Tonight marks the beginning of Purim (which we will celebrate at HCRJ on Friday night). Purim is a holiday with many faces. One face is rather serious. It is one of many Jewish holidays which helps us recall and retell our people’s struggle to overcome those forces in history which have sought to destroy us. On this level, we celebrate the lofty ideals of bravery, sacrifice, luck and fortitude.
Another face of Purim is spiritual. While God is never mentioned in the Scroll of Esther, Purim is a holiday with a powerful theological message. It teaches us that God works through us in our daily lives, and that each of us, through the choices we make, can become an instrument of God and make a true difference in the world.
Finally, Purim is rather playful and mischievous. It is a time to joke and be jolly, and it is in the spirit of this face that our sages suggested that we bring joy and gladness into our lives throughout the entire month of Adar.
A teenage boy goes to a psychologist to seek advice on an ongoing fear of monsters living under his bed. He tells the doctor that he cannot sleep at night and he cannot seem to get rid of this fear.
The psychologist shares a strategy which might help the teen overcome these fears, but it will take three visits a week for a year.
“How much do you charge?” asks the kid.
“$150 per visit,” replied the doctor.
“I’ll sleep on it,” said the teen.
Six months later the doctor bumps into the teen on the street and inquiries about the situation. “Why didn’t you come to see me about those fears you were having?” he asked.
“Well,” said the teen, “$150 a visit, three times a week for a year, is $23,400.00. This was a lot of money for me. Then a good friend of mine cured me for $10.00, and I didn’t need your help anymore.”
“Is that so?” exclaimed the doctor (with a bit of an attitude) “and how is it, may I ask, that your friend cured you?”
“He told me to cut the legs off the bed, and there ain’t nobody under there now!”
On Purim, we playfully find ways to address the monsters in the world!
This Sabbath is a special Sabbath in our tradition. It is referred to as Shabbat Zachor – “the Sabbath of Remembrance.” It is the Sabbath immediately preceding the festival of Purim (which by the way we will be observing this Sunday morning in Sunday school and next Friday night for the entire congregation).
According to the Torah, the Amalekites demonstrated unabashed cruelty and cowardice by attacking the Israelites from behind and massacring the children and the elders. This ruthless attack evokes God’s wrath, and in response to Amalek’s cruelty, God instructs the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites forever. Subsequently, in Jewish life throughout the ages the nation of Amalek became the archetype for all of the evil enemies who have risen against our people.
The merriment of blotting out the name of Haman on Purim is just one of the ways that Jews have taken this passage to heart. Another way may be found in the teachings of a Chasidic rabbi who argued that the horrors which befell us in the wilderness at the hands of Amalek were, to some extent, our own fault. This teaching suggests that the Israelites were negligent and irresponsible to have left the weakest and most vulnerable in the community unprotected and exposed. In so doing, they opened the doors for a disaster like Amalek to come.
According to this teaching when we are commanded to “Remember Amalek,” we must not simply remember to blot out the evils which threaten us from the outside. We must also remember to confront the corrosive evils perpetuated within society as well. These internal evils include neglect, abandonment, apathy and indifference.
It is our eternal responsibility to ensure that everyone is protected and no one gets left behind. We must not abandon the weakest segments of our population. We must remember to ensure that all of society – rich and poor – old and young alike — are take care of. Thus, when we strive to blot out hunger, homelessness, poverty and injustice, we honor the command to “Remember Amalek,” as we struggle to blot out the potentials for evil from within.
Valentine’s Day is one of those uniquely American celebrations like Thanksgiving and Halloween. Even though it may be named in honor of a saint, Valentine’s Day does not belong to Christianity any other faith for that matter. In fact if claims to the holiday could be made by anyone, it would be the card companies, the chocolate factories and the florists of the world.
While Valentine’s Day may not be a religious holiday, its primary focus is religious to its core. The expression of love, romantic or otherwise, is central to every religion. Love is the seat of goodness, kindness, compassion and understanding. Love is the emotion that drives empathy and caring, and it is an emotion that each of us tries to nurture throughout our lives.
Love keeps us grounded. Love keeps God at the forefront of our actions. Love opens the heart to the possibilities of healing, growing and learning. Indeed, “love” is a value deeply rooted in each of all religious traditions, for it is hardwired into the human soul. Every faith seeks to nurture this divinely given attribute, and yet, despite our boundless efforts to cultivate love, our world continues to be plagued by hatred, mistrust, anger and violence.
As contrived as Valentine’s Day may be, there is value in celebrating love in a world that is so fractured. There is a value in taking one day a year to honor an emotion that transcends the tumult of society and which is shared by all humanity. The value of such a day is something that we, as Jews, should embrace. It may not be a Jewish holiday in the traditional sense, but as American Jews, we have one of those unique opportunities to celebrate with our fellow Americans a day dedicated to the universal value of love.
So for all the Jewish romantics among us. . . Have a Happy Valentine’s Day.
The entire world is about to focus its attention on the Olympic Games in South Korea, and as it is with every competitive sports competition, Jews like to cheer for Jews. After all, there are not a lot of Jewish athletes in the world, and the specialized sports of the Winter Olympics narrows that pool even more.
That said, there are several compelling Jewish Olympians to keep our eyes on in these Winter Games, and before the action begins, you might want to look up their back stories. Here are five Jewish names to watch for (some for Team USA and others for Israel):
Alexei Bychenko – male figure skating (Israel)
Vladislav Bykanov – male speed skating (Israel)
Paige Connors – skating pairs (Israel)
A.J. Edelman “The Hebrew Hammer” – skeleton (Israel)
Jonathon Blum – hockey (Team USA)
Jason Brown – male figure skating (Team USA)
We hope you will join us this Friday night as we transport ourselves to South Korea in spirit. Our Shabbat experience will begin with a Korean Shabbat Dinner, followed by a brief service and an Olympic Oneg. During the oneg, we will watch the opening ceremonies together.
Over the years, HCRJ has had numerous congregational fundraisers. This year, our ONLY annual fundraiser will be a golf tournament. We know that not everyone golfs, and we know that not everyone who golfs will be able to participate in the event, but we also know that dues alone do not pay for everything we do. We need the help of everyone this year. In other words…Not a golfer? We need your help…From volunteering, to joining us for lunch, or making a financial contribution to our fundraiser, there are many ways to support this event. We are currently $17,000 away from reaching our fundraising goal of
$40,000. Your support is crucial in helping us achieve this.
What a crazy winter it has been. A few weeks ago, the City of Houston was crippled by ice and snow. School was canceled and the freeways were empty for two full days. Then, within days, temperatures climbed into the mid-sixties. Our weather patterns are so strange that the trees throughout our city are not sure what to do.
Crazy as the weather may be, today Jews around the world are celebrating Tu B’Shevat (Jewish Arbor Day, which falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat). On this special day devoted to ecological awareness, we take time to recognize the value and importance of trees in the world.
In honor of Tu B’Shevat, try spending some time with the trees this week. Consider some of the ecological challenges that face us today around the globe. Think about your own habits and how they may impact the environment in positive and/or negative ways. Let Tu B’Shevat serve as a means to appreciate the delicate ecological balance of the earth and its ongoing call to us to protect it for generations to come.
In our Torah portion on this Sabbath, we read a familiar story about the miracle at the Sea of Reeds. This ancient story provides us with a powerful spiritual metaphor for the ways we approach our challenges in life today.
Having just fled a life of slavery and oppression in Egypt, the Israelites wander into a new and unknown terrain, a wilderness filled with challenges which they had never faced before. Now, as they stand at the brink of freedom, they are terrified. At the shores of the sea, the Israelites recognize that their journey into the wilderness is a journey into the unknown and that the impassable sea before them is just the first insurmountable challenge that comes with the freedom to choose one’s direction.
So too it is with us as we navigate the wilderness of life. Whenever we confront a challenge that seems impossible to overcome, we have a tendency to freeze, and like our ancestors in the wilderness, our hope for the future becomes consumed by the challenges of the moment. In doing so, we prevent ourselves from moving forward.
It is here that the miracle of the splitting of the sea serves to guide us. We need to remain open to a sense of hope, even when it seems like our path has come to a dead end. We must keep our eyes open to unexpected opportunities that can help us overcome the challenges before us.
Our opportunities need not be miraculous. Simple, everyday occurrences can provide us with a new perspective in the ever unfolding wilderness that surrounds us.
As 2018 continues to unfold, may each of us see our challenges through the lens of faith rather than fear so that we might step forward into the unknown with a strong sense of hope in our hearts for a better tomorrow.
On Monday, our nation paid tribute to the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, through his words and actions opened the eyes, hearts and minds of a nation which was often blind and indifferent to a landscape filled with injustice and hate. While we may share King’s dreams today, we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done.
MLK Day serves to rekindle our dedication to eradicate barriers perpetuated by hatred and prejudice. It is a day to renew within us a sense of courage and strength to fight for what is right in every generation.
In connection to MLK Day, the Union for Reform Judaism posted an article entitled, MLK Day: A Call for Jews to Fight for Racial Justice Today. In it was the following list, which serves to remind us of how much still needs to be addressed in society today.
Right now in the U.S., people of color fall victim to police brutality and violence at an alarming rate. In 2017, Black men made up 40% of the unarmed people who were shot and killed by police, though they only represent 6% of the overall population.
Right now in the U.S., immigrant families are being torn apart. From January 22 through September 29, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 41,318 people on civil immigration charges, almost 40% more than the previous year.
Right now in the U.S., a horrific and growing number of transgender people of color are being killed. At least 87 of the 102 recorded trans people killed in the last five years were transgender people of color.
Right now in the U.S., people of color are dying because of racial disparities in access to healthcare. An estimated 700 to 1,200 women die of childbirth or pregnancy complications every year; Black women are three to four times more likely to die from these issues than white women.
In the past two years, we’ve seen a rampant increase in hate crimes against immigrants, Jews, Muslims, black people, LGBTQ+ people, Latinx people, and people who hold other marginalized identities.
If we hope to continue working on the dream set forth by King, we are going to need to open our eyes and minds to some of these painful realities. This is an enormous task. It demands that we join with likeminded communities throughout the country as we actively work toward dismantling barriers to equality and justice in our day.
There are very few musical genres which can move the soul more deeply than Gospel music. Characterized by harmonies which transcend time and space and simple, repetitive lyrics which articulate hope and steadfast faith, Gospel music can express love and generate fellowship in ways which are both elevating and inspiring.
Throughout history, Gospel music has been composed and performed for many purposes, ranging from aesthetic pleasure, religious expression and pure entertainment. This Friday night at 7:15pm, Gospel music will be used to shape the spiritual dynamics of our worship experience.
Please join us as the iEmerge Singers of The Church Without Walls will inspire us through the power of Gospel music. Playing with the themes of our Jewish liturgy, this powerful choir will help us experience the Sabbath in ways which only Gospel music can do.