Shemot 5781 | January 8, 2021
I want to share a story from the Talmud (Masechet Makkot) that has been swirling about in my mind for the past 36 hours. The story is below, and I used some editorial license in my translations.
It once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking towards Jerusalem soon after the destruction of the Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw (which you can still see clearly today from that peak) the site of where the Temple once stood, they tore their garments, in keeping with religious practices of mourning. They then went down to the scene of the destruction. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of what was once the Holy of Holies, (which was tantamount to us today, seeing rats infest this space that used to be sanctified and holy). The Rabbis all began weeping among the ruins, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. The rabbis asked Akiva: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: For what reason are you weeping?
They replied to him: We are weeping because this is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (and now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep? Meaning – this used to be our holy place and now it is in ruins and infested with unseemly animals).
They said to Rabbi Akiva: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva retorted to them: I am laughing, as it is written when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah”
Meaning, Akiva was laughing because he felt that this moment of sadness and destruction brought each person closer to redemption and unity and an opportunity to rebuild the Temple and have Jewish unity.
In the wake of the unspeakable siege on the Capitol and appalling assault on our democracy, I am not sure if I should weep or laugh. I am puzzled as to whether this is the end of a terrible period and the beginning of something great or the end of something great and the beginning of something terrible.
When stewing over the recent events and pondering over this ancient story, I have come to realize that if we are to laugh or cry, to be like Rabbi Azaryah or Rabbi Akiva, is ultimately up to us to not only decide but to shape the reality we hope for. The world we want to live within is far more than something we wish or yearn for. It is something we shape with our words, our hands, our actions, and our hearts. Change does not happen through hope. It starts with hope and then is materialized with our energy and actions and work.
I have decided that I want to laugh, like Rabbi Akiva, and believe that our best days are in front of us. I want this to be a moment of national unity and collective resolve. The future I want to see come to fruition is one of possibility, peace, love, tolerance, and compassion. Today, I will begin the hard work of turning those hopes into reality. My hand outstretched and wide open towards you to join me in this sacred journey. The work begins now.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Vayechi 5781 | January 1, 2021
“Ascending in Holiness” | December 18, 2020
Last night we lit 8 candles and celebrated the miraculous light of Chanukah with the fullness of our Chanukiyot. The talmud (Shabbat 21b) teaches that we count up, lighting an additional candle each night of Chanukah, because of the principle “we should always ascend in holiness, and never descend.” We should always build-up, increasing the light we produce, and doing our best never to decrease that light.
On Chanukah, increasing that light and building up that holiness is easy. All we have to do is add another candle to our Chanukiyah. But constantly building on the good we do is a serious challenge in our day to day lives. How do we ensure that we are always increasing our good?
The Shimon Ben Azzai teaches that a mitzvah brings about another mitzvah (Avot 4:2). One good deed begets another. Why? Some say that cycle of virtue is achieved because we are seeking after the next good feeling associated with another good deed. And some say it’s because doing the right thing makes it easier to find the next right thing to do. Personally, I believe it’s due to acculturation. We slowly but surely find that the more good we do requires diminishing amounts of mental effort. Like learning fingering on a musical instrument or posture while working out, it becomes muscle memory. Mitzvot are easier to accomplish when we’ve been doing our practice.
This Tuesday we saw another excellent example of how practice builds habits. Again, our community came out in droves (and drives) to drive through our parking lot to do another mitzvah, donating boxes upon boxes of new toys to children and families in need. It’s hard to fill up a pickup truck, but as you can see from the picture, the bed, the backseats, and even the front seat were needed to make room for the donations.
May we all find that the next mitzvah is even easier to achieve, and may the heights of light, holiness, and generosity we achieved during Chanukah only increase in the months to come.
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
“The Extra Candle of Hope” | December 11, 2020
CLICK HERE TO WATCH HANUKKAH MESSAGE FROM RABBI KIRSHNER
Ask any child in America, even those who are not Jewish, and they will proudly and correctly claim that Hanukkah is a holiday that is celebrated for eight consecutive nights. Most could even tell you that the reason the holiday lasts for eight nights is that when a cruse of oil was found with enough oil to last for one night, miraculously it lasted for seven more nights, totaling eight. This results in the eight-day long holiday for the Jewish people, called Hanukkah!
So why do we celebrate eight nights of the holiday when the miracle was really only seven nights long? The oil lasting for one night was no surprise. It was the seven nights after that made the moment magical.
I want to propose a reason for eight days of celebration, blessings, and lighting.
Even the oil lasting one night is something we should not take for granted. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that there are no guarantees in life. Dori’s sweet grandmother, Bubbie Freeda, of blessed memory, used to often quip, “in life, we can only guarantee death and taxes” – and even the latter was postponed because of COVID-19. The oil being pure enough to ignite and last for even one night is a blessing we cannot take for granted. As a result, we include it in the miracle of this holiday and the blessings of the lights that abound for each of the eight nights.
It is in that spirit that I want to make a Hanukkah request from you.
Over the past decade, our congregation has chosen a project to support for the Hanukkah season. In years past, we have purchased an Ambu-Cycle in Israel, stocked food pantries, planted forests in the Holy land, adopted battalions in the IDF, purchased a car in Poland for the JCC, and even supplied thousands of meals on wheels to the hungry and homebound. All of these acts of Hesed make me so proud to be the rabbi of OUR community and to know the generosity and goodness that lives in the souls of our holy congregation.
This year, however, in place of earmarking our support to help elsewhere, I am encouraging each of you on this holiday of lights, to consider an end of year contribution to Temple Emanu-El in Closter. In fourteen years of being your rabbi, this is the first communal ask I am making for our congregation for a difficult moment and not an opportunity. This has been an exceedingly challenging year for our Temple on many fronts, but especially in regard to our fiscal duties. Because of COVID-19, we have offered each congregant a 25% dues reduction, we have lost close to 10% of our membership and had the added expense of purchasing protective measures throughout our campus to provide safety during educational and ritual gatherings, including the added but necessary expense of streaming the High Holiday services to our membership. Meanwhile, what we have offered to our community has only been increased during this time and we promise to endeavor to keep this pace and offerings for as long as we are in these unusual circumstances.
You can make donations by Credit Card by clicking here or sending a check to Temple Emanu-El, or by transferring stocks by emailing Jeanine Corrubia at, firstname.lastname@example.org, for detailed instructions.
Our congregation and the many programs and opportunities it provides is much like the first candle of Hanukkah – a blessing that we cannot take for granted and is not guaranteed. Please help us this year meet our challenges so that we can continue to light the way for our congregation and community to follow in the months and years to come.
Wishing you all a Happy Hanukkah and a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
“Use Your Senses and Join us for Havdalah” | December 4th, 2020
Everyone knows that there are 5 basic human senses -sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Each sense is a crucial pathway for us to find our place, make meaning, and enjoy the physical world we live in. They’re so basic to most of our experiences that too many of us don’t even think about how important and cherished they really are.
Thankfully, for many of us, our senses are finely honed and work well, so we rarely have a need to think deeply about them. That’s one place where Havdalah, the special service which formally ends Shabbat, comes in.
Havdalah is a multisensory experience that usually takes place in the near-dark of candlelight. When our main sense, sight, is weakened because of the lack of light during Havdalah, our other senses are given a boost. Havdalah encourages us to deeply smell the bouquet of the spices, taste the fruity sweetness of the grape juice, enjoy the harmony of the musical prayer, and to see the beauty of a multi-wicked flame, and feel the soft heat of the candle’s fire.
In just a few short minutes at the conclusion of every Shabbat, we’re commanded to take an opportunity to reconnect with our senses and give thanks for the miracle of distinction and discernment that Shabbat provides.
Starting this Saturday night at 5:30 pm, we’re going to be offering a virtual Havdalah service every week, to briefly come together as a community, to add a little light in the darkness, and to recharge all of our senses. I hope you’ll join us.
New Service! Havdalah, at 5:30 PM
Join us virtually by clicking here
Phone (646) 558-8656
Meeting ID: 963 0913 5246
Passcode if prompted, Havdalah
Shabbat Shalom, and hope to see you on Saturday night to wish you Shavua Tov,
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg