either remains clean or becomes dirty. Our negative actions (sins) block the light of the neshamah from shining through the now dirtied nefesh. Conversely, our good actions keep the casing that is the Nefesh clean and allow the light to shine brightly. 

As humans it is impossible to not pick up some “dirt” as we make our way from one Yom Kippur to another.  Therefore, once a year on Yom Kippur we do a deep cleaning of this outer encasing so that we might let the purity of our inner soul (Neshmah) shine through. Yom Kippur becomes our day of cleaning our outer soul so that we might look or be able to express the beauty and pureness that is our inner souls. In doing this, we can express and appreciate the good and pure people we truly are by getting rid of the muck.

Below is Jodi Harris’ sermon from second day Rosh Hashanah to dive a little deeper into these thoughts.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Shabbat and Sukkot.

Shana Tova, my friends!

I have a confession to make. Perfect timing, right? Here it is…I have a problem with the High Holidays. There, I’ve said it. I love the beauty of the liturgy, which harkens to my childhood and continues to inspire awe in different ways each year.  I love the idea that we are celebrating creation and with that we celebrate our Creator and the wonder of our existence. I love seeing our community together each year- knowing that we will hear Amy’s beautiful voice, knowing that I will see faces I have known since joining TBD in 1996 and seeing new faces who I know will become familiar faces in the year ahead. Even during this, the second year of virtual High Holiday services, I feel the intimacy and immediacy of our congregation while at the same time feeling part of the generations who came before us and those who will follow.


So what is it that nudges away at me? Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and continuing through the 10th of Tishre, which is Yom Kippur, is a period of introspection when we are to seek forgiveness from those whom we may have wronged. The other side of that coin is that we may be asked to forgive one who has hurt us. Both are not easy and yet experiencing both brings us profound relief. Just as Jacob approached his brother, Esau, with trepidation after years of anger and hurt, we can feel that burden lift as both the one seeking forgiveness and the forgiver. I think of a famous Jew, Arthur Fonzarelli, “The Fonz” as you may remember him, who, when trying to apologize kept saying, “I was r….r…..r, okay I wasn’t exactly right.” It’s not easy to admit we have done wrong.


We pray on Rosh Hashanah with three strategies in mind: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. Teshuvah, which means returning. That means that our mistakes are not irreparable, rather we can change our behavior first by acknowledging it, then by seeking forgiveness and then by striving to never repeat that behavior. Tefillah is the act of communal prayer where, regardless of where God fits in our lives, we are strengthened by our shared understanding of our very human behaviors and the familiarity of those annual entreaties. Tzedakah, with its roots in the word righteousness, is the making of charitable gifts of money, not as a form of bribery for our misjudgments, but as a way of contributing goodness to the world that we have wronged in the past year.  The fact that we bear responsibility for our transgressions, that we have the power to thoughtfully choose how we can comport ourselves going forward, the fact that it is not some abstract power that forgives us but our fellow humans- all a beautiful way to enter a new year, as if reborn and truly a clean slate.  Okay, so you are probably asking, what is your problem with these holiest of days?


I’ll start with a small story about Pat Brosnahan of blessed memory, our Temple secretary. Many years ago, when I was Temple President, I was especially grumpy one day about all the problems that board members face when managing a small congregation. Pat looked at me and in her gentle but firm way said to me, “Instead of talking about what is wrong with the Temple, why don’t we focus on what is right with the Temple?” From that moment on, whenever I felt overwhelmed or frustrated, I would visualize all of what makes our Temple special, from our beautiful sanctuary, to those familiar faces I mentioned earlier to the pride I have in being part of a thriving Jewish community in the center of Cheshire. The issues were still there, but by focusing on what I love about the Temple, nothing seemed insurmountable.

So! I think that is my problem. We spend so much time, every year- every day- focusing on our shortcomings. Words and actions that we regret. Projects left undone. Frustration that we can’t do more, say more, pay more, act more. We beat ourselves up! So while I think it is critical to apologize to those we’ve wronged, to finish what we’ve started, to work on making our earth healthier and safer for subsequent generations, at times it seems futile, like pouring a cup of water on a forest fire.


I do not like pointing out a problem without considering solutions. So I am trying this in this new year of 5782. After the lamenting, the chest pounding, the apologizing, I am going to look at what I am doing right. Not as an excuse for my errors, not as an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but rather as a way of remembering that my life is meaningful, that I make a difference, or as the pop book of the 70’s was titled: I ain’t much baby but I’m all I’ve got.  I would suggest that given all that we’ve been through, especially in the last 18 months, political unrest, global warming, disunity everywhere and of course this pandemic, that we celebrate ourselves. We made it this far! We did the best we could and each of you deserve to look inwardly and see just the blessing that you are to yourself, your family, your community and to the one life force that unites all of humanity. If each year, as we look inward and atone for our sins, I would suggest that it is possible to concurrently look at all the beautiful things we contribute just by being alive. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”


May the New Year bring you health and happiness and the ability to just be.


Shana Tova.

Thu, October 28 2021 22 Cheshvan 5782