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Yom Chamishi, 24 Nisan 5774

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Weekly Torah Talk on Kedoshim 5774

on Wednesday, 23 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Building the Good Society out of Actions

This week we read the great Torah portion of Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice. The code includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, obligate sensitivity to those with physical and other impairments, and insists on fair business practices. It obligates us to live moral lives, tells us how to do so, and builds thematically to its most powerful message.

That message is ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is one of the most powerful of all moral instructions, and it lies at the heart of the religious spirit in life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It's important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah. It forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text. And in the very middle of Kedoshim, at the heart of the heart of the heart, if you will, is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself.


Weekly Torah Talk on Pesach 5774

on Wednesday, 16 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

A Festival with Sex Appeal

This week we read a series of special Torah selections for the holiday of Passover, reflecting the texts of the Exodus from Egypt and of our liberation from the hands of Pharaoh and his minions, as well as the rituals of the Pesach celebration. The climactic Torah reading on Monday for the final day of Passover will be the magnificent Song of Moses, the Az Yashir Mosheh, the greatest extended poem in the Torah. The Torah reading this Shabbat is from Ki Tisa, and it includes the laws of the festivals and the Shlosh Esrai Midot, the declaration of the 13 attributes of God that are chanted in the Torah service on each festival.

But this Passover Sabbath we also read an unusual section that isn't from the Torah at all. It's in the last section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim, and it's called the Song of Songs, Shir haShirim.

Weekly Torah Talk on Acharei Mot/HaGadol 5774

on Wednesday, 09 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Holiness is our Principle Pursuit

As we prepare for Passover this coming Monday night, and perform the spring cleaning and the cooking rituals that make this such a labor-intensive holiday, we have a special final Sabbath, Shabbat HaGadol, literally "the Great Sabbath" before Pesach begins. All these preparations are dedicated to removing chametz, impurities, from our homes and our lives, and allowing us to experience the sacredness of the festival.

Similarly, this week we read the Torah portion of Acharei Mot near the mid-point of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. Leviticus is centered on the question of how we are to create holiness in our lives, and Acharei Mot addresses the issue in a variety of ways. It begins with words that are poignant without being revealing: "after the death of Aaron's two sons", referring to Nadav and Avihu, the two young priests who died in the Torah portion of Sh'mini for offering strange and inappropriate fire to the Lord. Aaron is enjoined to be cautious and scrupulous in all of his observances, lest he incur a similar punishment to that of his sons.

Weekly Torah Talk on Metzora 5774

on Tuesday, 01 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Moral Evil of Public Slander

This week's Torah portion of Metzora focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease in the ancient world but mostly an archaic and pretty disgusting section to us today. It's true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantine to isolate it. But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service not always spiritually meaningful today.

The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech. Our moral goal in life should be to completely eliminate from our lives and habits motzi shem ra, the awful tendency we have to speak ill of others, a kind of interpersonal leprosy.

Weekly Torah Talk on Tazria/HaChodesh 5774

on Wednesday, 26 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

How We Respond to Dreaded Diseases

This week we read one of the least appetizing Torah portions of the whole year, Tazria from the Book of Leviticus. It contains instructions on the treatment of a truly horrible ancient illness, leprosy, that still exists in the world, although it isn't much in evidence in America these days, thank God.

Tazria delineates the ways in which we are to treat those individuals afflicted with a terrible, frightening disease that our ancestors regarded as contagious. The methods specified—sanitary conditions and quarantine—are still in use today, and are often considered to be state-of-the-art medical means of controlling infection. Nor is there any moral valence placed on those who are ill. People infected with the dread skin affliction are not considered to have brought it on themselves for any bad action or error. Rather, they are simply unfortunate, and are isolated for their own protection, and that of the general society's.

Weekly Torah Talk on Sh'mini 5774

on Wednesday, 19 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Human Sacrifices Make Us Holy?

This week we read the Torah portion of Sh'mini, which includes the dramatic incident in which the High Priest Aaron's two sons, kohanim, priests of God serving in the holy Tabernacle, offer strange fire and are immediately consumed by fire themselves. Aaron is distraught, and his brother Moses comforts him in God's words, saying, "bikrovai ekadesh, v'al p'nai chol ha'am ekaveid—by those brought close to me I am sanctified, and before all the people I am honored." In other words, those who die before their time, as martyrs, are made holy to God, and their sacrifice brings honor to the Lord and to the people.

This is troubling and confusing. Judaism, from its beginning, rejected the entire concept of human sacrifice. In the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak in Genesis, God instructs Abraham to ritually offer up his beloved son Isaac—but then reverses course, and demonstrates to him, and to all of us, that we are never again to sacrifice a human being for religious purposes.

Weekly Torah Talk on Tzav/Zachor 5774

on Wednesday, 12 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Gratitude and Discontent

This week's Torah portion is the second in the Book of Leviticus, Tzav, the section that establishes the rules for the various sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Mishkan, and in the Temple in Jerusalem. There are many different types of sacrifices commanded: burnt offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, and so on. But one group of sacrificial offerings stands out: the offerings of peace, the zevach shlamim. And among this higher category of offerings one in particular stands out even higher: the zevach haTodah, the thanksgiving offering.

The rabbis thought so highly of thanksgiving to God that they are quoted in the Talmud saying that when the Messiah comes all sacrifices will have completed their mission, and all will be discontinued, with one exception: the thanksgiving offering. That sacrifice will last forever. Even in a perfect world we must remember to give thanks, to be grateful for what we have.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayikra 5774

on Wednesday, 05 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Humility and the Confidence of Faith

This week we begin the middle book of the Torah, Leviticus. The Hebrew name for this book comes from its first word, Vayikra: God called. There is a famous idiosyncrasy about the aleph, the last Hebrew letter in the word vayikra as it's written in the Torah, because it is written smaller than the other letters. Aleph, the Midrash tells us, is the first letter of the word ani, I; therefore, if we wish God to call us directly we must diminish our focus on "I", and seek to limit our egotism. If we can do that, then we, like Moses, will be able to clearly hear God's call, to respond, and so to find the holiness that makes up the central subject of the Book of Leviticus. Less of the "I", and so, more of God. A very nice interpretation indeed.


Weekly Torah Talk on Pekudei 5774

on Wednesday, 26 February 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Building that Matters Most

This week we finish reading the book of Exodus with the Torah portion of Pekudei, which completes the work and dedication of the Tabernacle, the first central place of worship for Jews ever. The purpose of this shrine is a little unclear initially: after all, if God exists beyond time and space, and has no physical manifestation at all—that is, if the Jewish idea of God is correct—then why does God need any kind of a fixed place of residence at all?

Of course, the answer is that it isn't God that needs the Tabernacle—or the Temple in Jerusalem, or any sanctuary or chapel of any synagogue or temple anywhere in the world at any time in history. It's we who need it...

Discrimination is Not Arizonan

on Tuesday, 25 February 2014.

Op-Ed Submission to the Arizona Daily Star

There are definitely times when I am very proud to be an Arizonan, and especially a Jewish Arizonan. There have been Jews in this region since hidden Jews, conversos came through here with the Spaniards. From our earliest days there have been Jewish settlers, and we have been miners and cowboys, peddlers and shop owners, sheriffs and mayors, developers and even outlaws. We have been part of the fabric of Arizona throughout its history, and we continue to contribute in meaningful and important ways. I am proud of that.

But there are also times when being a Jewish Arizonan is not as easy or filled with pride as it should be. The passage last week of a ridiculous bill by our State Legislature that allows businesses and other entities to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, specifically to act with bias and refuse service to homosexual couples or individuals on supposedly "religious" grounds, is one of those times. The truth is that in Genesis the Bible tells us that we are all created b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image, no matter what the legislature in Phoenix has decided. This is surely a matter of human decency and dignity, of representing God here in our own state.

Vayakhel 5774: To Save a Life and Protest a Wrong

on Friday, 21 February 2014. Posted in Sermons

Rodeo Shabbat

Shabbat Shalom, and Howdy Folks—it's Rodeo Shabbat here in Tucson, and this is always a fun way to celebrate the Sabbath. There is nothing that says "Arizona" more than Rodeo Shabbat, a unique part of our twin heritage as southwesterners and Jews. We have been a big part of this region of the country for many years. There were Jews, mostly secret ones, conversos, who rode in with the Spanish explorers, and there were Jewish settlers early, both on the Mexican side of the border and what was eventually the American one. Many of you know that Nogales, Arizona, where a number of our faithful congregants come from, was founded by a Jewish man named Jacob Isaacson as a trading post in 1880. He set up his store straddling the border so he wouldn't have to pay duty on merchandise to either country. Eventually his little settlement became two separate but conjoined municipalities divided by a national border, Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona. It was the Post Office that eventually changed the name from Isaacson to Nogales. More about Nogales later...

Jews were active in these very western parts in famous places like Tombstone, where there is a Jewish cemetery at Boot Hill—perhaps we should we call that one Yarmulkeh Hill?—that the late Fred and Gert Rosen, a past president of Temple and president of the Sisterhood, helped renovate. And Jews were sheriffs and mayors in Tucson—sometimes they still are—and elsewhere around Arizona. There were Jewish miners and shop owners and, yes, cowboys, although there likely far more peddlers than there were gunmen.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayakhel 5774

on Wednesday, 19 February 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

Hope is a tangible, unstated presence in our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel, the penultimate sedrah in the book of Exodus. On the surface, this parashah is nothing more than a listing of how the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was constructed by our ancestors, lists of materials used, processes employed, structures and implements assembled. So many pieces of wood or gold or skins of animals used to make this item; these artisans employed on that project; Moses asked for these materials and they were graciously donated. And so on and so forth.

But in another sense, this is an incredibly hopeful Torah portion, a section that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience. For in last week's Torah portion of Ki Tisa the people of Israel dramatically failed both God and Moses: they made a Golden Calf, and worshipped it, and bowed before it, and insisted that it was their god. Just 40 days after receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai they forgot the Revelation and abandoned monotheism and morality and everything they had just been taught. It was a devastating moment for Moses; it must have been a fundamentally depressing time for God, as well.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Tisa 5774

on Wednesday, 12 February 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

This week we read the portion of Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. While Moses is up on Mt. Sinai carving the 10 commandments in stone—or having God do it for him—the Israelites start to worry he's not coming back. And so they persuade his brother Aaron to make them an idol of gold, a calf, that they can call their new god. Pleased with the result, they worship it, and then they throw a big party, a bacchanal, a carnival, Mardi Gras in the Sinai.

Coming down the mountain, Joshua and Moses hear the noise from the camp below, and are astonished; Joshua thinks it must be the sound of battle, but Moses apparently knows what a party sounds like when he hears it. And when Moses sees the cavorting and the Chosen People worshipping a golden idol he throws down the sacred stone tablets of the commandments, shattering them. The music and dancing suddenly stop. It is a shocking scene.

Rabbi Harold Kushner Brunch

on Sunday, 09 February 2014. Posted in Community Events

Good morning, and Shalom Aleichem, welcome. Thank you for being here and supporting this great event, and supporting Temple Emanu-El. Special thanks to the remarkable, extraordinary, and indefatigable Jill Rich, who has made this morning happen. She is a treasure of our community, and she truly, in every way that matters, makes a difference. Please give her a hand.

My friends, yesterday in Temple we read the Torah portion of Tetzaveh from the book of Exodus, which includes the commandment to create a Ner Tamid, an eternal light that was kept burning in the Tabernacle and the Temple on a constant basis. The Ner Tamid was there to demonstrate that God was always present in the Temple, and every Temple everywhere in the world throughout history ever since has had an Eternal Light burning above the ark, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Then and now, the Eternal Light is a wonderful reminder at all times God is with us, God is present for us.


Weekly Torah Talk on Tetzaveh 5774

on Wednesday, 05 February 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Keep the Fire Bright

This week we read the Torah portion of Tetzaveh in the Book of Exodus, a ritually oriented parashah which gives the commandment to create a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. The Tabernacle was the first sanctuary of the people of Israel. Although technically speaking the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, was a very elaborate, portable tent, it was the also the place where God's Presence, in the form of the Shechinah, resided. In a sense, that's where God lived, or more accurately—since God is everywhere—it was where God was most available to us.

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