Rosh Hashanah 5777 – A Messianic Vision for Temple Beth-El

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a courtroom. You’re charged with a variety of offenses, petty crimes mostly, but some not so petty.

There is no “jury of your peers.” There’s just one judge who’s going to review the record and decide your fate.

What kind of judge would you like have to looking at your record?

One who’s bitter, angry, and suspicious? One who’s looking for faults?

Or one who’s kind, loving, and forgiving?

Do you want one who assumes you’re a bad person, or one who assumes that you’re basically a good person?

We’re in that courtroom today. Today is Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, but also called “Yom HaDin,” the Day of Judgment.

The Talmud teaches us that we’re judged on the basis of how we judge others.

Our Rabbis in the Talmud taught: The one who is dan l’chaf zchut—one who judges his neighbor in the “scale of merit,” one who gives others the benefit of the doubt—is judged favorably.

A story is told of a man who lived in the Upper Galilee. He went to work for someone in the south for three years. The day before Yom Kippur, the worker asked his boss for his pay: “Pay me so I can go and support my wife and children.”

The owner said “I don’t have any money.”

So the worker says “Give me produce.”  “I don’t have any” answered the owner.

“Give me land.” — ‘I have none.’ ‘Give me cattle.’ — ‘I have none. ‘Give me pillows and bedding.’ — ‘I have none.’

So the worker slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart.

What would you think is going on here?

So after the holiday the boss took the worker’s wages together with three laden donkeys, one bearing food, another drink, and the third various sweetmeats, and went to his worker’s house. After they had eaten and drunk, the boss paid the wages.

The boss said to the worker, “When you asked me, ‘pay me,’ and I answered you, ‘I don’t have any money,’ of what did you suspect me?”

The worker said, “I thought, perhaps you came across cheap merchandise and bought it so your cash was tied up.”

“And when you asked, ‘Give me cattle,’ and I answered, ‘I have no cattle,’ of what did you suspect me?”

“I thought, maybe those cows on the property have been hired out to others.”

“When you asked me, ‘Give me land,’ and I told you, ‘I have no land,’ of what did you suspect me?”

“I thought, well, maybe he leased the land out to others.”

“And when I told you, ‘I have no produce,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, perhaps they are not tithed (the “taxes” had not been paid, and you were not allowed to distribute produce until the taxes had been paid).”

‘And when I told you, ‘I have no pillows or bedding,’ of what did you suspect me?” “I thought, perhaps he has sanctified all his property to Heaven (donated all his property to the Temple).”

“By the [Temple] service!” exclaimed the boss, “it was even so; I vowed away all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not occupy himself with the Torah, but when I went to my companions in the South they absolved me of all my vows. And as for you, just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.”

It is especially important that we dan l’chaf zchut, that we judge others favorably, this time of year, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.  If we judge others favorably, we can tell God, “hey God, give me a break, I gave others the benefit of the doubt, you can give me the benefit of the doubt too.”

Whereas if we judge others strictly, the Midrash says Satan will encourage God to judge us strictly too.

The Talmud provides another example.

In parshat Ki Tetse, which we read a few weeks ago, the Torah commands us to have a “full and just weight.”  Isn’t this redundant?  If your weight is a full measure—if your one-pound weight weighs a full pound—isn’t that just?

The Talmud (Bava Batra 88b) explains that it’s not enough to have a full measure.  It’s not enough that your one-pound weight weighs a full pound.  If you’re a shopkeeper measuring out goods to your customers, the Talmud tells us that your one-pound of pastrami should weigh a little bit more than a pound.  You’re actually required to give the customer a little something extra.

It’s not enough that you don’t cheat your customers—you have to tilt the scales slightly in the customer’s favor.

It’s also good business.

In Israel there are falafel stands where as you wait for your falafel sandwich, they’ll give you an extra falafel ball to snack on.

We’re likelier to be loyal customers of a business that treats us generously. Not just because we feel we’re getting a good deal, but because it’s nice to be around people who are generous.

And doing something extra nice for a customer can get you lots of “shares” and “likes” and good Yelp reviews.

Today’s the Day of Judgment. We all know that congregations frequently judge rabbis, and their judgment becomes public – the rabbi’s contract either gets renewed or it doesn’t.

Less well-known, but obvious if you think about it, is the fact that rabbis also judge their congregations.

One benefit of being in an interim position is that I’m liberated from worrying about whether my contract will be renewed.

I’m also new, so I see things that someone who’s been here for a long time might not notice.

I’m speaking about this topic today because despite seeing a lot of true “Southern Hospitality,” despite being truly made to feel welcome in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve also seen instances where “derech eretz,” courtesy, was lacking. Where instead of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, there was a rush to judgment. Where instead of kindness, there was anger or indignation.

Any congregation can have some examples of bad behavior, and I don’t have statistics, only anecdotes, but of the half a dozen synagogues I’ve been closely affiliated with over the last 25 years, it seems more a problem here than in other places I’ve been associated with.

Congregants, lay leaders, staff members, and even clergy have been treated with disrespect.

It’s no secret that Temple Beth-El has been through a lot of turmoil recently. There are some who might question my judgment in deciding to point this out today, one of the holiest days of the year, when people come to shul to be inspired.

But there is pain in the congregation. I’ve had conversations with people who were literally in tears because of the pain they feel over events of the past year. Some congregants have resigned their membership over the past year, and some who are still members are not here today.

But I believe that pain provides us with an opportunity.

Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, said,

Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us to the point of a significant leave-taking, when we have suffered loss or death, divorce or unemployment. Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for.

Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for.

We have an opportunity for transformation. One of the themes to come out of the listening sessions from our visioning process is a longing for peace and unity. We need to heal.

And there is something we can do to heal.

There’s a story told of a congregation that had fallen on hard times.

People drifted away, and newcomers weren’t coming to take their place. They got to where they could barely make a minyan, and the youngest person in the shul was over 60.

One Shabbos a mysterious stranger showed up. He was their “tenth,” he made a minyan. He sat by himself in the back, and he prayed mostly with his eyes shut, swaying, but with a look of concentration on his face that made clear he was having a serious religious experience.

No one had prepared to read from the Torah, so the stranger read and then gave a d’var Torah that was brilliant and accessible, that spoke to the heart of each person there.

Over whisky and herring at Kiddush, the gabbai decided to see if this knowledgeable stranger had any words of wisdom for them.

“Our shul has fallen on hard times,” said the gabbai. “We’re about to go under. We’ve tried everything we can think to try and attract some fresh blood. Nothing seems to work. Do you have some advice for us?”

The stranger stroked his beard and looked thoughtful. Then he gave a sigh, and said, “I don’t have any advice for you. I can only tell you one thing. One of you is the Messiah.”

And then he left.

In the following months the congregants kept thinking about that stranger. They wondered whether he could have been Elijah, the prophet who’s supposed to announce the coming of the Messiah.

He certainly acted like someone out of one of those Elijah stories. They kept asked themselves, “Could the Messiah really be one of us?”

They tried to figure out who it could be.

“Abramowitz? He doesn’t seem to have the attention span. He’s always flitting from one thing to another thing. But he does get a lot done.”

“Yisrael? That guy’s a joker. All he does is make people laugh. But he does make people feel good.”

“Shoshana? She’s so cranky. AND she’s a woman! But the things she complains about are real injustices.”

As they considered the possibilities, they started to treat each other with extraordinary respect. After all, one of them might be the Messiah, and it wouldn’t do to disrespect the Messiah.

Not only that, they began to conduct themselves with extraordinary care – after all, what if it turned out that YOU were the Messiah? You wouldn’t want people telling stories about what a shmuck you once were.

And a funny thing began to happen.

Whenever someone came to shul, whether because they had a yartzeit and wanted to say kaddish, or because they were new in town and “shul shopping,” they noticed the respect and kindness with which people treated each other.

So people came back. And they brought their friends. And those friends brought more friends, and the place was transformed and was once again a growing, thriving community.

I know I’m not perfect. I sometimes judge people harshly, as we all do.

For me, my youngest daughter Devorah is my role model on this subject.

When it comes to judging others favorably, giving others the benefit of the doubt, she’s absolutely the best at this of anyone I know. Whatever someone else does, she’s always looking for a reason that could explain the behavior. Maybe he’s having a bad day. Maybe she’s rushing to get to the hospital. Maybe it was unintentional.

Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where everyone given the benefit of the doubt?

When we picture being in a courtroom on Rosh Hashanah, we usually picture ourselves as the ones in the dock, and God as the judge.

But the truth is, we’re not just the defendants on this judgment day. We’re also judges, of both ourselves and of others.

If we want to be judged favorably by others, we need to judge others favorably.

There’s a famous commandment in the Torah: v’ahavta l’re’acha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself.

We don’t need a commandment to love people who are lovable.

That commandment tells us to love our neighbor, to treat him or her with respect – regardless of whether he or she is lovable.

We have so many wonderful things going on here at Temple Beth-El – a beautiful facility, hard-working staff, very dedicated lay leadership, an emerging vision for the future.

If only we can heal the pain that’s been caused by harsh words and unkind actions we’ll be unstoppable.

To heal the pain will require more than behaving with kindness, courtesy, and respect in the future – we also have to look back, and we need to seek and to give forgiveness.

In the movie we watched for Selichot last Saturday night, Hersh asked his old friend Chaim for forgiveness for the pain he caused, but without admitting that what he did was wrong. That half-apology only made Chaim madder.

And what if you’ve been wronged, and the other person doesn’t come asking for forgiveness?

You forgive them anyway.

In her great memoir Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott said that “not-forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” It doesn’t work that way.

My prayer for the coming year is that each of us will have the courage to admit we’ve hurt others and to ask for forgiveness, that each of us will find the generosity to forgive without waiting to be asked, and that we will collectively treat each other and conduct ourselves as if one of us is the Messiah – in the process bringing in a joyous new era for Temple Beth-El.

Shanah tovah


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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