WHEN TO SPEAK AND WHEN TO BE SILENT
April 21, 2017
Aaron is center stage in this week’s Torah reading. Sandwiched between his big sister Miriam, and younger brother Moses, we find Aaron. We first met Aaron when God gave the middle brother the role of spokesperson and negotiator with Pharaoh. Later, while Moses was on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments, it was Aaron who had to face the Israelites while they built the Golden Calf.
In this week’s Torah reading, Aaron is officially ordained as the first High Priest of the Israelites. But central to this week’s reading is the troubling episode when Aaron’s sons bring a “strange fire” as an offering to God, and they are consumed by God’s fire. After their death, Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.”
Rabbinical commentaries offer many explanations for Aaron’s silence but I find it consistent with the glimpses of his personality that we’ve seen so far. After all, God assigns him the role of Moses’ spokesperson, and assigns him the role of High Priest. How does Aaron react to these roles? We don’t know. He doesn’t say. While Moses argues with the Holy One that he’s not up to the task, Torah tells us nothing of Aaron’s reaction. He is silent. The only time we hear Aaron speak is in response to the episode of the Golden Calf. He blames it on the people, taking no responsibility and showing no leadership.
Perhaps Aaron’s reaction to the deaths of his sons in the only way he knows – silence and acceptance. This is not the last time Aaron will be silent. Later in the tale of the Israelites wandering in the desert, we will read that Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses, but in that story only Miriam does the speaking.
What do we make of this? Do you think his silence presents him as a good role model, an obedient servant? Is acceptance the better reaction to the arbitrary difficulties we encounter along life’s journey or is there a time to speak out? I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
May you be granted the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent, what things are within your ability to change, and the awareness of knowing the most courageous and responsible time to speak up.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
How To Live Meaningful, Ethical, God-Centered Lives
April 7, 2017
Our Torah reading this week comes from the shortest book of the Five Books of Moses, Va’Yikra/Leviticus. The title of this week’s parasha, chapter, is Tzav, meaning the imperative form “Command!” You will recognize that tzav comes from mitzvah, commandment.
What is Moses being commanded to do? “Command Aaron and his sons this: This is the ritual of the burnt offering…” That’s the English, but the Hebrew uses an interesting word for ritual – the word is torat, coming from the root word, torah. In this case torat is a verb, meaning “to aim, direct toward”; in other words, to show the way, to instruct. (Chumash Etz Hayim) This is the deep meaning of Torah – Torah is not a history book; it is a book of instruction on how to live meaningful, ethical, God-centered lives.
This chapter includes a very important lesson. It is, like most of Leviticus, about sacrifices to be offered in the Holy Temple. Among the sacrifices are purification offerings, offered in repentance for misdeeds. The Torah defines these offerings as “most holy”. From this we learn the importance of repentance. Those who sin and then repent, having struggled to overcome temptations and misdeeds, are considered to be holier than those for whom righteous living comes easy, those who never have to struggle. We know from our life experiences that we grow, change, and find inner healing through fighting back our evil impulses and overcoming them.
As you prepare for Pesach, may the model of Moses and Aaron inspire you and your family to discover the blessings of freedom and be inspired to fight the injustices in our world. Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Pesach
Repairing our Broken World
March 24, 2017
Last week, a meeting took place of Emeth's newly formed Tikkun Olam committee. Tikkun Olam, meaning “repairing the world”, is a fitting description of the work we intend to do. Most of the people who attended the meeting were fired up with the commitment to do just that, repair the world or at least our corner of the world.
Our guest facilitator, Rabbi Jessica Kirschner, representing the Reform Action Center, and I kept emphasizing that our work needed to be based on Jewish values. So then we talked about what exactly are Jewish values and how do Jewish values differ from universal values or the values of any other religion. Maybe they aren’t different, we agreed, but nonetheless Jewish values are the principles from which we operate.
The classic example, of course, is the teaching we learn from the great sage Hillel, the rabbinic figure most willing to give ethical behavior equal, if not even greater weight, than ritual law. The story for which Hillel is most famous involves the non-Jew who wanted to convert to Judaism while “standing on one foot.” Having been driven away by another rabbi who was appalled by this request, the non-Jew comes to Hillel, who explained Judaism and the Torah as follows. "That which is hateful to you, don't do to another. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn. And he converted him on the spot."
From this exchange we are reminded the basis of Judaism is a supreme ethical principle. Jewish values are also these words said by Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of his generation, "Love thy neighbor as thyself; This is the major principle in the Torah." And this is the essence of Judaism. It is what I mean when I say that our commitment to social justice must be based on Jewish values.
Judaism is first and foremost about the ethical. This is why the need to do social justice cannot wait any longer. Our world is broken. And we cannot delay in beginning our task as a congregation to do the work of repair.
(This is an abbreviated version of my dvar Torah this past Shabbat.)
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace
BE SLOW TO ANGER
March 17, 2017
This week's Torah reading tells us the famous story of the Golden Calf. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days and the Israelites were feeling deserted and neglected, both by their leader and by the Holy One. Not unlike a child whose parent disappeared in a store, they were feeling lost and abandoned and so they responded by building a Golden Calf.
Before Moses descended the mountain, God told him about the Israelites great sin – afterall, they had just heard the Ten Commandments and knew God would not tolerate creating false images! God told Moses, “Hurry down and see what the people did! They built a Golden Calf and sacrificed to it.” When Moses came down the mountain carrying the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, he knew what he would be seeing. Yet, he is filled with rage once he sees the Golden Calf with his own eyes. Consumed by anger, he threw the Tablets to the ground, breaking them in fragments.
There are many lessons to be learned from this episode in Torah, but one of them is how to respond and react to the frustrations and difficulties we encounter. Like Moses, we can match anger with anger and respond to frustration with frustration. We can angrily express our disappointment when other people let us down. Moses’ lack of self-control is the failure of his leadership.
We learn in Proverbs: “Better to be slow to anger than mighty, to have self-control than conquer a city” (Proverbs 16:32). No one says never be angry. Rather, we should use our anger as a tool to motivate us to take action, to correct wrongs and injustices. As we continue to read Torah and review the experiences of the Israelites in the desert we will see that anger gets the better of Moses many times. We would do well to review the times our own anger led us to behave in ways that were counter to our core values.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace
WHEN WE WON’T NEED A “WOMEN’S DAY”
March 10, 2017
Today (Wednesday, March 8) is International Women's Day. In the United States today has been also designated as a “Day Without Women.” I have a lot of sadness about this day. It seems to me that the time has long passed for us to be demanding women's rights in this country. It seems to me that fight should have been over long ago. And yet we still have to fight to make our own decisions about our bodies; we still fight for the right to progress to leadership positions in most corporations and receive equal pay for equal work; and as we have seen in recent months, we still must fight for respect and equality.I long for the day when we will not be identified by our gender but rather by the excellence of our work, our work ethic, our ability. And I long for the day when my sisters in Israel can pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with full equal access to our holy site and read from Torah, without harassment. I long for the day when we don’t need a Women’s Day any more than we need a Men’s Day. This weekend we celebrate the holiday of Purim. This holiday is based on the biblical Book of Esther. Esther is one of two Bible characters whose deeds and story is recorded in its own book in the Bible. The other is the Book of Ruth. Perhaps because the Book of Esther is said to have been written by her foster father Mordechai, Mordechai is not credited for saving the Jews. No, it is Esther who is the hero of our story and finally a model for our young women. Yes, she was in her position because she won a beauty contest (oy vay). Yes she was in her position because Mordechai told her to enter the contest. Yes, she went before the king because Mordechai told her she must. And yes, she was able to save the Jews of Persia from slaughter because her husband loved her.Yet, to be honest, as a feminist, I never really liked the Book of Esther, nor did I appreciate the Book of Ruth. As a young woman I longed for stories like that of the prophet Deborah – stories that presented women as models of courage, bravery, wisdom, leadership and strength. But now I tend to concede that something is better than nothing. Though, I still long for the day that we won't need an International Women’s Day anymore. Until then I celebrate Esther and this joyous holiday. Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim! And may you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of great joy and gladness!
THE IMPORTANT THING IS NOT TO BE AFRAID
March 3, 2017
Dear Congregants and Friends,
I know you share my concern, outrage, and sadness over the ever increasing episodes of hate crimes we are seeing in our beloved country. On Sunday, we woke up to the news of yet another act, desecrating grave sites in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, right after the vandalism of dozen of graves in St Louis. And we have heard of multiple bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish day schools, and Jewish institutions. These threats are meant to intimidate and scare us. For our peace of mind, I have met with the Morgan Hill Police Department, and requested that our precious religious home be checked out on a regular basis as police officers drive by along Monterey Street.
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, President of the Academy of Jewish Religion (AJRCA), my rabbinical school, sent a letter to all of us in the AJRCA community and I am reprinting parts of it here with his permission:
The ADL amongst several watchdog agencies as well as journalists have documented the rise in anti-Semitism over the past year and it is time to raise awareness and do all that we can to prevent harm, address the roots of this phenomenon and join with all those who wish to create a humane, respectful, just American society as we live as productive, proud citizens in the United States. We know all too well from our history that when one group is targeted and we remain silent, we become more vulnerable as the poison is spread by those who are emboldened by the silence of others. We will not remain silent in the face of this grave rise in anti-Semitism and the spread of hate crimes in other communities as well.
As the great Jewish Philosopher, Emil Fackenheim has taught, after the Holocaust there is an additional 614th commandment and that is "Not to give posthumous victories to Hitler." There are two components to this commandment. The first is: Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews and thus we must and will strengthen our Jewish identities and grow and flourish as a people bringing the most elevated, humane values to our world. And secondly, "We will not in any way take on any characteristic of the vile, hate-filled, dehumanizing behavior that Hitler and the Nazis epitomized, but, on the contrary, with every fiber of our being, we will act with dignity, with strength, with awareness to manifest love, justice, solidarity with our fellow human beings…(We will) elevate the world to the place…where all human beings are respected, supported and encouraged as brothers and sisters of one large family on this planet, interconnected…What is done to one person affects all of us and impacts all of us, each and every one of us created in the image of G-d. So let us stand strong, vigilant and do what we must to protect ourselves and others, but also at the very same time increase our faith, our mandate as a Jewish people carrying out the highest values of our beloved tradition, and use our energy at this time to overcome this desecration of G-d’s name… to increase our mitzvot (our good deeds and outreach to all in need), so that this crisis leads to greater growth…
To which I add, in the word’s of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
The Real Meaning of Eye for an Eye
February 24, 2017
Do you remember the classic movie scene in History of the World Part I, when Mel Brooks as Moses comes down Mt Sinai carrying three tablets, proclaiming "The Lord God has given unto you these fifteen..." (then he drops and shatters of one of three tablets and says, "Oy!... Ten! Ten Commandments!”
Well, he was right – and he was wrong. There were more than ten – there were even more than fifteen.
This week’s parasha begins with, “And these are the laws…” Our tradition teaches that all of the laws of Torah were also given at Sinai, not just the Ten Commandments. Mel Brooks couldn’t have carried them all!
What is the purpose of all of these laws? The Torah aims to create a moral society, for each of us to become a mensch, an ethical and moral human being. The way these laws are placed we can easily see that, from the Torah’s perspective, religious law and the judicial system have to go together. When we have religions without ethics, we have a society which feels free to oppress the powerless in the name of the law. But justice without religion has limits too. A judicial system that cares more about the power of the law than the people for whom the law was created becomes quickly corrupt. A judicial system needs a religious sysem to be non oppressive.
One of those laws included in Mishpatim is one of the most well known after the Ten Commandments. “… An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” This law, frequently misinterpreted, is intended to provide a means for equitable retaliation for an offended party, a form of direct reciprocal justice. It defined and restricted the extent of retaliation. These lines are not to be read literally – but rather to answer the question: what is that person’s eye worth? What is that person’s hand worth? If a person is a farmer the eye may have less value than if that person is a jeweler. If a person is a scholar the hand would have less worth than if that person was a construction worker.
Often we accept “common knowledge” without doing the research to really understand biblical law and its application to our time. You may be surprised to know that this system of "Damages, Pain, Medical Expenses, Incapacitation, and Mental Anguish" underlies many modern legal codes.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace
DEAR MOSES HONEY
Summary of this week’s Torah passage:
February 17, 2017
Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, brings Moses’ wife Zipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to the Israelite camp. Moses follows Yitro’s advice to “find capable men who fear God and trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these men over the people…and let them exercise authority over the people at all times. They will decide the minor disputes and bring the major disputes to you.” Later in the chapter, the Israelites stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
I was going to write a Shabbat message about this week’s Torah reading but I just had to share this new archeological finding! A letter was found – preserved in the desert after all these years! Here it is (well, I edited out some of the personal, mushy stuff). Shabbat Shalom!
Dear Moses Honey:
I’m so proud of you and all that you’ve done, with the help of God’s outstretched Arm of course.
I know you sent me away when you started all of the trips to Egypt…by the way, I hope we are getting some frequent travelers points out of this…
Anyway, when Daddy Yitro said he was coming to see you, well I quickly packed up the boys and headed through the desert with him. It’s just been too long, sweetie, and we all missed you so much.
So imagine my surprise when we finally get to the wilderness camp – I see you running out to meet us and my heart leaped with joy! Imagine my surprise when you fell to the ground and bowed before Daddy Yitro, then got up and kissed both his cheeks, while the boys – YOUR SONS – just stood there feeling foolish. What are we, mashed potatoes? I mean, not even a hello to us? A quick peck on the cheek before you go running off to meet with Daddy?
I have to tell you; you really hurt my feelings, really badly. And your sons! It’ll be years of therapy to get over this rejection.
I’m so glad Daddy Yitro took you aside and told you that you are doing just too much! You’ve got to learn to delegate! 600,000 Israelites – surely you can find some volunteers to help you out! Daddy Yitro gave you a plan, now follow it please.
Just remember: the people need you but so does your family! Don’t be so consumed with work that you forget us! Keep your priorities straight – it can all get done, but we’re the only family you’ve got. Do you think at the end of your life you’re going to wish you had spent more time wandering in the desert? No, dear, you are going to wish you spent more time with us!
Well, I know duty calls, but I just had to tell you these things! Be a role model, Moses! Family first!
Your devoted wife, Zipporah
(Edited and revised from a message I posted in 2007. Enjoy!)
Have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
Be Careful Not To Spoil My World
February 10, 2017
The holiday of Tu B’Shvat will be observed at Emeth this Friday night, February 10. During Chai School our students will plant a tree and participate in a classroom seder. But make no mistake, Tu B’Shvat is not a children’s holiday. It is a serious holiday especially in our time, when some United States’ leaders think global warming is a myth and our president threatens to significantly change United States’ environmental policy.
In the very first chapter of Torah, Bereshit, God “took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till and tend it.” (Genesis 2:15) Chumash Etz Hayyim comments, “This requirement that we preserve nature even while we use it underlies classical and contemporary concern for ecology in Jewish law and thought.”
The Rabbis expounded on this verse from Torah in the following midrash (ancient rabbinic commentary on the text): “When G-d created the first human beings, God showed them all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said, ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’”
This warning is especially true for us today, as we see what we have done to our precious earth. Here is a list of simple things every one can do.
- In the grocery store, select items which use the least packaging.
- Select products that already come from recycled material and/or can be recycled.
- Glass can be recycled many times while plastic has a limited reusable life.
- Save paper. Use erasable pen message boards instead of note pads, or the back side of used envelopes.
- Don’t save your cloth napkins for special events! Use them regularly. If you must use paper napkins and towels, buy ones made from recycled materials!
- Turn your thermostat down two degrees in winter and up two degrees in summer to save 2,000 lbs. of CO2 a year.
- Replace a regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb to help save 1,000 lbs of CO2 per bulb.
-Turn off lights, monitors, and other electronics when you leave a room.
- Keep your car in tune and tires at the right pressure to save up to 4% on your gas mileage (that’s 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon saved).
- Buy food with an eye to its impact on the environment: Where possible choose locally grown, fresh rather than frozen, and organic rather than regular produce.
- Add to this list!
Post this list and use it throughout the year. (This list was composed, using some suggestions from Rabbi Susan Grossman.)
May you have a joyous celebration of the beautiful earth the Holy One entrusted to our care, and a Shabbat of peace.
We Are All Immigrants;
We Are All Refugees
February 03, 2017
“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years; at the end of the 430th year, to the very day, all the ranks of Adonai departed from the land of Egypt.”
In this week’s Torah reading, from the chapter Bo in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites leave the only home they’ve known for 430 years. They are refugees, and we, as loving descendants, should be experiencing their pain, their fear, their anguish. Along the way, they will encounter nations who will try to block their way, many engaging them in war. They are homeless, but they are going home, to their, to our, Promised Land. Their trip will be filled with risks and dangers along the way; they will experience the plight of refugees. If we have trouble identifying with our ancestors’ history, we need only look at our America this week to stir up the memory of their torment and distress. They couldn’t stay in Egypt as slaves, for every day was life threatening.
As your Rabbi, my responsibility is to teach how Torah continues to live in our modern life. We are admonished 36 times in Torah to treat those who are foreign born with fairness and compassion - “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). We are face-to-face with this fundamental Jewish value today, in America. How will we respond?
Across the Jewish world, regardless of denominational affiliations – leaders from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform movements, leaders from the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS and more – all have issued statements that warn us and our government to remember that no one should be targeted because of their religion, and reminding us as Jews that we must support the rights of immigrants. All of us are the children, grandchildren, or descendants of immigrants. Today all of us are refugees.
May you have a week when your soul is stirred to action and may you have a Shabbat of peace.
Courage to Change
January 27, 2016
I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary punishments.
(Book of Shemot/Exodus, Va’eira, 6:6)
This week we read from the second Sidra (the Torah portion that is read on a particular Shabbat).
In this Sidra, God has heard the cries of the Israelites and sets about to free them. The reading depicts the struggle for freedom, characterized by the famous quotation from this Book of the Torah, “Let My people go!”Rabbi Bunam, a Polish Hasidic master taught: We eat matzah first and maror [bitter herbs] next, though it would seem the reverse order is appropriate, since we first suffered and later were freed. However, as long as there was no prospect of being delivered, the Israelites didn’t feel the bitterness of the experience keenly. But as soon as Moses spoke to them of freedom, they awoke to the bitterness of their slavery.In response to Rabbi Bunam’s teaching, Rabbi Debra Kassoff asks: Is there something holding you back that you’ve come to accept as an accustomed obstacle? Has time or weariness robbed you of any hope of change? What, like a taste of matzah in the Seder ritual, might awaken you to the true bitterness of your situation? And, once awakened, where might you find the strength to face painful truths while working to change them?These are timely questions and I encourage you to ponder them. May you find within your answers the courage and stamina to “change the things you can.”May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
Praying with our Feet
January 20, 2017
This week we begin the second Book in the Five Books of Moses, the Book of Exodus, or Shemot in Hebrew. The first chapter, also called Shemot, introduces us to our people’s enslavement in Egypt. On the very Shabbat that we would be reading this section of Torah in the temple, some of us are joining together in what has become known as the Women’s March.
As Rabbi Laura Geller pointed out in a Huffington Post article, “How powerful that this event takes place on the day that the Jewish community reads the story of the first recorded conspiracy of women, the first recorded act of civil disobedience.”
It is in this chapter that we have the midwives Shifra and Puah disobeying Pharaoh’s command to kill all the Jewish boys as they are being born. We have Yocheved, Moses’ mother, giving up her son in order to save him. We have Moses’ sister Miriam ensuring that Moses is rescued. And we have Pharaoh’s own daughter, the royal princess, adopting Moses and raising him as her son. Women are the heroes of this first chapter of the Book of Exodus and are central to shaping our people’s ultimate deliverance from slavery.
Yes, the Women’s March takes place on Shabbat. I will say my Shabbat prayers, praying from my heart and soul, and then I will join our congregants – men and women – as we continue to “pray with our feet” (paraphrasing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of marching with Martin Luther King Jr in Selma). What are we marching for?
“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March…will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.” (from the Women’s March Mission Statement)
I hope you will join us. May you have a week of blessings.
The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King
January 13, 2017
“The ultimate measure of a person is not where s/he stands in time of comfort and convenience, but where s/he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Monday is MLK Day, the day when we recognize the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to civil rights in the United States. Not as well known perhaps is that, in addition to his dedication to civil rights, Dr. King was also deeply concerned about the plight of the Jews and was dedicated to Israel. In his view, support for the Jews and Israel was a just and moral cause.
Only ten days before his assassination, Dr. King spoke to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Rabbis) saying, “Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world…Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality.”
In a book written by Rabbi Marc Schneier, “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr and the Jewish Community,” examples are included of King’s use of the Jewish experience as a model of success over oppression. “He was sure that an alliance between blacks and Jews was fundamental to progress in civil rights. King felt a sense of kinship with the Jewish people and welcomed – even expected – Jewish support and felt let down when it was not forthcoming.”
I hope all of you will join me and the South Valley community in our MLK Interfaith Service this Monday evening, as we use Dr. King’s teachings to build a “Beloved Community.”
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
The Miracle of Religious Freedom
January 6, 2017
Because I always wear a kippah (headcovering, yarmulke), I tend to get one of two reactions: “I didn’t know women wore those” or some statement which communicates that the other person is also Jewish. During my recent cruise vacation, I heard both comments, but most often heard, “Happy Chanukah!”
Every night on board, Chanukah candle lighting was offered in a private area, a small theater seating about 250 people. This ship had a cruise rabbi, and it wasn’t me! Even though I brought my own battery operated chanukiah (Chanukah menorah), I joined the group celebration because I believe it’s important to support the community (hint, hint), even at sea. Candle lighting on first night onboard was standing room only! Not surprisingly, less people came on subsequent nights, but we nonetheless enjoyed a communal celebration. The ship provided latkes and sufganiot (fried donuts) each night, plus kosher sweet wine and, on Friday night, lots of challah.
While it’s fun to share my happy time with you, there is another reason I am writing about it. This week, we near the end of the book of Genesis, with Joseph and his brothers reconciling, Joseph reuniting with his beloved father Jacob, and the whole Israelite clan, “70 souls”, immigrating to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.
Soon the period of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs will end, and we will begin the next chapter in our people’s history. From Abraham’s first journey to the Promised Land, to the Israelites leaving the land and then returning to it, to the formation of what we now call Judaism, to the Holy Temples and their destruction, to our expulsion from our land and then 2000 years later, our return…This connection to our history did not escape me, as I gathered with my people on a fun cruise in Caribbean waters, celebrating the miracle of religious freedom and rededication of the Holy Temple.
May this be a week of continuing miracles and a Shabbat of peace.
Live for Today; Build for Tomorrow
December 14, 2016
Debbie Friedman (may her memory be a blessing) wrote a song based on Joel 3:1 from the Book of Prophets, entitled “The Youth Shall Dream Dreams.” Her song called us to take action when we see wrongs committed in our world. The chorus is:
And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions, And our hopes shall rise up to the sky. We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow. Give us time, give us strength, give us life.
What is the difference between a vision and a dream in this context and in the context of Debbie’s song? Torah focuses on dreams in last week’s and next week’s Torah readings, and again in the many chapters to come in the Joseph story.
Dreams and visions are ways a prophet or, in this case, a biblical character, receives a divine message, a prophecy. In Jacob’s first dream, he sees angels walking up and down a ladder to heaven, and experiences God’s presence for the first time. In this week’s reading, he fights with an angel. Our ancient commentators explained that the angel is really that part of himself that represents the yetzer hara, his own evil inclination. He is “locked in a mighty battle between 2 personas, trapped in the same body…” (Rabbi Stuart Weiss)
In the reading of Jacob’s dream this week, his name is changed to Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God. Jacob now is referred throughout Torah as a man with two names. One is the man who dreams, the earthier man, Jacob. The other is a man with a vision, for his future and his children’s future, Yisrael.
All of us wrestle throughout our lives between our “good” side and our “evil inclination”. Which will prevail? Which will lead us to take action, as expressed in Debbie Friedman’s song? “We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.” We pray for vision and for strength, for the good in each of us to triumph for the betterment of all.
May you have a week of blessings, a Shabbat of peace, a Chanukah of joy and light. To our non-Jewish members, thank you for being part of our holy community. During the season of light may you experience God’s Light shining upon you, and may you experience the love of family and community.
In the Presence of the Holy One
December 7, 2016
In this week's Torah parasha (chapter), Jacob has a mysterious encounter with God. After leaving home, really running to save his life after deceiving his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing, Jacob came to a “certain place” and stopped there to rest. He has his famous dream, or divine revelation, of the angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. He hears God’s voice, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring…” When he awakens, Jacob declares, “Surely Adonai is present in this place and I did not know it.”
In our own mysterious encounters with the divine, we are often deaf and blind, not recognizing God’s presence. And yet, in the words of Albert Einstein, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. One who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, no longer find amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. It was the experience of mystery that engendered religion.”
May you always be aware that God is in this place, that you are in the presence of the Holy One, and the possibilities of a “relationship” are before you. May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
Our Children - Our Future
November 30, 2016
During the High Holidays, there was a baby chattering during services. The mother did exactly what I asked her to do: “Do not stay away because you have a baby. Bring your baby. Your baby is our future.” As the baby chattered, her voice became the poetry of prayer which inspired my prayers. Like a Chassidic fable, I had the sense that it was the baby’s chatter that reached the heavens and opened the doors so that the prayers of the congregation could enter.
I always want to be part a prayer community where we recognize the chatter and laughter of children as prayer, and can find our hearts filled with joy at the sound rather than irritation. A baby’s chatter in the temple represents the future not only of our temple, but of Judaism. Sometimes it’s a challenge because we are lost in our own thoughts, our own meditations and prayers and the “noise” of children interrupt our prayer space. But by reframing the sound from noise or interruption into blessing, we open ourselves up to a different kind of prayer experience.
Our Emeth community of young families is growing. Our school is growing too! In fact, we are welcoming new members in every age group! Now our challenge is to bring all ages together! Shabbat Short N Sweet services is a perfect opportunity – qvell (take pleasure) as our children help lead the services and get to know each other of every age. And of course I hope you will attend our congregational Chanukah celebration on December 16!
Abraham and Sarah passed on their faith to Isaac, and Isaac and Rebecca passed on their faith to Jacob, and Jacob became Israel and we became Bnai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. They passed the blessing on to our ancestors who passed it on to us. Now we have the opportunity to pass that blessing to the wonderful children in our temple. May it always be so!
Ask the Girl
November 22, 2016
Chaye Sarah, the title of this week’s Torah portion, begins with the death and burial of our Matriarch Sarah, but it quickly moves into the story of the search for a bride Isaac. Abraham dispatches his servant to find a bride for his son from his native land. The servant comes upon Abraham’s relative, Rebecca, who meets all of Abraham’s criteria. The servant asks Rebecca’s father and her brother for Rebecca to be “the wife whom Adonai has decreed for my master’s son.” They accepted the engagement. When the servant wants to leave immediately, they reply, “Let us call the girl and ask her for her reply.”
Ask the girl? A strange statement in this patriarchal society! The Torah commentator Rashi deduces from this that a woman cannot be married against her will in Jewish law. So the story shifts from treating women as property to requiring the woman’s consent. Now suddenly we have Rebecca making decisions about her own life.
This is an important text, especially now at this critical time in our own country. Many women, myself included, fear a betrayal by our government about our rights. Torah says that my voice, as a woman, must be heard. It is for that reason that I am planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington in January. It is not a protest against the winners of the recent election. It is demanding that those elected officials protect my rights, and the rights of my daughter, daughter in law, granddaughters, nieces, my Jewish community, my LGBTQ friends, my Islamic friends, my Hispanic neighbors, and you.
Torah teaches us, "Do not stand idly by!" (Leviticus 19:16). I expect I will be returning to Washington. What I have learned is that I cannot be silent nor can I be silenced. I hope you feel the same.
As Thanksgiving approaches and we celebrate our rights our free citizens in this wonderful country, we know we cannot take these gifts for granted. We must safeguard them by our deeds.
May you have a blessed Thanksgiving and a Shabbat of peace.
November 16, 2016
This week’s Torah portion speaks of our responsibility to pursue justice. Arguing with God about God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom and all of its inhabitants, Abraham challenges the Holy One: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Chumash Etz Hayyim notes, “Abraham’s conviction that God must be just has provided theological grounds for Jewish commitments to justice and social action, for just as God seeks justice and helps the poor, so must we.”
Indeed, so must we! Congregation Emeth’s Board of Directors has changed the name ofl our temple’s activities in the area of social justice, social action, community service, tzedakah, and more to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Now the Tikkun Olam is forming under the enthusiastic and determined leadership of past president Susan Meyers. Susan will be seeking partners from Emeth members to help design a program of social justice for our congregation and I urge each of you to find ways to participate. Our world is desperately in need of healing and repair.
True, we are often too weak to stop injustices; but the least we can do is protest against them. True, we are too poor to eliminate hunger; but in feeding one child, we protest against hunger. True, we are too timid and powerless to take on all the guards of all the political prisons in the world; but in offering our solidarity to one prisoner, we denounce all the tormentors. True, we are powerless against death; but as long as we help one man, one woman, one child live one hour longer in safety and dignity, we affirm a human's right to live. -Elie Wiesel, Sages and Dreamers
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave
November 9, 2016
Precious congregants and friends,
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the “Night of the Broken Glass.” On November 9 to November 10, 1938, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews. During and following, about 30,000 Jewish men and boys were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. While Jews had been subjected to oppressive policies since 1933, this night was considered the beginning of violence against Jews.
In contrast to those horrible years, we just completed a free and democratic election which has been called “historic” for many reasons. Some of us are devastated and some of us are overjoyed. For all of us, our motives were to select the best leader for our country whose vision each of us believed most closely mirrored our own. I have witnessed many elections in my lifetime and my candidates lost more than they won, and in spite of campaign rhetoric and vitriol, we survived each presidency.
But one fundamental principal continued no matter who was declared the winner: we are in the land of free and the home of the brave. Each of us has the responsibility for bringing our country back together. Each of us is responsibility for healing the wounds of those who are distressed and fearful. Each of us knows what is possible in this great country of ours and none of us should succumb to terror and loathing, or gloating. We owe it to our children to model the behavior of good winners and good losers.
Let us come together as a community this Friday night, and celebrate Shabbat, in song. Let our holy Sabbath unify us as a congregation and heal those whose spirits are low.
G-d bless America.
November 1, 2016
As much as I’d like to write about this week and next week’s Torah portions, I must use this space to urge you to vote! There is a principal in Judaism called dinei d’malchuta dini, the law of the land is the law. This means that Jews are obligated to follow the laws of the land in which we live, unless it leads one to immoral or unethical acts.
In the United States, voting is not a law; it is a free will opportunity to participate in a citizen’s most important act. However, in my opinion, it belongs with dinei d’malchuta dini because it is through voting that laws are determined. Who we elect, especially true in this election, will be the decider for how we will live our lives for at least the next four years if not for generations. We all have our own version of what is moral and what is ethical and what is forgivable and what is not. I daresay all of us are eager for this election to be over and for our country to begin the process of healing and unifying. But do not think your vote does not count! It counts perhaps more this year than any other in recent memory.
I quote part of a message from Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner who represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism:
“We stand together, all of us, as Reform Jews and as Americans, to protect the right to vote and to participate fully in our democracy. Just as the covenant is for everyone – elders, tribal heads and strangers alike – the right to vote is for all eligible Americans. We can never take our right to vote for granted, and especially not this year, when it is under attack in the wake of the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. This decision paved the way for voter suppression laws in many states specifically designed to make it more difficult for the elderly, people of color and people of limited financial means to exercise their right to the ballot. There is so much at stake in this election – from how the United States will address the global refugee crisis, to how we meet the challenge of climate change, to whether the next president and congress will take steps to reverse the plague of mass incarceration, and much more. With so much on the line, every vote matters.”
October 25, 2016
This Shabbat we return to the beginning of the Torah, to read our tradition’s version of how the world began. Quoting from Chumash Etz Hayim, in its introduction to the Book of Genesis, B’reishit:
“Genesis is the book about origins: the origin of the world of humankind, of the people of Israel, and of the unique relationship of God with that people. In its entirety, the book claims to cover a time span of 2,309 years…”
The beauty and power of B’reshit is that it is not a scientific scholarly treatise on the beginnings of the universe. Rather it is a religious and spiritual book, introducing us to the God of the Universe and God’s love for us and for morality. Reading the Torah any other way diminishes its impact on our lives. In God’s creation of the universe, God blesses it and us with the word “good!”
The High Holidays were about starting over – finding our souls, repairing ourselves and our relationships, and setting a new path on a higher moral and ethical ground. Now as we start over reading Torah from the beginning, we have the opportunity to learn more about human nature, our possibilities toward good and for mistakes, through the deeds and misdeeds of our ancestors. If we use it as a roadmap for our own life’s journey, we have the possibilities of great personal discoveries and growth.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
Recognizing the Good
October 16, 2016
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means “recognizing the good.” According to Mussar masters (mussar - moral conduct, instruction or discipline), expressing gratitude opens up our heart. After this past Shabbat, celebrating our new Sukkah and our 10th anniversary together, my heart is wide-open and overflowing with love and gratitude. Words simply can’t express the joy I was feeling by the end of the evening. There is something extraordinary when one knows the love they feel is reciprocated. Oh what a night!
This Friday night we again have the opportunity for more hakarat hatov, as we celebrate Simchat Torah, the joy of Torah. We will eat together in the sukkah, weather permitting. But if rain keeps that from happening, gam ze letov, that too is for the good! Opportunities to celebrate together are wonderful and I hope you will all be with us.
The Sukkot holiday is called zeman simchateinu, the “season of rejoicing!” We can’t argue with that! Have a wonderful continuation of the holiday and come dance with us Friday night!
May this be a week of great happiness and a Shabbat of peace,
Make Way for the New
September 26, 2016
During this last week before the High Holy Days, I offer this reflective poem, composed by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus, on behalf of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal (with permission). May the new year bring you health, happiness, blessings, and gratitude. Thank you for being part of our caring, loving community of Congregation Emeth. You are my blessing.
The past year makes way for new.
Look back at our roads less traveled.
Lean forward into what’s yet to be
And dedicate yourself to building.
Look back at our roads less traveled:
Friday nights in mystical white…
Dedicate yourself to building
The vibrant future you dream for.
Friday nights in mystical white
Enliven the soul, bring hope to the heart.
The vibrant future you dream for:
The renewal of tomorrow is in your hands.
Enliven the soul, bring hope to the heart.
What do you yearn for?
The Renewal of tomorrow is in your hands.
Dare to dream what the future needs.
What do you yearn for?
Lean forward into what’s yet to be.
Dare to dream what the future needs
As the past year makes way for new.
Shabbat shalom and Shana tova! May you have a year of sweetness!
September 21, 2016
A teaching of Rabeinu (our Rabbi) Yonah ben Abraham Gerondi, a renowned medieval Rabbi, most famous for his ethical work The Gates of Repentance:
“First thing is to drop the burden of your past completely from your shoulders. Start anew as if you were born today. Now, for (the remainder of Elul) three times a day examine your actions (morning, afternoon, evening). If you find any negative behavior confess to God over it. This practice will slowly distance you from all sin, since next time temptation comes your way you will say to yourself, ‘how can I have the chutzpa to do this sin, and then confess for it later to God.'” He went on to write, “Drop the Past! G-d created the world in a way that screams renewal. Every day is a brand new beginning. Even if you fall a thousand times, drop it all and start over. Drop the voice of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) saying “how can you dare forget your past?”
We are two weeks away from the Holy Days. It’s not too late to begin the process of change and form new habits! So much work to do, and as I watch the moon waning each night (the blessing of driving home late every night) I count down the remaining days. We are at the halfway point.
Dearest congregants, doing introspective work sometimes brings up feelings and memories that are difficult to process. My door is always open to you to talk anytime, but especially now. Please call or email me; you are more important to me than anything else on my to-do list.
The Work of Elul
September 13, 2016
The Hebrew month of Elul continues. This is the month of introspection and repairing relationships. We have so few weeks - why didn't I start sooner, I berate myself. The work is so difficult, when really done with intention and determination to change ourselves and our interactions with others, in preparation for presenting ourselves to the Holy One during the upcoming Holy Days.
I am reminded of this Chasidic writing by Shmelke of Nikolsburg, Moravia (1726-1778), one of the great early Chasidic Rebbes. Reb Shmelke taught:
The Talmud tells us that if all the world were to repent, the Messiah would come. Knowing this, I decided to do something about it. Where to begin? The world? It was too large and I was too small. So I thought: Let me start with my own country. That, too, proved too much for me. My own town? I failed there as well. My neighborhood, my own family? Even there I did not succeed. Never mind, I thought, I shall work on myself.
May you be inspired to spend a few moments every day “working on yourself.” You might find it inspiring to go outside, find a beautiful spot, and have a conversation with yourself. What did I do during the past year that makes me proud? How can I do it again, or something like it? What did I do that I wish I had not? Lost my temper, hurt someone’s feelings, lied (well, it was only a white lie, not important, right?), gossiped. What can be repaired and what’s stopping me. Make your own list and add to it every day (or as often as you can). You don’t have to go outside – have this conversation before bedtime, while driving, even while exercising if that’s the only time you have “alone time”.
May you do the work of Elul, bringing blessings to yourself, and may you have a Shabbat of peace.
Psalm of David
September 7, 2016
One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 27, which is read daily from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (the Hebrew month before Rosh Hashanah, this month!) until the end of the Holy Days cycle. The message of the psalm (the words can be found below in HaMadrich) reflects our reciprocal loving relationship with God. The Hebrew letters comprising the word Elul is an acronym for this sentence from the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible: Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li (alef, lamed, vav, lamed), I am my Beloved and my Beloved is Mine.
Psalm 27 begins with this beautiful declaration: Adonai, God, is my light and my life. Whom shall I fear?
The season of teshuvah, repentance, is forgiveness. We know we have made mistakes, we know we have hurt people – sometimes intentionally, more often accidentally – and we know that from time to time we have failed morally and ethically. We didn’t always do the right thing in our relationships with other nor in our relationship with the Divine. Yet in our quest to make amends and right wrongs, we are assured by Psalm 27 that the Holy Light will light our way, that we have God’s love, and that metaphorically speaking God has our back. Therefore whom shall we fear?
During this first week of Elul, which actually began Sunday, reflect on what corrections you need to make, and who needs to hear your words of regret and apology. Acknowledging your errors is the first step.
May you begin the work of teshuvah and find your way to forgiveness.
A Psalm of David
Adonai is my light and my help. Whom shall I fear?
Adonai is the strength of my life. Whom shall I dread?
When evildoers draw near to slander me
When foes threaten – they stumble and fall.
Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear.
Though wars threaten, I remain steadfast in my faith.
One thing I ask of Adonai – for this I yearn:
To dwell in the House of Adonai all the days of my life –
to behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.
Hiding me in God’s shrine, safe from peril,
God will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster,
And raise my head high above my enemies.
Adonai, hear my voice when I call;
Be gracious to me, and answer.
It is You whom I seek, says my heart.
It is your presence that I see, Adonai.
Do not hide from me; do not reject your servant.
You have always been my help; do not abandon me.
Forsake me not, my God of deliverance.
Though my father and my mother leave me,
Adonai will care for me.
Teach me your way, Adonai.
Guide me on the right path, to confound my oppressors.
Do not abandon me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
purveyors of malice and lies.
Yet I have faith that I shall surely see
Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living.
Hope in Adonai.
Be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai.
The Real Labor Day
August 31, 2016
This is a wonderful holiday weekend, a signal that summer has ended and we are in full blast back-to-school-and-work mode.
We have another signal this weekend!
Sunday is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days. Elul is the time we begin our introspection, our spiritual inventory. As part of that process, we begin asking for forgiveness from anyone we have harmed by our words or by our silence; by our action or by inattention.
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, wrote the book that captures the spirit of this month: THIS IS FOR REAL AND YOU ARE COMPLETELY UNPREPARED, The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Rabbi Lew, in writing about preparing for the Holy Days, wrote:
…We might begin by asking ourselves, What are the loose ends in my life? How is my mind torn? Where are the places my mind keeps wanting to go? What is the unfinished business in my life? What have I left undone? When we look out at the world through a torn mind, our experience of the world is torn…Taking a clear look at our lives, we might simply decide that we can’t possibly complete all the unfinished business we’ve set in motion…one of the things we might decide is that we have to simplify our lives. We have to do fewer things…
This is only the beginning of the process. The above paragraph is looking at our own interior work. We have work ahead to do with others, to repairing relationships. But start by looking within.
Have a safe holiday weekend, a week of blessings, and a Shabbat of peace (Shabbat is the real Labor Day – and you get it every week!)
Keep Our Barrels Full!
August 24, 2016
In preparation for our last bat mitzvah, the social hall was reset for a beautiful Kiddush luncheon. Afterwards, I found the food collection and clothing collection barrels stashed in the utility room. This was a wise move for two reasons – space was needed in the social hall, and it was pretty much guaranteed that no one would be looking for the collection barrels.
With the exception of our youngest students when Beit Sefer (Religious School) is in session, this mitzvah opportunity is usually ignored by our congregants. Our hearts open with compassion for those in our communities, and elsewhere, who lack basic necessities in life – food and clothing and housing – and we wish we could do something. Compassion and wishing isn’t enough! We have an easy and obvious opportunity for each of us to easily contribute in a concrete way.
Yes, during the High Holidays we will have our annual food drive, inspired by fasting on Yom Kippur. Then some of us will contribute to our annual clothing drive. But the needs of the poor and homeless aren’t seasonal. They are ongoing, every day.
There is a common phrase that comes from this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. Moses tells the Israelites, “God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone…” This phrase, that one doesn’t live by bread alone, is commonly used to suggest that one needs more than food; one needs culture, art, “food for the spirit” as well.
Just as God graced us with food, we are obligated to provide for others. May I suggest that every time you go to the grocery store you buy one item that is designated as food for the hungry, and you bring that non-perishable food with you to the temple. Many of us just purchased back-to-school clothes; our clothing barrels will happily accept clean outgrown clothes. I will accept my own challenge; together let us keep those barrels stocked so that we can take them to those in our community who will cherish our simple gifts.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
August 10, 2016
In lieu of my usual message, I am urging each of you to take action as described in the message below:
In the coming days, California's Senate Appropriations committee will decide the ultimate fate of the State's anti-BDS legislation - whether it will go to the Senate floor and then to the desk of Governor Brown. BDS stands for boycott, divest, and sanction – Israel. Those who are involved in the BDS movement for not only anti-Israel but their rhetoric is also frequently anti-Semitic.
Today, take just one minute of your time to ensure the bill in its current form makes it to the Senate floor and to Governor Brown's desk for signature. Send a message to the Senate Appropriations committee and urge them to make the right move.
This legislation is not just important for California's Israeli and Jewish communities, it's important for all Californians. Discriminatory boycotts and calls for divestment not only incite violence and hatred against California's Israeli-American community - it damages our state's economy. Israel is one of California's top trading partners with over $4 billion in two-way trade in 2015 alone. Israeli technology may hold the key to solving California's water crisis but if the boycotters got their way we would all suffer before accepting these solutions from Israel. These are just a couple of reasons why this important legislation must pass.
Take just a few moments now to send a message to California's Senate Appropriations committee and let your voice be heard.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.
Be the Change
August 2, 2016
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. - Barack Obama
The past two weeks have offered us the opportunity to hear some of the best speechmakers of our time. Regardless of your political persuasion, we were given an opportunity that only occurs every four years, where our patriotism was stirred, our values renewed, our determination to improve our lives through our legal and political system was restored, sometimes through anger and sometimes through a reflection of our own ideals.
This weekend we have the opportunity to be “the change that we seek.” We will learn about serious and life threatening flaws in our prison system, particularly their tortuous effect on juvenile offenders, and what we can do about it. This is a priority tikkun olam (social justice) program of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism.
Please join us for a peaceful and inspiring setting to celebrate Shabbat together and learn from an activist on this topic. We will be reading Torah and following lunch, our children will be entertained while adults learn together. I look forward to seeing you again, as this Shabbat officially inaugurates our next programmatic year.
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace.