Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
November 2, 2018

“A CommUNITY” by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

Our hearts and souls are still reeling after the unspeakable happened in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania last Shabbat morning. Many are feeling  a mixture of emotions ranging from fear, anger, shock, resilience and hope in the wake of this act of anti-Semitism and domestic terrorism. I want to offer a few things to consider, for you to know and for you to do during the coming days and weeks as we slowly come to grips with our new reality.

  • Nothing is more important than your physical safety. The Temple spends more than 15% of  its budget on security. Every moment a light is on in the building, we have armed security at the Temple. Whenever we have Shabbat or Holiday services and whenever children are present for organized activities like Religious School, we ALSO have a uniformed Closter Police Officer on campus. We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in security measures, some that you can see and notice and others that are more covert, by design. Since last Shabbat we have scheduled meetings with the Closter Police, our security firm and with the Bergen County Sherriff’s Department to continue to monitor what we are doing well and areas for us to invest more resources and energies. We will ratchet up ANY area of vulnerability at once and stop at nothing to ensure our physical and emotional safety.
  • In conjunction with the AJC, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and our fellow congregations, we are hosting Unity Shabbat, this weekend, November 3, 2018. In addition to the many simchas we will be celebrating, it will be a time of memorial, reflection and hope. Additionally, we are honored that Governor Phil Murphy will be joining us in prayer and solidarity this Shabbat. Please join us in prayer, embrace and love. We need to be together more than ever and hope you will do your part to help us stand as one.  Those who died were Shabbat regulars. It is befitting to come to shule on Shabbat to remember and pay tribute to their commitments.
  • When Aaron – Moses’ brother – suffered the death of his children, the text explained that Aaron was silent. Often we have no words in the aftermath of terrorism and that is OK. There are no prescriptive words to offer at these times. Sometimes our only response is silence. Please know that I did address this tragedy with our 6 and 7th graders this week at the Temple. Each student handled it like the young and mature adult that they are.  My door (and phone line and e-mail) are and will always be open to any of you for any reason. If you or your family wants to talk, cry or sit in silence together, I am always here where and whenever you need.
  • Torah can be healing. This week’s Torah portion which is ironically called the Life of Sarah, begins with her death and closes with the death of Abraham. In between those deaths however, we are taught the love story of Isaac and Rebecca. When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant is summoned to help find a bride for Isaac, he is told to find someone kind. This is a moment in time where we should act kind and seek kindness. Let it be our focus now and after.
  • No time in the Jewish calendar or lifecycle fills only one emotion. At a wedding we break a glass, at the Passover Seder feast we spill out from our cup. On Yom Kippur we close the solemnity of the day with the hope of Next Year in Jerusalem. Israel’s Memorial day is followed by Independence Day. The inexplicable loss of eleven lives leaves us in despair. The support  of our faith based brothers and sisters, elected officials and first responders who have stood by our side during this dark time, has been a soothing balm to our broken hearts. Let us not lose sight of that unity, hope and love, that is the light that shines through during this darkness.
  • Consider on this Shabbat one of the following acts to help shine light and love:
    • Celebrate Shabbat Dinner and invite guests to your table.
    • Light an extra Shabbat candle. It can symbolize memory, hope and bringing more light into the world.
    • When lighting Shabbat candles, perhaps do as we practice on Hanukkah and place our candles near the window for all to see and to better illuminate the world. (Thanks to my colleague Rabbi Frydman Kohl for this lovely idea.)
    • Consider wearing your kippah all Shabbat long so your pride in Judaism will be visible and ongoing.
    • Make a donation to a worthy Jewish cause. HIAS would be welcome, as would support funds for the victims’ families in Squirrel Hill.
  • The Jewish people specialize in memory. Jonathan Foer suggests memory is a Jew’s sixth sense. He asks the question when a Jewish person has their finger pricked, how does it remember? Our sacred task now is memory: Remembering the 11 souls that died for the sanctity of God’s worship. Remembering the first responders that saved countless lives. Remembering the local clergy that has galvanized Squirrel Hill and our nation with their inner-strength, resilience and love. Remember this moment of unity and communal oneness and not allowing time nor other headlines to take away its feeling. Remember this day, the tears and the hope, so we can together, ensure it never happens again.
    Shabbat Shalom,
    Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
November 2, 2018

“Fighter, Survivor, Thriver” | October 26th, 2018

This Shabbat we will honor those in our community who have battled Breast Cancer, mourn those that lost their fight and celebrate the fighters and thrivers in our midst. Pink Shabbat is an opportunity for us as a community to recognize the brave people who have dealt and deal with this terrible disease every day. We will offer a communal prayer of healing, invite all people who lost a loved one to this disease along with people who have defeated breast cancer to receive a pink flower and open the ark for us for Aleinu.

While the circumstances are very different, Isaac is a survivor. In this week’s Torah portion, he is almost killed by his father but in the last moment of time Isaac is saved by the voice of the angel. Isaac is the only character in the Bible who never leaves Israel. Everyone else wandered somewhere to do something. Isaac is stationery. One of my theories of Issacs’s stillness is that as a survivor he was acutely aware of what mattered most to him in his life. He did not seek artificial happiness or something to give him value. He was content with his wife, children and home. As a survivor he knew how much life mattered to him and what was really key to his continued survival.

This Shabbat, whether a survivor, thriver or lover of Torah, join us to celebrate our community and those that have fought and fight Breast Cancer.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

October 22, 2018

Lech-Lecha 5779 | Our Jewish Journey by Rabbi Kerbel

Lech Lecha is one of my favorite Torah portions.  I love Lech Lecha partly because I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat Lech Lecha.  But I also love this parasha for its many important messages and meanings.

Lech Lecha represents the beginning of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people and the relationship between our people and the land of Israel.  God calls to Avram to leave his family, to leave his birthplace, to leave his homeland and travel to a new land God will give to him.   I have always wondered what we would do if God gave such a message to us.

Avram listens to God.  He travels to Canaan.  He fulfills brit milah and receives a new name, Abraham.  Avraham is told, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you – I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

God further tells Abraham:  “I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all of the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding and I will be your God.”

So we have this week the foundations of what it means to be a Jew:  to follow God, to observe the covenant God makes with us (further elucidated when the people of Israel stand at Mt. Sinai!) and to live in and love the Land of Israel.

Lech Lecha teaches us that each of us, like Abraham is on a journey:  a journey of faith, a journey of practice and a journey of travel and exploration with Israel as starting point.

May we, like Abraham, cherish the heritage started in this week’s Torah portion.  May we spend a few moments each day writing in our diary of life, learning new insights of our faith and contributing to the welfare, the development and the security of our precious land and State of Israel.

May all of our Jewish journeys inspire us and enrich us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Paul David Kerbel

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