Thanksgiving Day Message | November 26th, 2020
When deconstructing the word for Jew, Yehudi, one would find the root Hodu, which means appreciation and thankfulness. In other words, inherent in the Jewish identity and DNA should be a sense of gratitude.
During this pandemic, it is easy to lament the many and real challenges presented to all of us. Hundreds of thousands of people have succumbed to COVID -19, health care workers and facilities are overworked and stretched thin on resources, too many families have not been able to visit or be visited and our kids are limited in their interactions with peers and teachers. All of this has made the past 9 months a toxic brew of challenge and pain.
Yet, within every challenge, part of our DNA calls on us to see blessings and opportunities and to be thankful.
This year, I want to suggest a simple activity that you can share at your Thanksgiving table, with family and friends via ZOOM, or by email which will help give us ‘an attitude of gratitude’ and a proper perspective for this Thanksgiving Holiday.
Take the digits of your age and add them together. I am 47, so my total is 11.
Then, list 11 things that you are grateful for. It is that simple. (Each person would add THEIR age to get the number of their list. e.g., a 34-year-old would list 7 things they are grateful for).
- I am grateful that I live in a free, democratic country.
- I am thankful that Dori and I are raising our children in this sacred community.
- I am beyond appreciative of the generosity our community shows for our Temple.
- I am amazed and speechless by the goodness and selflessness our community demonstrates to help others in need. The Center for Food Action picked up our food-collecting from last week and they said it was their largest collection this year. We collected almost 1600 lbs of food!
- I am thankful that of all the times I could be alive, I happen to be living during the time of the rebirth of the State of Israel.
- I am so appreciative of this intense and special family time I have had with my wife and kids during this pandemic. It has shown me that I not only love my family, I really like them, too.
- I am grateful for the team and staff that I am blessed to work with at Temple Emanu-El along with the dedicated volunteers and officers who give tirelessly to furthering our mission.
- I am appreciative of sports. While not essential, entertainment through sports is vital and has tethered me to a sense of normalcy during these abnormal times.
- I am indebted to the techies and geeks that have enabled all types of technological devices and vehicles that allow me to connect and learn with, about, and from others in our respective social orbits.
- I am grateful for my new found love of Peloton and the restorative value of exercise and “me time.”
- I am grateful for my health and the health of my family and the gifts and blessings that I too often overlook.
I hope you “count” your blessings and gifts and share them this holiday. If you are so inclined, share them with me, on social media, and with others, and let our thankfulness be more contagious than any virus!
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Chayei Sara 5781 | November 13th, 2020
I cannot stop thinking about the Holocaust today. That is primarily because this week we commemorated the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht and also because one of the few remaining survivors of the Shoah in our congregation, Heshy Zelovic, z”l, died the morning that I am penning these reflections. The painful reality is that fewer and fewer of the survivors of the Holocaust are still living and able to tell their story and remind us in the first person of the horrors of recent history.
The irony of this week’s Torah portion is that while titled the Life of Sarah (Chayyei Sarah) the portion begins with her death and the plans for her burial. This reminds us that our lives transcend the moments our heart beats on this earth. Life is about how long the reverberation of our heartbeat is felt within our family, our community, and throughout history.
The reality of fewer Holocaust survivors transfers the burdens of memory and re-telling on to our shoulders. It is a challenge we are all able to rise towards and a responsibility we should embrace to ensure Never Again. For when we stop telling the stories and recounting history is really when life ceases. In many ways, that keeps Abraham and Sarah very much alive in more than our liturgy – but in our lives too! May it be so with the memory of the 6 Million souls we lost in the Shoah.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
Toldot 5781 | November 20th, 2020
One thing I’ve learned recently is that sometimes, good things can accumulate very quickly. In the past, when TE would hold a food drive or any other collection, we’d place boxes in the front lobby, and over the course of days and weeks we’d slowly but surely build up a sizeable amount of food and other non-perishables to donate.
Not this time. This time, our Drive-Thru food drive produced thousands of pounds of food and non-perishables in the span of 2 hours, not 2 weeks. Even though we froze our tushes off, our faces were full of warm smiles behind our masks as we greeted an almost non-stop parade of cars and congregants through our parking lot. Each car brought not only the warmth of community, but bags, boxes, and trunks filled to the brim with canned goods, boxes of pasta and cereal, energy bars, and cleaning supplies to share with the less fortunate in our broader community. Our initial estimates of how much we might collect were dwarfed by the quantity of the donations, and our pride in our community is just as overflowing as the various containers we used to put all of the donations.
Our tradition teaches us that “one mitzvah leads to another- מצוה גוררת מצוה” (Avot 4:2). Usually, we understand this to mean that doing one good deed makes it easier for someone to do another good deed. If I am patient with my siblings I’ll develop the traits that make it easier to be patient with my spouse. But the generosity of the Drive-Thru teaches us that it’s not just about one person. When one person does a mitzvah, and they make it known to others what they’ve done, they inspire the next person to do a mitzvah as well. And having even a brief opportunity to greet one another in the parking lot helped each of us contribute something personal in addition to the donations. Finally, our partnership with Zadie’s Bakeshop to provide a small Shabbat treat to each family who donated helped our collective mitzvot chain together to achieve incredible results at lightning speed.
Wishing everyone a week full of individual and collective good that accumulates fast,
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
Vayera 5781 | November 6th, 2020
There is a famous rabbinical principle of “maaseh avot, siman levanim” meaning that the actions and stories about our ancestors serve as guides for future generations. To put it in simple terms, many stories contained in the Torah are meant to be relatable, to help guide us even today. While some stories in the Torah can feel very distant and unrelatable, others hit very close to home. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, contains one such story that for me and my wife Rebecca could not feel more personal if we tried.
While many of us know the story of the miraculous birth of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, we often overlook the pain that Sarah experienced from being infertile, unable to get pregnant and have a child of her own. I vividly remember learning this story as a child in 4th grade at my Jewish day school, but as a kid, you never think too much about the future. My greatest concern was what I was going to eat for lunch and would I have any friends to sit with me in the lunchroom. I had no idea how this story would be one that I would personally relate to many years later.
To quote an article from MyJewishLearning.com from Bethany Mandel, “The Bible is filled with stories of Jewish women battling infertility, and about the pain they experience along the way…In Vayera, we see how timeless the struggle with infertility truly is for Sarah.” But the Torah speaks little of what Abraham might have felt not being able to father a child with Sarah. For many, the pain of infertility is not only born by one partner but by both. Where is the Biblical story of the shared infertility challenge for both the woman AND the man? Well, it may not be Biblical, but here is ours.
When we got married almost six years ago, we knew that our fertility process might take longer than average since Rebecca was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) when she was 20, which could result in infertility. We started trying around our one-year anniversary, but after many months without a successful pregnancy, we finally visited a fertility specialist. Our doctor immediately prescribed a battery of tests for both of us.
And then we got a call that changed everything. My lab work indicated I too had a contributing factor to our infertility. I met with a urologist who recommended corrective surgery. We would need to wait a few months until the surgery, and recovery would take approximately six months to determine if it was effective.
For the first year, we were private about our experiences. My wife left a job that could not accommodate her many doctor visits so as not to have to disclose our process and our struggles. I continued to officiate at baby namings and b’nai mitzvah but would go home and cry thinking about the children we could not have. The two of us suffered when well-meaning friends would say “You are going to make such great parents. When are you guys going to have babies already?!” This was a WE issue not a HER or HIS issue.
After a year we decided to be open about our struggle. We found that the more honest we were about our fertility challenges, the more people responded with love and support. We uncovered close friends who had been simultaneously fighting the same unspoken and lonely battle. Others appreciated the opportunity to learn more. Not a single friend, family member, congregant, or colleague rebuffed our openness.
We needed that support because, at that point, our journey had just begun. In total, our fertility process took three years, during which we underwent five intrauterine insemination (IUI) cycles, two In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) cycles, two miscarriages, and an ungodly number of shots and blood tests. We are overjoyed that the result of this massive science experiment is our daughter Aliza, whose name means joy. After three years of exhaustion and struggle, it is hard to imagine a greater joy than Aliza entering our lives. We still believe that even after being stuck at home with a toddler for months straight during a pandemic.
When we look back on those years, we learned two valuable lessons that we try to impart without sounding too preachy. Firstly, infertility is not exclusively a woman’s issue; in fact, it is equally a men’s issue. Men need resources and a place to talk about their experience, and women can benefit from the alleviation of the pressure of infertility being “their fault.” We as a society need to stop perpetuating this false narrative. Secondly, openness is critical, not only as a release and catharsis but because the more we talk honestly, the closer we come to battling the stigma. Fertility is a battle enough. Let’s commit to ending the stigma and misinformation associated with it.
Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg
Lech Lecha 5781 | October 30th, 2020
My father taught me, “A liar has to have a good memory.” That was his less than subtle teaching that honesty is always the best policy. Living in a time when facts and honesty seem to be inappropriately put into a world of acceptable debate, has made the notion of truth-telling more political and less objective.
The Mishna tells us the only circumstance where we are permitted to lie is if and when we were to see a bride on her wedding day, and she looks unseemly (something in my officiating at hundreds of weddings I have yet to ever witness) we are permitted to bend the truth and say the bride is beautiful to protect form her feelings being hurt on this special day. But, we are not permitted to say any other form of lie that allows for gaining a system, a false narrative, or an untruth to prevail.
We read in Parshat Lech Lecha when Abram arrives in Canaan with his wife, Sarai, the first thing he does is leave toward Egypt to avoid the famine in the land. When he arrives there he tells his wife, “pretend to be my sister, not my wife. That way, if men are attracted to you they will not kill me for you.” Upon later learning that Sarai is indeed Abram’s wife and not his sister, Abimelech is indignant and upset and demands to know why Abram was not honest? Why did Abram not just share the truth? Inside the text, there is a painful pause between the question and the answer.
People lie for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes people lie because they think others cannot handle the truth. Sometimes they do it because the lie sounds better or it hides the pain of reality or perhaps it helps them believe the unbelievable. For me, truth-telling is paramount, even if we do not want to hear what that truth is. It is fundamental to me as a Jew and as a human being.
My mentors taught me that when we are honest, we do not need to rely as much on our memory and our head is assured to rest on a soft pillow each night. Isn’t’ that the truth?!
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner