Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
October 30, 2020

Lech Lecha 5781 | October 30th, 2020

My father taught me, “A liar has to have a good memory.” That was his less than subtle teaching that honesty is always the best policy. Living in a time when facts and honesty seem to be inappropriately put into a world of acceptable debate, has made the notion of truth-telling more political and less objective.

The Mishna tells us the only circumstance where we are permitted to lie is if and when we were to see a bride on her wedding day, and she looks unseemly (something in my officiating at hundreds of weddings I have yet to ever witness) we are permitted to bend the truth and say the bride is beautiful to protect form her feelings being hurt on this special day.  But, we are not permitted to say any other form of lie that allows for gaining a system, a false narrative, or an untruth to prevail.

We read in Parshat Lech Lecha when Abram arrives in Canaan with his wife, Sarai, the first thing he does is leave toward Egypt to avoid the famine in the land. When he arrives there he tells his wife, “pretend to be my sister, not my wife. That way, if men are attracted to you they will not kill me for you.” Upon later learning that Sarai is indeed Abram’s wife and not his sister, Abimelech is indignant and upset and demands to know why Abram was not honest? Why did Abram not just share the truth? Inside the text, there is a painful pause between the question and the answer.

People lie for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes people lie because they think others cannot handle the truth. Sometimes they do it because the lie sounds better or it hides the pain of reality or perhaps it helps them believe the unbelievable. For me, truth-telling is paramount, even if we do not want to hear what that truth is. It is fundamental to me as a Jew and as a human being.

My mentors taught me that when we are honest, we do not need to rely as much on our memory and our head is assured to rest on a soft pillow each night. Isn’t’ that the truth?!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

October 24, 2020

“Blessing of the Rainbow – Noach 5781” | October 23rd, 2020

I was hoping it would rain today. Not because I particularly care for the rain, or I really think my garden needs it, but because I was hoping that we might get to see a rainbow in anticipation of Parshat Noach. According to our Parsha, after the Flood nearly destroyed the planet and humankind, God promised Noah that God would never bring such destruction upon the Earth again. The rainbow, that beautiful bow of light and color, would serve as a visible reminder of God’s promise, even after the most dangerous of storms.

Noticing rainbows and remembering the story of the first one is so important to Judaism that there’s a special blessing just for seeing one:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלקינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם זוכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתו וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרו.

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps God’s promise.

Normally, when it comes to mitzvot and saying blessings, we always try to make sure to tell other people about the opportunity to say a blessing or do a mitzvah. We want to share the wealth and love. But there’s actually a debate in Judaism about whether you’re supposed to tell your friends that there’s a rainbow.

One side says that rainbows are actually something scary, a reminder of past destruction and loss, and therefore not something we want to share. Telling a friend about a rainbow, even though it might be beautiful is kind of like sharing bad news.

The other side says that even though rainbows are supposed to remind us of the lowest point in human history (when things got so bad God decided to hit the reset button on planet Earth)- they’re a reminder that things can turn around. Noah was righteous, the animals were saved, the world didn’t end, and humanity got to restart and make the world a better place. The rainbow tells us that just like God will always remember God’s promise, we can always fix things.

So the next time you see a rainbow, whether in the sky or crayon-drawn hanging in a window, tell your friends about it. Remind them, and yourself, that we should always keep our promises, and there’ always a chance to fix things.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

October 16, 2020

“Acknowledging your Own Good – Bereisheet 5781” | October 16th, 2020

The human condition craves positive reinforcement. I used to love those rare times when a teacher marked my test with a high score and some words of encouragement. When I was younger I lived for the coveted smiley face on the top corner of the page. We all like it when our doctor acknowledges the advances we have done to protect our health. Customers who articulate their appreciation for an employee makes all feel good because we all crave positive feedback. But, how often do we recognize our own achievements and accomplishments? When others shower us with praise,  we adore it. When we do it for ourselves, we can appear self-serving and self-promotional. It should not be so.

When God creates the world, after each day of creation, God pauses and says “It was good.” The only exception was on Tuesday where God said it was good twice and on Friday when God said it was “very good.”

All of us have what to be proud of in our lives. Of course, we have regrets too and things we can change and make better. But, if we are created in God’s image, let us be God-like and notice the good within ourselves and see positivity and blessings that we created, encouraged or manifested. Let us pause and be proud of our work and exclaim loudly, “it is very good!”

Sharing these feelings and blessings will be contagious and infect us all for more happiness and positivity in our world.

Along those lines, we are starting a new program that we hope you will watch, share, and participate in. Each week, select members of our community representing diverse demographics of our Temple will share brief reflections on a central theme in the Torah portion. Watch this week and join us for the weeks to come!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

October 9, 2020

“Simchat Torah is NOT Cancelled” | October 9th, 2020

Simchat Torah is NOT Cancelled

What is Simchat Torah?  Most likely you know it as a holiday that celebrates the completion of the weekly cycle of Torah readings; however, you might not realize that it is not its own holiday. It is actually an extension of Shmini Atzeret, a separate holiday from Sukkot that takes place at the end of the Sukkot holiday.  In fact, in Israel, what we call Simchat Torah is combined into one day with Shmini Atzeret with no “second” day focused solely on the celebrations that we have all come to know and enjoy.

So if Simchat Torah is really not a holiday, and if this year we didn’t really finish reading the Torah since COVID-19 has interrupted our weekly reading of the Torah, why not just cancel Simchat Torah, and say “let’s just wait until next year?”  I believe that there are two reasons: One, we are not celebrating the reading of the Torah, but rather the learning of Torah, and that NEVER stopped even during the height of this pandemic. Our synagogue community has continued to engage in the learning of Torah by zoom, emails, and even in person when possible. Therefore on that level, Simchat Torah should be celebrating all that we learned and gleaned from our rich tradition.

The second reason is that while it is true that we will complete the reading of the Book of Deuteronomy and start the reading of the Torah portions from the beginning of Genesis – Bereisheet, Simchat Torah is not a celebration of the end of study.  We celebrate returning to the beginning of the weekly Torah portions and learning more lessons that will give us an insight into the Will of the Divine, and a pathway to righteous living. So while it is true that unfortunately due to COVID-19 we will not be congregating in large numbers on Saturday night or Sunday morning, we will not be dancing with the Torah, and we will not be sugaring up our children with handfuls of sweet confections (maybe that’s a good thing?), we will still rejoice in what the year has to bring through Jewish study, learning, and living.

I encourage each and every one of us to see the year ahead as another, new opportunity to open our hearts and minds to the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, and may it guide us in the year ahead. I also look forward to a year filled with great Jewish learning whether it be in our Religious School, at our local Jewish Day Schools, zoom classes with our clergy, or perhaps in prayer with us in person or online.  All are forms of study and should be celebrated even this year on Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah is not canceled this year, but hopefully, next year it will be more fun and festive.

Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg

October 2, 2020

“Learning the Formulas” | October 2nd, 2020

Learning the Formulas

I remember as a high schooler kvetching a lot about math class. What good was learning all of these formulas for – did I ever use them after the test? Was I ever really going to apply what I was learning to the real world? We can learn a concept or memorize it all we want, but it’s only when we put it into action will always make the learning last and the concept stick.

The 5 days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot have always baffled me – after spending so much time and effort in shul on the High Holidays, why does the Jewish calendar place another festival so soon after Yom Kippur? Isn’t it a little much? Can’t we have a little break before we need to prepare holiday menus, build a sukkah, purchase a lulav and etrog, and get ready to head back to services? What’s the rush?
On the Yamim Noraim, we study the concepts of human frailty, the precariousness of our lives, and the importance of righteous behavior. We practice them over and over in shul as if it’s school – trying to get the formulas right. And Yom Kippur is like the final exam – that big test at the end of the year that makes sure we actually have learned the formulas for a good life.

But it’s not until Sukkot that we take those formulae and apply them in the real world. On Sukkot, we live and eat in flimsy and impermanent structures, to remind ourselves of the precariousness of our own dwellings and lives. We traditionally welcome others into our Sukkot to put into practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), and as a stand-in for other good deeds. And we try as hard as we can to celebrate all of the blessings we have in our lives with joy and sweetness, just like we promised to do on Rosh Hashanah. Sukkot is about translating all of the lessons and formulas of the High Holidays into the real world of our lived experience. We rush right into Sukkot to make sure the lessons are still fresh in our minds after the big test, to make sure we do them right when we apply them in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom, & may your High Holiday learning find real-world applications over Sukkot,

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg