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From the Rabbi - September 2018 PDF Print E-mail
One of my favorite musicals is "Les Miserables" and one of the most memorable songs is "Who am I?" In it the hero, Jean Valjean, sings of a significant personal and moral struggle. Valjean is a reformed criminal but  and then it continues where i left off the crossing out on his path to reform he took on a new identity to avoid being trapped in the expectations of the people who would not let him be anything other than a criminal.  This technically makes him a fugitive and he is faced with a terrible dilemma when a person who looks a lot like him is arrested and may go to prison in his stead.  He asks “Who am I? Can I conceal myself for evermore? Pretend I'm not the man I was before?... How can I ever face my fellow men?  How can I ever face myself again? Who am I?”  He must decide to face up to who he really is and accept the consequences, or pretend to be this new person who has built a good and righteous life for himself, but let it be based on a lie that causes another person’s suffering.  

This may not seem like a dilemma that relates to the daily lives of most of us today but at its core it is very much the dilemma we all face on a regular basis and which is at the heart of the High HolyDays.  That challenge is that as human beings we are very good at knowing who we WANT to be but much less able or willing to know who we really ARE. We become enamored of an image of ourselves and then become invested to protecting that image against all critique, however true. If we don’t like what we hear we find ways of dismissing it, minimizing it, or simply ignoring it so that we can continue to see ourselves how we want to see ourselves, and not as we truly are.  

And this is what the High Holydays come to change in our lives.  The prayers and readings of the Days of Awe, if we take them seriously, remind us that to improve ourselves we must first be honest about ourselves.  They force us to be realistic about the gap between who we want to be and how we actually live our lives.  They challenge us to not reject such critique but to embrace it so that we can truly start the work of becoming who we truly hope to be and not just imagining ourselves that way.  

Our tradition understands that this isn’t easy and won’t happen all at once.  That is why the High Holydays come around every year, so that every year we can measure our progress and judge ourselves based on how far we have come and far much further we have to go.  And our tradition understands that if we keep our minds open to the words of the prayers, and our hearts and souls open to the presence of G-d in our lives we will be pushed ever forward to improve ourselves, morally and spiritually.   

The song “Who am I?” ends with Valjean singing: “My soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago, He gave me hope, when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on. Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!” The Jewish people made a bargain, a covenant, long ago to strive towards the higher angels of our nature no matter how hard it might be to face up to hard truths we might have to face about ourselves  and we are reminded at the High Holydays that our self-critique at this time of year is not to bring us down but to give us hope to journey on from year to year and strength to strength.  

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - August 2018 PDF Print E-mail

Summer camp has always been a place which encourages innovation in worship but I’m not sure anything can beat the scene at Greene Family Camp while I was there on Faculty in July. The week I was there was a week of extreme heat even for Texas.  Traditionally , Friday night services at camp are in a beautiful , outdoor synagogue with a view over the camp’s lake.  Praying there on Friday night is a truly special experience.  But this year, anticipating temperatures of 110F, it was decided that this usual set up simply would not work.  But we still wanted to have services outside.  The solution? Shabbat ShaPOOL! We were all instructed to go to the pool in our swimming clothes at the time of services and were greeted by a cantor in a dingy in the center of the pool singing Jewish songs as we all sat by the side of the pool.  The service continued as we immersed ourselves in the pool, physically immersing ourselves in prayer as we would spiritually and feeling the  soothing coolness of the water as we might otherwise have experienced the soothing of community and prayer. 

This was an amazing experience which could only really have happened at camp (although we do have the JCC pool, so who knows!) But thinking about the experience there are some important lessons to learn.  As Reform and Conservative Jews we are especially keen on innovation and creativity in our religious life.  We are committed to tradition but we continue to adapt to new realities and new spiritual needs and new approaches to Jewish prayer and practice.  We understand that the world changes and new situations require new approaches.  Sometimes that means adding a piano or guitar to services and sometimes it means having services in a pool when it’s 110F!                   
But there is a larger lesson that is important to the upcoming High Holidays.  Life changes and so must our responses.  The world throws new and different situations at us all the time – some good and some bad – and we must adapt and change to deal with them.  Every year at this time, as we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, we are called to look at our lives and how they have changed over the past year.  We are given the opportunity to see how we dealt with the inevitable changes that life throws at us.  Sometimes life will allow us to continue on as we have always done but often it will expect us to be like the cantor in a dingy – being creative and innovative in dealing with situations we could never have expected.  When faced with those challenges, as we will inevitably be, we hope that we will find ways to stay true to who we are while also adapting to new realities and being flexible and creative and in how we deal with the challenges of the present and our hopes for the future.

     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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

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