Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
February 5, 2021

Yitro 5781 | February 5th, 2021

Tell me your three favorite foods.
Now, share your five favorite movies that you can watch over and over again.
If you could travel to any four places in the world, what would they be?

Chances are when you answered these questions, you either stated or thought in your mind, of the order of your choices. Pizza, followed by Brisket and then Kubbeh soup.
The Godfather 1 and 2, Sixteen Candles, The Frisco Kid, Goodfellas, and Blazing Saddles.

We have a habit when enumerating lists that we prioritize the ones we are most specific or sure about first. Even when listing things we dread, we would put the most dreadful, first.

This is different when talking about the main list of this week’s Torah portion. When the Ten Commandments are shared in the portion of Yitro, the order is strange. The first commandment is not much of a commandment and more of an edict. The subsequent three commandments are strictly between humans and God while the last five are between humans and other humans. The 5th commandment of honoring our parents is a hybrid.

Ironically, what happens in the presentation of the 10 Commandments is not in any form a prioritized list of commandments rather, 10 emblematic orders and instructions that represent the other 603 not listed at this very moment in the text.

The rabbis go into great detail reminding us that the quizzical rules of not mixing wool and linen is as important as keeping the laws of kosher and observing the Shabbat. Unlike most lists, the Ten Commandments are 10 out of 613 equal weighing rules that have no higher or lesser importance.

Wishing you and yours a Shabbat Shalom……and Go Bucs!!

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 29, 2021

“Finding Your Nachshon Moment” Neshalach 5781 | January 29th, 2021

Have you ever jumped off a tall cliff into cool water? Or taken a leap into a relationship? Or forged a new path for your team, company, or family? Have you ever tried something new when you weren’t sure you would be successful? Have you ever acted on that heady mixture of openness, nerves, and faith?

Our parsha, Beshallach, teaches us that shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses, and God led the newly-freed slaves to the shores of the Sea of Reeds, with by Pharoah’s vicious charioteers and elite armed forces in hot pursuit. The sea was too deep to wade through, and the pursuers had nothing less than enslavement and violence on their minds. The Israelites were truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What to do? The Midrash teaches that even though God promised to split the sea and let the Israelites walk through on dry land, the sea was still just a sea, it hadn’t split yet, and the Egyptians were fast approaching. So Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah, bravely walked into the sea, hoping, praying, believing that his actions would help make God’s promise true.

Nachshon waded in until the water was up to his neck, at which point, the sea miraculously split and B’nai Yisrael were able to cross the sea as if on dry land.

What inspired Nachshon? What drove him to be the first to enter this most-uncharted territory? That powerful combination of desperation, drive, and faith brought him into the water, on behalf of himself and his people.

We don’t all have to be Nachshon, willing to put our lives on the line for an outcome we hope will come to fruition. But our tradition encourages us to emulate his bravery and decisive actions when we can. Knowing that with the right preparation, dedication, and open-mindedness we can find success in our endeavors. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l taught, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”

So this week, find a Nachshon moment, an opportunity for a leap of action, and when you find it, don’t hesitate to jump right in.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

January 22, 2021

“Blindness” Bo 5781 | January 22nd, 2021

Amazing Grace is a fusion of prayer and anthem for many Americans, regardless of religious affiliation. Its words and tune have always stirred my heart, but no lyrics more pointedly than, “I was blind, and now I see.”

I have been blinded. Not an actual vision impairment but I feel like I cannot see. I can drive and see the computer in front of me and the array of colors on the clothing that hangs in my closet. However, our society has been more divided and separated than ever before and that has made my vision dim to the point where I feel blind. Because of the pandemic, I cannot see your faces and read your expressions. I do not know if you have tears on your cheeks and if they are from sadness or happiness? I cannot decode if you are worried or excited. I cannot hear the tremble in your voice and hold your hand for the journey ahead.

This is a time that has blinded all of us.

In the Torah portion of BO, which we read this Shabbat, we are told of the final three of the ten plagues. Unlike the Ten Commandments, the Ten Plagues afflict the Egyptians in an order that increases in its severity.  The penultimate plague  – the one before the slaying of the first born – is darkness. How could darkness be a plague? We have darkness each day.

Rashi explains that the darkness is not nightfall, but a darkness that is so intense we could feel it. How poetic. He goes on to explain that the darkness was so intense, that our spouse, our kids, and our neighbors could be standing next to us and we would not even know it.

The division in our country has felt like this level of darkness – and the COVID pandemic has only exacerbated that blackness.

It is high time for all of us to be a light onto the nations – and to ourselves.  We can be that light by beginning the process of hearing our neighbor, our partner, our family. We can ask about the tears on their cheeks and seek out if they are from sadness or satisfaction, worry or excitement. Let us see one another which will better enable us to be seen. Let that light bounce off the reflection of our eyes and smiles and illuminate a path forward in friendship, camaraderie, and peace.

Let us be able to proclaim – we were blind, and now we can see.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 15, 2021

Vaera 5781 | January 15th, 2021

Let My People Go…

“Let My people go” is perhaps the most famous and enduring phrase from the entire Torah. This demand, from Moses to Pharoah on behalf of God symbolizes the fundamental movement of Judaism- from slavery to freedom, from degradation to exaltation. It’s the rallying cry of the weak against the strong, the righteous against the wicked, a call to a more perfect and self-sovereign world.

Sadly, most of us cut the actual demand short. God actually says “Let My people go so that they may worship me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16).  Western culture has focused on the first half, with it’s a call to freedom, and forgotten the responsibility inherent in the second half.

Pure undiluted freedom was never God’s intention for us. Anarchy is not God’s plan. Our freedom is deserved and worthwhile only when it is coupled with righteous action and connection to God. Individual self-rule is inherently insufficient. People who are perfectly free to do whatever they want will almost certainly waste that freedom, squandering the blessings of life with selfish and self-aggrandizing pursuits.

To prevent humankind from wasting our time on earth with narcissism, God ties liberty tightly together with responsibility. God limits the scope of our sovereignty by coupling it with commandments, to love not just freedom, but justice and mercy and goodness. God wants us to be free to do the right thing, not just the thing we want to do.

God’s challenge to do the right thing with our freedom is echoed in the Preamble to the US Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” The Preamble places the goal, a more perfect union, before the blessing of liberty- because the blessings of liberty are most valuable when they are put in service of the creation of a more perfect union.

The next time we find ourselves taking our freedom for granted through selfishness, let’s remember why we were freed. The next time we see those in society who think that personal liberty means freedom to desist from the responsibilities we owe others, let us remember what liberty is for- forming a more perfect union, with humanity and with God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg

January 8, 2021

Shemot 5781 | January 8, 2021

I want to share a story from the Talmud (Masechet Makkot) that has been swirling about in my mind for the past 36 hours. The story is below, and I used some editorial license in my translations.

It once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking towards  Jerusalem soon after the destruction of the Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw (which you can still see clearly today from that peak) the site of where the Temple once stood, they tore their garments, in keeping with religious practices of mourning.  They then went down to the scene of the destruction. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of what was once the Holy of Holies, (which was tantamount to us today, seeing rats infest this space that used to be sanctified and holy). The Rabbis all began weeping among the ruins, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. The rabbis asked Akiva: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: For what reason are you weeping? 
They replied to him: We are weeping because this is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (and now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep? Meaning – this used to be our holy place and now it is in ruins and infested with unseemly animals).

They said to Rabbi Akiva: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva retorted to them:  I am laughing, as it is written when God revealed the future to the prophet Isaiah: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah”

Meaning, Akiva was laughing because he felt that this moment of sadness and destruction brought each person closer to redemption and unity and an opportunity to rebuild the Temple and have Jewish unity.

In the wake of the unspeakable siege on the Capitol and appalling assault on our democracy, I am not sure if I should weep or laugh. I am puzzled as to whether this is the end of a terrible period and the beginning of something great or the end of something great and the beginning of something terrible.

When stewing over the recent events and pondering over this ancient story, I have come to realize that if we are to laugh or cry, to be like Rabbi Azaryah or Rabbi Akiva,  is ultimately up to us to not only decide but to shape the reality we hope for. The world we want to live within is far more than something we wish or yearn for. It is something we shape with our words, our hands, our actions, and our hearts. Change does not happen through hope. It starts with hope and then is materialized with our energy and actions and work.

I have decided that I want to laugh, like Rabbi Akiva, and believe that our best days are in front of us. I want this to be a moment of national unity and collective resolve. The future I want to see come to fruition is one of possibility, peace, love, tolerance, and compassion. Today, I will begin the hard work of turning those hopes into reality. My hand outstretched and wide open towards you to join me in this sacred journey. The work begins now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner