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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

 
From the Rabbi - June & July 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Summer is here and many of us will take the opportunity to catch up on some reading.  Jews are known as the People of the Book, and so here are some suggestions for some (reasonably light) non-fiction summer reading on a Jewish theme.

For some history there is Thomas Cahill’s “The Gift of the Jews”, part of a series of books by Cahill on how relatively small nations had outsized influence on the progress of civilization.  The book traces how a marginalized desert tribe (that would be us!) influenced Western civilization’s most deeply held beliefs about God, justice and human nature.  In particular he traces how the Jews changed the world from one that believed that time was an unending cycle and human existence merely part of this cycle to one in which time had a beginning and an end and human action made a difference to the world.  

For those interested in learning more about Israel a great start is Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”.  While it is an older book much of what it sets out about the nature of the region and its conflicts stay broadly the same and Friedman describes his travels through the region in a way that is entertaining and insightful.  For a more up-to-date view of the Middle East there is Aaron David Miller’s “The Much Too Promised Land”.  Miller, a key player in the peace process for three administrations, traces the ups and downs of the peace process and the inner workings of the key players involved.  

On a more philosophical level Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, has written many wonderful books but two stand out.  “The Dignity of Difference” explains the importance of pluralism in religion and how we can effectively coexist with other religions by not just finding the similarities between faiths but by better understanding how to appreciate our differences.  On a similar theme, his most recent book “Not in God’s Name” explains the roots of the religious violence that plagues us in terms of sibling rivalry between faiths that mistakenly believe that God’s love is a zero sum game.  Closer to home, there is Rabbi Roseman’s most recent book “Of Tribes and Tribulations” in which he answers significant questions (the tribulations of the title) ofJewish life such as what it means to pray, the nature of covenant and who wrote the bible.  

We have had the pleasure as a congregation to hear a couple of times from Dr Joel Hoffman and his two most recent books “On the Bible’s Cutting Room Floor” and “The Bible Doesn’t Say That” are wonderful and engaging reading.  In the first he describes some of the fascinating books that didn’t make it into the Bible and in the second he looks at 40 different mistranslations and misconceptions that have caused us to misunderstand the Bible.  

Finally a couple of personal favorites. For those who like pirate stories, how about the Pirates of the Caribbean with Jews! In his book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” Edward Kritzler traces the true swashbuckling history of Jews who, in the aftermath of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, took to the open seas and made alliances with other European powers to to gain riches, ensure the safety of Jews living in hiding, and exact revenge against the Spanish for sending them into exile.  And for those, like me, who enjoy comic book superheroes there is Arie Kaplan’s “From Krakow to Krypton” an amazing history of how the Jews created and influenced not only the comic book industry itself but many of the most significant comic book characters we all know and love from Superman to Spiderman, Batman and the Fantastic Four and many others.  

Have fun over the summer and enjoy reading some (or all!) of these great books.  

 
From the Rabbi - May 2016 PDF Print E-mail
There is a Yiddish saying that says, “It’s hard to be a Jew.”  Judaism's history is rich and proud but is sadly also filled with persecution, exile and struggle. 
 
And yet, not only have Jews stayed firm over the ages, despite the difficulties, but we are today seeing a flourishing of interest in what Judaism has to offer.  In particular the 21st Century has seen more and more who were born in another faith finding their spiritual home in Judaism. It has been my great honor to teach many Jews by Choice in my years as a rabbi and in doing so have learned much about my own Judaism.  In particular teaching Jews by Choice provides a fresh perspective on what is great about Judaism, because so much that I had previously taken for granted is new and valued by Jews by Choice.  
 
What have I learned? I have learned how Judaism's age makes it more relevant to our modern world and not less.  Jews have been participants in thousands of years of history from ancient Greece to modern Europe and America; from the ancient Near East to the Modern Middle East.  We have been influenced by and been influential in every form of spiritual, social, political and intellectual movement of every era of human history. The collected body of wisdom and experience of the Jewish people in their wanderings across the globe is extraordinary in its depth and breadth, dealing with every facet of human life – from birth to death, from joy to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The variety of Jewish experience and thought means that there is truly something for everyone and an aspect of Jewish life that relates to every conceivable question or yearning in our lives. 
 
Jews by Choice not only appreciate this in a way that can sometimes be forgotten by Jews by birth, but they also bring new perspective and new ideas that add to the rich diversity of Jewish tradition.  Jewish tradition is as varied and rich as it is because we have been willing and able to adapt to the changing tides of history and culture around us, while at the same time holding on to what is unique and special about Judaism.  Thus Maimonides embraced the concepts of Greek and Arabic philosophy and added invaluable insights to Jewish tradition and practice in the process; and thus we as American Jews have wholeheartedly embraced the ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy that make this country great.  In choosing Judaism, Jews by Choice contribute to bringing new perspectives into Jewish life while also approaching Jewish tradition with a level of passion and commitment that is inspiring.  
 
Indeed each one of us, whether we are born and raised Jewish, return to Judaism after a long absence, or choose Judaism on our own, brings new experiences and ideas to the enrich Jewish tradition.   The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot), asks – “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.”  We should likewise recognize how fortunate we are as a Jewish people to have so many people finding a spiritual home in Judaism, and who are willing and able to contribute their own understandings and insights to the rich tapestry of Jewish tradition and history.                 
                           Rabbi Ilan Emanuel
 
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