“The Blessings of Different Scenery” | November 7th, 2019
by Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
|They say a change of scenery can help create a change of mind. By leaving the familiar and the routine, we can break free of old patterns that hold us back. By spending more time in unfamiliar spaces, whether in nature or in a different state or city, we can learn to better recognize the vastness of the world and reevaluate our place in it.
At the beginning of our parsha, Lech Lecha, God speaks to Avram (not yet Avraham) for the first time, telling him to leave his homeland of Ur Kasdim and go to a place where God will show him, to the Land of Israel. And of course Avram obliges, leaving everything he knew before to be in relationship with God, to start the Jewish people.
Except that if we had been closely paying attention, Avram had already left his homeland. He started leaving right at the end of last week’s parsha, Noach. So why does God tell Avram to go after he had already left? It’s like being told to follow the recipe after the cake is already in the oven, or turning on Waze halfway to your destination.
Maybe God only talks to Avram once he’s already left his home, maybe there was something there in Ur Kasdim that prevented God from reaching Avram, a spiritual blockage of a bad place where God’s call couldn’t connect. It was only once Avram had already begun his journey that the call came through to “go.”
Or maybe it was that Avram couldn’t hear God until he had a change of place. Avram needed to leave the place of his comfort, his home, the house where his parents mistreated him and the land that prevented him from reaching his true potential. Once Avram left the bad place, once Avram was able to break free of the conventional thinking that didn’t involve this personal connection with God, once he got an appropriate change of scenery, he was finally able to connect with God, and start something truly wonderful and powerful for himself and his descendants.
Whether it was Avram’s receiver or God’s dialer that wasn’t working, the change of place allowed the call to go through. The change of place lead to a change of perspective, change of thinking, and relationship that would be the birthright of the Jewish people.
As the winter settles in around us, may we all be blessed like Avram, with enough varied scenery to help us figure out what our place and potential really can be.
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
October 31, 2019 | 2 Cheshvan 5780
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
By Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
The closing ballad of the musical Hamilton often causes me to reflect on my life, as well as that of Alexander Hamilton.
** Spoiler Alert **
After Hamilton is shot and killed by Aaron Burr, his wife, Eliza sings a song asking with sadness, “Who lives who dies, who will tell your story?”
Eliza understands that with Hamilton’s death comes the abrupt ending of his astonishing accomplishments. Further, with the death of Hamilton’s son, Phillip, a few years earlier, it is incumbent on Eliza to tell Hamilton’s story, or else it will be lost forever.
I pen this note and am hearing the lyrics and music to Hamilton as I ride a train from Kraków to Warsaw, Poland with members of our Temple community. Together, we are rediscovering and unpacking our rich history in this land and bearing witness to the worst time in Jewish history, the Holocaust.
Here, we proclaim, that we will tell the story of those that could not speak, live, celebrate, cry, appreciate, bless, smell, taste and enjoy all of what life gives us. We come to “tell their story” and never forget their story, to ensure it is never lost.
The Torah, the Talmud and Jewish law and lore tells the story of our ancestors. Noah, and his family tells the story of the inhabitants of the world before the flood. I use my grandmother’s flatware every holiday and in doing so, I tell her story. This is our Jewish DNA, one that is more than who our grandparents are and were, but how they were and what they were. We keep them alive each time we tell their story.
Judaism is a religion that passes our Torah and our stories from one generation to the next, M’dor le Dor. Embrace that story, learn that story and share that story and realize the blessing, potency and responsibility in telling our story, so that our kids and grandkids can tell our story.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
October 24th, 2019 | 25 Tishrei 5780
Where Are You?
By Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
Have you ever asked a question you already knew the answer to? Have you asked a child, “who broke that vase?” Or a friend who often complains about their job, “How’s work treating you?” Sometimes we ask rhetorical questions to help quiet friend or family members share their stories, and sometimes we ask rhetorical questions to allow for a presumption of innocence in spite of certain guilt. But more often than not, when we ask questions we encourage the person we’re in dialogue with to speak, to share, to tell us what is going on, even if we already know.
The first recorded question between God and Humankind in our parsha is a question that God presumably, already knows the answer to. After Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and bad and know that they have made a mistake, breaking the one rule God had, they hide from God. The two first and newest humans have not yet seemed to figure out that God, being everywhere and all-knowing, knows exactly where they are hiding. Yet instead of yelling at them right away, or saying “gotcha” and disclosing that God knows where they are, God gently asks “Where are you?”
God knows, of course, where they are, but by asking the question God invites Eve and Adam to tell God what actually happened. There is no avoiding the question, but by starting out with this soft-ball question, God tees up the first humans to admit that where they were wasn’t where they should be.
God’s example is a good one. Opening with a question is better than an accusation. Questions encourage us to open up, to share what is actually on our mind, and they can be interpreted widely. God’s question might mean where are you literally, but it also might be metaphorical. Where are you in your relationship with God, where are you in your relationship with your partner, Where have you gone wrong, Where are you going to make it better?
Now that the Jewish holiday season is officially over, let’s take God’s question to heart. Where are we- in relation to God, our families, our communities, and our world? Where are we going, and what are we going to do to make sure that the next time we answer, we won’t have to hide.
Wishing you a year full of good questions and even better answers,
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
October 17th, 2019 | 18 Tishrei 5780
SIMCHAT TORAH – “It is Exciting to Finish”
by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Usually, finishing an activity is really satisfying. I have run a few races in my life (very few) and crossing the finish line felt amazing! Completing my school work each year and my years of study when earning degrees was a great feeling. Completing the High Holidays, for most clergy, also feels like an accomplishment. Even planning a great vacation and then enjoying it feels great when it is all concluded.
So, why should completing the cycle of reading the Torah feel any different?
That is the reason we dance, sing, drink and eat and celebrate the completion and the angles and lenses that helped us see new perspectives and teachings in a very old book.
There is one difference with completing the Torah and the other events I listed above, though! When I finished a race or graduated from Rabbinical School, I often took a break and exhaled. Whenever we complete the cycle of reading the Torah, the first thing we do is begin the process again. We do not pass GO, pause, exhale, wait a week or any other form of delay. We start the process from scratch all over again.
I think we do that because we know the satisfaction completing the Torah affords its followers. We also know that when this 5000 year old history evolves to have modern relevance, we are regularly comforted. So, why would we wait a moment to start that fulfilling process again?
Perhaps when we finish vacations, graduate from studies, cross the threshold of a race, we should map out our next adventure or test, since along with the journey comes immense satisfaction, especially upon its completion.
Please join us as we conclude reading the Torah and start all over again:
Monday October 21, 6:30 PM – Dancing with the Torahs
Tuesday October 22, 9:00 AM – Dancing with the Torahs and Installation of new clergy.
Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
October 11th, 2019 | 14 Tishrei 5780
Don’t Stop Building
By Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
Anyone who lifts weights knows that once you’ve hit your max, you have to find a new max. The very act of muscle-building is about setting new limits and then breaking them.
But your body knows that whenever you physically exert yourself past your limits, your body needs time to recover, to recuperate your energy and help your muscles and mind adjust to the new reality. You need to rest, to chill, to take a break, to be still.
But if you stay still for too long, if you don’t put your muscles back to work at a higher standard soon, your body won’t grow accustomed to your achievements. If you lift a really heavy weight once, but then in your recovery never lift that weight again, you won’t maintain that level of success. If you let inertia take its toll, you won’t grow.
Our tradition knows this, and so after the marathon of Yom Kippur, the work doesn’t end. After the herculean effort needed to complete the high holiday season, to make this season of repentance worthwhile, there is always more growth to do. Which is why traditionally we build our sukkah right after Yom Kippur. In some communities the only break between Yom Kippur and building the sukkot is the time noshing on apple juice and honey cake during the Break Fast.
Here at Temple Emanu-El, as the machzors are returned to their shelves, as the white robes are returned to their hangers, and as our sanctuary and social hall are returned to our normal state, we break out the nails, hammers, wood, and s’chach to build our sukkot.
We build precisely at the moment when we are the most tired, the most in need of break, because our tradition understands that if we don’t keep gently pushing our bodies, minds, and souls after the monumental gains of Yom Kippur, then we might lose them. One of the messages of Yom Kippur is that we can always achieve more, be better than we think, grow more than we thought possible. We can’t and we shouldn’t rest for too long on our laurels.
So as we transition from Yom Kippur into Sukkot, I encourage you to challenge yourself to keep building on your successes. Did you make a breakthrough during the yamim noraim? A realization about your behavior or about your future that you want to maintain? Don’t weaken that achievement by letting it fall out of use. Start building on it now. Lay the foundation now to make the most out of it in the days and years to come.
Wishing you a time of rest and recovery that leads right back into a holiday of building and growth.
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg