Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

Our banner is based on BEKI’s stained glass, designed in 2008 by Cynthia Beth Rubin. For information on this and other of Cynthia’s work, go to: <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Artisan Fabrication by JC Glass of Branford, CT

Maalin BeQodesh: Ascension to Holiness

Rosh HaShana Message 5766 – 2005

Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the Gulf Coast and killed, apparently, close to 1,200 people. It also wiped out our memory of last December’s Tsunami, which killed at least 250,000 people and devastated millions. It blew away our worry about the war in Iraq, where Americans are dying at the rate of about 1,000 per year (not to be concerned about Iraqis), and of course Afghanistan, where Americans are dying at the rate of 100 per year (again without any regard for Afghanis). The continuing mass murder of Black Africans in Sudan’s Darfur region is now forgotten as a humanitarian crisis, save the occasional op-ed or paid ad in the New York Times. That news story is reported frequently in detail in its gory details in the NYT, just like the Holocaust was. (See journalist Laurel Leff’s Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper. Laurel Leff spoke at BEKI during the past year.)

It is as if a spiraling Had Gadya of disasters wrenches our attention from one catastrophe to the next. We may feel helpless, inadequate, scared. Although the mass media’s overwhelming focus on trivial celebrity trials — Michael Jackson or Martha Stewart — diverts public attention from the significant events of our day, we cannot escape the feeling sometimes that things are spiraling out of control, that things are falling apart, that our country, and the world, is getting worse.

You read the newspapers, so you don’t need me to tell you how messed up the world is. But maybe a little wisdom from our sages will help us keep things in perspective. I will come to that momentarily. But let us reflect on where we have been in the past few years.

It was not long ago that many Americans were feeling scared, were feeling pessimistic, in a way that shook us to the core, for the first time in many years, following the terror attacks on New York and Washington.

As President George W. Bush said,

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.
The 50 Dumbest Things Bush Said in his First Term (Washington, DC, 5 August 2004)

Here is what I said in September 2001:

When a hurricane hits India, or an earthquake strikes Mexico, thousands may die; that same hurricane or earthquake in America may claim only a handful of victims. That is because in America we have built safer buildings, created warning systems and developed emergency support systems. We need a war on Terrorism, but we also need a war on AIDS, poverty and cancer. (“Our Hope Continues.”)

Well, that statement did not stand the test of time very well. President Bush said recently on Good Morning America, “I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the breach of the levees.” I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the evisceration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the cutting of $400 million from the Army Corps’s plans to control the Louisiana coastal waters, or the filling of key posts with incompetent unqualified cronies.

As Connecticut’s U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, said to ex-FEMA director Michael Brown, “You were let go because you didn’t do a good job, and you were clueless” (New Haven Register 28 September 2005 p. 1).

I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the breach of the social contract, of the most classically conservative idea that government’s primary function is to provide for the common defense. So my words about the advanced state of American civilization turned out to be inaccurate as a description. Instead, I submit it as a prescription. It just takes a little democratic political will.

I know that several members of the extended BEKI family were in New Orleans during the time of the Hurricane, and that most of us have heard many accounts of tragedy, kindness and heroism.

Here is an account of the tragedy that wasn’t. My sister Laurie Tilsen lives a few blocks from NASA, in Seabrook, Texas, across the street from Galveston, that was supposed to be the target of Hurricane Rita. Referring to her two daughters who live in the same area, she wrote,

It was a huge ordeal, fortunately for nothing. Rosie gave up on the evacuation. After five hours on the road to go 30 miles she turned around and went back home. Chloe had the worst of it: 23 hours on the road to get to San Antonio, [200 miles away].

We were fortunate that the storm diminished and veered away. We learned that they can’t evacuate the Texas coast, we can’t evacuate a major American City, at least without more than a week’s notice. And as my sister learned, “evacuate early and often.”

The challenge question: Right now, emergency preparedness is at the top of our agenda. But will we actually do anything about it before we forget?

Here is a multiple choice question.

Which of the following did President Bush say about Osama bin Laden?

A. “The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him.”

B. “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”

C. “I couldn’t imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanuka.”

D. All of the Above.

The correct answer is… “D. All of the above.” (A. Washington DC 13 September 2001. B. Washington DC 13 March 2002. C. White House menora lighting ceremony, Washington DC 10 December 2001.)

Or, as it is written in the Talmud (B. Sanh. 46b), אמר רב אחא בר יעקב׃ אימסר עלמא בידא דטפשאי which, roughly translated, means “In America, anyone can grow up to be President” — except Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Sometimes we have to reevaluate our direction and adjust course. And sometimes we have to maintain our resolve on a specific goal. We know we have to do something important — and a moment of crisis reminds us; but when the moment of crisis passes, will we change? That is the question that is before us during these Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.

Are things getting better, or worse? It depends on which facts you look at. There are lots of great advancements that are happening, especially in science and medicine, and in public health in some populations. And there are lots of problems, besides those I mentioned, including a huge federal deficit, trade deficit, growing wealth disparity, greater energy dependence, global warming, Iranian Nuclear Arms, the evisceration of the Bill of Right, the reemergence of virulent European anti-Semitism — I’m not being negative. I’m not trying to be the prophet of gloom and dooms.

The question for today, the question for Rosh HaShana, is, What direction are you going? Which way is your trend line heading? Now is the time to lay in our course for the next year, and beyond. Do you know where you are going to?

The first question in the Torah is, Ayeka, Where are you? The Almighty asks the proto-typical human, Adam, the essential question that applies to all of us.

Ben Azzai said (Avot 4:2):

Run to perform a minor mitzva just as a major one,
and flee from an aveira (sin);
for one mitzva brings another,
and one aveira (sin) brings another;
For the reward of a mitzva is a mitzva,
And the penalty for an aveira is an aveira.

בן עזאי אומר׃
הוי רץ למצוה קלה כבחמורה ובורח מן העברה
שמצוה גוררת מצוה ועברה גוררת עברה
ששכר מצוה מצוה ושכר עברה עברעה

Mitzvot, and sins, are like Lays Potato Chips®: Nobody can eat just one. Once you sin, you discover it is easy to get away with it, you discover the profit, the thrill, you overcome your inhibition, and you may be forced to commit other sins to cover it up so you don’t get caught and punished. When you sin, you encourage others to do so as well.

And for the mitzva, the positive action, the compliance with the religious imperatives of Jewish life: “One good turns deserves another.”

The classical Mishna commentator Rabbi Ovadia mi-Bartenura said, That’s the way people are. When a person does a mitzva, it becomes easier to do the next one. You see how easy it really is; you feel the satisfaction; and you now have a reputation to protect. You get in the habit. And others see you and are inspired to follow your positive example. Your every mitzva creates a wave, a little momentum.

Where are you at as a Jew? In what direction are you going?

A typical pattern for American Jewish families was described by my second cousin Alan Weisman from Minneapolis, in his book An Echo in My Blood: The Search for My Family’s Hidden Past
(pp. 202-204), in his description of the death of our great-grandfather, Jacob Meshbesher, some fifty-four years ago, from which I quote at length:

In 1951, just before my fourth birthday, my great-grandfather Jacob Meshbesher announced that he had lived long enough. He went to bed and refused to eat. My great-grandmother called his doctor, who examined him and declared that Zaydeh had lived a long productive life, and that everyone should leave him alone and let him die. Nobody would, of course, and after nearly a week I was enlisted into the plot to try to get him to eat. I walked the block from our house to see Zaydeh. The streets were so frozen that my sister and her friends could skate the five blocks to school.

I should point out that the average temperate in Minneapolis in February is 13°F, and it happened that during that week in 1951 there was a tremendous ice storm from Texas to Pennsylvania, so Alan’s memory is corroborated by the meteorological record.

Inside Zaydeh and Baubeh’s house I ascended the staircase…. My great-grandfather was in bed, wearing a collarless white shirt and his shtreimel … and listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio. His beard was a snowy V that pointed at his sunken breastbone. “Zadie, you’re supposed to eat something,” I said. “Children are starving in Europe.”

Hob im in bod. [Yiddish for ‘Go fly a kite’ — JJT] You want to give me something, bring me my bottle of whiskey.” It was on the table by the closet. I brought it over to him. He sat up on the edge of his sickbed, hawked into his brass spittoon, poured three fingers of umber scotch into a water glass, drank them off in two gulps, and handed me back the bottle. “There. Tell them I ate.”

Two days later he died. After that, the smell of frying bacon began wafting through our own home. Henceforth, red felt Christmas stockings with my sister’s name and mine spelled in silver glitter hung alongside our Chanukah decorations. We left the Mikro Kodesh and joined the Beth El, and I was saved from Torah Academy.

My father rarely attended the new synagogue. My grandfather Avraham’s leather phylacteries, which his mother had carried from Russia so his eldest son could daven on his bar mitzvah with a remnant of his birthright, remained in their velvet pouch in a cabinet, no longer worn…. The Sabbath became another day at the office, … It was a world in which Jews now worked on Saturdays….

But that was over fifty years ago. A lot has changed. Many of us have gone back to retrieve the baby who was thrown out with the bathwater. In that family, the descendants of Jacob & Bessie Meshbesher, it is true that many have been lost to the Jewish People, many have been lost; at the same time, two of their great-grandsons are rabbis (I’m one of them; the other is my cousin Baruch Meir Clein in Minneapolis). That has always been true of the Jewish People, from the time of Abraham and Sarah to this day.

Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary said recently (Contact Summer 2005 p. 6),

I’m not terribly impressed with the arguments of those who promote that the “Just Jewish” are outpacing other groups. For the most part, the “Just Jewish” are unaffiliated Jews on the way out. We’ve been speaking for decades now of the bi-polar tendencies of the Jewish population, which is either gravitating to greater engagement or to virtually none, i.e. “The more, the more; the less, the less.” To say that the “Just Jewish” label is growing in popularity means that we have fewer Jews committed to serious engagement.

So, which way are you going? It is not a complicated question. Is your life more, or less, Jewishly defined now than in the past? Are your children or grandchildren receiving a better or worse Jewish education than you did? Are you reading more, attending more classes, learning more now than you were in the past? Are you more, or less, engaged in Jewish community, involved in the synagogue? You can measure it a lot of ways, but the essential question I am asking is simple and clear.

The center of Jewish life is the home. But the center of Jewish community is the synagogue.

This Congregation faced a turning point a decade ago. Leaders saw that the building was deteriorating, membership and income declining, activity was diminishing. To make a long story short, leaders with vision decided what direction they wanted to go. Through the efforts and generosity of many people, this synagogue has experienced a renaissance. Our building is in better condition than it has been in many years; our religious school has a more professional faculty, under the leadership of Dr. Lauren Kempton. Our Shabbat mornings include seven simultaneous services for people of all ages. And this year, we have the fullest year of synagogue activities — classes, dinners, brunches — in memory. We have more Tiqun Olam Social Action projects and a more active Hesed Committee than in the past.

In my work, I am trying to focus on a central mission, a shared mission for this synagogue: To created a caring community that brings people closer to Torah, that trains children and adults to be part of that mission, that helps each person find meaning through productive labor and nurture through community, that promotes the development of Jewish civilization and global civilization through the mitzva system, through the Torah. Part of my response to all that goes on in the world is to try to make my family a stronger Jewish family and my synagogue a more effective, nurturing and vibrant community. That is part of the immediate and long-term answer to the crisis de jour.

No one person among us can address all of the problems of the world, and no one person can make the synagogue work as well as it does — and I am the first to recognize that there are a lot of things we should do better, that I should do better. But the amazing thing about our community is that the actions of each individual, the contribution of each individual, affects the collective, and the collective of our synagogues and communities affects the larger society.

As Ben Azzai said:

Run to perform a minor mitzva just as a major one,
and flee from an aveira (sin);
for one mitzva brings another,
and one aveira (sin) brings another;
For the reward of a mitzva is a mitzva,
And the penalty for an aveira is an aveira. (Avot 4:2)
שמצוה גוררת מצוה ועברה גוררת עברה

Today, on this Rosh HaShana, we can determine the course of our future.  “בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון On Rosh HaShana it is written (in pencil), and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

There is a religious principle applied in many areas of Jewish life. It is called מעלין בקודש ma`alin ba-qodesh (Ber. 28b) — ascension in holiness. It means that we are to move in one direction in our lives: In the direction of greater holiness.

This year, on Rosh HaShana, let us dedicate ourselves to renewed efforts in performing mitzvot, at home, at the synagogue, at school, at work, in our volunteer activities. The mitzvot of Jewish ritual life, of helping others, of fulfilling our social responsibility and civic duties such as paying taxes and voting; you know what is to be done. If you have any doubt, we promise to give you constant reminders and opportunities throughout the year.

Like in the realm of physical fitness — exercise and diet — the hard part is not the knowledge, it is the doing. The hard part of being a good Jew in this next year is not the knowledge, the hard part is the resolution to make mitzvot your priority, your organizing principle, and getting yourself to do it. Ultimately, the rest of the world is depending on you.

After the terrorists struck, we knew we had to do something. After the hurricane, we knew we needed to act. Today, you know you need to change the direction of your life.

It has been pointed out that people who are supposedly religious, people who go to shul, are not necessarily “better” or more “righteous” than anyone else. Could be. I can only tell you that saying the daily prayers, especially in the community of public worship, public study of our sacred texts, and doing the great variety of helping mitzvot that are done each day from the synagogue — I can tell you that doing these things help me be better than I would be otherwise. Like AA and Weight Watchers™, the most effective “self-help” programs are those that call upon a community of like-minded people for mutual support and encouragement. You don’t have to go it alone; you have a community, including a team of teachers and rabbis, willing to try to help. In which direction will you go this year?

© Jon-Jay Tilsen 2005

Upcoming Events