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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

From the Rabbi - October 2017 PDF Print E-mail

In the Talmud we are told that when we die and go to heaven, and are to be judged, we will be asked a series of questions about how we lived our lives. But why wait till we die to ask these important questions?  Why wait till we are no longer able to change anything to consider how we live our lives and how we might face our ultimate judgement?  

Three of these questions are particularly interesting to consider while we have the time to do so. Nasata v’natata be-emunah? — Did you deal with people honestly? This is often translated as “Did you deal honestly in business?” which might seem like an odd question to open with as you stand before G-d in judgement! But it really means “did you deal honestly, in a way that is trustworthy and with integrity in your daily dealings.” Not just the business of business but the mundane business of life, how you deal with others in the daily interactions of a regular day rather than in the grand gestures of a special occasion.   Integrity is often described as “what you do when no one is watching.” But here it may be better understood as how you act regardless of who is watching: whether you like a person or you don’t, whether you know them or you don’t, whether you will benefit or not, or even if it will disadvantage you.

Tzipita lishuah? — Did you hope for salvation? But being honest with yourself isn’t always enough.   Having integrity often means realizing that you will not always get the results you want, that things will not always turn out your way even if you did the right thing in the right way.   And so we are asked whether we hoped for salvation.  Hoping for salvation is pretty standard in religious life. But in Judaism the question is not about achieving a personal place in heaven but about bringing about a better world and working diligently towards that goal.   And the essential point here is hope.  In a world that often seems so hopeless our tradition asks us if we made sure to maintain hope. Despite generations of persecution and oppression we have maintained hope.  Despite all that has befallen us in our history we have always looked towards a better future believing that hope would eventually win out.  Indeed the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, means “the Hope” reflecting the fact that despite years of exile in which the idea of a national homeland was only a distant idea, eventually because that hope was kept alive, it became a reality.  

Havanta davar mitoch davar? — Did you understand one thing from another? This is a seemingly simple question but one that may be the ultimate question in many ways.   This question is really about our priorities in life. Did we spend our time understanding the difference between what was important and what wasn’t what was significant and what was petty, what made a difference to the world and what was merely self-serving?  We all recently experienced an event that put our priorities into perspective – Hurricane Harvey.  Facing the might and sheer power of nature, and seeing the devastation left in its wake, a lot of what we think is important comes into perspective.  When we think of what we experienced and what people whose homes were destroyed and livelihoods wiped out it focuses us on what truly matters in life in a way that our normal comfortable existence obscures.  How much of what seemed so important the day before, that we spent so much time and energy on before, seemed irrelevant and petty in the face of the hurricane?

On Yom Kippur each year we are faced with a similar idea.  Here we stand “trembling and afraid” awed by the sheer power of the day.  We are reminded on this day to distinguish one thing from another, to put our priorities in order and to go forward in life with both integrity and hope.   

        Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - September 2017 PDF Print E-mail

There is a children’s story I have told on several occasions on the High Holidays that proposes that the hardest word to say is “sorry.”  I love the story but in reality sorry can be a very easy word to say.  People say sorry all the time but it’s only hard if they really mean it.  What really makes sorry the hardest word is that saying it with meaning involves first saying what may be the hardest phrase – “I was wrong.”

Nobody likes to admit they were wrong.  This has always been true but in the modern era it is even more so because individual choice is such a significant part of the modern world. As our choices become more significant our emotional connection to our choices, big and small, becomes greater.  We think that in admitting we made mistakes,  that we were wrong, means we are admitting something is wrong with us. And no one wants to do that.  So rather than admitting when we are wrong we convince ourselves that we were not and we allow the many distractions of life to excuse us,  using them as ways to  avoid facing our mistakes and facing ourselves. 

And then the High Holidays come around and we are asked to make facing the choices we have made in the past year our highest priority.  All the distractions are taken away as we sit in services on Yom Kippur allowing us to focus intently on our sins and our mistakes.  We are faced with a litany of sins in the prayer service of which many probably sound all too familiar to us if we are being honest with ourselves. 

But in a sense facing our bad choices at the High Holidays makes it easier.  We are surrounded by our friends and family and community and we realize that, of course, all of us have made mistakes, all of us have sinned, all of us have made choices we wish we could take back. We realize that if all of us make such mistakes admitting them is not as much of a judgment as we may have feared. 

And in the context of the High Holidays - a time of rebirth and renewal - we are also told that facing our mistakes is an essential part of looking forward, of making better choices in the year to come and becoming better people in doing so. 
This High Holidays we should all take the opportunity to face our past choices, to admit our mistakes however hard it may be and in so doing move forward to a better future in the year to come.  

        Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

From the Rabbi - August 2017 PDF Print E-mail

Bulletin Article Edited Extract from Sermon given by Rabbi Charles Emanuel on the occasion of Mira Emanuel’s  Bat Mitzvah

What does bar or bat mitzvah really mean? There is a very interesting insight at the end of the Torah portion (Naso) which, while on the surface might seem completely unconnected, is actually very crucial to all of our individual Jewishness.

The end of the Torah portion tells us about the transport of the tabernacle by the tribe of Levy as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. Most of the tabernacle was transported on wagons but the family of Levy carrying the Holy Ark itself, was commanded to carry it on their shoulders 

Concerning this, Rabbi Morris Adler, a prominent 20th century American Conservative rabbi, wrote “we are told not only about a detail of transportation but …we are also being instructed [that]….when it comes to the very heart of religion, we must not try to find…a substitute for our own shoulders. We cannot transfer to anybody else or anything else the obligations that rest exclusively upon ourselves….”

And so it is for the bar and bat mitzvah. Up to now, their Judaism has been, for the most part, just that of their parents. But now, as the 13 year old begins his or her journey into Jewish adulthood, they will have to start to carry Judaism on their own shoulders. Like the Levites who carried the Holy Ark, the young adult needs to start to understand that Judaism can be a burden and a discipline, something that many people, especially teenagers, find difficult to accept. But if he or she seeks to carry a faith easily, shouldering no special tasks, making no distinctive sacrifices, the person will have a Judaism that is neither true nor helpful.  This is the real meaning of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, shouldering the burden as well as the joys of our Jewish tradition. 

What does it mean to shoulder this burden? The 18th century Jewish mystical rabbi the Baal Shem Tov once wrote concerning the beginning of the Amidah prayer, “Why do we say, ‘Our God and God of our Ancestors’? He argued that there are two sorts of persons who believe in God. The one believes because their faith has been handed down to them by their ancestors and their faith is strong. The other has arrived at faith by dint of searching thought. And this is the difference between the two: one has the advantage that their faith cannot be shaken no matter how many objections are raised to it for their faith is firm, because they have taken it over from their ancestors. But there is a flaw in it: it is a commandment given by human beings and it has been learned without thought or reasoning. The advantage of the second person is that they have reached their faith through their own power, through much searching and thinking. But their faith too has a flaw. It is easy to shake it by offering contrary evidence. But the person who combines both kinds of faith is invulnerable.  That is why we say ‘Our God’ because of our searching and ‘the God of our ancestors”, because of our tradition.”

This is the hope we have as a person becomes bar or bat mitzvah. They have taken upon themselves this responsibility. They have learned a great deal from their teachers and from their parents and also from the wonderful atmosphere of this very special congregation whose members individually and collectively demonstrate by their actions the highest of principles of Judaism. But when a person becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, they will have to decide for themselves what their Judaism will be. This is the responsibility of the bar or bat mitzvah and it is the responsibility of each and every adult Jew. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel 


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