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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Today is Yom ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Yom ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Two thought-provoking articles for you to read are:



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To Address Congress or Not to Address Congress

Should Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel go forward with his address to a joint session of Congress or cancel the speech?
Here are the views of Brett Stephens (yes) and Tom Friedman (no).
What do you think?



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Israel is the only country in the world that is not allowed to defend its own civilians

During Israel’s war with Hamas, the UN repeatedly accused Israel of war crimes and violations of international human rights. There is no objective basis for these accusations. The accusations are pure geo-political sophistry and slander, intended to turn the truth on its head, to turn the aggressor, Hamas, into the victim and to turn the victim, Israel, into the aggressor.

There is no question that Hamas fired first at Israel and kept escalating its missile attacks on the Israeli civilian population to provoke a response. According to the international laws of war, Israel had the right to use force to stop the threat to the lives of its civilians. Israel’s military objective was to degrade Hamas’ capacity to fire missiles at its civilian population throughout the country and to destroy cross-border tunnels that would enable Hamas death squads to infiltrate into Israel to kill and kidnap Israeli civilians.

Because Hamas suffered much greater losses, some claimed that Israel’s response was “disproportionate.” As a legal term, however, proportionality hinges on whether the use of force in relation to the pursuit of legitimate military objectives is excessive. The legal test of proportionality is not the number of civilians killed. Dr. Laurie Blanc, professor of law at Emory University, states, “widely different numbers of civilian casualties between two sides in a conflict says nothing about the proportionality of particular attacks on specific targets.”

According to Professor Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, the legal test of proportionality “asks what reasonable commanders and soldiers would have done in the situation. It depends on an inquiry into combatants rules of engagement, their understanding of the military advantage sought, the weapons they chose and the manner in which they handled them, the nature of the enemy and his tactics, the terrain, the weather, and all the other myriad circumstances involved in armed combat.”

Hamas deliberately embedded its soldiers, weapons caches, rocket launchers, infrastructure and command and control, among Palestinian civilians. In order to protect Palestinian civilians from harm, Israel would have had to take no action to stop Hamas attacks by air, sea, and land (tunnel), exposing its own civilians to great harm. But the international laws of war maintain that the use of civilian areas for military purposes causes those areas to lose immunity from attack. Israel’s military conduct was justified under the norms of international laws of war.

But the death of 1,600 Palestinians did not have to happen. It happened only because Hamas put its own civilians in harms way. Our moral outrage should be directed where it rightly belongs – at Hamas.

Attempts by the international media to portray Hamas, a brutal and ruthless terrorist organization, as the victim and Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as the aggressor, is more than a perverse twisting of the truth. Professor Berkowitz states, “It incentivizes terrorists to dress as civilians, hide among civilians, launch operations from civilian areas and use civilians as human shields. It’s a future road map for jihadists devoted to war against the United States.”

The failure of the international community to hold Hamas accountable for Gazan casualties, for using Palestinian civilians as human shields, and its indiscriminate shooting at Israeli civilians, is a victory for terrorism.






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Hamas’ Intimidation of the Foreign Press

The news reported by international journalists from Gaza is not objective and is not to be trusted.It is seriously compromised, manipulated by Hamas to score propaganda points against Israel. You must read these exposes that document how Hamas intimidates the international media not to report on or show photos of Hamas forcing Palestinian civilians to be human shields, launching rockets from civilian areas (including in or around the vicinity of hospitals), and storing weapons in schools, mosques, and houses. Hamas scares journalists into deleting published tweets and articles that criticize Hamas, expels journalists who have the courage to ‘say what they see’ in Gaza, and even makes death threats against them.

shifahospital620Top Secret Hamas Command Bunker in Gaza Revealed– Tablet Magazine July 29, 2014


Forty Questions for the International Media in Gaza– David Bernstein, July 31, 2014

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