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From the Rabbi
From the Rabbi - October 2019 PDF Print E-mail
The Talmud teaches that welcoming the stranger is a greater mitzvah than welcoming G-d’s presence. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t welcome G-d’s presence (we should!) but that for us as human beings we start by welcoming the stanger, and by doing this the welcoming of G-d’s presence in our lives will follow. 

The Jewish ideal of welcoming the stranger begins with Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews.  Genesis chapter 18 opens with Abraham sitting in the doorway of his tent on a hot day. Three strangers appear to him and he “ran to greet them”, bowed down to them, and offered them gracious hospitality of food (prepared by Sarah), water, and shade. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, Abraham was sitting at the front of the tent in order to more effectively and immediately welcome any passing stranger.  Further he says that Abraham and Sarah made sure that their tent was in a central place in the camp and was rolled up on all four sides so that he could see travelers coming from any direction and all would feel welcome approaching their open tent.

This ideal is reflected in many aspects of Jewish tradition.  The traditional marital chuppah is open on all sides to inspire every wedding couple to follow Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming attitude in their own home.  One of the main mitzvoth connected to the festival of Sukkot is hachnasat orchim, showing hospitality to guests in our Sukkah. And on Passover, we declare: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share in the meal.”

As a community we do a great job welcoming people who walk through our doors.  So many have told me how they have felt immediately welcomed when they attend a service or other event at Congregation Beth Israel, how they really do feel that this family of families makes them feel like they are part of the family. 

But we can do better.  In particular we know that there are unaffiliated Jews out there who, for whatever reason, have not taken the opportunity to walk through our door or who are resistant to doing so.  While synagogue may not be for everyone we must do all we can to be at the door of our “tent” to share how wonderful this congregation and community really is to those who could appreciate it but have not yet chosen to do so.  To do this each of us must take on the role of Abraham and Sarah, being ambassadors for the congregation, sharing how the community has touched our lives, and how our programs and services have inspired us and engaged us.  If you know unaffiliated Jews, or people who have shown a genuine interest in becoming Jewish, share your stories with them about how wonderful the community is, encourage them to be in contact, and let us know if they are perhaps ready to take the leap but need convincing from a board member or a rabbi. 

We are all Abraham and we are all Sarah and all of us can be ambassadors for the congregation, welcoming all as guests into our congregational tent, our family of families. 

                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - September 2019 PDF Print E-mail


Most people who believe in G-d would agree with the idea that "G-d is everywhere."  But we rarely stop to think what we really mean by that.  In fact, most of us who are honest about it would probably admit that what we really believe is that G-d can be found primarily in our synagogue, church, mosque or other place of worship.  We go to such places and pray there precisely because, deep down, we think that G-d is more "concentrated" in those places and that we have to go there to connect with G-d.  And we often live our lives as if G-d's presence and the ethical and spiritual dictates of our religious traditions stop at the door of the place we worship.  The same person whose thoughts turn to charity, gratitude and humility when in synagogue or church can act very differently from these fine sentiments in their daily lives. 

But Judaism is famously a "way of life" that is supposed to inspire our actions wherever we are. It is a religion that places what we do over what we believe and is therefore as, or more, concerned with how we live our daily lives than with our inner life of the soul.  This is why Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Judaism is a theology of the common deed, of the trivialities of life, dealing not so much with training for the exceptional as with the management of the trivial…[T]he purpose [of Judaism] seems to be to ennoble the common.” This means that even the most trivial aspect of life can be an opportunity to connect with G-d and to live our lives in a spiritual and moral manner.

In his book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life"  Bill Bryson takes the reader through a tour of his house explaining the fascinating and often downright weird history of all the mundane items in our house that we normally take for granted.  Each room we walk through without paying attention, each item we use without thought, reveals stories of ingenuity, perseverance, and often blood and guts that made them what they are today.  If so much unexpected depth can be found in such seemingly unassuming places and objects perhaps spiritual and moral inspiration can too.  In understanding how Judaism can and should be part of our daily lives, we open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to experiencing G-d in the mundane and we can "ennoble the common" to find meaning and wisdom in the apparently trivial. 
 
We are about to enter the Days of Awe, a time which in many ways does involve us focusing our spiritual and ethical thinking at a particular time and in a particular place.  But we are reminded that the goal of these High Holy Days is to take the spiritual inspiration and moral self-reflection we experience at this time and continue to live according to those high and holy ideals every day and everywhere in our daily lives.   

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - August 2019 PDF Print E-mail


A story is told of Rabbi Baroka of Huza who went often to the marketplace near his home. One day he met the prophet Elijah there (as you do!) and he asked the prophet:  “Is there anyone in the marketplace, who will  have  a  share  in  the  world  to come?” Elijah answered that there was not.   Later, two people entered the marketplace, and Elijah said to Rabbi Baroka, “Those two will have a share in the world to come!” Baroka, wanting to know what was so special about these two asked: “What do you do for a living?”  “We are jesters,” they replied.  “When we see a person who is sad, we cheer them up. And when we see two people quarreling, we try to make peace between them.”
 
The world is filled with difficult, sad, dangerous, and scary things, things that lead many of us to want to turn off the news because it’s too much to bear.  Many argue this all suggests our world is in a terrible shape. Many others argue, however, that this impression is distorted by the tendency of the news to focus on the worst parts of human experience for the sake of spectacle and ratings.  Perhaps both positions have some truth and in a way they both lead to an interesting Jewish answer to facing such a difficult world. 
 
The world can be a difficult and troubling place filled with dangers and sadness.  It can also be a beautiful place filled with joy and laughter.  The story of Rabbi Baroka and the jesters points to a very Jewish answer to these two realities – Recognize the things that are awful in world but be a person that brings joy and laughter to that world nevertheless. 
 
One of my favorite books by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one on Jewish humor.  Telshkin explains that while he enjoyed writing the book he initially thought of it as one of his less important work .  But then he met a Jewish psychiatrist who told him that it was, in fact, his most important book.  Why?  The psychiatrist had a cousin who was dying.  As Telushkin explains: “The psychiatrist used to speak to his cousin on a daily basis but found their talks were becoming increasingly depressing.  So he challenged the man:  ‘I will continue to speak to you daily but every day I want us to tell each other a joke.’ For the ill man searching each day for a joke helped him to realize that his life was more than just pain.  The book became the source for the many jokes the psychiatrist told his cousin.”
 
Yes, the world can be hard.  And yes, it can be filled with much that is scary and sad, much that causes frustration, anxiety, and despair.  But that makes it even more important that we be the bringers of joy and levity to the world.  Each of us can, in our own way, be the source of joy for another human being, with a helping hand, a well-timed joke, or a simple smile.   In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav – “There are people who suffer terrible distress and are unable to tell what they feel in their hearts and they go their way and suffer and suffer.  But if they meet one with a laughing face they can revive them with their joy. And to revive someone is no slight thing.”

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - June & July 2019 PDF Print E-mail

In his book “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” Robert Fulgham noted that in pre-school he had learned the following lessons: “Share everything, play fair, don't hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess, don't take things that aren't yours, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody, wash your hands before you eat, live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.”

Looking towards the summer I am reminded that much the same can be said about the experience of Jewish summer camp.  For many years I have had the pleasure of being on faculty at Jewish summer camps and have enjoyed seeing my daughter and other Jewish kids learning and growing as a result of being there.  Many, if not all, of the same lessons from kindergarten can be learned at summer camp, if for some reason you missed them in kindergarten, as well as some new ones like: You never know if you like something until you try it, at camp you can be who you want to be not who everyone tells you  are, and you have to fall off the waterskis a lot before you get it right, and that’s part of the fun!

There is an important lesson in all this that is vital to Jewish tradition.  In many places in the Torah and rabbinic tradition, important things are repeated – the Ten Commandments, the commandment to teach your children about the exodus from Egypt, the requirement to not oppress the stranger, the widow and the orphan because we were strangers in the land of Egypt etc.  Sometimes we hear these things so often that we could be forgiven for thinking that we don’t need to hear them again.  “We got it! We know!” We think these things are so obvious and basic we have no need to repeat them and should move on to deeper life lessons. 

But any clear look at our world shows that maybe the real problem is that we haven’t learned the basic lessons that we should have learned in kindergarten and summer camp at all.  As our society becomes more and more complicated it actually becomes more important than ever to remind ourselves of the basics, of the core human values we so often forget.  If we all actually lived by those apparently basic and simplistic laws we learned at Kindergarten, or in summer camp or in the Ten Commandments, or in the story of the exodus from Egypt, how much better would we act towards our fellow human beings. If we did more than give lip service to these basic values of kindness, honesty, moderation and more, and really made them a part of how we live our everyday lives, how much better would the world be for it. 

So as we look towards the summer let’s remind ourselves of the basics and continue to work on them until we get them right – Share everything, play fair, say sorry when we hurt someone, be kind and truthful to all, live a balanced life full of play and work, joy and obligation, and hold hands and stick together as we face whatever the world may throw at us, strengthened by the presence and support of neighbors, friends, family and community. 

Have a great summer!
 Rabbi Emanuel 

 
From the Rabbi - May 2019 PDF Print E-mail
I was recently honored to be appointed to the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission.  The commission was established in 2009 with 15 appointed commissioners. The commission works in many spheres and with many organizations to educate and raise awareness about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Why is the work of the commission so important?  In short, because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. By learning about the Holocaust and other genocides, we hope to ensure that people today learn to be the kind of people who will stand up and prevent such horrors from occurring rather than stand by and let them happen, to be up-standers rather than bystanders.

As part of its educational programming the Commission provides important guidance on how to teach about holocausts and other genocides. One of these guideline is of particular significance to us today:

Do not teach that the Holocaust was inevitable - “When teaching and learning about genocide, individuals may fall prey to helplessness or acceptance of inevitability because the event is imminent or in progress. The magnitude of the event and seeming inertia in the world community and its policymakers can be daunting, but actions of any size have potential impact. Numerous episodes from the Holocaust and other genocides illustrate this point. History does not have to repeat.”

That last phrase is the most significant - History does not have to repeat.  When learning about the Holocaust and other genocides it’s easy to think that nothing could have been done, that the  weight of history made these and other events as inevitable as they were horrifying. This is a time when we see the rise of so many hatreds, so many people finding ways to dehumanize others because of their differences, and in which we see, in particular, a very troubling rise in antisemitism, even attacks on Jews in America.  It would be easy to think the forces of history are inevitable and beyond our control and to despair of changing its course for the better. 

But learning about history teaches that all these things happened because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not act in certain ways. Recognizing the significance of those decisions leads to a better understanding of history and human nature and how to make better decisions for people and nations today. Each of us can learn to see signs of prejudice and hatred, to stand up to the  inhumanity of human beings towards those who are different, to be up-standers not bystanders in our own time.  In this time of rising antisemitism each of us can be part of the solution, each of us can play a role in ensuring these events do NOT repeat themselves for us or any other group.  The more we learn, the more we know,  and the more we understand, the more hope we have to prevent the the events of the Holocaust and other genocides from happening ever again, in our lifetimes and for generations to come. 
            
                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
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