Rosh Hashana - 5775/2014 -
Rabbi Michael Sommer
What do you seek? Every day we seek something whether it is for the moment, for the day, for the week, for the month, year, or for a lifetime.
As babies we seek something for the moment, food, warmth, fresh diaper, or to be held.
As a toddler we seek things for the day, a toy, a favorite lovey, a hand to help us out of the car or to cross the street, someone to play with.
In grade school we seek things for the year and/or, for a lifetime, to sit next to our best friend in class, to learn how to read, to learn how to tie our shoes, to learn how to ride a bike. And as we continue to grow, as teens, as college students, as graduates, as newlyweds we seek friendship, partnership, knowledge, life skills, reassurance, confidence, good habits.
We all seek something in our lives. Sometimes it is concrete and we can envision the goal daily as we work towards it, moving closer day by day until we arrive at the point where we achieve our goal.
Sometimes it is more ephemeral, a thought, a desire, a dream something always just outside our reach or something we want to envision, but we just can’t quite put our finger on what it is we seek.
Abraham sought something. He sought something more than what he saw all around him. He sought a change beyond anything he could imagine.
Jacob sought more just from growing up. He saw his twin lord over him the fact that he was the first born with all the rights that entailed back then and thought he could do more with the birthright and blessing than Esau ever could.
Tziporah, Moses’ mother, sought more for her child than the fate that befell all other Jewish male babies at that time. She bundled him in a waterproof basket wrapped in all her hopes and dreams for him to survive and live a better life than she could provide.
Moses wanted a future for the Israelites, in the promised land, a land he could gaze upon but not enter. He led them with the best of his abilities through the wilderness and taught them all God had taught him so that they could carry the values of the Torah with them and within them spiritually.
Theodore Hertzel wanted more for the Jews than a continuation of the centuries of persecution of the Jews in foreign lands. He sought a homeland for the Jews of the world, a land for Jews with a Jewish soul. He said “Eem tear-tzu ain zo Agadah - if you will it it is no dream.” He believed this with all his heart. And made it his life’s work to create a Jewish state.
Israel as a dream has existed for thousands of years. The land of Israel, the land of Jacob, known as Israel, and all his ancestors as the children of Israel were marched through the wilderness towards their inheritance of the promised land.
Israel as a modern reality has existed for the last 66 years. In 1948 Jews, modern Israelis fought the war of independence just for the right to exist as a modern Jewish state. In 1967 six day war Israel started a preemptive war against all of its Arab enemies and “Within six days, Israel had won a decisive land war. Israeli forces had taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.” (
In 1973 a surprise attack by all Israel’s Arab enemies on our most holy day, Yom Kippur, nearly ended the Jewish state. The Yom Kippur War was the most perilous battle for the right for Israel to exist. We overcame great odds and near defeat to move within a few miles of Damascus and pushing all of our enemies back until a ceasefire finally held and led to the Camp David accords and long held peace between Egypt and Jordan.
The Jewish state has had to fight for the right to exist since its birth. Jews have fought for their right to exist for centuries. Its fight continued all this summer and for what reason was its existence threatened? Because Israel’s enemies refuse to see that the world has passed them by, that war never solves anything, that there is no room for baseless hatred in this modern age.
And yet Anti-semitism and anti-Israel sentiment is at the highest point since World War II. Anti-semtic/Anti-Israel attacks have escalated to a level not seen in over 70 years throughout the world, especially in Europe. The Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar was just desecrated with Swastikas by two teenagers who claimed they were drunk and are only being charged with “hooliganism” in Kiev. Four Jews were killed in May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish owned pharmacy was destroyed in a Paris suburb in July.
Douglas Murray wrote for the Spectator how thousands of anti-Semites brought central London to an almost total standstill on July 19th. The protesters marched through the centre of the city before congregating to scream outside the Israeli Embassy in Kensington. He commented how these mostly Arab protesters were the same people “who stayed at home throughout the Syrian civil war, stayed at home when ISIS rampaged across Iraq, stayed at home when Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab carried out their atrocities across central Africa and showed no concern whatsoever when the Muslim Brotherhood was running Egypt into the ground. Yet they pretend to care about Muslims.
And that day they “all came out to scream because Israel was carrying out the most specific and targeted campaign in the history of warfare in order to stop Hamas – a group dedicated to the annihilation of all Jews – from firing thousands of rockets into the Jewish homeland.” (
Protests over Israel’s defense of its land and citizens were seen throughout the world including here in the United States. Magazines and newspapers we all read and trust to provide unbiased reporting took up the Palestinian cause as if Israel had decided to attack Hamas for no understandable reason. Jews of the world united in support of Israel while anti-semitism and anti-Israel sentiment rose nearly unchecked throughout the world.
I believe Israel is the canary in the coal mine. I believe Israel is one of the few countries that fully understands the scope and threat of Hamas and militant Islamic fundamentalism throughout the world.
I hated watching Israel provoked into another conflict not of their choosing, but I shudder to think of the massacre that would have occurred this High Holy Days if Hamas’ tunnels had been used for their intended purposes.
And yet in so many media outlets Israel was made out to be the bad guy. In the streets of America, Europe and of course throughout the Arabic world, Israel was decried as the villain of this conflict, the big mean aggressor who was causing too many casualties in a war it didn’t start or ask for.
Israel is a warning to the world. If no one does anything, the tunnels will be under everyone’s homes soon enough.
Now don’t get me wrong. Israel is by no means perfect. It has its own internal issues. The settlements continue to be an issue, the blockade against Gaza in hopes of ending the violence against Israel is causing many humanitarian crises. But Israel has a simple request in order for many of these issues to be resolved. Hamas must accept Israel’s right to exist and cease all violence against Israelis and the state of Israel.
This isn’t what militant Palestinians or Militant Muslims want. They don’t want peace. They don’t want Israel to have the right to exist. They don’t want there to be Jews living in a peaceful world, living meaningful lives. They want a world created in their image. They want a return to the biblical age where they have all the power and their religion has been crowned the only legitimate religion. With our modern sensibilities we can deny this truth in our comfortable lives as much as we want, but Israel fights for the very existence of the modern tolerant democratic state on the front lines of a Holy War.
As modern reform Jews we need to remember Israel’s place in our lives. We need to remember how important Israel is to the world as much as we need to remember how important Israel is to us as individuals.
We also need to stand up as witnesses and shout down the old anti-semitism that has come out of the shadows because it believes it is acceptable once again to rail against the Jews and the Jewish state. Today is just proof that the old hatred never went away, it just hid itself in closets and in quiet whisperings until just such a time when it felt safe to rear its ugly head once again.
Israel needs us now more than ever whether we visit the country, purchase Israeli products, support Israeli causes and fundraisers. I will be flying to Israel in December with my family as part of the Am Shalom family trip. I encourage any of you who can to sign up and join us on this amazing trip as my son, David, is called to the Torah a second time as a Bar Mitzvah. My wife, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, will help lead this most incredible trip which should prove memorable for all.
People ask if I am concerned whenever I travel to Israel, but really I am never concerned for my safety when I am in Israel because I am surrounded by Israeli Jews who would lay their own lives down to protect all Jews in their country.
Israel needs us. We need Israel. The world needs Israel even if it chooses to sleep while political correctness allows new voices to arise in the streets yelling ancient hatreds of “Gas the Jews” and “Death to all Jews.”
We seek many things in our lives. We seek an end for all times to baseless hatred and slogans filled with death.We seek a world where individuals tolerate each other and believe in each person’s right to a decent life. But, most of all we seek peace. Peace at home, peace in our families, peace at work, peace in our nation, peace in our world.
Jews have sought peace, tolerance and acceptance since the beginning of our existence. We seek peace for the entire world and try our best to be tolerant of all religions and religious differences.
May we seek a peace that fills our land until it overflows into all lands. May we seek a peace that fills our homes until it fills all homes with the warmth of acceptance, love and tolerance. May we seek a peace that fills our hearts until we have so much, we give it to all the nations as a gift for all times to be shared by every person on the planet. Peace begins the moment everyone loves each other unconditionally. May we alway seek World Peace and see it in our lifetimes and may it start within us. Cain yehi ratzon - May this be God’s will.
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014
Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, writes that “Community is about the experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong...to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase.”
Tonight I am home and hope many if not all of you feel at home. Sure, it is a new home, one different from the one we were used to, but we are in this home together, one large family, made up of both new and old family members. Leaving an old home is sad as we remember all the wonderful things we’ve left behind. But new homes are always filled with new and interesting experiences that remind us constantly that change can be good, even necessary at times in our life. Thank you for being my home and my family and for helping create Har Shalom.
Tonight is all about you. All of this is about you. None of us would be here right now if it weren’t for you, for each and every one of you. Together many of you wove a great history of community, family and friendship. Combined you have over five decades worth of experiences, memories, friendships, family simchas and community together. In addition we have many new families that have joined us from knowing me from our local community, school life and lifecycle events over the last ten years and have kept me as a friend and a rabbi to their families. Without them we cannot grow stronger, meet new people or expand our world to include them just as they join us to expand their world.
Together we sit here on this momentous Rosh Hashanah, brought together by our search for a warm, engaging and meaningful community that speaks to who we are and the values we hold dear. It is day one, year one, but the secret of experiencing decades together is living meaningfully one moment at a time. Appreciating the now, this very moment, the small things we do that make us important in each other’s lives is what living is all about. Truly living these moments allows you to look back after decades and pause to breathe deeply in wonder at the memories we’ve created together.
Avram and Sarai, as they were called early on, didn’t know what they were getting into when they left behind all that they knew. Avram knew idolatry was not the way and chose to hear God’s voice and follow it, leave all he knew in order to live a life of greater common sense with a belief in one creator of all things. They had to take that leap of faith and know deep inside that whatever lay ahead was healthier than what they left behind. Avram had to evolve into Abraham, our ancestor. We read about him in the Torah each year on Rosh Hashanah morning and try to learn from his words and actions.
Abraham teaches us that none of us can do this by ourselves. Community takes not only personal choice to congregate, but intention to become a community. I am here because you called me and asked if I could be here and help you keep a community together. Heather is here because we asked her to be part of this rebirth. She believes in what we can become. We are here because of you, because so many of you have become so important to our lives. We are here because of your warmth, your sincerity, your devotion to your community, your devotion to your faith, your commitment to providing the best for your families. I am here because you all inspire me to be my best.
In 586 BCE the First Temple of Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Babylonians and a majority of the Jews were marched back to Babylonia. In 70 CE the second Temple, the Great Temple of Jerusalem, was destroyed by the army of the Roman Empire after a Jewish revolt. Rabbi Yochanon Ben Zackai escaped the besieged city and pleaded with Vespasian the Roman Commander to preserve his school of sages in Yavneh. Referring to a passage in the Book of Hosea, "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice", (Hosea 6:6) he helped persuade the council to replace animal sacrifice with prayer, a practice that continues in today's worship services. His actions create Rabbinic Judaism as we know it for the next 19 centuries.
Throughout history Temples and synagogues have been destroyed by forces greater than them. It happens. It has been happening for over 2000 years.
But a community is more than the walls that contain it. A congregation is more than the buildings we inhabit. We are an accumulation of memories, friendships, common interests, common heritage, similar beliefs and shared values.
I called many of you and asked if you would be interested in starting something new with the core values and specialness of what B’nai Torah once was in a new location and with a new name. This is new, but our core values haven’t changed. Many of us know each other for years, but new faces, and new families join us because they too believe in our shared values. So many familiar faces can be seen to the left and right of each of us. So many new faces have joined us to help create the meaningful community we all seek. I live to get to know all of you as much as you have time to let me in. I hope you make the time to get to know me and each other. I look forward to watching you maintaining your old friendships while making at least a few new relationships. Whenever you see an unfamiliar face introduce yourselves and begin to get to know each other.
Many of you have returned from long absences from this community, having missed the warm welcome we always used to feel this time of year. Many of you join us in search of the warm welcome and meaningful community you always believed existed, but couldn’t always find. We hope you always find a home with us wherever we gather to pray, learn, celebrate, comfort each other and observe together.
I became a rabbi because I always knew Congregational life could be better. I grew up in a warm Jewish environment where I couldn’t tell you a single rabbis’ name who taught me growing up. I could only recall the one rabbi my parents always spoke about, though I was too young to remember him personally.
Many of us grew up during a time when religious school and Hebrew school were in the harshest terms “not too good.” I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve been told by parents who grew up in Highland Park about walking in the front door of B’nai Torah and out the back door to spend Hebrew school down at the Lake. In those days, as students and young adults, congregational life pushed us away rather than pulling us in. I stand here before you a product of youth group, my Israel trip in 1985, dinners at Hillel during college and strong rabbinic mentors from the time my father died in 1992 through today. I’m here to help pull us back in.
You are all here products of your own upbringing still seeking the warm community you remember in addition to meaningful Jewish experiences that enrich your life, the lives of your children and the lives of your grandchildren. You are both skeptics and optimists in your hope for what Har Shalom might become. But here we all sit together, hopeful to continue to create a vibrant Jewish experience for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.
Peter Block, in his chapter “The Restorative Community” writes how “Restoration is created by the kinds of conversations we initiate with each other. Restoration comes form the choice to value possibility and relatedness...The core question that underlies each conversation is “What can we create together?” In this newness we have shifted the conversation completely “from problems to possibility, from fear and fault to gifts, generosity, and abundance, from law and oversight to social fabric and chosen accountability, from corporation and systems to associational life.”
We all want more from our lives, from our families, from our community, from our congregational life. As a community filled with both Jews and non-Jewish partners we all want to feel welcomed for who we are and be engaged and provided with opportunities for life enrichment on our congregational journey together.
We are all here together for a reason. We are connected to each other by years, months or weeks spent getting to know and appreciate each other. We are connected to our Judaism and Jewish partners strongly enough to want to be affiliated with a congregation that adds meaning to our lives. Har Shalom, in the last 8 weeks weeks, has grown from just a seedling of an idea to a flourishing sapling that counts over 100 families as members and over 500 people celebrating the High Holy Days together this year. We sit together in a full auditorium because of our communal desire to pray together and celebrate the High Holy Days side by side.
In this year, 5775 of the Jewish calendar, may you make a new friend who changes your life and be part of the change in their life. May you tell your friends who have been there through thick and thin how much they mean to you. May you ponder a new idea that changes your perspective. May you bring more peace into the world. May you bring more Justice into the world. May you hold your family ever closer, loving them as the blessings they are and allow love to flow through all aspects of your life.
Cain yehi ratzon - may this be God’s will