Showing posts from September, 2018

All is One: the Jewish Path to Embodied Sanctity

Sermon Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
There are many legends and responses to the phenomenon of the lulav. Karaites (Jews who only follow Mikra, Scripture, and not the Oral Law, or Talmud) will dwell in booths during Sukkot but not bless the lulav, which they see as a rabbinic innovation. Likewise, Samaritans who were separated from the ancient Israelites after exile and war and only have the Torah, do not use a lulav either and dwell under canopies of fruit suspended in their homes. There are even some Reform and Reconstructionist Jews who have reinvented the lulav. Critiquing the economic and environmental costs of lulavim and etrogim, they have chosen to source local plants and fruits in a direct fulfillment of the Biblical commandment, yet in contravention of the classical Halakhah. All these are creative responses to an inherent tension: what are we to make of this rather strange and arcane ritual of shaking willow branches, myrtle, a palm frond and a Chine…

High Holiday Sermons + Musical Theme + Reading List (5779 / 2018)

This High Holiday cycle, I chose the theme 'V'heyeh B'rachah - Be a Blessing' based on the blessing God gave Abraham in Genesis chapter 12.

The theme 'V'heyeh B'rachah - Be a Blessing' was incorporated musically throughout the High Holidays by Linda Wertz and myself. Linda Wertz and I 'retro-engineered' the melody of 'El Na Refa Na La' composed by Daphna Rosenberg and Nave Agmon from Israeli worship band 'Nava Tehila', and fit (some) of the words of Gen. 12 to the tune. You can listen/watch the video of us playing/singing the song here.

My sermon series focused on the first three versus of Genesis chapter 12 where Abraham (then still Abram) is charged with his mission:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.
וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, …

Sermonette Ne'ilah: 'Veheyeh B'rachah' - Be A Blessing

Sermonette Ne’ilah Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
‘Veheyeh B’rachah’ – Be A Blessing. 
A blessing is a curious thing. To be a blessing even more so. A blessing is not a gratuitous gift. A blessing is not an indulgence, a luxury of the soul. A blessing, rather, is that great synthesis between joy and covenant. We cannot be a blessing: to ourselves, to our households, our communities, the Land of Israel and to the world entire, if we do not find our sense of purpose
No other argument in Judaism – of fear and loyalty, of continuity and cohesion – will be compelling in today’s world, where choice is a fractal upon fractal of more choice, where we have a thousand doors to open and a thousand reasons to walk away. 

This is why ‘veheyeh b’rachah’ and ‘lech lecha’are intimately connected. 

The fulcrum is the land we are to be shown and the blessing to the families of the Earth that we are called to be. How we can ask the question of how we can give back to this great religious civilization of ours, span…

Yom Kippur Sermon: To A Land That I Will Show You

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
To A Land That I Will Show You
Imagine a cat in a box. How do we know whether the cat is alive or dead? This paradox is part of a thought experiment that physicists dub ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ and it is used to explain the basic principle of quantum mechanics, the idea that a something can be both a particle or a wave and that, bizarrely, our perception can affect reality. 
Perhaps our Jewish future is like Schroedinger’s Cat: whether we live or die, thrive or decline, is a matter of perception. Abraham had to journey into the great Unknown: ‘el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘to a land that I will show you’.  He was called to draw on all his inner resources and vision in order to heed that vision. 
The commentators analyzing that crucial verse – ‘to a land that I will show you’ wrestle with that quantum state also. What are the implications of being sent on one’s shlichutbut without knowing the full consequence of one’s journey? It is a question t…

Kol Nidre Sermon: Our Father's House

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon 2018 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Our Father’s House
Vayomer Adonai el Avram lech lecha m’artz’cha umimolad’t’cha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa… veheyeh b’racha’. ‘And the Eternal said to Avram, go from yourself, from your homeland, the place of your birth, and your father’s house to a land that I will show you… and you shall be a blessing.’
This High Holiday cycle, we are exploring this verse as we try to understand and answer the charge of ‘veheyeh b’rachah’, of how we can be a blessing. Our previous sermonic journeys have forayed into the territory of the soul. ‘Lech lecha’ - we have ventured into ourselves, and reached for our deepest purpose because, as I said during my sermon for Shabbat Shuvah: we cannot live Jewish lives by instinct alone: we are called to make Judaism our own and ascribe to it a higher mission. When we discover how we want to shape our lives and take ownership of our Judaism, we can act with generosity, with confidence and hope,…

Hidden and Revealed

Sermon Shabbat Shuvah Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Hidden and Revealed
I’m going to make a parenting confession: I found myself out of my depth.
I was playing with my son the and he was a king (with a gold paper crown) who locked me up in his castle. As the occupant of his ‘dungeon’, I asked him why he was locking me up. ‘Because you were bad.’ Ah, said I, is there a way for me to get out of the dungeon by being good? Yes, he said, as he sprang the pretend-gate and I was set free. My son is a benevolent ruler and my freedom was returned to me. In Hebrew we would call this ‘matir asurim’, ‘who frees the bound.’ Me, seeing a teaching moment in this, started talking about the kingship metaphor; how God is the King or Queen of the Universe and how the High Holidays are about us stopping being bad and turning to goodness.
Before I knew it, I had painted myself in a theological corner. The metaphor worked well; my five-year-old got the basic principles of teshuvah; of saying sorry, making things bet…

Rosh haShanah Sermon 5779 #2: Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Rosh haShanah Sermon #2  Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Vayomer Adonai el Avram lech lecha m’artz’cha umimolad’t’cha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa… veheyeh b’racha’. ‘And the Eternal said to Avram, go from yourself, from your homeland, the place of your birth, and your father’s house to a land that I will show you… and you shall be a blessing.’
Last night, I spoke about this beginning of blessing, of how we are framing the High Holidays around this verse from the Torah and explore it. We are going to read that verse and sit with it, savor it, live with it and make it our own.
What does it mean to go ‘from yourself, from your homeland, the place of your birth and your father’s house?’ Surely, the Torah could have sufficed in saying ‘lech m’artz’cha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘go from your land to the land that I will show you.’ We normally assume that the Torah’s language is efficient and focused, so if the Torah uses a more expanded syntax, it means we are…