Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2023 High Holiday Sermons

High Holiday Sermons 5784 – 2023
1st Day Rosh Hashana – I’m Sorry, Part 1
There is a story about a Jew in the old country who buys a horse. The seller tells him it is a very religious horse. To get the horse to go, say Baruch HaShem “Praised be God.” To get the horse to stop, say Shema Yisrael “Hear O Israel.” The Jew is very excited, riding his horse all over, saying Baruch HaShem and Shema Yisrael. Then one day he says Baruch HaShem twice, and the horse takes off at a full gallop. Not an experienced rider, the Jew becomes very frightened. He cannot remember what to say to stop the horse.
The horse is running at a full gallop towards the edge of a cliff. The Jew is sure he is going to die. He shouts out the last words one says before death, Shema Yisrael. Just in time, the horse stops. His life is saved. Totally relieved, the Jew shouts out in praise of God, Baruch HaShem.
In Judaism, words have power. The book of Proverbs teaches, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Today I want to talk about words we do not use often enough, “I am Sorry.” And I want to start with a true story about me and my history. Long ago, the summer that I turned eighteen, when I was still young and immature, I left my home in Los Angeles for a job in Colorado. I was so excited. I became a bus boy at a resort called Grand Lake Lodge in Rocky Mountain National Park. The job was all right, a lot of hard work, the area was beautiful. But I was uncomfortable, there were classes for the staff on Jesus. After three weeks, without telling anybody, I walked off the job and went home.
A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Denver and we went driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. I told my friends that I had to do something important. We found Grand Lake Lodge, I went inside, walked to the front desk and said that I needed to speak with the manager. I was lucky; the manager was there. I told him, “My name is Rabbi Michael Gold and about fifty years ago I was a bus boy here. Without telling anyone, I walked off the job I came to apologize. I am sorry.” He smiled at me, shook my hand, and asked, “Would you like your job back?” Think about it. Instead of a rabbi in Florida, I could be a bus boy in the mountains of Colorado.
I felt better after that, like the weight of guilt had been lifted from me. The words “I am sorry” are so important. But I mentioned this because around the same time as my Colorado adventure, there was a best-selling novel called Love Story by Erich Segal. The book was published in 1970 and was made into a movie starring Ryan O’ Neal and Ali MacGraw. The key line of the movie, which is still a popular meme today, was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It became a truth of that generation. If you love someone, you do not need to ever apologize to them. Love alone is enough.
Let me say as a rabbi that Erich Segal got it wrong. If love means anything, it means having to say you are sorry. In fact, in my family we have developed a tradition. On Yom Kippur evening, just before lighting candles, my wife and I turn to each other and apologize for any wrong we might have done in the past year. I then call each of my children, who currently live out of town, bless them, and apologize for any wrongs I did in the past year. I want to begin Yom Kippur with a clean slate. I cannot turn to God and ask forgiveness for my sins until I turn to the people I love and ask forgiveness for my sins. Love means saying you are sorry.
In fact, the Mishnah teaches, “Sins between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. Sins between a person and one’s fellow, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement until they appease their fellow.” (Yoma 8:9). In other words, if you wronged someone this past year, do not come to Yom Kippur services until you say those magic words, “I am sorry.” You need to come to services with a clean slate.
Jewish law says you need to seek forgiveness. What if you apologize and they do not accept your apology? Then Jewish law says you should apologize a second time. What if you apologize a second time and they do not accept your apology? Then Jewish law says you should apologize a third time. What if you apologize a third time and they do not accept your apology? Then you are done. It is now their problem, not yours. Three times is the limit. What if the person you wronged is no longer in this world? Jewish law says you gather a minyan at their graveside and apologize. What if they disappeared and you cannot find them? You only need to make a reasonable attempt to track them down and apologize. The Rabbis of the Talmud did not know about Instant Messaging or tracking someone down on Facebook.
The apology has to be real and authentic. “I was wrong, I hurt you, I feel guilty, I am sorry.” It cannot be what I often call a politician’s apology. “I am sorry I made you feel bad.” “I am sorry my words were misunderstood.” “I am sorry that events turned out this way.” These are apologies that are not really apologies. They are merely explanations. There is no regret, nor any attempt to change one’s ways. When we say “I’m sorry,” we need to mean it.
Why are we so reluctant to apologize, to approach someone and say, “I’m sorry.” I want to look at three reasons – three reasons why we do not apologize, even if we know we are wrong. The first reason is one pointed out by our Christian friends, who speak of the seven deadly sins. It is the sin of pride, in Hebrew ga’ava. Pride is the inability to ever admit to a mistake. The book of Proverbs teaches, “Pride comes before the fall.” Think about Pharaoh. God had to bring ten plagues before he would let the people go. In his mind, he was right and Moses was wrong. He could not be convinced otherwise. He was a very difficult man.
I warned you last year, I cannot get through High Holiday sermons without quoting from a Broadway musical. I will quote from one today and another tomorrow. This song comes from one of the great musicals when I was young, Hair. I know it had a nude scene but putting that aside, it also had some beautiful songs. This one was later covered by the group Three Dog Night. “How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel? Easy to be hard. Easy to be cold. How can people have no feelings? How can they ignore their friends? Easy to be proud. Easy to say no.” People hurt other people because it is easy to be proud. It is easy to be hard.
There are people who, no matter what they do wrong, they come up with a way to convince themselves they are right. We even have a word for it – rationalization. People will rationalize any kind of behavior. I once had a man rationalize an adulterous affair to me. In his mind, he did nothing wrong. It reminds of the story of a man who sees a little boy shooting arrows at the side of a barn. The man looks more closely, and every arrow was a bullseye. Every shot was perfect. He tells the boy, “That is amazing. How do you shoot a bullseye every time?” The boy answers, “Simple. First I shoot the arrow. Then I draw the bullseye.” After the fact, any behavior is justified.
Pride is the first reason why people refuse to say they are sorry. But there is a second reason – our litigious society. People are afraid of being sued. They are afraid of the legal consequences of their actions. I am sure that if I had gone to my attorney and asked whether I should walk into Grand Lake Resort in Colorado and apologize, he would have said, “Do not do it!” They can bring legal action for breach of contract. Do you want to end up in a Colorado jail?
A good lawyer will tell his or her client, don’t say anything? Don’t admit anything? Do you want to be sued? Do you want to end up in jail? A few years ago, somebody drove through an intersection on a red light, ran into my car, then blamed me for being in front of them in the intersection. There were several witnesses who said the other driver was at fault. But it did not matter. She took me to court for being in front of her, causing her to hit me. The judge found in my favor. The woman then blamed the judge because the judge was Jewish so she must have favored me. I was not looking for a big legal case, just the insurance to get my car fixed. I would have been happy with, “I ran the red light. I am sorry.” We all do things wrong sometimes.
There is a third reason why people do not say they are sorry. I call it the therapeutic mindset. The popular idea is that everything we do in life is what we were meant to do. Guilt is bad. We need to feel good about ourselves. So we find a therapist who will help us justify any kind of behavior. Cheat on your spouse? Everybody does it. You must be in a bad marriage. Scream at your kids? Everybody does it. They probably deserved it. Steal from your work? You are being underpaid. Feeling good about yourself is the goal. Guilt is bad. The poet Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man, “Whatever is, is right.”
Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, a colleague, wrote a book called What’s So Bad About Guilt? Learning to Live with It Since We Can’t Live Without It. His book is a challenge to the therapeutic mindset. The point is that guilt is a good thing. Guilt is the way we tell ourselves we have gone down the wrong path. We need some guilt so we will change directions and start down the right path. In our therapeutic society, every path is ok. Whatever you do is what you were meant to do. But our tradition teaches that not every path is ok. Our conscience is like a little GPS in our mind, telling us which way to go. Sometimes it says “Recalculate.” Go a different way. In fact, in Hebrew the word for conscience matzpun is from the same root as compass matzpen. Our conscience is a compass telling us which way to go.
With that in mind, I want to make an important point. There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is good while shame is bad. Guilt says, I did a bad thing. Shame says, I am a bad thing. Guilt is about what we did. Shame is about who we are. It is totally forbidden to ever shame somebody. The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 107a), “Someone who publicly shames his friend in public will have no place in the World-to-Come.” The Hebrew says there, malbin panim “making his face turn white.” It is forbidden to shame someone by making their face turn white.
Shame is bad. But a little bit of guilt is good. We all do something wrong in our life. In fact, I will make you a deal right now. If you were perfect last year, never making a mistake, never doing the wrong thing, never saying the wrong thing, if you never hurt anyone in the past year, then you have my permission not to fast on Yom Kippur. We fast to find atonement – at-one-ment. We are trying to become at one with God once again. And we do it by trying to make right our relationship with anyone we may have wronged in the past year. We need to say “I am sorry.”
On Rosh Hashana we stand before God. We ask God to forgive us for our sins. On Yom Kippur we will beat our chests and say Ashamnu, Bagadnu, “I have sinned, I have transgressed.” We have sinned against God. But we also sinned against one another. We hurt other people in our lives. Before we do teshuvah which means returning to the proper path, before we fast and face God on Yom Kippur, we need to turn to others and say, I am sorry. Please forgive me.
But apologizing is a two-way relationship. There is the person who apologizes. And there is the person they apologize to. There is the one who forgives. Do we need to forgive people who wronged us and seek to apologize? And do we need to forgive people who wronged us but never bothered to apologize? What does Jewish tradition say about forgiveness? Must we forgive?
I have an important answer to that question. But to hear the answer, you need to come back tomorrow. Meanwhile, if I wronged anybody here in the past year, please accept the words “I’m sorry.” Let us learn to apologize to one another. The world will be a better place for it. May God help us with this effort. And let us say

2nd Day Rosh Hashana – I’m Sorry, Part 2
An immigrant man came to America from the old country, speaking only Yiddish. He desperately needed a job, so he applied to be the shamash at the Bialostocker Shul. The shamash handles the daily minyan, the prayerbooks, talleism, honors. They told him he was qualified, but they could not give him the job. They needed someone who spoke English to attract American Jews.
Desperate for work, the man bought a pushcart and started to sell used clothes. Soon he made enough money to buy a small store. Then he bought a bigger store, and before long he owned several stores throughout the town. Finally, he sold his business and became a multi-millionaire. But he never learned English. Fortune Magazine sent a Yiddish speaking reporter to interview him. The reporter asked, “You have accomplished so much in this country. Imagine what you could have done if you spoke English.” The man answered, “If I spoke English, I would be the shamash at the Bialostocker Shul.”
It is unfortunate that I do not speak Yiddish. That is what happens when you grow up in Los Angeles with American born parents. My dad spoke Yiddish but not with me. But yesterday I spoke about the importance of the words “I’m sorry.” Entering the High Holidays, we need to learn to say the words “I’m sorry.” How do you say that in Yiddish? Unlike our ancestors, we have Google Translate. “I’m sorry” in Yiddish is zayt mir moykhl. Moykhl is not just a Yiddish but a Hebrew word. It means forgive. To say in Yiddish “I’m sorry” is really to say, “Forgive me.” It is not enough to say, “I’m sorry.” We need to know, are we forgiven. There is a second party involved, the one we said “I’m sorry” to. We want to know if we are forgiven.
Today I want to speak about forgiveness. Are we obligated as Jews to forgive? Forgiveness is a major issue to our Christian neighbors. Robert Muller famously said, “To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love.” Forgiveness is a major part of Christian theology. Yesterday I quoted Alexander Pope who said, “Whatever is, is right.” But Pope also said the words you all know, “To err is human. To forgive divine.” I have literally been asked, “Why can’t Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims forgive each other like good Christians?” Of course, we are not good Christians. We are Jews and Muslims. Perhaps Jewish tradition has a different view of forgiveness. I will admit that I cringe when someone asks me, “Why can’t you Jews forgive the Nazis?” I think it is the height of chutzpah to ask a rabbi to forgive Nazis. From a Jewish point of view, am I allowed to forgive the Nazis? I will give an answer in a moment.
With all due respect, sometimes I think my Christian friends take their idea of forgiveness too far. In 1997, when Bill Clinton was president, he attended a worship service on Martha’s Vineyard while on vacation. Reverend John Miller, knowing the president was attending, decided to give a sermon that was important to him. He wanted the President to hear a sermon about forgiveness. He preached how Christians like Clinton need to forgive Timothy McVeigh for his sins. Who is Timothy McVeigh, this man who the preacher felt deserved this forgiveness? In 1995 he set off a bomb at the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people including 19 children in day care. He injured another 680. In 2001 he was executed for his crimes.
Should we forgive such a man? He never apologized but believed until the end that his actions were justified. In fact, before he was executed, he asked that William Ernest Henley’s famous poem Invictus be read to him. It ends with the passage, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” He committed mass murder and he was proud of it. He was captain of his soul. Does he deserve forgiveness?
What does Judaism say about forgiveness? I want to share some insights I learned from author and lecturer Rabbi Joseph Telushkin about forgiveness in Jewish law. Whenever someone asks me for books on basic Judaism, I always recommend such Telushkin books as Jewish Literacy and Jewish Values. Rabbi Telushkin taught that there are times when Judaism forbids forgiveness, times when Judaism requires forgiveness, and times when forgiveness is optional.
When is forgiveness forbidden? We cannot forgive someone for a crime against someone else. We cannot forgive Timothy McVeigh for bombing that federal building. Only his victims, the 168 people he killed, have the right to forgive him. And they are not here. They can only do it from the next world. I cannot forgive the Nazis for killing 6 million Jews and millions of other people. Only the victims can forgive them. And again, they can only do it from the next world. I can only forgive someone for a crime against me. I have no right to forgive the Nazis. My father-in-law’s family, killed by the Nazis, are the only ones who have a right to forgive them. And they are gone. Judaism teaches that only victims can forgive, not third parties. So to my Christian neighbors, do not ask me to forgive the Nazis. And do not ask me to forgive Timothy McVeigh.
When are we obligated to forgive? I gave an answer yesterday. Suppose someone wronged us, and truly feels regret. Suppose they have decided to change their ways and return to the proper path. Suppose they are honestly seeking repentance. Suppose they come to us and ask for forgiveness, true heartfelt forgiveness. Judaism teaches that we do not need to forgive them the first time they come to us. If they wait and come a second time, Judaism teaches that we do not need to forgive them the second time they come to us. Suppose they wait and come a third time. By the third time we are obligated to forgive. If someone approaches us three times and we do not forgive, the burden is on us.
Again, the apology must be sincere. Millions of people have been helped by the twelve-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not just for alcoholics or others with addictions, but anyone seeking to get back on the correct path of life. Let us look at Steps number eight and nine. “Make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them. Make direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when such amends will injure them or others.” If we receive a call from someone following such a twelve-step program, we are obligated to forgive, but only to someone who truly feels regret and has chosen to change their ways.
Let us speak about the most difficult case. What of someone who has wronged us and is not seeking to make amends? What of someone who has not changed their ways? Must we forgive them? Jewish tradition teaches that we are not obligated to forgive them. Certainly, our anger may be justified. But the Buddha said something very wise. “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burnt.” That is the wisdom we need to learn; holding onto anger hurts us more than it hurts them. Part of maturity is letting go of that anger, to begin the process of forgiveness even if the person who wronged us never apologized.
Let me tell you where this issue often comes up in my work as a rabbi. I meet with a bride and groom to plan a wedding. Traditionally in Judaism, parents walk their children up to the huppah. Suppose the bride says, “My mom can walk me up, but my dad was a lousy father. He never visited. He never paid child support. I had to invite him to the wedding, but I do not want him to walk me under the huppah.” The father has never said those words “I’m sorry” to his daughter. What do I say to this bride as a rabbi?
Let me share what I tell such a bride. “You are the bride, and you have the right to have whoever you want to walk you up the aisle. I will respect your decision. But understand, if your dad is there and not walking you up the aisle, it is a very public embarrassment to him. Are you sure you want to do that?” Then I may continue, “A wedding is a new beginning in life. Perhaps it can be a new beginning in your relationship with your father. Is there room in your heart to forgive him?” Sometimes my words succeed and sometimes they fail. But when they succeed, I have seen a bride build a new relationship with her father. Often the father does eventually apologize.
Let me share a teaching from Jewish tradition that I have found extremely helpful in my counseling. The Rabbis ask why people often behave badly, why they act in inappropriate ways, why they hurt other people. The Rabbis teach that there are two possibilities. Some people hurt other people lehakhis “out of cruelty,” because they are mean people. Sadly, some people are psychopaths, who enjoy hurting other people. But the Rabbis continue, most people who hurt other people do it leteavon “out of an appetite.” They do it out of weakness or a lack of self-control. They do it not because they are evil but because they are weak. It does not excuse bad behavior. But it does help explain bad behavior. Too many people have difficulty controlling their appetites.
If someone has hurt us, did they do it lehakhis “out of cruelty?” Or did they do it leteavon “out of weakness,” because they could not control their appetite? It people hurt us because they are weak, perhaps we can understand them. And perhaps that gives us room to forgive them. For we are all weak at times. Some people find it difficult to do the right thing.

We are not obligated to forgive those who hurt us. But often it is wise to let go of the anger and to forgive. We do so because holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal, in the end it burns us. Our Christian friends may overemphasize forgiveness, at times when forgiveness is not appropriate. I am not going to forgive the Nazis. But in our day-to-day lives, in the people we must interact with, sometimes forgiveness is appropriate. Sometimes forgiveness truly is the highest form of love.
I warned you yesterday that I would quote from a Broadway musical. Let me share my favorite moment from the blockbuster Hamilton. It comes towards the end of the second act. Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza are estranged after he had an affair. Then they tragically lose their son in a duel. There is a beautiful, haunting song It’s Quiet Uptown, more recently covered by Kelly Clarkson. The lyrics say, “They are standing in the garden. Alexander by Eliza’s side. She takes his hand, it’s quiet uptown. Forgiveness.” When she takes his hand on the stage and they sing Forgiveness, I feel chills. It is powerful.
Yesterday we spoke about the words “I am sorry.” Today we spoke about the words “I forgive you.” Both are important. Our tradition teaches that words have power. We need to go into the holiday with the proper words on our lips. We are in synagogue asking God for forgiveness. We want God to say, “I forgive you.” But how we ask God to forgive us when we have not learned to forgive others.
As we enter this holiday period, if we have wronged other people, let us say “I am sorry.” And if other people have wronged us, let us say “I forgive you.” In doing so, we can rebuild our relationships with all the people in our lives. And when we rebuilt these relationships, we can then rebuild our relationship with God.
May this holiday help all of us return to the correct path in our relationships with one another. May God help us with that effort, and let us say,

Kol Nidre – Should Israel Exist?
There is a story about two men watching an old John Wayne movie. One turns to the other and says, “I will bet you $5 that within the next minute John Wayne falls off his horse.” The other man takes up the bet. Sure enough, within a minute John Wayne falls off his horse. The other man reaches to pay and the first man stops him. “I can’t take your money. I saw this movie before.” “I saw this movie before, also.” “So if you saw the movie before, why did you bet that he would not fall?” “I did not think John Wayne would make the same mistake twice.”
We Jews have made the same mistake, not once, not twice, but countless times. We keep thinking that if we behave in a certain way, antisemitism will disappear. We keep thinking that the world will come to accept us as Jews. As the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” We Jews want the world to accept us, so that we can say, to paraphrase Sally Field when she won her second Academy Award, “You like us. You really like us.”
There was a time when antisemitism was based on religion. If we Jews would only change our religion, the world will love us. In the nineteenth century many Jews did just that. The German poet Henrich Heine converted to Christianity so he could get a job teaching in a university. Afterwards he regretted it. He said, “I was baptized but not converted.” Benjamin Disraeli converted and eventually became Prime Minister of Great Britain. Queen Victoria asked him about his religion. He famously replied, “I am the blank page between the Old and the New Testament.” Karl Marx had grandfathers who were rabbis. He was baptized as a child and grew up to write The Communist Manifesto. His disparagers would blame communism on the Jews. Those who hate Jews for their religion continue to hate them even if they convert.
The virus of antisemitism mutated. Judaism was not a religion but a race. The Jews were not truly white, but a separate race who threatened to pollute the pure Aryan race. In religious antisemitism, one can convert out of Judaism. But one cannot convert out of one’s race. In the Holocaust, even Christians who had Jewish blood were victims of the death camps. After the Holocaust, such racial antisemitism became less acceptable, at least for a period of time. This racial antisemitism is coming back, especially on the right. Jews are not truly white, they are the enemy who are working to replace good white Christians with blacks, browns, Asians, and immigrants of all colors. That is why the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville shouted, “Jews will not replace us.”
Today there is a new change. Jews are hated not for their religion and not for their race, but for their national identity. Theodor Herzl believed that if the Jews had a state of their own, what he called “The Jewish Problem” would disappear. When the Jews returned to their homeland and built a nation of their own, they would become like every other nation. Jews would no longer be hated. So, the Jews created the state of Israel, took in Jewish immigrants from around the world, resurrected the Hebrew language, built a city named Tel Aviv on the sand dunes, fought countless wars against those who would destroy her, and became an economic powerhouse in the Middle East. But now a new hatred developed, particularly on the left – a hatred of Israel. Israel is the only country in the world whose very existence is open to debate. Let me say that again. Israel is the only country in the world whose very existence is open to debate. Alan Dershowitz has said that he fears Jew hatred on the left much more than Jew hatred on the right.
Exactly 50 years ago, on this day Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The tragic Yom Kippur War was perhaps the biggest threat to the survival of Israel in history. I remember the day well. I was a new rabbinical student, and I went to an Orthodox synagogue to better learn the liturgy. Although the Orthodox community did not watch tv or listen to the radio, they knew what was happening. That Yom Kippur they said special prayers for the survival of Israel.
I recently saw the movie Golda, about Golda Meir’s leadership during that war. The movie was excellent. What is the biggest issue being discussed today regarding that movie? The issue is not the survival of Israel nor the threat to Israel’s existence. The biggest issue is, should Helen Mirren have played Golda Meir? She is a wonderful actress. But she is not Jewish. Should a non-Jew play the Jewish Prime Minister? The same issue is being raised regarding Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. He is not Jewish. On top of that, they made him a prosthetic nose to look more like Bernstein. Should a non-Jew play the Jewish composer? Should Lea Michele, a talented young actress, raised Christian although with a Jewish father, play Fanny Brice on Broadway in Funny Girl?
I believe it is a ridiculous question? Acting is acting, and actors play other people. This issue points to something deeply wrong with our culture. It often goes by the name “Identity Politics.” It judges people not as individuals but by their group identity. The world is divided between Jews and gentiles, and only Jews can play Jewish characters. Only straights can play straights and only gays can play gays, only Hispanics can play Hispanics and only Asians can play Asians. Never mind that the biggest hit on Broadway in decades was Hamilton, where the actor who played Alexander Hamilton was Hispanic, the actor who played Aaron Burr was black, and the actor who played King George was a white, gay man.
That brings me to how the left views Israel. The world is not made up of individuals, but divided into whites and blacks, males and females, straights and gays, colonizers and indigenous peoples, Jews and gentiles. People are placed into groups. According to Critical Theory, the world is divided into oppressors and oppressed. And according to this world view, Israelis are the oppressors and the Palestinians are the oppressed. Israel is an oppressor nation, and therefore has no right to exist. Jews are colonizers and Palestinians are the indigenous people of the land. This is what our college students are being taught.
Should Israel continue to exist as a Jewish state? On college campuses around the country, students hold up signs saying, “Israel Practices Apartheid” and “Stop the Occupation.” What occupation are they talking about? Probably most students have no idea. But the Justice for Palestine organizations on college campuses can answer exactly what occupation. They hold signs saying, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” There will be a Palestinian state throughout the land, including not just the West Bank of the Jordan River, but all of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. What about the more than seven million Jews who live there? They are colonialists who can go back to where they came from.
To quote the late Rodney King, whose arrest brought about riots in Los Angeles, “Why can’t we just get along?” Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians just be good neighbors and get along? Some people have called for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state and the establishment of a binational state called Israel-Palestine. One state that would be a homeland for both Jews and Palestinians. There were legitimate thinkers in the early 1900’s who believed in such a binational state. Such Zionist leaders as Martin Buber and Henrietta Szold shared such a vision.
Today, one of the most articulate voices who has called for such a binational state is the progressive journalist and author Peter Beinart. He envisions one state with one government, Jews and Palestinians living together, both groups welcomed to return to their homeland. Beinart is an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a very traditional Zionist household. But his left-wing view reflects many on the progressive left. According to Beinart, the Zionist dream was for a Jewish homeland, not a Jewish state. Let the Jews have a homeland without a state, living in a Palestinian state. I believe his opinions prove that some of the biggest threats to Israel’s existence come from the progressive left.
In my mind, binational states do not work. Look at Northern Ireland, look at Cyprus, or closer to Israel, look at Syria. If there was a binational Israel-Palestine, the greatest danger would be to the seven million Jewish Israelis living there. Such a binational state, as appealing as it is to progressives, is not going to happen. Israel will never give up its self-identity as a Jewish state.
What about the two-state solution? What about two states, Israel and Palestine, built on sovereignty, security, and regional cooperation? This was the dream of the original United Nations partition plan in 1947, two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Israel offered the Palestinians of the West Bank a sovereign state after the Six Day War. A two-state solution was part of the Oslo Accords, the famous agreement between Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat. Numerous Israeli prime ministers until our own time have offered the Palestinians their own state. The vast majority of Israelis would agree to a two-state solution in a moment. It is the Palestinians who have always rejected this solution. Why?
No Palestinian leader can give up on their own dream, of a return of all Palestinians refugees and their descendants to the homes they fled during the Israel War of Independence. They call the day Israel gained independence Al Naqba “the catastrophe.” To the Palestinian mind, the only way to undo this catastrophe is a total return of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians demand that Israel open its borders to millions of Palestinians. If Israel ever agreed to this, which they will not, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. If Israel ever agreed to this, I fear for the safety of the Jews in Israel. And so the conflict continues.
The world once hated Jews for their religion. They then hated Jews for their race. Today the world hates Jews for its nationhood. They claim that it is not Jews they hate, it is the state of Israel. But to hate Israel and want to see Israel destroyed is to hate Jews and want to see Jews killed. The animus is not against just Israel, but against Jews. Why else would Rose Ritch, a Jewish student at the University of Southern California, where my nephew went to college, be forced to resign her position on the student government? As a Jew and a Zionist, she could not fairly represent all the students at U.S.C.
I take it as a given that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state. Those who seek to destroy Israel as a Jewish state are not simply enemies of Israel, they are enemies of the Jewish people. We must fight this attack on the existence of Israel with all the resources available to us.
There are over 200 sovereign nations in the world. 193 nations belong to the United Nations. Of these nations, there is only one nation whose existence is still open to debate. Only Israel still must convince the world that it has the right to exist. This is true 75 years after its founding, 50 years after the Yom Kippur War. Today there are university classes taught by tenured professors at some of the leading colleges of the country, built on the question – should Israel continue to exist? How sad that it is even open to debate?
Fortunately, Israelis do not think about such existential questions. They know their lives are at stake and they must fight to maintain a Jewish state. I attended a meeting a group of rabbis had with President Joe Biden when he was still Vice President. It was at a home in Boca Raton. Biden told us a story of a meeting he had early in his career with the late Prime Minister Golda Meir. Golda mentioned the threats to Israel from the north, from the east, and from the south. Biden asked her, “how do you manage with all those threats?” Golda smiled, “We Israelis have a secret weapon.” Biden replied, “What kind of secret weapon?” Golda said, “We have nowhere else to go.”
Seven million Jews live in Israel. It is open to any other Jew, anywhere in the world, who needs a place to call home. Yes, Israel has been torn this year by a severe domestic crisis. There have been massive demonstrations against the decisions of the Israeli government to restructure the Israeli Supreme Court. The issues are painful for anyone who loves Israel. But on both sides of the issue, Israelis love their country. They are not going anywhere. Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation is not open to debate. It is a given – a brute fact. The sooner the world realizes that Israel will not go away, the sooner there will be peace in the Mideast.
May God give strength to his people, and may God bless His people with peace, and let us say, Amen.

Yizkor – Because I Could Not Stop for Death
A woman was very sick in the hospital and spotted the Angel of Death. She became very frightened, but the Angel of Death reassured her, “Do not worry. It is not your time yet. You have at least thirty years more.” The woman was released from the hospital deeply relieved. She started working on herself. She began dieting and exercising and lost thirty pounds. She went to a plastic surgeon and had a nose job and a face lift. She bought a new wardrobe and changed her hairstyle.
Then she was crossing the street, and wham, a bus hit her. That was it. She was carried to the next world and confronted the Angel of Death. “It’s not fair. You said I have thirty years.” The Angel of Death looked closely at her and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.”
Jewish folklore speaks a good deal about Malkat HaMavet, the Angel of Death. As we get older, the Angel of Death seems to hang around more and more. I know the song Had Gadya that we sing on Passover says that God will slay the Angel of Death. But sadly, it has not happened yet. It is part of the folklore of many traditions. W. Somerset Maugham tells a story called “The Appointment in Samarra.” A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy goods. There, the servant spotted the Angel of Death. The servant ran back frightened and told the merchant, the Angel of Death spotted me. Lend me your horse so I can escape to Samarra. The servant fled on the horse to Samarra, and the merchant went to the marketplace and confronted the Angel of Death. “Why did you scare my servant?” The Angel answered, “I was surprised to see him here. I am supposed to meet him in Samarra.”
Sorry, but there is no escape. Each of us will one day meet the Malkat HaMavet, the Angel of Death. We can put if off by taking care of ourselves, diet, exercise, enough sleep, avoiding stress, no smoking. But we cannot delay it forever. That is why the Rabbi Eliezer said in the Talmud, “Repent the day before you die.” His students said, but none of us know when we will die. Rabbi Eliezer answered, “Then repent today.” (Shabbat 153a)
There was a time when death was a reality most people regularly experienced. People died at home. Family members and friends would handle the body. A group of people known as the Chevra Kadisha, “The Sacred Society” would wash the body and prepare the body for burial. To serve on the Chevra Kadisha is considered Judaism’s greatest mitzvah, chesed shel emet, “true kindness,” a mitzvah where the recipient cannot return the favor. Today, outside the very Orthodox community, most synagogues no longer have a Chevra Kadisha. Death is handled privately, by workers who are usually not Jewish, who are not trained in the Jewish way, who see it as a job and not a calling.
People avoid talking about death. I approach older people, people who are sick, people who know their days are limited. I say to them, “May you live to a hundred and twenty. But have you made any plans for the day your time arrives.” So often I hear the same answer. “Rabbi, I do not want to talk about it.” Or I talk to young parents with young children. I ask questions like “Do you have a will?” “Do you have life insurance?” Again, I hear the answer, “Rabbi, I do not want to talk about it.” Like the servant in the story, we want to flee to Samarra. But ultimately, we cannot flee the Angel of Death. Sooner or later, it will find us. The question is, how do we prepare in this life.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a rabbi is, what happens when I die? I can only answer, I will find out when I get there. It reminds me of the story of the two men who loved golf. They were on the course one day and began talking about death. Each promised the other that whoever goes first will send an answer to the question, is there golf in the next world? Sadly, one of them died. Shortly afterwards, the other suddenly heard a voice. “I am here in the next world. I have good news and bad news. The good news is, there is golf up here. The bad news is, you have a tee time next Thursday.”
Seriously, what happens when we die? Let me try to give my answer. When we die, we will go to the same place we were before we were born. If we believe that we did not exist at all before we were born, that our soul, our consciousness, our very being suddenly appeared out of nowhere, then when we die we will return to nowhere. But that is not what our tradition teaches. If we believe that our soul existed before we were born, existing on some spiritual plane, then we will return there when we die. Judaism teaches that our souls came from God before we were born and will return to God after we die. The book of Ecclesiastes says, Vayashov HaAfar el HaAretz K’asher Hiya, v’HaRuach Tashuv el HaElohim Asher Netana. “The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God Who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Death is not the end, but a movement to the next stage of existence.
According to Rabbinic tradition, when we arrive in that next world, we will be asked a series of questions. “Did we enjoy every permitted thing this world allows us to enjoy?” “Did we have children, or at least help others have and raise children?” “Were we honest in our business practices?” “Did we look forward to redemption?” Then there is the question I believe is most important. I believe each of us is sent into this world to fulfill a mission. When we arrive in the next world, we will be asked, “Did you try to fulfill your mission on this earth?” “Did you try to live the life that you were sent to live?” These questions may be asked in the coming world, but we need to prepare for them in this world.
What does all of this have to do with Yom Kippur? I want to share a wonderful insight I learned from the great Rabbi Harold Shulweis z”l, who served for years in Encino, CA, near where I grew up. He taught that there is a major theme built into the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana is about birth and Yom Kippur is about death. Rosh Hashana is about birth. The Torah reading begins with the birth of Isaac. We say, “Today is the birthday of the world.” On Rosh Hashana, it is as if we are entering the world for the first time, thinking how we are to live our lives.
Yom Kippur is about death. The Torah reading begins with the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron. On Yom Kippur we wear white, the same color as the tachrichim or shrouds we will wear at our burial. Shrouds have no pockets for money, we cannot take anything with us, and on Yom Kippur we spend no money. We do not work. We also become like angels in other ways, separated from the physical world. We do not eat. We do not drink. We do not wash. We do not wear comfortable leather shoes. We do not have sexual relations. We do not anoint our heads with oil. We say Yizkor prayers, remembering those who are no longer with us. As we remember their deaths, we relive our own deaths. For a brief twenty-five hours, we leave this physical world.
Of course, this reliving of our deaths comes to an end. We have a break fast, reentering the world of the living. The break fast at the end of Yom Kippur is as important as the fasting on Yom Kippur. I recall an argument I had with the local school system when I was a rabbi in Pittsburgh. The marching band scheduled a rehearsal for the evening, just as Yom Kippur was ending. I called the band teacher and said that this was unfair to Jewish students, making them rehearse as soon as Yom Kippur is over. He answered rather snarkly, “Rabbi, it is after sundown. Your holiday has ended. Your students can march.” He did not understand the idea of the break fast. I then went over his head. I called the school superintendent, and the rehearsal was cancelled. On Yom Kippur, we need to leave for a period of time and then reenter the world of the living.
I appreciate Rabbi Shulweis’s insights. I truly feel that on Yom Kippur, one day a year, I leave the world of the living to rehearse that day when the Angel of Death finds me. Then I reenter the world of the living, inspired to live the kind of life God wants me to live. Let me share a quote from Steve Jobs, taken from this earth by pancreatic cancer at too young an age. In 2005 he told a group of students at Stanford University, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Yom Kippur is a time to think about what is truly important.
Perhaps this is a good time to share Emily Dickenson’s most famous poem, “Because I could not stop for death.” Published in 1890, the poem pictures the Angel of Death as a courteous driver of a carriage. “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just Ourselves, and immortality.” The poem goes on to describe death as a beautiful carriage ride. It passes a school where children play and fields of waving grain. The rider sees highlights of her life. The carriage finally reaches a cornice in the ground, barely visible. This is obviously the grave. The poem ends, “Since then – ‘tis centuries – and yet, Feels shorter than a day. I first surmised the horses’ heads, were towards eternity.” I am not always a lover of poetry, but this one moves me.
The poem is calm and optimistic. Critics see the poem as describing a natural part of nature. It is a movement beyond this world towards eternity. Perhaps the reason the poem is so popular is that it takes something we all experience and treats it as a beautiful journey in a carriage, pulled by handsome horses. Dickenson never married and was frail through most of her life. She died young, at 55, and her poems were not published until after her death. Nonetheless, she left a wonderful legacy including this poem.
Perhaps that is the main question we each need to ask as we prepare to meet the malkat hamavet, the Angel of Death. What will be the legacy we leave behind? What can we do to leave this world a slightly better place than we found it?
Now we are preparing to say our Yizkor prayers. The most crowded moment at any synagogue anywhere in the world is on Yom Kippur, as we prepare to recite our Yizkor prayers. Yizkor means remember. We remember those who are no longer with us in this world. Nonetheless, there is a deep theological idea at the heart of Yizkor. Death is not the end. The souls of our loved ones continue to exist on some spiritual level. And the prayers we say in this world can help the souls of those in the next world. That is why Yizkor is so important. As Emily Dickenson taught us, death is part of a journey we each take to eternity.
May God hear our Yizkor prayers. And may they help us to live healthier, happier, and holier lives. And let us say, Amen.