Rabbi’s Message

Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam
A person’s soul is the lamp of Adonai (Proverbs)

February 13, 2019

This is a favorite teaching of mine. I often meditate on the words, inspired by interpretations of the message.

The Torah commentator Nehamia Lebovitz, may her memory be a blessing, explains that “lamp” symbolizes words of Torah, lighting our way toward ethical and moral behavior. The metaphor is that the lessons of Torah makes us wise and prevents us from making errors. The example she uses comes from a midrash, a teaching from the Talmud, summarized here:

When one is walking in darkness and comes before a stone, one stumbles over the stone. When one is walking in darkness and comes upon a gutter, one falls, striking one’s face to the ground. But when one is knowledgeable through the study of Torah, the light of the teachings of Torah enable us to step over the stone or walk around the gutter. The lamp – Torah – saves us from obstacles and from falling.

In the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You yourself command…”), God instructs Moses to command the Israelites to bring pure oil for lighting the Menorah, which is to burn continuously. The Menorah is a symbol for the light of Adonai burning continuously within us, inspiring us to perform acts of lovingkindness toward one another.

Lebovitz explains that the function of the Menorah, the first mitzvah (commandment) to be performed in the Temple of Adonai, was “to fill the whole House with light” eternally. May our own Congregation Emeth be filled with the Light of the Holy One and may the Light inspire us to walk in God’s ways and perform acts of lovingkindness toward one another.

Twice Blessed

February 6, 2019

“You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” (Deuteronomy 28:6)

Beloved congregants and friends,

How blessed I was during the past 3 months, as I experienced travel that encompassed both historical locations and amazing examples of the miracles of our physical universe. I was blessed in my going, and I am feeling twice blessed in my return – to the holy work that God has led me to do and back to you, renewed and refreshed.

This week’s Torah parashah (reading from Torah) describes the instructions for building the Tabernacle in the desert. God instructs the Israelites, through Moses, to build the Tabernacle so that God might dwell in their sanctuary. While our tradition teaches that God can be found wherever we search for the Holy One, it is particularly in the sanctuary when one’s attention in focused on God’s presence.

During my travels I visited many ancient synagogues. Some are still active, but many, if not most, are either just tourist sites now or are barely hanging on. In one location, the guide wasn’t even Jewish. Regardless, in each of them, I experienced the Divine Presence, sometimes with joy and awe and sometimes with sadness. Many communities were devastated by the Holocaust and few Jews remain (or returned). In some locations, the old meets the new, and Judaism has been reborn.

But in each of them, I offered prayers of thanksgiving for our beloved Emeth congregation. In contrast, we are a vibrant community, with congregants who sustain and maintain Jewish life in South County.

Evidence of this can be found in the many individuals who stepped in to cover for me in my absence. This sabbatical could not have occurred without them. To those who led services, who wrote our weekly email messages, who directed our youth activities (EDK), who stepped out in front and who worked behind the scenes, thank you! To those who participated and supported those who were leading services and activities, thank you as well. I am eager to see all of you, and thank you for supporting me so that I could be absent.

Todah Rabbah – thank you very much!

Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant: The Laws

Becky Neto, Past President, Congregation Emeth

January 30, 2019

If the stories of Torah were televised during their writings it would definitely be the highest rated “Reality TV” program watched. There is love and friendship, sex and intrigue, sibling rivalry, and even murder and mayhem. Many of the families would be considered dysfunctional by today’s standards. The Torah covers all these topics and more. There are stories that show us how to get along with others and what happens when we cannot. This week’s portion teaches us the many rules to live by to live a just life. And there are many…..

The Book of the Covenant has four distinct parts: Civil and criminal matters; Humanitarian concerns; Affirmations of the divine promises of Israel; and how the document was ratified along with the account of Moses receiving the rules. Referring to the laws, Moses was told “you shall set before them.” Sages have interpreted this as meaning knowledge of the law is to be an obligation and privilege of the entire people. This is why the Torah is read by the entire community and not just the high priests. This is why the laws apply to Everyone.

The curious thing about these rules is that they are a culmination of not only religious laws, but of moral and civil laws as well. No products of human thought were used, the laws are a direct reflection of divine principals built into this world. The laws are not given in the name of anyone, not even Moses. These rules are given by G-d and therefore, disobeying the rules means, in addition to whomever was offended, you are disobeying G-d as well. Because the laws are provided directly from G-d, they show a deep recognition of the image of G-d, in every person and the presence of G-d in every relationship.

The unique thing about Torah is how we interpret it. Why do we continue to read the same portions every year? One reason is the way we understand the narratives’ changes to correspond to where we are at that particular time in each of our lives. I remember being at a Shabbat Short & Sweet service where Rabbi Israel solicited ideas on what the congregation thought pf what a particular passage meant. There were many responses, and all were as varied as the people offering their points of view. Rabbi Israel acknowledged all our ideas and showed us how our interpretation of the law was correct for each of us individually.

So, the next time you need to know what a fair response is, or something is troubling you, take a look at what the Torah says. You might just be surprised at what you discover. The Torah really does cover everything!
As a final mention I would like to thank all the people who stepped up while Rabbi Israel was on sabbatical: Our lay leaders did a fantastic job with services. Normal programming continued, including very successful celebrations during December, the Board of Directors provided many different perspectives in the weekly message, plus the many other behind the scenes work that was provided in order to keep Emeth moving forward.

Thank you All and Welcome home Rabbi Israel.

Listen Up

Marcia Fishman, Secretary, Congregation Emeth

January 23, 2019

Listen up! If you ever look for relevance in weekly Torah portions, you will clearly find it in the parsha, Yitro (Jethro). It is about delegation of power and what we might learn if we are willing to listen to others. Do we currently think that this is an enlightened concept? We shouldn’t – because Moses figured it out over 3,000 years ago. But Moses was a great leader. He listened up.

The story is one of Hollywood’s favorites – right before Moses climbs Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, has been observing how Moses adjudicates all the disputes among the Israelites. Jethro feels that this process will exhaust Moses, leaving him with little energy for greater deeds. Therefore, he advises Moses to appoint a hierarchy of wise and righteous judges and delegate responsibilities. Even though Moses was reportedly much wiser than Jethro (and most of the others for that matter), he accepts his father-in-law’s suggestion and establishes a new judicial system.

Later, Moses ascends Mount Sinai where G-D sends the message that the Israelites are G-d’s “treasure out of all people.” But the people must accept that they will do as G-d commands. G-d further says that G-d will be revealed to the people in three-day’s time. Thus, on that third day – thunder, lightning, and the glaring sound of a shofar were discharged from the mountain.

G-d recites the Ten Commandments, but the Israelites could not effectively listen amid the frightening din of the thunder and lightning. They ask Moses if they could again hear the words through Moses’ lips, and he agreed.

In essence, Moses acted as we wish many leaders would act. First, he listened carefully to Jethro, a man he respected. Then he delegated responsibilities – even though he himself could have performed better with his inimitable wisdom and leadership skills. And finally, he listened to the needs of his constituents who, themselves, recognized that they would better learn if they could alter the atmosphere for listening.

What was most remarkable, however, was that a new nation was created – a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of G-d with a written constitution (the Torah). The judges became the government officials, and the Torah set moral limits and dictated right over might. Someone at Harvard Law School knew this because the school’s Austin Hall has an overhead quote engraved from this Torah portion (Exodus 18:20) “And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.”

Who emulates Moses today? Who in our own midst listens quietly and patiently, accurately hears what is being said, and puts good advice into action? From my own professional experiences, I have appreciated that a leader must have self-awareness, must know how s/he affects others, and must understand the world around them. Finally, a leader must be teachable, i.e. willing to learn new ways and follow through on what s/he has learned. British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

I am confident that many among our congregants hold a bit of Moses within us. It is my hope that many among our political leaders possess the same – and have the bravery to act on these merits.

Tu B’Shevat

Eric Killough, Board Member-at-Large, Congregation Emeth

January 16, 2019

When, as a board member, I was given the choice to sign up for a week to write in Rabbi Israel’s absence, I jumped at the chance to write on Tu B’Shevat. “Trees”, I thought, “I love trees” because that’s all I knew about Tu B’Shevat. I’m new to Jewish customs, having been raised Protestant. Fun fact about Judaism: there are a lot of customs. One thing I know about this one custom is that Tu B’Shevat celebrates the trees. I’ve heard called “Jewish Arbor Day” or “New Years for the Trees”. Both of those names are pretty fun but I decided that, for this article, I’d try to find out the full meaning to the fullest extent that Google will allow.

“Tu B’Shevat” gets its name from the date on which it occurs: the 15th day of the month of Shevat. A minor Jewish holiday, it is often referred to as the new year (or “birthday”) of the trees. The word “Tu” is not really a word; it is the number 15 in Hebrew, as if you were to call the Fourth of July “Iv July” (IV being 4 in Roman numerals). The holiday originated in the Talmud, and was based on the date chosen for calculating the agricultural cycle of taking tithes from the produce of the trees, which were brought as first-fruit offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Tu B’Shevat fell out of practice after the destruction of the Second Temple, but was revived by kabbalists in the Middle Ages. They began to practice the Tu B’Shevat seder: a meal that partly mirrors the Passover seder and involves eating biblical foods native to the Holy Land. And drinking four cups of wine! Tu B’Shevat has since developed into an ecological holiday that reminds Jews of our connection to the earth and to our role as caretakers of the environment. Some modern practices include donating money to plant trees in Israel or planting trees locally.

Although this day is Rosh Hashanah for trees, we attach special significance to this holiday because “Man is [compared to] the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Through cultivating strong roots – faith and commitment to G‑d – we produce many fruits—Torah and Mitzvot.

On this day it is customary to partake from shiv’at ha’minim (seven species endemic to the Land of Israel): wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates. If tasting any of these fruit for the first time this season, remember to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing. (A blessing recited on joyous occasions, thanking G‑d for “sustaining us and enabling us to reach this occasion.” This blessing is recited before the standard “Ha’etz” blessing recited on fruit.) Beyond that, there are many possible variations for preparing a Tu B’Shevat meal, usually incorporating dried fruit and nuts, and one can be creative in deciding how to plan the menu.

In addition to culinary customs, some people plant trees for Tu B’Shevat and a lot of Jewish children go around collecting money for trees for Israel at this time of year.

I’d like to close here, back where I began this article, with my simple love for trees and gratitude for a holiday that celebrates them. I love the image of Jewish children going door to door collecting money for trees in Israel. I like to imagine them eating lots of fruit. And I love the idea of them planting trees in America too, as our students do behind Emeth. Let’s let this time of year, this once lost holiday, be a reminder to us that we are servants of the trees and not the other way around. Sure, Tu B’Shevat once served to tell us when and to whom we paid out tithes, but let’s let it be more than that. Let’s let this be a time to remember that we share the bounty of the natural world with one another.

Happy Tu B’Shevat!

Antisemitism Here and Now

What Is The Situation and What Can We Do?

Arthur Reidel, Treasurer, Congregation Emeth

January 9, 2019

On Dec. 23, the neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa posted their repugnant version of a “Merry Christmas” message in downtown Morgan Hill– neo-Nazis are present right in our front yard. Messages were initially posted on Nextdoor.com opposed to the hate message, but they were followed by a series of posts defending Identity Evropa and ranting against SPLC and George Soros. College campuses in the Bay area are rife with “BDS” and other antisemitic activity. Leadership of the national “Women’s March” includes individuals who have made strongly antisemitic remarks. Famous author Alice Walker has very recently been exposed for holding and expressing virulent antisemitic views. Antisemitic incidents were up 57% last year in the US and, despite our smaller numbers, more hate crimes were committed against Jews than any other identified group.

There is a conflation of anti-semitism with anti-immigration and other populist issues. The shooter in Pittsburgh thought he was attacking an Immigration Shabbat, in association with HIAS, but he was misinformed and a week late. Surveys indicate that approximately 30% of the US population continue to believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the US, and that Jews killed Christ, along with other historic tropes. Even more alarming, those who feel emboldened to act on these beliefs have increased sharply. The situation in Europe is considerably worse than it is in the US, and many synagogues there have been turned into armed fortresses.

Long time ADL leaders Abe Foxman and Kenny Jacobson, who have been fighting antisemitism for five decades, believe that antisemitism has been present in the US all that time but that it was kept in check by “guardrails.” Now however those guardrails are down, openly expressing antisemitic views no longer has the social consequences it used to, and antisemitism along with all other forms of hate speech has moved form the fanatic fringes of society into the mainstream. How can we get that “genie” back in the bottle? What else can we do to fight antisemitism in all of its manifestations, and hate of all kinds?

This is needless to say a very complex topic, and not amenable to solution in a short essay, but here are a few starting points. Support organizations such as ADL, HIAS, and JCRC– don’t leave it to “the other guy.”. Isn’t it worth a few small sacrifices in lifestyle, to be able to contribute to one of these organizations, so that our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the security and freedom we have had– rather than the overt discrimination and prejudice suffered by our grandparents? Speak up and take action– when you see something objectionable posted online, report it as hate speech to the hosting platform. Engage with other members of our community, and with your friends and family, to raise consciousness of this issue. Support and advocate for anti-bias education in our schools. Make common cause with people of other faiths in opposing hate and discrimination in all it’s forms. Focus on changing the tone of political speech in Washington, but do not believe that alone will solve this problem.

It is through the collective efforts of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (ADL was founded in 1913 in response to incidents including the lynching of a Jewish businessman in Georgia and, in the 1950’s, my parents were turned away from “Christian only” hotels and suffered from overt discrimination in education and employment) that we came to enjoy the freedoms and security we long took for granted. If we become as vigilant and work as hard as they did, we can hope to turn back the terrible tide once again.

BDS: Boycott, Divestiture, Sanctions movement, targeting Israel
ADL: Anti Defamation League: www.adl.org
HIAS: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: www.hias.org
JCRC: Jewish Community Relations Council: www.jcrc.org
SPLC: Southern Poverty Law Center: www.splcenter.org