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The Great Storehouses of the Soul

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Parashat Vayigash 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz



The Great Storehouses of the Soul

‘Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek!’ – ‘strength, strength, may we be strengthened!’
Every time we complete the reading of a book of the Torah, we ritually chant this after the Torah reading. Isn’t it a peculiar thing to say? Of course, there is the impulse to celebrate the conclusion – the siyyum – of the reading of a book of the Torah, and it is traditional in Judaism to celebrate the things we finish as well as the things we start. Yet, we could have imagined another idiom. Maybe something that speaks to the holiness or the meaning of the text, something that touches upon the momentousness of Revelation or our covenantal relationship with our Torah. Yet, the traditional formula is ‘chazak, chazak v’nitchazek’.
There are a number of Jewish idioms that speak to strength, sometimes in unexpected ways. ‘Ometz lev’ denotes the brave heart, like that of Joshua. ‘Yasher koach’ (shkoyach, or in Dutch Ashkenazi: shkouch) …

Dreaming of All We Could Be

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Parashat Miketz 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Dreaming Of All We Could Be

For ten days I existed in a Jewish bubble. Not just any bubble, but a bubble totaling 7000 strong: one thousand at the USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) Biennial in Atlanta and 6000 at the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial in Boston.
It is hard to describe what it feels like for 6000 of us to descend upon the Hynes Convention Center in the heart of Boston. The only true parallel that I could draw is experiencing Israel. On some level, living in a parallel, majority-Jewish space felt like being in Israel. There was something so powerful, comforting, exhilarating and inspiring to be in that setting, to be with our ‘achim v’achyot’, our brothers and sisters, to feel a visceral and primordial connection to each participant even if they were complete strangers. To feel a thick, palpable sense of Jewish Peoplehood.
This deep sense of connection manifested itself in different ways. Mingling around the ‘S…

A Theology of Thanksgiving

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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…

Today Is A Good Day To Die

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Kol Nidre Sermon 2017 / 5778 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, Agudas Achim Congregation
Today Is A Good Day to Die
“Today is a good day to die.”
Today is a good day to die. This aphorism is often, inaccurately, ascribed to the 19th century Native American warrior Crazy Horse from the Oglala Lakota tribe. Victorious in the battle of Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse proved not only a brave and gifted military commander but was also known for his ethical conduct and his kindness towards the poor and vulnerable. Whether Crazy Horse spoke those words or not is almost irrelevant: these words gain an aura of credibility because they match the deeds of a great man.
What does it mean to say ‘today is a good day to die’? Who of us would dare utter this, fearing that the consequences might play out in our actual lives. Few of us are ready to die at all; when confronted with our own mortality, we cling to life tenaciously. This is the natural order of things.
In fact, the Torah and Talmud mandate this; we are a…