March 15th, 2019 | 8 Adar II 5779
You can’t make this stuff up! We have all said to ourselves or others at one point or another, “life is not fair.” We know that. We have each experienced a situation where this has happened to us. Why was the other candidate hired for the position instead of me? Why did that person’s child get into Penn or Michigan and mine didn’t. The list goes on and on.
But the indictments yesterday really show how much life is not fair. A sailing scholarship for someone who doesn’t know how to sail? A tennis or soccer scholarship for someone who has never actively competed in that sport? The United States Attorney commented: “We’re not talking about donating a building a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter, we’re talking about deception and fraud.”
According to the indictment, the organizers of the scheme pitched parents on the idea that everyone was cheating, too. In the New York Times editorial they report that there are ‘parents who were encouraged to take their children to therapists who would certify that they had learning disabilities, so that they would have more time to take the tests, often with the proctor paid to manipulate the results.”
This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Leviticus or Vayikra. Our portion teaches about offering sacrifices for a variety of offenses and sins. For instance the Torah teaches, “When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully or by defrauding his neighbor…he shall bring a ram as a reparation offering.” (Leviticus 5:20-26).
The revelations of this past week show severe fraud and deception. Wealthy families often spend heavily to groom their children for admission to college, hiring the best tutors and coaches to help their children. Some families use their legacy to seek admission for their child. All of that is legal, if unfair, for those who cannot afford to take these steps. And for the truly wealthy, there is always the option of making a significant donation to the university. This is more egregious. For as the prosecutors suggest, “for every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.
Toward the end of the Torah, we have the following verse: “The secret things belong to God, but those revealed, belong to us.” (Deut 29:28) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk commented on this verse, ‘the things we do in secret, our actions behind closed doors, are the really true ones (reveal our true nature) – the ones that God knows about us! But our revealed actions, our public behavior and actions, belong to us.
The actions of the wealthy and privileged and their tutors, coaches and accomplices, committed in secret, are now known to us and to God. What we say and do in secret is eventually exposed. May the lessons of our Torah and the illegal actions of those named in this indictment teach us that everything we do can take us closer or farther away from God and ethical behavior.
The struggle to be a good Jew is to ask ourselves each day whether our behavior or actions brings us to higher levels of holiness and spirituality or take us down paths that are difficult to recover from.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel
February 8th, 2019 | Terumah 5779 by Rabbi Kerbel
Do We Really Need Temple Emanu-El?
Shortly after accepting the Ten Commandments and other laws on Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel are commanded to build a sanctuary. Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Terumah, tells us that Moses is instructed by God to tell the people: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
What do these words really mean? Is it possible God is telling the people, that without a building, without a sanctuary, without Temple Emanu-El, that we would not be able to feel or sense God’s presence? Are sanctuaries necessary for worship? Does God require a building in order to ‘dwell’ among them?
We know that we can pray at home, or on a mountain, or at a beach with a beautiful sunrise or sunset. We know from other verses in the Torah and Bible that God is everywhere!
The Midrash answers this question with this story: The people tell God, ‘if you are a king and a ruler, you should have a palace like all the human kings!’ God responds: “My children, I have no need for such a place, after all, I do not eat or drink! Obviously though, you have a need for such a place. It will help you experience Me. For that reason, build a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst!”
We, not God, needed the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert. We, not God needed the two Temples in Jerusalem. And we, not God need Temple Emanu-El and all of the synagogues that serve our people. The members of my weekly parasha class articulated beautifully why we need our synagogue: first, while we can pray anywhere, we are easily distracted and have a hard time focusing on God, prayer and holiness outside the walls of our congregation. But more importantly, at the core of Jewish belief and practice is community.
Judaism is not meant to be observed alone or, in seclusion. It is meant to be observed with family, with friends and with community. Judaism is a sharing religion where we celebrate with our community. Temple Emanu-El and all synagogues provide us with holy spaces where we can learn, pray, eat and reflect with the support and enthusiasm of a community. Our Temple gives us a beautiful environment to experience moments of spirituality, reflection and peace. So yes, we need Temple Emanu-El. But it will only fulfill its true role, if you are there to share in our religious, cultural, educational and social services and programs. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk stated so beautifully, ‘Where is God? Wherever we let God in.”
Rabbi Paul Kerbel
February 1, 2019 | Mishpatim 5779 by Rabbi Kerbel
Seventeen years ago today, February 1, Wall Street journalist, Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Islamic terrorists who kidnapped him while he was investigating a story in Pakistan. Daniel Pearl’s last words were videotaped by the terrorists before they killed him. Defiantly, he spoke these words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Many of us were touched by his words.
Two years later, his parents, Ruth and Judea Pearl created a foundation and published a book entitled, “I Am Jewish.” It won the National Jewish Book Award in 2004. I Am Jewish is a collection of reflections of famous Jews on what it means to them to be a Jew. It is one of my favorite books. I keep it on my desk to remind me always of why I became a rabbi and what it means to me to be a Jew.
This Shabbat, we read Parshat Mishpatim. Mishpatim, together with a portion in the summer Ki Tetze, contain the largest number of commandments of all of the Torah portions in the Torah. Last week, we read Parshat Yitro which narrates the giving of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai. Many commentators believe that with the opening words, ‘Ve-aleh mishpatim, and these are the rules you shall set before them…” that after giving the Ten Commandments, God reveals to Moses the basic civil, criminal, marital and ethical laws that will serve as the cornerstone of Israelite society once the people of Israel settle in the land.
From the perspective of Conservative Judaism, being Jewish means to live by the commandments given in the Torah and the rabbis’ later interpretation and application of them over the thousands of years of Jewish life following the events at Sinai. The thousands of laws added to our tradition (think of lighting the Hanukah Menorah, reading the Megillah on Purim and dancing with the Torahs on Simhat Torah) are seen as being rooted in the Torah’s commandments.
To be a Jew means to struggle and grapple with how to live by the letter and spirit of the Torah in modern times and how to affirm our identity and live a Jewish life while surrounded by a majority culture of both secular ideas and a dominant Christian culture and influence that sometimes makes it difficult to live a Jewish life the way our tradition and ancestors would like us to.
Today, let us remember Daniel Pearl, his words and his strong Jewish identity. Today is a day for us to reflect on our own Jewish identity – what is important to us in our Jewish life and how do we bring to reality the practice of laws and customs so vital to Jewish belief and practice and living a Jewish life in 2019.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel
January 25th, 2019 | Yitro 5779 by Rabbi Kirshner
When my children were born, they each represented perfection to me; ten fingers and ten toes, good APGAR scores and a wail that was music to my ears. However, it did not take long for the perfection to turn towards more challenging moments that took away from the perceived perfection but never diminished from my wife’s and my love for these amazing people. Whether sleepless nights, car sickness, colic, or with maturation one’s child proving to be a non-typical learner or demonstrating some physical, emotional or mental challenge, each parent quickly learns that our kids are not perfect for long. Yet, in their imperfections we still find beauty and reward.
In this week’s Torah portion of Yitro, Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God and the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. For most of us who have read ahead, we know that in Parshat Ki Tissa (Ex 32:19) Moses breaks the tablets in rage and fury over the Israelites’ lack of patience and their worship of a golden calf. The Israelite people never get a chance to see the tablets whole and learn them, understand them or incorporate them into their lives. They really only know the tablets, broken.
In the world in which we live, perfection is something too many strive for in every arena possible. SAT scores, GPAs, sports, home décor, cars, clothes and technology all need to be “perfect” to be maximized. But is there really such thing as “perfect”? And, if so, how long does it last?
Judaism is a religion where we demonstrate that nothing is perfect. On Passover, we pour out from our cups so they do not overflow and we eat broken bread. On Rosh Hashanna, we hear the broken sounds of the ram’s horn. On Sukkot, we dwell in a temporary, non-sturdy hut. Most well-known, at a Jewish wedding, we conclude the ceremony with the breaking of the glass. I always tell couples who are getting married that we shatter the glass to represent that while a wedding can feel like elation and perfection, the life that follows is not. The days ahead will have brokenness within them. Our role is to take each broken piece and make a mosaic that becomes the beautiful pattern of our life.
Moses’ breaking the tablets before the laws even had the time to be a part of the Israelite nation is a lesson to our people today from our tradition that each of us is broken, un-whole and imperfect in one way or another. I cannot think of a more valuable lesson in being Jewish today.
This year, Parshat Yitro falls very close to the onset of February, is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. Non-typical learners and those living with physical challenges are embodiments of the beauty of imperfections. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the single most important thing to know about God is not God’s perfection, but God’s care for the world. Our role in partnering with God is to ensure that all learners are a part of our shared future and through the brokeness of tablets or glass, we make a beautiful mosaic of our shared Jewish future.
Heschel and Parshat Yitro remind us that perfection does not last for long. Soon, we will all have smoothing broken in us. It is through the broken pieces and the mosaic that we create from it, that we find our personal perfection.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
January 17th, 2019 | Beshalach 5779 by Rabbi Kirshner
“Missing the Kick”
The last two weeks of football are what the post-season are all about. Close and competitive games (almost all of them) and entertaining.
Over the past 8 games, I was particularly captured by the missed kick in the waning seconds of the Eagles-Bears match up that hit the upright and allowed the Eagles to advance to the next round of the playoffs while the Bears, who missed the kick, had to go home.
The kicker, Cody Parky, was beside himself. After all, that kick determined the season: Make it and advance closer to the Superbowl. Miss it and go home, season over.
What inspired me was that the Chicago Bears team absorbed the loss. They did not place it on the kicker, rather the team. The coach of the Bears, Nagy, said, “When we win, we win as a team and when we lose, we lose as a team.”
An eerily similar incident happened last week when Eagles receiver Alshon Jefferey dropped a pass that was later intercepted, cementing the Eagles loss and the end of their season. Each member of the team consoled Alshon and supported him with the same sentiments as the week before for the Bears. They were united, even in upset.
When B’nei Yisrael makes its way from bondage to freedom in Parshat Beshallach, it is the first time Jews act like a community and as one. We might have bonded before, but this example was the first time we communed over good and bad, challenge and celebration. We were a team, united in good and bad and looking out for one another.
In life, we will face winning field goals and missed field goals on our proverbial games. When we join together through the thick and thin, the happy and the sad, and share our grief and joy, we then become a team and a people.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner