Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
October 15, 2018

Noach 5779 : “The Essence of a Seed” by Shiri Redensky

What is contained within a seed? The seed is the beginning of all living things. It is the embryo with the potential to become a person; it is the genetic material of a plant with the possibility of becoming a tree and it can also be the formation of a new idea.

Having recently completed the first parsha of the Torah, Bereshit, and moving into parshat Noah, we are on the heels of starting the Jewish New Year of 5779. In Bereshit, we learned about Hashem fashioning the world from nothingness. In this week’s parsha of Noah, Hashem is already bringing a flood to destroy not only all the inhabitants, but also all the walking and flying animals except for seven pairs of each clean animal and one pair of each unclean walking animals.  In addition, Noah was instructed to bring his household into the ark, including his three sons, his wife and his sons’ wives, for safety.

When the flood was over, Noah first sent a  raven to determine the outside flood status. The raven quickly returned. Then a dove, which returned with an olive branch. And finally, a dove that didn’t return and was believed to have found a dry piece of land upon which to settle. In an act of bringing cultivated vegetation to this newly formed world, Noah planted a vineyard. Surprisingly, he did not first plant wheat for bread and sustenance. Rather, he planted a vineyard, which we learned was for the pleasure of making wine. This lead Noah to become drunk and his son, Ham, “saw his father’s nakedness”. While this has different interpretations, most of them imply that Ham was inappropriate and disrespectful towards his father while he was in a drunken state.

With this passage, several thoughts stood out to me. First, Ham took advantage of someone in a drunken state. Second, that he acted inappropriately toward his father, the man who had just saved his life on an ark. But it’s my third thought that resonates most deeply.  Hashem destroyed the world as a results of mans’ evil inclination in the hopes for a better, more pure world for the future. However, it is in that same generation, even just after the flood, that mans’ evil inclination continued to persist.

Just like Hashem brought a flood to literally wash and bathe the world from its spiritual filth and start the world over again, so too do we get the chance to start over again during Rosh Hashanah. This holiday allows us to purify ourselves as we plant spiritual seeds for the Jewish New Year through Yom Kippur and beyond.  Purification through water is not just a Jewish concept,  but also even more universal.

For my undergraduate degree, I studied psychology at Boston University. One of my favorite classes was the psychology of film. A key learning was when an antagonist in a movie commits an act of evil, but suddenly develops a conscience, an element of water is often introduced. This is by design and I assure you, not by coincidence. They may be caught in a haphazard rain, taking a shower, washing their hands, or perhaps diving into a body of water.  This notion of purifying with water is not a foreign concept for Jewish people. We perform the purification ritual of rinsing our hands at the Seder table, we cast bread into the water for Tashlich, even after washing our hands with soap, we still rinse our hands without soap to purify before reciting the Hamotzi blessing over bread.

The villains in these movies often look at their hands as if to say… “these hands are mine and contain power within them. What will I use them for today?” In simpler terms, “will I use them for good or for evil?” Within this question is the seed from which mankind chooses his path forward. We can use our energy for acts of love and kindness or to tear this world apart limb by limb.

In the story of Noah, his sons clearly took different paths. Ham chose to mistreat his drunken father. On the other hand, Shem and Japhet worked together to protect their fathers dignity. As they cloaked their father, they consciously walked backwards, so as not to see their fathers nakedness and treat him with respect.  In the Hebrew text it says Vayikach Shem v’Japhet, which means “he” took the cloak. If both brothers cloaked their father together, wouldn’t it say Vayikchu Shem v’Japhet, meaning “they” took the cloak? When people come together and work toward a positive outcome, they are acting as one unified spirit in the likeness of Hashem.  Unlike Ham, who expressed his most base inclination, his brothers Shem & Japhet, were both well-intentioned, acting together to do the right thing. If more people in the world worked together for a common good, Hashem might not have needed to flood & purify the world.  At its core, working together to benefit the betterment of humanity is arguably one major lesson we can glean from Parshat Noah.

With that idea in mind, this past Tuesday, members of Temple Emanu-El ventured to Eden Village Camp in NY.  The intention of the trip was for the community to come together to both learn Torah and perform mitzvot. Eden Village is a Jewish camp predicated on a culture of kindness and gracefully captures the idea of bringing  spiritual purpose to physical work. We wasted no time and harvested what was left in the fields so that it could be brought to their local food pantry.

This act is a modern day expression of the mitzvah known as Pe’ah. It speaks to the issue of food justice whereby we dedicate a corner of our fields for the poor. Each of us has the responsibility of making food available to those less fortunate. Keeping in mind the expression “many hands make light work”, we were able to collect a bounty of vegetables by working together. This included three kinds of kale

(Red Russian, Dinosar and curly), scallions, cherry tomatoes and basil.

Next, we headed up the hill, just across from their picturesque lake, to their teaching kitchen. Have you ever seen a whole wheat stalk transformed into flour? We each received dried bundles and were instructed to detach the wheat from the stalks. Contained in the chaff are the wheat berries, which we learned to separate in a process called winnowing. Then, the wheat berries were prepared for being ground in a mortar and pestle. However, as anyone who has tried to do this can attest, it requires a tremendous amount of muscle. So, we collectively put our wheat into a machine, which in Hebrew is called a tochin. With our combined wheat berries, we were able to create a decent amount of flour, which we used to make bread. What made this bread so special was that it was produced through our collaborative efforts, both physical and spiritual.

When people come together and work toward a shared purpose, their combined efforts can yield an even more spiritually elevated outcome. Just as Shem & Japhet later received zechut (merit) for behaving virtuously with their father, we too are constantly being presented with opportunities to choose the higher path.  How we decide to nurture those opportunities in the moment will ultimately play a key role in determining our future. Although there will still be floods in this world, I believe that when we work together for the common good the rainbows will overshadow the stormy clouds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shiri Redensky

October 5, 2018

Bereisheet 5779 – A Second Look

Whenever I am channel surfing and the Godfather, 16 Candles or The Shawshank Redemption is on the TV, I stop and watch the movie from wherever I caught it. I have seen these movies collectively over a thousand times, at least, without exaggeration. I can quote to you every single line from all three at any place or time. I know the plot, the conflict and the ending of each movie, yet I still watch them over and over again. Many times, I notice something I missed before or see something from a new perspective that offers a new ray of light on the plot, character and/or moral of the story.

This Shabbat we start the Torah reading over from The Beginning – Genesis. Like these movies, (but on a different scale) I have read this book before. I know the plot, the conflict and the ending yet, every year I am magnetically pulled towards the texts and stories and characters and each New Year shines a light on the prism of our rich Torah and its many layers that offers us evergreen lessons and teachings.

I invite you to join us this year looking at the Torah through a new lens. E-mail me questions that arise or conclusions you have made that the light of 5779 offers. I am eager to continue to unpack the richness of our history and shared future.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

September 29, 2018

Be Happy – Chol HaMoed Sukkot & Simchat Torah 5779

As soon as the afternoon prayer for Yom Kippur concludes, the atmosphere in synagogue usually changes from somber and reflective to hopeful and jubilant. Many communities even dance for the concluding Neilah prayers. The closing blasts of the Shofar accompanied with ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ chants, are representative of the theme of hope and happiness to come.

Five short days after Yom Kippur we welcome the holiday of Sukkot. It is referred to in the liturgy as a time of our happiness. We conclude the holiday with a festival celebarting water and harvest (Shmini Atzeret) and the conclusion of the cycle of the Torah where we dance and sing and rejoice. The days post Yom Kippur are all about joy and happiness and festivity.

I do not think it is a coincidence that happiness and joy are the themes of the holidays that come on the heels of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I think the Sages of old were trying to tell us that in order to fulfill our personal goals for the year to come, we must orient ourselves towards happiness. A jubilant posture will help ensure that we see mundane acts as miraculous moments. Happiness helps us to focus on the big picture and not to sweat small stuff. Joy guides us towards meeting and exceeding goals by keeping what the Rabbis called, a cheerful disposition.

By aiming to be happy, especially when we reach the starting line of the New Year, we increase our chances to exceed our goals and ensure that our achievements are recognized by those we hope to better.

So, join us this holiday to continue our pursuit of happiness.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

September 22, 2018

Stay, Just a Little Bit Longer | Rabbi Paul Kerbel

While preparing for Yom Kippur the other day, I played some music videos on my computer screen.  Listening to music inspires me and helps me write.  After I played a video that someone sent me, the next song that appeared on my Facebook feed that automatically followed was Jackson Browne’s famous ballad, ‘Stay”, one of the most popular songs of the late 1970’s:  “Oh won’t you stay…just a little bit longer,  please please please, say you will.”

How appropriate for these four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot and then again, the days following Sukkot through Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  For those who observe these holidays traditionally, there is some groaning.  Why so many holy days and holidays in a row?  Couldn’t God and the Rabbis negotiated a deal to spread them out?  Our next Hebrew month, Heshvan, does not have any Jewish holidays!   So many vacation days taken, so much time away from work, so many interruptions, it’s hard to be an observant Jew!

But like Jackson Browne’s song, God has a special interest in hugging these holy days so close together.  You see, if we meant what we said on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and truly wish to change our ways and grow and develop as human beings, what better way to stay on the path of teshuvah, of return and repentance, than to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot by transforming our day of fasting into a holiday of happiness and rejoicing where we celebrate life and joy and have a few extra days of prayer and celebration to solidify our path to goodness and wholeness.

As we celebrate Shabbat this week and read the last chapters of the Torah read on Shabbat morning (the parasha ‘V’zot HaBracha’ is only read on Simchat Torah) we read a poem or song of Moses as his final tribute and ethical will to the people of Israel.  Moses began his journey out of Egypt with the “Song of the Sea” and now concludes his life journey with the poem/song/words of this parasha:  “Take to heart all of the words I charge you this day.”

The remainder of our Fall holy day season is all about singing and rejoicing, celebrating the beauty of Fall, the completion of the Summer harvests of beautiful and delicious fruit and vegetables and praising God for the many blessings we have in life and so often overlook.  So join us on Sukkot as we pray and eat in our Sukkah, shake the lulav and Etrog, and celebrate life and joy.  The Hallel prayers emphasize: “ these are the days that God has made for us, let us rejoice and be glad on them.”  Or as Jackson Browne urges us:  “Please stay, just a little bit longer.”

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach!

Rabbi Paul Kerbel

September 18, 2018

Yom Kippur 5779

There is a Jewish custom at funerals for loved ones to ask for Mechila, which is the Hebrew word for forgiveness, from the deceased. There is no prescription for the words that are uttered but, most people who follow this custom say something along the lines of, “I ask for your forgiveness for the things I have done and/or said to you that caused you harm. I ask for this forgiveness for the things I know of and did not know of.”

I am not a fan of this custom and rarely practice it with family’s who have suffered a loss.  The reason is because this request goes unanswered since we ask it of the dead. The idea behind this custom is that forgiveness must be granted since the deceased cannot respond.

While it is true that asking a dead person for forgiveness might orient us towards repentance and this formula certainly works for those that left us suddenly and without notice, it does not seem to cut the mustard for people we were in relationship with. In fact, it can feel like a cheap, cover-all way of apologizing instead of seeking true forgiveness and making amends while loved ones are alive.

The purpose of Yom Kippur is to not only fast but to restart our year understanding and appreciating the fragility of life, as if we are born again. We are reminded in the Unetaneh Toqef, that each day is a gift and we should live each day as if it were our last: to be free of regrets and to live each day saying, ‘I am sorry’ and ‘I love you,’ where and when applicable. If we do not, then we missed the calling of the Hazzan’s prayer that remind us of this important juncture and missed the opportunity to free ourselves of the heavy weight of regret, guilt and unforgiven sins.

Electronic mail is far from the ideal format for me to seek your forgiveness for the misdeeds I did as your rabbi this year and beyond but, it is the most efficient. Thank you for allowing me to use this vehicle of communicating for this occasion. I am sorry for those I have hurt this year knowingly and unknowingly. Perhaps I did not catch the urgency in your tone. Maybe I was flippant when you needed me to focus. I could have tried to be funny when you were looking for serious and constructive help. This list can go on. For these wrongs and more, I sincerely ask for your forgiveness and hope to be granted another chance to right those wrongs with each of you.

Further, I encourage all of us to aim to seek forgiveness and posture ourselves towards repentance by going to those we live with and are in relationship with and fulfill the challenging task of seeking forgiveness and granting atonement.

At the end of our days and the days of our loved ones, we should be able to stand over their final resting place without wishes that we said we were sorry while they were alive, free from regrets of not making amends. Rather, we should stand in contentment for having worked through challenges while alive and bringing our relationship to a higher level. Let us all orient ourselves toward that goal.

I wish you a meaningful fast and a good final inscription in the Book of Life.

G’Mar Hatima Tova

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner