Rosh Hashanah 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Rosh Hashanah 5776

Many of you know that over the last ten years I have developed a very strong relationship with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Great ideas, important learnings come out of that institution.

Ki Mitziyon Tezei Torah…we say that, from Zion comes a Torah. And the Hartman “Torah” has impacted me and hundreds of rabbis.

And for a number of those years I was greatly influenced by the presence of and continue to be influenced by the writings and words and life of its founder Rabbi David Hartman (zichrono l’vrachah).

You know, we learn from teachers and mentors in different ways…their writings, their words and even their behaviors. And over the years I can think of very important things that Hartman taught. But nothing stands out as powerfully as one moment in the beit midrash, in the study hall, at the Institute.

David was old and frail. And we knew that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. That summer I saw him at the Institute only twice. One time was to hear a lecture from his Talmid Muvchak…his very special student and mentee. A well-known teacher and young philosopher in Jerusalem named Michah Goodman. David came with his aide and a walker and sat in a chosen place in the front.

Michah began to lecture about Maimonides thought. Shortly after Micah began speaking, a scholarly and seemingly esoteric lecture, David boomed out…” Micah what difference does it make?” Micah seemed to ignore him and continued to speak. Now understand this was in a room with 200 rabbis from North America. Then a few moments later Hartman again interrupted his student and protested: “Micah, what difference does it make?” How does this impact the lived out realities of our lives?

The moment could have been devastating to his beloved young disciple…but Micah said…one minute rabbi, I’m getting to it. And then Micah was interrupted a third time. Micah paused and then went to the central point of his lecture. It was a very important idea. An idea that really mattered, both to the text and for the way we live our lives. And David Hartman said: Ok Micah, now I see, that’s beautiful!

It was quite a moment in the teacher/disciple relationship. The teacher challenged the student, the student responded with extraordinary reverence and patience.

And ever since then those words have played in my head whenever I write or teach or preach.

What difference does it make?

What difference does what we do here make? How does it make a difference in the lived reality of our lives?

And the intention is not to say, that it doesn’t make a difference, rather, that it has to make a difference.

You see, I believe it’s simply not worth living a Jewish life that doesn’t make a difference, that doesn’t inspire us, change us, comfort us, and help us evolve, affect us personally and deeply…and improve our world. It is hard to live a Jewish life. And so we have to ask ourselves what difference does this make? What are we struggling to preserve? And how do we do it for the next generation?

Today I’m going to begin by speaking about our condition and concerns for our future, the social implications and responsibilities that come from this idea…And then I will talk about the connection with something very old and familiar; THE prayer we all know and love. And how that foundational prayer makes a difference.

And as I have served in the rabbinate longer and longer and as I look at the Jewish community and the Jewish world I am more convinced than ever that what we say, what we do, what we teach, who we are must make a difference.  I mean, make a difference to each of us, to ourselves, our community, our people, but it can’t be just about us, here or in other Jewish communities. Rather it is also for the world.

There was a time that we believed we would be ok if we stayed alone, separated and isolated; let us stay in the ghetto and leave us alone! Make the borders of our nation strong and stay away!

But that can’t happen in this global world!  We are too interdependent. What happens here, impacts what happens there! We actually have a fundamental calling to be responsible partners in the world! More than that, there’s an essential call; we are to be a light unto the nations!

Over the last few years there have been demographic studies about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people in this country. And the demographics have not reflected well.

A year ago the demographer Steven Cohen did a study which New York Magazine characterized as the “Charedization” of New York Jewry.

His study and the Pew study indicate that liberal movements, Reform and Conservative are diminishing while Orthodox and particularly the ultra-Orthodox are rapidly increasing. Closed communities and large birth rates are partially responsible. Education and deep levels of expected commitment are also major factors.

And the studies also indicate a declining affiliation with the organizations of the Jewish community, especially amongst the young. And a dissociation with the Zionist advocacy groups.

But from where I sit, I don’t believe these studies reveal enough; I don’t believe they are reflective of what is happening amongst Jews, particularly young Jews in the Jewish community and what is happening in the world of Jewish thought and creative expression.

Because I know you, I know our kids and I know this world, and because of what I read, I see that although there may be less affiliation with traditional organizations and synagogues, agencies and institutions, they are giving up on Jewish identity and a Jewish search for meaning and responses to the larger world. And they are not abandoning   Israel, either. The studies show that whereas Jewish affiliation is down, Jewish identification is in fact up.

So something else is happening.

And I will tell you, that in spite of the demographics, powerful shifts are taking place. And I believe in them.

Let me give you one example. We can talk about the dangers of interfaith marriage, but we see something very different taking place; certainly with different implications then a generation ago. Because these couples are coming to the synagogue, for celebration, they are coming here for Kabbalat Shabbat, to name their kids, yes to have a bris for their baby boys and they are sending their kids to our preschool. You see they are living Jewish lives in a changed world. Interfaith marriage does not mean abandoning Judaism or the Jewish people.

And in this world they know they are accepted as Jews. And they know Judaism can be lived in different ways. Because Judaism is not just about the purity of ethnic affiliation. It’s about meaning. It makes a difference.

And there are many other indicators that go beyond affiliation with the organizations as they currently exist.

You see our narratives need to reflect the past, but also our current lives and the life we aspire towards.

And our organizations have failed to speak a language of aspiration. They are not buying the conversation that says we are the weakest, the most oppressed, the people who suffer the most.

You see they are seeing a Jewish people who are strong and influential. They see our beautiful buildings and our homes. They also see a world that needs help. The narrative of the last generation is not their lived reality.

And Israel? They don’t view Israel as being on the precipice destruction. They don’t see every challenge as an existential threat. They see a powerful Israel.

And the lens of the Holocaust and narratives of oppression are not the way they want to define their Jewish lives or their religious lives. They are proud of the meaning and values that Judaism has given the world and they want to perpetuate that! For them, the holocaust imposes an obligation as to how we behave when we have influence and power and how we respond to human suffering; not just our own.

And so they are searching for a Judaism that makes a difference. They reject fundamentalism and religion that is based on myths or superstitions or fear. They want a religious community that helps improve the world, to make lives better, to bring comfort and hope. They want to bring the God of Genesis, the God of all creation into focus and into our reality. And that too is our calling.

For them, Israel is to be an aspirational example of the way a nation ought to be. There’s an expectation that it be a nation of hopes and dreams. They want a nation that is exemplary in its dealings with minorities and economic justice. And so they are often critical of Israel, not because they don’t support or love Israel, but because they want an Israel that aspires to express and live up to the highest values. The expressions of racism, the events of this past summer, the torching of churches, and homes resulting in the death of children and parents, the denial of full participation in the religious life of Conservative and Reform rabbis and Movements and the lack of full religious freedom is unfathomable to the next generation! It’s not the representation of the Jewish nation…

They know our miraculous story, they know its critical importance, they appreciate Israel’s great miracles and contributions, its challenges for security, they love Israel. But love has to be honest. And when they hear what’s said by its leaders and see what’s happening, they aspire for more. It is the nation that absorbed thousands and thousands  of our own immigrants, the start-up nation, the a nation of values, the nation that does incredible work in medicine,  and technology and that sends relief workers to distressed areas.

There needs to be a new central narrative. It’s a narrative that goes beyond survival for the sake of survival. It’s survival for a reason, a purpose, meaning. And that narrative is a values narrative; the values come from our texts and our history and what we learn. It’s a about what a Jew, as a refined dignified and responsible human being can be and should be. It’s based on a people who are clear about their ethics and morality and responsibility…a people that value pluralism and accept different voices and opinions, rooted in a love of life, freedom and justice. There is an aspirational Judaism that we want.

I want to talk to you about a few personal experiences that changed me…an early one and a more recent one.

The early once: When I was thirteen I was in a discussion group at Camp Ramah and I heard a talk from Rabbi Jack Bloom about his experiences in Selma Alabama. And I learned about Heschel and the other brave rabbis who went and marched there. And what I learned is that they were compelled by our tradition and its values, to go out into the world and march for freedom. I was 13. And that vision changed the way I saw Judaism. I no longer felt that it only belonged in the shul. It was not only about our survival, it was about survival for a purpose, for meaning, to make a difference in the world. I now understood the vision of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible in a different way, and the responsibility of a rabbi.

This is why we have developed projects for social justice, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, tutoring kids needing literacy skills, and as part of our teaching we raise environmental consciousness. This is why we do the tzedakah learning and chesed program here. This is why we will answer a call to aid refugees, be they in south Tel Aviv where they are terribly forgotten or anywhere else where there is human need. And what we are finding here, like in so many places, is that lots and lots of young people and their kids are coming close to this religious community because it activates religious behavior. It responds to a narrative of values.

We were never meant to create a people who live in isolation. We need a Judaism that can breathe the air of freedom and through that get stronger, not more narrow in vision or concern…We need to bring a broader vision; people who are compelled to see what can be done in this world to help others.

Isn’t that our complaint when we think of the world when we were distressed and threatened and faced death?

Do you know we have major organizations, right here, that by their very charters don’t help others! You might say…well who was there to help us? And I will give you two answers:

  1. What did we learn from that? That people should only help themselves and ignore others? Or that our experiences are meant to teach and help us on our mission, to improve the human condition.
  2. We didn’t always have the capacity to help others. We now have the capacity to help.

Like us, our young people see an extraordinary amount of human suffering in the world. And they cannot believe that nobody suffers like us! If you were young and comfortable and were to look at the number of fast days and prayers that lament our destruction and loss, you might say, maybe this isn’t what I want to be a part of! But in addition to mourning parts of our past, we have a glorious past to affirm…moments of great exultation and extraordinary success. We know that, as we remember what we need to remember to sanctify those who came before us.

When I go with our kids on the March of the Living I think it is so important that they understand the incredible life the Jews created in Eastern Europe; in Warsaw and Krakow…and celebrate that in addition to mourning our losses.

Suffering is part of the human condition; we’re not the only people who have suffered from genocidal attempts. But we should take that experience and use it to change the future.

There’s a young man from B’nai Torah who absolutely inspires me.  Mickey Vizner is one of the most special young men I know.  He’s the son of Dana and the grandson of Bob Schumer.  And he has spent years in Rwanda working to improve the lives of children who have suffered from their tragedy? Why? There are a few reasons. No doubt, Mickey was motivated and inspired by what happened to our people. He was on the March of the Living and he understood the responsibility it placed on him. And so he went to Rwanda and spent a few years working with the victims of that genocide. And the place? It’s called Agahoza Shalom, based on the incredible work of Chaim Perry’s Youth Village, Yemin Orde and started by a great philanthropist from our own community, the late Anne Heyman.

My family are refugees from Nazi Germany. My grandmother was able to arrange for her generation and their kinderlach to leave. They left behind parents; an older generation. My great grandparents remained in their town and were cared for by neighbors, essentially they were hidden. My great grandmother passed away from pneumonia and my great grandfather shortly thereafter got sick and he went blind. The neighbors could no longer harbor him and so they gave him to the Nazis.

That’s all we knew for many years. After the war we learned, that he was sent on a transport to Auschwitz. He never made it. Someone from that train communicated with the family. He froze to death on a cattle car..

It’s always been in my memory.

I tell you this because two weeks ago we saw pictures of a refrigerated truck in Austria where 71 Syrian refugees froze and suffocated to death. Men, women and children…And I think to myself? Ear of humankind? Where are we? What have we learned? Really, are we the only ones who suffer?

What do we take from our experiences? Do we close down or do we open our eyes and our ears and think about human responsibility? And I know that a Judaism shutdown to human crisis will be rejected.

Our world changes rapidly. Our conditions change also. We must not pretend that we are living in a world that is no longer. Rather we must respond to today’s realities. Look at us, look around…how glorious is this place, how lucky we are….and be grateful.

Furthermore, when we don’t see the problem we don’t respond. When we don’t engage with other people in our larger communities we fear the other. When we stay behind our walls we lose sight.

Being the “other” has been a Jewish reality since the beginning. We are Hebrews. It means from the other side. And that, like our experience as slaves, as strangers, as outsiders, as the oppressed is all repeated over and again in our tradition, not hoping that we will remain slaves and oppressed, but rather to enable the development of empathy leading to humane responsibility.

If we remain imprisoned by our trauma, we will not have the participation of the next generation. But if we present a vitality about life, a responsibility for all life and a confidence that grows from our reality…something else happens. We become more vital and alive! That’s what we are seeing.

That is the values narrative of our people. And this makes a difference.

I understand that there are many who believe we are about to be destroyed. For them, survival is the only concern. And the repetition of the warning that we are all going to be consumed demands a particular response.

But I make a choice. I choose not want to live my life that way. It’s a choice I make. I think we are very strong. I believe we are living in the best period of Jewish history. There’s one nuclear power in the Mideast and that is Israel. We are leaders in business and universities and economics and the judicial and politics and education and literature and medicine. What kind of leaders can we be?

So, I believe in a passionate way, that the best way of being a Jew in this world, is not cutting ourselves off, but engaging in the world.

I’m not saying that doing Tikkun Olam, social action, serving others is the only way to be a Jew. This s not about creating a social service organization. It’s about how we take our learning and the messages of our observance and allow that to become real. You can’t be a Jew with blinders on….

From the very beginning the call to Abraham was a call to create a people devoted to tzedek and mishpat…righteousness and justice. And through that we would be a blessing to the world and the world will be blessed through us.

And so he began this process

Of connecting a people to a God…with a covenant.

And that covenant is lived through you, your life and the community we build.

We have to know it by learning; engage in study.  We’re not Jews by narrow political engagements. We have to read and learn continuously.

It is about Shabbat and our capacity to appreciate time and celebrate time and togetherness with family and friends and community. It’s about experiencing the presence of holiness.

It is about what you eat and our treatment of the environment. It is about meaning.

It is about what we do. That makes a difference!

And now I want shift as I close…I want to shift and teach about how we use tradition to make a difference.

I want to tell you in relation to the prayer. It is the call that we do to each other.

Shema Yisrael Adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad


To hear.

We are so far removed from real listening in this world. We judge too quickly. We like to hear the stuff that fortifies what we already believe and not what challenges us to grow and learn more.

Are we listening?


We know that people have great difficulty listening to each other. And so we see our leaders and aspiring leaders simply talking past each other. And we don’t hear the most important calls coming from our world…the natural world we don’t hear the cries from nature.

What’s the central command of this day?

It’s not to pray, not to eat apples and honey…it’s   Lishmoa et kol shofar…listen to the sound of the shofar. To listen deeply.

We have to listen to heart sounds…listen to our deepest yearnings.

And at home, who is listening to you?

Perhaps more than any other desire, we need to be heard.

The beginning of Jewish learning is rooted in listening to each other.

There is other hearing that we learn on this day….shemuah, that takes place in the Torah reading of this day.

Sarah banishes Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness…to die?
Perhaps…she doesn’t know. And perhaps doesn’t care.

And Ishmael’s mother Hagar realizes he is going to die in the dessert. She placed him down so she doesn’t witness his death. The little boy cries…but God comes, and hears the cry of the boy. And he saves the mother and the child. And he promises them a nation and a land.

We have much to learn from this text.

And we read about the barren Hannah and her desire to have a child. She goes to Shiloh…and God hears her crying.

God hears.

We cannot abdicate this responsibility of listening…of hearing…the hearts of our friends and the pain of the stranger.

Remember Solomon was given any wish in the world and he wished for a lev shemoah…a heart that listens.

You know, as I do, it’s hard for Jews to listen. We all have opinions and ideas and we share them, sometimes at the same time…maybe that’s why our most important prayer reminds us.


Shema Yisrael

Yisrael…that’s you and me.

And that’s the name originally given to Jacob. Jacob wrestles in the night.

And he is given the name Yisrael. The one who struggles with God.

That’s us.

Always struggling.

You know why?

Because we can never be absolutely sure.

Because we struggle to understand more.

We struggle to grow.

We struggle to learn.

It’s human to struggle.

Nobody has more to learn then the one who thinks he knows.

Adonoi Ehloheinu

It is Adonoi who is our lord

Because Adonoi is the lord of creation, all the universe.

All created being

Our uniqueness is in our understanding that we don’t have sole possession of knowledge or God. Rather we are part of a much larger whole with whom we are one.

So what difference does it make?

Adonoi Echad

All being is part of that One God…we are all in this together.

You know what creates life’s greatest anxiety. It started when you were very, very young. It is separation. It is loneliness. It is aloneness. It is death.

When we see that we are actually part of the ONE, something, very large and much bigger. Then we can both approach the world with some humility, and be in this world with some comfort.

Because God is with us.

God is with every one of us and all of us. We are one.

Shema Yisrael Adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad

This makes a difference

The last letter of Shema and the last letter of Echad are always written larger than the other letters.

You know why?

Because they spell witness; ayin dalet



It makes a difference when we live our lives as a witness to God.

It’s then that we expand, and we are inspired to make a difference…


This is why we are here.

We can make this a Shanah Tovah!


The generations can join together….then our young and old, all Jews can join with all who want to affirm these values…

Shema Yisrael Adonoi Ehloheinu Adonoi Echad!