Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
April 19, 2024

“Trying to Answer the Difficult Questions” | April 19th

Perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, Passover is for kids. Our seder tables are decked out in colorful masks, finger puppets, squeaking frogs and all other manner of fun trinkets. We sing songs to keep even the youngest seder guests engaged. And the search for the afikoman is there to keep kids interested and awake late into the night.

But there is of course one aspect of the Passover seder that we immediately associate most strongly with children–the four questions. Often recited by the youngest person in attendance, the four questions are about the innocence of children. The questions themselves have easy answers, so adults of all levels are able to teach their children year after year. But unlike the simplicity of the four questions, at every seder table this year, there are inevitably going to be questions asked that are impossible for us to find answers to.

When we wake up on Tuesday morning following the first seder, we will have passed another grim milestone since October 7 as we hit 200 days of the hostages being held in captivity. Seder tables around the world will set up physical and visible markers of those individuals who cannot sit at a seder table this year. Many tables will have an empty seat, symbolizing those who are still separated from their families this holiday. Others will serve less matzah than in a usual year, as a way to emphasize that feeling of emptiness. And there will be seder plates that add a pomegranate or flower in solidarity with the women who were abducted and subjected to unimaginable pain. When our youngest seder attendees see these changes, they will know that something is askew–that this year is not like all other years. And when that happens, they are going to ask questions.

It is our imperative not to shy away from the hard questions, but to instead use the seder as a way to teach our children in an age appropriate way. We are not going to have all the answers to the questions that I anticipate will come up. Even after all this time, it is impossible to wrap our adult heads around all that has happened and all that is still left unresolved. But we need to be prepared for those questions to come. Even if we do not feel like we can go into specifics, we can explain that this is a hard time for the Jewish people and that we are thinking about the people who cannot be with their families for the holiday. We are keeping them in our hearts and minds as we sit to celebrate a holiday of freedom while not everyone is free.

Another name for Passover is “z’man cheruteinu” – the time of our freedom. And so, as we grapple with these impossible questions, we hope that Passover 5784 lives up to that name for all of us.

Wishing you a Happy Passover.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

April 19, 2024

“Investment Advice” | April 12th

I have never taken a Series 7 examination, nor do I understand the Stock Market well. Still, I have some investment advice for you: Go long on young Jewish leaders.

Allow me to share why I am so bullish about our future.

I spent the past five days in Israel with almost two dozen Jewish American leadership aged 22-35. In each of them, and as a collective, I found a deep sense of curiosity, a rich appreciation of the complexity of Jewish life and Zionism, and an eagerness to roll up their sleeves and shape the world they deserve to inherit.

Much has danced around the media air waves of the challenges with today’s young people. The “woke” crowd that is lacking nuance, and who loves to rally around a good cause even when it conflicts with moral codes. We have been stymied as we meet a generation of college students who pay hundreds of thousands for an education but leave school with little wisdom.

That is NOT what I saw this week.

There will always be haters and those that are gunning against Israel or Jews. The world is brimming with people who are satiated on sound bites in place of data or facts. There are those who cannot do the right thing or even others who thinking they are doing the right thing but do horrible things to get there. Indeed, we have seen countless college kids and young people who have demonized Jews to recognize Palestinians. There have been those so opposed to murder that they call for “throwing Jews off cliffs.” We have witnessed the dehumanization of rape, kidnap and murder victims all for the sake of believing another side. The hypocrisy is too thick for a chain saw.

But during this time, we have not spent enough time focusing on those who have taken on the misguided shouters on campus. We have not applauded the students and leaders who muster the courage around the keg to push back on friends who are sharing un-and misinformed data. We haven’t harrumphed the twenty-somethings who have surfed the web and inundated social media with facts, figures and compelling memes that bring attention to hostages, victims and double standards. What about the throngs of young people who have sacrificed Saturday nights and Sunday mornings to rally, march, travel to DC, send in money and advocate for the proper Jewish and Zionist values they absorbed?

When with these young leaders in Israel we met with and supported first responders, baked pastries for soldiers with personal notes, shared cocktails and ideas with leadership that covers the gamut of left, center and right-wing views. We toured the street art that expresses the pain, frustration and hope of a young nation wounded and healing. We consoled bereaved families and prayed with those waiting for any sign of life from their loved ones. We visited the now holy site of the Nova festival and looked in the eyes of the posters of faces of almost 300 souls who amid dancing and singing and doing what young people should have been doing, were beaten, raped, brutalized and barbarically murdered. This youth looked at those posters and saw themselves. They saw their own social orbit.

Tomorrow’s leaders’ tears are salty too. Their worries are complex and their abilities to effect change are unparalleled.

On October 6th, the generation that most Israelis were ready to write off have since demonstrated a sense of leadership, patriotism and sacrifice that is unlike anything their ancestors could have dreamt. They are fighting a war more fiercely, smartly and selflessly than any other time in our history and the results are evident. They are holding their broken families together while continuing to learn and live.

Each dead soldier is more than our nation can bear. One more is too many. But the numbers of our enemy combatants that have been eliminated while our soldiers have bravely saved their fellows in arms is unmatched and a testament to their bravery and courage.

So many in our world, especially at times of difficulty and challenge, look to short our options. I would not. Perhaps there are some who we could cut our losses with and move forward. But this is a time to take stock (ahem) and invest big-time in our future. We have endless opportunities in front of us if we just look at the prospective and get in the market.

One person told me recently, we have grown to love wars that last six days and coffee that is made instantly. But the best things in life take time to age, mature and ferment. So too with our youth. Let’s give them the ingredients, support and resources to help us navigate this moment. Include them in our committees and commissions, our delegations, missions and gatherings and listen closely to their voice and be infected by their energy and courage, perspective and wisdom.

There is way more than a coalition of the willing. There is an army of people who if we make a small investment today will yield enormous dividends in our shared future.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

April 8, 2024

“Dealing with the Unfathomable” | April 5th

In this week’s parsha, we read what I would consider to be one of the most confounding and challenging scenes in the whole Torah. In the tenth chapter of Leviticus, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, make an offer of “strange” or “alien” fire, and then they are immediately killed by a flame sent by God. It is such a difficult scene to make sense of because their sin is not immediately clear. As readers, we are left scratching our heads as to what even happened. What did Nadav and Avihu do that was so bad that God had no choice but to kill them? Our commentators offer a number of explanations to try to clear up this confusion. Some say their mistake was giving an offer that they were not instructed to, while others say their sin was making this offer while drunk. But they can’t land on just one rationale for their deaths.

And the fact that there is no clear answer as to what really happened makes this tragedy that much worse. Nadav and Avihu were there one minute and then gone the next. And in the wake of these tragic deaths, Aaron is left dumbfounded. The Torah uses the words וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן/Vayidom Aharon–and Aaron was silent to describe his reaction. He was left utterly speechless as he became a parent tasked with the impossible job of mourning for his own children. He was left reeling as his world turned in a matter of seconds.

The only other time in the Tanakh that we see that identical construction of the word וַיִּדֹּם/vayidom is in the book of Joshua, in reference to the sun standing still and the moon halting its movement. In both of these instances, that verb is used when there is something unnatural in the world–when we go through something that has no sound or rational explanation. We all experience those moments when everything feels off. When we are faced with a tragedy that is so all encompassing that everything we think we understand is thrown off its axis. In the aftermath of October 7, a common refrain among Israelis was ein milim–there are no words. And like with Aaron, sometimes we can only respond to something with silence.

This scene is a reminder that our world does not always make sense. There are times when our faith is tested and we can only throw our hands up–when our words fail us. It is our natural instinct to want to have an answer to everything and to know that we can find some glimmer of hope and understanding in every challenge thrown our way. But Aaron’s reaction tells us that sometimes it is ok not to have the right words, and that we can be comfortable living in that discomfort, sometimes anger, and the silence.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

April 8, 2024

“Keeping the Flame Burning” | March 29th

In this week’s parsha, we read about one of Judaism’s most enduring images– the Eternal Flame. In the context of our Torah reading, it is a fire that burns on the altar constantly from night until morning for the purposes of making sacrifices to God. But of course we know the Eternal Flame best as the light that hangs above the Torah ark of every synagogue in the world.

As a kid, I remember hearing about a light that never goes out and letting my imagination run wild wondering how it could be that every synagogue had a light that never died. Was it an actual fire burning up there? Were we using some kind of magical lightbulb? Was God paying our electricity bills? I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept. But now as a rabbi, I finally learned the truth–it turns out it’s just a regular light in a special place. Those bulbs will die and need to be replaced like any other light. But there is also a beautiful lesson to be learned from that.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary about how the Eternal Flame kept burning in the Torah explains that it was not a flame that stayed at the same consistent level as I had once imagined. Rather, like any fire that burns too long, its intensity and heat would diminish as the hours went by and night turned to day. But every morning, the Priests would add new wood to keep those flames burning high. It was a fire that needed to constantly be rekindled to keep burning bright.

And that is much like our own lives. The constants in our lives don’t stay that way without dedication. Be it our marriages, our families, our faith, or our communities, everyday, we recommit ourselves to the things we love most. Rather than something we do once and never address again, it is our commitment and hard work that ensures their longevity, their strength, and their everlasting light.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

March 26, 2024

“Keep it Clean” | March 22nd

I am one of those people that if I do not shower at least once a day, I feel gross. In the summer months, I often shower twice a day. It just makes me feel clean, fresh and better equipped to handle whatever is in front of me and my agenda.

On the rare occasion that I do not shower but must interact with other people or engage in regular duties, I feel impure and unpleasant.

The Book of Vayikra -Leviticus in English – which is the third Book of the Torah and the name of the portion this week, begins with rules and laws of purification and how to keep our bodies and behaviors ritually clean. The ceremonies for becoming clean should we encounter a deceased person, or an impure animal is specific. More than its attention to detail is a valuable reminder that our bodies must feel pure and clean to fulfill our ritual obligations, including sacrifices to God.

Today, many things can make us pure and impure. Our thoughts, desires, actions, language and foods are just some of the many items that can lead to purity or impurity, holiness or the profane.

The rituals of the Temple of old no longer dictate the rhythms of our life. Still, our connection to pure thoughts, kosher food, clean language and a hygienic body all lend our actions to more holiness which in turn make us closer to God.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner