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Yom Shabbat, 4 Elul 5774

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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Weekly Torah Talk on Shoftim 5774

on Wednesday, 27 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

And Justice For All

Our portion this week begins with a passage that is perfect for any election year: Shoftim v'shotrim titen l'cha b'chol sh'arecha, judges and officers you shall select for yourselves in all of our gates. Deuteronomy tells us we are to choose official leaders for our cities, our regions, and, ultimately, our country. But what are the Jewish criteria for an appropriate official?

Shoftim tells us: our leaders must judge the people with righteous judgment. They must not favor the rich over the poor. They must not defer to famous or powerful individuals. They must be incorruptible, taking no bribes or influence payments. They must be scrupulously honest.

Weekly Torah Talk on Re'eh 5774

on Wednesday, 20 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Advance Credits

I know it's unbelievable, but public school started a week ago, Hebrew School began yesterday, Religious School kicks off this coming Sunday, and the High Holidays are coming up in just over a month. We bless the new month of Elul on this Shabbat because Rosh Chodesh Elul is next Wednesday, the beginning of the last month of the Jewish year, which we will celebrate by inaugurating our new Project Elul program of 6 AM daily connection, prayer, and inspiration. It's the time of year for us to think about the state of our relationships, to prepare to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the state of our souls, to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we've been, and where we are headed.

Weekly Torah Talk on Eikev 5774

on Wednesday, 13 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Real Cardiac Jews

Have you heard about the new movement in Judaism? It's not Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, or even Reconstructionist or Renewal. It's "cardiac Jews." You know—"I'm Jewish in my heart." While we usually think of this as a kind of abdication, meaning "I'm Jewish in my heart but I don't do anything about it in my actual life," there is one sense in which being a cardiac Jew can have real meaning.

In the middle of our weekly Torah portion of Eikev, a great question is asked: "What does the Lord your God ask of you? "That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God's ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul." But it then follows this wonderful spiritual and moral instruction with a puzzling passage in which it tells us to do something physically impossible. We are commanded to "circumcise the foreskin of our hearts." This is a new kind of b'rit milah, and one that smacks of flat-out self-murder.

Weekly Torah Talk on Va'etchanan 5774

on Wednesday, 06 August 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Listening and Love

This week we read the second portion in the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, in the Torah, the remarkable sedrah of Va'etchananVa'etchanan includes truly spectacular texts: the Shema, the central statement of God's oneness in the world, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. It's followed immediately by the V'ahavta, the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength.

As if that were not enough honor for one Torah portion Va'etchanan also includes the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the Aseret Hadibrot, for the second time in the Torah. If you were to rank Torah portions, you could easily put Va'etchanan near the top in quality of content. A portion that includes the essence of Jewish monotheism, the Shemaand the Ten Commandments, centerpiece of all western ethics, is a pretty spectacular weekly parashah by anyone's standards. It is no accident that this powerfully affirming portion is read the week after Tisha B'Av, on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation, for we take comfort in our knowledge that morality and holiness will ultimately bring justice.

Prayers for Peace in the Middle East

on Thursday, 31 July 2014. Posted in Community Events


Almighty God, on behalf of the descendants of Noah, to whom a dove brought the branch of an olive, of the children of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, of the adherents of Jesus, of the Bahai'ullah, of those who worship in the Golden Temple, of the descendants of all the great teachers and holy men and women, we ask you to bless our efforts to bring this weary and troubled world towards peace. Out of the diversity of our histories and traditions, out of the unity of our common humanity we have come to seek wholeness and peace.

Prayers for Peace in the Middle East

on Thursday, 31 July 2014. Posted in Community Events

Opening Remarks

Shalom AleicheimSalaam Aleikum, welcome to our service of Prayers for Peace in the Middle East. We are grateful for your presence tonight in our sanctuary, for gathering to affirm peace. I would like to begin by thanking the leadership of Temple Emanu-El, our president Bonnie Golden, and our Board of Directors for encouraging us to partner with the Israel Center and its outstanding director Oshrat Bar-El in this effort, and supporting it fully. Unfortunately peace, that greatest of all blessings, has long eluded the Middle East. In lands sacred to many of our religious traditions, sometimes on the very ground of the holiest sites of spiritual history and pilgrimage, violence has repeatedly bloodied the landscape. In spite of the best efforts of many wise, sincere, and caring women and men, against the most profound teachings of our holy books and learned scholars, hatred and war have flourished most of the time.

Weekly Torah Talk on Masei 5774

on Wednesday, 23 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Cities of Justice

This week's portion of Masei includes the final chapters of the book of Numbers. In this concluding section of Bamidbar an important, and unusual, institution is created: the city of refuge.

In the days before police forces and criminal courts were common, justice in cases of manslaughter or murder was typically accomplished by the family of the victim. What we would consider vigilante action was the normal means of addressing the moral and social disruption created by a killing. If you killed someone, intentionally or accidentally, or even if the family of a person who was killed thought you had done the killing, you would likely be killed by their kinsmen. It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys: kill and you would be killed, then your family would avenge the killing, and the other family would respond in kind, and on and on it would go.

Matot 5774: Sticks

on Wednesday, 16 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

On a visit to Istanbul, Turkey a few years ago I visited Topkapi Palace, the center of power for the mighty Ottoman Empire from 1450 to the 1800's, 400 years in which they dominated a huge portion of the globe. I had not been in Istanbul in 16 years, and they have a new section of the large museum within Topkapi's ancient walls. It is called The Chamber of Sacred Relics.

While Topkapi Palace is literally filled with rooms and objects of great historical and religious importance, carefully curated with dates and sources, this particular area is actually put together by a Muslim religious agency and it includes what can only be called a collection of pious forgeries and frauds. As tourists shuffle past the elegantly lit displays arrayed behind thick bulletproof glass, they learn that they are viewing the cooking pot of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, Aaron the High Priest's breastplate, King David's armor, and Muhammed's sword and tooth, plus a hair from his beard. I think they might also have had a footprint of Noah's in preserved rock. In imitation of the medieval Christian veneration of fake religious objects in ornate reliquaries, each of these pseudo-relics is reverently presented with an appropriate biblical verse from the Tanakh or New Testament or Koran, and each is treated as though it were the Hope Diamond or a Sultan's bejeweled coronation robe.

Pinchas 5774: The Rockets Red Glare: Heat and Light from Israel and Gaza

on Friday, 11 July 2014. Posted in Sermons

This has been a very difficult ten days or so for Jews everywhere, but especially so for Israel and for all of us who love her. So much has happened in such a short period of time that it is worth recapping it all, painful as it may be.

After the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teens were found early last week, brutally murdered and left under a pile of rocks, an Arab teen was also brutally murdered—burned alive—a few days later, and the Israeli police arrested and charged six ultra-Orthodox teens with the crime, and they confessed. Arab riots took place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in response, and then a video on the internet also showed Israeli Border Police brutally beating the cousin of the murdered teen, a teenage American from Florida, and more riots broke out. The Israeli roundup of Hamas activists and terrorists in the West Bank collected about 500 prisoners, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza in response, and then engaged in a competition with Islamic Jihad elements in Gaza to see who could fire more rockets farther into Israel. The Israeli Air Force bombed targets all through Gaza, destroying the homes of many Hamas leaders without killing many of them, although some Hamas terrorists and more civilians were killed.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets reached but failed to damage the rumored Israeli nuclear site of Dimona, as well as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Zichron Ya'akov in the north. Iron Dome missile defense batteries successfully shot down many rockets, while others struck unoccupied areas. Israel targeted Hamas leaders, and killed one in charge of their rocket arsenal, but otherwise seems to be unable to reach Hamas military commanders who are holed up in tunnels under Gaza. Israel mobilized some of its reserves for a potential ground offensive in Gaza. While various parties counseled restraint and de-escalation, the UN mobilized too, in order to criticize Israel.

It's a mess, and for Israelis headed for bomb shelters on a regular basis for the first time in years this is a very, very disturbing turn of events.

Weekly Torah Talk on Pinchas 5774

on Thursday, 10 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Violence in the Name of God

Our news media is filled with reports of religious extremist violence and attempted violence. In Syria, two hundred thousand people are dead in extreme violence that is both political and religious, while in Iraq a new "caliphate" is sweeping east towards Baghdad. Palestinian jihadis murdered three Israeli teens in June; extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews murdered an Arab Muslim teen last week. Iran seeks a nuclear weapon in the name of Islam.

So how does Judaism face the issue of religious violence in its own ranks?

Weekly Torah Talk on Balak 5774

on Wednesday, 02 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

A Comedy of Errors to Relieve a Tragic Week

This has been a tragic week for Jews during which we mourned the loss of three Israeli teens, Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, murdered by terrorists soon after they were kidnapped almost three weeks ago. Their bodies were discovered just last Sunday, and our hearts go out to their families. This has also been a week when violence flared in West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and when an Arab teen was apparently murdered in a reprisal killing. We pray that tempers cool, and that the killers are brought to justice. May this truly be the last time we have to mourn such an outrage.

In fact, we can use a break from this tragic situation. Fortunately, the Torah provides it.

Weekly Torah Talk on Beha'alotecha 5774

on Thursday, 05 June 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Add a Little Light

This week we read the Torah portion of Beha'alotecha in the Book of Numbers. It begins with a description of the menorah, the lamp that burned in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, our people's central worship places for God. That golden menorah was a way to keep track of the days of the week—a new light was lit each day from Sunday through Friday until, finally, all seven branches shone on the holiest of days, Shabbat.

Weekly Torah Talk on Naso 5774

on Wednesday, 28 May 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Three-Fold Blessing of Presence

This week we read the second Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Naso, which includes a variety of instructions ranging from priestly organization to the ordeal of jealousy to the voluntary but binding vows of the Nazirite. It is a kind of catch-all sort of parashah, but it is also a portion that is raised to the status of greatness by one particular passage.

Just before the princes of the people bring offerings to mark the beginning of formal worship in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, to bless the people with a famous formula. We know it as the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. This three-part sequence has become the most famous benediction of all:

Bamidbar 5774: Jewish Accounting for God

on Friday, 23 May 2014. Posted in Sermons

Shabbat Shalom. As you have heard very humorously in our drash tonight, in most ways Bamidbar is a stupendously dull portion, one of the least superficially interesting Torah portions of the entire year. After all, it's nothing more than a series of lists, a counting, a census of people. How many were in the tribe of Reuben, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 46,500. How many were in the tribe of Shimon, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 59,300. How many in the tribe of Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Ephraim, Menasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war, on and on, thousands upon thousands, all counted one at a time? Numbers and numbers and numbers, added together, a Torah portion only an accountant could love.

On closer examination, it looks—well, even less intriguing. More details about the arrangement of the camp. More minutiae relating to the census. Nothing with the vaguest whiff of interest or challenge or meaning.

In fact, when you come right down to it, it looks a whole lot like the regulations for the establishment of a census. Count each and every person carefully, total them up, move on to the next area or region. Each and every single individual is tallied. A good process for the statisticians, but what can it possibly mean to us? Does the annual reading of Bamidbar explain why there are so many Jewish CPA's?

Weekly Torah Talk on Bamidbar 5774

on Wednesday, 21 May 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Every Single Person Counts

This week we read the portion of Bamidbar, first in the book of Numbers, which is given its name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. Superficially it's just a listing of names and numbers and not a very interesting text for study or inspiration. But it also teaches us a primary lesson: every human being counts in God's eyes—and should similarly count in our eyes, as well.

There is an unusual phrase in the beginning of the portion. The survey is to be taken of the entire nation, and b'mispar sheimot, "by the numbering of names." In other words, even though by definition a census is an accounting, a totaling of sums, each individual is to be accounted for not by number but by name. Each person has a unique identity, a human face. Each is an image of God.

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