By Rabbi Adam Roffman
I realized the other day that I probably spend six months thinking about the High Holidays and six months thinking about Purim.
Seems a little strange that a relatively minor holiday should take up so much of my consciousness over the course of a year, but it’s true. I start thinking about what my Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sermon topics should be in April and gather my thoughts and sources over the course of the summer so that, by August, I’m ready to start writing.
And right after Sukkot, we decide, as a staff, what our theme should be for Purim and my mind gets to work on imagining skits and videos and costumes (and this year a Broadway style show!) A month out, I start to write, and record and edit film, and plot about how much I can get away with when I ask the other Klei Kodesh to make a fool of themselves for our community’s entertainment (and they always oblige!) at the Family Megillah Reading. Shira contributes a great deal of the material (and does an incredible job of keeping me calm).
And if you think that’s a lot of work, it’s nothing compared to what the rest of the staff and the rest of the community puts in to making this an incredible celebration.
Katie Babin organized nine separate bakes that produced 3500 hamantashen so that, for the first time, we delivered homemade goodies, preservative free, and made with love to each and every member home. Our WFRS kids helped out as well. Their restraint in keeping themselves from eating the fruits of their labor was remarkable.
Between the hamantashen and Mishloach Manot deliveries (which was GPS-aided by a new mapping application this year!) over 200 people volunteered (special thanks to our chairs, Jennifer Charney, Scott Cobert and Andrea Steiger) to fulfill the mitzvah of sharing food packages with neighbors for Purim. Our entire administrative staff also volunteers their time to staple, stuff, and organize our bags. And of course, we received so many generous donations from our community, so that we can continue to put on efforts like this year after year.
Katie also works with Sarah Katz and Julie Carpenter to design signs and decorations to transform our sanctuary and social halls into superhero lairs, or Dr. Seuss books, or Hogwarts, and this year—a Broadway theatre. Sarah Lipinsky spends several weeks getting our students ready, this year helping them to organize booths for the younger children to enjoy.
And Nathan and his crew get all the moving pieces in the right places and the right times.
Needless to say, hundreds and hundreds of hours go into making this a very joyful and special day.
This year, everyone has really outdone themselves. I’m especially excited for our Family megillah reading this year, which will feature amazing performances of some my Broadway favorites featuring our Klei Kodesh and special guests. The curtain goes up promptly at 6:30 pm in the Beck Family Sanctuary. Don’t be late for the show!
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
One of the things that I love about being Jewish is that we are commanded to feel.
God tells us that we must love Him. The Torah teaches us that we must be joyful on Festivals like Sukkot. And our sages insist that, even at a wedding, we should hold some sadness in our hearts for the sufferings of our people.
For me, Judaism is often like a very powerful mood drug. Even if I’m commanded to feel sorrow, I’m grateful, because I know the emotion it evokes is an appropriate and even a productive one.
We are now most of the way through the month of Adar I (this a leap year, so there are two months of Adar), a time associated with the ancient saying, “mi shenichnas adar marbim b’simcha” – those who embrace the month of Adar merit an overabundance of joy. For thirteen days, we anticipate the raucous celebration of Purim, and in the two weeks following we bask in the afterglow of one of the sweetest and most festive days of the Jewish year.
But as you can imagine, maintaining this joyful countenance for a month straight—and this year for two months—is quite a challenge. The natural high of entering into this season only lasts so long. So, I often find myself looking ahead, planning moments of joy to ensure that I wear a smile on my face for as much of Adar as possible.
This past Shabbat, we certainly succeeded in creating a moment of great happiness for our community. As we welcomed Dr. Benjamin Sommer, our Scholar-In-Residence, we also marked the first of what I hope will be many annual Shabbatot dedicated to the memory of Irene Kogutt, z’ll, a beloved figure in our community.
Irene was a devoted member of our Shabbat morning Torah Study class, the Topletz Minyan, and our Adult Education classes for many years. She also made an extra effort to study on her own, with her chevruta Susan Ehrlich, in anticipation of her adult Bat-Mitzvah, no doubt one of the most joyful days of her life.
That Irene so steadfastly pursued the mitzvah of Torah study was reason enough to honor her, thanks the generosity of her family and the many of our members who contributed to the Kogutt fund for Scholars-In-Residence in her memory.
But what was also so fitting about this past Shabbat was that it fell right in the middle of the month of Adar.
If the practice of Judaism is a mood drug, a surefire way to lift your spirits, so was the occasion of spending time with Irene. Except for the times when she expressed serious concern about my parenting skills (which, fortunately, was not too often), Irene always, always, had a smile on her face. She made the study of Torah joyful through her presence, her curiosity, and her infectious spirit. Even today, more than a year after her passing, it is impossible not to think of her and smile – even grin.
This month, I pray that we continue to find ways of marking our time with joy – by honoring and remembering those we love, by committing ourselves to the study of our tradition, and by giving ourselves over to the celebration and the revelry of the season of Purim.
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.
Many of you have heard me talk about my zaydie, the rabbi, who was born in Germany and marked his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power. You’ve heard me talk about his Bar Mitzvah tefillin, one of the only possessions that made it through the journey north to Liverpool, across the Atlantic to Toronto, to Saskatoon, to a suburb of Cleveland, and then finally, to Orlando, where my zaydie sat with me when I was just eight years old, and gave them to me.
If there’s one thing we Jews can agree on, it's that the Ten Commandments are the most important commandments in the Torah, right?
Not so fast.
Sure, murder is really wrong, and honoring your parents is very important and Judaism wouldn’t be a monotheistic religion if idol worship was permitted. But it doesn’t say anywhere in Parashat Yitro, the account of the revelation at Sinai that we read this week, that these mitzvot should be prioritized above all others. Nor is the punishment for coveting your neighbor's wife or stealing as severe as the one for eating chametz on Passover (for which the offender is “cut off” from the Jewish people and from God).
by Rabbi Adam Roffman
While driving around Dallas this week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Dr. Duane Bidwell, a professor at the Claremont School of Divinity. The topic of the interview was his new book, When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritual Fluidity. His argument, essentially, was that there are a growing number of Americans who don’t identify themselves as being solely Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish but rather a combination of different religions. While much of this 21st century phenomenon is the result of intermarriage (he cites marriage between Jews and Christians as a primary example,) he argues that in today’s society it is becoming more and more acceptable to take on a much less dogmatic, more flexible religious identity.
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.
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine and the Klei Kodesh
As we reconvene in these coming days and weeks, we want to share with you a few important changes in our ritual life that you will notice when you come to shul. Our first core value in our new vision statement is that we are a caring community—one that is inclusive, warm, and welcoming to members and guests. We believe that each of these changes will help ensure that each soul who walks into our building, and participates in the life of our community, can see themselves represented in our rituals and liturgy. We also believe that these new initiatives will make our services more accessible and inviting, building and strengthening connections between each of us and our tradition and between us and our fellow congregants.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share