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Let It Shine

(This article was first published in the Sinai Chronicle, publication of Sinai Reform Synagogue, Leeds)
Jewish holidays are strange, really – topsy turvy if you will. During the bright heat of summer, usually a happy and relaxing time, we mourn the destruction of the Temple and the many ills that have befallen the Jewish people during Tisha b’Av. During the autumn when the wheel of the year spins towards sleepy endings, Rosh haShanah celebrates new beginnings. During Sukkot, we subject our vulnerable selves to the fickle elements of autumn. During the verdant abundance of spring with plenty of fresh foods to enjoy, we honour Pesach with dietary restrictions and contemplations on the meaning of freedom. And now, after a welcome repose offered by the quiet month of Cheshvan, we will find that Chanukkah is not all that different.
In the darkest months, Chanukkah is all about light. On a practical and psychological level, this makes sense. Like other winter festivals such as Christmas and D…

Parashat Vayeshev

Sermon Glasgow Reform Synagogue
Passion and Restraint
Like every good story, B’reishit is assembling the stage for a final drama: the settling of the B’nei Yisrael in Egypt. When the book of Shemot opens, we all know what happens next. ‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph’ (Gen. 1:8) and soon the Israelites are enslaved and embittered by hard labour. The Joseph Story is a bridge, where adventures of individuals become the fate of nations. Joseph forms the fulcrum between B’reishit and Shemot.
But there is more to Joseph than that. He, like his father Jacob, is a passionate and proud man. But unlike his ancestors, Joseph knows restraint.
Restraint, especially when pertaining to matters of intimacy, is a recurring theme in this part of the Torah. The examples of this are many. Jacob is forced to work another seven years for his beloved Rachel. Reuben fails to restrain himself when he sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Chamor, the son of Shechem fails to…

Parashat Vayishlach

Sermon Sinai Synagogue Parashat Vayishlach Esther Hugenholtz
Overcoming Our Fears
Like many of the Torah’s characters, Jacob invites feelings of ambivalence on part of the reader. On the one hand, we feel a certain warmth and reference towards him – he is one of our patriarchs, after all. On the other hand, Jacob elicits a less charitable response as well. He is a perennial trickster, a conman, a thief of birthrights and a breaker of women’s hearts. Does he do justly, we are left to wonder. He dupes his ‘all brawn-but-very-little brain’ brother Esau out of his birthright. Then his uncle Laban tricks Jacob in return. Swapping Leah for his beloved Rachel at his wedding, demanding an extra seven years’ hard labour. Jacob does gets his own back. He in turn swindles Laban. Meanwhile, his wives vie for his attention and clamour for his love. Just as Jacob and Laban have a stand-off through the amount of livestock they can produce, Leah and Rachel, with the help of mandrakes and handmaids engage…

Parashat Vayera

Sermon for Sinai Synagogue, Parashat Vayera
It’s Always Time for Tea Time
I have a problem: I am addicted. I always had an inclination towards this substance but it is you Brits who’ve send me over the edge. It is readily available and always on offer. It’s affordable, indulgent and easy. How can I say no... to a cup of tea?
Tea is everywhere. A gentle cup of Earl Grey wakes me up in the morning and a stout cup of Yorkshire tea sees me through a long day of classes. And there’s always a moment for a ginger infusion just before bed. I simply cannot express how much I love tea. And I have Britain to thank (and blame) for it. There are many things to love about tea. There’s the obvious perk of caffeine, the nectar and ambrosia of graduate students and office dwellers alike. There’s the comfort of a steaming ceramic mug held in cupped hands. There’s the pomp and ceremony of a proper Afternoon Tea. And like most converts, I am a bit fanatic about it. I probably love tea more than the British.…

Sermon Chol haMoed Sukkot

Sermon Sukkot Chol haMoed Leo Baeck College mailinglist / Birmingham Liberal Community Esther Hugenholtz
Embracing the Elements
I have a confession to make. I am a rather bad Dutchwoman, my love for tulips and cheese notwithstanding. The reason why I fail to live up to the hardy reputation of my countrymen is that I hate winter. I detest the cold that seeps into your bones and the darkness that shuts down the days. No matter how many scarves, hats, gloves and coats I put on, winter still overcomes me.
My discomfort for winter sets in during high summer. As soon as the 21st of June – the longest day of the year - has passed, I bitterly remark to myself that it’s downhill from here. The days will only get shorter and there is no cause for optimism until the year swings back to April.
I know I am not the only one. Frustrations with our dismal climate become all the more pronounced during Sukkot. While our fellow Jews in Israel are enjoying bright days and balmy nights in their sukkot, there is…

Kol Nidrey Sermon: From the Bottom Up

Kol Nidrey Sermon, Sinai Synagogue Leeds Esther Hugenholtz
From the Bottom Up
“”Why have we fasted if God does not see? Why afflict ourselves if God does not pay heed?” Because on the day of our fast we put our business first and force our workers to labour”. - Adaption of Isaiah 57:3
Alessio Rastani got what he wanted; his proverbial ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. And like most instant-celebrities, all he had to do was appear on national television. Rastani is nobody particularly remarkable. He is a minor City trader who emerged from oblivion through a well-timed and intelligent use of sound bites. Rastani’s main achievement was his ability to address the confusion about the current economic Crisis. Dressed in a slick grey suit and a too-fashionable pink tie, the well-groomed trader seemed to enjoy his place in the spotlight when interviewed by the BBC.
What was especially striking about Rastani’s account was not his articulate summary of the current malaise but his own glib, nihilistic commenta…

Rosh haShanah sermon: The King and the Lighthouse

Rosh haShanah Sermon 2011, Sinai Synagogue Leeds Esther Hugenholtz
The King and the Lighthouse
Once upon a time, there was a traveller.
He travelled from place to place, wearing his cloak and staff thin, dust clinging to his sandals. He had been sent out on a mission he did not yet fully comprehend but he knew it was for good.
Curiosity drove him. A precocious child, he asked his elders daring questions. ‘Why do we worship the moon, sun and stars? Did not Someone else create them?’ He wanted to search out Who that Presence was, the Prime Mover, the radical Ground of Being.
He wanted no more of his father Terach’s idolatrous ways. Unimpressed by the clay figures he had smashed in his father’s shop, he packed his meagre belongings and set out westwards in search of the one God. A beautiful young woman caught his eye. Intelligent and strong, she too, had a deep moral understanding of the world. Not before long, Sarai pledged to marry him.
For years, they had been travelling. They pitched camp …

Parashat Ki Tavo

Leo Baeck College Sermon Ki Tavo Esther Hugenholtz
The Fruits of Our Joy
It’s easy for Jews to feel overwhelmed during the month of Elul, especially for us ‘professional Jews’. We fret about how many sermons we still have to research and write, we stress over the amount of liturgy we have to practice and we agonise over our own feelings of inadequacy when it comes to facilitating our own ‘teshuvah’ during this time of good deeds and introspection.
There is a measure of irony in this month of Elul-induced angst. It seems that the more we throw ourselves into the process of creating meaning for others, the higher the risk is that we neglect to create meaning for ourselves. We feel unbalanced. Between the heftiness of crafting a d’rasha with the necessary gravitas and managing the logistical challenges of the High Holy Days, we lose sight of what is most important: existential joy.
This week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, opens with an unfolding consciousness of existential joy. ‘...ki tavo el ha’aretz…

Parashat Chukat

Birmingham Liberal Community Esther Hugenholtz
Parashat Chukkat
Trust
Do you remember that game in school where you had to close your eyes and allow yourself fall backwards in the arms of your classmates? This exercise was geared to build trust, one of the most elusive and difficult human emotions.
Why is it so hard to trust? We can be prideful and angry, lazy and greedy. But somehow, these are aspects of ourselves that we can chisel away at to improve. Slowly but surely we can resolve to become better individuals by turning inwards and finding the strength to implement our highest ideals about ourselves. But trusting is hard. In the ocean of trust, no man is an island. We always trust in relation to another. We need each other to trust.
This week’s parashah is all about trust. On the surface, this week’s reading appears to deal with disparate themes: the odd purification rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer, Moses striking the rock, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the refusal of…

Parashat Korach

Parashat Korach Esther Hugenholtz Herefortshire Liberal Community
Empowerment, Not Entitlement
When I was about to set off for university, my mother made me some golden promises. ‘It will be the best time of your life’.
A ‘flower child’ of the late 1960’s, university had engendered that promise for her. For her it was a time of empowerment, self-discovery, of a mapping out of her democratic ideals which formed the ethics of my upbringing.
University did fulfil that promise for me also. I became a student activist, read political literature, went on marches, and sought answers to the big questions in life. I was invited to nurture my intellect, encouraged to stand up for my beliefs and, most importantly, to be grateful for the privilege of exercising my basic human rights.
Freedom of speech, assembly and the ballot. All these things are infinitely precious and should be cherished by any civilised society. As it is infinitely precious, our freedom is also quite delicate.
Given this pe…

Parashat Beha'alot'cha

A Taste of Limmud Parashat Beha’alot’cha
Roadmap
The vacation season has arrived and many will hit the road. In days past, it would have been tempting to bicker over a wrong turn or missing a crucial exit. Today we are lucky to have the foolproof technology of a GPS to guide us.
Parashat Beha’alot’cha provides the Children of Israel with their GPS and presents us with a microcosm of the spiritual roadmap that is Torah. We read a seemingly chaotic text which brims with a large number of events. Our weekly reading starts out with instructions for the Menorah, then describes the duties of the Levites, only to follow with offering the second chance of ‘Pesach Sheni’. Then the narrative informs us of the guidance of the ‘Anan’, the Cloud of Glory which rests over the Tabernacle, the spiritual compass of the Israelite community. Further on, it mentions the construction of silver trumpets to organise the community, and Moses’ management crash course instructing him to delegate seventy elders to…

Farao in het centrum van de macht

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Dit artikel verscheen eerder in het Pesach-nummer van Levend Joods Geloof.
Farao in het centrum van de macht
In de hagada vertelt Rabban Gamliel, een beroemde geleerde uit de Misjna, ons dat ieder van ons in elke generatie verplicht is zichzelf te beschouwen alsof hij of zij persoonlijk uit de Egyptische slavernij is verlost. Hiermee zegt de joodse traditie dat deze niet alleen draait om mooie verhalen en abstracte concepten, maar dat die ook toetsbaar hoort te zijn aan onze hedendaagse ervaringen.
In het welvarende Nederland lijkt deze opdracht moeilijk te vervullen. We leven vooralsnog in voorspoed en democratie (en moeten ons als joodse gemeenschap actief inzetten om deze waarden te bewaken). Hierdoor verwordt het gebod uit de hagada echter al snel tot een oefening in abstractie. Toch is dit jaar anders dan voorgaande jaren. De metafoor haalt de werkelijkheid in. Life imitates art, als het ware. De revoluties in de Arabische wereld laten ons zien dat ook hedendaagse farao’s verdreven …

Uitstel van executie

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Deze column verscheen eerder in april 2011 op Nieuw W!J.

Het was een echte politieke soap voor mij de afgelopen dagen. Ik zat zo’n beetje elk uur gekluisterd aan een computer in de bibliotheek van mijn rabbinaal seminarie. Enigszins obsessief compulsief checkte ik de websites van de grote kranten. De vraag van de week was of ik nog wel mijn kosjere kippetje kan blijven eten wat met veel liefde en respect op de Sjabbattafel placht te verschijnen.

Op initiatief van de Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD) werd een wetsvoorstel gelanceerd om het ‘onbedwelmde’ rituele slachten te verbieden. De term ‘onbedwelmd’ is op zich al een sterk staaltje Orwelliaans-populistisch woordgymnastiek. De reguliere ‘bedwelmde’ slacht is niet zo zachtaardig als de term suggereert. Hierbij word er namelijk een stalen pin door de kop van het slachtvee geschoten. Dit wil nog wel eens misgaan.

Maar in hoeverre kan men redelijkheid tegenover populisme zetten? De stellingen zijn al ingenomen en op de fora van de online-krant…

Parashat Acharei Mot

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Sermon West London Synagogue Parashat Acharei Mot
The Feast of Freedom
Freedom is not a privilege inherited. Freedom is a right passionately fought for, each generation anew.
The poignant words of the Haggadah, echoing the Mishnah, remind us of this difficult truth: ‘one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she left Egypt’.
Freedom is not only the theory of history books, but a reality to be lived daily. So close to Pesach, it is fitting to remember the moral courage of Rabbi Werner van der Zyl, whose yartzeit we commemorate. Rabbi van der Zyl escaped the dire straits of Nazi Germany. In 1956, true to the spirit of his Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Rabbi van der Zyl founded the institution at which I am privileged to train. We are much indebted to his courage and vision.
These last few months, the call for freedom has been sweeping across the world. We have seen dictators topple and nations unchained. Often this call is a still, small voice echoed in the deeds of…