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Bit by Bit

Parashat Vayeitzeh, Human Rights Shabbat 2016 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Bit by Bit

When Jacob left Beer-Sheva and journeyed towards Charan, he was truly and utterly free. Not even gravity could constrain him, as he laid his head to rest on a pillow of stone and dreamt of the angels ascending and descending the ‘sulam’, the ladder to the heavens. Jacob was on an intrepid adventure, a quest for liberation. He needed to get away from the limitations of his own upbringing and the mistakes that bound him to his past. In that freedom, he found vision in the night, courage in his fear.
Yet, only a chapter later, he found himself in subjugation to his uncle Laban’s deception. Wanting to marry his cousin Rachel, the beautiful younger daughter, Laban contracted him to work for seven years before allowing him to marry her. The Torah tells us that Jacob agrees with the terms and conditions of this arrangement and narrates: ‘Vayavod Ya’akov b’Rachel sheva shanim va’yihyu be’einav k’yamim echadim b’aha…

A Legacy of Kindness

Parashat Chayei Sarah Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
A Legacy of Kindness
Abraham is bereft. Not long after the events of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, he hopes to return with his son to the normalcy of family life. However, he will find that all his changed and  his legacy challenged, as he loses his beloved Sarah.
Midrash Tanchuma, a late midrash from the 9th century C.E. connects the two events of the Akeidah and Sarah’s death and establishes a causality between them. The Midrash posits that Satan appeared before Sarah disguised as Isaac, when Isaac and Abraham were still upon Mount Moriah. Satan goes on to describe in painstaking detail how Abraham intended to slaughter their precious son. Even before Satan has completed his account, Sarah died from sheer horror.
Both the p’shat – the plain text – of the Parashah and the rabbinic imagination of the Midrash confront us with a deep sense of irreversible loss. ‘Vayavo Avraham lispod le’Sarah v’liv’chotah’ – ‘And Abraham came to mourn for…

A Father's Daughter

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Parashat Lech Lecha Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
A Father’s Daughter
There is something Biblical about the trajectory of my late father’s life. Born in Amsterdam in 1903, in a devout Protestant family, he was the only one of five his siblings not born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA). Breaking with a long family tradition to train for the ministry, my father embraced science and reason and studied medicine instead. In the 1930’s my father was an ambitious young family doctor with a dream to become a psychiatrist.

During the mid-to-late 1930’s, my father travelled to Germany for reasons unknown to me; perhaps they were related to his profession. Family history recounts that he had a chance to witness Adolf Hitler speak and that my father, intrigued by how such a cruel demagogue could sway so many, went to the rally. My father intellectually, morally and ideologically rejected everything Hitler stood for but found Hitler mezmerising. After witnessing Hitler speak; he understood what a danger thi…

Standing at the Wall

Parashat Noach Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Taking a Stand at the Wall
Recent events taking place at the Western Wall two made me feel a particular type of embarrassed regret. Last January, Nathan Sharansky, the well-respected political activist and Soviet Refusenik, helped broker a compromise on behalf of the Jewish Agency between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations (including Women of the Wall) with regards to accessing the Western Wall. The conditions of the compromise were that the Western Wall would remain in the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox while the Southern part of the Wall, also known as ‘Robinson’s Arch’ would be made available for egalitarian prayer as per the custom of the Reform and Conservative Movements. The government promised to start construction works on Robinson’s Arch (which at the moment is a not very accessible archaeological site) and hoped to complete the project in a year or two. This was met with great enthusiasm in the non-Orthodox world and I must admit th…

Back to the Future

Parashat Bereishit Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Back to the Future
Remember way-back-when, before the new Millennium? Decades ago, what were your associations with the year 2000? As someone who straddles the line between Gen X’er and Millennial, I distinctly remember binge-watching mediocre science-fiction flicks as a teen: RoboCop, Back to the Future (granted, that’s a classic), Total Recall (directed by my ‘landsman’ Paul Verhoeven), Alien (and its numerous sequels), Jurassic Park, Waterworld and Independence Day. My 1990’s scifi movie-watching habits ingrained a love for the genre till this day.
Despite my love for the genre, I have to acknowledge that science-fiction narratives are almost always dystopian. Very few have a hopeful, redemptive message (the ‘Star Trek’ franchise being a noted exception) and most dwell on a grim and gritty future, currently, Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ series being a prime example. As a social scientist, I’ve often wondered about why that is the case. Wh…

Chol haMoed Sukkot: the Joy of Vulnerability

Sermon Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot 2016 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Joy of Vulnerability
I took a train to London this past week and went to buy a cup of tea from the bar. As I placed my order with the barista, I heard her European-accented English, so I said cheerfully, ‘I’m from Holland, where are you from?’ and I noticed her reflex: she didn’t want to answer my potentially invasive question, even though I pre-empted it by sharing in our joint Continental background. ‘I’m from everywhere and nowhere’, she answered awkwardly though not unkindly. A few moments later, however, she softened and offered a compromise. ‘Oh, I speak four languages and am learning my fifth now!’ She lowered her gaze a little and said in a soft voice but not without pride: ‘Hebrew’.
Well, I didn’t see that one coming but a rabbi is always ready to pounce on a fellow Jew, so I said, ‘b’emet?’ – ‘really?’ – ‘kol hakavod!’ and she started laughing. ‘You’re Jewish?’ she asked me and I answered in the affirmative. ‘Me …

Taking Emotional Risks: Yom Kippur Sermon 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon 2016 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Taking Emotional Risks
Let’s start off tonight with our first confession.
The High Holy Days can feel make us feel a little word weary, between all the Avinu Malkeinu’s, the Al Chet’s and the Ashamnu’s. Repetition can be instructive, even cathartic but it can be dulling as well. Frankly, some of us may already feel a little bored or tuned out this ‘early in the game’ and are bracing ourselves for the next 24 hours.
Just like we delved into our ‘Deep Stories’ during Rosh haShanah to uncover what drives us and what can make us more empathic towards the experiences of others, we have the opportunity to embrace the ideas behind the words of our liturgy. If there’s one key idea – of many - that we can distill from the High Holy Days is the call to take emotional risks.
The confessions, the repentance, the high drama of prayer, the intensity of the God-language, the liturgical repetition, the self-examination, the promises, decisions and commitmen…