We Have Eyes, Ears, … Legs: Yom Kippur Sermon 5779

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5779 (Sept 2018).

“Why is this day different from all other holidays of the whole year?” For, on all these other occasions, including celebrations of the New Moon, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, we sing psalms of joy and praise, called Hallel.

But we don’t sing the Hallel on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Why not? The Talmud presents this question in dramatic form. The sages imagine the angels of heaven using this omission of ours as a chance to criticize the people of Israel. The Talmud relates:

“The angels inquired of God, ‘Master of the Universe, why does Israel fail to sing the Hallel songs of praise before You during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’

And God replied, ‘When the Ruler sits on the throne of judgment before the books of life and death, could Israel utter such songs?’” (BTRosh Hashanah 32b) Continue reading

The Choosing People: Kol Nidre Sermon 5779

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Kol Nidre 5779 (Sept 2018).

A new rabbi arrives in town and the congregation eagerly awaits his first sermon. They are all ears as he eloquently speaks about the importance of observing Shabbat.

After services the President of the shul approaches the new rabbi and confides to him, “Rabbi, you can’t speak about observing the Sabbath to this community. No one observes the Shabbat here. You’ve got to know your audience! Believe me; I’m trying to help you out.”

The rabbi is suitably grateful. The next Shabbat he gets up and gives an impassioned sermon, citing chapter and verse, on the virtues of keeping kosher.

After services the President goes up to him. “Rabbi, you can’t talk about keeping kosher to us. Keeping kosher is not who we are!”

The rabbi apologizes and promises to do better next time. Continue reading

Compassionate Justice: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

A Camden, New Jersey, police officer talks with a neighborhood child. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A Camden, New Jersey, police officer talks with a neighborhood child. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779 (Sept 2018).

So you’re driving along with your beloved – maybe on the way to a movie or something. All is well. You’re talking about this and that. You approach the quiet intersection and the light turns red. But you give some gas and make the turn.

And then you hear the siren and see the flashing lights drawing up behind you. Your spirit sinks. You pull over. You are in a foul mood now. Maybe your beloved shoots you a look or lets out an expletive. Who are you more upset with? The officer, your beloved, or yourself? Continue reading

Finding Light: Yom Kippur Sermon 5778

YK sermonEditor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5778 (Sept 2017).

So, a rabbi walks into a cave.
With his son.
The son says to his father: “Abba, Father, can I get you anything?”
And the rabbi says: “That’s alright. I’ll just sit in the dark.”

This joke is inspired by a story in the Talmud (BTShabbat 33b-34a). It happened during the Roman rule over Palestine, in the middle of the second century CE.  Continue reading

No Eggs: Kol Nidre Sermon 5778

no eggsEditor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein gave this sermon at the Kol Nidre Service 5778 (Sept 2017).

A rabbi walks into an egg store.
He walks up to the counter and says, “I’ll have a dozen fresh eggs, please.”
The man at the counter doesn’t even look up: “Sorry. No eggs.”
“Whaddaya mean?” asks the rabbi.
The man, still not looking up at the rabbi:
“Hasn’t been a fresh egg laid in these parts for three days now.”
Rabbi: “Is that so? Why, just yesterday, after I gave my sermon, the President came over to me and said, ‘This time, Rabbi, you really laid an egg.”

This funny joke comes from a funny story told in the Talmud: Continue reading

On One Foot: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778

one foot

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5778 (Sept 2017).

Hag Same`ah! Shanah Tovah! – A Good Year to everyone!

 “So a rabbi walks into a synagogue…” You know, there is a certain similarity between a delivering a sermon and doing a stand-up routine. The pressure is on. Who knows how the material will go over? And both the comic and the rabbi strive to establish an instant sense of shared intimacy with the crowd, though they may not know most of the people in the room.

Anyway, here goes. Continue reading

Out of Darkness, A New Day: Kol Nidrei Sermon 5777

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon at the Kol Nidrei service 5777 (October 2016).

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Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – has begun.

Like the world itself, each day begins with darkness. First there was darkness over the face of the Deep. Then God said “Let there be light!” Just so, Shabbat begins on Friday night, and Yom Kippur has begun this evening. First the dark; then, the light. Continue reading

Telling and Listening: Yom Kippur Sermon 5777

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur morning 5777 (October 2016).

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Barukh she-amar v’hayah ha-olam – Blessed be the Eternal, Who spoke and the world came to be.

Our Torah begins by telling us about the creative potential of words. It was through words that God built the world. As I have explained throughout our years together, Yom Kippur is a day that seeks to sensitize us to the power of our words, beginning with the Kol Nidrei declaration of last night, through the multiple times that we fall flat on our faces when God’s awesome Name is pronounced, and throughout this long day of soul-searching prayer.

But, at present, the constructive power of words is being severely put to the test. Our times are hard times, difficult times. We are inundated with upsetting news and cacophonous, conflicting voices. Even in the relative comfort of our own community, we heard this Rosh Ha-Shanah a startling sound, more startling even than the sound of a shofar blast in the midst of our silent prayers. We said on Rosh Ha-Shanah – “mi lo nifqad ka’ha-yom hazeh – no one is spared these days.” Continue reading

Not Only for Myself: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5777

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777.

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Shanah Tovah U-m’tuqah! A Sweet, Good Year to all!

Thousands of years ago, the great sage, Hillel, taught: “Im ayn ani li, mi li; u-kh’sh’ani l`atzmi, mah ani; v’Im lo `akhshav, eimatai? – If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14)

It seems that this ancient wisdom is still challenging for us, even today. The last part of the teaching tells us that the matter is urgent; it’s now or never. But what is that urgent matter? Continue reading

Yom Kippur Sermon, 5776

Here we are, at the last 8 hours or so of this Ten Day voyage, the Ten Days of Teshuvah. I have suggested that we look at these days, commonly called the Ten Days of Repentance, as the Ten Days of Answering. The word “teshuvah” has many meanings, including ‘repentance’ and ‘return.’ It also means ‘answer’ or ‘response’ and ‘the act of answering and responding.’

In these ten days we are called upon to recognize that we must offer better answers to some fundamental questions, questions that we have heard since the beginning of time.

On Rosh Ha-Shanah and last night I set forth a number of those original questions as presented by the Torah’s first accounting of human life. These are, therefore, to be understood as questions that first came up at the dawn of our consciousness as human beings. And the questions can be understood as following one from the former, and as building in complexity and urgency.

Our Torah places us in the Garden of Eden as our starting point. The first question we had to answer, as we stood in the middle of that paradise, was: “Can’t we have it all?” And we tried to take everything we could see, including the fruit from the Tree, and we discovered, to our pain and shame, that we had given the wrong answer.

Continue reading