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From the Rabbi - June & Jully 2018 PDF Print E-mail

We recently ended a series studying the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  This text is originally part of the Mishnah but unlike the rest of that book it describes the ethical wisdom of the ancient rabbis rather than their legal thoughts.  It is traditional to study this text between Passover and Shavuot to this day (which we did!), in part because it relates to matters of human nature that have changed little since the days of the Mishnah even while many matters that are related to the legal aspects of the Mishnah have. Here are a few examples of that wisdom and what they mean:

· Run to do an easy commandment as to a difficult one…Do not disparage anyone, and do not shun any thing. For there is no person who does not have their hour, and you have no thing that does not have its place. We tend to prioritize in our lives because life is short and we have to use our time carefully. BUT here we are reminded that we should never dismiss the little things because they seem unimportant and we should always consider every person as important and as worthy of care and consideration because all persons have their purpose and every person is made in the image of G-d.

 

· Do not judge alone, for there is no lone judge aside from One [God]. And do not say,”Accept my opinion”, for they are permitted and not you. Even the smartest person with the best judgment needs to consider what others can teach them.  We all have our own perspectives and all of us need to realize that “our” truth doesn’t necessarily equal “the” truth.   So we consider what others have to say, learn from their perspective, and refrain from imposing our perspective on others.  If we insist that our opinion can be imposed on others because we believe it’s true then why should others not do the same to us! Much better to be open minded and open to a larger truth. 

 

·  If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah.  Everything is about balance, even holiness and study of Torah.  If we only engage in the material and physical  matters of the world then we miss the more important matters of the spirit and connection to G-d and each other through holy community.  But if we only focus on holiness and study of Torah but do not engage in the world, then what good are we doing in making the world a better place? We must make an effective balance between the two, as we must in most things. 

 

· The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. The work of fixing the world is long and hard.  It’s easy to get discouraged because there is so much to do and so often we take one step forward and two steps back.  Others may not share our vision and may make it harder to do what’s right in the world.  Along the way there will be many failures as well as many successes.  But we can never give up.  Our task is to fix the world.  It may take a long time and we may never finish the task ourselves but we must continue nevertheless.  Our task is to do what we can, making the world just a little better because we were in it.  Others can and will finish the task but we must do all we can, when we can.  That is our purpose. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - May 2018 PDF Print E-mail

As an ancient document the Torah includes several passages that, at first, may not seem immediately relevant to our modern lives. But when we dig deeper we find that in fact even some of the more obscure elements have eternal meaning that continues to teach us lessons for our lives today.  Later this month we will read from parshat Behar which includes the rules for the sabbatical year.  Today that term is used to refer to a period of time taken away from work but in its biblical context it is about agriculture in the land of Israel. For six years you could work the land but the seventh was to be a complete sabbath for the land.  Already by the time of the Rabbis, our sages wondered about the continued relevance of this law for a people in Diaspora. Today, when most Jews are neither involved in agriculture, nor do they live in Israel, the relevance of the sabbatical year is even less obvious.

A simple answer is that leaving the land fallow for one year in seven, is simply good agricultural practice, allowing the land to rest and replenish its nutrients and fertility. But there are undoubtedly deeper spiritual meanings to the practice. 

First there is the parallel with Shabbat.  Just as we rest on the seventh day from our work, the land rests every seven years from its work.  In Genesis God creates for seven days and then rests making Shabbat as part of the fabric of creation.  By extending Shabbat to the land itself we are told that this ideal of rest is encoded in the nature and being of the universe.  When we rest on Shabbat, when we observe Shabbat, we are not simply creating space for our psychological wellbeing, for personal refection and refreshment.  Rather, we are tuning into a fundamental reality of the world that affects not only people but even the earth itself. 

Moreover we read later in the portion that: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.”  The basis of the sabbatical year is that despite what we may think we do not own the land.  Indeed, according to our tradition we do not really own anything.  All is created by God and thus all, ultimately, belongs to God.  We live in an increasingly consumerist culture in which we are judged by how much we own and are defined by our material wealth.  But in this Torah portion we are told that this “stuff” is not really ours.  The land is God’s and we are merely temporary residents on it.  Indeed, not only the land but all people belong to God.  This goes against everything we learn in modern life in which the individual is sovereign and the value of all around us, both things and people, is often reduced to how much value they have to us and how much they can do for us. 

Thus the sabbatical year reminds us that we should be instilled with humility in the face of the nature of creation, and, inspired by that humility, that we should always exercise our power over the land and all the people of the world, with the responsibility and respect demanded of us by God and by our tradition. 
 
 
Rabbi Ilan Emanuel
 

 

 
From the Rabbi - April 2018 PDF Print E-mail

A central aspect of the Passover seder is the passage describing the four children – one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not even know how to ask.  Obviously we are supposed to see the wise child as the best and the wicked child as the worst. Or are we?

The traditional understanding of the wicked son revolves around the idea that the wicked child asks “What are all these things to you?” The “you” here is seen as meaning “for you and not for me” and that the wicked child is separating himself or herself from the rest of the Jewish people.  But is the wicked child really so wicked?

For one thing if that were true one might expect the order to be different.  The wise ones would be first and the wicked one last.  But instead the wicked one comes second and the one who does not know how to ask a question comes at the end.  This suggests that perhaps the children are not ordered according to moral status at all but according to the nature of their questioning.  For the Rabbis, questioning was an essential part of what it meant to be a Jew.  To ask significant questions with a background of wisdom and knowledge and a sense of reverence for tradition is, for the Rabbis, the highest goal.  But second only to that is the wicked child, who asks difficult questions, questions people don’t want to ask but should, questions that maybe those with the greatest knowledge of tradition would never think of asking. 

Perhaps the wicked child is wicked, but the Rabbis value what he brings to the table and, in a way, encourage us to embrace the positive aspects of what that child brings to the table.  The Rabbis note in Pirkei Avot (5:17): “Any disagreement which is for the sake of Heaven shall eventually endure and any disagreement which is not for the sake of Heaven shall eventually not endure.” Sometimes the different between the two is not clear.  The same can be said for questioning.  The Rabbis seem to be saying that the difference between the wise child and the wicked child is not as great as we might think.  The difference is not in whether they ask difficult questions but whether they do so for the sake of building up or tearing down.  And perhaps the Rabbis include the wicked child right after the wise one in order to remind the wise to ask the difficult questions they might not otherwise ask.

In an article in the online Slate magazine Miriam Krule notes in fact that she prefers the wicked child, arguing with respect to the child’s question that: “it sounds less evil to me than sensible. The idea of searching for meaning in practices, and understanding their motivations, is a natural one. Challenging the reasons behind tradition, and the logic underlying the holiday’s restrictions, can only lead to greater understanding and more honest practice. Whereas the smart son merely asks for, and receives, the law, the wicked son asks for the reasoning underlying those laws.”

Reform and Conservative Judaism are based on the idea that questioning tradition is not undermining it but engaging with it.   The right kind of questioning leads to creativity and dynamism, a willingness to wrestle with the tension between tradition and modernity that, like any argument for the sake of heaven, will endure and help Judaism to endure.  In order to have a discussion for the sake of heaven we must be willing to question.  And so, while we should always strive to be the wise child, perhaps we should also be willing to learn from the wicked child and be willing to question for the sake of heaven. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - March 2018 PDF Print E-mail
The old saying is that Jewish festivals can be defined by the phrase – “They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat!”  This description definitely applies to two festivals we will be celebrating this month – Purim and Passover.  In the first Haman tried to destroy the Jewish people because he could not handle the fact that we would not bow to him and his hatred of us drove him to want to eradicate us. On Passover we remember how Pharaoh, fearful of the Israelites, enslaved us. In both cases we overcame these enemies and live to celebrate to this day.

But while these festivals are similar in many ways the evil that presented itself against our people, each case was quite different.  Pharaoh begins by stating that he is fearful of the Israelites and presents what at first appear to be “rational” reasons to enslave the Israelites.  He says: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” Superficially this sounds reasonable.  But in reality these are not reasons but rationalizations.  It is hard to believe that the mighty Egyptian was truly threatened by our small people.  Pharaoh sadly did what many do.  He felt fear and instead of facing it he found a rationalization for it and convinced himself and his people that it was logical and reasonable.  He was neither the first nor the last person who engaged in evil because they convinced themselves, through false logic and rationalization, that being cruel to others was justified when it was not.  As so many have noted, no one thinks they are the bad guy in their own story.  And yet, of course, he was.

Haman represents a different but equal evil.  No real reason is given for Haman’s hatred beyond his whim and caprice. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman and thus he was “filled with rage.”  This aspect of his hatred is further clarified by the fact that the Rabbis connect Haman with the people of Amalek, who in the course of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, came upon the Israelites and attacked them.  Not only are they described as specifically targeting the weak and the stragglers among us, but their attack comes from nowhere and there is no discernable reason for it.  Like modern day terrorism or mass shootings, this is an evil that was particularly horrifying because it was based on irrational, baseless hatred.  Such evil expresses itself in randomness and chaos and is terrifying because it comes from nowhere and undermines our sense of control and security. 

In celebrating these two festivals we are called not just to celebrate our survival in the past but to fight against the evils of the present.  We are called to challenge ourselves and others not to rely on easy rationalizations that prevent us from seeing the evil before us and facing it when we have the opportunity.  And in facing the randomness and chaos of Amalek, the evil of baseless hatred of Haman, we are called as Jews are always called to fight baseless hatred by living life with purpose and good values, joining together to make real and significant change, and working to bring order to chaos and light to darkness.

 
From the Rabbi - February 2017 PDF Print E-mail
I recently returned from the conference of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis in Galveston. At that gathering Joel Hoffman, a biblical scholar who we have had the pleasure of hosting at our congregation as a scholar in residence, asked what at first seemed like an outrageous and shocking question – Is prayer something Jews will be doing in 100 years? Of course it is, might be our response.   How can we possibly imagine Judaism without prayer? And, for my part, I agree that it is hard to imagine what Judaism would look like without it. 

But the context of his question is important.  He was speaking about revolutions of Jewish history starting with the revolution of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.  How many people 100 years before the destruction of the Temple could have conceived that sacrifice would no longer be the primary way of worshiping G-d and be replaced by prayer.  What came after was very different but we are still here, going strong 2000 years later.  Hoffman argued that we are currently in another revolution of Jewish life and that prayer could go the same way or at least look very different in 100 years than it does today. 

Two other sessions at the conference shed light on this and larger questions involved. Amy Asin from URJ talked about the idea that we should “Start with Why” based on the work of Simon Sinek.  We are often overly concerned about the “what” of things e.g. specific tunes, and prayers etc.  But the real question is why. Why do we do this and why are we doing it this way? Rabbi Mike Commins, author of Making Prayer Real provided an answer for the “why” of prayer.  Prayer has two why’s – gratitude and yearning.

These two “why’s” are eternal.  The “what” of prayer may change but we will always be looking to express our gratitude and yearning, whether through prayer or otherwise.  We know this already in that different streams of Judaism and different congregations pray differently.  Each expression reflects both gratitude and yearning in different ways for different communities.

The larger picture, returning to Hoffman’s initial talk, is that like the rabbis of the “Rabbinic period” we are also innovators in a period of great change.  That can be scary.  We want to hold on to what has been because that is what we know and what gives us structure and makes us comfortable.  We are naturally and understandably anxious about all that may be lost

But imagine that in 100 years or 1000 years Jews will look back on our time as we do the time of the Rabbis of the Talmud.  We look back then and think how amazing it would have been to be part of things at a time when Judaism as we know it was being formed.  In Judaism and in the world in general we are in a period of change and transition.  And we are part of it.  That can be scary but it can and should also be an amazing opportunity.  What an amazing time to be alive, when we get to be part of creating the future of Judaism and how it will look for generations to come. 
                             
                                    Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
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