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What’s in Our Kishkes?

Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776

When we feel something in our kishkes, it means it is not just something we think and feel, it is something that we live. It permeates our core. It is what popps into our head when were are not thinking, (or when we are praying), it’s what we dream about. Oh by the way in case you are not familiar with the term, kishkas means guts in Yiddish.

Next week congress will be voting on the nuclear deal with Iran. Let me ask you something, have you lost any sleep over it? A country which has vowed that its mission is to destroy Israel is being given access to $ 150 billion dollars, and a 15 year window after which they are free to develop nuclear weapons, and a self-regulated system of inspections, and we are not losing sleep? Well maybe you think that the Iran Nuclear Deal is not the best deal, but it is the best deal we can make now (as the president does). Even if that is the case, when over half of congress thinks it is a bad deal, when the majority of the American people think it is a bad deal, when leading experts think it is a bad deal, when a country that has already broken countless verification agreements by building secret facilities is being offered another agreement when they did not keep the previous ones, should we be sleeping soundly? The stakes are not that you chose the wrong horse to win the trifecta, but it is the lives of millions of Israelis at stake, so even then maybe because of this we should be losing some sleep? So why are we not losing sleep? We are not losing sleep because we do not feel it in our kishkes. We do feel the reality of the situation. Bombs are not falling, so we remain unmoved, we are asleep.

It seems that what people are losing sleep over these days is whether Tom Brady will be suspended for deflategate, or whether to upgrade to the iphone 6s . When we think about what occupies our mental space most of the time, what is it? Our jobs, the latest movie, the errands we have to run, or that I forgot to run, what I am having for dinner, or maybe planning the next vacation. We slip into the mundane. Now don’t get me wrong, Judaism does not advocate that we live the life of a monk on a mountaintop with no worldly possessions, in fact there is no tradition in Judaism to live in this way. A person should be connected to family and community, have a home and be grounded in this world, and in order to do so we need to take care of the practical areas of our life. But when the mundane takes over and we lose sight of the larger picture, and lose our ideals and dreams, then we are in trouble.

When Jacob first left his family’s home and set out on his own to find a wife and to build his life, he was dreaming of angels going up and down a ladder that connected heaven and earth. He was having spiritual dreams about lofty themes. Rabbi Soloveichik points out that twenty years later Yaakov was dreaming about sheep. When you start dreaming about work, it is a sign that it has taken over your life and your head space, and has taken over your kishkas. G-d then tells Jacob to leave his father-in-law’s home for whom he was working and to return to the land of Israel. It was time for him to get out before he would get even more lost.

The rabbis in the Ethics of the Fathers (2:5) warn us about materialism taking over our lives. Hillel tells us that the more things we have, the more worries we have. Yes modern technology allows up to do things which we never could before, however it is not without a cost. Especially when you consider the three hours I spent on the phone with t-mobile trying to figure out why my pictures were not backing up from my Samsung onto my google account (in 5 minutes the guy in the store told me to delete the app and reinstall it, and sure enough it worked perfectly after that). And this does not even take into account all of the time we waste surfing on line, between shopping, facebook, and the latest news.

So how do we remove the mental clutter and stay focused on the bigger picture? How do we prevent the practical and inconsequential details from taking over our head space?

Steven Covey suggests diving up all our activities and placing them all within 4 different quadrants or categories: activities which are urgent and important, urgent but not important, not urgent but important and not urgent and not important. Not urgent and not important, the surfing online can definitely go. Most people do address the urgent and important, which usually means in September a month out from the end of the tax extension deadline of October 15 is when the taxes get done. But what usually grabs our attention most is the urgent but not important. We spend our time clearing out the inbox on our emails, when other more important matters await. The challenge is to address those things that are not urgent but important, the ones which usually get pushed out of our minds.

Some people do have the ability to push the urgent things out of their minds. When the wife of Baron Rothchild, who lived off the Champs Elysees was giving birth, the doctor came to their home. He checked on his wife and said we have plenty of time before she gives birth, let’s play a game of poker. Sometime after, his wife let out a cry ‘Oh mon Dieu.’ The doctor said nothing to worry about, there is still plenty of time, and he dealt the next hand of cards. A while later she screamed out again, ‘Oh non, oh non!’ Once again the doctor continued playing cards, telling her husband not to worry. A while later she screamed out ‘Oy, oy, oyvey,” and the doctor said okay, it’s now time to deliver the baby.

There is a known story of the philosophy professor which demonstrates our point of focusing on the important and non urgent over the urgent. The professor is trying to demonstrate this principle to his students. In the font of the class he has a large glass jar, and next to it is a pile of rocks and sand. He called up a student and asked him to put the items into the jar. The student poured the sand into the jar, and then carefully placed the rocks over the sand so that the jar would not break. Half the pile of rocks was still left. The professor told him that this was not the most efficient way to fill the jar. He then took out the contents, put the rocks in first, and proceeded to pour the sand inside, filling in the holes between the rocks. He told them, you see, first you put in the larger objects, and then you fill in with the smaller ones, and if you do it that way they all fit. A second student called out, the jar is not yet full. The professor challenged him to demonstrate his point, so he walked up to the front of the hall with a bottle of beer in his hand which he had pulled out of his backpack, and poured the beer into the jar which was full of large stones and sand. ‘You see, there is always room for beer.’ he said. We can see what was occupying his head space.

So how do we keep focused on the not urgent but important? I have an idea. What if once a year we stepped back and looked at our lives to evaluate whether we have become distracted, whether we are not focusing on the wrong things in our lives. Sort of like pushing the restart button and taking a fresh look at our lives. Sound familiar? Yes, this is what we are here to do today. That is what we set out to do on Rosh Hashanah. And, Maimonides tells us, that is the role of the shofar. It is to wake us up, to get us to look at our lives, to drag ourselves away from the mundane, to break out of the routine and to reconnect to the essential things in our life and with the Almighty. Let’s hear from Maimonides in his own words:

“Wake you, you sleepers from your slumber. Shake yourselves up, you zombies from being spaced out. This is referring to those who forget the truly important things in life in the elusiveness of time and immerse themselves all year in trivialities and stupidities which serve no purpose and yield no results. Look at yourselves, be introspective, and improve yourself and (be focused in) what you do.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance III:4)

Maimonides tells us that we are asleep. We are lulled into a comfort zone which allows us to avoid the uncomfortable or difficult issues in our lives and in the world. And we latch onto inconsequential things in order to do so. We can look at how many hours of TV we watch a week, how much shopping we do, how much we are surfing online.

On Yom Kippur we read the book of Job. Job was supposed to go to the city of Ninveh on a mission from G-d, but he does not want to go. Instead he tries to run away, he goes on a ship. When a terrible storm starts rocking the ship, and the crew suspects that it might have something to do with Jonah, they look fo0r him all over and cannot find him. Where is he? He is sleeping deep in the hold of the ship. All their lives depended on him and he is sleeping. This is a metaphor for our lives, there are many things we do in our lives to put ourselves to sleep, but Maimonides tells us we must wake up!

Waking up is not a lofty ideal, but a practical task to accomplish. We have the Shofar as a wake up call, but we need a planned out strategy of how to be more focused. A spiritual business plan if you will. Inside your playbill on page and at the bottom of this talk is a series of questions to help jump start our Rosh Hashanah self-reflection. And just in case you have not already started this process, we have a second chance known as the Ten Days of Repentance in which to take it on. This is what the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is for. To ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with family and friends, cultivating the important relationships. Do I invest in opportunities to give to others, to visit friends who are sick, set up friends on dates, reach out to someone who is down or out of a job? Do I spend time nurturing my spiritual life, learning Torah, going to synagogue, or just finding down time to be with myself? Do I do things to help the Jewish people and Israel?

So unfortunately, Iran will not just go away, like a bad dream. In fact when we truly wake up, we realize that life is even more of a challenge than we thought, but we do have the ability to take it on. So write to your congressperson, get involved in AIPAC, attend the demonstrations in New York. We see that when the world sleeps and tries to avoid the realities, such as the Syrian civil war, in which two hundred thousand people were butchered over the past two years, the problem does not go away. In fact it just comes back at your stronger, and now millions of refugees are clamoring at the doors of Europe. Politicians are supposed to lead by getting us to deal with that which is not urgent but important, so that it does not become urgent and much worse. And that is why pushing the whole Iran Nuclear issue ten or fifteen years down the line is not a solution, that is why giving Iran, the primary world sponsor of international terror access to 150 billion dollars is a bad deal, it will just hit back at us ten times worse.

Let’s wake up to the realities, the realities of our lives, the realities of the world, and heed the call of the Shofar. Shanah Tovah.


Holidays in Jewish thought are far more than commemorations of past events.  Rosh Hashanah is certainly more than a Jewish January 1st.

The essential opportunity of Rosh Hashanah is to clarify for ourselves what our truest, “bottom line” priorities are in life.  No time is more appropriate than today for asking ourselves some basic questions in order to clarify– and remind ourselves– what is that is truly important to us and who it is we ultimately want to be.

To reflect on some of the following questions is quite apropos on this, the day of judgment.

  1. When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?

  2. Those who mean most to me– have I ever told them how I feel?

  3. Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?

  4. If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

  5. What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?

  6. What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh   Hashanah?

  7. What are the three biggest mistakes I’ve made since last Rosh       Hashanah?

  8. What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh    Hashanah?

  9. If I knew I couldn’t fail– what would I undertake to accomplish in life?

  10. What are my three major goals in life?

  11. What am I doing to achieve them?

  12. What practical steps can I take in the next two months?

  13. If I could only give my children three pieces of advice what  would they be?

Reprinted from Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit by Shimon Apisdorf

How To Be a Better You For The New Year

– Rabbi Jonathan Feldman

Growth Worksheet

Pursuit of Wisdom and Self-understanding –Relationship to Myself

  1. Are there parts of my behavior and personality that I need to change?

  2. Do I have a role model in my life?

  3. Do I have friends who regularly provide me with honest feedback?

  4. Do I respond well to criticism, or do I get defensive?

  5. Do I readily admit when I am wrong?

Acts of Kindness –Relationship to Others

  1. Am I regularly concerned about the needs of others?

  2. How often do I put my own needs on hold in order to help others?

  3. Do I conduct my business in a fair and honest way?

  4. In business and relationships, do I look for the win-win solution?

  5. Do I genuinely feel good, or feel bad, when I hear about another person’s success?

  6. Do I gossip and talk negatively about others?

Spiritual Connection –Relationship to G-d

  1. Do I give the same concern and attention to my spiritual health as I do to my physical health?

  2. In general, do I view events in my life as random occurrences, or as powerful spiritual messages?

  3. Do I ever compromise my human values for the sake of monetary gain?

  4. For career advancement? For acceptance by others?

  5. Do I know how I can make my own contribution to making the world a better place?

Reprinted from Rabbi Shraga Simmons on

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