Weekly Messages

At Temple Emanu-El
May 10, 2019

May 9, 2019 | 4 Iyyar, 5779

Kedoshim – A Tale of Two Tunnels

 Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

In Jerusalem, Israel there are two tunnels that represent the country best.

One tunnel, that I recently walked down, is about 500 yards away from the Dung Gate of the Old City, which leads to the Western Wall. This tunnel is a few stories underground and is in the midst of being excavated by leading researchers and archaeologists. This tunnel is on a steep incline that leads at its base to a pool that served as a Mikvah – the purifying bath – that people would immerse in thousands of years ago, before entering the ancient Temple.

Hundreds of bags of dirt and sand are sifted through daily to find relics and artifacts. A few months ago a small golden bead that was once worn on the garment donned by the highest priest when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, was found. This is the very same walkway that thousands of our ancestors walked for hundreds of years to make sacrifices and ritually observe our traditions. It is an amazing site.

On the other side of town is another tunnel. It was formed with groundbreaking technology that burrowed  into the deep parts of hills and mountains to lay tracks for a speed train that now can reach Tel Aviv in less than 18 minutes. This tunnel, and the technology around it, has now connected the communities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, allowing people to live in one city and work in the other with simple commuting options. This train uses state of the art magnets to achieve speed and safety.

These two tunnels in one city represent Israel perfectly: unpacking yesterday and exploring tomorrow. Israel and Israelis are a people in-between both of these tunnels, constantly pulled at the yin-yang of history and future, memory and revelry. That is why on this 71st birthday of the State this week, Israel pauses for a day of reflection for the fallen and then transitions to a day of celebration, representing those polarized emotions and the balance that leads to the ancient/modern state.

Some might say a country with two tunnels in different directions is counter-productive and is more than one can handle. I would argue, Israel could not thrive were it not for both of these disparate tunnels and the path they lay out for us. Our history is the foundation for our future. This magnificent and miraculous country proves that daily.

Happy Birthday, Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

May 3, 2019

May 2, 2019 | 27 Nisan, 5779

Yom HaShoah

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

74 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and 71 years after the foundation of the State of Israel, the Holocaust still looms large. Perhaps that is because Anti-Semitism has awoken from a seemingly light slumber. Perhaps it is because in Jewish history, 74 years is a blink of the eye. Perhaps it is because an atrocity of this magnitude does not wane from our memory. Like our Exodus from Egypt, the Shoah will shape the DNA of every Jew from 1939 until 2539, at least.

Last night I was at the National Ceremony in Israel commemorating this solemn day, held at Yad Vashem. There, 6 survivors lit torches and shared their stories. The President and Prime Minister spoke and the nation mourned.

How does an entire nation mourn? By remembering those they didn’t know. By a national law that forbids the sale of alcohol in restaurants and bars and stores. By closing movie theaters and concert halls and pubs.  By sounding a siren from border to border and pausing in memory of the 6 Million.

I was at the airport, headed home when the siren sounded this morning. The entire security team of the Ben Gurion airport assembled in a giant circle surrounding a large light that had the words Yizkor emblazoned on it. This blasts shrieked like a painful cry for 90 seconds. The entire airport stood at attention. Then, the security team went back to work and travelers went back to the business of getting to their destinations.

Each check in counter at the airport, regardless of airline or destination, displayed a Holocaust memory picture instead of a gate number. Over the duty-free stores, pictures of yahrtzeit flames flickered. All television stations are portraying survivors, their stories and their children and grand children embracing their legacy. Talent personalities take to the airwaves to sing songs of reflection, read poems and cry.

Next to my check in counter to Newark was a check in to a flight to Egypt. The gate agent there wore a hijab and spoke Arabic. As the siren went off, the Muslim agent – very respectfully, mind you – video taped the silence  and awesomeness of our attention during the alarm and our silent unity. While bowing my head I kept an eye peeking towards her and her hand steadying the camera phone to capture the emotion and the moment.

If I were reading her face, I would say she looked almost jealous. Not of our loss, but of our commitment to memory and of our solidarity.

For us, it is hard to determine if we are the chicken or the egg. Do we unite and commit to memory because of our past or in spite of it? Regardless, memory and unity are a part of our DNA. They are the connective ligaments from yesterday to tomorrow.

On this day of memory, allow us to unite in grief and solidarity. Enable our actions to make the memory of the 6 Million proud of what we offer the Jewish nation, each day. May we continue to be a people that fuses memory with our future and uses yesterday as our foundation for tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

April 29, 2019

April 24, 2019 | 19 Nisan, 5779


As they cross the Sea of Reeds and see the advancing Egyptian army behind them, the Israelites feel terror and cry out to God for help in Exodus 14:10. But in the next two verses they reject God’s wondrous efforts to bring them out of Egypt:

And Pharaoh approached, and the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, Egypt marches after them and they were greatly frightened, and the people of Israel cried out to Adonai. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Exod. 14:10–12)

The people ask for help and then reject it. Do they want God’s help or not? Ramban (Nahmanides, 1194–1270, Spain), commenting on this account of the people’s deep ambivalence about their own liberation, proposes that two factions of Israelites stood at the edge of the sea; the good group was reverent toward God, and the other group rejected what God has already done for them. Ramban tries to solve the people’s attitudinal problem by essentially saying it was not true of all of them.

There are at least two other ways to resolve the question about the people’s apparent ambivalence. One is that the people called out for help, but subsequently didn’t like the help they received. It can be productive to think about why that might be. Was their enslavement so spirit-crushing that they could not imagine a positive future? That is not surprising if one day is like the next, for generations, and all days are without hope. A pernicious effect of oppression is that liberation becomes hard to imagine.

Another way to read the Israelites’ apparent ambivalence at the moment of liberation is that it expresses a realistic, universal, and unavoidable human tension between fear and faith, rebellion and obedience. There is a stage in life—adolescence—when tensions are our defining reality. To say that adolescence is entirely a time of rebellion would be to give a shallow account of those formative years, when most of us struggle with conflicting needs to conform or to rebel; to obey or to disobey authority; to heed our own emerging voice, or to distrust it. These struggles test our willingness to commit to the values and life choices that will define us as adults. By honestly portraying an uneasy pairing between fear and faith at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, the Bible acknowledges this essential emotional process, which never completely resolves in adulthood.

By honestly showing the Israelites’ fear at a transcendent moment, the Bible also prepares us for the fact that transcendent milestones in our lives can contain a frisson of fear. A lot is at stake when we marry, or when a child is born, or at other change-filled joyous moments. We become briefly conscious of our human fragility as well as our blessings. That awareness forms the backdrop of our gratitude.

So fear is normal, up to a point. But fear can go too far and be overwhelming, even paralyzing, as nearly occurred to all the Israelites at the shore of the sea. When that happens, what might help people? Moses offers a model:

Moses said to the nation, Al tira’u! Fear not, stand upright and see God’s salvation, which God will do for you today, for what you saw of Egypt today, you will not continue to see, forever. God will do battle on your behalf, and you shall be at peace. (Exod. 14:13–14)

Moses speaks about fear without . . . fear. This is perhaps the most important thing he does: he names the overwhelming feeling and confronts it directly and succinctly. He is supportive, confident, and empathic. He speaks not only about what God will do, but about how the Israelites will experience it. Moses promises that they will see God’s redemption, and he predicts a defining shift in how they will see Egypt from now on.

A short while later, the biblical narrator, summarizing the redemption, expands on the Israelites’ vision:

Vayosha Adonai bayom hahu et Yisrael miyad Mitzrayim
vayar Yisrael et Mitzrayim met al sefat hayam
Vayar Yisrael et hayad hagedolah asher asah Adonai beMitzrayim
vayyiru ha’am et Adonai
vaya’aminu bAdonai u-veMoshe avdo

And Adonai redeemed the Israelites on that day from the hand of Egypt,
and Israel saw Egypt die on the shore of the sea.
And Israel saw the great hand which God performed on Egypt,
and the people feared/revered Adonai,
and they had faith in Adonai, and in Moses, God’s servant. (14:30–31)

The narrator notices the Israelites’ roving glance twice (vayar Yisrael). Their eyes see the dead Egyptian soldiers on the shore, and then they see the hand of God; they notice God’s invisible influence on events. In this moment of transformative vision, the people do not only shift their reiyah (vision); they also shift their yirah (fear and awe), in object and in kind. Yirah itself is now elevated from raw fear of the approaching army to reverence for God, which is consistent with faith in God and in Moses. Fear itself is transformed. For the collective people of Israel, it acquires the coloration of awe and faith for the first time.

Moses’s “fear not” of verse 13 was crucial to the success of the redemption. The compassion he expressed with two small words, al tira’u, was itself an act of courage under the circumstances. It proceeded from emotional generosity, which is very hard to summon in a moment of terror.

And it worked. It shifted his people’s perception, their vision. The people needed Moses’s “fear not” at that moment so they could absorb their new reality of liberation. We too would need someone to say “fear not” if we stood at the brink of redemption, with the enemy advancing toward us, and we unaware of the great miracle that we are living through.

In our day, when we are sorely challenged, when we seek faith but feel fear, we can look around and notice who is saying “fear not” with real compassion. That person will be a leader worth following.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

April 22, 2019

April 19th, 2019 | Passover 5779 by Rabbi Kirshner

It does not seem to make sense that we break the middle Matzah so soon into the Seder. What a strange ritual.  Why would we take something that is whole and break it? And, why then? Is there any other time in our religion we are instructed to break something?

I learned a beautiful explanation as to why this customs exists that I hope you will incorporate into your Seder discussion and actions.

Matzah is called “a poor person’s bread.” What some argue is that ingredients do not characterize what makes a bread poor, rather its size does. A rich person has a full loaf of bread. A poor person has half a loaf. That is why we start the Seder with a whole matzah that is broken to become half of a matzah. This represents what a poor person’s loaf looks like, and the fullness AND brokenness we feel at the Seder.

Passover is as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the abundance we have in our lives and the opportunities we overlook to share our resources. Whether financial, time, food or energy, all of us have the band width and possibility to support the needy and help those less fortunate. Breaking the middle Matzah reminds us of those opportunities and that call to action.

I hope this Seder, we see the broken and strive to make it whole. That we harness our energies to make our world better and our lives richer. That we give of ourselves beyond the days of Passover and relish in the freedoms that were bestowed on us leaving Egypt and today too.

Dori, our children and I wish you a sweets happy and broken, yet full Matzah, Seder and Passover.
Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

April 12, 2019

April 12, 2019 | 7 Nisan, 5779

Parashat Metzora

Failing Matters
By Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

Like you, I was anxiously waiting for the unmanned lunar module Beresheet to touch down on the surface of the moon yesterday afternoon, making Israel the 4th country in history to land on the moon. Sadly, 14 miles from the surface of the moon, engine power gave way and the module crashed on the moon and lost communications. Many would call this a colossal failure. I would call it a huge success.

Firstly, the most important lessons I have learned in my life have been from failure. Broken hearts taught me more about love and commitment than passion ever could. Failing a test motivated me more to achieve than acing a test ever did. Fixing mistakes is what has always driven me.

I remind my kids every day that I do not mind that they make mistakes or have not achieved their stated goals. I mind if they do not learn from those experiences and if they do not incorporate those failures into successes in the future. We have great Jewish role models that all have failed before they succeeded. Abraham misses the mark as a dad with his almost sacrifice of Isaac and his banishment of Ishmael and Hagar. Moses is far from perfect. Rebecca colludes against her husband. Our Bible is so perfect because our ancestors are so imperfect. They are flawed people representing humanity just like you and me.

Once after my son berated himself for a basketball game defeat I forced him to memorize this quote from the legendary Michael Jordan:

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Last year I challenged all of you at your Passover Seder to break the middle Matzah for Yachatz (of which half becomes the Afikomen) and to do so perfectly down the perforated seams of the matzah. I doubt anyone can do it. I think that is perfect because it reminds us of the unevenness and brokenness in our lives. It is a reminder that we  are far from perfect but, darn good.

Maybe Israel did not land on the moon, but it got within 14 miles and it was pretty amazing. Knowing Israel, another module will be back up there soon, looking down on us, learning from its mistakes of the past and its successes too, and making us all reach higher and grow more.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner