Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
March 26, 2024

“The Enduring Story of Purim” | March 15th

Writing in the 12th century, Maimonides asserted that when the Messiah comes, all of the books of the Prophets and the Writings will be forgotten with one exception. Along with the Torah itself, only one such story will stand the test of time: Megillat Esther. On the surface, this feels like a strange claim because of the context and content of the story. As is well documented, it is the only book in the entire Tanakh that God does not appear in. It is a story that takes place entirely in the diaspora. And it is a rarity relative to the rest of the Hebrew Bible because the story is both named for and follows a female protagonist who is remembered for her own character, as opposed to who she married or gave birth to. And so considering all of those factors, how could it be that this is the one story that we will continue to tell and retell for all time?

When I was first presented with this thought about the longevity of this text a few years ago, I scoffed at it. On top of all that, I had always been taught that Purim was a “minor holiday.” But as our world changes, I realize how much more there is to read into the deep and rich story of Esther that feels so alive for us today. In Megillat Esther, we read about a woman whose very existence is threatened for no other reason than the fact that she is Jewish. The wicked Haman tells King Ahasuerus that the Jews are a people who are disloyal and whose laws are different from any other people. The only recourse, therefore, is for them to be wiped out entirely. It is the first time in history we see anti-Jewish rhetoric to this extreme degree, but it is certainly not the last.

Whether this is what Maimonides had in mind or not, the story of Esther feels lasting now because generation after generation we as Jews have constantly been forced to wonder about our place in the world. Can we peacefully coexist alongside the rest of society without our very existence feeling threatened? Too often, it feels like we need to be like Esther in the beginning of the story–hiding the fact that she is Jewish–as opposed to the end of the story when the Jews emerge victorious.

And yet, despite all that, the story of Purim is not defined by the threats against the Jews. Rather, it is about the moment when everything turns and the Jewish people prevail. That message of hope feels like one we need now as we prepare to celebrate Purim next Saturday night and Sunday. And so, while we make our final arrangements for our costumes and debate our favorite Hamantaschen fillings, let us not forget the message of perseverance that the Purim story represents.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

March 26, 2024

“The Architects of Our Future” | March 8th

When Michelangelo carved the magnificent stature of David, housed in Florence Italy, he said that he saw David in his mind and then cut the stone to make the shape. That David was IN this stone.

The oil on canvas artist, Bob Ross, famous for his soft-spoken voice, large curly head of hair and making oil painting look easy, used to always imagine in his mind what would be on the canvas. Then, he would paint it.

Betzalel, the architect of the Mishkan had a similar image in his mind when collecting the funds and supplies for shaping the portable Tabernacle for the wilderness.

Today, the Jewish people are in a unique spot that is unlike that of Michelangelo, Bob Ross or Betzalel. We are being asked to redefine and recreate the modern Jewish state in a post October 7th world and none of us know exactly what it looks like in our minds first.

We know it will continue to be a Jewish State. We know it will aim to be a tolerant state. We know it must be physically strong and morally straight. But, what does the state, look and feel like? How do we shape a future based on the pains of reality and the rewards of our successes? How do we fashion a place that is adored by our western allies and feared by our nearby neighbors? How can we design a place that creates respect and acceptance for inhabiters of the land who are not of the Jewish or Zionist persuasion without threatening our existence nor degrading their history and background?

In my estimation, Israel is at another shaping and designing moment in its history. Like we were in 1948 – except we have yet to decide on the blueprint for building. We have not fully grasped all of the previous design errors and achievements – that we will keep and what we will jettison.

The success of the Tabernacle was not the perfection of the product, rather the participation of the masses and the perfection of the purpose.

So too, we can live with imperfection of a place so long as all voices and hands are part of its shaping, and its purpose of values consonant with our shared history and future.

Vayakhel means to convene. In the context of the portion, it means the convening of the people to build and use the Tabernacle. For us, this is a moment of convening to shape the land our children deserve to inherit.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

March 26, 2024

“The Golden Calf and Empty Promises” | March 1st

In the Torah reading a few weeks ago, we read about the powerful transformative moment of Revelation in which the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments from God. In that scene, the Israelites are so awestruck by the experience–thundering voices, blazing fire and billowing smoke– that they announce their unconditional acceptance of God’s word. There is no equivocation and no push back. This forms the covenant that is binding without exception, and feels like it will stay that way forever.

But things change very quickly. A mere 40 days later in the scope of the Torah’s narrative, as we will read this week, the Israelites have gone back on their word in dramatic fashion. As they await Moses’s return from the top of the mountain, the people grow so impatient that they construct the Golden Calf to stand in for God. This grave sin represents a total and complete shift in attitude towards God as the Israelites violate the first and second commandments by constructing a deity to stand in God’s place. This feels like a stunningly fast reversal for the same people who had just pledged their unconditional allegiance to God. And so we are left to wonder how we can reconcile this shift. Although this is an especially pronounced example, there is an element of this scene that feels very much in line with our human nature.

Like the Israelites standing at Sinai, we often find ourselves so moved by an encounter, an experience or a story that we feel like it will change the course of our lives. Who among us has not made a New Year’s resolution that went nowhere? Or made what turns out to be an empty pledge to improve ourselves as a result of something sad or inspiring that happened to us? In those aha moments, it feels like nothing can get in the way of our future goals. But then, inevitably, life gets in the way. Things turn busy and we become bored, distracted or forgetful. Time flies by, and then days, weeks or months later, we look back to that initial spark of inspiration and wonder where that feeling has gone and how we can recapture it.

The sin of the Golden Calf was a devastating moment for God, Moses and the Israelites, but it also feels all too real for our tendency to change course after even the most life changing experiences. Our challenge is navigating that reality. How do we take those flashes and turn them into something lasting? It is not an easy task, but one well worth taking the time and energy to maintain.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

March 26, 2024

“Planting Seeds for Our Children” | February 16th

What is the legacy we want to leave for future generations? In a strange roundabout way, this week’s Torah portion encourages us to ask that question.

In Parashat Terumah, God instructs the Israelites to construct the Mishkan or Tabernacle, the structure that will serve as God’s dwelling place as the Jewish people wander through the wilderness. And appropriately for the structure that will house God’s presence, every single aspect needs to be carefully thought out. Among the materials that the Israelites are commanded to use is acacia wood. At first glance, there is nothing that raises any alarm bells about that instruction. But a close reader might realize that the acacia tree is not native to the region that the Israelites were traveling through.

So how did they follow the instruction to build using acacia trees in a place where they don’t grow? Rashi cites a midrash to explain a powerful lesson about the legacy we leave. According to Rashi, our forefather Jacob had the foresight to know that eventually, the command would come down to the Israelites that they would need acacia trees to build the Tabernacle. And so, Jacob brought that exact wood to Egypt to be planted and later used for that exact purpose. He laid the groundwork for his descendents to succeed.

In this instruction of the acacia trees, we find a lesson that feels timely now regarding what we leave for our future generations.

In many ways, our existence as Jews feels more precarious at this moment than at any previous point in our lifetimes. We are torn between competing feelings of wanting to proudly announce who we are as Jews, and that fear of being demonstrably Jewish in public places. And as tenuous as it feels right now, projecting ahead, we can imagine a world in which these feelings are only exacerbated– when our fears outweigh our determination. And so, it is incumbent on us now more than ever to lay the groundwork for our future generations and instill in them the values that are so important to us.

Rabbi Gabe Cohen

February 15, 2024

“A Moral Code” | February 9th

Parshat Yitro, which we read last week, and which brought us the Ten Commandments were a mere appetizer to the numerous laws and rules found in this week’s portion of Mishpatim. 53 laws and directives are found in this portion in total, five times more than the commandments and far more per Parasha than any other single Torah portion.

You can slice, dice, dissect, analyze, and turn the portion upside down to best understand the laws and their purpose. At their core, they all boil down to one concept: morality. Most of the laws we learn and apply are about calibrating a shared human and moral compass towards doing what is proper. Many of these laws (not all) still have the same moral applicability today that they had thousands of years ago, when first introduced to our people. That is remarkable.

Whether we are reminded of the crime of putting a stumbling block before the blind, prompted about the sin of cursing the deaf or the imperative to release the servant after a set number of years, Jewish law is founded on morality and ethics. It is core to our canon and fundamental for our future.

The religions that jive best with Judaism are those that also share a common basis of morality and ethics. While some exact rules and laws might differ, the principles and tenets of loving life, preserving life, and caring for God’s creations are paramount.

As we read and unpack these commandments in Mishpatim, let us never lose focus on the primal responsibility to be a moral people following a moral code of goodness, rightfulness, justness, and properness to be closer to God and one another.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner