New Beginnings

Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5765, September 15, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Abraham Hazzan, in his prayer for Rosh Hashanah, beseeched God with these words: “May the [old] year and its ills now end together. . . . May the [new] year and its blessings begin now together.”

The history of the Jewish people teaches us that this prayer is not always answered. New years, and changed circumstances, have not often brought the end of old problems. As our people was born, we were freed from Egyptian bondage, but we persisted in disobedience to God and were met with new enemies, harassing us in the desert. In the last century, we returned to the Land of Israel, to build a new society on ancient soil, only to be faced with new threats to our people’s security, from inside and out.

On a more personal level, Rosh Hashanah is no magic cure to the troubles of the past. From illness to familial discord, our problems stalk us from one year to the next. If we were unhappy at work yesterday, we are not likely to be fulfilled on Friday. Each year, we pray to end our sinful behaviors, but even with sincere effort, and real change, vestiges of our past sins continue to plague us.

Abraham Hazzan’s prayer would seem to go unanswered. The old year and its ills will not likely end, even if the new year does bring blessing.

So why do we come back, each year, to welcome the new year in our sacred Temple? Why utter prayers that we know will not be fully answered? Why repent, when we are aware that change will come slowly?

Rabbi Malka Drucker asks us to “consider this: . . . [F]or nearly 4000 years, in good times and mostly bad times, despite Crusades and pogroms, . . . there is still a Jewish people who will gather throughout the world [tonight and again next week,] carrying the hope and promise that each of us has the power to repair ourselves and redeem the world[.]”

So perhaps we do have reason for faith. Notwithstanding persistent problems, ongoing ills, and continuing discord, in our personal and collective lives, we are still here. No, the High Holy Days do not offer us some magical “reset” button. Even repentance and forgiveness do not permit us to forget. And yet, Rosh Hashanah, this entire holy day, is a prayer for a new beginning, and it is a prayer we fervently believe. Our tradition invites us to begin to seek reconciliation, where conflict has reigned. Our faith encourages us to pursue righteousness, in place of sin. Our God guides us to believe that tomorrow can be better than today, that this year can be better than the last, even if our prayers are answered less than fully, even if some of last year’s ills will persist into the year ahead.

During the last year, our sacred congregation has faced hard times. Financial pressure has placed a strain upon us all. Needless to say, the Special Meeting of the Congregation on August 19, with everything surrounding it, has been trying for members of the Temple and its staff. We would be unrealistic to imagine that the new beginnings promised by Abraham Hazzan’s Rosh Hashanah prayer will heal all wounds. And yet, we can, and we must, endeavor to bring peace and harmony – refuat hanefesh, healing to the soul – of Temple Beth-El.

We all lament the turmoil that has temporarily invaded our Temple life, and I am confident that we are all capable of bringing shalom to the congregation we all love.

My own sins played no small role in bringing about the disruption to our peace and harmony. I shall not list them now, as I have in the past. Indeed, this year, on Kol Nidre night, you will hear no individual, specific confession from me, as you have in the last two years, not because I was free from sin in 5764, but because other means of repentance are more effective at this time. I continue to be eager to meet with those who have concerns, as I have been doing since August 19. Those meetings have been most effective, in my view, and I hope that others feel the same. I am committed to changing my ways.

I have often asked myself, and have been asked by others: “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” Tonight, let us all choose to seek harmony, with honesty, and let us also be realistic.

British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contemplates the peace we must pursue. Sometimes, Sacks says, we seek a perfect peace. At other times, the harmony we can expect is less than final or complete. Sacks writes: “The biblical prophets were the first to conceive of peace as a messianic ideal. The sages were the first to construct a practical programme of peace – darkhei shalom, the road to peace – within a non-ideal society.” We would make a major mistake, here at Temple Beth-El, were we to insist that our congregation – its Rabbis, its lay leaders, or its sharpest critics from within – instantly reach complete harmony. Achieving peace will require time, patience and forbearance.

Let us take our cues from the Rabbis of the Talmud. They often disagreed, sometimes vociferously. Nevertheless, when their decisions were put into writing, they included not only the ruling of the majority, but also the opinion of the minority. The Rabbis so respected one another that they did not insult those who took opposite positions. They did not humiliate one another publicly. Instead, we are privileged to read and study the names and the thoughts of Rabbis on both sides.

Let us follow the example of some of the folks who signed the petition, calling for the special meeting. They called me, prior to August 19, or later, honestly explaining their reason for signing, but also expressing concern for the pain that the situation brought to my family and to me.

Let us take the lead of some of the most passionate opponents of the special meeting, who have nevertheless gone out of their way to embrace, personally, people with whom they vociferously disagree.

We will not bring harmony if we shun or insult fellow Temple members with whom we have differences. Yes, we must each defend our positions with honesty. At the same time, there can no longer be “us” and “them” in our congregation, but only one family of Temple Beth-El, moving forward, together.

One of our greatest teachers at this hour is not a Jew, but a devout Catholic. She is not a Rabbi, but a member of our City Council. On September 7, an Op-Ed by Patti Radle was published in the San Antonio Express-News, in the wake of the controversial resignation of the City Manager. Radle wrote after being much aggrieved, and after having acted strongly, and publicly, as one of the minority on the Council who supported the Manager.

Radle’s writings are so relevant to us, that I have taken liberties, quoting her almost verbatim, but changing the names and titles of the folks involved, to fit our own situation:

She writes of “the agony some had in the worry about personal relationships, respect for each other and how [the congregation] would view us or be disappointed in us – each of us knowing we had to say what we had to say regardless of these worries.”

Radle, who has “spent years teaching and doing conflict resolution[,]” observes “that conflict is not good or bad. . . . What makes it good or bad is how you handle it. And that is our challenge. . . . If [the Rabbi, or the President, or the petitioners], with the overwhelming amount of criticism [they] have received . . . can go on in [a] reconciling, cooperative spirit, . . . I think we can all do it.”

So she asks: “How do we go from here – we, who [want] . . . to restore trust in [the congregation]? We can look at the [special meeting] as the darkest hour of our [Temple’s life,] or we can look at it as the greatest . . . opportunity to recommit, in a much wiser state. Integrity untested is not validated.”

We must ask ourselves, as Radle asks the City Council: “Are we the kind of [congregation] that falls apart because we cannot agree or because we have felt a public embarrassment? Or are we the kind of [congregation] that is capable of looking at each other in the eye, in spite of differences, and saying we will not let our differences get in the way of doing the best we can for [Temple Beth-El]?”

I pray for the City Council, but my focus is on the kind of congregation we have at Temple Beth-El. Turmoil and unkind words are not in our congregation’s D.N.A. Stability and respect, unity and reverence are much more in keeping with our Temple’s history. Together, we shall find new beginnings, walking the path toward a real-world peace.

Not long ago, I was speaking privately with a person who had criticized me at the special meeting of the congregation. He reflected on the remarkable turnout at the meeting. I’m told that some 1100 people were here, thankfully not including the Fire Marshall. This man suggested to me that this amazing turn-out suggests that people really care about Temple Beth-El, that we can turn this passion into new commitment to Temple life, to worship, to the study of our sacred texts, to the performance of mitzvot.

At the Annual Meeting of the congregation in June, our President, David Oppenheimer, laid out his vision for the coming year. He asked that we “wear out the carpet,” new as it is, here at the Temple. Confirmation for Adults, a new program, is so over-subscribed that we have already had to move it to the Oppenheimer Chapel or Barshop Auditorium. The Congregation responded so generously to “Project Fresh Start,” that needy Mark Twain students can be fitted out with new uniforms for two school years, not just one. Our collective Shabbat worship attendance, adding the services together, is greater than anything we have seen in the past. While it’s too early for this year’s final figures, last year’s Religious School registration was the largest in memory. These activities only mention a few things we have done; imagine what we can do together, in peace and in harmony, with refuat hanefesh, healing of the spirit of Temple Beth-El.

I conclude as I began, with the prayer of Abraham Hazzan: “May the [old] year and its ills now end together. . . . May the [new] year and its blessings begin now together.”