High Holy Day Sermons


I am deeply appreciative of the many people who approached me or emailed me after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to give me feedback about my sermons. Below are central excerpts from the sermons of the four main services of the High Holy Days.

Erev Rosh Hashanah: “It’s Complicated”

You cannot tell the story of Poland without talking about the Jews who lived there. And you certainly cannot tell the story of Ashkenazic Jewry and Judaism without telling the story of Poland. At its height, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. And since the late 17th century, Jews had made up nearly 10 percent of the population. And this was an essential truth that grabbed me during my experience in that country just before Pesach when I represented this congregation on a mission to help the Ukrainian people who had been displaced at the beginning of a Russian aggression that has gone on for over seven months.

And in the centuries of Jewish life in Poland, there were good years, even beautiful ones. But there were also ugly, troublesome and tragic times.

Rosh Hashanah Morning: “Betrayal”

So I want to help you by quickly repackaging our story based on the recent essay by Donniel Hartman. Simply speaking, he describes the Jewish world, both those living in Israel and in the diaspora, as falling into four categories. And it is not hard to remember them. One is either troubled or not troubled by the current situation in Israel. And one is either committed to Israel or not committed. So therefore, there are four types of Jews. Those who are:

Untroubled and uncommitted. Troubled and uncommitted. Untroubled and committed. Troubled and committed.

And so, I invite you to learn more of Israel’s history. To study the Hebrew language. To travel there. To connect with her culture. You know, Israel is starting to become, as kids say, “a thing.” It’s not just Jews who watch “Shtisel” and “Fauda” and “Tehran” and “Blacklist.” These shows are viewed by lots of people.

For almost 75 years, multiple generations of Jews have been loyal caretakers of this cherished nation. Through difficult times internally and externally, they supported Israel by visiting and by purchasing Israel bonds and by putting loose change in the blue box pushkeh and by fiercely defending her. And they gave us the keys many years ago. We must be trusted and worthy caretakers and not let them fall into the wrong hands.

Kol Nidre: “Humility”

Moses, in our tradition, is the most important human being who ever lived. And yet, in the Torah, Moses isn’t described by his greatness or intelligence or charisma. No, it says that, “Moses was a very humble man, more than any other person.”

Moses understood, because he was so close to God, just how small he was. That humility doesn’t discourage us from doing good, it just discourages us from belittling others.

It doesn’t make us weak. Because remember, bullying and cruelty are the qualities of people who have little character. When have you ever seen a person you admire and respect act cruelly to another?

And yet, on the other hand, we always remember the little acts of kindness and love that people showed us even over the course of our entire lives.

Yom Kippur is to return us to our souls. Not so we think less of ourselves, but so we think of ourselves less. We think of others more. We care more. We love more.

We don’t have to announce to the world how great we are. Let the world decide. What we need to do is to elevate our souls. To seek goodness. To try to live those little nameless acts of kindness and of love.

Yom Kippur Morning: “I’m Still Here”

My friends, I know that there are many things in our world that can bring us down and have us questioning if we can ever pull ourselves out. And I know that despair can be debilitating and affect our lives in profound ways.

But I also know that Jews are optimists. And that the future is unwritten. And that Israel’s national anthem proudly includes the words, “Od lo avda tikvateinu” … our hope will not be destroyed.

And do you know why?

Because we have models like Primo Levi who reminded us that redemption and hope can be found when we reach out our hands to others and help them. And we have models like Rabbi Akiva who explained to us how our Jewish community and tradition can ground us when we struggle with uncertainty. And we have models like Rabbi Yoseif who inspire us to be the very change we want to see in this world. And not just wait for the world to change around us.

You know, six hours from now, N’ila and Yom Kippur will be nearing conclusion and the Gates of Prayer will be closing. But just the Gates of Prayer will be closing. According to our tradition, the gates of Emotion and the Gates of Action never close. They remain open so long as “d’ika ana,” “we are here,” to start the journey to wholeness, together.


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