By Larry Gordon
Next week, after Rosh Hashanah and heading into Shabbos Shuvah, we will feature our annual column that previews the subject matter that a sampling of rabbis in our readership communities will be addressing in their Shabbos Shuvah derashos.
I was at an event the other day, and to my left was a rabbi from one of the larger shuls in the area. We were discussing things like tefillin straps and other issues of the day when I asked him for the subject of his upcoming Shabbos Shuvah presentation. I knew that it was still a couple of weeks away at that point, and early research is not one of my strengths; actually, I kind of like deadlines.
But we were both there, so I figured I’d ask. He hesitated for a moment and then said in a very frank tone that he had not yet considered what topic to discuss in that lecture.
I came away from that event with the idea for this column, that is an article that asks people who are going to attend these derashos next week what subjects they would like to hear about and what they feel their community would benefit from hearing about at this very propitious and special time of year.
So I sent around an e‑mail to about a hundred people and received about a dozen rather sincere and thoughtful responses. I offered to shield the identity of the respondents if that was their choice. Most chose anonymity; a few said that I could go right ahead and attribute their comments to them.
The comments run the gamut from the importance of the forthcoming presidential election, to urging the rabbis to continue pressing the theme of the dangers of addiction to the Internet and technology in general, to encouraging people to reach out to their neighbors.
Frankly, I don’t know how a rabbi arrives at a decision on what to talk about on this singular high point on our calendar, the Shabbos between the New Year—Rosh Hashanah—and the solemnity that is Yom Kippur.
By all counts, it has been a great and even monumental year for our Jewish communities. There was the immense Siyum HaShas in August, where over 90,000 people came together to celebrate the completion of the Babylonian Talmud after seven and a half years of unified and communal study.
That seminal event was preceded by the assemblage of some 50,000 to rally and bring attention to the potential harmful aspects of unfettered and unfiltered Internet use for both adults and children. The siyum took place in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, and the latter at Citi Field in Queens. Both events, coming in relative proximity to one another, were unprecedented in scope and magnitude.
Despite way too many superficial and often non-essential differences, Jews—in the Orthodox community, anyway—enjoy a certain consistent level of unity. I’m sure you can conjure up a multiplicity of issues that divide us and you would be on target. I’m arguing here that there is a fundamental level of unity that we may not even be able to adequately describe, and its palpability transcends the particulars of coming together when the community is under assault.
In the suggestions of what the people would like the rabbis to focus on, there was some overlap in the topic department, but some took similar themes in different directions.
Toby Greenwald, a former U.S. resident who lives in Efrat and is an occasional contributor to this newspaper who recently wrote a piece about the heroic IDF officer Emmanuel Moreno, responded to what she would like to hear from her rabbi on Shabbos Shuvah: “I would like to hear the rabbis I know speak about Reb Zusha, about how everyone should concentrate on being the best person and Jew he can be, the best friend, the best husband, wife, parent, daughter, son, sister, brother. The best professional, whatever his profession—teacher, doctor, secretary, handyman. I would like to hear the rabbis speak about how we should spend more time examining our own souls, not the souls of others. That we should pray for a non-violent world.
“I would like to hear the rabbis speak about dan l’kaf z’chut—about giving people the benefit of the doubt, which is about individuals, but also about not being ‘victims,’ i.e., we, as Jews, should know when to fight back against evil. Evil is not a non-Orthodox Jew, a short skirt, an uncovered head (male or female). Evil is gossip. Evil is theft. Evil is deception. Evil is murder or attempted murder. Evil is rockets on S’derot. Evil is not your neighbor whose kids attend a different school than yours. I would like to hear the rabbis speak about getting some perspective. I would like the rabbis to remind us that every day we awake, we should thank Hashem for our lives, our families, our jobs, our countries, and our ability to think and to give to others.”
Phil Rosen, a resident of Lawrence and an individual deeply connected to the American and Israeli political processes, believes that this year’s derashos present a unique opportunity for the rabbis. He says that with the American presidential elections coming up, the rabbis should at least in part use this opportunity to rally people and urge them not to be complacent when it comes to the electoral process. He said, “I’d love to hear the rabbis talk about how Hashem gives us clues as to how to live our lives—sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle. This last week, while many rabbis were playing the noncommittal game with respect to the election that will determine the future of the U.S. and Israel for generations, Hashem gave us the not-so-subtle sign. He sent the haters of Israel in the Democratic Party to show us what they really think of Israel. Never has there been a political sign as clear as the Jerusalem non-inclusion in the platform and then the false vote to reverse it. The pictures of over 100 Arab delegates screaming at the DNC against Israel was Hashem’s clear message: Wake up, Jews in the U.S.! You slept during WWII. Wake up now.”
Another interesting recurring theme was the independence of observant Jews to think and make critical judgment for themselves. No one used the word “cultish,” but some suggested that on all levels of Torah observance, people have to learn to think for themselves. Dr. Moshe Ruzorsky, a resident of Lawrence and a pediatrician in Brooklyn, called it the need to encourage people to be, “critical, independent, analytical thinkers.”
Another respondent, who preferred not to be identified, most likely because his comments touched on a super-sensitive area, wrote: “I would like to hear rabbis talk about something that is coming up more and more often in conversation lately—the negative impact on emunah that too many people experience after being exposed to episode after episode after episode of rabbis and other Jewish leaders ignoring, explaining away, or actively covering up behavior by supposedly frum Jews that is immoral, unethical, or illegal.
“I would also love to hear rabbis address why intelligent and intellectually honest people should believe that G‑d intends for us to practice, and raise our children with, a Judaism that is being drowned out by a rising crescendo of nonsensical chumras and perverse restrictions,” he said. This might be an over-characterization and extreme description of whatever is taking place out there, but I think the style is being used to hammer home a point. And that is that too many of us may be dedicated to the superficialities and representations of a Torah lifestyle with inadequate attention being paid to its true beauty, depth, and meaning,
Other respondents focused on familial issues as opposed to communal or national topics. One of those who elaborated on a subject of interest for rabbanim to address said: “I think we can never hear enough on the topic of ahavas Yisrael—the love of one Jew for another. Nothing is more frustrating than the petty nonsense that sometimes goes on between our brethren. “One thing that many older parents get nachas from or, chas v’sholom, the opposite, is when their adult children get along or don’t get along. Hashem is like a parent to all Jews and wants us to get along and avoid sibling rivalry,” he said.
Along similar lines, another wanted to hear more about how important it is to help people in the community, and while it is great that people invite friends over for Shabbos, “I am thinking more about the people that are ‘harder’ to invite, maybe the person less exciting, less interesting, older singles, widows, etc. I don’t understand when people say to me, ‘Only you would go out of your way like that,’ or, ‘I have no patience to deal with that guy.’”
There are indeed many additional topics and subjects that can and should be addressed. Next week, after Rosh Hashanah, in this space we will feature a preview of some of the rabbinical dissertations that will be featured around the area and around the world come next Shabbos. Until then, please accept our warm and sincere wishes for a good and sweet New Year. L’shanah tovah u’mesukah!
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.