Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
June 8, 2017

DYING TO GET CLOSER TO DEATH? PARASHAT BEHA’ALOTCHA – June 8, 2017 / 14 Sivan 5777

What is the Jewish fascination with death? We seem to put a disproportionate amount of energy towards the notion of memory and visiting (and re-visiting) places of death.  My loved ones that have left this world are interred in Michigan. Nary a time passes that I am in the vicinity of their final resting place that I do not make a journey to pay my respects. Often, I make special pilgrimages just for the occasion. I am not quite sure why I do. It is not to be closer to their presence or memory. That happens to me intermittently at a least expected moment on any given day or location. What force drives me there to that physical space? Does that same force drive me to visit living relatives more? Why not?

We seem to be preoccupied with death on more than a personal level. Take a first timers trip to Israel, as a case in point. Staples of the visit are undoubtedly Masada, which is an homage to mass suicide and Rabin Square, where the Prime Minister was assassinated in 1995. Everyone, regardless of how short their visit to Israel might be, makes an obligatory stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. Why are we eager to tour death and murder? To further this point, more Jewish visitors have frequented Auschwitz and Birkenau then they have the Jewish synagogues in that are growing today.

Don’t think that I am numb to these mile markers in history and the significance they hold for our people. Each of these moments, and countless others that are riddled with pain, suffering and death shaped the Jewish community we are today, both collectively and individually. But is it our focus? Should it be?

When a head of state visits Israel for 36 hours or less, and time allots for one visit outside the traditional handshakes and meetings with the Prime Minister, should that leader lay a wreath at Yad Vashem or visit a technological start up that is a cutting-edge address in curing cancer? Which one tells the Jewish people’s story better?

I suppose that question is tantamount to defining Judaism as either a people or a religion, when indeed we are both. So too, when it comes to Israel we are a country as much fashioned by our past as we are our future. So why the fixation on what happened to us as opposed to what we are making happen to the world.

A few years ago, I visited a water reclamation plant in Israel that was recapturing 90% of Israel’s waste water and purifying it for use with irrigation and farming. This technology is being exported to drought-ravaged countries to help them better conserve resources. What is painful and fascinating to me at the same time is that I have never been back to visit again. Most of my friends and colleagues have barely even heard of it. But I have been to Masada more times than I have fingers and toes to count. The same is true for Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl and Rabin Square.

Death is fascinating because it is the unknown and the great equalizer. Death’s permanence dials into our emotions.  But why do we keep coming back to tell our story through and remind ourselves of our origins through the visitation of death?

One of the widening divides between people who were born before the Yom Kippur War and those that were born after, has much to do with how we externalize memory and death. College kids today want to be inspired, not depressed. They want to dream more than they want to reminisce. That is not only a result of their age but a time and environment of where and when they joined the Jewish world. It has nothing to do with apathy towards Judaism. It is about the lens through which different generations tell their stories.

Indeed, Santayna was prophetic when he said those that cannot remember the past will be doomed to repeat it. We can never forsake our past. However, it might be prudent for us to devote a similar energy to our future and those that are living, as we assign to reflecting on our past. It could bridge the gap between the generations and inspire us to dream more and reach further for our future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 30, 2017

Shavuot: Tears of… – May 30, 2017 / 5 Sivan 5777

Jewish parents who witness their young kids receiving their copy of the Torah or Siddur are sometimes moved to tears. Why?

Joy and pride well up within at a child’s school graduation. But at a Kabbalat HaTorah or Kabbalat HaSiddur, there’s a third emotion: assurance that the Jewish traditions will continue. This emotion, I believe, conjures tears. We also feel it at a Bris/Baby naming, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and wedding. It’s no coincidence that some people take out tissues there too.

This week’s holiday of Shavuot marks the anniversary when the ancient Israelites received the original Torah in the desert. A wonderful Midrash imagines the following dialogue between the Israelites and G-d at Sinai immediately before Revelation:

When Israel stood to receive the Torah, the Holy One said to them: “I am prepared to give you My Torah. Present to Me good guarantors that you will observe and study the Torah and I shall give it to you.”

They said: “Our ancestors are our guarantors.”

The Holy One said: “Your ancestors are not sufficient guarantors. Bring Me good guarantors, and I shall give you the Torah.”

They said: “Our prophets are our guarantors.”

The Holy One said: “The prophets are not sufficient guarantors. Bring Me good guarantors and I shall give you the Torah.”

They said: “Indeed, our children will be our guarantors.”

The Holy One said: “Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:24).

This is remarkable. Our ancestors aren’t good enough? Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah are lacking?

Our prophets don’t make the cut? Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel fail to measure up?

They are superseded by…our kids? Our kids?

That’s right.

The tradition exists only when it’s continued. And only the next generation – every next generation – can perpetuate it. So today, the most important generation in Jewish History is…our children.

Many parents have expressed to me a wish that their own Jewish educations had been more robust and fulfilling. All of us – whether our own Jewish upbringings met our needs or not – have the capacity to provide exactly that to our own children. Actually, it’s our responsibility.

Shavuot reminds us that it’s always the right time to renew our commitment to Jewish Education for ourselves and our kids. The Temple is committed to helping however we can, with Religious School, youth programming, and services. But the most important Jewish educators are you, the parents.

Parents who cry when their children receive these books understand this well and can’t contain the feeling that, in that moment, they are succeeding mightily. It’s as close to Sinai as we can get.

The Holy One said: “Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you.”

Chag Sameach.
Rabbi Alex Freedman

May 24, 2017

50 Years of a Reunified Jerusalem – When Dreams Become Reality – May 24, 2017 / 28 Iyar 5778

For over two-thousand years, Jewish people around the globe dreamt. We are dreamers that perpetually hoped for a better tomorrow, to be free of persecution and most of all, to return to Israel and Jerusalem, our homeland and capital, from which we were exiled.

Dreaming and hoping were fixed parts of our liturgy. Thrice daily, we prayed to be unified in Israel among Jews of all backgrounds and stripes and to come back to Jerusalem.  Most notably, we closed Yom Kippur and Passover with words that underscored our collective hope: Next year in Jerusalem.

These repeated prayers and refrains were tantamount to our petitions for the Messiah: full of hope and optimism, yet tempered with the harsh reality which included an onslaught of suffering and pain to the Jewish people. But in 1948, and in 1967, those two calls were answered.

First, in a UN declaration on the 29th of November, 1947, which was followed by our Declaration of Independence, and 19 years later in the miraculous victory of the 6-day war. On the third day of battle during said war, June 7, Motti Gur, commander of the division that penetrated the Old City famously proclaimed, Har Habayit BeYadeinu! The Temple Mount is in our hands. I get chills even typing those words today.

The bravery of the soldiers, the courage of the leadership and the hand of God all seem to contribute to transforming thousands of years of dreams and prayers into a moment of reality. We were in Israel, in Jerusalem, at our holiest of sites. We were united at last.

It was those two moments in time – 1948 and 1967 – that brought a dream into a reality; a hope and vision into actuality. The words of our prayers were answered. The chants at the end of Seders and after the blasts of the shofar were no longer empty sounds or dreams like calling for the Messiah. They were realities that enabled and allowed each of us a share of our homeland.

Herzl warned us this would happen. He famously wrote, “if you will it, it is no longer a dream.” Ben Gurion later stated, that Israelis who do not believe in miracles, are not realists. Vision, courage and some chutzpah all made it happen for us to enjoy today.

On this 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, allow us a moment of pause to thank God for answering our prayers. Equally important, take time to realize the blessing we have been granted of living in a time when this dream and hope was made into reality. It is an important time for each of us to pivot in the meaning of our prayers today versus yesteryear and the potent reminder of the ability for our hopes and dreams to turn into reality.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 19, 2017

Parashat B’har-Bechukotai – May 18, 2017 | 22 Iyar 5777

There are two types of people that refuse to take vacations: those that think the office cannot function without them and those that worry the office can function without them.

Vacations and time away to unwind and disconnect are valuable. Interestingly, most Americans do not take all the time afforded them for vacation. More than 40% of people will forfeit time offered to them as paid vacation.  Research shows that vacation – or even ‘staycation’ – time can reduce stress, make your heart healthier and improves ones’ mental health and personal relationships.

A variation of the concept of vacation is introduced in the Torah portion of B’har, when we are told to leave the land unworked on the 7th year, which is known as a Shmita, or sabbatical. When seven cycles of seven is completed, that is a jubilee. When counting the Omer, the holiday of Shavuoth happens after 7 cycles of 7 (49) is completed when we count from Passover. After every six days of work, we are to rest. Every six years of working, we are to leave the field for a year.

Even the Torah knew the value of allowing our fields, animals and each of us the opportunity for a break. Time to unwind, disconnect and reconnect with those around us, nature and God was and still is seen as sacrosanct. That is the beauty of Shabbat and the purposeful disruption in the flow of the rough and tumble world we live in.

As we enter the season of warm weather and time away, let us remind ourselves of the value in relaxing, enjoying and appreciating all that is around us. Know that it is acceptable and encouraged to turn the engines to idle for a while and to center our bodies, our minds, our souls and relationships in the direction they need.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a restful vacation!

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 16, 2017

What to get for Mother’s Day? – Parashat Emor – May 11, 2017 | 15 Iyar 5777

I have an idea for all of us, young and old. It’s free. And somehow priceless.

It’s a promise to spend more time with her this upcoming year. If you live with her, it’s more quality time. If you live long-distance, there’s Face Time. But if you live close enough to drive, enjoy face time.

The Torah teaches us last week in Kedoshim to “revere your mother and father” (Lv. 19:3). In the Ten Commandments we are taught to “honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12). Rashi notices the order of parents changes. He observes that most people are more likely to revere (fear) their father and honor (love) their mother. The Torah inverts the natural order so that we regard each of our parents equally with love and reverence.

The Jewish holidays, which we review in this week’s Parshat Emor, serve as opportunities for renewal. For example, the High Holidays afford us the chance to start over by doing Teshuvah, repentance.

In a similar vein, Mother’s Day offers a chance to examine our relationship with our own mother and make it stronger.

Mother’s Day is like Thanksgiving: for some, it’s a commercialized holiday in which the fun lasts for a few hours. While for other people, it’s a door to a year lived more richly with others.

This one’s not up to Hallmark; it’s up to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alex Freedman