Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
April 8, 2024

“Dealing with the Unfathomable” | April 5th

In this week’s parsha, we read what I would consider to be one of the most confounding and challenging scenes in the whole Torah. In the tenth chapter of Leviticus, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, make an offer of “strange” or “alien” fire, and then they are immediately killed by a flame sent by God. It is such a difficult scene to make sense of because their sin is not immediately clear. As readers, we are left scratching our heads as to what even happened. What did Nadav and Avihu do that was so bad that God had no choice but to kill them? Our commentators offer a number of explanations to try to clear up this confusion. Some say their mistake was giving an offer that they were not instructed to, while others say their sin was making this offer while drunk. But they can’t land on just one rationale for their deaths.

And the fact that there is no clear answer as to what really happened makes this tragedy that much worse. Nadav and Avihu were there one minute and then gone the next. And in the wake of these tragic deaths, Aaron is left dumbfounded. The Torah uses the words וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן/Vayidom Aharon–and Aaron was silent to describe his reaction. He was left utterly speechless as he became a parent tasked with the impossible job of mourning for his own children. He was left reeling as his world turned in a matter of seconds.

The only other time in the Tanakh that we see that identical construction of the word וַיִּדֹּם/vayidom is in the book of Joshua, in reference to the sun standing still and the moon halting its movement. In both of these instances, that verb is used when there is something unnatural in the world–when we go through something that has no sound or rational explanation. We all experience those moments when everything feels off. When we are faced with a tragedy that is so all encompassing that everything we think we understand is thrown off its axis. In the aftermath of October 7, a common refrain among Israelis was ein milim–there are no words. And like with Aaron, sometimes we can only respond to something with silence.

This scene is a reminder that our world does not always make sense. There are times when our faith is tested and we can only throw our hands up–when our words fail us. It is our natural instinct to want to have an answer to everything and to know that we can find some glimmer of hope and understanding in every challenge thrown our way. But Aaron’s reaction tells us that sometimes it is ok not to have the right words, and that we can be comfortable living in that discomfort, sometimes anger, and the silence.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

April 8, 2024

“Keeping the Flame Burning” | March 29th

In this week’s parsha, we read about one of Judaism’s most enduring images– the Eternal Flame. In the context of our Torah reading, it is a fire that burns on the altar constantly from night until morning for the purposes of making sacrifices to God. But of course we know the Eternal Flame best as the light that hangs above the Torah ark of every synagogue in the world.

As a kid, I remember hearing about a light that never goes out and letting my imagination run wild wondering how it could be that every synagogue had a light that never died. Was it an actual fire burning up there? Were we using some kind of magical lightbulb? Was God paying our electricity bills? I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept. But now as a rabbi, I finally learned the truth–it turns out it’s just a regular light in a special place. Those bulbs will die and need to be replaced like any other light. But there is also a beautiful lesson to be learned from that.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary about how the Eternal Flame kept burning in the Torah explains that it was not a flame that stayed at the same consistent level as I had once imagined. Rather, like any fire that burns too long, its intensity and heat would diminish as the hours went by and night turned to day. But every morning, the Priests would add new wood to keep those flames burning high. It was a fire that needed to constantly be rekindled to keep burning bright.

And that is much like our own lives. The constants in our lives don’t stay that way without dedication. Be it our marriages, our families, our faith, or our communities, everyday, we recommit ourselves to the things we love most. Rather than something we do once and never address again, it is our commitment and hard work that ensures their longevity, their strength, and their everlasting light.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

March 26, 2024

“Keep it Clean” | March 22nd

I am one of those people that if I do not shower at least once a day, I feel gross. In the summer months, I often shower twice a day. It just makes me feel clean, fresh and better equipped to handle whatever is in front of me and my agenda.

On the rare occasion that I do not shower but must interact with other people or engage in regular duties, I feel impure and unpleasant.

The Book of Vayikra -Leviticus in English – which is the third Book of the Torah and the name of the portion this week, begins with rules and laws of purification and how to keep our bodies and behaviors ritually clean. The ceremonies for becoming clean should we encounter a deceased person, or an impure animal is specific. More than its attention to detail is a valuable reminder that our bodies must feel pure and clean to fulfill our ritual obligations, including sacrifices to God.

Today, many things can make us pure and impure. Our thoughts, desires, actions, language and foods are just some of the many items that can lead to purity or impurity, holiness or the profane.

The rituals of the Temple of old no longer dictate the rhythms of our life. Still, our connection to pure thoughts, kosher food, clean language and a hygienic body all lend our actions to more holiness which in turn make us closer to God.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

March 26, 2024

“The Enduring Story of Purim” | March 15th

Writing in the 12th century, Maimonides asserted that when the Messiah comes, all of the books of the Prophets and the Writings will be forgotten with one exception. Along with the Torah itself, only one such story will stand the test of time: Megillat Esther. On the surface, this feels like a strange claim because of the context and content of the story. As is well documented, it is the only book in the entire Tanakh that God does not appear in. It is a story that takes place entirely in the diaspora. And it is a rarity relative to the rest of the Hebrew Bible because the story is both named for and follows a female protagonist who is remembered for her own character, as opposed to who she married or gave birth to. And so considering all of those factors, how could it be that this is the one story that we will continue to tell and retell for all time?

When I was first presented with this thought about the longevity of this text a few years ago, I scoffed at it. On top of all that, I had always been taught that Purim was a “minor holiday.” But as our world changes, I realize how much more there is to read into the deep and rich story of Esther that feels so alive for us today. In Megillat Esther, we read about a woman whose very existence is threatened for no other reason than the fact that she is Jewish. The wicked Haman tells King Ahasuerus that the Jews are a people who are disloyal and whose laws are different from any other people. The only recourse, therefore, is for them to be wiped out entirely. It is the first time in history we see anti-Jewish rhetoric to this extreme degree, but it is certainly not the last.

Whether this is what Maimonides had in mind or not, the story of Esther feels lasting now because generation after generation we as Jews have constantly been forced to wonder about our place in the world. Can we peacefully coexist alongside the rest of society without our very existence feeling threatened? Too often, it feels like we need to be like Esther in the beginning of the story–hiding the fact that she is Jewish–as opposed to the end of the story when the Jews emerge victorious.

And yet, despite all that, the story of Purim is not defined by the threats against the Jews. Rather, it is about the moment when everything turns and the Jewish people prevail. That message of hope feels like one we need now as we prepare to celebrate Purim next Saturday night and Sunday. And so, while we make our final arrangements for our costumes and debate our favorite Hamantaschen fillings, let us not forget the message of perseverance that the Purim story represents.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

March 26, 2024

“The Architects of Our Future” | March 8th

When Michelangelo carved the magnificent stature of David, housed in Florence Italy, he said that he saw David in his mind and then cut the stone to make the shape. That David was IN this stone.

The oil on canvas artist, Bob Ross, famous for his soft-spoken voice, large curly head of hair and making oil painting look easy, used to always imagine in his mind what would be on the canvas. Then, he would paint it.

Betzalel, the architect of the Mishkan had a similar image in his mind when collecting the funds and supplies for shaping the portable Tabernacle for the wilderness.

Today, the Jewish people are in a unique spot that is unlike that of Michelangelo, Bob Ross or Betzalel. We are being asked to redefine and recreate the modern Jewish state in a post October 7th world and none of us know exactly what it looks like in our minds first.

We know it will continue to be a Jewish State. We know it will aim to be a tolerant state. We know it must be physically strong and morally straight. But, what does the state, look and feel like? How do we shape a future based on the pains of reality and the rewards of our successes? How do we fashion a place that is adored by our western allies and feared by our nearby neighbors? How can we design a place that creates respect and acceptance for inhabiters of the land who are not of the Jewish or Zionist persuasion without threatening our existence nor degrading their history and background?

In my estimation, Israel is at another shaping and designing moment in its history. Like we were in 1948 – except we have yet to decide on the blueprint for building. We have not fully grasped all of the previous design errors and achievements – that we will keep and what we will jettison.

The success of the Tabernacle was not the perfection of the product, rather the participation of the masses and the perfection of the purpose.

So too, we can live with imperfection of a place so long as all voices and hands are part of its shaping, and its purpose of values consonant with our shared history and future.

Vayakhel means to convene. In the context of the portion, it means the convening of the people to build and use the Tabernacle. For us, this is a moment of convening to shape the land our children deserve to inherit.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner