What Does it Really Mean to Celebrate Chanukkah?

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.

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“FIRE DOES NOT DISTINGUISH BETWEEN JEWS AND ARABS

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.”

 

 

 

 

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Healing Our Country

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.

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Together We Will Build a Better America

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:

Observation 1:

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.

Observation 2:

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.

Observation 3:

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.

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Let the Torah Work on You

Chag Sameiach! Happy Shavuot!

In celebration of Shavuot, I would like to share this sermon that I first offered on Yom Kippur evening, September 25, 2012.

There comes a special moment at every B’nei Mitzvah we celebrate here at Temple Sinai, when I try to convey the majesty and the nobility of the Torah. More than any other text, I enjoy reciting the masterful poem of one of our great 20th century liturgists, Rabbi Jack Reimer:

“There are no words more challenging than
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”
No words so life-enhancing as ‘you shall rest!”
No cry more compelling than “let my people go”
And no summons more demanding than “justice, justice you shall pursue… These words have outlived monuments and empires. We want them to live through us, until the end of time. We owe it to our ancestors to keep Torah alive. We owe it to the world to keep Torah alive for these are messages which the world needs to hear.”

It’s not just the world that needs to hear the Torah’s teachings. We desperately need to hear them too.

All of us have personal woes. These days, who isn’t stressed about work, or money, or family issues? The words I hear most often are, “I’ve got a lot going on right now.” In times such as these, the Torah can give us the inspiration, the resilience, the perspective we need to transcend the stormy surface of our everyday lives. As life’s challenges crash over us, the wisdom of the Torah will keep us upright, physically and morally.

As Jews, we know the way into Torah is not just to read it, but to study it, closely, verse by verse. What is the key to unlock the Torah’s wisdom? The key is that we not only work the text. We engage with the verse. We enter into the deep, inner meaning of the verse. The key to unlock the Torah’s wisdom is that we open ourselves to the text.

We allow the text to work on us.

Come journey with me now to learn the deep inner meanings of three verses. Verses that speak to your life in ways you never imagined before:

Life’s challenges can surely wear us down. Sometimes we feel helpless. We begin to lose hope. We get burned out. What do we do? Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh. “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. When challenges arise, you must nurture your eish tamid, your own flame. Take care of yourself, pace yourself, set a boundary. Yes, there are times when we feel completely exhausted, totally empty. But don’t panic! Never doubt that the flame is always there inside you. In difficult times, always remember to stay in touch with your strengths. Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichbeh. “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”

In the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have made many new year’s resolutions. We have done the noble work of teshuvah. We have apologized. We have admitted being wrong. We have acknowledged mistakes. We have worked hard to become a different person, a better person for the sake of our loved ones. But like all New Year’s resolutions how long will they last? Lo tesifun lashuv baderekh hazeh od. “You must not go back that way again.” Don’t go back to negative attitudes. Don’t go back to unhealthy habits. Do not go back to what you know is not good for you. Stay strong! Lo tesifun lashuv baderekh hazeh od. “You must not go back that way again.”

When we were children we were taught in religious school and at home that God is in heaven, God exists above us and outside us. Ever since, as adults, we look to experience God’s reality either, outside ourselves in a miraculous face to face conversation, or above ourselves in some supernatural event. As a result, many of us have been sorely disappointed. Many of us have never had such experiences. We don’t feel God’s presence in our lives anywhere. We conclude that God isn’t really there. We become agnostics and atheists. The cause of our disappointment is that we’ve been taught to try to find God in the hardest place, not the easiest. The reality of God’s existence is best known to us, not from outside ourselves, but from within ourselves. Lekhah amar libi. Bakshu fanai et panekhah Adonai avakeish. “On your behalf, my heart says, seek my presence. Your presence, Adonai, I do seek.”

 

Your heart is a gateway to God. Your heart has always been a gateway to God but no one ever told you. When you feel love that is God. When you feel compassion and empathy that’s God. When you feel your heart bursting to fight injustice, to fight some wrong, that’s God. When you feel the pangs of conscience stirring within you, that’s God. If you love, you know that God is real! Lekhah amar libi. Bakshu fanai et panekhah Adonai avakeish. “ On your behalf, my heart said, seek my presence. Your presence, Adonai, I do seek.”

One of my favorite professors at HUC (Hebrew Union College), the Rabbinic School of the Reform Movement was Dr. Stanley Gevirtz, may his memory be a blessing. Dr. Gevirtz was a very erudite scholar of bible. I loved going to his classes and listening to him speak. But it was at Monday and Thursday morning services at the college where he made a lasting impression on me. When we process with the Torah scroll, it is Jewish custom as the scroll passes by, to touch the scroll with your tallit or siddur, then kiss the tallit or siddur. Dr. Gevirtz did something different. Whenever the Torah scroll passed by him at services, Dr. Gevirtz bowed. He bowed to the Torah. Dr. Gevirtz taught me how to love and revere the Torah.

Make some time in your life to love and revere the Torah. Work the Torah text and allow the Torah text to work on you: to move you, to inspire you, to comfort you. Come to Sharing Shabbat or study on your own. Either way, I am here to assist you on your journey to unlocking the Torah’s wisdom for you.

When I am not on the bimah, but in the Congregation I do what my teacher, Dr. Gevirtz, taught me. I bow to the Torah. And you may have noticed that whenever I have the honor to hold a Torah scroll, I try to show my love and reverence for the Torah by holding the scroll as high on my shoulder as I possibly can. The funny thing about this is that when I look up at the Torah, I don’t feel small. I feel tall. Actually, I feel very tall.

I promise you this: if you study Torah you will soon feel very, very tall.

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The Contemporary Meaning of Shavuot

Ever since the second night of Passover, ever since second Seder, we have been counting down the 49 days – the mystical 7 days times 7 weeks – that separate Passover from the festival of Shavuot (Shavuot means “weeks” referencing that Shavuot occurs 7 weeks after Passover).

What does it tell you about Shavuot that we count down to it? It tells you that Shavuot is a festival to be excited about. Indeed it is:

  • We eat cheesecake and ice cream!
  • We plant flowers
  • We decorate the synagogue with flowers and greenery
  • It is a traditional custom to stay up all night studying Torah

Shavuot is a lovely holiday!

Counting down to Shavuot also tells you that this festival is central to Jewish belief and practice. Indeed it is: Shavuot is the festival that celebrates God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments and the Torah on the top of Mt. Sinai.

The rabbis of the Talmud linked Passover to Shavuot to make a point. God did not free us from slavery just to be free. Being free is not what makes us Jews. God liberated us so that we could in turn freely choose to commit ourselves to the Torah and to the Jewish way of life. Passover was only the means to a greater goal, not the goal itself. That goal is Shavuot. Shavuot is the fulfillment, the culmination of Passover.

It’s not what Passover celebrates but what Shavuot celebrates — standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah – that makes us Jews.

The Torah holds a very special place in my heart as a source of wisdom, inspiration, resilience, and moral guidance. The Torah is a gift, a treasure. The Torah is sweet, inspiring. The Torah is a journey into the deep. Just think about some of the amazing principles we learn from the Torah:

  • Every human being is created in the image of God, betzelem elohim.
  • You should love your neighbor as yourself
  • Everyone is entitled to rest, to Shabbat
  • Everyone is entitled to be free – let My people go!
  • It is imperative to pursue justice, to correct injustice

The Torah is at the center of Jewish ethics. Indeed, most if not all of the moral ideals and principles we hold dear derive from the Torah. The Torah makes us tall. The Torah teaches us what to stand for. The Torah inspires us to do great things.

“The Torah is a tapestry

which can adorn the days in which we dwell.

Let us embrace it and make it our own,

weave its text into the texture of our lives.

It’s teachings sustain us, its beauty delights us

When we open our eyes to its splendor

It is not a mystery, far beyond reach.

It is not in heaven, beyond our grasp.

It is as close to us as we allow it,

on our lips, in our heart, integral to our deeds.

Let us study its words, fulfill its commands,

And make its instruction our second nature.

It is the tangible gift of God’s love.

Weave its text into the texture of your lives.”

Chag Sameiach,

Rabbi Stuart Gershon, D.D.

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Two Ways Jews Disappear

Delivered at the Confirmation of Temple Sinai’s 10th Grade Class on May 21, 2016. 

So now it’s my turn to say to all of you, “congratulations and mazal tov on your Confirmation.” When you give a speech like this, you have to decide whether to go for laughs or tears. I think this time its gonna be tears.

I want to sincerely thank each of you for coming on this Jewish journey with me. During these 10 months, I have gotten to know the new you, not the thirteen year old you once were at your B’nei Mitzvah, but the adolescent you, the individual you are today.

And who you are today has made my day every Sunday morning. I may be too old now to be hip, but thank you for helping me to stay young at heart.

I want you to know that it has been a privilege to take you on this journey. You are my 22nd Confirmation class here at Temple Sinai, the 27th in my overall rabbinic life.

I must tell you that you are one of the most impressive and enjoyable Confirmation classes I have ever had the honor and the fun to teach. I will always remember you and cherish this time we’ve had together.

I feel hugely proud of you and I fully intend to brag about you, because I’m the rabbi, and that’s what a rabbi does for his/her Confirmands.

I want to brag about your Confirmation statements this morning. Take it from me, they wowed everybody! Not only because they reflect how smart and thoughtful you are. They reflect how Jewishly knowledgable you are.

I want to brag about how you made yourselves show up on Sunday morning, even though you were dead tired from a late Saturday night, and no matter how much you wanted to sleep in. You pushed yourselves. I saw it and I appreciate it.

I want to brag about how you maintained a Confirmation class atmosphere of open-mindedness and acceptance, even when you strongly disagreed with each other.

I want to brag that you know what Judaism really teaches about life after death. You know what is enduring about the Ten Commandments. You know the differences between what Reform Jews believe and what Reform Judaism actually teaches. You know how to identify the bias against Israel in the media. You know what your own personal deal-breakers are in terms of who you could marry and who you could not. You know that Jews around the world – especially the Jews of Europe – are increasingly unsafe, because of the resurgence of anti-Semitic hatred. You know the varieties of possible Jewish identities in the modern world and where you fit in. And you do fit in, you do belong.

Your Confirmation experience is coming to an end. I hope you will carry with you, not just into your junior and senior years of high school but into your adult lives, what I’ve endeavored to impress upon you over the years:

Judaism is not just a bunch of rituals and bible stories. Judaism is a treasury of profound ideas and ideals. Judaism is wise, thoughtful, reasonable, logical, compassionate. Torah study is sweet. Torah study is inspiring. Judaism is not ancient but modern. Judaism has so much wisdom to offer you about the decisions you make and how to live a moral life in the 21st century.

You know how strongly I feel about observing Yom ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, to light the 6 memorial candles, to remember the names of the 6 million Jews who perished. You know how strongly I feel about speaking up for Israel, visiting Israel often, and learning how to speak Hebrew.

Now even with all this bragging, I’m not sure you fully appreciate what you’ve accomplished, the distinction you’ve truly earned….earned! So let me tell you. There are 13-15 million Jews in the entire world. That’s it. We are fewer than one tenth of one per cent of the world’s 6 billion people.

History proves there are two ways the world’s Jewish population shrinks, two ways Jews disappear. One is by anti-Semitism. Demographers tell us that there were 5-7 million Jews in antiquity. Jews actually made up 10% of the population in the Mediterranean region, living in Israel and also in Babylonia, Rome, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt.

The demographers go on to say that were it not for the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the pogroms there would be 100-200 million Jews in the world today. Imagine that! 100-200 million Jews would have changed everything about Jewish life today.

The other way Jewish community shrinks, the way Jews disappear, is by assimilation. By every metric, the American Jewish community is rapidly assimilating. For me, assimilation is when Jews stop caring about Jewish concerns. Increasingly, Jewish Americans don’t care about belonging to organized Jewish community and supporting the synagogue, don’t care about visiting Israel and remembering the Holocaust.

That all of you made the time and put in the work to become Confirmands – despite your crazy busy schedules and the ridiculous demands on your time – tells me that in your heart of hearts, you don’t want to see Judaism die out by assimilation. You want Judaism to live on in you and through you. That you said “yes” to Confirmation when others said “no” tells me you understand: Because we are such a small people, every one of our people has to care. And you do care.

You, Confirmands, are the hope and the promise for a proud and flourishing Jewish future. You, Confirmands, recognize the authenticity that flows from being Jewishly knowledgable, Jewishly educated on a serious adult level. You, Confirmands, will be the temple presidents and trustees of next generation Reform synagogues. Maybe even a rabbi or a cantor of a next gen Reform synagogue. I’m just saying….just putting it out there. You, Confirmands, have earned our appreciation, our respect, and our gratitude.

Kol ha kavod, bravo to you, the Temple Sinai Confirmation class of 5776/2016!

 

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