Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
February 12, 2023

“Appreciating Our In-laws–and a Health Update” | February 10th

I have always been struck by the fact that although we read the most important moment in the Torah with the giving of The Ten Commandments this week, it is Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro/Yitro who steals the show in the first part of the parsha. Distraught as he sees Moses begin to wear down trying to balance all his responsibilities following the exodus from Egypt, Yitro is best remembered for the sage advice he gives Moses not to take on too much of the burden leading the Israelites himself. Coming from a place of concern for his son-in-law, Yitro instructs Moses to instead delegate his duties to qualified individuals who can help him. It is this kind of love, care and guidance that makes Moses’s father-in-law such a significant figure, and perhaps Moses’s most trusted counsel.

Whenever I read about Yitro, I feel a special appreciation for my own father-in-law, who has taken me in as a son from day one, and like Yitro, has always offered me advice from a place of love and care. I have only ever known him as the most incredible father, father-in-law and saba.

Many reading this already know that for the past few months, my father-in-law, Dr. Hugh Pollack, was in dire need of a liver transplant. And I am very happy to report that our prayers were recently answered. We feel extraordinarily blessed that Hugh was the recipient of a liver last week and is now beginning the recovery process. While there is still a long road ahead for him and our family, there is an incredible sense of relief that the period of uncertainty and waiting is now behind us and that we can focus on his return to full strength soon.

The advice that Yitro gave to Moses feels so relevant in the lives of my family right now. Hugh’s recovery will be a group effort, and the support that he and our family received and continue to receive from this community and all the other spaces that he has touched has been nothing short of amazing. Thank you to all those who have held us in your thoughts. We have been moved beyond words by the kindness that countless people, friends and strangers alike, continue to show for my father-in-law.

With immense gratitude,

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

February 9, 2023

“The Songs we Hear” | February 3rd

When my father died, eleven and a half years ago, people would console me with words like, ‘You will talk to him often. He will talk to you. You just need to listen.”

A decade plus later and I have still not heard him speak to me. I have heard him sing to me plenty though.

My dad was an accomplished cantor and composer of Jewish music. He published many pieces and was active in the Cantorial Assembly of the Conservative Movement. He never left the house without his wallet and tuning fork to make sure he could stay on key. My memories of him from childhood until a few days before he left this world was him always singing and humming. While he does not speak to me , I can still hear his voice chanting a tune or humming bars of his favorite music. These days, I find myself more nostalgic about listening to cantorial music of yesteryear, just like he would in the house or on a drive. Mix tapes were made of Koussevitzky, Tucker, Moishe Osher. These were also commonly played on the turntable in our home. I pine for those sounds today.

Parshat Beshalach has the first and most prominent example in the Bible of festive and communal singing. After the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds and they are free from fear of the Egyptians in pursuit, they express their joy and appreciation through singing in joyous song. We are told Miriam and the women dance with timbrels and sing in jubilant appreciation to God.

Song is the common thread in our Jewish story line. From Dayyeinu to Kol Nidre to Adon Olam, LeDor Va Dor and Ose Shalom – the songs of our tribe has always united and bound us closer together and been illustrative of sharing blessings while hearing the voices of our ancestors within each of the notes.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

February 9, 2023

“Bo – I Cannot See You” | January 27th

The pen-ultimate plague that is introduced in this week’s Torah portion of Bo is darkness.

We encounter darkness every day. What makes it plague-worthy? Some cities have extended hours of light and darkness during winter and summer seasons, respectively. Still, people drive, work, play, do activities. What is so bad about darkness?

The rabbis explain that the level of darkness that the plague introduced was not normal night-time darkness. This was a pitch black that did not erode, even after our pupils adjusted. It is a level of darkness that even if someone were standing next to us, we could not see it or sense it. Darkness that closed us out to the world.

While not literally, we are entering a stage and era of darkness where we cannot see or hear the people who are in our neighborhood and even standing next to us. The antidote for this time of darkness is to develop our tolerance, expand our empathy and open our eyes to the people and the light around us. May we learn from this ancient plague and work hard not to have it repeat in our lifetime.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 22, 2023

“Anything Pharaoh Can Do, God Can Do Better”| January 20th

When Moses and Aaron bring the first two plagues as a way of convincing Pharaoh to let their people go, the Egyptian king is determined to show that he has no reason to fear them. Pharaoh, after all, is convinced that he is even more powerful than God. And so, he enlists his most trusted magicians to match the biblical brothers punch for punch. If God can turn water into blood or make hordes of frogs appear out of nowhere, then surely the Egyptian sorcerers can too. It would be fitting for Pharaoh to boastfully sing “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” to Moses and Aaron, as the focus for Pharaoh and these spellcasters is to do everything that God can as a show of their own power.

When we see the term “magician” or “sorcerer” in this story, our associations may not be with the most powerful people in Egypt. But magic played an essential role in ancient Egyptian religion, science and medicine. Magical spells and amulets were used, for example, to protect pregnant women and against snake or scorpion bites. As the 19th century Russian commentator, the Malbim points out, these magicians were trained in a variety of fields, and were therefore experts in all sorts of ways to negate the plagues–poisons to kill vermin, lotions to salve boils. And yet, if we take a step back and think about how the story unfolds, it feels strange that they didn’t do any of those things.

Why didn’t the magicians use their abilities to stop these supernatural phenomena instead of trying to match Moses and Aaron plague for plague and miracle for miracle? With each plague that struck Egypt, their ecosystem continued to crumble. The plagues of blood and frogs brought odors so strong that society couldn’t function. Hail and locusts destroyed the crops and agriculture until there was nothing left. Surely the priority for these magicians should have been finding a way to help all of Egypt recover rather than selfishly trying to keep up with the might of their antagonists. The magicians obviously could not match God, but they still could have been so much more impactful in this story. And yet, we never see that potential reached.

Perhaps we can learn from the mistakes of the magicians who only seek to display their power, as opposed to using it for good. Stepping up to challenges is not simply about matching the abilities of others or trying to show who is the most powerful. We should instead look to use our gifts for good. Rather than trying to prove that anything you can do, I can do better, we can instead act towards the betterment of others in everything we do. We should strive not to add to the broken world– but instead try to fix the broken world.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

January 19, 2023

“Damar Hamlin and Kevin McCarthy: A Country Divided” | January 13th

The country took a collective gasp and shed a shared tear last Monday night when a relatively unknown defensive player for the Buffalo Bills Football Team collapsed on the field. What became evident to the sports enthusiast watching or the voyeurs who tuned in to see the drama, was that this was no ordinary injury. The fear on the faces of players and the sincerity of prayer witnessed from afar, spoke to the seriousness and solemnity of the moment.

When sportscasters shared that CPR was being administered, many bent a figurative knee in prayer on behalf of Buffalo Bills number 3, Damar Hamlin.

Bengals players, who were hosting the game along with Cincinnati fans were solemn in their empathy. Ironically, football, which is known as a physical, trash-talking and often violent game, with fierce competition, was now a game of unity, shared worry and collective prayer.

After the traumatic injury, the game was suspended and then postponed. No other play took place. Spectators went home. Players cried. All of America prayed for Damar.

I did not learn of one report of beers thrown in frustration that the consequential match would not be played. I did not read of fans demanding refunds for the tickets. I did not see on my social media feed any accounts of celebration that a starting player was out of the lineup which would pave the way for the Bengals to triumph.

I did see acts of empathy where Bengals fans donated millions of dollars towards charities near and dear to Damar Hamlin. I did see vigils held at the hospital where Hamlin was being treated, from all fan bases. I did witness an entire nation of different faiths and diverse opinions unified in prayers for a player most had never heard of before the ball was kicked off that fateful Monday night.

To me, while saddened and pained by the episode Damar Hamlin has suffered and his teammates have gone through, my spirits have been buoyed and my hope in humanity fortified to see our shared desire for this young man’s recovery.

Juxtapose that to the “second most watched” moment on television this week. The election of a Speaker of the 118th Congress of the United States House of Representatives.

Regardless of whether you wear a donkey or an elephant on your lapel, to see the rudeness, derisiveness and mean-spirited behavior amongst people duly elected to represent America has made me heartsick. One group displayed utter dysfunction while another gloated in their uncoordinated efforts. Even intra-party, it felt like many were gunning against the other, to the point where there was no way to move forward. Nothing seemed to allow any sense of humanity, hope, empathy or kindness to be able to transcend the moment.

This week I saw two Americas: one that rallied around Damar Hamlin and rise above team and city affiliation. And, another that was petty, divided and celebrating the pains and failures of another.

Our political theater has become so fractured that this week at a Congressional Memorial and remembrance for the events of January 6th, 2021, all Democrats attended and only one Republican had the temerity to show up. The rest worried what their attendance could convey. This was not a vote, mind you, on abortion rights or taxations rules or budget spending. It was an event to memorialize those who lost lives and others who were traumatized on January 6, 2021.

Former Speaker of the House, John Boehner famously said, Democrats and Republicans should disagree but should not be disagreeable. That is not a particularly sophisticated nuance or thin line to walk. Why has it been so difficult, as of late?

George W. Bush (43) recently spoke about his father, George HW Bush’s (41) special relationship with President Bill Clinton. Bush 41 and Clinton were political rivals who faced off in a close election in 1992. But what GW Bush (43) explains is that Clinton never gloated in his success over GHW Bush (41). In fact, Clinton sought out Bush 41’s counsel and advice regularly, which lead to a deep friendship and shared admiration.

When Richard Nixon earned the Republican nomination (not the presidency) in 1968, Democratic President, Lyndon B. Johnson hosted him at his Texas ranch to prime him on domestic and foreign affairs, should he indeed win the White House. Bear in Mind, Kennedy and LBJ beat out Nixon in 1960 for the Presidency. Still, they both had the grace to overcome political differences and the ability to rise up over partisanship for the best interests of the country. I am old enough to remember Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, as well as Justices Scalia and Bader Ginsberg, expressing deep differences and contradicting political and judicial opinions, yet they shared a deep respect, kindness and even friendship, one to the other.

Fast forward to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bro-hugging then President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or more recently, President Biden standing shoulder to shoulder with Florida Governor DeSantis in the wake of Hurricane Ian. These events should be innocuous and common place where our President-Republican or Democrat- stand with any people or places hurt by tragedy. Instead, and quite sadly, they are used as a cudgel to weaponize and demonize the embrace of the “enemy.”

Political difference is a good thing, and our country should continue to have vigorous and passionate debate, and be vocal about issues that we are passionate for and against. We should be unwavering in our views and be vibrant in our display of ideals and values. But we still need to display empathy to hear and appreciate another side, even if it is not our side. We can still hear and act with compassion and be kind in our work for the people we represent.

We have learned the hard way that the political climate today of name calling, State of the Union tearing and mean-spirited labeling along with disparaging accusations will yield further divide and demonization. We do not need to wait until an elected official needs CPR on the house floor for us to meld our blue and red to a single color of purple.

When having to decide which country I want my kids to inherit, undoubtedly, I want the Damar Hamlin America that rallied around hope and believes in something greater for our collective whole. What I want my elected officials, ranging from the town council all the way to those inhabiting the abode on Pennsylvania Avenue to realize, is that we do not need to have ‘either-or.’ Indeed, all of America can and should be the Damar Hamlin America – filled with love, empathy, support, hope and understanding, even if we are not all Buffalo Bill fans.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner