“Endings and Beginnings” | October 14th
Whenever I near the end of a really great novel, there is always a sense of sadness because I know that no matter how engrossed I was in their world, the chances of me returning there are always slim. I rarely get the chance to reread the stories I truly love. And I know that no matter how much I love a book, over the course of time, I will inevitably forget the details that once seemed so important to me. I will reach back in my memory banks to try to remember how each character’s story ended, and inevitably the answer will escape me. And so, as I close the book’s cover one final time, I regretfully bid farewell to those characters who I got to know intimately well over the course of those days, weeks or months.
This week, as we end the annual Torah reading cycle by celebrating the holiday of Simchat Torah, we will say goodbye to Moses and the Israelites. But something tells me we have not seen the last of them. That bittersweet feeling of finality, thankfully, is not something we experience as the Torah comes to its close. We can take comfort in the fact that we will see these familiar names again in just a matter of months and that we will now delve deeply into the complex and beautiful stories of Genesis.
And for me, the beauty of revisiting these stories is that we have the opportunity to spend time with our old friends once again each year. When we return to these deeply layered stories and characters, we discover something new in the text that speaks to us in a way it may not have the year before. While the text does not change, we do. We gain a new appreciation and understanding of them each and every time. As we evolve and the world changes around us, so too does our perspective on these foundational stories. The morals and values that we have collectively been reading about for thousands of years can still resonate in new ways. And so, as we prepare for Simchat Torah and the end the book of Deuteronomy that will lead directly to us beginning again with Genesis and the creation of the world this week, I hope that you find both familiar comfort and new meaning coming back to these stories, whether for the first, fiftieth or hundredth time.
Rabbi Gabe Cohen
“All Sukkot, both great and small” | October 7th
Can you build a sukkah on top of a camel’s back? Well sure, one could. And not that I’m speaking from experience, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it!
Of course the image is absurd, but this question asked by the rabbis in the mishna underscores the desire for our sages to get to the bottom of exactly what a sukkah is. Every aspect of its construction has to meet certain criteria to determine if these temporary dwellings are kosher or not. But within those strict parameters, the more you look, the more variety you can find.
A few years ago, while living in an apartment in Jerusalem, our building put up a sukkah in the driveway that was right next to the dumpster and literally could not fit more than three people. It had no additional adornments and was just big enough to enter for a minute or two in order to say the appropriate blessings. The Waldorf Astoria hotel in Jerusalem, on the other hand, set out to build the biggest sukkah in the world–the hotel lobby was designed with a retractable glass ceiling that allows it to house a breathtakingly beautiful sukkah each year! Something I have always loved about this holiday is the fact that Sukkot (plural of sukkah) may come in all sizes, but the message behind them is always the same. During sukkot, we are tasked not only with imagining what our sukkah will look like, but more importantly, who will fill it. During the holiday, we remember the vulnerability that the Israelites felt as they wandered through the desert, and that is why we open our temporary dwellings to those who need a place to sit and eat. It is a holiday about being welcoming and open to all.
Appropriately, another name for the holiday of Sukkot is Z’man Simchatenu–the time of our joy–and we accordingly celebrate the holiday with great happiness. Whether you are in the world’s smallest or biggest sukkah–or more likely somewhere in between–I hope you all have the opportunity to celebrate the holiday this year with great joy!
Rabbi Gabe Cohen
“Back to Basics” | September 30th
I spent my first year of college in Israel, at Bar Ilan University. I had been a product of Jewish Day School for all my life and read and spoke Hebrew well and was familiar with many Jewish texts and jargon. Still, when arriving in Israel for the first time (32 years ago) I – along with dozens of my new classmates – realized that all the practice and experience in Day School did not prepare us for the pace of Hebrew or the street verbiage that was spoken. The University decided to get a high level Ulpan teacher to help the advanced students integrate into spoken Hebrew and other language basics.
On the first day of said Hebrew class, our teacher sat with us, spoke with us, and quickly assessing our varied but intense background was unsure where to begin. She took a leap of faith and decided she would start at the VERY beginning, with how to write the Hebrew alphabet. It sounded so elementary to most of us and waste of time. We had covered this in second grade. Why now in college? But, within minutes, we learned that much of how we crafted the letters was wrong and we were writing cursive correctly and uniformly. Within weeks, we were all speaking, writing and engaging in Hebrew like natives.
While my Hebrew has vastly improved over the years – written and spoken – the lesson of that moment is timeless. We often need to turn back to basics even when it seems elementary or unnecessary. When doing so, it reminds us of the fundamentals and syncs us back up to a shared rhythm.
The essence of the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah – The Ten Days of Awe – is a similar experiment. Sometimes, we best move forward by returning to basics, reminding ourselves of the fundamentals and syncing us back into a shared cadence and rhythm.
As we enter this Shabbat Shuva – a Sabbath of Retuning and repentance – do not be afraid to get back to the basics or the tenets and the essentials that we learned long ago but our core to our being and central to our future.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
“Keep on Dreaming” | September 23rd
59 years ago, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 250,000 people in Washington, DC. I was not alive at the time but from those that I have been privileged to hear from that were in attendance, it was a moment where the world knew history was being made. Indeed it was.
The speech speaks about King’s dream for a better tomorrow. It was offered four years before his life was ripped away by an assassin’s bullet. But his hope and perseverance continues on even today.
In the Torah portion we read this Shabbat – Nitzavim Vayelech – Moses is aware that he will not see the full promise of redemption and homecoming. He knows his death is imminent. He shares his hopes and dreams with his community and his desire for them to continue on.
This is the season for renewing hopes and dreams and reflecting on journeys. It is the time of appreciating life and accepting the uncertainties that lie ahead. The eve of Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to ponder and ask tough questions: Did we reach our destinations? If we did, how would we know? Is Dr. King proud of where we have come or does he think there is much more road ahead? What would Moses say? What do you have to say for your journey? Have you arrived or is there more road ahead?
Fifty-nine years later, is our world more united or divided? Have we replaced race with political stripe? Have we supplanted color with religious affiliation? Have we advanced or merely pivoted?
In the book of Psalms we celebrate the dreamers,
“A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (Psalms 126:1-2). “The verb tense is confusing. It is a vision of the future that references the past. How timely!
Dreamers are people that use their past to better shape their future. Dreamers are influenced by challenge and adversity and know the road ahead is paved by the steps in the road already traveled. Dreamers hope and aspire for something better but, they learn best from their own encounters. Were we perfect and experienced in every path then the need for repentance, renewal and apology would be obsolete as would the very purpose of the High Holiday season.
Moses and Reverend King both realized that. They both dreamt and hoped but knew it was not up to them to complete the task. It is up to us to continue it for them.
On this Shabbat celebrating 59 years of dreams fulfilled and hopes still in our cross-hairs, on the eve of the New Year of 5783 and reading the portion of Nitzavim Vayelech about Moses’ swan song and hopes and aspirations for the generation that continues – may we never cease dreaming and taking steps forward to achieve those dreams while fully aware that our past paves the way for tomorrow. Kadima – Onward!
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
“Comings and Goings” | September 16th
As we continue to progress through the fifth and final book of the Torah in this year’s annual cycle, we see the Israelites prepare for what is next when they will end their 40 year journey and finally cross the border from the wilderness into Israel.
The name of this week’s Torah reading, taken from the first few words of the parsha, “ki tavo/when you arrive,” sets the scene for this preparation as the opening words clue us into the importance of beginning things the right way. That is especially pronounced when we consider the name of last week’s parsha, “ki teitzei/when you go” alongside this week’s, as we begin to see the Torah giving us a message about leaving and entering.
And playing even more into this theme, the phrase that often adorns the entrances to Sukkot, “blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings,” is also taken from this week’s Torah reading. This theme of blessed comings and goings feels so resonant to me, as I am at the beginning of a new journey of my own.
For those of you reading this Shabbat message and wondering who that happy smiling face is in the picture above, it’s because this is my first time writing the Rabbi’s Weekly
message! I only just arrived at Temple Emanu-El in the role of Assistant Rabbi
this past summer. And as the name of this parsha, “when you arrive” suggests, the way we both welcome others and are welcomed is so important. A warm embrace, like the one I have received from this community, tells us that there will always be those who are there to make our arrivals easier. In that spirit, I want to use this space to thank all those who have been so welcoming to me and to my family. Coming all the way from the faraway land of New York City to Closter has been a major adjustment to say the least, but we have been blessed to have tremendous support from the synagogue and community that has made for a smooth, happy and successful arrival.
And I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome all of the many, many families who, like me, are new to Temple Emanu-El this year. New members are joining the synagogue every day, and as we prepare for the start of a new year with Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, we have the sacred opportunity to welcome new faces with open arms. May all those who are arriving here be greeted only with blessing, warmth and kindness.
Rabbi Gabe Cohen