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The Aftermath (Sermon for the Poway Chabad Synagogue)

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Parashat Acharei Mot 2019 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Aftermath 
Vayidom Aharon’ – ‘and Aaron was silent’.
Thus the Torah tells us, three parshiyot ago, before Parashat Tazria, Metzora and even our Parashah today, Acharei Mot. In Parashat Shemini, we read the chilling account of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. In a cryptic incident, they offer ‘aish zarah’, ‘alien fire’ upon the altar. Many commentators condemn them for defiling the newly-inaugurated Tabernacle through an unaccounted offering. Some commentators, like the Ohr haChaim, praise their initiative of religious enthusiasm and devotion. Be what may, God strikes the two young Priests down. Moses offers a strange response to the tragedy: “This is what the Eternal meant when God said, ‘through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people’.” (Lev. 10:3) Was Moses offering words of consolation or criticism? Was he channelings God’s condemnation or approval of the ‘aish zarah’, the strange fire? T…

Broken Tablets - The Torah of Trauma

Sermon Ki Tissa 2019 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Torah of Trauma 
One of the most stunning lines from Psalms comes from Psalm 148: ‘HaRofeh lishvurey lev umechabesh le’atzvotam’ – ‘God is the Healer of the brokenness of heart and the binder of their wounds.’ 
Brokenness is a universal human experience: everyone has encountered brokenness in their lives, their world or in themselves. Of course, while brokenness is the great leveler, our experience of brokenness is not a level playing field. Some of us are subjected to greater trauma than others; some of us may have more access or resources to heal from or repair the brokenness we face. Nonetheless, I’d wager to say that as I give this sermon, there will a number of you who are encouraged to reflect on what is broken in your lives. It seems as inevitable as death. 
To the mystical Kabbalists of the late Medieval period, brokenness was not just as inevitable as death but also inevitable to life. According to these esoteric thinkers, including…

Seeking Out The Grays

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Parashat Mishpatim Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Seeking Out The Grays
One of the things that my husband and I love about America is passion and vision of the American people. As we like to joke among ourselves, Americans don’t do anything in half-measures. Coming from a culture of placid consensus-building for which we efven have an administrative term – ‘the polder model’ (named after Dutch reclaimed land, polders) – it is clear to us that Americans have fire in their bones and it makes this new country vibrant, innovative and inspiring.
As our current timeframe has become more polarized, American passions, for better or worse, have become more inflamed. We can notice this not only in the febrile news cycle but also in our daily interactions. Some of this is a blessing: people are more civically engaged, voter turnout is higher and it forces all of us to confront complex issues. At the same time, there’s no denying that these are draining and fraught times and Internet connectivity and online…

It's About Us

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Sermon Vayetzei 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
It is About Us


While I am sure every generation feels the weight of its own history, there is no denying that recent global and national events press upon us. So many overused metaphors come to mind: a refiner’s fire, an alchemist’s crucible, as we must distill what we value down to its essence. These times focus our attention and remind us, grudgingly perhaps, that ‘aleinu’, it is up to us.  
I suspect many of us are still sorting and sifting through our emotions. I know I am. As we contend with complex issues of polarization, hatred, the call for increased security, the inability to speak to difference and the myriad reflections on our American Jewish identities, one thing stands out clearly for me as a non-Orthodox, ‘Reformative’ rabbi.
This is the hour of our Judaism. 
Reflecting on the Pittsburgh massacre, we can see that the congregations of Etz Haim Synagogue shares many of our values. Anti-Semitism is not just the hatred of individual Jew…

A Torah of Life: Post-Pittsburgh Thoughts

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Friday Night Sermon Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
A Torah of Life: Post-Pittsburgh Thoughts

Brothers and sisters, acheinu v’achyoteinu,
In our weekly reading of the Torah, we are approaching the center point, the fulcrum, of the book of Genesis. Parashat Chayyei Sarah focuses on chapters 23 to 25 and deals with the aftermath of Sarah’s death. The Midrash suggests that Sarah died a traumatic death after hearing about her son Isaac’s near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah. As we can see, this is part of Genesis that addresses some of the experiences, concerns and questions that we are sitting with as a community tonight: death, mourning, trauma, fear, healing, celebrating life, honoring, rebuilding. Love, hope, legacy, vision, future. In fact, the portion is capped by the two deaths of our giants: Sarah at the start of the reading and Abraham at the end. In between, we witness a match being made between Rebecca and Isaac and reconciliation being found at the foot of Abraham’s grave between Ishmael and Is…

A Measure of Sodom

Parashat Vayera 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Characteristic of Sodom
The following story is entirely based on the sacred texts of our tradition: Torah and Midrash.
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A pale sun hung low in the sky, casting long shadows on the proud edifices and statues framing the Central Square, etching forbidding lines into the pale, sleek marble, muting its gold detail. It was Spring[1], but with the waning of the day, a biting chill returned. Lot wrapped his grey coat tighter around him, plunging his left hand deeper into his coat pocket, while the fingers of his right hand nervously tracked his phone screen. He read the headlines and glanced around him. Tall, imposing screens mounted on the faces of the buildings blared out the news. 
There was no shortage of opinions in this town, he grimly thought, each and every single one of them more horrific than the last. The media; broadcast, print, internet – it didn’t matter – glorified lies and cruelties. All propaganda from the City States. Lies about…

Louisville/Pittsburgh Vigil: From Where Does Our Help Come?

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Vigil for Louisville and Pittsburgh, 30thOctober 2018, Iowa City Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Shir la’amot – A song of ascents. Essa einai el he’harim– I lift my eyes to the mountains Me’ayin yavo ezri– from where will my help come?
Dear brothers and sisters, 
I’m an immigrant. Unlike many American children, I did not grow up watching ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’ as a child. I was blessed to discover Mr. Rogers’ television ministry of humanitarian kindness as an adult and it has given me succor during turbulent times. 
Mr. Rogers’ mythical television neighborhood – a place of hope and love - was set in Squirrel Hill, the Neighborhood where the Etz Chaim– Tree of Life – Synagogue stands. 
There is a now-famous story that Mr. Rogers would share the comfort his own mother gave him. He said:
“’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many hel…