Shabbat Shalom- Friday, March 5, 2021

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Dear Friends,

HIAS, whose commitment is to “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee” has designated this Shabbat as Refugee Shabbat. (The organizations began as HIAS: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, but now welcomes all who have fled persecution.) I am proud that the URJ, the Reform Movement, is one of the major Jewish organizations partnering with HIAS.

In honor of Refugee Shabbat I will be changing my Zoom background to this.

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That is the Vaterland and, as I have previously shared, it is the ship that brought my grandfather Alexander Cohen to America.

I keep not one but two pictures of that ship in my office. One is a painting of the ship that my grandfather did shortly after arriving here. The other is an image from the New York Times of the ship …

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Shabbat Shalom: February 26, 2021

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Dear Friends,

One year ago we found ourselves rapidly trying to make adjustments to our Purim Carnival and our Adult Purim Schpiel. Experts had already begin raising the alarm but, at that time, I don’t think any of us could have imagined what was coming. One year later more than 500,000 Americans, and a total of 2.5 million people worldwide, have died of COVID-19. All of us have been impacted by this pandemic, but the family and friends of more than 500,000 of our fellow citizens know a grief that goes even deeper.

At Shabbat services this evening my father’s name will be included on the Yartzeit list prior to reading Kaddish for just the second time. It is hard to imagine that it has already been two years. But it has. I cannot think back to two years ago. My father’s death was not unexpected. He had been declining …

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Shabbat Shalom: February 19, 2021

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.”

(Megillat Esther, The Book of Esther)

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Dear Friends,

The Book of Esther, which we read on Purim, is a far darker story than many realize. For example, Vashti was beheaded because she was unwilling to humiliate herself in front of the king’s guests. The king was the epitome of the failed leader who was given a title and influence but squandered it on meaningless pleasures. Haman was the embodiment of the …

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Shabbat Message for February 5, 2021

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion begins with a powerful exchange between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro. It then describes the preparation necessary before Moses would be permitted to ascend Mt. Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments.

וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִן־הָהָ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיְכַבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃

Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes.

Through Moses God tells the Israelites to purify themselves.
He tells them to wash their clothes.
He instructs them to stand at the base of the mountain.
He warns them against touching the mountain lest they incur punishment.

But then he says this…

וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֱי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לִשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים אַֽל־תִּגְּשׁ֖וּ אֶל־אִשָּֽׁה׃

And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”

Under any circumstance, this would be a jarring statement but its presence here, at exactly …

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Shabbat Message January 29, 2021

I’m excited about February 19th. I’m anxious about February 19th. February 19th cannot get here soon enough. 

Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, we find our ancestors are caught between the waters of the Sea of Reeds on one side and the approaching Egyptian army on the other. They were, at that moment, faced with an impossible choice.

If they remained where they were the Egyptian army would force them back into slavery. Even worse, the Israelites would now be dealing with a Pharaoh who had been humiliated and would likely be crueler than ever.

If they continued forward it was more than a bit likely that many of them would drown.

The situation presented them with quite the dilemma. But while it is true that, after a few weeks in the Sinai wilderness, the Israelites would become filled with nostalgia and long for their lives in Egypt, …

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Shabbat Shalom August 7, 2020

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Dear Friends,

One of the ways Jewish tradition was shared in ancient times was through a process known as She’elot u-Teshuvot (Hebrew: שאלות ותשובות “questions and answers”). This process began when a question would be brought to the rabbi. If the rabbi was not able to answer the question he (in those days only men were rabbis) would write down the question and have a messenger carry it to HIS teacher. If the second rabbi was unable to answer the question the process would be repeated and the message sent to HIS teacher. Once the question was answered the response would be returned to the original questioner along the same route. Moreover, the question and the answer would be read by the members of each community along the journey home. In this way, Jewish legal questions and answers spread across Europe. This allowed our dispersed community to be far more …

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My Shabbat Message for May 15, 2020

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(Watch a video version of this message.)

 

Dear Community Members,

It is with complete disgust and revulsion that we are forced to share with you that in spite of our own Rabbinic Authority’s clear Jewish legal guidance and those of our movement and other rabbinic organizations plus recent medical guidance, there were a number of people who blatantly violated our synagogue’s policy and indeed participated in a rogue worship gathering this past Shabbat. This level of raw chutzpah and dangerous behavior that puts others at risk cannot be tolerated. This type of behavior and the individuals who perpetrated it must be responded to with significant consequences.

 

That is the first paragraph, slightly edited, from Rabbi Edelman to his South Florida congregation. His message is direct and his language is overly harsh. Obviously. And while it goes without saying that I would never use such language with …

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My Shabbat Message for May 1, 2020

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רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said:
Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger;
Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him…
(Pirke Avot 4:18)

I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers- quite a bit in recent weeks. There are, of course, teachings from this small section of the Talmud that are more uplifting. There are many that are more spiritual… more optimistic. And yet, this year, this is one of the sections of Pirke Avot that is resonating most loudly for me.

There are a few reasons for this.

The statement “[Do not try to] comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him…” may strike some as a bit too “in your face” but …

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Shabbat Message for April 24, 2020

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 Click this image for a video version of this week’s message.

One of the most compelling aspects of Torah study is that each year, as part of the annual cycle of reading the Torah from start to finish, there is always something new to see. For while the text of the Torah is canonized or fixed, the eyes with which we read and interpret our sacred text are continually changing. For example, the Torah portion about Noah may look very different to us in a year when there have been terrible floods than it would in the midst of a draught. Similarly, we may see something new when studying the story about Joseph’s interactions with his jealous brothers if we ourselves are in the midst of a fight with our siblings. The text of the Torah remains the same form year to year. But the eyes and the experiences through …

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My Shabbat Message for April 17, 2020

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There is a tradition that, each Shabbat between the Festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a chapter from the small section of the Talmud known as Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is studied. One of the most famous teaches:

Hillel used to say:
If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And when I am for myself alone, what am I?

That one statement reminds us how important it is to strike a balance between self-interest and selflessness.

If I do not take care of myself, my family or my community I cannot expect anyone else to.

But if I am only concerned with myself, my family or my community and I do not concern myself with my obligations to do good in the world I have only done half the job.

I have always loved this quote as I believe it captures one of the …

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