The New York Board of Rabbis held its annual sermon seminar last week to permit rabbis to share ideas for their High Holy Days sermons. Rabbi Marc Schneier of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I., and president of the board, chaired the discussion featuring spiritual leaders from all movements.
Jewish Week: What will be some of the themes of sermons this year?
Rabbi Schneier: There will be rabbis who will speak about the millennium: from a general perspective how this is a psychological watershed. In our liturgy on Rosh HaShanah, we make reference to the fact that today is like a new world being born. As we enter the new millennium, it is a time to look back and to look forward. The 20th century was a peculiar mixture of unprecedented horrors, but also unprecedented achievements. The horrors being the Holocaust and two world wars, the great achievement (from the Jewish point of view) being the birth of the State of Israel. … So there is a peculiar feeling about this, the century of blessings and curses. There is a traditional greeting that many use on their Rosh HaShanah cards that says, "May the old live forever with its curses, but let the new begin with its blessings." There has been a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks. How might rabbis approach that subject?
In terms of security in light of the growing epidemic of acts of anti-Semitism, violence and hatred. We’re terribly shaken over what happened in terms of the shootings and firebombings of community centers and synagogues in Los Angeles, Chicago, Sacramento and right here in our own backyard in Hauppauge, L.I.
Synagogues are bolstering their security to allay the fears of congregants, but in the final analysis, you really can’t stop the crazies anymore than the Israelis can stop the suicide bombers. You have to do your best, take every precaution possible and remain vigilant. … There is a sense of nervousness, but I do believe we can look to our High Holy Days liturgy for some perspective. In the final analysis, we turn to the words of the 27th Psalm, which we recite during this penitential season, that says, "God is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear."
With the signing of the revised Wye River accord, the Middle East peace process is likely to be another topic.
Israel remains sacred and precious in our hearts, especially during the High Holy Days. We pray for genuine peace and security with Israel’s Arab neighbors. … On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, the haftarah is from the Book of Jeremiah, which speaks of Rachel’s sense of anguish and concern for her children, their security and their future as [the Jewish people] are exiled. We, too, feel anxiety as Israel prepares to relinquish territory, but at the same time we are filled with a sense of hope.
Some rabbis might also want to mention the earthquake in Turkey.
The keynote prayer of the High Holy Days liturgy asks the timely question of who shall live and who shall die. It says who by fire, who by stoning, who by earthquake: we actually say who by earthquake.
This tragedy in Turkey can be the basis of a theological discussion about the nature of God and His involvement in this world and in our lives, which is a very appropriate topic for Yom Kippur. Also, the tragedy in Turkey sheds light on the State of Israel and its leadership role in bringing light unto the nations through its rescue efforts there and in other countries.
We are challenged during the High Holy Days not only to improve our lives but also to improve society as a whole by building, shaping, fashioning, mending, repairing this world.