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From the Rabbi
From the Rabbi - February 2017 PDF Print E-mail
Two stories of the Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev:
On his way to synagogue one Saturday morning, Rabbi Levi Yitchak met a Jew smoking on Shabbat.  “Surely” the Rebbe asked, “You have forgotten that today is Shabbat?” “No” replied the man, “I remember.”  “Then,” stated the Rebbe, “you obviously didn’t know that the law forbids smoking on Shabbat?” “No, I know that too,” he replied.”  The Rebbe looked to the heavens and said to God: “True, he violates the laws of Shabbat.  But you must admit one thing: nothing can make him tell a lie!”
One day while walking Rabbi Levi Yitchak was hit in the head by a garbage can.  After thorough investigation he found that the culprit was the wife of a vicious critic of Chassidic Judaism. “Don’t be angry with her God,” implored the rabbi, “she was only trying please her husband!”
I love these stories not just because they show a rather humorous side to usually serious genre of Chassidic stories, but because they point to an important truth.  Sometimes we think that to be truly honest and to tell the truth means being negative.  We think it’s easy to be positive and nice but telling the truth means being critical.  But actually it’s very easy to be negative, to let our negative emotions – anger, fear, frustration –drive us to say things that are hurtful, things that are critical of ourselves and others.  It’s easy to dismiss others because they get in our way or to demean others because of a trait we find annoying or frustrating. 
But what Rabbi Levi Yizchak of Berdichev teaches us is that truth is both positive and negative.  To be truly honest one must be willing to see both the good and the bad in all things.  When we seem to be favoring the positive we must force ourselves to look at the negative however unpleasant.  But the opposite is also true.  When we find ourselves looking negatively upon others or even upon ourselves, we should always do as Rabbi Levi Yitchak of Berdichev did and be as honest in our praise as we are in our criticism. The person we find most difficult in our lives, may also have traits that deserve praise.  It’s easy when we are angry or impatient forget this, but these stories remind us that it is our duty to be as honest about the good in others and in ourselves as we are about the bad. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - January 2017 PDF Print E-mail
January 2017 -  Hope

This year Chanukah and the secular New Year overlapped which is apt considering the themes of both celebrations are quite similar.  Both are about hope.  On Chanukah we celebrate the hope of a small band of rebel Jews fighting against a mighty empire for their right to live as Jews and the hope of light in the darkness of the winter.  And on the secular New Year – as with the Jewish New Year - we hope for renewal, looking forward to a year in which we can turn over a new leaf and in which the difficulties we have faced in the past year may give way to hope for something better in the new. 

Hope is sometimes dismissed in our modern world as a rather “fuzzy” virtue.  The business adage: “Hope is not a business plan,” suggests the reason why.  Hope gives the impression of being an exercise in magical thinking, a belief that if one only hopes hard enough everything will turn out for the better. But in the eyes of many it lacks specificity, practicality and realism. 

But hope is an essential part of Jewish tradition and history – hope for an end of exile, hope for victory over the Greek empire, hope for the return to Zion and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.  Indeed Israel’s national anthem is Hatikvah, the “hope” and every time we sing it we declare “od lo avdah tikvatenu”, ‘our hope is not yet lost.’  And our future is also based on hope, the hope of a messianic age in which all the problems of the world will be swept away and all will be made right under the rule of G-d. 

Hope is not magic, but it is incredibly powerful, able to give meaning even in the darkest times.  Rabbi Hugo Gryn told of his experiences in Auschwitz.  One day in the middle of winter they realized that it was Chanukah.  His father, with whom he shared a bunk, decided to make a makeshift Chanukah menorah from scrap metal, using some butter as oil to burn.  Hugo protested that the butter should not be wasted in such a way and that surely the butter could be better used to feed someone.  “Hugo,” said his father, “both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But Hugo, I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope. This Menorah is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere.”

Hope cannot fix all things.  But hope can raise our spirits even in the midst of darkness and it can inspire us to do what needs to be done to help make the world better despite all odds.  Hope keeps us going so that, faced with what the world is, we never give up on creating the world as it should and could be in this secular New Year and beyond.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - December 2016 PDF Print E-mail

At the heart of the celebration of Chanukah is the celebration of a miracle.  But which miracle are we celebrating?  The obvious answer is the miracle of light, the miracle of the holy oil by which the light of the menorah in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem lasted eight days instead of one.  But a small band of Jews defeating a mighty empire is just as miraculous in its own way and for many Jews in history this was the real miracle to celebrate on Chanukah. 

In Jewish thought there are two ways of understanding miracles that correspond with the two miracles that are part of the Chanukah story.  One is a public miracle, a miracle in which the laws of nature are broken in a way that points those who see it to the reality of G-d’s power.  The miracle of lights was such a miracle.  But our tradition also proposes another kind of miracle, one in which apparent natural phenomena occur in a way which suggests that events were guided by a higher divine power. The miracle of a small weak group of Jews defeating the mighty Greeks despite all odds could arguably, understood in this way.   What is remarkable, considering the central focus on the miracle of lights in our modern way of celebrating Chanukah, is that the special prayer recalling the miracles of Chanukah (Al Hanissim) that is added to the Amidah during Chanukah focusses on the miracle of defeating the Greeks against all odds and not the miracle of light. 

Perhaps the reason for this is that, while the miracle of light is beautiful and meaningful, it is somewhat removed from the experience of our daily lives.  None of us are likely to experience an obvious supernatural miracle in which the very laws of nature are overturned.  But how many of us might experience the possibility of the divine working in our lives?  Perhaps all of us have done so even if we don’t realize it.   

In focusing on the less obvious kind of miracle, the Al Hanissim prayer conveys an important lesson.  If miracles are extraordinary events that happens to us, divinely bestowed and entirely out of our control, then we are passive in how we interact with the miraculous and the divine.  But if miracles are things that happen in daily life even if we do not see it at the time, then we can and should be more active in how we react to the world around us.  This idea reminds us to be more open to the presence of the divine in the world and suggests that we can be an active part of making the miraculous happen in our daily lives. 

In the words of Rabbi David Hartman, “What appears as fate, the necessity of a small people subject to an invulnerable empire is revealed as an illusion.  The language of the biblical miracle is the Bible’s way of undermining the acquiescence of humans to the “way things have to be.”…Belief in miracles is the basis of the “hope model” of Judaism… (Rabbi David Hartman).  When we believe that miracles are all around us, we can believe that there is always hope for the future, and that we can be part of making that hope a reality in the world.

Happy Chanukah!  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel


From the Rabbi - September 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Repent now! Avoid the Yom Kippur rush!

Traditional Jewish sources understand Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur through the metaphor of judicial proceedings. On Rosh Hashanah we go before God, the Heavenly Judge, as we are judged on our sins of the past year. And just as we would before an earthly court appearance, we are expected to prepare in advance of our trial. The month preceding the High Holy Days - Elul – is thus a period of emotional and spiritual preparation. In the coming month Jewish tradition encourages us to engage in introspection, to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt in the past year, to establish positive goals for the New Year, and to take the time to draw closer to God.

Our primary task in this month of heshbon hanefesh (“accounting of the soul”) is to engage in teshuvah (repentance). Our tradition tells us that it was in this month that Moses pled for forgiveness for the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai after the sin of the Golden Calf, beseeching God to forgive the errant Israelites. Having received forgiveness on our behalf, Moses is said to have descended from the holy mountain on Yom Kippur with a new set of tablets of the Ten Commandments. Like Moses we are asked to seek forgiveness for ourselves and others at this time by engaging in sincere repentance, by facing God and ourselves honestly, so that we may emerge with renewed vision and commitment to our faith and to being more moral and compassionate people.

To these ends our tradition includes a variety of communal and individual customs that focus on this task of self-examination and repentance, including: Blowing the shofar every weekday morning to act as an ethical wake up call,
  • Reciting Chapter 27 of Psalms - declaring faith in God - as part of our daily prayers,
  • Studying the Makhzor (High Holy Day prayerbook),
  • Giving tzedakah (charity),
  • Attending Selichot services in which we sing Psalms and poems of forgiveness and repentance
  • Taking time during each day of the coming month for personal reflection, meditation and prayer (come to think of it, this is a pretty good idea for the rest of the year too!)
  • Actively seeking forgiveness from others we have hurt during the past year. Our tradition teaches us that God can only truly forgive us for those sins we have committed against God and so we are expected to face up not only to the things we have done wrong in the past year but to have the courage to face those we have wronged. This is because repentance is not just about making ourselves feel better but about actually being better and fixing what we have broken.
All good things require hard work and preparation, including sincere repentance. We can all benefit from taking more time to examine our lives and consider how we can be better Jews and more moral human beings – myself very much included. And anyone who has tried to do last minute holiday shopping knows how much more difficult and frustrating it is to shop when we leave it to the last possible moment. So we should take the opportunity Jewish tradition affords us in the month of Elul to start our repentance and spiritual self-examination early and avoid rushing such an important task in the Days of Awe.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year and hope that we are all able to engage in a meaningful heshbon hanefesh, emerging revitalized, and renewed to face the next year.

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - August 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Growing up I was that mythical creature that loved both Star Wars and Star Trek but I will admit to having a special place in my heart for Star Trek.  Star Wars was an adrenalin fueled rush of action telling a rousing, if simplistic, tale of good vs evil.  Star Trek, on the other hand, was always more cerebral.  Sure there was action, but baked into its DNA by its creator Gene Roddenberry was a sense of social conscience, presenting stories that were allegories for real world issues such as racism, drug addiction and war, that could only get through the 1960’s TV censors if the stories were set on other worlds. So, while Star Wars was lots of fun, Star Trek was always my example to skeptics of why sci-fi was not just escapism but a means of expressing moral lessons in a creative way. 

Watching the new Star Trek movie I was reminded of one of the most enduring lessons of the Star Trek series and one that has great relevance to synagogue life –the importance of community.  The central message of Star Trek has always been the importance of belonging, of supporting others, accepting support from others, and finding meaning in being part of something larger than yourself.  Or as the character of Scotty says in his thick Scottish brogue in the recent movie: “You canna break one stick in a bunch.”

In days gone by community was essential because, in the face of the many dangers of the world such as prejudice and pogroms, it was in fact safer “in a bunch.” Today, while we still sadly live in a dangerous world, most of do not rely on our community for safety.  But, in an atomized individualistic world we still need community to give us a sense of belonging and meaning beyond ourselves.  Where our ancestors bunched together for physical security and support against our enemies, today we bunch together today for emotional support and spiritual security. In a congregation we support each other, in good times and in bad.  We are there for each other as we celebrate our joyous occasions and to help heal and comfort each other in times of sadness and struggle.  In a synagogue community we are able to find greater meaning in our lives through connection with God when we pray and study, through connection with each other as we engage in communal activities, and through connection with the world with social action and involvement in the larger community. 

All congregations fulfill this function but our congregation does so especially well.  We are a wonderful place filled with wonderful people, that welcomes all and makes all feel included.  May we long continue to be a place to connect to community, to meaning and to purpose for all those who walk through our doors. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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