The past few days have caused waves of political distress throughout the country. Unfortunately, we have become so polarized as a nation that we have lost our abilities to engage in civil discourse, and I believe that this has the potential to cripple us in our abilities to respond to those whose lives are being effected. The vitriol and anger that permeates our society is compromising how we relate to each other as human beings, and this is something that cannot be ignored. Our faith and our history as Jews demands that we respond to the human aspects of the situation at hand with a sense of justice, mercy and compassion.
NO MATTER WHAT OUR POLITICAL VIEWS MAY BE, our faith has a great deal to say regarding how we should treat each other. The Torah repeatedly forbids us from oppressing the stranger:
“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as your citizen; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Leviticus 19:34)
“You shall not wrong a stranger, neither shall you oppress them; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 22:21)
NO MATTER WHAT OUR POLITICAL VIEWS MAY BE, our history of oppression demands that we remain vigilant. Our determination as a people is rooted in centuries of persecution. We have been targeted and isolated, pushed away and rejected, unjustly accused and scapegoated for countless generations. Therefore, it is our moral responsibility to stand up when we see such things happening to others. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise in our country. It is imperative that we respond collectively, as standing on the sidelines and remaining silent when acts of prejudice and hatred are taking place around us is anathema to our faith.
NO MATTER WHAT OUR POLITICAL VIEWS MAY BE, the values of our faith promote a heart of kindness and empathy toward those who may need our help. Reaching out to the stranger is as central to our faith as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and tending to the needs of the poor.
It is very difficult to predict the outcome of the policies that are currently unfolding, but one thing we know for certain is that the implementation of these policies is generating some very real human concerns that need to be addressed. As Jews, we must be ready to respond with kindness and compassion. Interfaith work has always been central to the mission of HCRJ, and in the coming months we will inform you of opportunities to make a difference. The rabbinical community of the City of Houston is in the process of joining forces with churches, mosques and social service organizations throughout the city as we seek ways to build a unified force in the human effort to take care of each other NO MATTER WHAT OUR POLITICAL VIEWS MAY BE.
The peaceful transition of power is one of the greatest virtues of our democratic system. While visions for the future may differ within our leadership and our people, when the time comes to transfer power from one president to the next, we do it as a nation with the same ritual every four years. The Presidential Inauguration always takes place on January 20 at 12:00 pm Eastern Standard Time, and last Friday afternoon, as Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, this peaceful transition was complete.
This week marks the first full week of President Trump’s presidency, and as it is with everything in life, new beginnings invite prayers for success. The following prayer is from our weekly Sabbath service and is very appropriate in this time of transition.
Bless our nation and its inhabitants.
Prosper us in all worthy endeavors.
Be with those whom we have chosen to lead us,
that they may strive to establish justice and opportunity for all,
and may they labor to bring peace to the family of nations.
(UPB Sinai Edition p. 61)
Two days ago, our nation paid tribute to the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday honoring his name and legacy. During his short life, the Reverend could only dream of a time when the injustices that surrounded him would give way to a world where the laws of the land protected the freedoms and the rights of all peoples regardless of the color of one’s skin, the beliefs of one’s heart or the origins of one’s heritage. He preached passionately about a time when justice and mercy would come to supplant intolerance and indifference.
Reverend King could never have imagined the election of an African American President, and during the two remaining days of the Presidency of Barack Obama, we have an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. Whether or not you were a fan of Obama and his policies, it is important to consider the significance of his place in history.
Over the course of the next few days, I encourage all of us to pause and reflect on the journey of our nation from King to Obama and consider the ways that we can continue to work on removing barriers perpetuated by hatred and prejudice in society in every generation.
In our Torah portion this week, Jacob and Joseph look back on their lives before they die. Each has overcome many of the obstacles which challenged them in their youth. Given the opportunity to lead, each has risen to the occasion. Given the opportunity to make amends, each has met these painful moments with courage and integrity. In the end, each has achieved a sense of inner peace and harmony, a stature of strength and wisdom, and a spotlight in the birth of our people.
Is this not something we all hope for as well? As we journey through life, each of us hopes to look back and see that where there was once conflict and strife, there is now resolution and peace; where there was once sorrow and pain, there is now contentment and healing; where there were once questions, fears and insecurities about decisions made, there is now a sense of confidence that even though not every decision was a good one each decision led to an opportunity for growth.
Whenever we take the time to reflect on our lives, we cannot help but ask:
What moments have inspired us?
Who are our heroes?
What events have led to change?
How many of the things we thought were failures in our lives, have become opportunities for learning?
Taking a spiritual inventory from time to time can help us assess our lives and our values. This week’s Torah portion invites us to consider the past through the lens of the legacies we hope to leave behind.
In our Torah portion this week, the story of Joseph and his brothers comes to a climax. As Joseph stands before his brothers, he has become a man of great power. He has established himself in the highest courts of Egypt. Because of the way he looks and talks, Joseph has become unrecognizable to his own brothers.
The Talmud teaches us that in order to reveal his true identity, Joseph draws his brother near. He then speaks to them in Hebrew and shows them that he is circumcised. Only then do his brothers believe him.
From the Torah’s account of this dramatic interaction and the Talmudic midrash that follows, we are reminded of two tensions which continue to be at the core of our identities as Jews: assimilation and particularism.
Throughout history, Jews have sought to be a part of the greater society, but given our unique customs and religious prohibitions, “fitting in” has always been a challenge. In the 1800’s with the beginning of the Reform Movement, early reformers argued that these ancient customs, rituals and practices were superfluous to what should be central to our Jewish identities. They argued that a Jewish identity should not be mistaken by ritual wardrobe or empty ancient rituals, but rather a Jewish identity should be defined exclusively on what we do to make the world a better place.
Tossing aside the ritual garb, the dietary restrictions and many of the customs and practices which made us different and separated us from mainstream society, early Reform Judaism, especially here in the United States, was inspired by the teachings of the prophets who placed ethical living above ritual practice.
Our congregation has long prided itself on these early Reform principles, which later became known as Classical Reform Judaism. As it states in the mission statement of the congregation:
In Judaism, ceremonies and customs have changed from age to age. In keeping with this tradition, we shall observe the customs and ceremonies, which shall be meaningful to us because they symbolize in effective and beautiful form the principles of our faith, compatible with our lives as Americans.
Yet, over the course of 200 years of Reform Jewish practice we have learned a very similar lesson to that which is described in the story Joseph this week. We have learned that that without some outward expressions of our heritage we become almost unrecognizable to our brothers.
It is for this reason that we continue to see an ever increasing rise in a desire for ritual practices and ritual garb within Reform Judaism. For a great number of Reform Jews today, what was once understood to be superfluous and perhaps even anathema is now seen as meaningful.
As 2017 begins,
may it unfold a
of blessings of
Prosperity, Health and Happiness
For you and your family.
Happy New Year.
Chanukah represents a daring innovation in the ritual history of our people. In that it is the first post-biblical holiday, our sages were confronted by the great challenge of creating a meaningful celebration commemorating the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees in 165 BCE without any specific directions from the Torah itself.
The source of all our instructions regarding Chanukah may be found in the Talmud. In tractate Shabbat 21a we are instructed to light the candles at nightfall, and to increase the number of candles each of the eight nights. In doing so, we enhance our sense of wonder at miracles both past and present and joyously commemorate the Maccabees’ military victory, the rededication of the Temple, the legend of the single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days, and the idea that, in every age, miracles are extended to us by a compassionate God.
This year the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve invites innovation as well. This overlap summons us to consider ways that the themes of love, light, freedom and hope are shared by every faith. Here are a few programs at HCRJ designed to share the beauty and joy of our Festival of Lights with the world around us.
Mark your calendars with these dates and remember that the first night to light the Chanukah candles is Saturday night, December 24.
7th Annual Jewish/Muslim Christmas
Join us at the Hilton Americas for our 7th Annual Jewish/Muslim Christmas. We are 20 people shy of our 50 person goal, so please consider attending this program which will combine the messages of Chanukah with the spirit of the Christmas to strengthen the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities. This interfaith experience will include dialogue, learning, fellowship and food.
When: 12:30 – 2:30pm on Christmas Eve afternoon
Where: Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel – 1600 Lamar Street, Houston, TX 77010
Christmas MITZVAH at The Turning Point Center
It has become an HCRJ tradition to serve a Christmas lunch and sing Christmas carols to the residents of the Turning Point Center shelter on Christmas Day.
When: 10:45 am – 12:00 noon on Christmas Day
Where: The Turning Point Center – 1701 Jacquelyn Drive, Houston, TX 77055
To RSVP for these programs, please email email@example.com.
Help us show solidarity and support for a community (much like our own) that is often subjected to intolerance and hate. On this first night of Chanukah and on the Eve of Christmas, voices of love, joy, harmony and compassion will ring out from every soul and every heart.
Our program will combine the messages of Chanukah (hope, light, miracles and freedom of religion) with the spirit of the Christmas (love, hope and salvation) to strengthen the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Our event is taking place at the Hilton Americas as one of the programs being offered at an annual Muslim educational convention.
Come hungry. Latkes, egg rolls, samosas and other seasonal delicacies will warm our spirits as we explore ways in which we can be a blessing to each other in times that feel threatening. This year we need everyone who is available and interested to participate. Our Muslim friends are anticipating a very large turnout and we hope to do the same.
This year Congregation Beth Israel is a co-sponsor as we continue to expand the participation of the broader Jewish Community. Enlist your Jewish friends in this important mitzvah to promote love and friendship in the world. RSVP today, so we can anticipate how many will be participating.The Seventh Annual Jewish / Muslim Christmas
Saturday, December 24 – 12:30 – 2:30
Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel
1600 Lamar Street, Houston, TX 77010
Sometimes we find reminders of God’s presence in our lives in the strangest settings. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s reminder takes place while sleeping on a stone pillow in the middle of the wilderness. In this dry barren field, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. When he awakens from his dream, he has an epiphany and declares, “Surely, God is in this place and I — I did not know.”
According to a midrash (Jewish lore), Jacob also did not know that he was not the first patriarch to stumble upon this holy place. Our rabbis teach that this very same site, where Jacob unwittingly encounters God, is where Abraham bound Isaac for the sacrifice. In the story of the “Binding of Isaac,” the site is referred to as har (which means mountain). Then later, Isaac refers to this site as sadeh (which is the field where Isaac directs his son Esau to hunt him some game). Finally, the rabbis teach, this exact site becomes the location of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
A mountain, a field, a temple, a dream. . .each of these references to sacred encounters in the same location remind us that no one person, faith or practice has a monopoly on how connect to God. As this week continues to unfold, may each of us find a connection to God in our own way, in our own place and our own time.