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From the Rabbi
From the Rabbi - December 2015 PDF Print E-mail
– Edited from Sermon given at Thanksgiving Service at Church of the Good Shepherd.

Thanksgiving is really about concentrating our minds on what we should be thankful for.  As we sit around the table with friends and family and abundant and delicious food we are supposed to think about the many things that bring us comfort and support in our lives.  

But when we consider what we should be grateful for should we also be grateful for the things that make us uncomfortable - things that challenge, things that are different, that bring us out of our comfort zone?

Of course we should! This may seem strange but there are in fact very good reasons to be grateful for these things in our lives.

Facing the things that are different, that challenge and yes discomfit us, is what leads to meaning and purpose in life.  In the Torah we are constantly called to take care of the needy, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.  These were categories of people in the ancient world, and in many ways still today, that were different, that were other, that challenged our ancestors to think beyond the comfortable confines of their lives and consider those who were different and whose plight put the comfort of the average person’s life in sharp relief.  

And, in our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah there is a prayer which reads - Disturb us Adonai our Gd, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied… Let not your Sabbath be a day of torpor and slumber let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.

This reminds us that only when we are challenged, vexed and dissatisfied by facing that which is different  are we spurred to the moral and spiritual action that gives us meaning in life and inspires us to make the world a better place for all who live in it.  And for that opportunity to live a meaningful spiritual life, we should be truly grateful.

And considering the other- whether people, ideas or realities we otherwise try to ignore – helps us grow as spiritual and moral beings.

The Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers asks a question - Who is wise?  And the answer is: “The one who learns from all people.” 

In my life I have understood that one of the best a ways of learning more about myself, my faith and my world is in finding those who are different, those who embody ideas and understandings of the world different from my own and learning from them.  Only in this way do we learn and grow as people.  

So as we consider the things for which we are grateful we should also include the things that are different and make us uncomfortable and be grateful for the opportunity to be inspired, to be better morally and spiritually, because of the our differences. 

Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - November 2015 PDF Print E-mail
The Talmud tells the story of a rabbi who, while journeying along the road, came across an old man planting a tree.  The rabbi asked the man: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit? The man replied: “Seventy years.”  The rabbi  then asked him why he was bothering to plant the tree when he could not possibly expect to still be alive by the time the tree bore fruit.  The man replied that he had found trees that were already grown and planted by people before him who had no expectation of seeing the trees bear fruit and so he would plant trees to bear fruit for those who came after him.  The rabbi fell asleep and slept for years.  When he awoke saw the same tree now grown and bearing fruit and a man who looked a lot like the old man who had planted the tree gathering fruit from the tree.  The rabbi asked : “Are you the man who planted the tree?”  The man replied: “I am his grandson.”

This well-loved and beautiful story is an important one for us as we look forward to Thanksgiving.  For one thing it is significant for us in Corpus Christi because we have a very special Thanksgiving tradition bequeathed to us by those who came before, namely the joint Thanksgiving service with the Church of the Good Shepherd.  This beautiful tradition of getting together to share gratitude as a community across the religious divide is a precious gift, a tree planted 81 years ago that still bears fruit today.

But the story also teaches us powerful lessons with respect to gratitude and thanksgiving.  The man who planted the tree was grateful for what had been done by the previous generations.  He did not simply take the existence of the trees for granted.  He understood that he had the benefit of these trees because of work done by someone who did not plant it for themselves, but hoped that others could enjoy their fruit in due time.              

And the old man also understood another important lesson – that gratitude is not only about what you receive but about what you are able to do for others.  He was happy to plant the tree even though he would not benefit because he was grateful for the opportunity to give and to help others.  

Many trees have been planted for each of us in our lives by those who came before us, and by those who are with us today -  by our friends and family, by our community and by our society.  Like the man in the story we should be grateful for these benefits that have been given to us by the efforts and struggle of others.  And we can learn to see helping, in volunteering for the congregation and for charities, and in daily kindness to others -  as opportunities to be grateful for our ability to help others and our opportunity to find meaning in life by helping to fix the world.  

                Rabbi Ilan Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - October 2015 PDF Print E-mail
Israel - (Edited from Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2015)

Lately it seems that no matter what Israel does anti-Israel sentiment is getting worse and Israel is becoming increasingly more isolated on the world scene.  The BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) has worked hard to convince the world that Israel is an apartheid state and should be treated accordingly and this idea is becoming more accepted in world opinion.

Israel is certainly not perfect, but it does a lot right and frankly a lot more right on balance than most of us could claim as individuals, and significantly more than the nations that criticize it. No person or nation is perfect but Israel has much to be proud of and much that we should be shouting from the rooftops to counter those who would only see its flaws.  Sadly many in America, who are well meaning and have no specific animosity towards Israel, are finding themselves disturbed by what is presented to them about Israel.  They are swayed by anti-Israel rhetoric and are beginning to feel that Israel does not reflect their modern Western values.  

The BDS movement and others work hard to ensure that we see about Israel is focused on the bad, on the images of downtrodden Palestinians and powerful Israeli soldiers in tanks.  These images rarely reflect the reality of the situation and certainly do not reflect the massive culpability of the Arab world and the Palestinian leadership in putting and keeping Palestinians in such situation.  Nor do these images reflect all the many positives that make Israel what  it is and that should make it so the world, and not only Jews, should be proud of Israel.

So what is the positive that we are sadly seeing so little of?  One aspect is the astounding way in which Israel has been at the vanguard of innovation and creativity in the business and tech world.  Everything from your USB flash drive, to drip irrigation, to software that can predict pandemics, machines that can help people to walk, and even drugs that might one day cure certain forms of cancer have, all been developed in Israel.   If, as one Israeli business advocate suggests, we put “Israel Inside” on every product made in Israel or made possible by Israeli ingenuity, like with IBM products, people would be astounded and humbled by the extent to which Israel has contributed to the good of the world in its innovation and creativity.    

And with respect to those who feel Israel does not reflect their modern western values , one has to wonder what Israel people are looking at.  Is it the Israel in which Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis alike have equal right and in which Arabs serve as members of the parliament and on the Supreme Court, and actively participate in every aspect of Israeli society?
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  Is it the Israel in which women are equal members of the armed forces and always have been?  Is it the country with one of the freest presses in the world, never mind the Middle East? Is it the country that sends doctors and aid worker to aid after every natural disaster around the world? Is it the country whose innovation helps so many people live their lives better all around the world?
                        
Is it the country whose army, despite being provoked at all turns maintains a level ethic and accountability that no other country on the face of the planet, including our own, would be able to live up to or would even try?

That Israel is the Israel described by Hassan Hussainam, an Egyptian Arab and recent valedictorian of Tel Aviv university.  Hussainam grew up in a country in which he was told Israel was his eternal enemy despite the peace between the two countries.  In giving his graduation speech he explained:

 “On my very first day here at the university, I saw men in kippas, women in headscarfs and hijabs. I saw soldiers walking peacefully among crowds of lively students. I learned there were people of every kind in the university, and the university had a place for all of them—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, and even international students …How fascinating is it to be in a city where you can to go a beach in central Tel Aviv and see a Muslim woman, a couple of gays kissing, and a Hasid sharing the same small space? Where else can you find a Christian Arab whose apartment is decorated with posters of Mao and Lenin? Where else can you see a Bedouin IDF soldier reading the Qur’an on the train during Ramadan?"
 
This is the Israel I wish we saw more, an Israel of tolerance, equality, and compassion that is at the forefront of helping those in need around the world even as much of that world continues to look vilify it.  

As American Jews and supporters of Israel we must continue to connect with and give to Israel.  We should certainly give generously in monetary terms, but perhaps even more importantly, give emotionally, politically and spiritually.  We should visit Israel, learn about its culture and politics, rejoice in its achievements, engage with its people, recognize how much we share, and be forthright and proud in our defense of Israel and its right not only to exist but to thrive.  

 
From the Rabbi - September 2015 PDF Print E-mail
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

As we approach the High Holidays again we could be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of deja vu.  After all, didn’t we do this last year?  It may seem like a funny question but in the case of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is particularly relevant.  When we celebrate Passover or Chanukah every year, we are reminding ourselves yearly of a great event in our nations history and the resonance it has on our religious life today; and when we celebrate Sukkot every year we celebrate the natural cycles of nature and agriculture.  But when we come to Yom Kippur we return every year to do teshuvah, to repent.  But one could easily think that had we done our job right the previous year we wouldn’t need to be here again this year.  Surely the fact that we still have sins, some old, some new, indicates that we fell short in our previous year’s repentance?

But of course this is not, or should not, be how we approach the High Holidays.  This way of thinking assumes an ideal of human nature that is not reflected in reality – that we can be perfect.  Judaism considers perfection to be the realm of God and Heaven.  Here on Earth however, perfection is not and cannot be the goal of our lives.  No human being can be perfect – even the most honest person will be tempted to lie; even the most disciplined person will let their self control slip once in a while.  

But our tradition does not ask perfection of us.  Rather it expects improvement.  It expects us to learn from our experiences and try to avoid repeating our mistakes. But it recognizes that this is a long process, one in which there are almost as many steps back as there are steps forward.  

And so Yom Kippur comes every year, not to make us feel bad that despite strenuous repentance last year, we have nevertheless fallen into many of the same moral traps and even found some new ones but rather to remind us that we are only human.  We remember that the goal is not the destination – to be free of sin – but the journey.  The Pirke Avot, the Sayings of our Fathers, notes in a construction analogy that it is not our duty to complete the building work, but nor are we free to desist from it.  The fact that we can never achieve perfection does not mean that we should not work every year to improve ourselves.  It means that we work to become better, more compassionate and more ethical people than we were the year before and strive every year, not towards perfection, but towards being the best we can be as Jews and human beings.  

                    Rabbi Emanuel

 
From the Rabbi - August 2015 PDF Print E-mail
 “Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep … Search your deeds and repent.”

 This is how Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, explains the purpose of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. For Maimonides, we sin because we are sleep-walking through life, ignoring our moral responsibilities, and the Shofar rouses us from our moral slumber.

But the Shofar calls us to face more than our sins.  During the rest of the year we loose track not just of what we have done wrong, but of what we hoped to do right. We all have in our minds an image of ourselves as we want to be – a kind, wise and just person - that fulfills our ideal vision of our better nature. And every one of us falls short of that vision. During the High Holy Days we have the opportunity to shake off the complacency of the rest of the year and face the gap between ourselves as we are and the better person we hope to be.

The Shofar also calls us to awaken to the sad reality of poverty, injustice and human cruelty.  It is easy to ignore these problems when they do not affect us, or affect us minimally. But the Shofar calls us to see the world around us and wake up to our responsibility - to make a difference, to do justice and to make the world better for our having been in it.

And the sound of the Shofar calls us to awaken to God’s presence in the world around us.  As Jews we believe that God is everywhere and in everything. But the mundane in our lives overwhelms us, crowding out the divine. While we can experience God’s presence anywhere and anytime, we rarely do. A Chassidic story tells of a rabbi who asked his students where God can be found. The answer was: “God can be found wherever we let God in.” The Shofar calls us to let God in, to open our eyes to see God’s presence in the world, to be more aware of the holy and sacred we can experience every day, and to recognize the spark of the divine in our fellow human beings.

May the Shofar’s call this Rosh Hashanah inspire us to strive for moral self-improvement, a better and more just world, and a deeper and more fulfilling spiritual life in the year to come.

                    Rabbi Emanuel

 
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