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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

From the Rabbi - January 2018 PDF Print E-mail
Miracles really do happen. We got snow in Corpus Christi TX! While I have had my fill of snow from living up north, I will say that this was just perfect.  We got the snow in the middle of the night that stayed on the ground through the morning so children could play in it and adults could marvel at snow in South Texas.  And then, with no shoveling required, it left as easily as it arrived to make way for another lovely day in the mid 60’s Fahrenheit.  This is how I like snow.

But this pre-Chanukah miracle has some deeper lessons to teach as well.  Remembering all the many hard hours of shoveling snow and clearing it from house and car that used to be my winter reality until I moved to Texas, is a reminder that rarely are good things quite so easy and perfect as was our one day of snow. Usually such things take work and effort.  There is a passage about love in the British Reform prayerbook that states: “Everyone has in their life a beautiful day when, like the first human beings in Eden, they find love without care and trouble.  But when this day is past, you earn love, as you do bread, by the sweat of the brow.” This is true of many things in life.  Rarely are thing so neatly packaged and perfectly timed as the snow on the Gulf Coast this year.  Most of the good things in life must be worked for and effort expended to create and maintain them.  

And, like this snow, many of the good things in life are also fleeting.  They come and go and we miss them because we are preoccupied with other things that seem, at the time, more important.  But looking back we realize how much we missed.  It was wonderful to see the snow on the ground, to see my daughter playing in the snow with the neighbors and building a snow man (albeit a rather short-lived one!) This is an experience that will never come again.  In Pirke Avot it asks “Who is rich?” and answers “The one who is happy with what they have.”  The word here “rich” is understood to mean rich in experiences and not just rich in material wealth.  So often we are not happy with the experiences we have, too concerned about what comes next or what did not come before to appreciate what we have here and now.  Our brief snow shows us how important it is to take advantage of the moment while it lasts and enjoy life as it occurs in all its glory and wonder.  

As we look forward to a new secular year of 2018 may we all be blessed with many moments to appreciate and may we be able and willing to enjoy them to their fullest in the moment.  

Happy (secular) New Year!
     Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - December 2017 PDF Print E-mail

It may seem like an odd admission from a rabbi but I rather like Xmas! While I obviously appreciate it as an observer rather than as an active participant there is something to be said for a season when all our neighbors are focusing on goodwill to all people.  I like the movies (A Muppet’s Christmas Carol probably being my favorite!) and I particularly enjoy all the lights.  As I celebrate Chanukah, a festival of lights, it is lovely to see all the other lights as well!

But in the most recent issue of the Forward magazine an article by David Zvi Kalman raises an interesting question.  Why does Chanukah, a festival focused on light, maintain its focus on lighting candles rather than lighting up the night as we now can (and often do!) with electric light.  Today artificial lighting has become plentiful, safe, and cheap, but prior to the 20th century creating light was often more dangerous than being in darkness.  Creating light usually meant burning fuel for fire which was dangerous and depending on what you were burning (rendered animal fat for instance) smelled awful and created copious amounts of smoke.  The safer and more stable the fuel, the more expensive it got, usually putting anything but the dirtiest and smokiest kind of fuel out the of the reach of all but the wealthiest people.  Not only did keeping light on for any period of time involve the expense of having servants to oversee the safety of the lights but, according to one estimate, before the last century it would have taken the average worker more than five hours to earn enough to buy candles that would produce the same amount of light as a modern 60W bulb that can be bought for a pittance and lit with the flick of a switch. 

Judaism, of course, has a tradition of keeping rituals and ritual objects in the forms they were in more ancient times so that, for instance, we continue to read Torah from scrolls as we did in ancient days.  And so it could be argued we continue to do the same for Chanukah light, lighting them as we would in ancient days to connect us to those days in a way that, arguably, electric light does not.  Kalman argues that the reason may be that the purpose of the light was not in fact the light itself but sacrifice, recalling the sacrifices in the ancient Temple that was rededicated at the end of the Chanukah story.  The light of Chanukah was, he suggests, “not about lighting up the darkness” but “about recreating the oil sacrifices in miniature, right there for all to see.”  

This reminds us that when it comes to creating moral and spiritual light there are no modern technologies that make that easier or more convenient.  Spreading moral light and shining spiritual light in the world is not always easy.  The light we can shine against the darkness of the world may be meager and takes effort and sacrifice, as it has for all human history.  As we enjoy the beauty of the many lights shining around us in this season, lighting our Chanukah candles reminds us that is still our duty to create and maintain moral and spiritual light, however hard it may be and however small the flame.  It is, as it has always been, our duty, our honor and joy.

                        Happy Chanukah!
                        Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - November 2017 PDF Print E-mail
It is often said that Judaism is a religion of deed and action.  This is an important factor in how we understand ourselves and how we find particular Jewish approaches to common ideas.  Later this month most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family and, as we do so, we will hopefully take time to contemplate what we are thankful for and how that should effect our lives beyond this one day of joyful gratitude. 

A prayer that appears in our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, suggests an important insight in how we should look at gratitude from a Jewish point of view. The prayer starts with very high minded ideals, thanking G-d for “the expanding grandeur of creation” and “worlds known and unknown,” but soon moves to express gratitude for more concrete aspects of life.  The prayer thanks G-d for “human community” and “our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression.” This reminds us that at its heart Judaism is about our connection to others and how that connection allows us to act as more than just individuals to achieve great things for the betterment of the world. 

Looking forward to the next month in the life of our congregation these themes become even clearer.  As we prepare for our annual Food Fest the engagement of our community in creating such an amazing event is incredibly inspiring.  Weeks of work by so many people come together to create a truly wonderful event that reaches far beyond our congregation and into the community at large.  That we are able to do this reminds us of how much we can achieve as a community when we truly put our minds to it and how grateful we should be for that opportunity.

Later in the month we will also be honored to participate in the 83rd annual Thanksgiving service with the Church of the Good Shepherd.   This deeply meaningful collaboration began in 1934 as response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe, showing how Jews and Christians could work together in friendship and with mutual respect.  It reminds us that even today, injustice is real here and around the world and that, as we appreciate our good fortune on Thanksgiving, we can show our gratitude for “our capacity to work for peace and justice” by working to create them for others in the world.  We can do this through charity and good deeds and through the work of our CBI Social Action committee to make a world a better and more just place for all. 

As we look towards Thanksgiving later this month we are grateful for all the opportunities our community gives us to do good and, in the concluding words of the prayer in Mishkan T’filah, “We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

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