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Yom Shabbat, 28 Kislev 5775

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

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Weekly Torah Talk on Vayeitzei 5775

on Wednesday, 10 December 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Transformers

Beginning with this week's sedrah of Vayeshev, Joseph, the last of the patriarchs, becomes the principal character for the final four weekly portions in Genesis. A more complete narrative than any that has preceded it in Genesis, the story of Joseph is also a developmental transition that leads the literary way to the long narrative of Moses that fills the rest of the Torah.

The Joseph story has been called the first truly modern piece of literature, filled with contemporary authorial techniques in the delineation of character and plot. Each segment ends in a cliffhanger, and the interplay of story lines and locations make the whole narrative vibrant and rich and exceedingly compelling. This modernity of style is particularly impressive since the book of Genesis was written at least 2500 years ago.

Vayeitzei 5775: Everything Old is New Again

on Friday, 28 November 2014. Posted in Sermons

I'd like to share some news stories for you today. Please, listen closely. These are especially important news items.

In news this Thanksgiving weekend, the Palestinian Prime Minister urged the Israeli Prime Minister to "take serious and significant steps to renew the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians." Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority leader said that Israeli hints of unilateral moves showed that Israel was not serious about peace.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayeitzei 5775

on Wednesday, 26 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Travelin’ Man — Finding God in the Wilderness

The urge to journey out into the unknown is a major motivation in the Torah. We saw it with Abraham a few weeks ago. We find it in the lives of most of our ancestors. And we encounter it perhaps most powerfully in the story of this week's great Torah portion of Vayeitzei.

At the start of the tale, Jacob leaves his family and his home, both of which happen to be in Be'ersheva, and journeys towards Sumeria—today's Iraq. He has nothing with him at all, not even a bedroll, and is forced to lay his head on a rock to sleep.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayeitzei 5775 (Copy)

on Wednesday, 26 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Travelin’ Man — Finding God in the Wilderness

The urge to journey out into the unknown is a major motivation in the Torah. We saw it with Abraham a few weeks ago. We find it in the lives of most of our ancestors. And we encounter it perhaps most powerfully in the story of this week's great Torah portion of Vayeitzei.

At the start of the tale, Jacob leaves his family and his home, both of which happen to be in Be'ersheva, and journeys towards Sumeria—today's Iraq. He has nothing with him at all, not even a bedroll, and is forced to lay his head on a rock to sleep.

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayishlach 5775

on Wednesday, 26 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Wrestling with Holiness

We are currently in the midst of sequence of splendid Torah portions, rich in complexity, action, and misdeed, all blended together with some serious family dysfunction. This week's sedrah of Vayishlach in Genesis continues the tale of Jacob, the most intriguing of the patriarchs, a man who rises above his own duplicitous nature to become the father of almost all of the tribes of Israel.

As our story begins this week Jacob is returning home to Canaan, having made good in the old country of Sumeria—today's Iraq. He has four wives, 12 children—including 11 sons—flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, great wealth in that day. As he is about to cross into Canaan he learns that his brother Esau, whom he wronged so seriously just before leaving home in a rush twenty years before, is coming to meet him with an army of 400 men. Jacob is panicked by this news, deducing that Esau is not heading his way with 400 men with spears just to welcome him home.

Weekly Torah Talk on Toldot 5775

on Wednesday, 19 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

There's No Trouble Like Family Trouble

Rebecca is pregnant with twins, who are struggling against one another even in the womb. Like so many—perhaps every—pregnant woman before and after her, our mother Rebecca is physically miserable. It gets so bad that she cries out, "God, why am I alive?" roughly the equivalent of "Just shoot me now." But unlike every other woman in such straits, God answers her.

God says to Rebecca, "Two nations are in your belly; two peoples will spread out from your womb; one will overcome the other; the elder will serve the younger." It is not clear why this should prove comforting to Rebecca, but she seems to be calmed by these words. And when she gives birth to two healthy boys, the younger is indeed clutching the heel of the elder, seeking from the beginning to supplant him.

Chayei Sarah 5775: Negotiating for Good

on Friday, 14 November 2014. Posted in Sermons

Negotiation gets a bad rap these days. Many people see the give-and-take necessary to reach consensus as a kind of moral compromise, a sacrifice of ideals on the false-idol altar of base pragmatism. Compromise? Consensus? Agreement? Not words we have heard in this election year...

Weekly Torah Talk on Chayei Sarah 5775

on Thursday, 13 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Will You Go with This Man? Journeying Together

In one of the most dramatic parts of this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, it tells us that, at the moment of truth, "They called Rebecca and said to her, will you go with this man? And she said, I will."(Genesis 24:58)

There is an interesting book I read once called Walk Across America by an author named Peter Jenkins, which also has a sequel, The Walk West by Jenkins and his wife Barbara. Although the books come from a Christian perspective, they are both beautiful and moving. In the 1970's Peter was a young man who found himself disillusioned and lost, as so many did. He decided to walk across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to find America but more important, to find himself. You know the old Simon and Garfunkel song, perhaps: but he really did "walk off to look for America..."

Weekly Torah Talk on Vayeira 5775

on Thursday, 06 November 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Sacrificing Our Children

This week we read the Torah portion of Vayeira in Genesis, which includes the great and terrible story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeida. God tests Abraham by having him almost, but not quite, sacrifice Isaac on a rock. Famous for being read on Rosh HaShanah annually its connection would seem to be the fact that a ram appears at the end of the story caught in a thicket by its horns, the model for all future shofars.

But this passage is much more than a mere animal story. Cryptic yet oddly repetitive, it raises a host of painful moral dilemmas, and challenges us to think intensely about just what our relationship to God truly is.

Weekly Torah Talk on Lech L'cha 5775

on Thursday, 30 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Boundaries

This week's Torah portion of Lech L'cha includes the first description of the boundaries of the Land of Israel. At the beginning of our parshah God commands Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, Lech L'cha... el ha'arets asher areka, to "Go!.. to the land that I will show you." Abram and his wife Sarai are living in the city of Haran at that time, in Turkey today just north of what is now the Syrian border. Abram moves his household immediately, and relocates to Canaan, and God announces that this is the land which God will give to Abram and his descendants forever.

Noach 5775: Disaster! and Life After...

on Friday, 24 October 2014. Posted in Sermons

There's an ancient joke about the end of the world.

An astronomer is giving a talk to a community group and he says that in 5 billion years the sun will expand and engulf the earth, ending life as we know it. At this a woman in the back leaps for her chair shouting "Oh my God! Oh my God!", and then faints.

They revive her and the astronomer says, "Well, gee, I know that I said the world will end, but it's a long way off. Don't worry."

And the woman says, "Well, what did you say?"

And the astronomer says, "I said the world will end in 5 billion years."

And the woman says, "Oh! Thank God! I thought you said 5 million years."

People have been predicting the end of the world for a long time, and we still find it believable. Just a few years ago everyone was exercised about the end of the Mayan calendar, which would spell finish to our planet; before that there was the Y2K debacle, in which our technology would finish us off in a massive computer meltdown that never occurred. And so on. Regularly people predict the end of the world as we know it, and we go on feeling fine.

Vayeira 5775: If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem

on Friday, 24 October 2014. Posted in Sermons

A first-time tourist came to Israel and was taken to the Kotel, the Western Wall. Not being too versed in religious aspects of Judaism, he asked another visitor the significance of the wall. He explained, "This is a sacred wall. If you pray to it, God will hear you."

The tourist walked close to the wall and started to pray.

"Dear Lord," he said, "Bring sunshine and warmth to this beautiful land."

A commanding voice answered, "I will, my son." 

The tourist was encouraged, and said, "Bring prosperity to this land."

"I will, my son."

Wow! This is great, he thought. I'll try again. And he said, "Let Jews and Arabs live together in peace, dear Lord."

And the commanding voice answered, "You're talking to a wall."

Weekly Torah Talk on Noach 5775

on Thursday, 23 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Washing it All Away to Save the Species?

The famous story of Noah in this week's Torah portion has been explained in many ways. It has been interpreted as a moral lesson on the consequences of evil conduct, as a way to establish the concept of covenant between God and humanity, as the first great sea story, even as an environmental fable of the earliest example of global warming.

However you read Noah, who went to sea not for a three-hour tour but for months after forty days and nights of rain, it is a dramatic and rather strange text. God determines that humanity, the crown of creation of which the Holy One initially said, "it is very good," is now failing, destroying the peace of the world through hatred, anger, and murder. The free beings created in the very image of God have made their choices, and they are universally wrong, embracing evil. It is time to start over, to begin afresh.

Weekly Torah Talk on B'reisheet 5775

on Wednesday, 15 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Beginning with a Holy Mistake

Tomorrow night we celebrate Simchat Torah—Thursday night at 6:30 PM—the wonderful festival when we complete the reading of the Torah and start all over again at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

B'reisheet, the very first Torah portion of the year, presents a unique challenge to every commentator. There is so much to say—where to begin?

Which is of course precisely the point, for Genesis is the beginning not only of the Torah, but of Judaism—and all Western religion, including Christianity and Islam. It starts with the great theological creation in B'reisheet, and the immortal, eternal words B'reisheet bara Elohim, "In the Beginning, God created..."

Sermon for Pride Service 5775

on Tuesday, 14 October 2014. Posted in Sermons

We meet tonight on the festival of Sukkot, the thanksgiving holiday that is the source of all of our fall and winter celebrations of gratitude in the Western Hemisphere, Jewish, Christian, and turkey-based, too. It all comes from Sukkot, the Feast of booths in the Torah, and that's rather special for us. In truth, we have much to be grateful for on this particular Sukkot, this thanksgiving feast of Tabernacles.

First, the Supreme Court, in its elliptical and legalistic way, appears to be on the cusp of making marriage a truly equal experience in all of America, and that is something to give thanks for indeed. Second, tonight we are joined together in prayer and song and thought across all boundary lines of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and political and religious belief, which is always a reason to give thanks. And finally, we are able to be here on the bimah of Temple Emanu-El together openly and proudly celebrating a service of great diversity and beauty like this—and it is not a surprise, nor is it a dramatic act.

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