Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
Clergy Corner, April 17, 2019
Rabbi Joshua Hoffman's blog
This past Sunday through Tuesday, approximately 75 Valley Beth Shalom members travelled to Washington D.C. to join the gathering of some 18,000 pro-US/Israel partnership advocates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. It was awesome! We learned together, celebrated together, and proudly expressed our appreciation and steadfast commitment together. We heard from the country’s most influential leadership, including top representatives of the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset, and dignitaries from countries as far as Romania, Honduras, and Great Britain.
As a child, I was fearless in the ocean. Waves would come crashing down and I would leap headlong toward them to overcome their kinetic force. There were even times that I would take a floating board and sit atop the wave as it rumbled to the shore. Nothing was more fearful, however, when I would get caught under an oncoming wave and be tossed and tumbled by the crushing force, hoping to have enough breath and enough equilibrium to restore my balance on the ocean floor before the next wave crested. The scariest moments were when wave after wave would break and I could not readily feel any return to balance. It seemed like the unsettling force would never end.
“In the Beginning!” These epic words resonate with the vibrations of Creation. Just like “Once Upon a Time” begins our favorite tales, these words are cosmic and universal. More than a starting point, they situate us in a grand narrative of who we are, and maybe even foretell who we might yet become. In our day, the greatest minds are spent determining ‘the beginning’ of the universe and work to discover more truth about that moment.
When was the last time you tried to define your understanding of friendship? Would you say that your definition, if you were able to come up with one, has changed over time? We think we know what a friend is or ought to be. We even think we know who are and are not our friends. But words won’t ever quite adequately describe what we feel when we have a friend. Perhaps that is what makes these relationships so powerfully important to us.
We celebrate a tradition that encourages us to become masters of fine souls while we stitch our broken pieces back together.
When the news broke that Leonard Cohen passed in November 2016, he had already been flown back from Los Angeles to Montreal, his childhood home, and buried according to traditional Jewish rites. There was no doubt that this musician, philosopher and poet had a very Jewish soul. His family belonged to the shul in Montreal. He belonged to the shul. And while he may have practiced Buddhism and eschewed a traditionally observant life, he was brought home when he passed and buried with his family, with his people. His gift to the world - his music and his poetry - now perpetually resonate with the minor chord, the Jewish chord.
In times of uncertainty, truth and confidence are found in a moral balance, if only we will listen.
Wanda Diaz Merced is an accomplished astrophysicist. Several years ago, though, she lost her sight due to an extended illness. Challenged by the rigors of her field, one that primarily uses sight to interpret the data collected from the vast universe, she and her team devised a method of translating information into sound, called sonification. With the lilt and timber of sounds like musical notes, the information collected about some of the most rare phenomena studied by humanity was translated and reported by Dr. Merced. And in time, she was able to discover a supernova, the incredible death of a star, that released more energy in one instant than what our sun produces in 10 days. She discovered this all without sight. With the help of sonification, she was listening.
A recent Pew survey revealed just how little trust there is among the millions of people who use the internet daily. A whopping 4% indicated that they do indeed “trust the internet a lot.” That’s not a mistake. Four percent! And if I asked you the question, “Do you trust the internet?” directly, you would more than likely hold your own reservations. This seems obvious enough. The preponderance of advertisements masquerading as news, the awkward email requests from friends who claim to have lost their wallet in Nigeria, and the relentless and mind-numbing publication of privacy policies reveal just how suspicious this vital technological tool has become for us.
This poem is resonating in my consciousness these days and I want to share it with you all. We’re living in times where love and doubts are screaming and shouting for justice. I hope these words guide you as they are for me this Shabbat.
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amicha
Have you seen this? Food engineers have created something amazing. It looks like meat, tastes like meat, and you can serve it as a cheeseburger. Best of all? It’s Kosher. Orthodox Kosher. That’s perhaps why the name of the producer is called, Impossible Foods. The meat is not meat at all. It’s plant based, completely vegan, and looks delicious!
For those shackled by the constraints of a legally bound and religiously sanctioned diet, this news is liberating. It opens the discussion for many more questions regarding the new technologies of cellular agriculture and other genetically modified food production.
Of all the ways that we can define Jewish identity, from birthright to good feelings, from pursuing justice to devoted ritual practice, being Jewish is the most elusive. I have to laugh when, over the years, I have heard many say to me, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish!” (I have blond-ish hair and blue-ish eyes. Apparently, this is not very Jew-ish.) Yes, this kind of thinking, that looking is like being, has been challenging us inside our community and sadly from the outside throughout history.
What defines Jewish art and music? Is it a creative act fashioned by a Jew? Is it a style, a sense, a shape, a quality that feels Jewish? Is there is a certain sound – whether it is the high-pitched shrill of a clarinet or the delicate dance of a violin – that when you hear it you know it is Jewish?
We’ve all seen the latest advertisements for phone gadgets allowing us to create avatars which mimic our speaking and facial expressions. They are so great! This fantastic feature is simply the next step in an ongoing evolution of artificial intelligence that in some way helps us connect and relate better with each other.
Fires this week are causing great damage to land and homes in the Southern California area. Several members of our Valley Beth Shalom community are displaced as the fire rages just a few miles from our synagogue home. Where there has been heartbreak, there is inspired heroism. Where there has been concern for the safety of the vulnerable among us, there is unflagging commitment to provide shelter, protection, and confidence that in moments of crisis we are here for each other.
Once there was a young man strolling on the coastline on a late morning in the autumn. As he approached a stretch of shoreline he noticed hundreds of thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. Apparently changes in tidal patterns had forced this massive deposit of starfish the previous night. As he continued to walk closer to the starfish, he noticed in the distance the figure of an older gentleman gently lifting the creatures and tossing them back, one by one, into the ocean, pausing for a moment between each throw. The younger man approached the older man and struck up a conversation with him.
Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s great heroes. He’s the one to make popular the idea “From Rags to Riches.” A child of extreme poverty, he quickly became a success by literally turning the rags he once used for newspapers into paper currency - riches. The self-made man, the hero with humble beginnings, achieved the impossible. Benjamin Franklin, the shining face of a currency that implies wealth and success is the model of American achievement. He embodies what we strive toward - fulfilling the American dream.
This year we will celebrate 70 years of statehood and national independence in the Land of Israel. It is a time to rejoice in the thousands of years old dream, “To be a free people, in our Land - Lihyot Am Chofshee B’Artzeinu,” as the words of Hatikvah proclaim. The unfolding drama of the State of Israel is focus of daily study and concern for us as it has been for millennia.
How many times have we cringed after a quick response to a troubling comment or after an impulsive reaction to a difficult situation? What does it mean for us to wish for just one more moment to think about what we should have said or done?
I wasn’t alive to read the news of crematoria constructed to burn Jewish bodies in Europe during the Shoah. I wasn’t alive to witness the palpable dread and concern the world must have felt as news washed upon the shores of this land of freedom and security. I wasn’t alive to urge our leaders to act swiftly or to pray for the safety of those whose lives were in mortal danger.
Raising a child today is exciting, daunting, and certainly all-consuming. As a young parent myself, some days the goal is just to make sure the kids are dressed with matching clothes, let alone making sure my suit doesn’t have any stains on it! Loftier goals like providing your child with a strong sense of self and a deep connection to the Jewish people seem far off, but dreaming and acting for them begins even at the earliest stages of development.
This Saturday evening and Sunday we will gather, dress in costumes, revel with music and food, and hear the story of Esther and Mordechai, Achashverosh and Haman. In the center of the story, Mordechai speaks to Esther, now the queen of Persia, and appeals to her so she may help save the Jews who have been threatened with annihilation of genocidal proportion.
In 1969, Norma Rosen was one of the brave firsts who began to fictionalize the experience of the Holocaust. More than a dramatization of events, the writings of Rosen and others like her dared to enter into a universe of curiosity. Novelists cautiously embarked on quests to discover the deep truths lying dormant in the lives of survivors and historians.
The King and I, the fourth longest running show on Broadway, is playing at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood these days. It’s marvelous to see how a classic production from 1950 can still speak with a modern idiom, and how the messages it conveys are particularly relevant even today.
Last week, I had the privilege of meeting King Eze Chukwuemeka Eri, the Nigerian Hebrew king on his visit to Southern California. The King was attended by three men who represented the local Igbo Hebrew community, where approximately 30 million Africans in Eastern Nigeria live.
This summer, I was privileged to participate in the annual Rabbinic Training Seminar (RTS) at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The seminar is a 10 day learning experience which brings rabbis and scholars from around the world to study, reflect, sing, and dream together while exploring complicated issues facing the Jewish world today.
Today was a trifecta of joy for our community. First, MAZAL TOV to Liza and Marc Ginsberg and Michelle and Cantor Phil Baron on the birth of a new son and grandson!
In Celebration of Rabbi Sheldon Kirsch
Who do you look up to? What qualities or experiences does this person possess that inspire you to be better person? These are always good questions to ask, but they are especially meaningful as Memorial Day approaches this coming Monday.
Avadim Hayyinu v’Atah B’nai Choreen - “Now We Are Free People”
These five Hebrew words are the centerpiece of the Passover Seder. In translation, we say “We were slaves. Now we’re free.” (Maybe there’s the addition to this proclamation in your home too, ‘We’re hungry. Now, let’s eat!’)
This week, the Jewish world rippled with excitement as the Jewish Agency and the authorities governing the status of the Western Wall in Jerusalem announced the establishment of a permanent site for egalitarian worship there. This historic moment marks a triumphant achievement in the ongoing struggles by non-Orthodox Jews to establish the Western Wall as a sacred location for all Jews, traditional or progressive, Conservative or Orthodox, male or female.
From February 23 to March 1, Rabbi Hoffman is travelling to Hungary and Israel on a mission with 30 rabbis from all across the US.
Shabbat in Budapest part 2: