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From the Rabbi

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

From the Rabbi - June/July 2015 PDF Print E-mail

Summer is here again as is our summer bulletin.  Summer is a time for fun and relaxation (hopefully!) and the time many big summer movies come out.  So while you are enjoying the great blockbuster movies over the summer, I want to suggest some great Jewish movies to accompany them! 

First, of course, there is Fiddler on the Roof, the granddaddy of all Jewish movies and arguably the best.  No other movie combines drama, comedy, sadness and sentimentality along with great songs in such a wonderful combination, while also dealing with the serious questions for Jews in America of balancing tradition and change.  On a similar theme, but in a very different style is the hilariously funny The Frisco Kid starring the wonderful Gene Wilder as a bumbling but very committed Polish shtetl Rabbi who is literally mugged by America and learn to adapt to life as a Jew in the Wild West. 

For film history buffs, you might want to check out the first ever talking movie.  That’s right, the first ever talking movie was a Jewish themed movie called The Jazz Singer, about the son of an orthodox cantor who wants to sing jazz rather than Kol Nidre and who assimilates, falls out, and eventually reconciles with his traditional father.  The later remake with Neil Diamond is less historic but still quite enjoyable and the basic story was even used in the Simpsons when it turns out that Krusty the Clown is the son of a disapproving Rabbi Krustovski (voiced, of course, by Jackie Mason).

For biblical epics, you cannot go far wrong with Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as arguably the toughest Moses ever.  It’s long but truly epic in a way that movies cannot quite manage today.  Alternatively, for the kids (and a lot of the adults!) you can’t go wrong with animated The Prince of Egypt that tells the story of Moses with a modern sensibility and some great songs.  This one is my personal favorite and certainly much better than the most recent attempt at portraying Moses on the big screen.  It also contains a wonderful performance by the late Ofra Haza, the great diva of Israeli pop, as Moses’ mother.

On a sadder note there are of course numerous Holocaust themed movies.  Obviously this theme does not lend itself to light summer viewing, but there few such movies that are touching and sometimes uplifting despite the horrifying background.  One such movie is Au Revoir les Enfants a touching French film, based on true events, about a Catholic School Principal who hides Jewish children and the friendship between one of those children and a non Jewish classmate.  Another foreign movie on this subject is Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella), Roberto Benigni’s poignant and surprisingly humorous film about a Jewish man in a concentration camp who tries to shield his son from the horror of what is happening around them by convincing him that this is all an elaborate game, eventually sacrificing himself to save his son’s life and innocence. 

Another poignant and sad selection is the documentary Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about the struggles of Orthodox gays and lesbians, who have tried or continue to try to live an orthodox Jewish life in a community that, at best, does not understand them and pities them, and at worst rejects them altogether.  Another documentary, on a lighter note is Hava Nagila: The Movie, a great documentary about a song everyone knows but no-one actually knows anything about!

Finally, a few comedies.  Most recently there is the lovely and sweet The Band’s Visit, an Israeli film about an Egyptian Police Band who find themselves stuck accidentally in a back water Israeli town.   Also wonderful are the romantic Jewish comedy, Crossing Delancy and a couple of movies about Jews in the army, Private Benjamin and Biloxi BluesKeeping the Faith has a flawed but still funny portrayal of the rabbinate, and is essentially a movie version of the joke about a rabbi and a priest walking into a bar! And, of course, there is pretty much anything from Mel Brooks!

Enjoy your summer and I hope you take the time to see a few (or all of these movies) on Jewish themes. 


From the Rabbi - May 2015 PDF Print E-mail

 The book of Numbers begins with the statement:

“And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 1:1)”

The Rabbis understand this statement as referring to the giving of the Torah in the desert and ask why God would decide to reveal the greatest truths of history and the cosmos in the middle of nowhere.  Would it not have made more sense to reveal the Torah in the midst of one of the ancient world’s great civilizations to show God’s power? Or why not wait till the Israelites had reached Israel and reveal the Torah there, cementing the connection between God’s revelation and Promised Land?

One midrash suggests that this was done to ensure the Torah was understood to be the property of all people equally.  Had it been given in Israel the nations of the world could have denied it had anything to with them.  And there would have been dissension in Israel with tribes claiming the Torah had been given in their territory and thus their exclusive property.  As the Torah is a universal truth, a gift to the whole world, neither of these possibilities would be desirable and so God gave it in the middle of nowhere, a place that belonged to no one so the Torah could belong to everyone.

Another midrash argues that the Torah, a revelation of wisdom, was given in the wilderness to teach us an important lesson about wisdom. It says: Anyone who does not make themselves “ownerless” (or “throw himself open”) like the wilderness is not capable of acquiring Wisdom and Torah.  

Truth and wisdom come when we are open to them.  Perhaps the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “Perception is reality.”  It concretizes our natural tendency to close our eyes and our minds to realities that do not fall within the bounds of our narrow preconceptions.  When we already believe we know how the world is, we stop looking for wisdom.  This is only natural. As human beings we are limited by nature and our perceptions of reality are limited by the scope of our personal experience of the world we live in.   But to truly be wise we must be willing to look beyond the limits of our perception and learn from the experiences of others whose lives are different from our own.  We must remind ourselves of what it meant to be a people in the wilderness. In doing so, we open our minds to all that we see and not just what we want to see, and we open our hearts to the wonders of God, of the world and of each other.


Rabbi Emanuel


From the Rabbi - April 2015 PDF Print E-mail
Passover and Jewish Greatness 
We Jews have always done things a little differently.  We even start our history as a nation differently to most other nations, particularly nations of the ancient world.  A look at most national creation stories uncovers a clear pattern – the ancestors of the nation almost invariably come from great nobility, sometimes even descended from the gods themselves, and the nation was usually formed in a blaze of heroic glory.   And what about us?  We start as slaves, oppressed by one of these other great ancient nations.   
It cannot be stressed how different this makes us in the annals of the history of nations and how we conceive of our greatness as a people.  For nations like the Egypt of ancient times, their greatness was inherent.  Born of gods, Egyptians were great because it was their due and because the gods decreed it. Greatness was an entitlement of history and birth, an inheritance for all time.  And yet that greatness, the glories of ancient Egypt, have faded into the desert sand while we, born of slavery and oppression, are still here. 
 Perhaps this is because our Jewish concept of greatness starts from rock bottom.  From where we started we could only go up!  And thus for Jews greatness is born of humility and striving.  Unlike other ancient peoples we are well aware of our own shortcomings, put in sharp relief by our humble origins.  We do not see ourselves as naturally entitled to greatness.  Our ancestors were slaves not gods.   Rather we understand that greatness must be earned.  That is why, despite all our history since the Exodus, so much of our liturgy and thought harks back to that central narrative.  We understand that to attain greatness from our lowly roots we have had to strive for it.  And, as a people, and as individuals we have often succeeded at greatness despite so many obstacles in our way. 
As Jews today, as we prepare for Passover, we also understand the nature of the greatness that must be earned.  As Jews we do not frown on wealth and status, but these are not our measures of greatness.  Rather we remember our slavery and redemption and strive towards greatness in morality and ethics, in truth and justice, in kindness and compassion.  While Egypt and all the other great empires we have outlived sought greatness in how much of the world they could conquer and own for their glory, we seek greatness in fixing the world for the benefit of all humanity.  

                                Rabbi Emanuel

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