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Showing posts from September, 2017

We Are Called To Surrender

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Rosh haShanah sermon Agudas Achim 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
We are Called to Surrender
Perhaps you will have a similar childhood memory to mine: I have a memory of standing at the edge of a cliff. My family was on holiday and we were exploring some beautiful rugged coastline. Having always been been a strong swimmer, I saw people leap off the cliff into the sea below and I felt compelled to do the same. My bare feet inched closer to the edge, toes grappling the rough, irregular rock. I peered down below where the waves lapped hungrily. How deep was the plunge: 10 yards? 20? Perhaps 15? There was the distinct feeling of both excitement and discomfort. It wasn’t fear exactly – I wasn’t heroic or foolish, I knew I would be OK. It was something else; consciously overriding my internal mechanisms of self-preservation. I wanted to experience this; the brief weightlessness of the drop, the deep immersion into the waters and the sense of giving myself over to something far bigger and far more…

The Jew You Want To Be

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Rosh haShanah Sermon Agudas Achim 2017/5778 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Jew You Want To Be
What kind of a Jew do I want to be?
Let the question roll of your tongue and linger in your mouth. Let it slide down your gullet and burrow itself into your heart, your kishkes – your gut – and your neshamah – your soul. Take the question home with you and let it dwell among your friends and family, among the Jews you share this space with and the non-Jews we share our lives and world with.
What kind of a Jew am I today? What kind of a Jew do I hope to be?
It’s a strange business, this business of being Jewish. We are not just a religion; we are something else, something more, something thicker and more ancient. We are a People, a tribe, a culture, a religious civilization, a covenantal community. We are bound together by historical fate, shaped by destiny, heritage and choice. We defy the normative taxonomy of religious groups. Our identity can be fractious and all-encompassing, deeply beloved to ours…

Route to Repentance

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Sermon Parashat Nitzavim 2017 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Route to Repentance
“If you don’t stand for anything, you will fall for everything.”
It’s a pithy little saying that I read somewhere this past week. Don’t ask me where or in what context. All that I remember is that it really stuck with me.
For those of us in Ashkenazi-majority communities, this is the Shabbat of Selichot. Tonight, we will reconvene to study, sing, reflect and pray together as we welcome the Yamim Nora’im. Rosh haShanah is only five days away and it speaks to the ingenious calendar planning of ‘chaz”al’ – our sages of blessed memory – that parashat Nitzavim and Rosh haShanah line up the way they do. The Rabbis put incredible thought into calibrating our liturgical calendar and superimposed the weekly Torah readings on top of it. I believe that their choices were intentional; the calendar is a wheel that takes you through the year; which in turn takes us through life. There is a sacred cadence to our calendar, from the…

Choose and Treasure

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Parashat Ki Tavo 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Choose and Treasure
Judaism is the path of contradiction so that we may find unity. In few cases does the dialectical philosophy underlying Jewish thought become more apparent than in the ‘birkat havdalah’, the blessing of Havdalah in which we say ‘hamav’dil bein kodesh lechol, bein or le’choshech bein Yisra’el la’amim, bein yom hashivi’I lesheshet yemei ha’ma’aseh’ – ‘distinguishing between the sacred and the secular, between light and darkness, between the people Israel and others, between the seventh day and the six working days of the week.’
Siddur Sim Shalom pointedly translates ‘bein Yisrael la’amim’ as ‘between the people Israel and others’, fudging their translation, perhaps, on account of residual discomfort. Interestingly, Mishkan T’filah is more direct, rendering ‘bein Yisrael la’amim’ as ‘between Israel and the nations.’ The discomfort, however, is not without base – Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism d…

Fringe Benefits

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Parashat Ki Teitzeh 2017, Congregation Agudas Achim, Iowa City
Fringe Benefits
‘Oh, they are in a box somewhere’.
Only a few days ago, my husband and I were packing our belongings. Following Janice Weiner’s sound advice, I had packed my suitcase in advance so that the movers wouldn’t take things I’d need in transit. However, in the midst of the packing, I realized I had not seen my High Holiday or Shabbat tallit. I have a few tallitot of which I am very fond; each one bought at a special junction of my life, each with a special purpose.
The tallit is not just a ritual object but a deeply personal garment. Many of us have deep and abiding connections to our tallitot, even if we don’t consciously examine them. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Maybe a bar or bat mitzvah gift. Or bought for oneself to mark a transitional moment. For those of us who do not wear a tallit, we might have equally powerful associations, both positive and negative.
The Midrash itself already issues this powerful stat…