Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
January 8, 2023

“Carrying the Bones” | January 6th

Yesterday was my maternal grandmother, Leah Wolin’s yahrzeit. She died 24 years ago, and she was the only grandparent I ever knew.

To honor her yahrzeit, I did something I had never done for her before. I kindled a yahrzeit candle. Usually, that task was left to my mother, of blessed memory. Since she could no longer fulfill that task, knowing that she would have lit a candle of memory, I found it incumbent on me to do so and to include my grandmother in my thoughts as I uttered the Kaddish prayer.

It is more than coincidence that her yahrzeit falls on the same week that we learn in Parshat Vayechi, about the responsibility of the heirs of Jacob and Joseph. The next generation of Israelites commit to carrying the bones of these two patriarchs who die at the end of the Parasha with them throughout their Exodus from Egypt and 40 years of wandering, to the Promised Land. Eventually, they are to be buried in Israel with their brethren. While the Israelites surely kvetch on their journey, they never seem to complain about this sacred task of physically carrying the bones and the memory of the past generation with them.

In the process of mourning, there have been moments where I feel deputized to carry the rituals and memories of those who others would have remembered before me. In a figurative sense, it feels like carrying the bones of those who have predeceased us and perpetuating their memories through subtle ritual. While sounding kitschy, I felt my mother’s satisfaction and appreciation over my shoulder as I struck the match and held it next to the wick of that memorial candle. While this simple act is something she would usually complete, I felt our partnership and her hand in this gesture.

All of us are carrying “bones” of those we remember. It manifests itself through rituals, actions or thoughts. Each time we do, we not only fulfill a promise, but we keep the flame of memory and values alive from one generation to the next, which sustains our people from Abraham onward.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

January 3, 2023

“Shedding Tears with Joseph ” | December 30th

In one of Stephen King’s most famous novels, Misery, he challenges the reader to think about the very nature of fandom and the way we relate to our literary heroes. The protagonist of Misery, a fiction writer named Paul Sheldon, asks himself how it could be that people become so attached to fictional characters that readers celebrate their accomplishments, lament their hardships, and even go so far as to mourn their deaths. Is it possible to feel such a strong attachment to figures who exist only on the pages of a book and in our imaginations? Of course, this question is a little more nuanced when it comes to biblical characters, but the reality remains the same that these are stories of people whose faces we will never see and whose voices we will never hear. Is it possible to be genuinely moved by their lives and stories?

In parashat Vayigash, after years and years apart, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers in a moment that gives me goosebumps and makes my eyes well up every single time I read it. For the past two weeks, we have been reading about the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. Having left Joseph for dead in a pit, they could never have guessed that Joseph is the high-ranking Egyptian official they have been dealing with all this time. In a moment of desperation, Judah makes an impassioned plea to the still-disguised Joseph to spare their brother Benjamin from imprisonment and this leads to the most emotionally powerful moment in the whole Torah.

Joseph is so overcome by Judah’s words and the care that he has for Benjamin that he simply can’t take it anymore. Joseph clears the room of all his advisors and just breaks down in uncontrollable tears, finally announcing to his dumbfounded brothers that he was Joseph all along. Joseph’s sobs at this moment are so loud that all of Egypt heard him. All of those years of bottled up emotion–the cruelty of the brothers, the lost time that could have been spent together, Joseph’s unlikely rise from the deepest depths to the highest heights– have all spilled out in one incredibly powerful moment of release. I hear Joseph’s cries, and no matter how many times I have read this story, I want to cry with him.

That is the power of these characters and why we keep telling their stories generation after generation. Their importance to us and the realness of who they were far exceeds just the words on the page (or in the scroll). Their emotional travails and triumphs strike a chord with us and speak to our souls. We can feel moved by their struggles, see ourselves in them and continue to be inspired anew each time we read their stories.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

December 28, 2022

“A true Hanukkah and Christmas Miracle ” | December 23rd

On this Shabbat of Hanukkah, I want to share two stories: One to spread light of a true miracle that will bring a tear to your eye. The other to inspire you of the power of hope and goodness in our world.

Just over a week ago, I wrote our community that our adopted family from the Ukraine had their son in law- Misha, reunited with his wife and son and newborn daughter who until 13 days ago, he had never met.

On the first night of Hanukkah, as we finished lighting the candles I learned by picture and emotional text that Dima, the last son of the Chernets family who was required to stay in Ukraine and conscribe to the military was granted leave by the government and reunited with his parents and siblings. The family is now whole and complete in New Jersey.

As you read this note, on the eve of Christmas for the Chernets Family, a great miracle happened for them before their – and our – very eyes.

It does not matter if you have a tree or a Menorah; if Christmas is your holiday or Hanukkah, moments like this are miraculous and show us the majesty and benevolence of God and the goodness of humanity, even amongst those who are suffering the worst in humankind.

When I heard and saw this news, I quoted from our tradition: This is the day God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad!

Earlier this same day (of penning this note to you, Sunday December 18, 2022) a 6-year-old boy in our religious school named Sammy made an appointment to see me with his parents. For the past 3 years, young Sammy has been collecting Tzedakah every Shabbat. These are nickels and dimes and quarters from allowance and birthdays and special gifts and that he found. This week Sammy hit the $100 threshold and decided to donate it to Temple Emanu-El where we could earmark the funds to help with a soup kitchen, and to help Ukrainians displaced by the war in their homeland. Considering the news above, it is bashert.

I assured Sammy that every cent would go to those two worthy causes and that I would kick in funds to help his important work.

I was so positively stunned and my heart sang to see a little boy, 6 years young, on the eve of Hanukkah, more excited about the gifts he was giving to help others than anything he would receive when lighting the candles, the first night of this holiday.

Sammy is a special soul who has amazing parents to lead the way for him. I know he will inspire many others to do the same.

I share these two stories this day so we all can share a tear of joy in the Chernets family reuniting again, after almost one year apart, and so we can appreciate modern-day miracles. And, lastly, so we can be inspired at any age and with any small bit of oil in our proverbial canister, to bring light to the world and make a difference, like young Sammy did.

Happy Hanukkah. Hodesh Tov.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

December 19, 2022

“Who Said Parenting Was Easy” | December 16th

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Meirovich of  the Schechter Institute once taught (and I paraphrase), “If you want to learn how NOT to be a good parent, read the Book of Genesis.” Of course there are plenty of illustrations of good parenting, but Rabbi Meriovich was highlighting how the Torah does not intend to sugar coat family life in the Bible. Parenting and raising children is messy. And few Torah portions illustrate this better than this week’s portion, Parashat Vayeshev, as we are introduced to the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers.

You likely know the basics of the story: Joseph shares his dreams, his brothers resent him, throw him in a pit, sell him into slavery, the brothers fake Joseph’s death, and then tell their father Jacob that Joseph is dead. Lovely story, right? Perhaps overlooked is how Jacob reacts at the very  beginning of this whole kerfuffle. In Genesis 37:11 after hearing Josephs prophecy of his ascent over his family, Jacob remains silent as it says וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר. Seems like a poor piece of parenting to just sit back and allow your kids to have it out with terrible consequences looming. However, in true Rabbinic fashion, there are commentators who follow the wisdom of Daniel Tiger, a kids show on PBS who says, “when something seems bad, turn it around and make something good.” So what good could our Rabbis have to say about Jacob’s passivity?

Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian rabbi and Biblical commentator,  teaches that in fact, Jacob was looking forward to the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream, knowing that one day Joseph would rise to greatness.  This reflects the statement in the Talmud Sanhedrin 105 that a person may be jealous of everyone except his students and his children. Ultimately, Sforno is saying that even at the moments of great conflict between our children we parents can take a step back and imagine the future greatness of our kids. I know this is hard. Borderline impossible, but consider it. Not sure what I am talking about? Let me share the following story:

Recently my kids ages 3.5 and 1.5  were playing nicely when Aliza (3.5) my daughter grabbed a toy from Jonah (1.5) my son. You can imagine what happened next: a combination of screaming, crying, and physical violence. Normally I jump right in, but for a split second I paused and thought about what they would look like when they were older. How would they handle disagreement? What would their future selves be like? I kid you not this happened. After snapping out of my daydream, Rebecca and I managed the situation which ended with Aliza and Jonah in a sweet embrace. I can  imagine one day my kids comforting, supporting, and helping each other. That is the dream that all parents have for their kids.

So while the Joseph story starts off rough, in the end Jacob pauses to dream, and gets it (sort of) right. Joseph rises to a position of greatness, the brothers reconcile, and together become the future of the Jewish people. Maybe Genesis is full of examples of poor parenting, but perhaps this moment is one we can point to and say, sometimes parents do get it right. We need only step back, pause, and dream. Maybe… What do you think?

Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg

December 19, 2022

“The Embrace” | December 9th

The picture of Brittany Griner embracing her wife, Cherelle, after nine months of wrongful imprisonment in Russia defies words. An embrace after estrangement is potent and powerful.

I remember embraces in my life that had added significance.

I was on an airplane the morning of September 11, 2001. I was able to rent one of the last cars in the Midwest and drove for hours to get home. With good chance and better luck, I was one of the few who was able to cross the George Washington Bridge and arrive to my apartment about 1:30 AM. The hug I shared with Dori that early morning was one I will never forget.

My mom lived in Florida for the past 25 years. Still, we aimed to see each other at least once every 3 months. The painful exception to that was COVID. Zoom was a weak substitute for being together on birthdays, holidays or just because. After vaccinated and the longest stint of not physically seeing one another, we flew to Florida for Passover in 2020. The embrace my kids, Dori and I shared with my mom in the driveway of her home lasted for many minutes, and still was not enough.

The Torah portion of Vayishlach which we read this Shabbat, shares the first of 2 powerful embraces in the book of Genesis: The first is when Yaakov, estranged and afraid of the revenge his stronger and older brother Esav will exact, finally reunites with him. Instead of throwing hands in conflict they stretch arms and fall on each other’s neck, weep and embrace. The description of the text describes a powerful moment of human connection.

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.

We appreciate the power of that embrace because of the emotional and physical distance that existed between the brothers for too long.

Fast forward a few weeks (spoiler alert) to Joseph reuniting with his brothers who sold him off and left him for dead, (Genesis 45). After he explodes with emotion telling them that he is indeed the brother that they sold off, they cry, weep and embrace.

וַיִּפֹּ֛ל עַל־צַוְּארֵ֥י בִנְיָמִֽן־אָחִ֖יו וַיֵּ֑בְךְּ וּבִ֨נְיָמִ֔ן בָּכָ֖ה עַל־צַוָּארָֽיו׃

וַיְנַשֵּׁ֥ק לְכׇל־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּ֣בְךְּ עֲלֵהֶ֑ם וְאַ֣חֲרֵי כֵ֔ן דִּבְּר֥וּ אֶחָ֖יו אִתּֽוֹ׃

With that he embraced*embraced Lit. “fell on.” his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. 

He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him. 

There is no substitute for human embrace and the compelling connections it can offer. Obviously, not every embrace is the same and distance lends itself to heightened emotions when reconnecting. Whether a wrongfully imprisoned athlete or a family member held back by circumstance or a biblical figure, the moment and power of the embrace is beyond what any words can describe.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner