Showing posts from November, 2017

A Theology of Thanksgiving

Parashat Vayetze 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
A Theology of Thanksgiving
For the last few weeks, we have engaged in a ‘character study’ of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The stories of Genesis are not only accounts of their triumphs and innovations but also reports of their flaws and sensitivities. It is this that gives our stories staying power: we are not a tradition of saints but of human beings and we can all find ourselves in the experiences of our ancestors.
Parashat Vayetzeh, as well as Vayishlach and Vayeshev are illustrative of Jacob’s story arc. In fact, the name of each parashah – Vayetzeh (‘and he went out’), Vayishlach {‘and he sent’) and Vayeshev (‘and he dwelt’) are themselves microcosms of Jacob’s growth, from a fleeing con-artist and troublemaker to a God-wrestler and ultimately, as someone who settles into wholeness and peace, ready to bless and charge the next generation with the Abrahamic mission.
Vayetzeh focuses on Jacob’s early and dark days. The renown Torah sc…

When It All Falls Apart

Parashat Toldot 2017 Rabbi Esther  Hugenholtz
When It All Falls Apart
Rosh haShanah seems like a lifetime away as we are inching towards Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. On the first evening of Rosh haShanah, I gave a sermon exploring what kind of Jews we would hope to be, bringing in three Biblical patriarchs as my paradigmatic proof-text. I spoke about Abraham ‘ha’Ivri’, the boundary-crosser. Jacob, ‘Yisrael’, the God-wrestler and Judah, ‘Yehudah’, the grateful one. These men represent the first, third and fourth generations of the Abrahamic mission respectively. And perhaps you are wondering what I left out.
During Rosh haShanah, we want to posit our boldest visions of what we hope to be. Rosh haShanah is aspirational. We aspire to remake ourselves, to shape our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, to set ourselves newer and loftier goals, to become the best versions of ourselves. The High Holidays are the days for the spiritually audacious, where each one of us is challenged to escape the medi…

Love is Stronger than Death

Sermon Chayyei Sarah 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Love is Stronger than Death
One of the most beautiful verses from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) is ‘ki azah chamavet ahavah’ - ‘for love is stronger than death’ (8:6).
I had been asked to attend a funeral of a local Lutheran Iowa woman as a proxy for her beloved grandson who is a dear friend of mine. The pastor, who had been a personal friend of the deceased, delivered a beautiful and heartfelt homily on her life, integrity and love of God. Being invited to witness this moment of transcendence and intimacy and supporting a mourning family was a privilege. As I sat in the pews something else struck me. This salt-of-the-earth Midwestern pastor, himself in his mid-eighties, spoke with great love and tenderness. For a man of his generation, speaking about tenderness, love and intimacy may not have been the cultural trope of his upbringing and I realized what a great gift our faith traditions give us: the gift of articulating our deepest thoug…

The Abrahamic Story

Parashat Lech Lecha 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Abrahamic Story
It is when I get to parshiyot (portions) like Lech Lecha, that I experience a mild, existential panic. There is so much to say, and so little time to say it.
As a darshanit (preacher), I have to take a deep breath and tell myself: there is time. There is time to unravel the intricacies of the text; there is time to continue building a relationship with our community so that we can explore this text from its many angles, like circling a palace to find its many doors. There is time to unpick how the text speaks to us now, to acknowledge Abraham’s bold mission in its full force and to ponder how we may build upon his legacy as a Jewish community a proverbial four millennia down the line.
‘Turn in it and turn it it again and again’, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Father) states. Our Torah is multifaceted, multilayered, textual, contextual and waiting to be ‘drashed’ by all of us, regardless of our background or experience. Torah …

All Is Relative

Sermon Parashat Noach 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
All is Relative
During Yom Kippur, I gave a D’var Torah that contrasted the characters of Jonah and Abraham. Jonah, I argued, was a direct reversal of some of Abraham’s most praiseworthy qualities as we examined a prophet who was told to minister to Nineveh but who did so with considerable reluctance and judgement. Meanwhile, the Jewish tradition holds up Abraham as a paragon of virtue: compassionate, brave and visionary, he is the exemplar of Jewish ethical monotheism as he challenges God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham himself, of course, knew his own darker sphere, expressed through that morally inexplicable account of the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac. Even so, in the taste test of Great Biblical Heroes, Abraham comes out on top.
In a sense, the Torah invites us to play a similar game between Abraham and Noach. Consider this Round Two, if you will. Parashat Noach is an extensive Torah portion that stretches from t…

Dreaming of Electronic Gods

Parashat B’reishit 2017, Agudas Achim Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Dreaming of Electronic Gods
As some of you may know, I have the foolhardy habit of blogging, sharing and tweeting my sermons. Usually, they languish in the dark corners of the internet, dying a quiet death. Last year, however, I wrote and consequently blogged a sermon for Parashat B’reishit on the Singularity and to my surprise, it garnered some retweets and comments about the usefulness to see a rabbinic perspective on a science-fiction topic. The thrust of my sermon then was that we can not only read the Creation story in Book of Genesis allegorically as describing a mythical past but perhaps even describing a fictional future. Being a lover of science-fiction, I discussed the frequently dystopian nature of science-fiction and what this may say about our collective psyche as a culture. I wrote the following: “Most of us don’t live with a literal understanding of the Bible in general and the Creation story in Genesis in partic…