Rosh HaShanah Morning - 5775
Two years from now, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our magnificent sanctuary. When it was built, this space represented a new start for our congregation, and every detail of its construction was carefully considered. The result is compelling not only for its beauty and its ability to inspire, but for the values represented by it in art and architecture. I know of no other place like it anywhere in the world.
In every sanctuary, we surround ourselves with symbols and objects to inspire us to live rightly, and to stay true to our tradition. But here we have some unusual and special additions, such as Ben Shahn’s stained glass masterpiece framed by the immense tablets behind me. I sure would hate to carry those down the mountain!
These behemoths were created to inspire awe: awe for our tradition, awe for the law and awe for the Creator. The Ten Commandments, perhaps more than any other passage in the Torah, guide and even define us as a Jewish community. Ben Shahn crafted these particular tablets to look larger than life, because for us, they really are larger than life. Hear the words of the Eternal!:
I, the Eternal, am your God who led you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
These are the watchwords of our faith and this sanctuary is specifically designed to remind us to of our connection to them. Yet, these Ten Commandments do not stand alone. Altogether there are 613 commandments in the Torah, – and that is what brings us to our topic this morning.
Rosh HaShanah Morning 5774
I love Western New York. I love living here, the sense of community, the arts and culture and sports and architecture. I love the warmth (even when there is snow on the ground), the ease of accessibility (as in everything is no more than a 20 minute drive), the diversity and the opportunity. I may not be Buffalo born and bred, but I sure can appreciate what this city and this region have to offer. The Pokras family didn’t come back to Buffalo because we couldn’t find anything better, we came back because this is exactly the place where we can put out a shingle that reads: “Home Sweet Home.”
This is a great place to live. Our economy seems to be turning a corner, and despite our current unemployment numbers, there are hundreds and possibly thousands of skilled jobs that are open and remain unfilled. Don’t believe me? In December 2012, CNBC rated Buffalo-Niagara the number 2 best place in America to relocate to. Also in 2012 we were named the 3rd best performing Metro by Business Insider. Even more, we were also ranked by the Brookings Institution as 2nd nationally and 4th globally in comparative income growth. And for those of us who live in the burbs, Amherst was also singled out as one of the best places in the country to live. Business and industry are moving in, and with them opportunities for the economic well being of many of our citizens.
Yet, amidst great prosperity and opportunity, deep poverty exists and persists.
As Richard Tobe, Deputy County Executive of Erie County and TBZ member puts it, our problem is not average poverty or average wealth or average employment. Rather, it is the deep disparity that exists across our community, with severe concentrations of poverty and all that goes along with it. These large pockets of poverty persist especially among the elderly, recent immigrants and minorities, among which African-Americans are hardest hit. None of these groups are being touched by our newfound prosperity in any significant widespread way. To quote Rich Tobe one more time, “We do not all rise or fall together, and a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some are anchored to the bottom on short heavy anchor chains and cannot rise with the tide.”
Rosh HaShannah Morning 5772
Last night I spoke about fear, and how to overcome our fears through faith. Today I want to share something really scary with you. As many of you already know, I did something this summer that my rabbinic friends and colleagues around the nation think is just crazy. At our annual golf tournament, I auctioned off complete and total control over the topic of one of my High Holy Day sermons. Who does such a thing?! I thought it would be fun, and it would guarantee that at least one member of the congregation would be interested in at least one sermon I offer over the holidays.
Well, after a short bidding period, your president, Howard Rosenhoch won the prize. This was a good thing because I had heard that another person (you know who you are) was determined to pick the New York Yankees as my theme. This would have been my worst nightmare, because sadly for many of you, I am not a Yankees fan. By contrast, Howard was taking the responsibility he won seriously, and even wrote about it in his president’s column. I told my colleagues it was all working out fine.
Then I get this e-mail from him. One simple little e-mail. ‘Rabbi,’ he writes, ‘I couldn’t come up with a topic, but as I was cleaning out my desk I found this article. Maybe you can do something with that. I’m sure there are lots of topics you can find there.’
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras