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Yom Shabbat, 29 Heshvan 5775

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה


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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


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.

Weekly Torah Talk on Sukkot 5775

on Wednesday, 08 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Mystical or Moral? Revelation for Sukkot

This week we are celebrating the wonderful, outdoor festival of Sukkot, in which we give thanks to God for the harvest and enjoy our zman simchateinu, the season of happiness. Interestingly, Sukkot has many mystical connections in our tradition, including a variety of messianic events that supposedly will take place at this season in times to come. Perhaps for that reason, the Torah portion selected for this Shabbat by the rabbis is from the sedrah of Ki Tisa, and it is a strange, beautiful section, one of the most mystical in the entire Torah.

The part of the parshah prior to our reading includes the traumatic events of the Golden Calf narrative. In its aftermath, Moses asks God to give him a sign of reassurance. God answers, but in an odd and oblique way that teaches something uniquely important about the elusive nature of spirituality.

As we commence our reading, Moses asks God to go before the people as they continue their journey towards the Promised Land. God agrees. And then Moses asks Hareini na et-kvodecha, "Please show me Your glory!" In other words, let me see You. Like the errant people who created a calf out of golden earrings and then bowed down to it, I need something more tangible than promises for my own spiritual fulfillment. But I am asking, not pushing...


Weekly Torah Talk on Yom Kippur 5775

on Wednesday, 01 October 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Scapegoats, Responsibility, and Holiness

This Shabbat is more than just the "regular" Sabbath—it is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Great Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. On this holiest day of the year we Reform Jews have not one but two different Torah readings, Nitzavim, the same portion from Deuteronomy that we read just before Rosh Hashanah, and a selection from the middle of the Torah in Leviticus, Kedoshim.

While, atypically for Judaism, all Jews tend to agree on what portion of the Torah is read for almost every ritual occasion, on Yom Kippur there is a significant difference of opinion as to what Torah section should be read. On the morning of the Day of Atonement, Orthodox and Conservative congregations read a description of the rites of sacrificing animals on the Day of Atonement in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, followed by the obscure and interesting ritual of the scapegoat. Their afternoon reading is a long listing of the kinds of sexual immorality that are forbidden by the Torah.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Tavo 5774

on Wednesday, 10 September 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

To Change the World

How do we go about changing our world? And how long should it take?

Our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, gives us powerful commandments about how we are to live in society. We are commanded to be moral, to protect the rights of the impoverished, the widow, and the stranger. We are to be honest in business, careful of the needs of the hungry and the homeless. We are to create a society of ethical practice and moral concern. We are to understand that a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest, neediest members. We are told repeatedly that God knows and expects us to live to this covenant, to uphold it, to cherish it, to make it our own. And we are told of the blessings that will be ours if we can do this, and the curses we will bring on ourselves if we cannot.

Weekly Torah Talk on Ki Teitzei 5774

on Wednesday, 03 September 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Truly Caring Community

This Shabbat in Temple we will read the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei from the middle section of Deuteronomy, Devarim. Ki Teitzei contains more laws than any other Torah portion, 74 in all, among them the rules that apply to warfare, laws related to safe and proper building construction, and labor laws more enlightened than those that exist in Arizona today. But there is one area of Jewish law addressed in Ki Teitzei that remains especially relevant now.

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.

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