Introduction to the High Holy Days

September 13, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

A mother comes into her son’s bedroom to wake him up to come to temple.

“Oh, ma,” he says, “I don’t want to go to shul today.  It’s boring and no one likes me there.  Give me two good reasons to get up and go.”

“I’ll give you two good reasons,” his mother answers.  “You’re 54 years old, and you are the rabbi!”

Well, in January, February, and March of 2015, for the first time in 9 years, I actually didn’t have to get up and go to temple.  As you may know, this past year I had the great privilege of experiencing a sabbatical.  I am very grateful to our leadership for according me the privilege of experiencing my own Shmittah, my personal sabbatical.  During my three-month journey in early 2015 I literally travelled around the world, visiting 125 of the holiest places on earth—including many other temples, but not ours—spanning five continents.  I began in Western Europe and worked my way east, through the Middle East and then on to the Far East.  By March I’d arrived in the picturesque country of Indonesia. 

Before this trip I’d never traveled anywhere in East Asia, never before been in Indonesia or anywhere close to it.  In the three weeks before landing in Jakarta I had journeyed through India and Japan visiting sacred sites, and I now found myself in a third major Asian nation in the course of a month.  In each of these my only contacts had come through email exchanges facilitated by outstanding members of our congregation who had experience living these countries.  But I personally knew no one in these nations.  Unlike my daily life as a congregational rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, now in my 17th year as your Senior Rabbi, it was an extraordinary experience to be in alien places where nobody knew me and I knew no one.  

Indonesia is a large archipelago straddling the equator made up of many, many islands, some of them densely populated.  My first two days in Indonesia were spent on the central island of Java, visiting the incredible world heritage Buddhist temple monument of Borobudur and then the Hindu temple complex at Prambanan.  Both were beautiful, impressive, compellingly interesting.  I had wonderful guides, and learned a great deal about the religious sequencing that took place in Indonesia, where Java was Buddhist, then became Hindu, and eventually converted to Islam.  The people I met everywhere were warm, helpful, and genuinely kind, the landscape gorgeous, and the local culture deep and very different. I felt very much like the only Jew in the whole nation...

My last four days in Indonesia were to be spent on the island of Bali, in the picturesque upland rainforest area near Ubud.  Although it is part of the overwhelmingly Islamic nation of Indonesia, Bali itself is predominantly Hindu.  Prior to this trip I had never set foot on the island of Bali, or anywhere near there. 

After a complex voyage from Java that involved cars, planes, and jitneys, I arrived at my lodge in Ubud, which was across the street from a reserve called the monkey forest.  Actually, you didn’t need to go into the reserve to see monkeys, because the simians were everywhere.  Ubud is in a very beautiful rain forest, and as the sun set it occurred to me that I was famished, having grabbed a bad airport sandwich for breakfast and skipped lunch.  So I stopped for dinner a couple of buildings up from my place where they had a buffet and threw in a Balinesian dance show.

The food was OK, and the show better than I expected.  It dramatized a story from the Indian Hindu epic the Ramayana, called a kecak dance with lots of extras making monkey sounds and an elaborate fire dance.  The plot doesn't much matter except that the monkey general, Hanoman, saves the beautiful princess from abduction by an evil prince in Sri Lanka.  The show was a little corny, with volunteers from the audience doing walk-on parts, but there was fire and monkey masks and jumping around, so how bad could it be?  It was vaguely like an Indonesian luau. 

The performance ended with the princess rescued and everyone got up to leave. I looked to my left and did a double-take.  I saw a familiar profile.  Of course, I knew no one in Indonesia, but somehow this fellow reminded me very much of someone I know well, someone whose profile I had seen before.  Usually, for a rabbi or cantor, this means someone you have co-officiated at services with, because what you mostly see is his profile... Actually, and this wasn’t possible, the guy looked a lot like Rabbi Leonard Thal, with whom I co-officiated at High Holy Day services way back in 1989 at Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara, California.  At the time Lenny was the Pacific Southwest regional director of the UAHC, now the URJ, and we had been friends for years.  We usually connect at Reform movement URJ Biennials every two years.  But I hadn’t seen Lenny Thal since he retired as the Senior Vice President of the Union, our own Reform movement’s umbrella organization.  I certainly did not expect to see him next to the Monkey Forest in upland Bali.

Only—well, this guy was Rabbi Lennie Thal, the retired Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. And I said, “Lenny?” not quite believing it.

He looked over at me, did a double-take himself, and said, “Sam?”  And Lenny and I embraced, and it turned out that he was in Ubud with a group from the URJ Board, and they had spent the last ten days in the even more remote country of Myanmar.  And he was there on his 9th trip to Bali. 

It seems that Lenny used to conduct High Holy Days’ services in Singapore and while filling time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur he got hooked on visiting Bali.

Lenny introduced me to the group he was with, and of course it turns out that I knew four or five people from connections through the Reform movement, and they all promised to buy my book when it comes out, and we talk about where we spent Purim—me in Japan, they in Myanmar—and it was, well, just ridiculous.  Here in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, next to the Monkey Forest.  This Jewish world is very, very small. 

I have to admit that when I visited some of the more remote places I traveled to see, like Ayers Rock or Easter Island or Amritsar, India, or Southeastern Turkey, or Cambodia, I felt very far from the Jewish world.  But I don’t think I ever felt farther than I did that evening in Indonesia, and in fact the Jewish world was just over at the next table.

I have now traveled a great deal of this globe, and I know that there are 7 billion people on it.  I also know that there are only 14 million Jews among those 7 billion, roughly 1 in 200.  And yet there never seems to be a time when we are really far from other Jews.

Jews call it bashert.  Arabs call it kismet. In Buddhist places they mention karma.  I’m not certain which category this falls into.  But being Jewish can make this large world seem a lot better connected that it appears to be on the surface.

One of the beautiful aspects of Rosh HaShanah is the way it brings us back together.  I know, it’s only once or twice a year that some of you come into this sanctuary—you are, officially, two-day-a-year Jews.  But there is nonetheless something wonderful, magical, even a little mystical about feeling this connection.  We are all part of one people, Am Yisrael.  We are all, on this night, in this place, beginning a New Year together.  We are all here to pray for a good, healthy, blessed new year in 5776.

May we find these great Jewish connections over the coming High Holy Days.  Here, in this room; here on these holidays; here with these people.  But also on all the roads, countries, and continents we travel this fresh new year, and with all the Jews we encounter.

L’Shanah Tova.

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