Do books matter? For a Good Year: Selected High Holy Day Sermons by Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus Larry Raphael (z”l) is giving me needed perspective on critical theological and personal issues.
Larry’s wife Terrie put the book together. I’m grateful.
The Jewish High Holy Days are more than a month behind us, so it’s easy to forget many of the important questions and challenges with which we engage before and during that period. Larry, my rabbi and friend, is no longer with us corporeally, but I still value the wisdom he expressed even before we met.
From 1974–2002—prior to becoming senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco—Larry conducted High Holy Day services in New York. He served Jews without a synagogue, helping to keep them in touch and grounded. Some of Larry’s earliest sermons in For a Good Year still hit the mark with me.
For example, in “On Three Things” (Rosh Hashanah 1976), Larry discusses Maimonides’ views on acts of charity. He writes, “Today we live in a society where only professionals deal with the aspects of human needs . . . It is easy to lose sight of our personal obligations.”
I’ve done volunteer work for San Francisco public schools and Jewish organizations but now do little beyond making donations. Larry reminds me that small acts also matter. Being kind and courteous, picking up trash on the sidewalk or in the park, just being there for Carolyn, our children, family, friends and congregation. These, too, mean a great deal.
In “Worship and Prayer” (Rosh Hashanah 1977), Larry notes, “Recently, I have begun to understand that it is possible for there to be elements of reason and pure emotion, rationality and mystical forces in each of us. As humans we have many different aspects of our being in competition with us.”
I’ve long engaged in my own inner conflict built around my deep introversion. I’d love to be outgoing. I’m not. This may have limited what I’ve been able to accomplish. Or, that might be a copout. More conflict! But understanding that I’m flawed because I’m human offers comfort.
In “The Miracle of Life” (Rosh Hashanah 1987), Larry retells a classic story—he loved stories—about a poor woodcutter who dreams of a treasure buried under a bridge in a big city far away. The woodcutter goes there only to have the bridge’s guard tell him that he has dreamed of a treasure buried under a tree in a forest. The woodcutter returns home, finds the tree in the guard’s dream and digs up the treasure. “The treasure we seek,” Larry reminds us, “is not somewhere else. It is close to us, in our own neighborhood, all around us.”
When I’m down, I’m thankful for the people in my life, my health, my financial independence and the pleasure provided by my writing. I realize that a great treasure lies at my fingertips.
I valued my relationship with Larry. For a Good Year keeps it going.
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