Sermon--Parashat Terumah 5779
Tiny Treasures Shabbat, 2/9/19
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
According to a teaching of Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar in Pirke Avot (4:22), the Ethics of our Fathers, a collection of rabbinic wisdom and maxims included in the Mishnah some 1800 years ago, when we are born, we are actually born into the world against our will. Which is to say that no one consulted with us or asked our opinion before our arrival on this earth. And, moreover, we were also born into a world that had already benefited and suffered many times over because of choices our predecessors had made for us. We had no say in the matter of where our parents lived, how they made their living, whether they were compatible, or whether they provided us with food, clothing and shelter, even though every one of these factors had an impact on our lives when we began to live them. This idea that our world and some of our options and circumstances have already been shaped and constrained by decisions others have made seems to run counter to our society’s insistence that a persistent individual can determine his or her own destiny. While it’s true that there is certainly much that we can accomplish owing to our own individual initiative, we are also enmeshed in a larger context that is not of our own creation or doing that impacts our lives.
In that way, we are often dependent on the foresight of those who came before us, in much the same way that our children will ultimately face the consequences or reap the benefits of the choices we make—or don’t make—today. This week’s parasha, Terumah, speaks to this interconnection of the generations quite clearly through an interesting and surprising detail we encounter in the parasha. In the early stages of the Israelites’ wandering through the Sinai wilderness, God instructs them to gather material with which to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that will serve as the symbolic home for God’s presence in their midst. Among the specific materials listed in Shemot, Exodus 25:4-5, we find “gold and silver and brass, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen and goats’ hair, and skins of rams dyed red, and skins of seals, and acacia wood.” While I realize too much goats’ hair might have required the invention of the world’s first lint brush, it’s not the inclusion of the goats’ hair that particularly puzzled the rabbinic sages. Rather, it is the mention of the atzei shittim, the acacia wood. Rashi, in his 11th century commentary, asks the obvious question, “From where did they obtain this in the wilderness?" After all, there are no acacia trees in the desert! How could God expect the Israelites to be able to obtain this type of lumber? Gersonides, the 14th century French philosopher and commentator also known by the acronym Ralbag, suggests that the Israelites might have cut down this wood in one of the places they passed through on the way in order to make furniture, and now donated whatever of it they had for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century Portuguese commentator, explained the disconnect by noting that most probably this wood, like the oil and spices, was purchased from the neighboring peoples who came to the Israelite camp to sell things. But Rashi in his day offered up a different explanation, which he brought from the Midrash Tanhuma, which was that our patriarch Jacob prophesized through God’s Divine Spirit that his descendants the Israelites would one day build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So Jacob brought cedars—he believed the acacia was a kind of cedar—down to Egypt with him, planted them, and instructed his children to take them along when they left.
According to Rashi’s answer, our ancestor Jacob showed foresight and anticipated the needs of a future generation and then went out of his way to plan for and provide for those needs. He did not personally have any need for cedars or acacia wood, nor did he personally reap any benefit from them. Moreover, schlepping wood and trees along may have seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance to his family and contemporaries. Yet Jacob knew that his descendants would need it—and for a sacred purpose, no less—so he went the extra mile to provide it for them. This kind of selflessness and foresight is not always common, so it’s not surprising to see that the Midrash attributes Jacob’s foresight to ruach ha-kodesh, Divinely inspired prophecy.
In a similar vein, some of us may be familiar with the oft-cited Talmudic legend of Honi ha-m’agel, Honi the circle maker, and the story of his encounter with a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks the man how long it takes for the tree to bear fruit, to which the man replies, “70 years." Honi, puzzled by this response and thus the seemingly illogical action this man is taking, asks further, “So, are you sure you’ll be living for another 70 years?” And to this inquiry, the man responds, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my children.” Honi then sits down to a meal, finishes eating, gets tired, and falls asleep for 70 years—according to the legend, no one found him in all that time because a rock formation grew around him and hid him from view. When he finally wakes up, sure enough, he sees a carob tree near him and a man picking fruit from the tree, prompting Honi to ask the man if he was the one who planted the tree. The man informed Honi that he was, in fact, the man’s grandson, to which Honi replies that now he knows he must have slept for 70 years. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)
In our own day and age, there are multiple parallels to Rashi’s midrashic explanation for how the Israelites obtained the acacia wood cited in our parasha and the Talmudic story of Honi and the man who planted the carob tree. First of all, the unnamed man in the story planted a carob tree so that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have fruit in their lifetime, and Jacob planted trees that his children would need some 400 years later. Thus, like Jacob in the midrash and the concerned carob-tree planter in the story, it is important that we remember to measure our choices and actions by their consequences that extend forward multiple generations hence, not just by our short-term wants and needs. This approach most certainly applies to taking care of our society, our environment, and our planet.
But this parallel is also apt for Judaism and our Jewish communities. Specifically, when we “build” our own Judaism and our synagogue communities, we need to be forward thinking and not reactive, avoiding the trap that I know I’ve paraphrased here before in the name of Rabbi Ed Feinstein—one of the rabbis here at Shearith back in the day--that American Jews are really good at building synagogues that their parents and grandparents would have loved. We have an unfortunate habit in the modern Jewish world of either looking backwards at “glory days” gone by or being content to tread water in the present. We should be satisfied with neither if we are really intent on creating a vibrant Jewish future. Yet it is important to note in this vein something that we also often lose sight of: our children and grandchildren can only inherit what we ourselves possess. If we don’t plant and cultivate nourishing trees of life, as it were, meaningful Jewish experiences for ourselves that engage and inspire us regularly through the weeks of our year, then what exactly are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? We want to bestow on them values and guidance that will help them in their Jewish journeys when they are ready, and Jewish memories they would want to hold on to and cherish like a treasured possession.
So this is the challenge we face, the delicate balance we must strive for: creating a living and evolving Judaism and synagogues and Jewish communities that both resonate with us AND will resonate with our children and grandchildren. And this week, and today in particular, we are witness to the nexus of this balance, with the presentation of Shearith’s Strategic Plan, “Ma’alot: Ascending New Heights” and our celebration in a few minutes of our Tiny Treasures, many of the new babies who have been born in our Shearith community during these last 12 months. The general focus of Ma’alot is to push us to build on the solid foundation we have already established at Shearith and move forward and upwards from here in all the broad areas of our congregational life and culture, inviting more participation and engagement and inspiring others to join in and rally around our mission, vision and values. This upward push towards creating an even more sacred community than the one we are already part of means involvement of all demographics in our congregation, from our eldest seniors, even 101 year old Alex Jonas who recently told his son Hylton how excited he was to see how much was going on at the shul, all the way down to our littlest babies and their families who we’ll be welcoming into the sanctuary momentarily. And, regardless of what demographic each of us fits into, it is these beautiful little babies and their sweet faces—well, when they’re not crying, anyway :) —that remind us what is at stake in the long run with the work we’re doing. We want these Tiny Treasures—our tiny treasures—to treasure the Judaism and the community that we are building and re-shaping for us and for them—and then, one day, to have that same foresight as our ancestor Jacob and the carob tree planter did and bequeath a compelling legacy, mission, and framework for living to their children and grandchildren. This is the holy responsibility we are holding in our hands at this crossroads. May we be worthy stewards of our tradition and our congregation for ourselves and for the generations who will follow us. AMEN.
D’var Torah for Strategic Plan Rollout Meeting 2/6/19
Congregation Shearith Israel
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Is anyone here familiar with the Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to light Hanukkah candles? The school of Shammai believed that we should start off with eight candles on the first night and then take away one candle per night until we’re left with only one candle plus the shamash, the helper candle, on the last night, whereas the school of Hillel opined that we should start with one candle on the first night and gradually increase by adding a candle a night until we have eight candles plus the shamash on the eighth and final night.
Well, I think we know how that one worked out—as was the case with all but a handful of the several hundred Talmudic debates between Hillel and Shammai, with Hillel coming out on top. But how many of us know the reasoning behind Hillel’s position for the Hanukkah candlelighting? His explanation is “ma’alin ba-kodesh, v’ein moridin”—when it comes to matters of holiness, we only increase or ascend, we don’t decrease. In the hanukkiah-lighting context it certainly intuitively makes sense that it would be more impressive and climactic to build to the finale of the full hanukkiah with eight candles plus the shamash burning brightly to illustrate the miracle of the oil that our sages said should have lasted for only one day but instead lasted for eight. But in his explanation Hillel doesn’t focus on that logical rationale that would be specific to the hanukkiah; instead, he focuses on this general principle, that when we’re dealing with sacred matters we want to keep reaching higher.
We do see other examples of this principle in play in our tradition, like in the symbolic choreography of the kedusha in the Amidah when we go up on our tiptoes three times as we pronounce the words from the prophet Isaiah, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tzeva’ot; M’lo kol ha-aretz K’vodo”---“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the earth is full of God’s glory,” like in the scripting of 15 Psalms, Psalms 120-134, with the introductory words, “Shir Ha’Ma’alot," “A song of ascents,” linked by the early rabbis to the ascent up the 15 steps where the Levites sang on their way up to the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps most well-known to all of us here today is the use of the term “Aliyah,” “going up.” to refer to someone who chooses to move from the Diaspora to Israel to make their life there, thus making a spiritual ascent to a different kind of life in our Jewish homeland.
It is in this same spirit of sanctity and holiness that we decided to title our new Strategic Plan “Ma’alot," “Ascending New Heights.” During this last year and a half our Strategic Plan Chairs, along with our Committee, Foundation chairs members, Klei Kodesh and staff have invested hundreds of hours of thought and effort in helping us hone in on and sharpen our focus and priorities for this next chapter of our congregation’s history. In doing so we have emerged with a Strategic Plan that we think you will find to be worthy of its aspirational title. We hope this plan will challenge us to build on our successes and what we’re already doing well, strive to live up to our new mission, vision and values statements, and also serve our congregants’ needs even better. We’ve already been making steady progress in revitalizing our congregation in recent years, but there are new and different heights for us to climb still as we rise to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of 21st century American Judaism.
We invite you to be our partners in this vital, and holy, effort as we push ourselves to be the type of Kehilla Kedosha, sacred community, we yearn for and are excited and energized to be a part of. Please click HERE if you are excited about our future and wish to help.
Todah Rabbah (Thank you!).
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
One of the most oft-cited passages from the Talmud is the text from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 which focuses on the significance of God creating all humanity from Adam, a single human being. According to the text, this teaches us that all people have a common ancestor, that no one can claim “my ancestor was greater than yours,” and that destroying a single life is akin to destroying the entire world, while saving even one single life is as if we have saved a whole world. This profound message, that every person matters equally, is one that, even today, close to 2000 years after the Mishnah was compiled, we still often struggle with putting into practice.
Good evening, and welcome to Congregation Shearith Israel! It is a great honor and privilege to be hosting all of you here at our congregation for this first of what we hope will be an annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, rotating in venue from year to year amongst different local houses of faith. I’m also honored to have been asked by my friends and colleagues on the planning committee for this service to present some remarks this evening on our theme of “Diverse in Faith, United in Gratitude”.
Last night we had a beautiful evening here at Shearith as we hosted the 1st Annual Greater Dallas Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Beck Family Sanctuary was filled with 400 people from Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations all over the area who came for a celebration of community and to reflect on the evening’s theme of “Diverse in Faith, United in Gratitude”.
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This past weekend was an incredible high for our family as we celebrated our daughter Elana’s Bat Mitzvah. We were so proud of Elana, the wonderful job she did, the poise she displayed, and her warmth that shone through. Moreover, we were so delighted and honored to be able to share this simcha with so many of you in addition to our out of town family and friends. Your presence and the outpouring of your love and support for Elana and for our family added so much to this experience and elevated our Shabbat and our weekend.
Sermon/Bat Mitzvah Charge for Elana
Parashat Chayei Sarah
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
At the end of last week’s parasha, Vayera, we experienced the harrowing and traumatic story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. The narrative relates to us, the readers, of God’s test of his faithful servant Abraham, demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, the beloved son of his old age and the key to the continuation of the lasting covenant that God had promised Abraham. Hearing God’s command, and despite any apprehension or doubt he may have felt at the incongruity of this demand with the covenantal promise, Abraham zealously gets up early, saddles his donkey, and sets off with Isaac on what Abraham initially can only assume will be a journey that will end in personal heartbreak, even if it simultaneously affirms his faith in God. And what does Isaac know or understand about this journey? Not much, it would appear, until the third day, when Abraham and Isaac separate from the two servants who were travelling with them and take the wood, the firestone, and the knife and continue their trek alone, with Isaac himself bearing the burden of the wood while Abraham carries the firestone and the knife, “vayelchu shneyhem yachdav”, “and the two of them walked on together”. It is only at this juncture that Isaac begins to wonder what is happening here, as he notices that they have the instruments necessary for a sacrifice, but they are missing the most critical element of all: a sheep.
The joy and serenity of our Shabbat was pierced this morning with the news of the killing of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. This afternoon, what we no doubt suspected was confirmed by city officials: that this heinous act of cruelty was borne out of hatred for our people, our values, and our way of life.
This sermon was given on Erev Yom Kippur by Rabbis Sunshine, Roffman & Wallach
On Erev Yom Kippur, our prayers begin to slip the earthly bonds of gravity. By the conclusion of this most sacred day, they are propelled straight through the gates of heaven. And what guides their way? A ladder.
Ya’ale tachanuneinu me’erv, v’yavo shavatenu mi’boker, v’yera’eh rinuneinu ad e’rev.
There’s a story told about a man who was walking down Sderot Rothschild, one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, when all of a sudden he had a heart attack and immediately lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he looked around and found himself standing at the entrance to a hotel with impeccably groomed lawns, a magnificent pool with a lazy river, a lobby generously decorated with beautiful white marble, and a restaurant with a mouth-watering buffet clearly visible from the lobby. The man was at once excited to see all of these sights, and also puzzled as to where he was. So he went up to the reception desk and inquired, “where am I?”, to which the manager on duty replied, “you’re in heaven.” The man was still processing this amazing response when suddenly he was jarred awake by the current coming from defibrillator paddles on his chest. He was relieved to gradually discern that he had been revived and was very much still alive, but in the back of his mind he still recalled this incredible vision of what lay in store for him in heaven when his time ultimately came.
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