On Sunday morning, August 6, Temple Emanuel removed its Torah scrolls from the ark. Please read the remarks I offered at this sad and mournful occasion.
My dear friends I just returned on Friday afternoon from a 12 day congregational mission to Israel and Poland. It’s about 3am for me right now. Hopefully, I’m going to make sense! On this trip I learned so many insights about the arc of Jewish history, insights that are relevant — and hopefully meaningful — to us this morning.
I learned that the Jewish people were welcomed to Krakow in the 14th century and expelled in the 15th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in nearby Kazimierz and in other towns and villages of Polish Galicia. So too, the Jewish people arrived in Warsaw in the 15th century and expelled in the 17th. Polish Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania.
I learned that the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the mid-2nd century. Jews moved on to create new Jewish life in Rome, Alexandria Egypt, Constantinople, and North Africa. The Jews who remained in the Land of Israel moved on to make a new life for themselves in the Galilee.
Indeed, when all seemed lost after the destruction of the great 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, it was the in the Galilee that a new Judaism arose from the ashes. In the new holy cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris (Tzipori in Hebrew), the Temple was succeeded by the synagogue, the priest by the rabbi, the study of the Torah by the study of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It was in Tiberias that the system of Hebrew vocalization – the dots we place above or below the Hebrew letters — was invented.
We Jews have never wanted to leave our communities, to pick up and move, to embrace radical change. We were happy in Krakow, in Warsaw, in Jerusalem and in so many other communities around the world — including Livingston.
By the same token, we Jews have always accepted the reality of our situation. We always found the way to look forward — not back — and to build an even better and even more glorious Jewish life in new communities, whether that community be in Babylonia or Shanghai or London or America.
Like so many Jewish generations before you, Temple Emanuel, today you move on from Livingston to Summit. God knows you do not want to go….But like so many Jewish communities before you, you are resilient, you are ready to do what you must, you are prepared to rise to the occasion. Do keep in mind that the commute between Livingston and Summit is nothing compared to the commute between Rome and Jerusalem!
And don’t forget this Temple Emanuel: You take with you everything that is most important. You take with you your Sifrei Torah, you take with you your customs and traditions and — above all– you take with you each other!
Like so many Jewish generations before you, a glorious new future awaits you Temple Emanuel.
What does it really mean to observe Passover?
The answer is obvious. Observing Passover means to attend one or two seders. Observing Passover means to refrain from eating bread, pasta, and all the other foods prepared with the five prohibited grains.
Of course this is correct. But there is more to Passover than this. Much more.
On Passover, we name the ancient ten plagues and we name the modern plagues of our time. We talk about racism and discrimination, addiction and trafficking, inadequate care of the elderly and our veterans, the persistence of homelessness, poverty, and hunger. We look at the world as it is and dream of how it should be, of how God still wants it to be.
The purpose of Passover is to shake things up, to wake up ourselves from our apathy and our complacency with regard to the way things are. On Passover we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom and equality, justice and peace for all humankind.
At our seders we lifted up the three pieces of matzah and recited the beautiful words, “Now we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” But Passover is not just about political freedom. Passover is also about spiritual freedom and psychological freedom. The truth is that everybody is enslaved to something. It could be a bad or harmful habit like smoking. It could be a negative mindset like living in the past.
The purpose of Passover is to free ourselves from one bad or harmful habit, to liberate ourselves from something to which we are enslaved, physically or emotionally. On Passover we turn the page and start a new chapter in our lives. We get out of our own way from achieving all our hopes and dreams.
At seders all over the world, the children gleefully found the afikoman. In the old days, you ransomed the afikoman with a dollar bill. Now it requires a $15 iTunes gift card to get back the afikoman! But the ritual of the afikoman is more than child’s play. Think about it. We break the matzah in two. We hide one piece. Then we search and find the second piece. We reunite the two pieces of matzah. What are we doing? That which was broken, we make whole again.
On Passover we find something that is broken in the world and we make it whole again. On Passover we find something that is broken in ourselves and we make that whole again too!
So what does it really mean to observe Passover? We have truly celebrated Passover when we challenge ourselves to care more and to do more. We have truly celebrated Passover when we commit ourselves to increase freedom and justice, equality and compassion in this world. We have truly celebrated Passover when we fix something that is broken in ourselves, when we make ourselves whole again.
Ever since the mid-2nd century before the common era, the menorah has been Judaism’s premier symbol of hope. The reason is clear. The menorah’s light banishes winter’s darkness. The ritual of kindling one additional candle every night increases the light.
During Chanukkah week, we try to become like a glowing Chanukkah menorah, actively seeking out opportunities to bring more light into the world.
This is Chanukkah’s timeless teaching: each of us has the power to push back darkness. Whose heart can you strengthen? Whose soul can you restore hope? Whose mind can you illuminate?
But now it is not just the hungry, the homeless, and the poor, who need our support and concern. Now it is Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, the LGBT community, and Jews experiencing anti-Semitism from the far left or the alt right – who need our concern and support.
On this Chanukkah, we must help to push back the darkness these communities are experiencing, to give them hope, to give them strength, to show them they are not alone, to demonstrate through deeds that we care and we will stand up for them.
What does it mean to really celebrate Chanukkah?
You have celebrated Chanukkah when you talk about how stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination hurt our country.
You have celebrated Chanukkah when you speak out if someone is being attacked for who he/she is.
You have celebrated chanukkah when you never, ever allow a bigoted slur to go unchallenged.
This is Chanukkah’s timeless teaching: Don’t just light the menorah. Be a menorah! Banish darkness. Be the love, the warmth, the compassion you would like to see in the world. Increase the light.
In case you didn’t know, the people of northern Israel suffered much trauma from 480 forest fires that burned for six days last week, forcing the evacuation from Haifa, Israel’s 3rd largest city, of 60,000+ people.
Thankfully, no lives were lost. But hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged before the fires could be contained. The Haifa synagogues of two of my Israeli colleagues and friends ‒ Congregation Or Chadash and Congregation Gesharim Letikvah ‒ were damaged. The fire made 2,000 Haifa residents homeless.
I would be happy to share with you after our service how you could participate in the humanitarian response to provide assistance, relief, and reconstruction to the families most in distress.
What I most want to share with you tonight is how many of Israel’s neighbors – including its Arab and Muslim neighbors ‒ helped to put out the fires. Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Romania, Spain, and Turkey all dispatched planes, helicopters, and firetrucks to battle the blazes. Cyprus sent 69 firefighters to help their Israeli counterparts. There were even 50 American firefighters who went to Israel to help.
Most significantly, 40 Palestinian firefighters, worked side by side with Israeli crews. When asked why he helped Israeli firefighters put out flames in Haifa and outside Jerusalem, one Palestinian firefighter said, ‘from our point of view, above all saving lives is what leads us, and so we decided to come. Our motivation is very high, and we’re happy to give help and human assistance.”
What could be more heartwarming than to see pictures of Palestinians saving the lives and property of Israelis and Israelis saving the lives and property of Palestinians?What could be more hope-inducing than to hear that Arab villages invited Israelis who had to evacuate from neighboring towns to come stay with them?
There will always be people who say there is no hope for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. There will always be people who say Palestinians and Israeli Jews must hate each other. We should not believe them or listen to them. Rather let us find hope in the many Arab and Muslim countries who came to Israel’s help. Let us find inspiration in the courage and the compassion of those Israeli and Palestinian firefighters who worked side by side in common cause to save human life – all human life.
“Fire does not distinguish between Jews and Arabs.”
No matter our politics, no matter who we voted for as president, now we must all work together to heal the divides in our country.
What this election brought to light is that bigotry persists in our country. Sadly, it is alive and well, and we must oppose it with all our might.
What this election also reveals is the depth of pain and hurt felt by many Americans – of all colors and all walks of life – who feel unfairly treated, misunderstood, invisible, and stereotyped.
How do we heal our country?
The task of healing our country means that we stretch ourselves to understand how other Americans see the world, even when we see the world differently. It means we push ourselves to feel sympathy for the concerns of other Americans, even when we don’t share the same concerns.
Let me sharpen the task ahead. Yes, the task of healing our country means learning how to feel empathy for people who say things that are offensive to you. And yes, the task of healing our country means people feeling empathy for things you say that are offensive to them.
And everyone hangs in there. And through that human encounter we find common ground and mutual understanding. Of course this is not easy to do. It is painful to do. But it must be done if our country is to heal and go forward.
And this is the reason why. We must recognize that there are bad actors out there — forces in our country who want alienation and polarization, who want people not to talk to each other or to understand each under, who want people just to be angry and hate each other. So even though it will be hard, we must not allow our country or our diverse communities to be divided from each other.
I love this country and I hope you do too.
Let us be hopeful. Whatever the problems our country faces, we will solve them all.
The outcome of the 2016 presidential election has evoked lots of emotion. Several of my rabbinic colleagues are devoting tonight’s Shabbat service (November 11) to give congregants an opportunity to express their feelings in a safe space. And I think that’s something we should do tonight as well. So let me offer a few observations to get the conversation started:
The response to the outcome of the election mirrors how divided our country is. Many feel pleased, even elated. Many feel sadness, even despair.
And the elated don’t have any sympathy for why some are despairing. And the despairing can’t comprehend how anyone could be elated.
This election brings home to me that we are not only a divided nation. We are two nations and neither side gets the other – at all. We are not unique in this respect. Every democratic country is going through this.
What half our country sees as disqualifiers for one candidate over another are no deal breakers for the other half of our country. Half of our country is willing to overlook stuff that the other half of our country will not.
As a result of this election, many in our country feel threatened. Will Muslim Americans be attacked? Will undocumented Hispanic families be rounded up and deported? What about the anti-Semitism of the alt-right movement?
Some dismiss these concerns. But when we see the pictures of swastikas painted on walls with the verbiage “make America white again.” When we see videos of high school students shouting “white power” and “build the wall” — we have reason to be concerned.
That said, our worst fears don’t have to come true. We must not panic.
We cannot build a better America by ignoring those who disagree with us politically and hoping they will just disappear or go away. We are all Americans and no one is going away.
Yes, we must absolutely stand up for the values we cherish. But we can speak up for our values without mocking, disparaging, or shaming.
How, then, do we build a better America?
It begins when all Americans stretch ourselves to understand how the other sees the world, even when we see the world differently.
It begins when all Americans push ourselves to feel sympathy for the concerns of the other, even when we don’t share the same concerns.
I want to conclude our conversation tonight with a quote that captures the perspective we need in this anxious and trying moment. You will recognize it. It was written by President Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Rabbi Stuart Gershon, D.D.