Rabbi Shoshana Leis Sermon — Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782 – Stories and Shmita

It’s been a very hard year for many of us, especially those of us who didn’t have the ability to work from home- health care workers- and for those of us who had to balance children at home while working from home, for those of us who are victims of Covid, and for those of us experiencing profound isolation, job insecurity and the loss of friends and family.

I want to present some stories, from Israel and here, and over the course of our time together there will be more. The High Holiday liturgy is all stories…

A STORY FROM ISRAEL written by a friend in Israel, Chaya Kaplan-Lester

I can honestly say this has been the hardest year of my life.

I have watched the world burn. Like all of us…From plague to hurricane to violence and hatred. Who by fire? Who by water? Who by virus?

Global warming [and war] showing its terrifying teeth. The fires; the million acres of California forest. And the scorching of the Jerusalem hills; of friend’s homes and workshops. Lost. 

This was the year of the American elections. The storming of the Capitol. The insane politics and polarization. Also here in Israel, the weekly parade of protesters up my street and more elections, on repeat.

The way that Corona just brought everything to the surface and turned up the heat times a thousand. 

And I have not just watched the blaze, but I felt the blaze in my bones – as it ravaged many – far too many – of my most cherished relationships. Unlike a year ago, today I sit in the ashes of so many seared connections. I have lost friends. I have been disillusioned by my teachers, my community, my religion. I sit in mournful bewilderment at just how divided we are; how unimaginably far our truths are from each other.

And what’s more – I myself have been the blaze. I have burned others with my words. I have been stern in ways I never imagined I could be or would ever need to be. I have offended others; too many to count. I have played with matches and watched unintended things leap to flames.

And yet, if this has been the worst year of my life, then I am blessed indeed. Because it was also a magnificent year. We celebrated a beautiful Bat-mitzvah. We practiced good therapy. Held a healing retreat. We made pilgrimage to family and the Redwood trees. I have grown and matured and been humbled, again and again and that has been good. Deep cleansing good. 

There is a Midrash that talks about a man who was traveling and saw a Bira Doleket – a lit up castle. The man said, “Is it possible that this castle has no owner?” At which point the owner of the castle looks out the window and proclaims, “I am the owner of the castle.” (Bereshit Rabbah 39:1) ~ What a metaphor for our current world!

The bira doleket is a castle on fire. It’s lit up in consuming flames! And yet the owner of the castle – ie God – is revealing Himself as he proclaims his ownership. The flaming castle captures the traveler’s attention and he is stirred to ponder who is the ruler over this fiery place? A moment of God consciousness shimmers through as the ruler of the world is apprehended in the conflagration. Yes, all is up in flame but there is meaning behind it all, peeking out through the windows for those who chose to gaze at the mess of this palace and guess at its origins.

And then there’s the Rashi. Rashi reads bira doleket not as a castle being consumed by flame but rather as a castle lit up – illumined by light and revelation. It shines with so much beauty that it captures the traveler’s attention and stirs him to ponder the owner, the creator, of all this wonder. The blessings of our day to day lives are just gushing and abundant and undeniably bright.

[We] oscillate between the two views of this castle. Is it on fire or is it bedazzled? Yes to both. [We] are struggling with all my strength to find the Divine meaning behind the smoky window pane; behind all the human pain. And also [we] revel in the beauty of each day and all the blessings that have accumulated and hold sway.


In the 2020 Pew survey results about Jewish Americans: 
 72% care about moral/ethical values
59% care about working for justice and equality 
76% care about remembering the Holocaust.


Between 33% and 40% between the ages of 18 and 49 are “Jews of no religion” 

55% say that they express their Jewishness in “other ways” not attending synagogue. 

We have to be careful not to judge Jews who are on the outside of synagogue life as  being Jews of no religion, and look for ways to meet people where they are. We have to be careful not to judge Jews who are on the outside of synagogue life as  being Jews of no religion, and look for ways to meet people where they are. 

Outgoing president Vicki Prusnofsky reflects on the survey results: important change leadership will be going forward and change often means loss and is, therefore, very difficult, but very necessary. 


ALL In Covid: 

We published a Cookbook, enjoyed Adult Ed and Torah study, set up prayer book distributions, hired a new cantorial soloist, Raechel Rosen, enjoyed essence services with Rabbi Ben, transitioned to new board leadership, conducted home visits, formed a zoom team, a storytelling corps, which for some is their connection to Jewish life, revamped our website, set up a new Friends of HCS category to reach beyond our region, shared in joy of births and sorrow of deaths together.

Cantor Ruth retired after 14 years of serving as our Cantor. Thankfully, Cantor Ruth and Harold continue their active  membership and Cantor Ruth will continue to train our B Mitzvah students, which she does so skillfully. We increased our Saturday morning services during Covid and are now offer hybrid services. We helped get 250 people vaccinated, formed a tikkun olam committee, a book club, are now participating in the Garden of Hope. Most importantly, we have been checking in on each other regularly. We have sustained and grown our community; as a community we are thriving. It’s very moving. 

ANOTHER STORY: the power of building multi-racial friendships, deep ecumenism, which is learning from one another’s faith tradition and deepening one’s own in the process.

A friend of mine, Lysa-Monique Jenkins Hayden, is a therapist from Philadelphia. She and I have built a beautiful friendship over the last couple of years in which we explore racism, anti-Semitism, dialogue about our faith traditions, enjoy joyful soulful prayer, and swap lots of personal stories. Lysa-Monique asked me about a year ago, why didn’t Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah? The question could have been offensive, but wasn’t. In her view, Jesus was a Jew of color, and had important critiques of the corrupt priestly class in the Second Temple and teachings aligned with universal values, aligned with Jewish values. My response was something along the lines of we believe in a Messianic age, not a particular person and that Jesus was a great rabbi whose teachings are essential, but that we don’t believe he was the only son of God. We are all children of God. This week in our dialogue, Lysa Monique discovered a deeper answer when I shared with her about the Shmita year, the 7th year, which begins tonight. Shmita is a one year time period of Shabbat for the land, and takes place every seven years. It is a central and regulating structure for building an agricultural society based on sustainable growing practices and universal values of justice, equity and fairness. Lysa Monique said, oh! That makes sense why the Jews didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah. We realized that as we are still building and awaiting the just and sustainable society, therefore we are still waiting for the Messiah. 

How many shmita years observed will it take to bring Messianic consciousness? Not many. Maybe even one, done right. 

In her book, No Other Gods: Confronting Our Modern Day Idols, a must read for the Shmita, ALEPH Rabbinical Student Ana Levy-Lyons, another soul sister, writes: “At its best, religion provides an “outside” to the socially constructed world. Through religion, we can discover another place to be—a vantage point of imagination from which to see reality, critique society, and change what some believe can’t be changed. Along with visionary clergy throughout history, we can read the Hebrew Bible as a politically radical manifesto, teaching the sharing of wealth, stewardship of the earth, and freedom from materialism. Through embracing its disciplines of spiritually engaged collective practice, we can gain moral authority in the public sphere.”

We have already demonstrated that we can change our ways of living completely. If someone said to you that you wouldn’t be going on a plane for 18 months, would you have believed them? 

We saw pollution clouds lifting from the earth in Covid. We don’t want to and can’t afford the existential cost of returning to normal. 

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that laid bare the choices that we must make to ensure a livable and equitable future in the face of climate change. The new UN report makes it abundantly clear that we must do more to prevent irreversible effects that would have devastating consequences across the globe.

Taking action in the next decade is our only chance to stop the worst of climate disaster. There won’t be another or better chance if we miss this one. 

Rabbi David Seidenberg, author of Kabbalah and Ecology, asks soberly: 

How will we grieve over the losses that cannot be averted, the extinctions and deaths and losses of ecosystems and whole cities? What Kaddish do we say when an entire species goes extinct?”

All this is an essential part of becoming an adult civilization, instead of an adolescent one whose overriding interest is seeing how fast we can drive toward that cliff ahead. And we also might want to be honest that it is not to Judaism’s credit that we have as a people done very little to challenge that.  Judaism as a civilization had a mission to change the course of agriculture in the Anthropocene, so that the land had rights, and the wild animals had rights, that would weigh something substantial in relation to human needs and wants. That’s what Shmita is. We have lots of valid excuses for why that mission failed, related to history and oppression and violence directed against us — but regardless, the mission did fail.”

In the coming weeks, I hope that we will study with Rabbi Seidenberg, and explore more deeply the shmita year as a community, as a Westchester Jewish community where I initiated a discussion among the Greening Round Table  just before Covid.

Each Shmita year, the entire Jewish people would gather in Jerusalem to perform the mitzvah of Hakhel — gathering. Let us commit to finding ways this year to celebrate that mitzvah — to safely bring others and ourselves out of isolation. – Rabbi Ari Hart

The timing of Hurricane Ida and the beginning of Shmita should not be lost on us. For many, Hurricane Ida was a tipping point in which the loss of  life and severity of the storm indicates that the catastrophe has arrived at our doorstep, is now our current reality as opposed to a predicted future. 

On a recent call with rabbis and President Biden, he quoted the Mishnah: 

“It’s not on us to finish the work but we aren’t free to desist from it.” “With your help and God’s blessing if we continue to work on this important work we can get it done.“

“Orthodox or Reform, he reflected, I’ve not found any fundamental difference in the moral responsibility to the other person. President Biden inspired me with his perspective on the role of the Jews – especially in the Civil Rights movement -to lead the way towards the resilient belief in the promise of tomorrow.” 

Who are we, Hebrew Congregation of Somers? We are a community of friends, close friends, new friends. We are a space to be who we are, as Jews and as humans, to celebrate simchas and to seek solace. We are counter-cultural in that we stop on Shabbat, an antithesis to a world obsessed with production, speed, efficiency, technology  and doing. 

We are a community slowly and steadily growing in activism built on deep and trustful relationships, study and dialogue, not just through words and performative acts. 

We share our stories. We show up. We are stepping into leadership and feeling inspired by our leaders who are making space for new leaders. 

We are making a difference for each other, for our neighbors and for the children who will be the engaged, spiritually grounded and joyful Jewish leaders of tomorrow. 

And we can do more, be more and grow more, joyfully. 

But first the words of Thich Nhat Hahn:

Go back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your feelings need you, your perceptions need you. Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it. Go home and be there for all these things.

Shana tova.


Rabbi Shosh at Tashlich service